May 30, 2007

A tiny problem with our entire Islamism vs. Secularism debate

Came across this bittersweet little gem in the New Age Xtra:

SHARIATULLAH was angry. As he slowly tended his right shoulder blade with his shaking left hand, his silent stare at the traffic police officer who had lurched at him with the stick was that of fury... Shariatullah was now adamant to know of his fault. Even a week back it was okay to turn left at the junction onto the main road. Each question he asked was followed by another blow of the police officer. As the traffic had started to get chaotic, the officer retreated, and Shariatullah sat down on the footpath a few yards from the junction keeping his rickshaw by his side. ‘I have no problem in following the rules. But this cannot be Allah’r bichar [justice of Allah]. They make up new ones every other day. Do they know what they want? When will they stop?’

It serves as an intro to Dhaka's essentially unplanned nature, but I'm not interested in that at the moment. I'd just like to point out two things, the first socio-political the second socio-literary:

1) The man's invocation of Divine Law against the abuses of Temporal Law. How would militant secularists who also want justice deal with this? (If you're only interested in the removal of religion from the public sphere even at the cost of justice, get thee behind me Hitchens!)

More specifically, how would the "militantly secular" (click on the article: it's THEIR term) gentlemen, suspicious of every bearded man and (non-bearded) madrassah, quoted in this article deal with this situation? Let me quote the freedom fighter Shahriar Kabir from the article:

"We wanted a secular democracy," he said. "Three million people were killed during the Liberation War. If we now have to accept Islam as the basis of politics to run the country, then what was wrong with Pakistan?"

Wow! I can't even begin describe the confusion of communalism, religion-based politics and religiosity inherent in that sentence.

2) Does anyone else think that the name Shariatullah is especially appropriate for someone who just invoked the rightness of the law of God? Not the first instance of magical reality that I've noticed in Dhaka. Not the first by a long way! Reminded me of Marquez's assertion as he accepted his Nobel Prize:

"I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters...Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

In other words, not even "magic realism" can adequately capture our magical reality.

I really hope they used his real name.

May 29, 2007

Thematically in sync

Last week, Shadakalo and others reported on the double hoax in which the New Nation (hereonin referred to as t.p.) decided on their own "evidence" that a letter bearing the seal of the U.S. government was a hoax.

This week, right-wing bloggers in the U.S. have pretty much pulled a t.p. of their own. Read about it on Glenn Greenwald's blog.

I know, I know. You're all as disappointed as I am. I like to think Bangladeshis are exceptional as much as you do, even when it's at something stupid or evil. I wore the TI "most corrupt nation" pretty proudly on my sleeve. But facts are facts: we're not the only ones who think that seals can be forged using "the photoshop programme of the computer".

May 26, 2007

Poribartontro? Sheita abar ki?

It seems that bringing up the core issues of dynastic politics has been largely unsuccessful. Politicians and their spokespeople either ignore them or talk around them.

Here we have Mrs. Zia saying that there is no dynastic politics in the BNP because her personal success "has not been achieved overnight by means of family influence. It's the result of hard work, merit and support from the people."

Now who would dispute this, other than hard-core Awami Leaguers? She has been the PM twice, and has been in politics for nearly two decades now. Her pre-eminence is a result of a lack of intra-party democracy rather than dynastic politics. When people talk about dynastic politics within BNP, they do not refer to her, but to her son's undue influence within the party and her brother's recent appointment. Even her own party members have expressed reservations about this and broken away from the party!

Did she focus on these issues? No. Did her party supporters raise them? Of course not. The myth of poribartontro has been laid to rest. *Applause* I blame the media and Shushil Shomaj for creating it in the first place! *Booo*

Now I'm not doing this to maintain "balance" a la the CTG. But I read something on Mr. Wazed (Joy)'s blog today that gave me the similar creeps. In trying to rebut claims from a mythical "Shushil Shomaj" (which he himself is part of till he formally joins the AL, may I humbly point out), he says:

"Let me remind Shushil Samaj again. There were no mass arrests during the Awami League’s time. There were no arrests without warrants. People were not held indefinitely without bail. There were no extra judicial killings. Due process was followed, even for the murderers of my family."

"even for the murderers of my family"? Has the thought ever crossed Mr. Wazed's head that the trial of his family's murderers - though highly, highly deserved - was an instance of family favouritism? What about justice for the families of those who sacrificed their lives in 1971? What did the AL '96-2001 do for them? Did they try to bring Rajakars to trial? Did they try to get an apology from Pakistan?

With thousands of people having justice delayed for them everyday, was this not a clear example of the downfalls of poribartontro? Yet, "even" for the murderers of his family?

This is not hostility towards the Awami League and its supporters. I respect grassroot political party workers for the hard work they do and the risks they take. I just don't want them doing all this for two to three top families.

I know for a fact that I have at least one friend and reader who is an ex-BCL leader. The other day, his brother got harrassed by the authorities. I didn't see Mr. Wazed write on his blog about that. True, he doesn't have time to deal with every case of illegitimate detention by the CTG. So what about M K Alamgir? I didn't find any mention of him either. In fact, when not railing against all institutions in our country except the Awami League, the only victim he has recognised on his blog was his own mother, Mrs. Sheikh Hasina. This is not to say that Awami League believe in poribartontro - far from it! The Awami League website simply displays his blog prominently because apparently he's the only Awami League blogger.

Poribartontro? Banish the thought!

Update: To be fair to Mr. Wazed, he has very commendably raised the issue of slum dwellers being evicted on his blog. Predictably, he fails to mention that this has happened under all governments, including the recent Awami one. Read Dhaka University's Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed's take on this here. Oh, and a word of warning: being a Dhaka University Professor, Dr. Ahmed is a member of civil society.

May 25, 2007

Follow up to DP post on education

Yesterday I posted on Drishtipat about Bangladesh's success in achieving gender parity in secondary education. In response, shahpar had this excellent observation to offer:

"i’d like to see how that correlates to birth rates and female infanticide. i wonder if increased education among women is linked to them having a smaller families, and to less deaths of girl babies. or if their education is only a small first step in having the right to decide what happens to their own bodies"

I don't think female infanticide has been a problem in Bangladesh post-independence since the female mortality rate has fallen faster than the male mortality rate during that time.

