Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TRANSIT : The Lose - Lose Game is in the interest of both Bangladesh and India to have a win-win and sustainable relationship. Global trends show economies benefit by integration of markets. The proposed transit / corridor through Bangladesh would be used for transporting goods from one part of India to the other part. A strange case of segregating economies instead of integrating -- the growth scenario promoted by global agencies such as the ADB and World Bank. The transit accord of 1973 made sense when it was formulated. Bangladesh had just attained independence and the country was in ruins. Almost everything was imported. Today it is a different reality. Bangladesh is a manufacturing hub. This year Bangladesh will export goods worth $20 billion. If we can compete globally and add value to the consumers all over the world, why should we not join hands with the people of the Indian North East (NE) and provide them with their necessities? Today, we are the most logical export partner for the people of the NE. Goods that the small traders need could be reached there in a day from Sylhet, Comilla and Chittagong. They can form partnerships with Bangladeshi business much easier than with others hundreds of miles away. Concurrently we can use the raw materials that the North East India has in abundance and use our extensive manufacturing capability for processing and re-export. This is the only way integration and the development of the region and the economic wellbeing of the peoples would be speedy, sustainable and inclusive. Instead of connecting the two parts of India economically bypassing Bangladesh, the people of the region would be best served if connectivity between Bangladesh and the NE was enhanced. Though the Indian Government has earmarked $1 billion as aid for developing our transport infrastructure geared to transit, the people of Bangladesh want trade not aid. The big question is -- why should we take the economic and dependency burden of this aid package when the foundations on which it is being promoted go squarely against all interests of Bangladesh and of the economic wellbeing of the people of the region. Transit is being promoted on myths -- the regional economic integration myth As per the present draft of the transit proposal - a. Goods will be conceptualised, designed, manufactured, packaged and put into sealed containers. b. The goods will then travel through Bangladesh territory. c. They will then be unloaded in the NE. There they will be warehoused, advertised, marketed, and distributed. The activities (a) and (c) will be taking place in India. These activities will have no contribution to our economy. As the North East develops, the growth of the region will be designed on the basis of economic integration with mainland India and complete segregation with Bangladesh. The population of the NE is approximately 55 ,000 ,000. If the potential consumption of products that are manufactured in Bangladesh are valued at only $10 /month per person than the market potential for Bangladesh is $6.5 billion annually. This market will be lost because of transit. The regional connectivity myth On the North East India shares borders with China and Myanmar. There is no onward road connectivity from the NE with Myanmar and to China. Hence the concept that the transit route would provide regional connectivity to Thailand and beyond is a distant dream. To the west the road connectivity through India, faces a dead end in Pakistan and in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Where is the regional connectivity? Where do these myths lead Bangladesh to? Strategic and Security Concerns * The contentious border of North Eastern India with China has seen armed conflict in 1962. Both sides still have claims on territory which the other controls. If there was to be military engagement or the possibility of military engagement between India and China in the NE (or for that matter in any region where the two countries are vying for influence), would India use the transit route to speedily move troops and weapons across Bangladesh? What would be China' s reactions in such a scenario? It is not for us to weigh in on the possibilities of such engagement but the view of an influential Indian politician is relevant. During recent visit to Bangladesh, the former India Minister in charge of the NE Mr. Mani Shanker Iyer stated that when the NE grows economically because of connectivity and infrastructure improvement, India would "take on China." * The NE is an area where many insurgents groups operate with separate agendas. If transit is perceived by any or all of these groups to be playing a part in the supply chain of the Indian forces it could potentially become a target for them. There would be the danger of a spillover into Bangladesh. * As a developing country, with an active and contentious political climate, the possibility of disruption of vehicular traffic due to civil or political unrest and hartals is very real. If the domestic security situation does not allow the movement of trucks for providing essentials to the people of the NE what challenges will the two governments face? * There is talk of forming a public limited company for operating the transit. Those who will buy shares of this company would like the corridor to be in full use. Against this group who will be those opposed to the use of this corridor. It could become brother fighting brother. * The transit with the massive investment required would change the development plans of Bangladesh significantly. Why should we plunge into this major digression of our national planning and spending strategy for development? Economic Concerns * Bangladesh will not only lose a potential market of $ 6 billion annually but also the job creation possibilities that would come with this. * There will be substantially increased Traffic congestion on Bangladeshi roads making the whole transport network inefficient. * There will additionally be considerable investment required for the maintenance of the road network. * There will be a negative effect on foreign investment in Bangladesh because of the lowered efficiency caused by increased traffic congestion. * There will be a negative effect on the health of the people of Bangladesh due to pollution caused by truck emissions and by diseases brought into the country. * There will be additional pressure on our foreign exchange reserves caused by the use of imported diesel by Indian trucks. Approximately 40 million tonnes of cargoes are moved from the NE to other parts of India by road. If half of this, that is 20 million tonnes, is moved through Bangladesh in trucks with an average capacity of 10 tons then approximately two million trucks may be taking this corridor. As the cost of diesel is cheaper in Bangladesh than in India, it is expected that the trucks will come empty and leave full. If the average offtake by each truck is 200 litres, an additional 400 million litres of diesel will have to be imported using our scarce foreign exchange. * The building of the transit facilities would bring about a massive increase in our national debt estimated at $ 7 billion and make us very vulnerable to externalities. The pride of self reliance that we have achieved with our blood sweat and tears and with which we are building Bangladesh will come under a new threat. Our freedom -- economic and fiscal decision making freedom, if history is to be a guide, could be eroded. The decision on whether Bangladesh should allow transit facilities to India should be made on an evaluation of the cost and benefit to both the countries. Then there are the security considerations. The basis of all negotiations must be the guarantee of our national security. This complex issue must start with the guarantee that this facility will never ever be used for transporting any military men or materiel. Bangladesh must also make 100 % inspection of all goods coming in and going out mandatory. If negotiations are carried out on the basis of transparency and fairness, on the basis of principles that clearly benefit all the people of the region, we may create a sound basis for cementing our relationship. If the gains are perceived to be one sided it is also likely to be unsustainable. And then it will become a lose-lose game.

