Monday, January 26, 2009

Living Dangerously

South Asian sub-continent has become a dangerous place in which to live not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing

From the Taliban in the north to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in the south, the South Asian sub-continent is plagued by terrors of different hues and colours. What makes it even more complex is the manifold nature of the causes that drive the young men (and women) of the sub-continent towards the world of death and degeneration. The history of terrorism in the continent is not new, it dates as far back as the mid sixties of the last century when a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led by its ultra-leftist leader Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal took up arms to start a Maoist revolution. Charu’s ideology gained some fan following in the then East Pakistan, which caused the Communist party in the country to divide into several microscopic factions. The ideological descendents of Charu and Kanu, after abandoning their ideology, have resorted to extortion and smuggling for a living.

Terrorism, in fact, has never threatened Bangladesh’s polity until a bomb blast at a cultural programme of Udichi Shilpi Goshthi in Jessore on March 6, 1999 left 10 people killed and over 100 injured. The Udichi blast, as it is now known, has been the first in a string of terrorist attacks, which have seen the death of about a thousand. In these attacks, non-communal progressive political and cultural organisations were deliberately targeted, after Udichi came an assassination attempt on the life of the then premier Sheikh Hasina, it was followed by a grisly bomb blast at a rally organised on January 20, 2001 by the Communist Party. There was a lull in the attack for a couple of years only to return in full force—in 2004, in an attack on the country’s secular judiciary, two suicide bombers near simultaneously blew themselves up to kill two judges. Even though the country has vigorously launched its own war on terror, executing the masterminds of its homegrown Al-Qaeda leaders, without making South Asia free from terrorism, the country cannot alone win the war against the terrorists.

Actually, it is in this backdrop that has come the Awami League’s (AL) election manifesto, which, without elaborating further, promises to form a South Asian Taskforce to fight terror. The AL, after winning an absolute majority in the elections, has come to power and the government led by the party is going ahead with the taskforce. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni says, “The modalities of the protocol are being discussed and (will be) finalised here for taking collective measures to eradicate terrorism from the region. We have built up an institutional framework, which can be utilised by the member countries to initiate effective actions. Combating terrorism is a task that South Asia needs to pursue relentlessly.”

Taskforce of the kind Dipu Moni is alluding to already exist. “A taskforce is not a standing force, it’s a mechanism in which you exchange opinions and information, where you enhance your capabilities regarding a particular issue. You can have a country task force, a regional task force. There are examples galore where task forces have been formed to address the problem of terrorism. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation has its own counter terrorism taskforce called APECCTT,” Brig Gen (retired) Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert, says.

Another task force that Anam draws example of is coordinated by none other than the UN Secretary General’s (UNSG) office. The body is called the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force; in a famous speech, the then UNSG Kofi Anan outlined the taskforce’s approach to deal with terrorism; he emphasised on five Ds--Dissuading people from resorting or supporting terrorist acts; denying terrorist the means to carry out attacks; deterring states from supporting terrorism; developing state capacity to defeat terrorism, and defending human rights.

But how the proposed South Asian taskforce is going to work has remained anyone’s guess. Anam, drawing example from APECCTT says, “The taskforce can coordinate the implementation of the anti-terror strategy enunciated by its leaders, assist economies to identify and assess counter-terrorism needs, coordinate capacity building and technical assistance programmes, cooperate with the international organisations to implement the strategy, and facilitate cooperation between South Asian countries on counter-terrorism issues. It is up to the governments to thrash it out.”

Anam thinks that the taskforce should by no means become a part of ‘the US-led so-called war on terror.” He says, “The war on terror is a convoluted idea in which all terrorists are Muslims and therefore all Muslims are terrorists. It’s a wrong starter. If you look at the experience of this so-called war in Pakistan you will find that the government there cannot stop US missiles from hitting targets inside Pakistan, and mostly civilians are being killed. When it becomes an operational strategy, a fighting strategy, which has happened in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a country gets embroiled in danger.”