The correlation between lower birth rates and increased education for women has been observed time and time again in various places and cultures. Social scientists assert that educated women might like to pursue numerous goals other than childbearing, and thus prefer smaller families. Added to this is the greater voice, dignity and awareness of rights within the marriage that educated women enjoy, which enables them to assert their preference - what shahpar rightly calls deciding "what happens to their bodies". Thus education leads to smaller families.

There is however a parallel dynamic in work, just in the opposite direction. This is where smaller families lead to education - the opposite direction of causality. As families get smaller, parents find that they have more resources to spend on smaller number of children. Thus they send more of their children to school for longer years.

I'm afraid to say that I believe it is the second dynamic we have observed over the '90s in Bangladesh. The birth rate fell first, in the 80s, leading to smaller families. So parents figured, "Well why not send the girls to school as well?" Thus the parity in secondary education, attained around 2000-2001. This is also borne out by the fact that the female:male ratio in tertiary education has been the slowest to rise. Parents simply do not have enough resources yet.

As much as I'd like to believe that educated mothers are currently making choices within their families and having greater voice; as much as I'd like to believe that young women are no longer seen as the "dispensable" ones within the family when it comes to education, the analysis just does not support that.

I give it a generation. Ours.

(Please re-direct all comments on the DP post above. Thanks!)

May 24, 2007

Explanation desired

Former Barisal MP gets 7 years for being 9 days late in surrendering bullets.

Former political secretary to the PM gets 3 years for failing to disclose that he had misappropriated millions.

Aren't proportional punishment and requirements for proper investigations there for a reason?

Three small snippets

1) Grameen Bank allowed to work in urban areas.

Why this is important: By some measures, the %age of urban people in poverty is increasing in Bangladesh, even as the %age of rural people in poverty is decreasing (VERY SLOWLY!).

2) NYT reports on rising suicides in South Korea, some apparently assisted by the Internet.

Why this is important: South Korea is/was one of the Asian Tigers. Growth does not necessarily mean development. A lesson we should take to heart now.

3) Maninder Singh, former Indian cricketer and piss-poor commentator, arrested on drug charges.

Why this is important: In 1999, commenting on the aftermath of Bangladesh's famous win against Pakistan, this "expert" offered the ICC this solid piece of advice: "Don't give them test status before they win at least 70 one-dayers". I saw it myself. Charu Sharma, to his credit, replied, "But Maninder, even Zimbabwe has not won 70 one-dayers!". Too late, the damage had been done. Of course, one can now excuse Mr. Singh's comments as the ravings of a doped-up wash-out. Especially after India's loss to a certain striped team.

Remember: you heard it HERE first....

Shahedul Anam mimics yours truly.

May 23, 2007

Bangladeshi blogs creating a ripple

Yeah, you heard me! First there was the cowardly threatening of bloggers. Chilling as that was, it showed that blogs were being taken somewhat seriously.

Today, we have a somewhat less chilling instance of a blog creating a stir. Last week, Shadakalo along with several other Bangladeshi blogs exposed what came to be called the Double Hoax: a hoax newspaper report alleging that a letter from 15 U.S. Senators to the Bangladeshi government was a hoax.

A reader of said toilet paper substitute newspaper, named "Taslima", has reacted strongly to Shadakalo's expose, calling him/her among other things, a "tout" and "a volatile fellow and a son of some corrupt civil servant" who should be brought "home to Dhaka to face the music for all the looting they and their families indulged in".

Now I neither know nor need to defend Shadakalo's reputation. Especially since s/he has done it so admirably him/herself. I'd just like to point out the absolute worthlessness of the New Nation as an organization. Not just because they are underhanded, but because they are incompetent even at that!

The sheer awful taste displayed in printing letters speculating about a stranger's family and income is bad enough. But as an attempt at character assassination, this is simply laughable. "A volatile fellow"? Who talks like that nowadays? Anglophile Bangladeshi "uncles" trying their best to be British, of course! And when was the last time we heard a woman say "humbug to cretins"? I mean, even Dickens probably gave up that expression by the end of his career.

Which leads me to think that perhaps "Taslima" is simply someone else with the same first three letters in their name. Get my drift ... Tas?

Easily the best laugh I've had the entire day. In any case, here's hoping that the ripple 'Deshi blogs are causing one day becomes a flood!

May 22, 2007

Goodbye sleep. Go Tigers!

Salam Dravid! Bold move, sir!

Bangladesh Zeitgeist Watch - Jon Stewart, Bangladesh loves you

Even as I turned on the TV for the only show I seem to watch nowadays, I had a feeling that Stewart would provide me with a bloggable moment. Two seconds in, he ironically mentions that the Daily Show is watched from "here to Bangladesh".

Right on, Dude! *insert rock-on sign*

Expect a clip soon.

PS. He also mentioned something about Bangladeshi comedy shows that he watches. While that might be is a joke, I hope that someone on his staff browses through Bangladeshi blogs to give me my 15 seconds of fame. Hey, equally arcane in terms of the global zeitgeist!

PPS. "Everyone loves Canada: we're the world's gay friend." Classic.

May 21, 2007

Bangladesh to open an embassy in Khartoum. Asif to open an international studies program in Dhaka.

While I'm all for South-South cooperation, I can only be appalled by the decision of the Bangladeshi government to open an embassy in Khartoum, as reported here and here. I especially love how the Bangla report says that the decision has been taken, while the English says that it has only been hinted at! Great going mouthpieces!

After calling for a reform of the OIC that everyone has known for years was a useless international organization, Iftekhar Chowdhury managed to slip this in without the local press even sniffing to try smell the stench. Which only points to how much more our "local" press needs to know about the world outside of Dhaka and South Asia.

Three/four days ago, Zafar Sobhan had written of Pakistan:

"With Pakistan lurching towards ever greater strife with each passing day, closer association with it at this precise moment in time sees like an anachronistic idea."