War Crimes And Uncertain Justice Ratko Mladic was nabbed in Serbia recently and flown to The Hague to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, it was one more sign of justice drawing a little closer for the families of those he and his forces murdered in the mid 1990 s. There is always that sense of satisfaction when criminality, localised or global, is hunted down and those who have destroyed the lives of innocent men, women and children eventually have their comeuppance. It is just too bad that Slobodan Milosevic died before judgement could be delivered on his role in the Balkan wars. But that Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are in the net reinforces the argument somewhat that men who cause misery to other men have in the end really nowhere to hide, that civilised men always have a way of bringing them to justice. Even so, you could well argue, that is not always the truth. Consider the bizarre case of the Israelis, generation upon generation, riding roughshod over legitimate Palestinian rights. Binyamin Netanyahu's arrogance is outrageous. And there have been his predecessors who have with little shame pounded away at unarmed civilians. Their targeted assassinations of Palestinian figures are clear crimes that require to be answered before an international court. By any definition of international law, a whole range of Israeli political and military leaders qualifies for trial on charges of crimes against humanity. And yet these are the very elements who have been received with much fanfare in the corridors of power in the West. Barack Obama's call for peace in the Middle East has fallen flat. Netanyahu was recently given a standing ovation by American lawmakers as many as twenty six times! There are other men, besides Israel's leading politicians, who ought to have been behind bars upon conviction for war crimes. When you go through the painstaking process of watching the murderous figures of the Khmer Rouge answer for their genocidal activities between the mid and end-1970 s, you are left somewhat satisfied that these old, doddering men are finally paying for their sins. Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan once tried to exterminate civilization in Cambodia. In a larger sense, war criminals are war criminals because they tend to believe, and reinforce that belief as they move on, that theirs is a duty to restructure society to their specifications. They end up leaving a pile of rubble where once there was a stable, perhaps a trifle flawed, social order. Yes, the Khmer Rouge men have been rubbing their noses in the dirt. And yet there are all the others who have strutted around on the stage of the world despite all the murders they have committed, despite all the rape of women they have indulged in. The proper course for the new state of Bangladesh, in the early 1970 s, should have been to bring to trial all the Pakistani army officers and lower ranking soldiers for the genocide of Bengalis they carried out between March and December 1971. Bangabandhu's government, faced as it was with multi-faceted pressure on the international front, finally zeroed in on a hundred and ninety five Pakistani officers who would stand trial in Bangladesh. That move too fizzled out, thanks to the tripartite deal involving Bangladesh, India and Pakistan on an exchange of Pakistani prisoners of war and Bengalis stranded in Pakistan. The Islamabad authorities, to assuage Bengali feelings, promised to bring the criminal officers to justice in Pakistan itself. No one believed them. That apprehension was not misplaced. Pakistan did not try its murderous military officers because of the simple reason that it did not and would not believe that its soldiers had been killing Bengalis. They were merely engaged in defending Pakistan's territorial integrity in the face of external aggression! Recall, now, how the war criminals of 1971 were rehabilitated in Pakistani society. General Tikka Khan, who left 'East Pakistan' in September 1971 -- by which time more than two million Bengalis had been murdered -- was appointed chief of staff of the Pakistan army by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Upon retirement, Tikka joined the Pakistan People's Party and at one point became its secretary general. Under Benazir Bhutto, he served as governor of Punjab. General Rao Farman Ali served happily as a minister in General Ziaul Haq's regime. General A.A.K. Niazi, for all the opprobrium brought on him through his surrender in Dhaka, went into politics and remained there till his death. Siddiq Salik, author of Witness to Surrender and the man who intimidated the media in occupied Bangladesh into toeing the Pakistani line in 1971 , served as media advisor to Ziaul Haq before crashing to death along with the dictator in 1988. General Yahya Khan lived in house arrest till 1980 without being punished for his crimes. General Omar became a frequent talk show host on Pakistani television, perennially proclaiming his innocence about 1971. Justice, then, is always a tenuous, tentative affair. You are happy that Augustin Bizimungu has been punished in Rwanda, that Mladic and Karadzic will die in prison. The happiness turns sour when you remember that no one has brought Ariel Sharon before an international tribunal; that those Pakistanis have evaded justice; that George W. Bush and Tony Blair, having committed war crimes through destroying Iraq, go around parading their self-serving memoirs. Many years ago, Japan's Admiral Tojo was hanged for war crimes. The good men in the West, forever defending the rule of law and justice, have not explained why Harry Truman was never prosecuted for sending tens of thousands of Japanese to death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You ponder all this. And you wait to know if some men in Sri Lanka will answer for their own crimes committed in the course of the war against the Tamil Tigers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On The Line

The May 1 commando strike in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama Bin Laden demonstrated one thing conclusively: that the United States cannot rely on Pakistan to deal with the al- Qaida threat. We don’t know for sure yet if the Pakistani intelligence service, or ISI, was clueless or actively complicit in hiding the most wanted man in the world, who was living a mile down the road from the Kakul military academy, the country’s West Point. In either case the ISI is not a reliable or effective counter- terrorist partner. Now the evidence is growing that at least some part of the ISI and the Pakistani army was, in fact, actively complicit in hiding Bin Laden for the past five years. The evidence laid out Friday in the New York Times and based on cell phones found in the hideout is not a smoking gun, but it is very suggestive. Bin Laden was in regular contact with the Harakat ul Mujahedin terror group, which the ISI created in the 1980 s to fight India. The Harakat ul Mujahedin has loyally worked with the ISI for decades, and its members hijacked an Indian airliner in 1999 with al- Qaida and the ISI. Fazlur Rehman Khalil, head of Harakat ul Mujahedin, lives openly in an Islamabad suburb. If Harakat helped Bin Laden, it is not hard to imagine that someone in the ISI knew that the world’s most wanted terrorist was been hidden somewhere inside Pakistan. There is other circumstantial evidence of official Pakistani complicity in hiding Bin Laden. The commandant of the Kakul academy in 2006 was General Nadeem Taj, the right-hand man of former President Pervez Musharraf. After his service in Abbottabad, Taj became director general of the ISI in late 2007. On his watch, the ISI blew up the Indian embassy in Kabul and Benazir Bhutto was murdered by al-Qaida. The U.N. investigation of Benazir’s murder held the ISI as possibly culpable. In September 2008 , the George W. Bush Administration demanded that Taj be fired. Instead, he was promoted to corps commander. The terrorist attacks on Mumbai came a month later, and we know the ISI helped plan that. Taj had the means and access in 2006 to help Bin Laden, and he is clearly a problematic partner. Not a smoking gun by any means, but suggestive. Pakistan is home to more terrorists than any other country, many of them harbored by the Pakistani army and the ISI. Osama Bin Laden’s deputy and now heir , Ayman al-Zawahiri, is probably somewhere nearby. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the tactical maestro of the Sept. 11 attacks, was living in Pakistan’s military capital, Rawalpindi, when he was captured (albeit with the ISI’s help). Mullah Omar, Emir of Believers to al- Qaida and head of the Afghan Taliban, was trained by the ISI and commutes between Quetta and Karachi. Hafez Saed, head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamist group, and mastermind of the Mumbai massacre, lives and preaches openly in Lahore. Dawood Ibrahim, who killed hundreds with bombs on Mumbai’s metro in 1993 , lives in Karachi. There are no secrets here—the south Asian press reports their hideouts on a regular basis. Pakistan’s civilian government is not implicated in any of this. Nor is Pakistan al-Qaida’s patronage akin to Iran’s role with Hezbollah. Pakistan is as much a victim of terror as its sponsor. It is a maze of contradictions. Analogies to the Cold War partnerships that matched patron state to terrorist group don’t work in Pakistan. The army sponsors some groups like Harakat and Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it is at war with others like the Pakistan Taliban. In the case of other terror groups like al-Qaida, the government is infiltrated by sympathizers. These varying relationships pose unique challenges that need tailored responses. So, what should the United States do with Pakistan? First, we should tell the Pakistani army leadership that if we learn one of their officers is involved in harboring terrorists, planning terror operations, or tipping terrorist bomb factories off to drone raids, we will make it personal. Don’t sanction the country or the ISI; sanction individuals. Hold them accountable. That officer will go on our terrorist most-wanted list, and we will seize his property if we can, arrest him if he travels, expel his kids from school here or in England, and—if he is truly dangerous enough—take direct action. We should not do this alone. We should get allies, especially the British, to help, since Pakistanis love to visit London and send their kids to school in the United Kingdom. Second, we will need a base to stage unilateral operations into Pakistan for the foreseeable future. We can hope al-Qaida will implode soon, but we cannot count on that. The Arabian Sea is too far away. So, we need a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan so we can continue to send drones and commandos over the Pakistani border. We don’t need 100 ,000 troops in Afghanistan, but we do need Afghan permission to operate in that country for the long term. That is the other hard lesson of Abbottabad.

