Saturday, August 29, 2009

Giving Recognition

After taking stock of its geo-political impact, Bangladesh should quickly give diplomatic recognition to Kosovo

Tiny Balkan republic of Kosovo hit the newspaper headlines of the country last week when Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes told the press that Dhaka was not yet ready to give recognition to Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Even though 62 countries have so far recognised Kosovo, of which include some big guns of the Muslim world, Bangladesh has been flip-flopping on the issue for the last 18 months. In June last year, the then Chief Adviser Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed said that Bangladesh would recognise the "new European country"; he also went on to say that Bangladesh would lobby with fellow Asian Muslim countries so that Kosovo got international recognition. More than a year after that, Muslim capitals such as Riyadh, Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi have exchanged emissaries with Pristina and Bangladesh, as Mijarul has put it, still does not "feel the necessity to recognise Kosovo at this moment".

It is clear from Mijarul's comment that Bangladesh does not want to anger Russia, with which it has signed a $1.5 billion deal to set up a nuclear power plant. Mijarul does not name Russia, yet the allusion to the former super-power is more than obvious: "We will consider many factors before making a decision. If we recognise Kosovo, we are certainly taking a side. But if we don't, we are not leaning to any side," he says. .

Because it does not want to see a US-Nato foothold in the Balkans, Russia has been the biggest backer of Serbia during the bloody Balkan War and the support has some Soviet-era nostalgia associated with it. Former communist Yugoslavia had its fair share of ethnic tensions, some of which got exposed badly and bloodily when the country was disintegrated in 1992. In fact, Russia's love affair with Slobodan Milošević, the former President of Yugoslavia, dates back to the cold war. Milošević, who was later tried for war crimes in The Hague, quite openly advocated mass murder and genocide against the ethnic Albanian population of Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo. With Russia on his side, nothing could hold the butcher of the Balkans back. One of the most gruesome genocides in European history since the World War II took place in Račak, central Kosovo, when 45 unarmed Kosovar Albanians were butchered on one single day. In fact, Kosovo's struggle for independence eerily resembles Bangladesh's Independence War--a tiny nation of 2,100,000 freeing itself from the clutches of a hegemonic power; freedom, however, has come at a cost: 10,000 Kosovar Albanians died, 3,000 are still missing.

US Ambassador James F Moriarty thinks Bangladesh should recognise Kosovo. In an exclusive interview with The Star he says: "I think if you look at what has happened recently, the number of countries recognising Kosovo has increased to 62, which include very prominent Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and the UAE. If you look at the fact that the World Bank and the IMF have accepted Kosovo as a member and if you look at Bangladesh's own history where like Kosovo they were a minority, where the East Pakistanis thought that they were controlled by other people who were not giving them their right due, I think the parallels with Kosovo are also very striking. And if we put them all together, how would it benefit Bangladesh? It would put Bangladesh on the side of the right."

Ali Nasirullah, a Bangladeshi who lived in Kosovo during the war, thinks it is morally wrong that Bangladesh has not yet recognised Kosovo. "Like us they have suffered for belonging to a particular race, we should stand by their side," he says.

Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University also agrees on the moral issue. He thinks that the question of acknowledging a country's sovereignty depends on many issues, which include "trade and other bilateral relations." He also takes into consideration the Russian factor and says that Bangladesh must think of the possible ramifications that it can carry in terms of its relationship with Russia.

Ali thinks creating a healthy relationship with Kosovo will open the door of new opportunities to Bangladeshi businesses. "Unless it wants to look insensitive and foolish as a nation in the eyes of the international community, Bangladesh should recognise Kosovo," he says.

Ali thinks that a nuclear power plant takes a decade to complete if it goes smoothly, and there is no instance in the history of world politics where a country has pulled out of an international agreement because the other country has recognised the sovereignty of another country. "And the bigger question is," Ali says, "Who is going to fund this (nuclear) project? The Russians won't, they don't give 10 billion dollars of assistance to anybody. And should we keep Kosovo in the backseat until the Russians build the reactor? And, by the way, where are our feelings for the Ummah?"

Ambassador Moriarty, however, does not make any comment on the Russian connection. He says, "It's for Bangladesh and Russia to look at their own relations. Does anybody have a timeline for construction of a nuclear reactor here as the project is really far advanced? Is there something really going on that I am not aware of? Because all I am aware of is that preliminary discussions are going on, and the project is hugely expensive. So this is an issue that I don't have all the details of and obviously this is something that you have to decide. I also couldn't imagine a country is saying we are going to break off relations if you recognise Kosovo, because if the Russians are going to do that they would have had to broken off relations with a whole bunch of other countries. I will let Russia speak for itself."

When contacted, Russian embassy sources refused to make any comment on the issue. But the country's stance is clear; "Russia should use every opportunity at its disposal to block Kosovo's admission to the UN as an independent state," Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the international affairs committee at the lower house of Russia's parliament, is quoted as saying in Ria Novosti, the Russian state owned news agency.

Ambassador Moriarty says giving recognition to Kosovo without any further dillydallying is the right thing to do. "All I am saying is that, from my perspective, from the perspective of 61 other countries, from the perspective of the IMF and the World Bank, this is the right thing for Bangladesh to do. In the case of Kosovo it is clearly a Muslim-majority portion of the country oppressed by the larger portion. The sight of great atrocities by the great majority power…there is no reason why Bangladesh can't recognise Kosovo," he says.

Professor Imtiaz says that it is a matter of time that Bangladesh will recognise Kosovo. He believes that the Foreign Secretary's comment last week means the country is buying time, and eventually Bangladesh will recognise the tiny Balkan nation, whose history, like Bangladesh's own, is soaked with the blood of those who loved the country so dearly. The sooner the government recognises Kosovo, the better.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Caught in the Web

Under the very nose of the law enforcing agencies, porn industry in Bangladesh is spreading

A few days ago 14-year-old Rakib (not his real name), student of a renowned school in Uttara, was caught in the school with a bagful of CDs. When the school authority played the discs on computer they found what they had been fearing--the CDs contained pornographic videos made in Bangladesh, some even had self-shot footages of some of the school's female students. "With the advent of digital camera embedded mobile phones, this practice has become common nowadays," says Rupam (not his real name), who keeps a stash of porn in his shop at the Bashundhara Shopping Complex. He says that initially these photos and videos are shot by the girls themselves or their male friends, but later on, Rupam says, "The footages get leaked and come to us."

There are various ways in which a privately shot video clip travels to the glitzy shops of Dhaka and eventually makes its ways into the mufassil towns. Sometimes jealous or dumped boyfriends pass these videos onto their friends or upload it to the file-sharing websites where anyone can download them for free. "There are times phones get lost or the computers where these photos and videos are stored are sent to the mechanics to be repaired," Rupam says. From the repair shops the footages go directly to the hands of the porn dealers. "A good quality footage with a 60-minutes duration costs something around 20,000 taka," says Halim, a blue film dealer who only reveals his first name. He reasons his actions by saying that in a free country everyone has the right to buy, sell and watch whatever he or she wants to. After buying the videos or the Multi-media Text Messages Halim and his team save them to their computer and make several DVD copies of them.

On a few occasions, some men have used a hidden video camera to capture the act, while their female partners remain completely unaware of the presence of the shooting. In most of the pornographic videos made in Bangladesh the camera is shown static, sometimes it is set in a hotel room, where the camera is placed inside the cupboard, which is set half ajar. Most of the victims of these crimes come from educated middle class family, and are student of different universities.

Orpita (not her real name) was studying at a private university where she met a young man with whom she had an affair. A few months later they met at her lover's house where they made love. Little did she know that the whole act was captured on a video camera and was sold to a porn dealer. She now lives in the US, and she lives with nothing but sheer humiliation. A pioneer in this crime is Suman, a Non-resident Bangladeshi. In the late nineties he came to Dhaka and secretly filmed his rendezvous with three different women and sold the CDs to the shops in Hatirpool's Nahar Plaza. A police case was eventually lodged against Suman and his accomplice, but both the criminals by then had fled the country.

And then there are some foreigners who video themselves having sex with local prostitutes only to upload it on the Internet. There are two sex tapes in circulation on the market in which the local woman is seen talking to the camera and later on getting paid for her service. Local blue film sellers download the tapes from the Internet or get them from the hotel managers and porters who run a network that buys videos from the foreigners.

Almost all foreign video pornographic materials are downloaded from the net. In the absence of a proper cyber law it is difficult, if not impossible, to nab those who download porn from the web to sell. In fact, a stringent enforcement of privacy law is also absent in the country. Last year the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) launched an all out drive against the makers of indecent films, which has witnessed the death of vulgarity in the commercial films made in the country. But a Rab official says that the organisation has not had any plan yet to start a crackdown on the porn-makers. "As of yet we do not have any such plan, but a new drive can be in the offing," he says.