One now hopes that someone comes out with a similar rebuttal against greater ties with Khartoum, especially under this government. The problem is not JUST its appalling human rights record in its ethnically-African southern regions and now in Darfur (and how many Imams in Bangladesh know and are ready to denounce this blatant violence against Muslims by Muslims?). The problem is that even more than Pakistan, Sudan has an extremist government ready to export out its own brand of religious violence and intolerance under the guise of "Islam". And it doesn't take much internet research to find that out.

What's really pissing me off is OUR moral equivalence. I'm all for a realist paradigm in foreign relations. But Bangladesh does not follow a realist model at all. We have cited, and still do cite, other governments' human rights records as pretexts for not maintaining diplomatic relations with them (or perhaps our diplomacy has the sole goal of keeping the OIC happy instead of us!) We did not keep ties with apartheid South Africa, even though we could have used their resources. What about the Khartoum governments' awful treatment of Darfur's people? Should we overlook it thanks to the elusive promise of their black gold?

What's worse is calling for reform of the OIC - which opposed our independence drive and ROUTINELY disregards Muslim oppression of other Muslims - and then disregarding Darfur's suffering in the same breath. Our foreign affairs staff might regard that as Machiavellian and pat themselves on the back. But they've just crossed the fine line into outright hypocrisy.

The Biman story gets more interesting

11 days and 10 posts after I complained about it, the Biman story makes it to the pages of the Daily Star. One lone sentence focuses on the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) for which 300 crore takas (43m USD) have been asked, and provided by the World Bank.

Well, that explains why tax-payers really don't need to be informed of such developments, doesn't it? As Iqbal Quadir says in th video right below, the WB really is an institution of, by and for the goverments! More specifically their bureaucracies. One can only imagine the backroom negotiations that went on, the give and take on different issues important to each of the different parties. I wonder if anyone raised any questions as to what alernative uses (ie. the opportunity cost of the VRS) the $43m could have been used for? I'd like to doubt it, but then I wasn't there was I?

Prothom Alo has a slightly better report. It highlights the fact that since 1997, BPC has not given Biman 25% discounted fuel. Which is all well and good, subsidies are not the best stimulant for achieving efficiency. But here's the intruiging part: BPC sells Biman jet fuel at 65 cents/litre. The price on the world market is 35 cents/litre. From the DS report, it seems that BPC was the monopoly supplier to Biman (can anyone confirm?) If that is indeed the case, all we've done these last 10 years, in essence, was to re-distribute income from Biman to BPC! Suddenly, the arrears being owed to BPC by Biman seem less as inefficiency and more as political resistance between bureaucracies.

If the Prothom Alo story seems more detailed, I suspect that it's in no small part due to the man whose name is in the byline. Or is there a new Tipu Sultan in Prothom Alo?

"A cow can be a cellphone"

I've been meaning to post this here ever since I saw it on a friend's blog.

Special thanks to ZaFa and Rezwan.

May 19, 2007

Meanwhile in another part of the forest....

... opaque plans are hatched by people shouting for transparency.

Foot in Mouth of the day - Diplomatic Licence Edition

Our winner today: Mr. Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh.

Mr. Chakravarty, being diplomatically immune to information, suggests to his hosts that Bangladesh should become more secular, abolish all forms of inequalities between religious groups and, perhaps, get rid of the Ministry for Religious Affairs. Which is fine by and of itself, especially the goal of decreasing inequality. He also asserts that India has apparently succeeded in doing all this. Dhaka Shohor blog tends to disagree and thus awards him with:

Foot in Mouth!

Rant - "Secular India" version

This promises to be one of many such rants. So I go into the Daily Star website and start browsing the news. After chuckling at the fact that Afsar Chowdhury's four volume history of '71 is reviewed under "Literature" with other fiction titles, I see this news item: "Bangladesh lacks real practice of secularism". Intrigued I click on it and find that the Indian Envoy has made such a statement.

The blood begins to boil, but I read on. The article does on to say:

"Indian High Commissioner Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty yesterday said democracy would be stronger in Bangladesh if it could establish a 'real secular country like India'.

"Bangladesh is a secular country but there is no real practice of secularism... as there is a religious ministry here," he said while addressing a function on the occasion of foundation laying of Chandranath Temple in Sitakunda.

The high commissioner said democracy is very strong in India as there is no division or discrepancy among the people of different faiths and values and real secularism is practised there.

He suggested that Bangladesh follow his country for practising real secularism, which would help it establish a strong democratic country removing all discrepancies among the people of different beliefs and values."

Wow! Paternalism or onanism at its best?

Where to begin on how many ways His Excellency is wrong?

"There is no discrepancy between different faiths and values" in India? Clearly you and I see different statistics from different sources.

The very presence of "a religious ministry (sic)" defeats all purposes of equality between religious groups? Then how come our "religious ministry" also deals with non-Muslim religious groups, albeit HIGHLY UNEQUALLY (you listening CTG?) India may not have a religious ministry, but it DOES have a Ministry of Minority Affairs, whose mandate makes it clear that it deals with mostly Muslims and Sikhs within India. Oh, and "secular" Turkey has this and I'm not even going to bring up Iran with whom you're getting some pretty cozy gas deals going on. Say, would giving you our gas shut you up?

Lastly, follow the INDIAN example? You mean substitute persecution of Hindus, Buddhists and Aadibashis for persecution of Sikhs, Muslims and the whole of North-East India? Tweedledum or Tweedledee Your Excellency? I'd be laughing if this wasn't so serious!

Oh, and you might want to see the latest from India (GRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPH OF INJURIES!)

Two questions:

1) How are temples funded? I imagine they are under-funded by the GoB, which is mostly Muslim, and having been raised Muslim I know how petty and small-minded Muslims can be! I know I have a few Bangladeshi Hindu friends and readers online, so if you fill me in I'd really appreciate it. And does anyone, Hindu/Muslim/Buddhist/Christian/Jewish/whatever, have any thoughts on how to increase this funding locally instead of getting these condescending bastards to do it?