Friday, June 24, 2011

People resist land handover to India in Tamabil

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has strongly asserted last week that there can not be anybody in the country who is a better patriot than herself. She made the comment at a function in the city while commenting on the hartal called by the committee on protection of oil, gas, power, minerals and ports which is not only opposed to the gas exploration deal with the US multinational ConnocoPhilips but has also charged the Prime Minister for working against national interest.
   But people really remained confused as the volleys of accusations and claims flying high in the air. Political observers here say confusion is only on the rise over the way the government is handling sensitive national issues which not only include the gas blocks deal in the off-shore but also on attempt to hand over disputed land in the border with India.
   Throughout last week, local people at Tamabil at Sylhet-Meghalaya border resisted a joint Bangladesh-India survey team which went on the spot to demarcate a chunk of three acres of land from inside Bangladesh to hand it over to the Indians.
   People not only resisted the move backed by the Indian border security forces BSF but also forced it to leave the spot on several occasions throughout the week on their own without any back up support from Bangladesh border guards.
   Local residents remained in total confusion why the BGB forces were absent leaving them to the firing line of the BSF. But they were resolved to protect the land from being hand over to Indian control.
   “This land is ours from the days of our forefathers. It is recorded in our names in last land survey in 2002 and previously. We are using the land, growing crops and why the Sheikh Hasina government is now working to hand over it to India is a big question,” a local in telephone call where this scribe is at present working said.
   Newspaper reports last week (on June 19) said officials of Meghalaya and Bangladesh suspended the joint survey of Tamabil border in face of protests by local residents
   Assistant director of survey Md Dabir Uddin said, “We were preparing to survey about three acres of land close to Tamabil customs station. The Indians were claiming the land for long”.
   “A few hundred locals protested the survey after hearing that the land attached to Tamabil land customs station will be handed over to the Indians on the same day”, he said.
   UNO of Gowainghat upazila Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said the matter was brought to the notice of higher authorities. Joint survey will resume in 2-3 days after clearance from the higher authorities, he added.
   A stalemate had been prevailing for months as Bangladesh officials could not agree with the Indians over several points on the adversely possessed lands (APL) at different borders of Sylhet-Meghalaya region. Sources said that Indians were pressing to start the survey at other points inside Bangladesh border as well ignoring the existing border pillars, set in 1947 during the partition of India with Pakistan. The survey on the said borders had to be suspended time and again in the face of protests by either Indians or by Bangladesh nationals in the border areas in recent past.
   It could not be resumed even months after the schedule, set by the officials of both sides which BGB director general last week said was agreed at a meeting in Delhi in November last year. The officials however had to suspend the job in December last year following troubles created by the Indian khasia tribesmen and others on the much talked Padua-Protappur borders. Again it stumbled in April as the Indians failed to bring any document to support their claims over the lands in question inside the Bangladesh territory.
   A similar situation arose two weeks ago on the much talked Padua-Protappur borders. In the wake of repeated incidents of intrusion centring harvesting of crops in the field and fishing which resulted in the killing of several Bangladesh nationals by the BSF and by Khasia tribesmen, the authorities decided instead to put the joint survey on the Jaintapur, Gowainghat and Kanaighat borders.
   Accordingly, it began on December 7 last year. But since then the survey faced serious opposition at several times mainly due to difference of opinions between the officials of both the sides.
   Analysts say why the government of Sheikh Hasina is not taking the nation into confidence on the issue before putting the survey team on the disputed border land and preparing the hand over of the land. Why the government is not taking it to Parliament. Despite a resolution of Indian Parliament on Barubari handover to Bangladesh, Delhi has so far failed to fulfil it, an Indian court order has kept the entire handing over matter hanging.
   Why the Bangladesh Prime Minister is not bothered to consult the Parliament or the court. No one knows about the government stand except a handful of government officials at the ministry of foreign affairs and land survey. The question is why there is no transparency and a hide and seek is overshadowing the entire process.
   BGB director general said both sides have claims over small pockets of land at different border points, not only at Sylhet but also at Kustia and Rajshahi. But a question why the Indian demand is being only unilaterally entertained without similar move to bring back Bangladesh land, remained unanswered. He said he was not aware of the entire process. India is also not allowing farmers at Amorshid border to go to their family land and cultivate it over the past few years since this government came to power, local residents said wondering why there is a change of wind passing out now.
   Sheikh Hasina is also handing over the transit corridor to India even without a bare minimum of transit fees for use of Bangladesh land in long transportation way for goods and passengers. She is a big ally of India and also a good patriot, there is no doubt, analysts say but how she is balancing the both is a big question.

Bangladeshi TV channels blocked in India

Indian government is continuing an unwritten ban on allowing Bangladeshi television channels from entering their domestic cable network, thus depriving millions of Bangla speaking population in that country from watching Bangladeshi programs, especially drama and music videos, which are considered to be top favourite to India's Bangali [Bangla speaking] population. On the other hand, Bangladesh has adopted a very liberal policy in allowing foreign television channels, including most of the Indian channels [even some regional language channels] and have not only allowed them in Bangladeshi cable network, but also, each month Indian channels are earning significant amount of revenue, both by selling advertisements as well as subscription to Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and households.
According to a recent statistics availed by a team of Weekly Blitz, Indian channels are earning millions of dollars every year from Bangladeshi cable operators. Below is the chart of monthly revenue earned by the Indian channels from Bangladesh:
Name of the Channel
Monthly Revenue from Subscription
Star Plus
US$ 195,000
Star Movies
US$ 118,000
Zee Studio
US$ 94,000
Zee TV
US$ 67,000
US$ 123,000
Set Max [Part of SONY]
US$ 72,000
US$ 61,000
Zee Cinema
US$ 95,000
Star Sports
US$ 70,000
US$ 5,000
Star Jalsha
US$ 17,000
Zee Premier
US$ 39,000
Zee Action
US$ 29,000
Zee Café
US$ 19,000
Zee Bangla
US$ 17,000
US$ 6,000
US$ 6,000
TARA Music
US$ 6,000
Doordarshan Bangla
US$ 000,00
US$ 23,000
Star World
US$ 23,000
Bangladesh also freely allows more than 180 regional and international channels on country's domestic cable network, which includes HBO, ESPN, NGC, Discovery, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, NDTV, DW, Fox, VOA, France24, MGM, TVC, TNT, Cartoon Network, RAI etc. India though allows most of the international channels within its domestic cable network; it continues to stop Bangladeshi channels from entering the same network, for reason unknown.
It may be mentioned here that, currently there are several Bangladeshi channels, which are continuing broadcast mainly via Telstar-10 satellite, while some are also using other satellites. The Bangladeshi channels on satellite are: BTV-World, BTV-Sangshad, Channel-I, ATN-Bangla, ATN-News, Diganta TV, NTV, Boishakhi TV, Bangla Vision, RTV, ETV, DESH TV, Mohona TV, Independent TV, Maasranga TV, My TV, GTV, Channel 9, Shomoy TV, Bijoy TV etc.
Bangla drama, soap opera and music videos, especially folk songs are extremely popular amongst the Bangla speaking population in India. Some Indian traders are trading in audio and video CDs of Bangla drama, soap opera and music videos, which have high demand in India.
Commenting on the current ban on Bangladeshi channels from entering Indian cable network, an Indian journalist on condition of anonymity told Weekly Blitz, Indian government fears that Bangladeshi TV channels may contain anti-Indian propaganda as well as instigative messages to various separatist groups inside India.
"We all want to see Bangladeshi TV channels, but we fear such channels may contain anti-Indian propaganda", the source said.
On the other hand, an owner of a Bangladeshi TV channels said, "We never allow any negative propaganda against India or any foreign nation. Bangladeshi channels are already available on major cable networks in United States, Europe and the Middle East. We never heard any such complaint of any Bangladeshi channel airing anti-Indian campaign. This must be a lame excuse of the Indian authorities for stopping Bangladeshi channels from reaching the Indian viewers."
Commenting on the existing ban on Bangladeshi TV channels from entering Indian cable network, eminent researcher of Sufi music as well as popular Sufi singer, Fakir Shabuddin said, "As far as folk and Sufi songs are concerned, Indian listeners are definitely interested in such songs from Bangladesh. Whenever we go abroad for shows, we hear requests from expatriate Indians in foreign countries for singing Bangla Sufi songs. As a singer, I would humbly request the Indian government to allow Bangladeshi channels in reaching millions of Bangla speaking viewers in that country."
Rahman Mustafiz, popular news reporter in Bangladesh said, "None of the Bangladeshi TV channels have any anti-Indian agenda. Authorities in New Delhi should not unnecessarily continue ban on Bangladeshi channels, just on the basis of mere speculations or doubts."
Eminent Bangladeshi music director Milton Khandekar said, "As we are already watching Indian channels in Bangladesh, we also have the equal right of showing our channels to the viewers in India. As an individual, I do believe that, India, being the largest democracy in the world will withdraw such unkind decision on Bangladeshi TV channels."