Rakib bought the CDs from the footpath in front of Baku Shah Market in Nilkhet where he went to buy his textbooks. In fact, the market is a hotbed for pornographers as students of the city regularly go there to buy books at a cheaper price. Because of the inaction of the law enforcing agencies many youths like Rakib get caught in the web of the porn. Playing fields are disappearing fast in the city, leaving the children and teenagers entertainment hungry. It is time the government takes concrete measures to eradicate the menace that threatens to destroy our future generation. Increased patrolling by the police, strict enforcement of laws regarding cyber crimes and a mass awareness campaign can make the lives of the teenagers porn free again.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Dealing with the Generals

Bangladesh's foreign policy on its eastern neighbour needs to be changed

For the last 47 years, since General Ne Win usurped power in a bloodless coup, Myanmar (Burma) has remained an epitome of dictatorship. The country is run by a clique of Generals who, armed with the money generated from lucrative timber and rice trade, has completely disregard the plights of their poor subjects. Under their rule Myanmar has become a prison for different nationalities, the diversity of which once made the country famous in the world. In the most brutal instance, in 1988, the regime forcibly evicted 300,000 of the country's minority Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh, creating a humanitarian catastrophe.

The story refuses to stop there: in November last year some Myanmarese naval ships illegally entered into Bangladesh territory, which is thought to be rich in oil, gas and other mineral resources. Even though Bangladesh Navy has repulsed the Myanmarese intruders, the country, it seems, is bent on making its western neighbour's life difficult. A few weeks ago, Myanmar army has turned up in Mongdu and Alitanjo to evict ethnic Muslim Rohingyas from their ancestral homeland. They forcibly acquired around 1,000 acres of arable land and distributed it among the Buddhist citizens of Mongdu town. The authority has also told the Rohingyas of the country's Sectors 6 and 7 to go to the hills or to take refuge in Bangladesh.

While the recent carnage at the BDR headquarters has brought the country's border guards on its knees, in the recent weeks, more and more Rohingyas are trying to enter into Bangladesh on different points at the border such as Palongkhali and Ghundhum. Most of these refugees tell of inhuman tortures and tribulations that they have gone through in the hands of their own security forces. More such exodus may be in the offing as the Myanmarese authority is reported to have been planning to build a new cluster of villages near the border. In fact, recent history of the Southeast Asian nation suggests that its government has been systematically pursuing a policy to change the demography of its Rakhine State.

Bangladesh's experience with the Myanmarese refugees has never been pleasant. Some of these refugee organisations heavily depend on arms and drug trafficking to fund themselves. To make it even worse, some of these groups maintain a strong relationship with Bangladeshi extremist groups.

There are signs that the diplomatic and military defeat that the country has suffered last winter over the oil and gas rigs at the Bay is not taken lightly by the Generals in Naypyidaw. Recently Myanmar has started to fence its border with Bangladesh, and it has strengthened its military presence in the Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh. The most notable addition in the junta's armoury is a few missiles, which the country has deployed near Bangladesh border. In the Arakan region alone, with the new deployment, the Myanmar army's strength stands at 500,000. A continuous supply of military hardware is pouring in; along with it the junta is improving the infrastructural facilities. Everything, in fact, indicates that the Generals in Myanmar are again planning to lay claim to the disputed waters of the Bay.

And they could not have got a time better than now. Our national border has never been so unguarded before. The Pilkhana massacre has left Bangladesh's border guards in tatters, because of which smuggling in Bangladesh-Myanmar border has increased. Taking its advantage, says intelligence officials, Bangladesh's eastern neighbour is nowadays sending more spies into Bangladesh territory.

How prepared are we then to thwart a second Myanmarese intrusion? Our military presence in the area, compared to new Myanmarese build up, is shabby. Take Kaptai power station, which, should the border skirmishes turn into a large-scale conflict, will become a natural target of the enemy fire. No step has so far been taken to create a defence shield around it. Our Navy needs to be armed with the newest military gadgets; new soldiers need to be recruited into the army. Given that a huge number of our boys and girls in olive work abroad in different UN missions, the number of soldiers that remain in the country is inadequate to fend off any adventurous threat of an invading force. It is time the government takes the matter seriously; in the changed global scenario, where energy security has become important, Bangladesh quickly needs build a million-man army. The government must also make military training compulsory for every able-bodied citizens, a six-months course on military study should be incorporated into Higher Secondary syllabus. On top of it all, Bangladesh must also equip its armed forces with the state of the art arsenals. A strong army, as the old saying goes, is the best deterrent. Bangladesh also has to make joint patrols and exercises with friendly countries such as the US, UK and Australia.

On the diplomatic front, China is Myanmar's only trusted ally. It has been told by the western media that the Myanmarese Generals have houses in China, in case a mass upsurge forces them to flee the country. China has also long been Bangladesh's friend; the country may seek Chinese help to dissuade the Myanmarese junta from carrying out a second misadventure into Bangladeshi waters.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Myanmarese junta is perhaps one of the most brutal regimes in this part of the world. While the world's media is preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, the Myanmarese government unleashes a reign of terror on its own citizens. After the cyclone Nargis hit the country's Irrawaddy delta last year, killing 200,000, the Myanmarese Generals deliberately dilly-dallied to issue the UN the permission to work in the densely populated Irrawaddy Division, a move that prompted the UN to call the situation unprecedented. Imposition of an economic and diplomatic sanction on such a vile regime has long been overdue.

As a nation that loves democracy, freedom and rule of law, Bangladesh cannot remain an apathetic observer in Myanmarese affairs. It is time we take the western capitals into confidence. Myanmar's last four-decade-old treacherous history shows us that to deal with the country's Generals one needs both a carrot and a stick. The sooner our foreign office realises it the better.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The New Big Thing

In an exclusive interview, Paul Vinay Kumar, Executive Editor of Westland Limited and Tranquebar Press shows the way to make it big in the publishing world

Tell our readers a little about Westland Books/Tranquebar Press.

Westland Limited is a growing Indian trade publishing and distribution house, which includes EastWest Books and the new Tranquebar Press. Westland publishes general trade books: our list of titles includes books on food and cooking, spirituality and self-help, health and wellness, popular fiction, history and architecture, general reference, travel and a host of other subjects.

The group has several decades of experience in book retail and distribution, and to move into publishing was a natural transition. With a young, energetic team of editors and designers based in Chennai and Delhi, Westland Limited is one of the few publishing houses in India to bring both the North and the South together. Westland is the publishing and distribution arm of Landmark Ltd, the company that runs the Landmark chain of bookstores in the major metros across India.

Tranquebar Press gets its name from the tiny, beautiful coastal town in Tamil Nadu (now called Tharangambadi) where Indian publishing and printing really began. Our emphasis is on new writing and experimental work of high literary standards in any genre. Our list of authors includes Jeet Thayil, Saeed Mirza, Ruchir Joshi, Daljit Nagra, Susan Mridula Koshy, Arun Krishnan and many more.

Generally speaking, when Tranquebar Press goes through a certain manuscript what does it look for before it hands down the verdict?

Like every other publishing house, the focus is on interesting subjects and fabulous writing. The genre of the book determines the relative importance given to these two criterions. Tranquebar's emphasis is on unusual literary fiction. Unlike many other publishing houses, we publish a reasonable amount of poetry.

Also, we believe very strongly in the importance of translations, especially in the context of a country like India where there are so many people divided and united by language. Our fundamental belief is that we want to publish books which, in a world filled with some may say too many books, make a difference and bring readers something new, meaningful and memorable.

As one of the leading English language publishers in India, do you think the era of printed words is coming to an end?

Emphatically no! While we're planning to do audio books and are actively starting to look at e-books, we view these as supplements to draw in new readers and not as a replacement to books. No technology--however exciting--can ever match up to the experience of curling up with a book under a blanket, the smell of paper, the tactile experience of turning the pages, the satisfaction of going back to an old book where the dog-eared pages mark old memories, and the sheer joy of organising books on one's bookshelf.

Having said that, I think the e-book market is yet to come of age in India. We're still trying to work out the four factors that will ensure the growth of the e-book market: an affordable reading device; content (at the right price); a great selection of content and e-books that are easy to use

As an ardent e-book fan I don't expect paper books to become obsolete--they'll co-exist and publishers such as Westland will offer combined packages, so that our readers get the best of both worlds.

In the South-Asian sub-continent, where people speak so many languages, what role do you think translated works can play in bridging the gaps between cultures?