2) This is directed primarily to the Envoy. If India is so secular, why not fund a church or a buddhist temple or two? Give us a fucking break from the big talk alright? It might go down well with my countrymen less interested in your affairs, but a lot of us know what goes on inside India. Also, "the Indian envoy said Bangladesh government could expand it as a potential tourism centre"? Turning other people's sacred sites into tourist spots from the top is something that I'm firmly opposed to. May I suggest you join me in my opposition your Excellency, instead of turning my Hindu brothers ever more into a "minority" and a spectacle unto others?


May 18, 2007

Two Good Moves by the CTG

(Updates below)

This blog has been highly critical of the Caretaker Government in the recent past. In the spirit of fairness and to show my support for good moves regardless of who initiates them, I applaud two moves by members of the current government.

1) The first relates to another post on this blog from a few days back, and ties in with a more general debate being had over on Drishtipat on the pros and cons of "foreign interference" in our domestic affairs. Once again let me re-iterate. I don't like foreigners pressuring us, whether using soft power or hard power. Call it the post-colonial mind-set. Yet in the case of Tasneem, I felt that there was a very real and urgent threat to his well-being, and a great miscarriage of justice about to take place. If he had done wrong, investigate and charge him. Intimidating him is neither here nor there. Nor did there seem to be any domestic recourse available. Thus I supported writing to foreign senators, congressman and what have you.

When I expressed more or less this sentiment on the Drishtipat thread, another commentator said, not addressing me in particular:

"If you are kind of annoyed about “foreign intervention,” sorry, but that is nothing compared to the frustration and powerlessness of the family of someone who’s been jailed for no real reason, or who almost died in custody (like Mayor Mohiuddin Ahmed of Chittagong), or worse, who’s been tortured to death (like Choles). Look them in the eye and tell them that a letter of concern and support, from whoever it is, is not appropriate."

True words. What right do nationalists and chauvinists such as myself have to tell people deprived of due process not to resort to extra-national means? None actually, but that wasn't my point and I clarified it thus:

"As I’ve said, if all other avenues are exhausted and there seems to be a deadline, then appeal by all means. I personally would not be “annoyed” at that. I would even support you.

I have outlined above the type of international pressure that really annoys me personally: when politicians refuse to sit in our parliament, funded by our taxes, and then go abroad to talk about human rights abuses to foreign power houses. Why not use the parliament? Ok, maybe it’s a lame duck of an institution. But even standing in parliament and denouncing some abuses would be a beginning. And before you think I’m being partisan, this annoys me too: instead of putting in efforts to clarify the situation to local constituents, the chief advisor gives frank interviews to BBC and sends special envoys to the US instead of sending them to every town and village in the country. I hope that you will agree with me that as a Bangladeshi citizen, it’s not very reassuring to know where our political parties and governments think the real power lies! Compared to that, the power of bloggers, expatriate NGOs and INGOs to bring about meaningful pressure is almost miniscule."

Mr. Jalal agreed with me wholeheartedly on this point, yet another example of how Bangladeshis respectfully debate on the blogosphere! Now if only we could replicate this in the Jatiyo Shongshod....

Today we hear of this story where a U.S. Congressman, Joseph Crowley of New York's 7th Congressional District and founder of the Bangladeshi Congressional Caucus, writes to the ACC about its pursuit of a businessman, Mr. Ahmed Akbar Sobhan of Bashundhara Group (Why can't these people spell phonetically? If it's pronounced "BOSHUNDHORA", why spell it like an Anglo-philic jackass? Anyway, all that for another rant!). Let me quote on sentence from the Congressman's letter, as reported in the Daily Star:

"any disruption of this large employer has the potential to create economic instability within a nation"

Is that a threat Congressman?:)

More importantly, is that why your government never does anything against Walmart, despite its horrible business practices? Give me a break!

The DS report says that the chief of the ACC, Lt. General (Retd.) Hasan Mashud Chowdhury has written back:

"Your protégé, Mr Ahmed Akbar Sobhan, was required to submit a statement of his assets and satisfy the authorities as regards the means through which he has accumulated wealth worth millions of dollars," Hasan Mashhud wrote to the congressman. "Till now he has failed to do so which reinforces the allegation against him. As such further legal actions are being contemplated to proceed with the case."

He disagreed that 'concern for potential disruption in business should override the moral obligation of the government to deal ruthlessly with any corrupt practices indulged in by the nouveau riche in a country like Bangladesh'.

As Crowley insisted that 'intimidation of anyone whether they are head of a company or a rickshaw driver does not benefit anyone during this time of difficulty for Bangladesh', Mashhud said Sobhan or his associates will be provided with the opportunity to clear themselves of any wrongdoing and the 'due process' will be adhered to at all times.

"I would expect you to measure things up in their correct perspective and base your judgment on facts. I can assure you there will be no farce, no charade and no kangaroo courts," the ACC boss asserted."

Now I'm not going to say this often, so savour it: a round of GENUINE applause for Mr. Hasan Mashud Chowdhury. Mr. Chowdhury, I'm usually a sick, cynical, sarcastic bastard, but even I am moved to commend you for your words and your poise. "I can assure you there will be no farce, no charade and no kangaroo courts": may you live up to these sentiments, Sir!

This case falls squarely into the mould I described to Mr. Jalal: where a few corrupt, law-evading, institution-wrecking individuals go and lobby foreigners to bring pressure to bear on our government. This has almost no semblance to the action of bloggers and NGOs, big and small, who do this as a last resort. So please do not confuse the two.

And Congressman Crowley. May I respectfully suggest that if you come down on the side of the just and legal all the time instead of trying to help friends now and then, perhaps your country would not need to spend so much on its military budget and instead could use that extra money to provide better healthcare coverage or service your national debt. Unsolicited advice from a non-citizen. Doesn't feel all that good does it Sir?

2) The second news item that warmed my heart was this. I don't know how many people remember this, but I recall that it made a small stir when it happened. The report does not make it clear that Saleem Samad is a Bangladeshi journalist, who eventually left the country citing harrassment.