They Are Trying To Keep Me Destabilised : Arundhati Roy

Roy, who is 50 this year, is best known for her 1997 Booker prize- winning novel The God of Small Things, but for the past decade has been an increasingly vocal critic of the Indian state, attacking its policy towards Kashmir, the environmental destruction wrought by rapid development, the country’s nuclear weapons programme and corruption. As a prominent opponent of everything connected with globalisation, she is seeking to construct a “ new modernity” based on sustainability and a defence of traditional ways of life.    Her new book, Broken Republic, brings together three essays about the Maoist guerrilla movement in the forests of central India that is resisting the government’s attempts to develop and mine land on which tribal people live. The central essay, Walking with the Comrades, is a brilliant piece of reportage, recounting three weeks she spent with the guerrillas in the forest. She must, I suggest, have been in great personal danger. “ Everybody’s in great danger there, so you can’t go round feeling you are specially in danger,” she says in her pleasant, high-pitched voice. In any case, she says, the violence of bullets and torture are no greater than the violence of hunger and malnutrition, of vulnerable people feeling they’re under siege.    Her time with the guerrillas made a profound impression. She describes spending nights sleeping on the forest floor in a “ thousand-star hotel”, applauds “the ferocity and grandeur of these poor people fighting back”, and says “being in the forest made me feel like there was enough space in my body for all my organs”. She detests glitzy, corporate, growth- obsessed modern Indian, and there in the forest she found a brief peace.    There is intense anger in the book, I say, implying that if she toned it down she might find a readier audience. “The anger is calibrated,” she insists. “ It’s less than I actually feel.” But even so, her critics call her shrill. “ That word ‘shrill’ is reserved for any expression of feeling. It’s all right for the establishment to be as shrill as it likes about annihilating people.”    Is her political engagement derived from her mother, Mary Roy, who set up a school for girls in Kerala and has a reputation as a women’s rights activist? “She’s not an activist,” says Roy. “I don’t know why people keep saying that. My mother is like a character who escaped from the set of a Fellini film.” She laughs at her own description. “She’s a whole performing universe of her own. Activists would run a mile from her because they could not deal with what she is.”    I want to talk more about Mary Roy and eventually we do but there’s one important point to clear up first. Guerrillas use violence, generally directed against the police and army, but sometimes causing injury and death to civilians caught in the crossfire. Does she condemn that violence? “I don’t condemn it any more,” she says. “If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.”    Her critics label her a Maoist sympathiser. Is she? “I am a Maoist sympathiser,” she says. “I’m not a Maoist ideologue, because the communist movements in history have been just as destructive as capitalism. But right now, when the assault is on, I feel they are very much part of the resistance that I support.”    Roy talks about the resistance as an “insurrection”; she makes India sound as if it’s ripe for a Chinese or Russian-style revolution. So how come we in the west don’t hear about these mini-wars? “I have been told quite openly by several correspondents of international newspapers,” she says, “that they have instructions ‘No negative news from India’ because it’s an investment destination. So you don’t hear about it. But there is an insurrection, and it’s not just a Maoist insurrection. Everywhere in the country, people are fighting.” I find the suggestion that such an injunction exists or that self- respecting journalists would accept it ridiculous. Foreign reporting of India might well be lazy or myopic, but I don’t believe it’s corrupt.    She sounds like a member of a religious sect, I say, as if she has seen the light. “It’s a way of life, a way of thinking,” she replies without taking offence. “I know people in India, even the modern young people, understand that here is something that’s alive.” So why not give up the plush home in Delhi and the media appearances, and return to the forest? “I’d be more than happy to if I had to, but I would be a liability to them in the forest. The battles have to be fought in different ways. The military side is just one part of it. What I do is another part of the battle.”    I question her absolutism, her Manichaean view of the world, but I admire her courage. Her home has been pelted with stones; the Indian launch of Broken Republic was interrupted by pro-government demonstrators who stormed the stage; she may be charged with sedition for saying that Kashmiris should be given the right of self- determination. “They are trying to keep me destabilised,” she says. Does she feel threatened? “ Anybody who says anything is in danger. Hundreds of people are in jail.”    Roy has likened writing fiction and polemic to the difference between dancing and walking. Does she not want to dance again? “Of course I do.” Is she working on a new novel? “I have been,” she says with a laugh, “but I don’t get much time to do it.” Does it bother her that the follow-up to The God of Small Things has been so long in coming? “I’m a highly un-ambitious person,” she says. “What does it matter if there is or isn’t a novel? I really don’t look at it that way. For me, nothing would have been worth not going into that forest.”    It’s hard to judge whether there will be a second novel. The God of Small Things drew so much on her own life “her charismatic but overbearing mother; a drunken tea-planter father whom her mother left when Roy was very young; her own departure from home in her late teens” that it may be a one-off, a book as much lived as written. She gives ambiguous answers about whether she expects a second novel to appear. On the one hand, she says she is engaged with the resistance movement and that it dominates her thoughts. But almost in the same breath she says others have “picked up the baton” and she would like to return to fiction, to dance again.    What is certain is that little of the second novel has so far been written. She prefers not to tell me what it is about; indeed, she says it would not be possible to pinpoint the theme. “I don’t have subjects. It’s not like I’m trying to write an anti-dam novel. Fiction is too beautiful to be about just one thing. It should be about everything.” Has she been blocked by the pressure of having to follow up a Booker winner? “No,” she says. “We’re not children all wanting to come first in class and win prizes. It’s the pleasure of doing it. I don’t know whether it will be a good book, but I’m curious about how and what I will write after these journeys.”    Are her agent and publisher disappointed still to be waiting for the second novel? “They always knew there wasn’t going to be some novel-producing factory,” she says. “I was very clear about that. I don’t see the point. I did something. I enjoyed doing it. I’m doing something now. I’m living to the edges of my fingernails, using everything I have. It’s impossible for me to look at things politically or in any way as a project, to further my career. You’re injected directly into the blood of the places in which you’re living and what’s going on there.”    She has no financial need to write another novel. The God of Small Things, which sold more than 6 m copies around the world, set her up for life, even though she has given much of the money away. She even spurned offers for the film rights, because she didn’t want anyone interpreting her book for the screen. “Every reader has a vision of it in their head,” she says, “and I didn’t want it to be one film. ” She is strong-willed. Back in 1996 , when The God of Small Things was being prepared for publication, she insisted on having control of the cover image because she didn’t want “a jacket with tigers and ladies in saris”. She is her indomitable mother’s daughter.    I insist she tell me more about her Fellini-esque mother. She is, says Roy, like an empress. She has a number of buttons beside her bed which, when you press them, emit different bird calls. Each call signals to one of her retinue what she requires. Has she been the centre of her daughter’s life? “No, she has been the centre of a lot of conflict in my life. She’s an extraordinary women, and when we are together I feel like we are two nuclear-armed states.” She laughs loudly. “We have to be a bit careful.”    To defuse the family tensions, Roy left home when she was 16 to study architecture in Delhi even then she wanted to build a new world. She married a fellow student at the age of 17. “He was a very nice guy, but I didn’t take it seriously,” she says. In 1984 she met and married film-maker Pradip Krishen, and helped him bring up his two daughters by an earlier marriage. They now live separately, though she still refers to him as her “sweetheart”. So why separate? “My life is so crazy. There’s so much pressure and idiosyncrasy. I don’t have any establishment. I don’t have anyone to mediate between me and the world. It’s just based on instinct.” I think what she’s saying is that freedom matters more to her than anything else.    She chose not to have children because it would have impinged on that freedom. “For a long time I didn’t have the means to support them,” she says, “and once I did I thought I was too unreliable. So many of the women in India who are fighting these battles don’t have children, because anything can happen. You have to be light on your feet and light in your head. I like to be a mobile republic.”    Roy has in the past described herself as “a natural-born feminist”. What did she mean by that? “Because of my mother and the way I grew up without a father to look after me, you learned early on that rule number one was look out for yourself. Much of what I can do and say now comes from being independent at an early age.” Her mother was born into a wealthy, conservative Christian community in Kerala, but put herself outside the pale by marrying Ranjit Roy, a Hindu from West Bengal. When she returned to her home state after her divorce she had little money and was thus doubly marginalised. The mother eventually triumphed over all these obstacles and made a success of the school she founded, but growing up an outsider has left its mark on her daughter.    Roy says she has always been polemical, and points to her run-in with director Shekhar Kapur in the mid-1990 s over his film Bandit Queen “she questioned whether he had the right to portray the rape of a living person on screen without that woman’s consent. It may be that the novel is the exception in a life of agitation, rather than the agitation an odd outcrop in a life of fiction-writing. But has she sacrificed too much for the struggle the chance to dance, children, perhaps even her second marriage? “I don’t see any of these things as sacrifices,” she says. “ They are positive choices. I feel surrounded by love, by excitement. They are not being done in some martyr-like way. When I was walking through the forest with the comrades, we were laughing all the time.”