It is absolutely essential to have translations in our part of the world. There is so much richness and diversity of literature just waiting to be read. In India, we have this completely appalling situation where we know the names of the great contemporary writers, but we are unable to read them except some short story published in some anthology! One of the great things that this virtual explosion of publishing in English over the last ten years has achieved is that a lot more translations are now available, though in my view this is still not enough. I would love to be able to publish more translations between say Bengali and Tamil, Gujurati and Telegu so that readers who do not read in English and Hindi (the two most popular languages for translation) can read more of what is being written in other parts of the country. Having said which, I also believe that the present generation of people whose work and social life is mainly in urban English speaking worlds are losing the ability to read in their mother tongues, which is tragic.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

His Master's Voice

Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend

In the general elections that took place last December, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, on numerous occasions promised to create what she called a 'Digital Bangladesh'. In a country infested with unabated corruption and silent famine, the call earned her a huge fan following among the new young voters who saw Hasina as a cheerleader of change. Four months after her electoral landslide, that much-touted change has still not arrived at the Bangladesh Television headquarters in Rampura. Faces of old sycophants have been replaced with new ones. 'Aat-tar Shongbad' (ATS; News at Eight), the channel's flagship news programme, stills broadcasts reports of no news value as headlines, news so insignificant that it would not have otherwise deserved a third-page single column treatment in the following day's paper. If one watches the ATS everyday (which many viewers will find rather torturous) one will see a trend, however disturbing, repeated every night: "I think the BTV news crew live with the ministers 24 hours a day," says Nurunnahar, who watches the BTV every night out of compulsion as her meagre income as a maid does not allow her to subscribe to satellite channels.

There are hundreds and thousands of viewers like Nurunnahar who are forced to watch ministers speaking as chief guests at the annual cultural programme of schools. "Four months ago, it was the Advisers I watched every night at eight on television, two years ago it was Khaleda Zia and her ministers," Nurunnahar says. None of the 14 television channels that fight for the attention of the country's millions of viewers has the license for territorial broadcast. A new law titled 'Terrestrial Telecast Facilities Preservation for Bangladesh Television Act 2009' (TTFP), to which the Prime Minister has given her nod last month gives the BTV the sole owner of the rights to terrestrial facility. It means that no other television channel will be able to broadcast programmes using their own terrestrial equipments; to watch every channel but the BTV the viewers have to pay the cable operators.

Muhammad Jahangir, an eminent media analyst, thinks the very idea is anti-democratic. "The government believes in Free Market Economy; and in a free market everyone has the right to compete with each other. Terrestrial equipments are costly, not all channels would have been able to own them, but enacting a blanket law to prohibit anyone from using the facility is ludicrous," he says.

What makes it even more complicated is that whenever a political government comes to power the BTV is virtually run by the party that holds power. "It comes at a heavy price; the television authority tends to satisfy the cultural activists of the party in power, and at times it airs substandard programmes only because they are made by a BNP or AL activist," Jahangir says. He also says that the 'Package Programme' of the BTV is plagued with corruption as in many a time the BTV buys below standard programmes, shows that no channel in the country would run.

In fact, members of the civil society has criticised the TTFP. Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of non-governmental organisation Shujan, thinks the government should open the sky for any channel that wants to broadcast terrestrially. "The very idea that only one channel, and that too run by the government, can hold such a right runs counter to the tenets of democracy," he says.

The excuse that the government has come up with for taking such a draconian measure is that giving everyone terrestrial license will put the country's national security at risk. But Jahangir finds the idea difficult to buy; he says, "It is not the same as buying a MIG-29; instead, an open terrestrial license policy will free our airwaves. The government, after all, does not tell the newspapers that only the government-run newspaper will be run in four colours, all others have to limit themselves to only black and white." He also thinks that if an open terrestrial policy is not pursued it will make a mockery of Sheikh Hasina's promise of Digital Bangladesh. "You can never get a scientifically advanced country if you have policies like the ones that we have," he says.

Without freeing the BTV from the clutches of nepotism and sycophancy, the establishment of Digital Bangladesh is impossible. In the manifesto of the Three Alliances that led the country towards the great Democratic Revolution of 1990, all the major parties promised to give autonomy to the BTV, which during the deposed military dictator Gen HM Ershad's rule was known as "the Sahib and his servants' idiot box". In the general elections that were followed by Ershad's ouster from power, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia was voted to power, and in her five-year term she never did anything to free the BTV. The Awami League government, which followed Khaleda's rule, formed a committee to give autonomy to the BTV, which was gradually losing audience to the satellite channels. In the elections of 2001, the BNP came back to power, riding a massive electoral landfall, and Khaleda did everything at her disposal to tighten her grip on the lone provider of terrestrial broadcasting.

In the three consecutive elections since the restoration of democracy the AL, in its manifesto, promised to set the BTV free. The party had made last year's polls an exception; its Charter for Change did not include the BTV issue. Because of this, Jahangir thinks, the AL cannot be blamed for not making the BTV an autonomous body, as during the electioneering the party has never made any such promise. "We cannot blame them," he says, "but I find their actions deplorable. The state-run television must be immediately freed."

Majumdar says that the sycophants have always been the cause of the last governments' downfall. "As the BTV has the sole terrestrial rights, every owner of a television set has access to the BTV and for some, the BTV is the only source of entertainment," he says. In the last 37 years, the channel's talk shows and news have tittered on the verge of cheap canvassing for the parties in power and their policies. In an entertainment-starved country the voters will not like it if Sisimpur is switched off the air to show the government's latest effort to make the campus free of thuggery and gangsterism.

It is understandable that the government will find it difficult to part with the BTV. But it must also understand that in an era where the citizens of the country are exposed to the Internet and love to have options in choosing what to watch and what not to, the BTV, in the hands of government, is more a liability than an asset. The government needs to give autonomy to the BTV as soon as it can; it must be freed from every kind of nepotism and the channel should purge all the inept producers and crew.

It is good that the government wants to establish another new channel; but there will be further trouble if it is run like the BTV. The government should also seriously think of starting a sport channel. A national broadcasting policy must also be formed. The government should pave the way for new private television channels, especially the ones that will cater to the younger generation. The BTV has always been known as its master's voice, now is the time to let the channel run on its own. The only way forward to establishing a vibrant democracy is to allow free, unhindered flow of information. The AL-led government will create a milestone in our short history of democracy if it gives full autonomy to the BTV, allowing it to run as an independent entity. Only time can tell if the government, which has the support of the whole nation behind it, will be able to rise up to the occasion or not.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Brown Man's Burden

Rabindranath Tagore
Translated by: Radha Chakravarty
Penguin Books; Rs 399

Kaiser Haq, poet and translator, once famously said that it was impossible to translate Rabindranath Tagore. Haq later went on to do the impossible, translating Tagore that is. His 'Quartet' (Translation of Tagore's 'Chaturanga'; 1916) has earned Haq critical acclaim. The latest work of translation of Tagore to hit the bookstores is Radha Chakravarty's translation of Tagore's post-colonial text 'Gora' (1907-1909). In the broadest sense of the word Gora is thematically linked with 'Ghare-Baire' (The Home and the World; 1916). Gora's social setting is late 19th century Bengal, a colony in turmoil. But unlike Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim' (1900-1901), which is the journey of an Irish soldier's orphaned son into the heart of colonial India, Gora is a political novel and a scathing criticism of the Hindu revivalist movement of the late 19th century that novelists like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838 -1894) propagated.

While 'Kim' ("A poor white, the poorest of the poor") searches for his spiritual soul, Gora, also the son of an Irishman delves deep into the heart of the colonial man to portray the society and politics of its time. Tagore, with his masterful prose, aloof yet engaging, depicts a time that was both violent and polemical. The time, on one hand, offered bigotry to the frustrated colonised youth: on the other there was the glorious Bengali Renaissance. Europe was abuzz with anarchism; nihilist and anarchic thoughts regularly filtered into the drawing rooms of Calcutta. With the advent of Brahmo Samaj and Brahmoism, the soul of Bengal was also in turmoil. Even though through social reforms, it liberated millions from the clutches of social tyranny, the spiritual solace that Brahmoism offered was limited to the petit bourgeoisies of the Bengal and was heavily swayed by the European liberalism.

A master social observer that he is, Tagore portrays beliefs and dogmas of many strands as Radha Chakravarty in her introduction says, "The elite Hindu group is not homogenized: from the rigid, unworldly orthodoxy of Krishnadayal to Abinash's naïve celebration of ritual and Harimohini's growing inflexibility about Sucharita's habits, the narrative represents varying facets of religious conservatism." Radha's introduction is full of such eloquent critique of the novel, and one wishes that had it been a little longer, it would have given the reader a better guide to such a complex and complicated text, which with the rise of religious conservatism in the Indian sub-continent is becoming even more relevant.

Tagore makes use of all the tools that he has had as a modernist--Gora is filled with double and paired characters and its narrative is imbued with contradictions and paradoxes. It culminates when Gora, brought up a Hindu, is told about his true birth; his world falls apart, along with it, it shatters his concept of identity. Couple with it the fact that Gora was born in 1987, the year in which Indian sepoys, irrespective of their casts and creeds, rose in unison to liberate India from the clutches of the Empire. An Irishman's son, Ireland, Irish Nationalism--an allusion to another colony. Gora looses all identities and all his identities become one-- he embodies the secular spirit of modern India.