I found his blog when looking for news on the May 1st bomb blasts. I encourage everyone to read it, especially this post. The entire post might resonate with most expatriates. One line especially touched me:

"I always disapproved the idea with many regarding the political dissidents to flee the country and claim political asylum in the west. I mean settling in Europe or North America. This, I believe will certainly legitimize the wrong-doings of the developed nations discrimination of the poor, imposed war and economic exploitation. I ridiculed the writers, journalists, theatre activists and freethinkers in Bangladesh who have claimed refugee in the west in “fear of persecution.”"

With the dropping of the sedition charges - alas, years too late - one hopes that Mr. Samad will find it in his heart to return to our motherland whose government once saw it fit to treat him poorly. One can understand perfectly if he does not. In which case, the greater loss will most definitely be Bangladesh's as yet another dissenting voice is forced off our shores.

And before the AL-sympathizers jump onto this bandwagon, spare a thought for Tipu Sultan. Almost every government we have had is guilty of trying to silence dissenting and critical voices. If we do not make space for dissent within our national polity, we might just have to play the politics of exile, immigration, foreign lobbying and "interference" indefinitely.

Update: I e-mailed Mr. Samad with the news of the dropped charges against him to get his reaction. He replied back saying that I was the first one to let him know. Tragic that we do not see it fit to clear a man with the same force with which we charge him. He also says that he does "not believe it is safe" for him to return. As I've said above, a small loss for Mr. Samad, a greater loss to Bangladesh for the message it sends out to everyone. Our best wishes go to him and his family as they begin their new life on foreign shores.

Among the things Mr. Samad mentioned, one particular remark stuck a memory chord. He named one Kohinoor Miah as his torturer, who was now OSD. A quick google search refreshed my memory. This was the same Kohinoor Miah who had publicly beaten up a three-month pregnant lady as well as torturing Mr. Samad in custody. I can only shake my head.

Note to CTG people trying to control the media message: if the shit stinks, it makes no difference if you tell everyone that it's smelling like a rose. Why, just look at Kohinoor Miah of the glittering name! So make sure the substance is pure, and the message will follow. Not vice versa.

May 15, 2007

Chairman of Technical Education Board attacks two journalists - Media censorship watch

The Daily Star reports that two reporters were assaulted for reporting on corrupt practices on the part of the chairman of the Technical Education Board. The reporters were from the New Age and Jono Kontho(I spell phonetically).

According to Jono Kontho, the two reporters were invited to the chairman's office to explain why they had filed a particular story. After some small talk there, the chairman and his employees attacked them and at one point detained them at a nearby Ansar camp, surprising the law-enforcers stationed there. Soon, people from other media outlets made an appearance and they were freed. The Jono Kontho reporter filed cases against the chairman and his subordinates.

This case illustrates one point I'd like to make clear about my stance on the whole Tasneem arrest episode. Down there, you will see that I have linked to Mash's post giving the names and contact information for the Bangladeshi caucus in the U.S. congress. This was in no way an easy decision for me. I am STRONGLY opposed to the influence of non-citizens in our political processes and our domestic affairs. Bangladesh only for Bangladeshis is my motto, with "Bangladeshi" defined broadly to include all religions, all classes, all races and ethnicities and certainly all genders. As long as you have or are entitled to a green passport with a golden map on it, your voice should be loud and should be heard. Otherwise you have no business telling the government what to do internally, even if I'm in complete agreement with you. It's just not your place. Do you hear me, Ms. Butenis?

So why did I advocate international pressure for the Tasneem case? Well, who else was there to appeal to domestically? I don't mean in terms of individuals, but in terms of institutions. Where could Tasneem's wife or friends or colleagues go and say, "Our loved one has been picked up without being told why. Help us." Name one that would have helped, and I'll apologise.

On the other hand, look at this example of media intimidation. Journalist gets beaten up by people whose malpractice has been reported on. Journalist goes and puts in a complaint at the nearest police station.

I know: Tasneem was not picked up for his reporting, but allegedly for non-work activities. That is not the point. The point is, where do you go when the highest authorities in the land misuse their power over others? Show me that place in my beloved land, and I personally will ask no more of it. Millenium development goals, "self-sufficiency" and export diversification be damned!

Hoping to one day see that institution, even as expectations diminish.

May 13, 2007

Foot in Mouth of the day

Our winner today: M. Saifur Rahman.

Mr. Rahman believes that "dynastic politics" should come to an end. Amen Brother! Practiced in the past what you preach now?

Foot in mouth!

May 11, 2007

Tasneem released, Tipu Sultan's home raided

DP reporting on the release of journalist Tasneem Khalil. More to follow.

Can't access the daily star website. Possible internal or external dispute about contents? New Age has this piece.

Meanwhile we hear that journalist Tipu Sultan's home has been raided in Dhaka. Press intimidation at its best. Stay tuned for more!

Update: WTF is wrong with the DS website? I don't know what shit's going down, but it's 2 a.m. BST and neither Prothom Alo nor Daily Star have the new edition up there. Anybody has any information as to what's going on?

Update 2: Well, 25 minutes after the last update, the DS website is up, but it's still all yesterday's news. Prothom Alo has also updated and has the news about Tasneem.

Update 3: DS story finally up. A disappointment if ever there was one. Really, do we give a shit about what your editor has to say? Is he the focus of this story?

Tasneem Khalil arrested - See update 2 to know what you can do now!

(Updates below, most likely will continue till dawn EST)

A fellow blogger, investigative journalist, and someone I had some disagreements with recently, Tasneem Khalil has been arrested in Dhaka, as reported here, here and here. Conflicting reports as to who picked him up and for what charges.

Whatever the details, this sort of intimidation of journalists has to stop here and now! If the CTG really wants to create a democratic state, then the first step is to create a free media. Free of intimidation, free of coercion and free of fear. Otherwise, even the best intentioned of democratic reforms will come undone in the long run.

Mr. Khalil, our prayers are with you.

Update 1: Human Rights Watch statement here

Update 2: Tasneem was the CNN stringer in Bangladesh. CNN ran this story. Thank you CNN.

Mash's blog has a list of Senators and members of the Bangladeshi Congressional Caucus that you can contact if you're in the U.S. I know I get a lot of hits from the U.S. so I urge you to do this! A special envoy from Bangladesh is now in the U.S. So the sooner you do this, the better!