Will There Be Stability In Myanmar?

With Myanmar taking a pro- democracy political course after installation of an elected government in March, the Western power block has intensified its efforts to increase its influence on the mineral-rich country, a next door neighbour of Bangladesh, China and India.    Having the strategic opening towards Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, Mayanmar has been targeted primarily for destabilizing its close relations with China and stir unrest to make the new government turn to the West.    A number of high profile visits and the declared intentions of the Western diplomats indicate that the once virgin land, Myanmar would be subjected to a lot of internal troubles including ethnic fighting and street agitations in the coming days.    Last November, at the time of national elections, clashes between the Myanmar army and rebels in Karen state left several dozen people dead and sent thousands fleeing into Thailand, it was estimated at the time.    Several Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, condemned the November general elections as a sham. The winning party was a group consisting of many of the former military rulers who resigned their commissions to run as civilians.    In April, European governments extended by a year a set of trade and financial sanctions on Myanmar - but opened the door to the Myanmar foreign minister as an inducement to accelerate change.    The United Nations last week announced that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would soon name a full-time special envoy to Myanmar to encourage the government on the reform path.         US view    After his recent visit to Myanmar, U.S. Senator John McCain said that Myanmar’s new military-backed government could face the kind of revolution sweeping through Arab nations.    US Senator John McCain visited the Mayanmar earlier in June, and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun and UN special envoy to Myanmar Vijay Nambiar visited in April.    McCain said unless Myanmar is willing to make pro-democracy changes peacefully, it could be wrecked by the kind of unrest leaders in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East are experiencing.    McCain spent two days in Myanmar, where he met with senior leaders in its new government. He said it is clear “ the new government wants a better relationship with the United States,” but he called for “concrete actions” before the U.S. can consider lifting sanctions.    McCain said such actions include the unconditional release of more than 2 ,000 political prisoners and guarantees of safety for pro- democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she travels around the country in an upcoming political tour.    The US is also making it an opportunity to get closer to Myanmar after signing deep-sea exploration contract in the Bay of Bengal, political observers said.         India’s hope    Meanwhile, India’s Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna concluded a three-day visit to Myanmar last week, as he seeks to counter China’s influence on the country.    Krishna is the first high-level Indian official to visit Myanmar since an elected government replaced a military junta in March.    India is wary of China’s growing influence in Myanmar, and is in competition with its large regional rival for access to the Mayanmar’s large natural gas resources.    India and Myanmar have widened cooperation between their security forces since the mid- 1990 s, with both countries fighting armed insurgencies along their shared border.         Fighting the rebels    A rebel army in northern Myanmar reportedly warned its troops to expect protracted fighting after clashes with government soldiers forced thousands of civilians to flee.    Fighting broke out on June 9 near Bhamo, around 40 miles from the Chinese border. The clashes marked the end of a 15- year cease-fire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar central government.    The government’s policy of maintaining the border forces has been a relatively successful tactic between it and insurgents in several sensitive border areas, mainly in Kachin, in Shan state directly to the south and in Karen state, further south near Thai borders.         Chinese workers flee Myanmar    More than 200 Chinese workers have returned home from Myanmar after separatist rebels attacked a hydropower plant in the northern border province of Kachin, state media in Myanmar said last week.    An official statement in the daily New Light of Myanmar outlined several threats since April by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) against Chinese projects in Kachin State, including the Tarpein Hydropower Project. Altogether, 215 Chinese employees assigned to the project returned to China from June 9 to 14.    Responding to an attack by Myanmar’s army, the KIA blew up 25 bridges in the region from June 14 to 16 , it added.    Sources in Kachin have said hundreds of people had fled their homes in the mountainous region to escape eight days of fighting up until Thursday.    The KIA has battled the central government for decades but agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 under which its fighters were allowed to keep their arms.    However, tension has been rising since last year, largely because the Kachins have resisted government pressure to fold their men into a state-run border security force. Analysts say, Myanmar’s 10-week old government, the country’s first civilian-led administration in five decades, is intent on seizing control of the rebellious states but is reluctant to engage in conflict with the numerous factions.    Chinese-built dams have been divisive projects in Myanmar, with ethnic minorities seeing construction as expanding military presence into their territory. Some analysts say Kachin rebels may be trying to hold the dams hostage in return for a share of the revenue from the projects.    The risk of fighting spreading in the heavily militarized border region is a worry for China, which is building oil and gas pipelines through its Southeast Asian neighbour to improve energy security.         Suu Kyi for talks    Meanwhile, Myanmar pro- democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political organization has called for negotiations to end fighting in border areas between the government and ethnic minorities.    A statement from the National League for Democracy on Monday said the group deplored recent clashes between the government and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army in northern Myanmar.    It also said ongoing fighting in southern Karen state had escalated and thousands of refugees have fled to Thailand. The league also cited clashes between government troops and the ethnic Shan in northeastern Shan state.    The league said it urged the parties “to hold genuine negotiations through mutual respect and understanding”.         EU delegation meets Suu Kyi    A European Union delegation held talks Tuesday with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside home in Yangon, but details on the discussions were not disclosed.    Robert Cooper, counselor in the European External Action Service - the EU’s foreign affairs department, met Suu Kyi for almost two hours after he and his delegation had visited the capital of Naypyitaw for talks with government ministers.    Before travelling to Burma, the delegates said they wanted to see whether the country’s new government is serious about democratic reform. A long-ruling junta handed over power at the end of March to a new administration made up mostly of its own supporters.    Aung San Suu Kyi will deliver her video-recorded remarks on Burma’s November elections to members of the U.S. Congress Wednesday.    The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific will hold a hearing on Burma’s first election in 20 years.    Suu Kyi confirmed that she still planned to travel outside Yangon next month.    The last time the Nobel laureate travelled up-country in 2003 ; her convoy was attacked by government thugs and she was placed under house arrest for almost seven years, being released November 13 , last year.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Volte Face ? a dramatic volte face, the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, on June 7, 2011, declared that she wished to keep Islam as the ‘State Religion’, thus preserving the illegal changes made to the Constitution in 2007 by the Provisional Government led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. The announcement was in complete contrast to the ruling Awami League’s (AL) declared pro-secular approach. Hasina, who also leads the AL, appears to be targeting the support of some radical Muslim formations in a replay of her last tenure, 1996-2001. The present posture suggests that the Hasina Government may increasingly incline to the use of Islam for political maneuver. Meanwhile, the Dhaka High Court, on June 8, asked the Government to explain the legality of its standpoint on the status of Islam as the ‘State Religion’.