One of the leading intellectuals of her time, Radha Chakravarty has translated two more important Tagore novels--'Chokher Bali' and 'Farewell Song: Shesher Kabita'. Gora indeed shows her maturity as a translator. Her incorporation of certain Bengali words in her translation, in the era of chutneyfication of English, is a surprising change from the translations one is familiar with. Words like 'bon' and 'champa' are retained, which have added a new dimension to the text that was first published about a hundred years ago. Radha's prose is seductive, which reminds the reader that while translating, the translator, even though she is transplanting reality into a different language, has to read the pulse of the text that she is translating. Radha's is one of the best Tagore translations so far; Tagore would have approved.

Essentially, Gora is the spiritual and political dilemma of the post-colonial man and his quest for his true self. At the end of 'Kim', Teshoo Lama's search for the River of Arrow ends and he is blessed with nirvana, our post-colonial Gora for his turn toils in the labyrinth of Bengal's murky history.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Journal of Contemporary Literature

The Journal of Contemporary Literature, an Indian journal has published Ahmede Hussain and Tabish Khair's conversations on literature, politics and the world today in its Volume 1, No 1 issue. To get a copy email:
Dr. O.P. Dwivedi
M-61, Govindpur Colony
Uttar Pradesh

Saturday, April 04, 2009

From England with Hate

Green Crescent, a non-governmental organisation registered in Britain, is suspected to have been funding terrorism in Bangladesh

After watching it for about a week, a Rapid Action Battalion team led by Lt Commander Mamunur Rashid on the 24th of last month stormed into a red-bricked building that stands on a specious four-acre land in the Ramkeshob village, Burhanuddin of the country's lone island district Bhola. The discovery that Mamun and his men made in that early afternoon swoop is no less than staggering-- a bomb bluster, nine firearms, 2,500 bullets, 3,000 grenade splinters, an explosives blaster, four pairs of German-made uniforms, 200 gram gunpowder, bullet-making components and equipment, two walkie-talkies, two bows, two remote control devices, binoculars, a book on how to operate firearms and other extremist literature--all of which are essential ingredients for making bullets. These equipments are used to make small firearms; usually terrorists use the lead balls to make the projectile of the bullet; and the copper that has been found can be used to make the cartridge where gunpowder and the pin are put. The following day, police also recovered a speedboat and two bottles of acid from the madrasa.

The establishment, which housed 11 students at the time of the raid, has been heavily fortified by a circular trench, and a down bridge was used by its occupants to get in and out of the premises. In the guise of the madrasa-cum-orphanage, the terrorists actually ran a mini ordinance factory. "The 'bomb bluster' is usually used by regular armies to train their members in the use of explosive devices," says a defence official, who wishes to remain anonymous. In fact, Lt Commander Mamun has told the Daily Star that chances are there that the terrorists have been making improvised explosive devices and assembling ammunition. "We've found materials needed to assemble bullets. They include percussion caps, cartridge cases and bullet heads. And all these are made in the UK," he has said.

The ammo factory's connection with the United Kingdom (UK), however, does not stop here--the madrasa is founded by a British charity called Green Crescent, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is registered with the British Charity Commission under number 1099233. The organisation's chief, 45-year-old Faisal Mostafa, who has a PhD in metal corrosion, has been under surveillance of the British spy agency Military Intelligence, Section 5 (MI5) for the last 13 years. Even though prosecutor's claimed to have found explosives in his house, the Manchester Crown Court acquitted Mostafa in 1996 and handed him a prison sentence of four years for illegally possessing a firearm. Six years later he was arrested again, this time in Birmingham, along with a fellow Bangladeshi-born Moinul Abedin (codenamed 'Pivotal Dancer' by MI5 operatives). Even though the latter was found guilty of plotting to cause explosions across the UK, Mostafa, who provided Abedin with explosives, was let off the hook. Security experts see the Birmingham arrests as the first evidence of the presence of al-Qaeda in British soil. Mostafa was arrested again last year while trying to board a plane with a gas-powered pistol and a primer. He was given a suspended sentence.

Ghulam Mostafa, Faisal Mostafa's father who left Bangladesh 45 years ago, thinks his son is innocent. He claims that Mostafa has always been into hunting and he makes his own bullets with spent cartridges and gunpowder. Initial investigation made into the Bhola ammo haul, however, does not match with Ghulam Mostafa's assertion--a student of the madrasa has told the investigators that Maulana Mohammad Russell, a teacher at the seminary, used to give him sermons to take up arms to fight the holy war. Apart from the telltale signs, a notebook recovered from the madrasa bears the name of M Akhter Hossain, a soldier of battalion 18of Bangladesh Rifles, which mutinied against the state and the government of Bangladesh a month ago.

Even though the number of weapons recovered in Bhola is not huge compared to the Chittagong and Bogra ammo hauls, the discovery of foreign terrorists working in the guise of NGO workers is new. We have known it all along that the warped ideologies of al-Qaeda and its leaders have proliferated in the west, especially in Britain; Bangladesh has also experienced its first suicide bombing four years ago. However, no direct link between al-Qaeda and the local terror outfits has been found before the Bhola ammo haul. The sophistication of the ammo-making materials suggests that the group is different from the run-of-the-mill terror outfits like Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has so far been involved in small-scale attacks.

The government needs to dig deep to find out the NGOs that are working in the country in the name of development works, and are spreading the message of hatred. As a nation we are immensely fortunate that on numerous occasions our law enforcing agencies, with the help of the conscious citizens, have caught the terror cells off guard, pre-empting many potential terrorist attacks. That does not mean that lady luck will always wink at us. We need a concentrated effort to make life costly and difficult for the terrorists. The government can make a high-powered committee to coordinate its anti-terrorism efforts. Imams of different mosques and madrasas should be trained to give sermons on the proper teachings of Islam; a religion that literary means peace.

The incident also highlighted the need for an international taskforce consisting of all our security partners. A mere regional taskforce is not enough to fight terror, which knows no boundary. There might be more such terror outfits at work in the country, which need to be neutralised before they spring at us again. In the sub-continent, which has witnessed strings of terrorist attacks in the last few years, Bangladesh has so far cushioned itself from religious extremism; those days, blissful though they have been, have come to an end. There is no denying that the terror organisations have set their eyes on Bangladesh because of its geo-political location on the tip of the Bay of Bengal. Time has now come for the government to rise up to the occasion and fight terror to the end.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It is Time

The parliament has passed a bill to try the war criminals, now is the time the government takes concrete steps to start the trial

During our nation's Liberation War when the whole nation was fighting the occupying Pakistan army, a bunch of thugs and killers mostly belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Muslim League (ML) and Nizam-e-Islam (NI) formed three different groups of killers and rapists. These killing squads-- Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams--in the nine bleak months of 1971 carried out atrocities on the innocent Bangali population of the country.

Members of the Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams spread their tentacles all over the country to provide the information of movements of the freedom fighters to the Pakistan army and worst still they committed one of the most gruesome human rights abuses in recent human history by abducting Bangali women, some even in their early teens, to be sent to the concentration camps of the Pakistan army. In the last few days of the war, when these vile forces saw their orgy of killing and rape drawing to a brutal end, they formed killing squads, which led the abduction and killing of Bangali intellectuals. The discovery of mass graves and newspaper reports of those days prove that some leaders of the JI, NI and MIL and their student and youth wings were involved in acts of mass murder. Siddik Salik, who served as a Major in the marauding Pakistan army in 1971, in his book 'Witness to Surrender' says, "The only people who came forward (to help the Pakistani army butcher and rape innocent people) were 'the rightists like Khwaza Khairuddin of the Council Muslim League, Fazlul Qader Chaudhry of the Convention Muslim League, Khan Sobur A Khan of the Qayyum Muslim League, Professor Ghulam Azam of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Maulvi Farid Ahmed of the Nizam-e-Islam Party."

The crimes that these butchers have committed are no less gruesome than those perpetrated by Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. The trial of these bunch of mass murderers started no sooner than the country's independence in 1971. On January 24, 1972, the Collaborator's Act was promulgated; by October 1973, over 37,000 suspected war criminals were arrested of whom 26,000, against whom there was no clear evidence of killing, rape and arson, were pardoned under a general amnesty. When Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered on the dark night of August 15, 1975, 11,000 killers and rapists were in jail, facing trial. The JI, NI and ML were banned for their role in war crime. After the death of Bangabandhu, the ban was lifted and the government of Ziaur Rahman, which usurped power in a bloody coup d'état in 1975, made a known collaborator of the Pakistani regime the country's Prime Minister.