Salam Dhaka has regular updates on the situation. Also, visit any of the blogs on my list. Most of them are carrying this story. A small salute to the Bangladeshi blogging community for their regard for their fellow citizen, despite the distance.

I am told that the DS is following/investigating the news closely. I'm somewhat upset not having seen it on the breaking news scroll already. If they don't stand up for one of theirs, who will? Hope to see the story make headlines tomorrow. Wishful thinking?

This thing has really hit me hard. I could rant, but I don't think I can produce anything other than cheap emotionalism. And that is the last thing we need right now. Once I collect my thoughts, I'll write them out. My prayers are with him and his family.

Meanwhile, a young wife and mother spends anxious moments with her newborn in Dhaka....

Update 3: I know I promised my thoughts and avoid a rant. But In the Middle of Nowhere has done both for me, with much more eloquence and coolheadedness than I can muster at the moment. Some excerpts I found highly relevant:

"Well, I also sometimes do not agree with what Tasneem writes, but that does not justify picking up somebody under the darkness of the night to an undisclosed location for an indefinite period without showing any reason or any court order. State of Emergency! Sate of Emergency for whom? Against whom?

The men, who have picked Tasneem up, are very powerful. They are very well equipped as armed forces, thanks to the people of Bangladesh who are quite generous in funding these forces who are supposed to protect the country from foreign invasions.

I am shocked how these very professional, educated and well trained forces are using their prowess to take the law at their own hand. Tasneem’s recent arrest is an example of this trend.

The people of Bangladesh, when they welcomed this military backed government on January 11, had a different expectation from these forces. The expectation was that, as this government preaches a war against all corruption, nepotism, illegal abuse of power, they themselves would not do the same things they are here to eradicate.

If Tasneem wrote something wrong, a rejoinder could have been sent, a rebuttal could be forced on the newspaper publishing it or a case could have been filed in a court of law for a transparent delivery of justice."

Update 4: CNN has updated it's story to add this (around 1:30 EST according to Google, so I must have missed it on the first reading):

"CNN and HRW have been in contact with Bangladesh's Special Envoy to the United States, Farook Sobhan, and other officials in attempts to find information about Khalil. Sobhan told CNN it was the first he'd heard about Khalil's arrest and promised to make inquiries."

I don't know who Farook Sobhan is, neither have I ever heard anything about what kind of a man he is. But one hopes he felt embarrassed when asked about the arrest. And one hopes that he will take measures to ensure that those who caused him this embarrassment, won't cause him any further ones.

Update 5: Shahidul Alam pays a tribute to Tasneem and paints a nuanced picture of the situation in Dhaka in his blog. Will DS and PA speak up for Tasneem? Excerpts from his entry:

"Tasneem Khalil ( was one voice that they had not been able to silence. His incisive, well researched investigations flew against the culture of silence that prevailed. Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the leading English daily, The Daily Star, had proudly told me, “In all these years, not a single story had been spiked.” That was some time ago. Things were different now. The story of military involvement that Tasneem had revealed was pulled back from the press in the last minute. A commentator on the roundtable at Drik on the 3rd May, International Press Freedom Day, had equated the Daily Star and the Daily Prothom Alo with a new political party. The newspapers had elaborate reporting on the US ambassador’s love for democracy and a free press. The Drik roundtable, featuring some of the bravest journalists working in the land, went unreported. The roundtable had discussed the military, the corporate deals taking place, the heavy hand of foreign countries. It talked of deals being pushed through in the absence of dissent. Tasneem had deliberately not been asked to speak. That would be inviting trouble"

Update 6: So it's official. The first batch of "latest news" on Daily Star does not include news of Tasneem's arrest. If this were a politician, then it would have been a blaring headline (perhaps in red) and there would have been a "More details soon" sign. But it's ONLY a journalist, so the news can wait...

Isn't it our fault that when SH can't board a plane or KZ is going to Saudi, it makes us go crazy, but when "ordinary" people are in trouble, we really don't give a shit? Do we really lack pride in ourselves to this extent? Who decides who is "ordinary" and who is extra-ordinary? Some will say it's wealth. Yet, did wealth help MKA?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Update 7: My blog is officially becoming misinformation central. Check out the comments section.

ABC bhai, apndero hoyto bou-bachcha thekey thaaktey paarey. Taader ki obostha hoto chinta koren jodi apnakey raater gobhirey giye dhorey niye jeto. Even for sedition, there is due process. The forces have not followed them. Due process ensures dignity among other things. Something to think about if someone ever comes for you in the middle of the night and takes you off in front of wife and kids. And apnaro bou bachcha asey othoba thaakbey, Tasneemer moto, eto tuku ami sure.

Nijer desher manushrey ei rokom korben keno?

The curious case of the (watch)dog in emergency time

Day 2 and nothing has appeared in the local mainstream media so far about the Biman plan to cut back workers. Frankly, I don't know if this is gross negligence or if the civil aviation department has suddenly become the most powerful bureaucracy in Dhaka capable of pressuring our media.

Has anyone seen any news stories on this? And why is this so "sensitive" anyway? Bureaucracts covering bureacratic's backs? More questions than answers I'm afraid.

May 10, 2007

Media censorship watch - the Biman story

(Updated below)

As joked about in this rant, would a website running a story about unemployment be considered "anti-state"? Well, Biman apparently is cutting 1400 jobs (and apparently asking for a severance package of 43 MILLION USD!) in it's bid to stay alive. And where is this reported? At BBC and Dristipat of course, the two websites where the taxpayers of Bangladesh spend all their time!

Which is to say that neither the DS nor Ittefaq nor the New Age nor Amader Shomoy have this news on their website. Only the New Nation, Ittefaq's sister concern, has this piece.

I hope this delay is nothing other than breaking-news-lag-time. (PA still has not updated it's website). Because if not, then we really have something to worry about. I'll update with links to stories in the local media IF and when they become available.

Also of interest: this gem was found on the first page of Amader Shomoy instead of the Biman story. Should we laugh or cry?