The instrumentalisation of Islam to secure political legitimacy began in Bangladesh after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. The successor President and Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Zia-ur-Rahman, passed a Presidential decree in 1977, removing the principle of secularism from the Preamble of the Constitution and, instead, inserted the infamous Fifth Amendment declaring "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah". Further, in 1988, Islam was given the status of ‘State Religion’ through the Eighth Amendment by the even more zealous military regime of H. M. Ershad – Rahman’s successor.

The ongoing controversy regarding the status of Islam and its legality as the 'State Religion' came to the forefront after the General Elections that restored Hasina to power in January 2009. Her Government immediately focused attention on the challenge of tackling religious extremism and terrorism. At that time, the AL Government had made it clear that it would re-introduce the original ‘Four State Principles’ – democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism.
Meanwhile, on January 3, 2010, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court lifted a four year stay against a ban on ‘the abuse of religion for political purposes’. By lifting the stay, the Supreme Court approved the August 29, 2005, judgment of a three judge Bench, led by Justice A. B. M. Khairul Haque, which declared the Fifth Amendment illegal. The Bench also defined the meaning of secularism as religious tolerance and religious freedom. Subsequently, on February 20, 2010, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed stated, "Now we don't have any bar to return to the four state principles of democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism, as had been heralded in the 1972 statute of the State”.
Finally, the 184-page judgment of the Supreme Court was issued on July 28, 2010. The apex Court got rid of the bulk of the Fifth Amendment, including provisions that had allowed religious political parties to prosper, or that legitimized military dictatorship. The verdict further dubbed such parties as extra-constitutional adventurers and suggested "suitable punishment" for those who installed military regimes and imposed martial laws. The simultaneous trial of 1971 War Crimes and the arrest of prominent leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) on such charges further heated up the debate on the role of Islamic parties in the political arena.

At that juncture, it appeared that the Hasina Government was determined to take on the radical Islamic groups – both militant outfits and political parties. On March 16, 2009, Home Secretary Abdus Sobhan Sikder placed a report that identified 12 ‘militant’ outfits – the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Ulama Anjuman al Bainat, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Islami Democratic Party, Islami Samaj, Touhid Trust, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Shahadat-e-al-Hikma Party Bangladesh, Tamir-ud-Deen (Hizb-e-Abu Omar) and Allahr Dal. The Government has so far banned four Islamist militant groups – the JMB, HuJI-B, JMJB and Shahadat-e-al-Hikma. The main targets of the law enforcers, however, were the party activists and cadres of five main groups – Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS, youth wing of the JeI)), JMB, HuJI-B, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Hizb-ut-Tawhid. 

The Institute for Conflict Management database indicates quick follow-up action to arrest leaders and cadres of these militant formations. The numbers do not, however, include mass arrests that are common during political rallies, protest marches and violent mass activities. For instance, on April 12, 2010, the Chittagong Police filed a case accusing 1,500 to 2,000 leaders and cadres of JeI and ICS for attacks on the Police at the city's Anderkilla Intersection. The arrests in this incident are not included in the data.

Arrests of Militant Leaders and Cadre: 2009-2011*

Islamist Party/Organisation
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal [*Data till June 19, 2011]
Among the arrested are important leaders, such as the founder of HuJI-B, Sheikh Abdus Salam; its current chief, Mufti Abdul Hannan Sabbir; the chief of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Mahiuddin Ahmad; the regional leader of Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Mohammed Moinuddin; among others. Recoveries from the site of arrest have included arms and ammunition, with typical variety of cocktail and hand made bombs, bomb-making manuals, Jihadi literature, anti-Government leaflets, etc. 

Contradictions were, however, sharpening within the country, with three visible and polarizing trends consolidating: the ongoing 1971 War Crimes trials; the anti-women Islamist demonstrations protesting the formulation of the National Women’s Development Policy (2011); and the re-emergence of mass and violent street politics, after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party called a 36-hour national protest on June 13, 2011. The Islamist Parties clearly have huge stakes in all three issues, with JeI as the principal target of War Crimes trials, and Islamist allies of the BNP as key components in the anti-women and street demonstrations and protests. Bangladesh has, moreover, a long and infamous tradition of protracted and violent street protests and bandhs (general shutdowns) that have paralysed the country for weeks and months at end.
It is under these cumulative pressures that the AL’s stand on Islam began to shift. When Sheikh Hasina appeared before a Parliamentary Committee (PC) which was reviewing the Constitution in the light of the Supreme Court verdict in April 2010, she had already modified her position to concede that her party was “not against having Islam as state religion”. This constituted a complete reversal of the policy laid down by her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Hasina also stated that her party was against banning religion-based political parties, though it wanted ‘some restrictions’ on them. 