The rehabilitation of the killers continued throughout the eighties and nineties of the last century. In the last government led by Zia's widow Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia, two known war criminals were given important portfolios; of them includes, Ali Ahsan Mojahed, who was quoted to have said by “Daily Sangram” on October 15,1971: "The youths of the Razakars and al-Badar forces and all other voluntary organisations have been working for the nation to protect it from the collaborators and agents of India." In the last caretaker government's regime, he, also secretary general of JI and head of the Al Badr paramilitia, said no war crime had been committed in 1971. His comment and the subsequent diatribes of some war criminals and their sympathisers have proven that members of the JI does not hold an iota of remorse for actively participating in the genocides of 1971.

In fact, as an issue, the trial of the war criminals has been one of the deciding factors of last year's general elections. The BNP, which went to the elections keeping its electoral alliance with the JI intact, was routed in the polls as the party was seen by voters, especially the younger ones, as war crime sympathisers. In its electoral manifesto, the Awami League has promised that it will bring the killers of 1971 to the book. Now that the party holds an absolute majority in the parliament, it is time to take the nation forward to that direction.

The AL-led Grand Alliance government will significantly lose its popularity if at the end of its term the party fails to try at least most of the known war criminals. During the Liberation War, because the Communist Soviet Union supported our liberation struggle, the US and its allies sided with the Pakistani junta by providing it with military logistic and diplomatic support. The second week of December 1971, witnessed the arrival of the United States Seventh Fleet's carrier taskforce 74 in the Bay of Bengal to help the losing Pakistani junta. Time, however, has changed: Now the US is a good friend of our country and an important strategic ally. One hopes that, as a time-tested friend of the people of Bangladesh and a friend that wants to see democracy and rule of law flourish in Bangladesh, the US will support the efforts of the people of Bangladesh to bring the war criminals of 1971 before justice.

The government should immediately form a tribunal with a High Court judge as the head under the International (Crimes) Tribunal Act 1973. It should also pass a law in the parliament making war crime denial a crime-- Germany has already outlawed holocaust denial, many European countries also have such laws.

The matter of the JI, NI, ML and other such organisation's participation in the war crimes as a political entity has to be probed. Democracy allows freedom of speech and movement; having said that, a democratic society needs to build its own mechanism to safeguard itself from those who want to destroy the very foundation on which it stands. Democracy will not take a firm footing in our country if the criminals who committed the worst crimes against humanity against the people of our country remain free.

It is heartening to see the government has barred the suspected war criminals from travelling abroad. Transparency, respect for human rights and rule of law should be our guiding principles in dealing with the war criminals.

There are some, small in number though, who believe that the trial of war criminals will breed extremism in the country, as the JI is the 'biggest moderate Islamic party' in the country. This analysis runs the risk of equating Bangladesh's socio-political condition with that of Pakistan's. Unlike Pakistan, the JI in Bangladesh, as the last elections have proven, does not wield a mass support base, and the party does not work as a buffer between extremism and democracy. Bangladesh has an unofficial two-party system, when it comes to the elections or lending their political support, Bangladeshis have voted for two major political parties: in the general elections, the JI has never bagged more than 8 percent of total votes cast. The party has always become a distant fourth after Gen HM Ershad's Jatya Party. In fact, the trial of the war criminals will be a chance for the JI to clean its rank of its tainted past. As a new beginning, the JI should drop war criminals from its leadership and swear allegiance to Bangladesh and everything the country stands for.

The government should start the trial as soon as it can. The crime that has been committed against this nation and its people in 1971 must not go unpunished. The blood of the martyrs is crying out for justice, we have ignored it for 37 long years; history will not forgive us if we fail this time.

The International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973, says: "…A Tribunal shall have power to try and punish any person irrespective of his nationality who, being a member of any armed, defence or auxiliary forces commits or has committed in the territory of Bangladesh, whether before or after the commencement of this act, any of the following crimes.
(2) The following acts or any of them are crimes within the jurisdiction of a Tribunal for which there shall
be individual responsibility, namely:-
(a) Crimes against Humanity: namely, murder, extermination enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, abduction, confinement, torture, rape or other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population or prosecutions on political, racial, ethnic or religious grounds whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated;
(b) Crimes against Peace: namely planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
(c) Genocide: meaning and including any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial, religious or political group, as such:
(i) killing members of the group;
(ii) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(iii) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(iv) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(v) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group;
(d) War Crimes: namely, violation of laws or customs of war which include but are not limited to murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of civilian population in the territory of Bangladesh; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages and
detenues, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages or devastation not justified by military necessity;
(e) Violation of any humanitarian rules applicable in armed conflicts laid down in the Geneva Convention of 1949;
(f) Any other crimes under international law;
(g) Attempt abatement or conspiracy to commit any such crimes;
(h) Complicity in or failure to prevent commission of any such crimes.

About the formation of the trial the Act says: (1) For the purpose of section 3, the Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, set up one or more Tribunals, each consisting of a Chairman and not less that two and not more that four other members.
(2) Any person who is or is qualified to be a Judge of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh or has been a
Judge of any High Court or Supreme court which at any time was in existence in the territory of
Bangladesh or who is qualified to be a member of General Court Martial under any service law of
Bangladesh may be appointed as a Chairman or member of a Tribunal.
(3) The permanent seat of a Tribunal shall be in Dacca.
Provided that a Tribunal may hold its sittings as such other place or places as it deems fit.
(4) If any member of a Tribunal dies or is, due to illness or any other reason, unable to continue to perform his functions, the Government may, by notification in the official Gazette, declare the office of such member to be vacant and appoint thereto another person qualified to hold the office.
(5) If, in the course of a trial, any one of the members of a Tribunal is, for any reason, unable to attend any sitting thereof, the trial may continue before the other members.
(6) A Tribunal shall not, merely by reason of any change in its membership or the absence of any member thereof from any sitting, be bound to recall and re-hear any witness who has already given any evidence and may act on the evidence already given of produced before it.
(7) If, upon any matter requiring the decision of a Tribunal, there is a difference of opinion among its members, the opinion of the majority shall prevail and the decision of the Tribunal shall be expressed in terms of the views of the majority.
(8) Neither the constitution of a Tribunal nor the appointment of its Chairman or members shall be challenged by the prosecution or by the accused persons of their counsel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Profiles of Terror

Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has carried out strings of suicide bombings four years ago, is regrouping; to make it even worse a few more terror outfits it seems are at work in the country

On November 29, 2005, a small, wiry young man went into the Gazipur courthouse at around 10 in the morning with a parcel in hand. Within a minute the youth, who was later identified as Abdur Razzak, made his small grisly place in the country’s history by becoming Bangladesh’s first suicide bomber. Razzak killed himself and on his way to martyrdom killed two more persons. The attack was a simultaneous one: Abul Bashar, another bomber, also in his late teens, blew himself up a few yards into the 102-years old Chittagong court building, killing two bystanders and maiming a few hundreds. Bashar survived for two more days to succumb of injuries.

The birth of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has taken place under the eyes of Bangladesh Nationalist Party led Four Party Alliance government (FPA) that ruled the country from 2001-2006. In the first three years of its rule the FPA regime denied the presence of the outfit with a minister calling it ‘a figment of the media’s imagination.’ When Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, one of the militant masterminds, formed Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, which is believed to be a sister organisation of the JMB, the law enforcing agencies helped him by giving him shelter. Khaleda Zia, the then Prime Minister, was famous for seeing conspiracy behind anything that she found unpleasant in her rule. The gruesome photographs of a man beaten down to death by Bangla Bhai’s goons after being hung upside down from a tree did not prompt Khaleda take any action against the terror outfit.

It was after the terrorists had planted 63 bombs in the district headquarters of the country that the then government launched a war on the JMB. At the fag end of the FPA government’s term both the top leaders of the terror group were arrested and the previous caretaker government executed the death penalty that the highest court had handed them down. Even though the group has been thought to be on the run, some recent arrests of the members of the group suggests that the JMB is regrouping and is ready to launch a new offensive.

Arrests made on the 14th of this month in Sarikandi of Bogra district have produced revealing information: on the remote islets of the river Jamuna such as Bhatkhewor, the group has set up numerous training grounds. The JMB, in the run up to the last year’s general elections, threatened to carry out terrorist attacks on the election day. Discovery of huge caches of homemade grenades in a house in Mirpur rented by the JMB operatives prove that the group has not lost its operational capabilities and is readying itself to unleash another mayhem soon.