Update: While PA did not run the Biman story, it did run this piece on the jute mills in Khulna. I know that there has been falling demand for jute since the 70s. But is there no case to be made to privatise these industries the way Biman is being privatised? Furthermore, what of the arrear payments that are due? Finally, if Biman is planning to give away 31,000 USD "golden handshakes" to each of its 1400 employees, how much should a jute mill worker get? More importantly, who decides?

May 09, 2007

Of Crooks, Reverends and Reporters

Hitchens writes in his weekly column for on a new book about Nixon and Kissinger. One of the few things I can agree on with Hitchens. I disagree with him vehemently on most subjects, but have to give him his due when he correctly terms 1971 as "genocide". Kudos Mr. Hitchens!

Alex Koppelman on's War Room blog gives us his take on a debate between Hitchens and Rev. Sharpton at the New York Public Library. The debate centred around religion and the idea of God, both of which Hitchens criticises as being poisonous to civilisation. Apparently Hitchens got the better of the exchange. However, the Reverend did come back at him with this:

"You are a man of faith, because any man that still to this day believes that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has more faith than any religious person I know."

Reverend, you leave me speechless but smiling.

May 08, 2007

Will Grameen and the entire microcredit industry become targets for revenge?

Will Grameen become a target if the BNP or the AL come to power? A while ago, I saw someone express this very fear on one or another of the blogs I frequent, I forget which. I dismissed it as slightly paranoic. What sounded like paranoia at the time became a bit more real to me as someone whose blog I read and who reads mine put up a post criticising Grameen's business practices.

Now I won't link to this blog. As I said, I do read it now and then, and I'm not looking for a food fight here. I'll reproduce some key aspects of the argument against Grameen and give my humble opinion on it.

The biggest complaint against Grameen seemed to be that it charges high interest rates. Funnily and predictably, a lot of people who used to disbelieve or ignore this accusation when it was made by certain quarters, are now buying this wholesale since it has been repeated by a different quarter.

That however is not a refutation of Grameen's policy to charge high interest rates. The refutation you will find here, here and everywhere on the web.

Here the questioning minds and the party-flock alike might ask: but why not simply give them the money? Charity, you will say. By all means, let us be charitable. Especially in times of floods and monga and to people who are barely alive. However, if charity were a long term solution, there would be no need for progressive taxation either. Something to think about.

Asif Dowla (no relation) in a beautiful article recalls the efforts in the 70s by successive governments (both AL and BNP) to institute credit to the poor. He asserts that these essentially became charities, which is something Grameen consciously strove not to do (pg. 19-20). They did not instil a culture of repayment and he traces their failure to precisely this cause. And mind you by "failure", I refer not to their failures as commercial enterprises (after all, my taxes ensure that no government enterprise ever reaches bankruptcy, simply that their workers remain unpaid!). By "failure", I mean failing to service the neediest of our people. The direct quote from the #1 villain in the scheme, igNobel Yunus himself at the start of page 17 says that most of the loans forgiven by the government in the wake of the '91 floods went to the land-owing, wealthier rural inhabitants, not the landless, poorer ones. Sounds familiar? But then, what does he know about lending to the poor, anyway? He was probably scheming to grab power in 2007, even as he was writing in 1999. You can peruse the entire aricle here, but why bother going through 46 pages? Better to believe your leaders and close your eyes. Life is easier that way. Trust me, I know. Amiyo Bangladeshi.

A third complaint against microcredit is that it does not work. Fair enough. I'm not going to be a polemicist and argue that there is CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE that it works. But neither has anyone produced a conclusive study to show that it does not work. A simple look at the Wikipedia article on microcredit could tell anyone that not enough research has been done on it. Furthermore, no one I know of has come CLOSE to arguing that it is actually HARMFUL to society. Of course it isn't hard to find people who are skeptical of micro-credit when it is presented as the mother of all solutions for all our problems, as "First-World" donors seem to do now and then. I'm one such skeptic. But it's articles like this that probably form the basis of spinning that healthy skepticism into downright dismissal of microcredit. I don't think someone as knowledgable and respected as Dr. Sobhan would ever make such a broad and blanket dismissal. Even the author of the article does not make that dismissal, but notes accurately: "not as effective". Quite a few people I know have cited this book as a complete refutation.

A fourth complaint is that Grameen has a monopoly on microcredit. This is downright inaccurate. Read the New Age article, and it mentions that BRAC, ASA and Proshika also engage in microlending. And those are the just the largest ones. The only difference is that Fazle Hasan Abed, Shafiqul Haque Choudhury (founder of ASA) or Qazi Faruque Ahmed (President of Proshika, N.B.) did not declare that they wanted to challenge the hegemony of the two political parties and run for office. Thus, the only microcredit operation in Bangladesh is Grameen, because that's the only one we'll choose to focus on for the moment. Reality is what you make of it inside your head. Is this postmodernist audience power at work or a really bad dream? Either way, the charges of usury and monopoly stick.

So what to make of all this? I fear that whoever comes to power will take their revenge on Grameen, or on the microcredit sector as a whole through lower interest-rate caps or "microcredit sector reform". Worse, they will justify it using this sort of rhetoric on the part of ordinary people like us. For the sake of the poorest of my people, I hope they just take it out on Grameen through some sort of special committee chaired by a bunch of partisan sheep, and leave the rest alone.

And if this were to happen, what lessons would the innovators and risk-takers of my generation draw from it? Simply to innovate elsewhere, far away from the green Delta so close to our hearts. Because, perchance you become too big for your boots in trying to help your people, the politicians (a family caste apart) will warn you not to enter their strata and make life difficult for you if you choose not to heed. And they will do this with the support of the very masses you sought to help in the first place.

N.B. Proshika itself has been the target of the BNP government during the past few years, proving once again that if there is a new low to be attained, both our parties will compete hard to attain it. Read about Proshika's troubles here and here.

May 07, 2007

Two must-reads

Jyoti Rahman writes today in the Daily Star about the need to engage grassroots to make "electoral reforms stick". Jyoti's views are those of one who has respect for the will of the people, regarding them as active participants rather than passive, sub-intelligent children. Is the CTG listening? You can read the article here

On the same point-counterpoint section, a very courageous businessman named Syed Kabir asks the military if their "intentions are honourable". You can read the article here.