The presence of the US, UK and EU, along with China as observers will surely help the taskforce in its work. But given that it has caused two wars and numerous skirmishes between the sub-continent’s two nuclear neighbours, chances are there that the issue of Kashmir can overshadow the creation of such a taskforce. There is no denying that in the ever-changing world of counter terrorism the biggest weapon that we have at our disposal is intelligence. The terrorists have their own international network, which transcends national boundaries. It is time that South Asian countries unite to fight the menace that has put millions of lives in grave danger.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lessons to Learn

Infuse fresh blood and clean your ranks or else face oblivion

The defeat that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has suffered in last month’s general elections is an ignominious one, the worst kind of humiliation that an outgoing ruling party has faced in the history of the South Asian sub-continent. In fact, the margin of defeat is staggering for the BNP, which won 193 seats in the general elections of 2001, has been reduced to 30 seats. What has added an extra pinch of salt to the party’s sore wound is that it has won only three more seats than Jatya Party, which was deposed in a mass upsurge in 1990.

Khaleda Zia, who is leading the party for the last 24 years, will be mistaken if she remains content, wrongly consoling herself by thinking that her party has fared so badly because there has been ‘digital rigging’ or ‘the previous administration was biased against’ the BNP. These remarks, preposterous that they are, will only isolate the masses from her party and will make a fool of someone who used to be known once for reticence. The BNP leadership has to delve deep into its last term in office to find out the causes of the defeat; and it will find the job gargantuan in nature.

From 2001-2006, the BNP, while in government, has ravaged the country, its politics and economy. To begin with, the party’s last term in office has created Hawa Bhaban, an alternative centre of power, which controlled government tender, created curtails that are behind the spiralling price hike of essentials like rice and baby food. The Bhaban, run by Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s first-born, even handled the promotions of the civil servants in exchange for cash and kind, giving birth to a culture of misrule and impunity. Armed with the blessings of Tarique, who was made the BNP’s senior joint-secretary general, Hawa Bhaban boys, of whom the most notable is Giashuddin Al Mamun, ran amuck: For five long years ordinary Bangladeshis felt as though a clan of thugs had been ruling them.

Besides corruption and mismanagement of the BNP leaders, Khaleda’s term also witnessed the phenomenal rise of religious extremism. Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), a paramilitia vigilante outfit was formed, which butchered ordinary people in the northeastern districts in the name of hunting down Maoist insurgents. When national newspapers broke the news, along with quotes of police officers who said that they were taking the group’s help because Maoist insurgency was on the rise, Khaleda denied their presence; Matiur Rahman Nizami, leader of the JI, a junior partner of the BNP in the government, went one step further: he called the JMJB a figment of the media’s imagination. To make it even worse, numerous terrorist attacks were launched against the main opposition Awami League (AL), and the democratic progressive forces. Jamaat-ul-Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), a new terror outfit, launched a string of suicide attacks that left the country’s judiciary in tatters; grenades were hurled at a rally organised by the AL, assassination attempts were made on the life of its leader Sheikh Hasina. The patrons of the new terror were none other than ministers in Khaleda’s cabinet.

Khaleda’s unflinching infatuation with suspected war criminals made matters worse. People felt betrayed when two individuals who have abetted rape and murder during our Independence war were given two important portfolios in Khaleda’s cabinet. Bangladesh, a country that used to be known for peace and communal harmony, hit the headlines of international dailies for terrorism and suicide bombing.

While casting their votes on the fateful day of December 29, the citizens did not forget the corruption, price hike and extremism that marred their lives when Khaleda was in the helm. Her emotional election speeches, especially the one on state-run radio and television, did little to appease the voters who remained weary and sceptical of her apology, which she had offered a day before the elections.

The BNP is facing the worst political disaster in its history since its birth in the womb of military dictatorship in 1978. The party is at a crossroads now: while on one road lies a Muslim League-like wipeout, the other path, if the party leadership takes it, will lead the party to a clean democratic future. To begin with, the party must start practising democracy from the grass-root level; for a political party internal democracy is like fresh blood that must be infused time and again to keep the party alive and healthy. The party must come up with a neutral, in-depth analysis of its last term in office. Members with a corrupt past, no matter who they are or what position they hold in the party hierarchy, must be expelled.