Internal conflicts within the ruling alliance make Hasina’s situation more complex. The Jatiya Party, headed by H.M. Ershad and commanding 29 MPs, is against any ban on religion-based political parties. On the other hand, Left-leaning parties – including the Workers Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Ganotantri Party and National Awami Party – are strongly opposed to the Jatiya Party’s proposal. The Left-parties are lightweight, with three MPs in the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, two in the Workers Party, and none in Ganotantri Party and National Awami Party. The AL, with a more than three fourths majority in Parliament (270 MPs in a House of 345), is, in any event, under no threat, but values the alliances for the stability and inclusive mandate they provide. The management of the alliance, consequently, will remain a matter of concern as polarizing issues come to dominate the agenda. 

Against this backdrop, Hasina’s June 7 statement can only worsen the political muddle in the country, as it dilutes its projected Constitutional identity, in the words of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, as “a secular, not moderate Muslim, country”, and embarks on the slippery slope of an Islam pasand (committed to Islam) country. AL’s progressive ‘secular disillusionment’ can only intensify the percolation of radical thought through Bangladeshi politics and society, even as voices against Islamist extremist dogma are gradually stifled by the original initiator of secular politics in the country.

Fortress India

Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old's father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani's wedding, arranged for a week later in her family's ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh. 

There was no question of crossing legally -- visas and passports from New Delhi could take years -- and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands. 

Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards' backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn't safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it. 

Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn't so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter's corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. "When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry," Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident. 

Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world's bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there. 

In India, the 25-year-old border fence -- finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion -- is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture -- and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart. 

India did not always view its eastern neighbor in such hostile terms. When Bengali-speaking nationalists in what was then East Pakistan won Bangladesh's independence in a bloody 1971 civil war, they did it armed with Indian weapons. But the war destroyed Bangladesh's already anemic infrastructure and left more than a million dead, presaging the new country's famously unlucky future. Bangladesh is now home to 160 million people crammed into an area smaller than Iowa; 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the country bottoms out the list on most major international health indicators. 

As bad as things are, they can get plenty worse. Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh's rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country's fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a "threat multiplier," sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it's no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose? 

India has a long history of accepting refugees, from the Tibetan government in exile to Sri Lankans fleeing a drawn-out civil war. Faced with the threat of mass migration from the east, however, New Delhi has drawn a line in the sand. Rather than prepare expensive and possibly permanent resettlement zones, India began erecting a fence, complete with well-armed guards, in 1986. After the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in 1998, the program was ramped up to placate anti-Muslim sentiment among the party faithful. The fence grew longer and the killings more frequent. After years of complaints from Bangladeshi politicians, India made promises on several occasions to switch to nonlethal weaponry, but has rarely followed through on them. 

By next year, every available crossing point between India and Bangladesh will have been blocked off by the fence. But while tightened security has made the border more dangerous, it hasn't actually made it much more secure. More than 100 border villages operate as illicit transit points through which thousands of migrants pass daily. Each of these villages has a "lineman" -- what would be called a coyote on the U.S.-Mexican border -- who facilitates the smuggling, paying border guards from both notoriously corrupt countries to look the other way when people pass through. 

"Entire villages can cross the border with the right payoffs," says Kirity Roy, head of the Indian human rights organization Masum, which together with Bangladeshi organization Odhikar and Human Rights Watch released a bleak report on the border situation in December. No one is likely to manage the crossing without a lineman's help, Roy explains. "If someone tries to sneak past the linemen without paying, they will find them out and tell the border guards to shoot them." An inefficient bribe system, he says, explains how border guards could kill 1,000 unarmed people in the last decade. 

The ugly immigration politics on the western side of the fence, where popular sentiment runs decisively in favor of walling off Bangladesh, have made a bad situation worse. The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.) 

The rise of global Islamist militancy in recent years has worsened the xenophobic streak in India's already dicey relations with its Muslim neighbors, and Indian politicians have been quick to capitalize on it. By 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was declaring that Bangladeshis have "no business to come to India." The opposition BJP isn't rolling out the welcome mat either: Tathagata Roy, the party's leader in the Bangladesh-bordering state of West Bengal, has called for lining the border with antipersonnel mines. If the predictions come true for immigration from Bangladesh, Roy says, India's population of 900 million Hindus will have no choice but "to convert or jump into the sea." 

The border itself has hardened into a grim killing field. Although border shootings are officially recorded by Indian officials as "shot in self-defense," the Masum and Human Rights Watch report found that none of the victims was armed with anything more dangerous than a sickle, and it accused the Indian Border Security Force of "indiscriminate killing and torture." 

Most of the dead are farmers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In January, Bangladeshi soldiers told us, six Indian soldiers lured a Bangladeshi farmer named Shahjahan Ali into a swath of no man's land along the border. They stripped him naked, beat him, broke his legs, and mutilated his genitals before throwing him back into Bangladesh, where he bled to death from his injuries. "It's like they are drunk," says the Bangladeshi soldier who found Ali. "Like they are on drugs." Powerless to fire back without creating an international incident with their vastly stronger neighbor, the Bangladeshi border guards can do little more than pick up the bodies. 

Felani's death, however, galvanized Bangladesh. Graphic photos of her dead body made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and political parties posted her picture with the caption "Stop Border Killing!" on seemingly every available wall in the capital city of Dhaka. Shamsher Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary and current vice chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, says, "The fence is our Berlin Wall." The shooting seemed to have given India pause as well. In March, New Delhi once again agreed to strip its border guards of live ammunition, and for once actually did it. For the first month in almost a decade, Indian troops didn't kill anyone on the border. 

But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable. 