Another homegrown trade outfit is the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI). Established in 1992 by Afghan War I veterans, the group is well connected with international terror organisations. In fact, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (Arabic for The Islamic Struggle Movement), its mother organisation was founded in 1984 by Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Qari Saifullah Akhtar during the Soviet-Afghan War. Khalil later broke away to form his own group Harkat-ul-Ansar. Upon his arrest on October 1, 2005, the HuJi’s Bangladesh operational commander Mufti Abdul Hannan confessed to have carried out grenade attacks on Sheikh Hasina on August 21, 2005. Following his statements the Speedy Trial Tribunal-1 in Dhaka framed charges against detained former BNP MP Abdus Salam Pintu, Hannan and 20 others in two cases filed for grenade attacks on the AL rally.

On May 8 last year, Hannan and two more HuJi operatives were sentenced to death for carrying out a grenade attack on the then British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury in May 2004. The Sylhet Divisional Speedy Trial Tribunal also awarded life terms to two other accused in the case - Mufti Hannan's brother Muhibullah alias Muhibur Rahman alias Ovi and Mufti Main Uddin alias Abu Zandal. After Hannan’s arrest the HuJi is regrouping and it has been said that in the future the group can work with the JMB or any other like-minded outfits.


Last week, in a raid in the deep forest of Rwachaungchari Upazila in Bandarban, Bangladesh Army has arrested Kyan Maung Marma and Ko Oo Sein and has recovered one M-16 with a grenade launcher, one M-16, one SAR, and one Chinese-made semi-automatic rifle. The men are members of the Democratic Party of Arakan, a Myanmarese insurgent group which is infamous for its brutal tactics. The presence of DPA and any other such insurgent groups is alarming. The government needs to do its best to flush them out if any such group exist on our soil.

Bangladesh for its unique location on the tip of Bay of Bengal and its border with insurgency prone northeastern India and Myanmar can become a lucrative place for hiding for foreign insurgent groups. The country’s southeast has just recuperating from a bloody insurgency that lasted for over two decades. It is still fighting its own war on terror; the sub-continent is increasingly becoming a dangerous place in which to live. A task force (TF) is necessary to handle the issue and it can coordinate intelligence, make contingency plans in case there is big terrorist attack and can also make people more vigilant about terrorists in their neighbourhoods. Fighting terrorism is indeed a tricky business. Pre-emption is the key as there is no room for failure.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Bloody Durbar

On that fateful Wednesday, Nadeet Haque, son of slain sector commander of the Bangladesh Rifles’ (BDR) Dhaka Battalion Col Mujibul Haque, was awakened by a loud thump on the door. “It was our waiter,” he says, “Who told me that a group of men in BDR fatigues were running towards our house.” Nadeet, who is doing his A’ Level as a private student, called his mother, who was in the gym; she advised him to lock himself up in their room. Mili Haque, Nadeet’s mother, was herself in grave danger. Another bunch of murderers were looking for her in every nook and cranny of the BDR compound. The guard of the gym locked Mili up and told the killers that no one was there.

Though her life was saved for the time being, her son, as the gunshots were becoming even louder, hid himself behind the compressor of the AC in the back veranda. “I found one of our maids hiding there,” he says, “In a few minutes I heard some footsteps and jumped onto the sunshade of the building. I clutched at her hand, trying to get her down to where I was. Later I let go of her because I realised that if tried further to get her to my side they would shoot at her.”

Hiding on the sunshade, Nadeet saw the killers set fire to his room to bring him out to kill him. “The fire was spreading fast, and within a few minutes it reached the sunshade. It was so smoky, I could not see anything properly, I had to get up and find a shelter. Some of the killers who were standing in a building construction site, noticed me. They sprayed a few rounds at me as I ran for safety. I am lucky that I am alive and talking to you,” he says in a voice choked with emotion. He broke the wirenet of the kitchen and went into a room in the house and hid himself along with two others under the bed. Shaken, Nadeet does not want to name these two BDR-men who saved his life; when a few jawans turned up again in search of him, these two men, who do menial labour in the house, told the killers that “Col sahib’s son” was not here.

General staff officer 1 (communication) of the BDR Lt Colonel Syed Kamruzzaman will never forget the last Darbar (durbar) of the BDR. The officer who had just taken part in the force’s annual parade a day ago was sitting in the spacious hall of the BDR when immediately after the Director General (DG) of the paramilitary started his speech a young man, without his cap and belt went up to the dais.

Throughout the DG’s speech, which was short-lived, there was commotion at the back of his audience. Some chanted slogans; some made catcalls. An officer and a non-commissioned officer jumped and accosted the young man in an attempt to stop him from reaching the DG. Shaken, the young man fell to the ground; while another man in BDR fatigues ran out of the Darbar. “Like magic, within a few seconds the whole darbar became empty,” says Lt Colonel Kamruzzaman. There were gunshots. At around 9:45 in the morning, a group of mutineers, wearing red bandanas, came up with guns and ordered the 12 officers present to come out and walk in a line led by the DG. "As the DG climbed down the stairs of darbar hall, one jawan sprayed him with bullets. Soon the other jawans there started firing on us," he says.

Lt Colonel Kamruzzaman is lucky, so is Major Munir, who no sooner had the firing begun jumped into a sewer manhole. "It was dark and full of a foul smell. I kept the lid closed and could hear gunshots. I stayed there without any food and light. I could not separate day from night," he says. The marauding bunch of killers did not spare women and children. They separated the women and children from the officers: women with young children in one group were confined in a room with a ceiling fan; women a little older were kept as a separate room with the batmen; the officers, who were not hiding, were held hostage separately. Kamrunnahar Shampa, wife of slain Major Maksudum, says, “The BDR jawans looted all my valuables, after I fled with my baby.” By the first night of the two-day mutiny, the murderers killed almost all the officers present in the compound. The barbarism was reminiscent of the genocide committed by the marauding Pakistani army, only this time the killers belong to the degenerate members of one of our security forces.

Mili Haque is a survivor of the mayhem. “Only that day he (Col Haque) told me that he had been neglecting us for his service to the nation. I can’t fathom how can the jawans have killed someone who has given the topmost priority to the well being of the nation and his soldiers,” she has told the media. She cannot figure out how her husband’s own troops could point their guns at Col Mujib, let alone kill him.

Not only residence of Col Haque, the BDR the killers also looted almost all the houses of the officers before setting them on fire. Some officers were killed in the most brutal way. After killing these brilliant sons and daughters of the soil, the killers dumped the corpses in a couple of mass graves; they dumped some bodies in the sewer, which carried the corpses to the dam near Keranaiganj.

As the mayhem was going on inside, army was rolled in to stop the murderers from coming out of Pilkhana, the BDR headquarters. The plan paid off; the murderers remained confined to the area. The negotiations ensued and the army waited patiently. As the negotiation with the Prime Minister ended, the government declared Prime Ministerial Amnesty to the mutineers. Brig. Gen. (retd) Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert, believes it was given on the spur of the moment, without taking into consideration of the ground realities. “In any case, amnesty can only be given for revolt, it can never be applicable to those who have committed murder, arson and other serious kind of atrocities,” he says.

Even though the government’s approach of negotiating with the mutineers has saved many lives, it has also brought into light the other possible option the government could have taken. “The government’s steps have not caused any further loss of life. There is always the temptation to think that if something could have been done, instantly perhaps…yes I agree, the government could have gone for a swift sharp action to surprise the mutineers, the rebel elements, who were not large in number,” Anam says.

He believes that there was a possibility of reducing the mutineers. The former Brigadier General says, “I do not know why it was not done… there may be some tactical problems such as the problem of the built-up area in the BDR Headquarters. There were a large number of families who were eventually saved who would have been killed had the mutineers got a whiff that there was an offensive. The government chose a path that saved more bloodshed.

All the imponderables! In hindsight you can ask why it was not done, but what if the action would have resulted in more bloodshed; in that case we would have asked the government why it had taken action without going for negotiations. There are always two sides to an issue.”

What would Brig Gen (retired) Anam, a brilliant commander in his prime, have done in such a situation? “If I came to know that some of my officers were in danger, I would have moved a company or two, would have gone for commando style operations, which would send the mutineers in several directions and split them apart. It might have been successful or it might not have, one cannot tell. I would not have waited; I would have gone for it. If I came to know that my officers were treated in such a way, I would not have been able to stand still. I would have relied on the element of surprise; being an infantryman I would have gone the whole hog. Everybody does not have to agree with me. There are so many other factors here-- this is my personal opinion,” he answers.

Syed Ashraful Islam, the Local Government Minister and spokesperson, has a different opinion. He says, “The prime minister sent out the troops no sooner had she got the news. But it takes time for the army to reach a certain place. Whatever happened in Peelkhana had happened before the army members had reached the scene. After that, our main concern was the safety of the hostages. The standoff was resolved quickly considering the security of the people in general apart from the BDR members.”