The party has to get rid of those who harbour extremism or entertain extremist beliefs. The keenest of lessons that December 29 has taught us is perhaps that the ordinary Bangladeshis want the war criminals to be tried; the BNP can gain popular support by bowing before this popular demand and breaking ties with the JI, which has some infamous war criminals in its fold. In the coming five years, the party has to play a pro-people role when issues central to the lives of the masses are going to be discussed in the parliament.

Bangladesh is in need of a strong opposition. The old BNP, ridden with corruption, extremism and war criminal sympathisers, will find itself at bay in the parliament. The party and its leaders have to start cleaning its rank and democratising its polity. It is time to show political maturity and statesmanship; whether Khaleda has these qualities in her only time can tell.

Taming the Wild Horse

The Grand Alliance has come to power promising to bring down the price of essentials; the job, however, will remain daunting

In the elections, rising price of essentials, especially rice, as an issue, has dimmed corruption and the rise of violent extremism. In the middle of the Four-party Alliance government’s term, food prices showed an upward trend, which reached its zenith in 2005. Coarse rice, a cheap variety of rice, which was sold at Tk 10 when the previous Awami League government handed over power, shot up to Tk 32. In Sheikh Hasina’s last term in office, the country experienced a bumper production of crops and her government also kept a steady reserve of rice. Quite contrary to that, Khaleda government followed a free-for-all policy, which gave birth to several curtails that had started to control the market of the essentials. It is alleged that a coterie of thugs and plunderers that mobbed Hawa Bhaban, Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman’s office was behind the spiralling prices of essentials. Food production was not good either; coupled with that was the fact that the world economy was going through a recession and food prices were also on the rise on the global market.

The shortage of rice became acute in the caretaker government’s rule as prices of rice started to go up to reach an all-time high; the real income of the masses plummeted; when the situation turned even worse an economist has even compared it with ‘silent famine’. Some short-term measures taken by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed’s government have eventually averted a full-blown humanitarian disaster. In this background came Sheikh Hasina’s promise, which has generated widespread popular support in the young and women voters. The latter in particular answered the Grand Alliance’s call as they directly bear the brunt of the price hike. But MM Akash, economist and professor of Dhaka University, says, “Bringing down the price of rice to Tk 10 a kilogram is an improbable target, which can never be materialised.” He reasons that if rice is sold at Tk 10 a kg, the farmers will be adversely affected, as their production cost will not decrease to a great extent. Providing them with a free supply of fertiliser will not work as they have to by diesel, the price of which has remained volatile.

Instead of setting the improbable target, the government can develop the purchasing power of the poor by generating employment. The Grand Alliance government has to start employment generation schemes for the rural poor. Akash suggests the creation of self-chosen labour brigades consisting of rural poor who, with the government’s technical help, will carry out labour-intensive infrastructural works. Hundred days guaranteed employment, which the caretaker government has initiated must be continued and should include more people under its safety net.

Akash thinks it must also secure food grain supply. The distribution of these supplies can be by done by using the offices of the local government bodies, which are going to assume office by February. “If the unholy nexus of the middlemen are not eradicated from the market, the dream of curbing price hike will remain an unattainable,” Akash says. A buffer stock, which should be about 15-20 per cent of the total supply, can be created so that the government can intervene whenever speculative trading takes place or when the market shows illogical behaviour.

The new government must keep in mind that it cannot remain an apathetic bystander while ordinary citizens toil. The Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) can start rationing, something it has abandoned long ago. If it is done, rationing will help the government to control the market and at the same time it will help the masses, especially those belonging to the lower middle class to deal with the ever-increasing cost of living. History suggests that subsequent governments have failed to check corruption in the TCB, one of the major reasons why the rationing system in our country has fallen flat. Checking corruption however will remain a major challenge to bring the prices of essentials within the reach of the ordinary people.

It is understandable that the new government will not be able to tame the wild horse of essentials overnight. But it has to come up with short time remedies that can cushion the poor against inflation and unemployment. It is indeed not easy to change the dynamics of the market overnight, yet the government must know that 140 million hungry stomachs will want a quick fix. Any lax in governance or deterioration of the law and order situation will aggravate the crisis. Never before has a government faced such an uphill task.