Monday, June 20, 2011

De-energising Bangladesh

by Rahnuma Ahmed
In the end, treachery will betray even itself.
Roman proverb

WHEN the prime minister, the finance minister, etc, not known for being democratically-oriented, feel obliged to respond publicly according to the terms and conditions set by the national oil-gas committee, it is clear that the tide is shifting.
It is clear that the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports has made a significant impact on public consciousness. That there is a growing national awareness of the issue of ownership of natural resources; of the terms on which production sharing contracts are signed with international oil companies; a growing suspicion that exporting extracted gas may not be the best way of solving the nation’s energy shortfall. More precisely, of the hollowness of the government’s reasoning as to why gas blocks need to be, must necessarily be, leased out to multinational companies. More broadly, of whether the nation’s ruling class, regardless of which political party is in power, does act in the interests of the nation, of its people.
It is clear from what top ruling party leaders are now obliged to say, to repeatedly say, we are patriotic, we are not treacherous, that they have been forced to cede ground.
It is clear that a moral battle has been won.
Two days after the deal was signed with energy giant ConocoPhillips on June 16 for deep sea exploration in the Bay of Bengal, prime minister Sheikh Hasina was forced to say, we are not doing anything which goes against the interests of the nation, against the interests of the people. She was echoing what her cabinet colleagues and energy officials had said earlier. The finance minister had affirmed at the signing ceremony, the government has protected the country’s interest. Petrobangla’s chairman Hossain Monsur too, had said, the production sharing contract contains nothing which goes against the national interest. Similar words had been mouthed by the prime minister’s energy adviser Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury.
No one is a better patriot, no one is a better protector of the nation’s interests than me, said the prime minister (‘Who is a better patriot, asks PM’, bdnews24, June 18).
News reports indicate, she then went off into a rant. Where was the national oil-gas committee during the previous government when there was no development in the country? When there was no electricity production? When there was no gas exploration? When investors were kept waiting due to lack of gas and electricity?
Leaders and activists of the national committee were exactly where they are now. They had demanded then, as they demand now, that energy policies should benefit the people, not the multinational companies. That it is detrimental to the national interest.
But I wonder whether the prime minister remembers where she herself had been when there was ‘no development in the country, when there was no electricity production...’ etc, etc. When the people of Phulbari had risen up against Asia Energy’s proposed open-pit mine. When an elderly woman had said, ‘No, we do not want the coal mine. What will we eat?’ When a young man had asked, ‘Two coal mines have been built in neighbouring areas. What development has it brought, tell me?’ When paramilitary forces had opened fire on August 26, 2006. Three persons killed. Many more injured (‘You cannot eat coal.’ Resistance in Phulbari, New Age, August 19, 2008).
Sheikh Hasina, then leader of the opposition, had visited Phulbari. She had publicly pledged to resist any move to start open-pit mining in Phulbari, or at any other place in the country. She had lent support to the hartal called by the national committee on August 30, 2006; had publicly called upon the government led by Khaleda Zia, to stick to the agreement it had entered into with the people of Phulbari.
It is a pledge that has been betrayed since the government, by all indications, is moving ahead to implement an open-pit pilot project at Barapukuria, with top-ranking government leaders desperately trying to shore up support for open-pit mining. The very leaders who earlier opposed it, now insist, open-pit mining will yield higher economic benefits. 
Is it a wonder then that the national committee accuses the government of betraying the people? Of betraying themselves? Their own words, their own actions? That it accuses them of treachery?
The chorus of voices to be seen and heard now had been noticeably absent when cables from US embassy Dhaka, WikiLeaked on December 24 night, revealed that US ambassador James Moriarty had met the prime minister’s energy adviser, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, had sought assurances that US-based ConocoPhillips (from among 7 bidders) be awarded two of the uncontested blocks in the Bay of Bengal. 
New Age had contacted foreign minister Dipu Moni, and the energy adviser Chowdhury. It had sought official responses on the disclosure. They had avoided questions; a day later, they stopped receiving calls. They did not respond to text messages either (WikiLeaks Bangladesh-1, New Age, December 27, 2010).
Till date, this government, which won a landslide victory in the December 2008 elections, has not responded to the WikiLeaks disclosure.
Instead, top-ranking government leaders keep mouthing words, no, the contracts are not against the national interest. We would never do such a thing, would we?
How can one tell if the contracts are not made publicly available? All contracts signed thus far for coal and natural gas, have been kept secret. They have not been placed before parliament—the people’s elected body—either.  There has been no parliamentary discussion. To top it all, these contracts have been kept secret from the parliamentary standing committee on energy as well.
Is it not reasonable to want to read the contracts, especially in the light of WikiLeaks disclosure which served only to confirm, and very definitively so, what the national committee had suspected all along?
But instead, whenever specific criticisms of the terms of the contract are raised, for instance, that the leasing company has been awarded the right to sell off 80 per cent of the gas extracted, that they are likely to do so given our own experiences and that of other third world countries, that this will not solve the country’s energy crisis, or, that the multinationals will sell it to us at very high prices, that gas prices will double from earlier prices, $2.92, or Tk 210 for a million cubic foot to $5-6 or Tk 420, that this will push up the prices of daily necessities and services further (rice, lentils, etc, to transport), that we can see through the government’s excuses, that just because India and Myanmar are going ahead with exploration in their own offshore territory, does not mean that unless we sign over blocks to MNCs we will lose control of that which indisputably belongs to Bangladesh, that we should instead pursue a different path to development, by retaining control over our natural resources, by strengthening the nation’s exploration agencies, that we should stop moaning, ‘we have neither the money nor the technology’  that it is the political will that matters....
I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll stick to the issue of contract instead. All reasonable concerns raised are either dismissed by the Petrobangla chairman, by high officials at the energy ministry as being merely `speculative.’ Or, they are pooh-poohed by our garrulent finance minister, it is ‘utter nonsense’.
But I have noticed that some of these high officials slip up in their enthusiastic defence, this won’t-happen, no, that won’t-happen either, where does it say in the contract?
But exactly. Where is the contract? Why has the government not made any contract available publicly? Why are they secreted away? The only document that we, members of the public, have access to, is the production sharing contract (PSC model 2008), which Anu Muhammad, member secretary, national committee, is quick to point out, was designed during the caretaker government and was uploaded on the net to facilitate international bidding. Not to elicit comments or suggestions from members of the public.
Does secrecy over contracts not lend credence to BD Rahmatullah’s accusation that the power crisis has been manufactured, has been ‘artificially created’ to push through anti-people power projects like rental power plants? There is reason to take his word for it, he was former director-general of the Power Cell. ‘Our engineers’, he says, ‘are willing to sell their country just for a ticket abroad’ (Budhbar, August 18, 2010).
Did the Awami League sign a muchleka with foreign powers that if voted to power, our natural resources would be handed over?
As the issue of caretaker government rages between the two major political parties, which government will hold the next parliamentary elections, will it be the current one, or a caretaker government, as rumours fly around of the dice being stacked so that HM Ershad and his Jatiya Party, currently a member of the ruling alliance, can form the loyal opposition, as it increasingly seems that the war crimes trials are being drawn-out to help win another election, as Ershad gets acquitted in a money-laundering case filed over 15 years ago (as I write), suspicions keep deepening.
Suspicions which led the national committee to organise a siege of the energy ministry—dubbed Kashimbazar Kuthi—on June 14, to protest against the government’s decision to sign the deal with ConocoPhillips. Police action prevented the siege from taking place, protestors were clubbed, many were hurt and injured.
Our rulers have not learned any lessons from history. Despite Mir Jafar being one of the most despised and reviled names, despite his having been unable to ‘benefit’ in the narrow sense of the word from his act of treachery.
The demoted army chief of Nawab Sirajuddoula, the last independent nawab of Bengal, entered into a secret pact with the British, negotiated by William Watts, chief of the British factory at Kasimbazar. In exchange of promises of huge bribes and the nawabship of Bengal, Mir Jafar withheld his troops when Sirajuddoula fought with the British East India Company’s army on June 23, 1757. Despite being numerically superior, the nawab’s forces lost; forced to flee, Sirajuddoula was later caught and executed.
Later day historians agree that although the purported reason given for the Battle of Plassey was Sirajuddoula’s capture of Fort William in Kolkata, the company had actually decided that only a change of regime would help it advance its interests. That the East India Company’s geopolitical ambition and the larger dynamics of colonial conquest are essential to understanding the larger picture. For, the conquest of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa had led to further conquests. Of India. Of South Asia.
And what of geopolitical ambitions now? Critical commentators agree that the US-led ‘war on terror’ is actually a war for energy resources. That America’s foreign oil dependency is being militarised by the US government, that it has chosen to rely on military forces to protect access to foreign oil. And that, as other players (China, Russia) enter the stage, the US administration is also turning to seek other energy sources.
But to return to history, what happened to Mir Jafar? Installed as the nawab, he was a mere puppet figure. He was un-installed when he realised that British expectations were boundless, but was re-installed after Mir Qasim proved to be too strong-minded. Another quisling, Jagat Seth, hereditary banker to the Mughal emperor and the nawab of Bengal, reportedly went mad after Clive refused to give him 5 per cent of the loot promised.
To return to the present, close to Mir Jafar’s palace in Murshidabad, in ruins, stands a gate known as Nimak Haramer Deori (the traitor’s gate).