To avert what it says a humanitarian disaster, the government opted for a political settlement. The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a speech, which warned the murderers of disastrous consequences if they did not give up arms and freed the hostages. The PM’s speech, along with the arrival of the tanks led by 9th Division of the army forced the killers to laid down their arms. Though most BDR members surrendered to the Home Minister, some of the killers have managed to flee. “Most of them crossed the perimeter wall near Hajaribagh, where the road leads to Kamrangirchar while the other path goes to Gabtali and Rayerbazaar,” says an officer of the Rapid Action Battalion, which has arrested some BDR-men.

Lieutenant-General Harunur Rashid, a valiant freedom fighter and former army chief, says the mutiny was well orchestrated and it had little to do with the working conditions in the barracks. “There is the first soldier who wanted to start the killing; as he failed a second group turned up. There has even been a third batch of killers. The red clothes that they have used is not a part of their uniform, which shows that the killers have planned the event before,” Lt Gen Harun says.

In fact, the way some of the murderers have melted into the thin air on the night of last Friday supports Lt Gen Harun’s observation. “Not only that,” says an officer of the Rab who wants to remain anonymous, “Their escape plan has been done meticulously. They have used chairs to climb the wall near Hajaribagh. All of them have followed the same pattern. The three graves that the killers have dug are all evenly squared; so neatly the whole affair of killing and dumping has been done tells us that a group of people has orchestrated the massacre long ago. We are trying to pinpoint exactly where the plans were done and we have so far come across the area near 36 Rifles Battalion, which we think have been used to hatch the conspiracy.” He has also said that to do their killing smoothly the murderers wore red, yellow and blue vests. Some killers also fled with a procession that came near the Gate 5 of the Pilkhana. On the first day of the carnage the gate remained unguarded amidst intermittent shelling of the degenerate jawans. Some of these disgruntled mutineers abandoned their weapons in different areas of the compound; some, it is widely believed that, have carried small firearms with them. Some of these disgruntled mutineers abandoned their weapons in different areas of the compound.

Lt Col Shams, a survivor of the massacre, has said on Bangladesh Television that in the morning of the mutiny he saw arms being unloaded from an ash pick-up van while he was hiding. LT Gen Harun points out that the ammos used in the first attack do not match the ammos issued for the day’s duty. “The ammunition fired by the killers is much more than the ammunition issued for routine duties. It suggests that extra ammunition has been collected beforehand from some sources. We do not know where the rest of the ammos that they have used have come from,” Lt Gen Harun says.

The armoury, from where the weapons have been looted, is a heavily guarded affair. There are ironed collapsible gates, which are locked with two padlocks. All the rifles are on rifle racks and each and every one of them are chained to each other. Ammunition are kept in a different room, one has to go to a separate room to get them. There is a strip or magazine inside the ammunition box made of steel. Even the fastest loader will have to spend 10 minutes to get and load the ammo. The promptness with which the mutineers have turned up with automatic weapons also suggests that they have planned the massacre long ago.

“Immediately after the first bullet was fired at the Darbar Hall, a group of armed killers surrounded the family accommodations, which also shows previous planning,” Let Gen Harun says.

Brig Gen Anam thinks the Darbar mayhem was “pre-planned and all the so-called demands and grievances of the mutineers were excuses to draw public sympathy which the electronic media helped them gain by highlighting them.” He says that Bangladesh is no stranger to such incidents: “This is exactly what happened between November 3 and 7, 1975. Large-scale infiltration was carried inside the ranks, and these people went after the officers. But the causality then was nothing compared to what we have suffered on February 25.”

Major General (retired) Syed Mohammad Ibrahim, a security analyst, could not but agree: “It can’t be the brainchild of soldiers who have just passed their SSC or HSC exams and a bulk of whom remain busy in strenuous border duties. Outsiders from X or Y corner must have contacted insiders well in time keeping in view the BDR Week. As more and more events are being unfolded, it is displaying the involvement of matured conspirators. It is only a question of time and sincerity, both used intelligently, for the conspiracy to be laid bare in front of the nation,” he says on the last day of February.

The incident has shown, to a great extent, intelligence failure, which Brig Gen Anam calls an “unpardonable failure.” That the preparations of such an incident can go unnoticed by the agencies is surprising. “It is unbelievable how the agencies have failed to get an indication of what was afoot. The whole area must have been secured, covered, screened because of the PM’s visit the previous day. The idea is to keep such places under constant survey. I cannot see how the agencies did not see what was coming; I think there is a gross intelligence failure. The investigation will find out to what extent it failed, whether people were told about it at all or what was told about it.”

Meanwhile, the government has rightly declared that a fast-rack tribunal will be formed to bring the perpetrators of the BDR massacre to justice. Last Saturday, the Local Government Minister Syed Ashraful Islam has said that the law minister has already been instructed by the cabinet to form a special tribunal. "The law and the clauses under which perpetrators can be tried will be put before the cabinet and then a bill will be tabled in parliament to fast-track the trial process," he has told the media. "Every single one of those responsible will be put in the dock,” he has added.

In her speech to the parliament the Prime Minister has said, "I opted for talks to save lives, to save the officers and their families," she said refuting claims that not resorting to force was a tactical mistake. She has also said that she has sought the help of the US and UN to probe into the killing. The PM, who has to handle such a big crisis on the 50th day of her tenure, has taken some widespread measures. Her government has formed a probe committee ensuring representation of the army, air force, navy, police and Rab. In an oblique reference to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, she has told the parliament that they (the BNP-men) brought out processions in Hajaribagh and other areas surrounding Pilkhana to encourage the killers.

There is no doubt that the crisis has been one of the toughest challenges that any new elected would want to see itself embroiled into. Sadly, there is no instance in our history the probe into that such carnages have been done in a transparent manner; the incidents of November 3-7, 1977 the grenade attacks on the Awami League are only to name a few. We hope the BDR massacre will be an exception. Along with the entire nation we demand a neutral probe into the massacre, we also hope that the nation will be informed about the possible conspirators and their motives.

Given the nature of loss and the scale of brutality, our army, which was on duty during the crisis, has shown maximum restraint. No bullets were fired from their side, putting first priority on the safety of the women and children who were kept hostage inside. It only goes to the credit of the army that they have given peaceful resolution of the grave problem a chance. The government has started to probe into the carnage and we hope that the conspirators, along with the murderers, will be brought before justice. The brutality with which some of the brilliant officers of our armed forces and their family members have been treated cannot go unpunished. We do not have enough words to translate our anger and hatred to those who have committed one of the ghastliest crimes in the nation’s recent history. The blood of the martyrs of the Pilkhana massacre shall not go in vain.

It is time to remain united as a nation. “We love ourselves, we love our friends and family members. But more than them,” says Lt Gen Harun, “We love our nation. At a time of such grave crisis we should be united to safeguard our nation and its sovereignty.” He adds: “The pain that we are suffering should not deter us from safeguarding our country and putting the interest of it before everything. More then anyone else we love the country.”

On simply military terms, the loss for the army and the country is staggering. “The number of officers we have lost would be enough to man 8 to 10 regiments of the army,” he says. Even though no army in the world can stand such a massacre, Anam thinks, traumatised though its members are, “it is a disciplined force and is continuing to act in the highest traditions of professionalism.”

Besides the irreparable loss of life, which has given a big blow to our army and the country, the BDR, as a force, needs to be reconstructed. The mutiny has left our porous border unguarded and our nation’s security has remained under threat. This is the time to rise before the occasion and get united as a nation. It is only the united effort of everyone that can save our nation from this catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Nadeet Haque stares vacantly at the sky and remembers his father, who was the main brain behind the caretaker government’s Operation Dal-Bhat, which was the lifeline for the country’s poor. He says, “My father was a brave man, he worked really hard for the country. I do not know what has happened, I do not know how such an incident can happen.” Like the slain Colonel’s son, the entire nation anxiously waits to see the culprits of the BDR massacre to be brought before justice.

Monday, February 09, 2009

In the Shadow of Terror

Last week, reports of several international intelligence agencies have suggested that Sheikh Hasina has become the target of a couple of international terrorist organisations. What can be done to fend off such attacks, which are meant to destroy our fledgling democracy?

The grisliest and the most deadly attack that any surviving political leader of the country has withstood came five years ago on August 21 when about 15 grenades were thrown at a rally organised by the Awami League in downtown Paltan. The attack left 20 dead, among them was Ivy Rahman, the party’s then women affairs secretary. The party chief Sheikh Hasina was critically injured; her hearing ability was partially lost. In fact, Hasina, immediately before the first grenade was hurled, was coming down the makeshift truck that was used as a podium, when photojournalists requested her to stop to let them take a last snap. It was then that the first grenade struck where she would have been had she not answered the photographers’ call. Ivy, who was helping Hasina to get down the truck, was hit by the shrapnel only to succumb to death a day later.

It was not for the first time that Hasina had brushed past death. The first of its kind happened during Ershad’s regime, when a group of thugs belonging to the Freedom Party led by Col (retd) Farukh Rahman, the self-proclaimed killer of her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, tried to launch an attack on her home at Dhanmondi 32. The next attempt came a decade later when bombs were found at a meeting, which was to be attended by Hasina in Tungipara.

Subsequent probes in these attacks and other numerous terrorist incidents that were launched in the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four-Party Alliance (FPA) were deliberately misled. The police investigation into the August 21 attack is a case in point. The members of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, who came to Bangladesh to probe into the carnage, did not get any assistance from their local counterparts--the unexploded grenades were hurriedly disposed of and with them valuable clues to the attack were lost. The police later launched the mockery of a probe in which they nabbed a ‘terrorist’ called Joj Mia, who ‘confessed’ to his ‘crime’. Matters reached a head when the media found out that Joj was in fact a petty criminal and his mother spilled the beans, telling the press that she was being given money by the police because her son played along with their version of the story.

Not only this, the FPA government’s role in handling the probes into such terrorist attacks have been appalling. At the dawn of April 2, 2004, huge caches of illegal arms were found in wooden boxes from MV Khawja and FT Amanat, two feeder vessels that were moored in the jetty of the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Factory. The discovery was staggering, the number of arms was enough to launch a war on a regular army-- 1, 290 SMGs, 100 Tommy guns, 400 semi-automatic spot Rifles, 150 rocket launchers with 40-mm barrels, 2000 grenade launchers, 840 rockets (40mm), 25,020 hand grenades, 6, 392 magazines of SMGs and 18,40 lakh bullets.

The probe into the smuggling of such deadly weapons, again, got lost in a blind ally. No significant breakthrough has ever come, as though no such incident had ever taken place. The smugglers are still at large and it has been alleged that some of these arms were given back to those they belonged to because an influential BNP MP was the mastermind of the trafficking.

A recent investigation done by the immediate past caretaker government into the August 21 massacre has revealed some dirty home truths--behind the attacks were two influential BNP leaders (of them one was a minister) who were close to the so-called Hawa Bhaban, the alterative centre of power that BNP chief Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman created for himself. Compelling though the findings are, one feels that the new investigation is inadequate. Because of the shoddy nature in which the FPA government has handled the terror attacks, especially that of August 21, one should not be blamed for pointing fingers at the big names of the BNP leadership.

In the run-up to the national elections, it was evident that a string of terrorist attacks was imminent. There was a specific alert from an intelligence agency of a neighbouring country that Sheikh Hasina, who was busy electioneering, was a target of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJi) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which were behind a couple of suicide bombings that rocked the country in 2005. Even though the hanging of the top notches of the JMB and the arrest of HuJi kingpin Hannan have weakened the operational abilities of the groups, recent ammunitions haul in Dhaka’s Mirpur suggests that the terrorists are regrouping for their next attack.

The extremists have never been fond of Hasina; her non-communal stance and, on top of it all, her declaration of war on terror have earned her the wrath of the terrorists, who, there is no doubt, will want her to be silenced. And there are the war criminals, who, now faced with the prospect of being handed down justice, may want to destabilise the country by launching terrorist attacks; some of the war criminals can even give a helping hand to the terrorists by providing them with logistical support.

Terrorists can plant bombs at any place or they can blow themselves up anywhere. To ward off such attacks, the government has to take pre-emptive measures. To begin with, the probes into the Chittagong ammo haul and different terrorist attacks must be done quickly; a White Paper on all the terrorist attacks have to be prepared. The Chittagong arms smuggling and the August 21 attack are two important clues to find out the lynchpins of terror in the country. The government must find out the names that tried to derail the investigations during the FPA government’s regime. Besides this, the most important weapon that a government has against terror is intelligence. As no security force in the world, no matter what weapons it has at its disposal, can prevent determined criminals from blowing themselves up, the best way to fight terrorism is to prevent the creation of suicide bombers.

Islam, the religion that the terrorists use to justify mass murder, has no place for terror in its fold. One way to neutralise the terrorists is perhaps to spread the teachings of Islam, which profess peace and harmony. The curricula of the religious schools need to go through an overhaul. Sheikh Hasina wants to establish a ‘Digital Bangladesh’; where else but these schools can modern IT training start, especially in the religious schools of the poverty-stricken regions?

The government must also share intelligence with the citizens. Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, the militant guru was arrested on a tip off from an ordinary individual, it was in such a way that Abdur Rahman, JMB supremo, was caught. The ultimate weapon that we have against terrorism is the people of the country, who loathe extremism, and who will never let their religion be used as a pawn by the terrorists.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

First 30 Days

In its first 30 days in office the Awami League-led Mahajote government, besides some occasional glitches, has shown promise

The last general elections, in which the Awami League (AL) and its centre-left coalition have won an overwhelming majority, were held in the backdrop of unabashed corruption and equally shameless nepotism of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four Party Alliance government. In the latter’s five-year-rule the country’s democratic polity hit hard and a state of anarchy prevailed in its economy. The elections of December 29 have proven that, the ordinary voters do not forgive their politicians for any mistakes; the polls have witnessed the fall of the titans of the ‘nationalist politics’--all the big guns of the BNP have been silenced by the voters. Besides its rival’s tainted past in governance, what has helped the AL to win such a big victory is the statesmanship that Sheikh Hasina, the party chief, has shown in the run up to the elections.

When, in a last ditch attempt to withstand a possible wipe-out, the BNP chief indulged herself in mudslinging and character assassination, Hasina remained composed, her speeches showed vision to a people grown weary of promises made by politicians. Her dreams of ‘digital Bangladesh’ and a ‘poverty free country’ also generated huge enthusiasm among the young first-time voters. Elections, for the AL, were a smooth sailing. The real challenge has come later.

Faced with the task of forming her cabinet, Hasina has relied on the fresh blood in her rank. It is indeed surprising to see the AL, which is the oldest political party in the country, come up with a band of ministers who are young and some of the holders of important portfolios have been elected for the first time. The presence of those allegedly involved in corruption and thuggery in Hasina’s cabinet is being kept at a bare minimum.

The AL, in its third term in office, has shown political maturity. It has rightly reduced the prices of diesel and fertiliser, which is going to give impetuous to the green revolution. All is well on the economic front too; even though the rest of the world is going through a recession, Bangladesh’s economic indicators have remained buoyant. Bangladesh has stood third in the world of ready-made garment export. Growth, in this fiscal year, one hopes, will be greater than the previous one. Prices of essentials have come down to the reach of the masses, and with another bumper production of rice in the offing it is expected that the prices of rice and dahl will fall further.

The government has also taken the right step of forming a war crime tribunal to bring the perpetrators of the genocide of 1971 to book. The move is going to gain the party widespread support, as one of the reasons behind the BNP’s election debacle is its patronisation of the war criminals. The government has also initiated the process of building Padma Bridge and Ganga barrage.

Even though the AL has come up with a revolutionary charter for change, followed by a cabinet with fresh vibrant faces, in its first 15 days in office, the AL leadership has initially failed to tame its young members, some of whom ran berserk, illegally taking control of different educational institutions while the law enforcers looked on. In the face of mounting criticism, the prime minister herself intervened, instructing the leaders of her party’s student body to behave. Over the last few days, the law and order situation has also posed a problem to the new administration; in the last one month incidents of killing and mugging have increased; mob violence specially setting fire to public and private properties by students to draw attention to their demands has become a norm.

Another episode that has blemished the AL government’s first one month is the Upazila elections, when an AL MP has been found violating the electoral laws, prompting the Election Commissioner to opine that he has been disappointed to see the actions of some ruling law makers.

A lot more actually needs to be done. Sheikh Hasina and her colleagues must keep in mind that the voters have put their faith in the party thinking that this time the AL will be able to bring about the change it said it would bring to the country. It is alarming to see the old gangsters back in the business of mugging and extortion. To improve the law and order situation, the government, on a priority basis, has to overhaul the police, which, as a force, have lost the trust of the general public. New officers have to be recruited, and the force has to be allowed to work neutrally.

It is not possible to root out the corruption from the country in a month, which has spread its tentacles over the last couple of decades. Hasina and her team should allow the Anti-Corruption Commission to work freely; the latter needs to work with diligence, putting emphasis on institutionalised corruption.

We hope, moreover, that a new pro-people economic policy is going to be taken where poverty alleviation will be prioritised, and the government will play a pro-active role to tackle the storm that is brewing in the big economies across the globe.

The first 30 days of Hasina government have gone on well. The new face of governance that the prime minister has brought about shows the promise of a brighter beginning. Her strength is the people of the country who have given her the mandate to change the course of history. It is only hoped that her term in office is going to sow the seeds of a Bangladesh free of bigotry and intolerance, a country on strong financial footing, the Golden Bangla that the founding fathers of our country dared to dream of.