Excellent, excellent piece with two caveats, both highly relevant: 1) among the set of expectations from the army, non-intereference in media matters should be prominent and 2) the Pakistani Army is regularly carrying "the mantle of peace and democracy globally" even as "they are viewed as tyrants in their own backyard". The first is important because of increasing stories of intimidation of journalists. The second because it highlights the expectation held by some that "foreign powers" - whether multilaterally through the UN with the help of the peacekeeping "carrot" or unilaterally - will uphold democracy in Bangladesh. This expectation is formed on the assumption that foreign powers have idealistic goals (such as "spreading democracy") and not interest-based ones (such as "stopping the growth of terror networks"). My expectation is that whoever can fulfill their interest will be backed by them. If we want democracy, we have to work for it ourselves. So it is with great interest that I follow news of the visit of His Excellency, Special Envoy Farooq Sobhan to the U.S., hoping to find out how he spins the recent bombings.

May 05, 2007

"Secularism" and its discontents

With Huntington's half-baked "Clash of Civilizations" thesis being bought wholesale by neocons and jihadis alike, Turkey in turmoil over its national character, and bombs going off in Bangladesh, there cannot be a better time to contemplate the place of religion in our body politic.

I hate disclaimers. Especially before writing. But this is one topic from which people are more likely to make snap judgements about you than any other. So, full disclosure: I'm a non-practising Muslim. I fast occasionally, pray twice a year and currently have no Muslim friends I can call "close" in both senses of the word. My family are all Bangalis, two freedom-fighters among them, no rajakars, highly non-political, and evenly-spread out over the AL/BNP divide. Most people would consider that too much information to give out to anyone with a computer and a modem. But then, most people are not about to say that secularism, 71-style has failed and then expand on why.

An essential part of "Ekatturer Chetona" was communal harmony. By which was meant that people of different religions would get along, hopefully on the basis of language. Here one notes that linguistic-ethnicities other than Bangalis were thus screwed, leading to the CHT insurgencies and Choles Ritchil's recent demise.

When the time came for implementing this noble vision, the aim was essentially short-term. The biggest threat to communal harmony was undoubtedly religion-based parties such as the Jamaat. Thus to short-circuit them, we banished all politics based on religion and wrote in "secularism" into our first, much-lamented constitution.

The mistake here is the befuddling of a "communal" and a "religion-based" party. Taj Hashmi's article here is worth a read on this point. And whatever else you might say about Hashmi, you can't say that he's an Islamist apologist. Communal parties are those that appeal to the voter's religious identity, not his sense of religiosity. Religion-based parties do the opposite. Of course, Jamaat is a mixture of both, and has been for some time. But more on that later.

An interesting aside here is to look at the emergence of Pakistan in '47. The Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami: at that stage, their very names gave away their nature. The League was a communal organization, emphasizing "Muslim" identity over "Islamic" religiosity as the Jamaat did and still does. Thus, it should not come as a surprise, via Advani of all people, that Jinnah was a secular man. Of course the heavy drinker and ham-sandwich eater was a secular man in the sense that he did not practise his religion and did not force it down anyone else's throat! That did not stop him from having a "Muslim" identity and galvanising an entire generation. And here let me note, that our Bangali Muslim forefathers were among the most passionate of his supporters till his "Urdu and only Urdu" shot in the foot and his sidelining of Fazlul Haq.

Jamaat's moral bankruptcy is of course evident in this tale. How to explain why they shed blood (and apologists, they did!) for a state that only 25 years earlier they had opposed? Bloodlust, pure bloodlust. That too in the name of Islam! And it must be noted that in the process, they turned from a pure religion-based party to a mixture of the two: a religio-communal party.

After '71, instead of targetting just the intolerance bred by the communal aspect, we targetted the religious motivation in an effort to pull the rug right underneath Jamaat's feet. This had the unforeseen effect of alienating a substantial portion of (non-rajakar) Bangalis who, for good or bad, had a deep faith in their religion even if they would never vote Jamaat. Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, (and in my opinion, very wrongly!) some saw this as an attack on their religion. And no, I'm not arguing that these alienated ones are those joining the JMB, so hear me out!

The story then becomes a bit more complicated. "Secularism" is used to denote the separation of religion and politics. All well and good. But secularist policy does not denote one unique thing and comes in different flavours. For instance, in France and Turkey, it means that religion is absolutely abolished from the state. So, no yarmulkes, no gold crosses, no kirpans and no headscarves in public institutions. (Although let me note cynically here that this did not stop France from flying the flag at half-mast for Pope John Paul II. I'm almost sure that Bangladesh did not, but they should have!).

The U.S. and Canada does it differently, allowing private citizens their religion even on state property but ensuring that the state apparatus is non-religious. India again does it completely differently by including every religion within the state system, instead of excluding all of them. The mirror image of Turkey and France if you will. Thus, all religions are valid within the Indian state system, holidays are granted for all major religions and DD will carry an awfully goody-two-shoes movie to celebrate your puja, eid or dharamsala retreat. (Has anything really changed in the subcontinent over the last 2000+ years?) And yes, obviously these are over-simplifications but I have more or less conveyed the gist of these systems.

To this day I have not had a clear-cut answer to which version we wanted to implement. Perhaps we wanted to implement our own version and we just might, given the khaki rhetoric these days. Furthermore, I still do not see how secularism stops the persecution of minorities, religious or otherwise. Turkey has it's Kurds (as did Iraq), India it's Muslims and Sikhs, Indonesia the East Timorese and, lest we forget the most secular of them all, the Soviet Union their Jews. It's the last that is the most clear-cut case for the utter disconnect between secularism and tolerance, because even "Godless Marxism" failed to reverse the deep-rooted anti-Semitism in Russia. Secularism did nothing for these tragedies.

And even though I said "wrongly" before, the very word "secularism" carried some disturbing connotations to Bangali Muslims who had rough ideas about Kemal's anti-religious views (and these were no doubt exaggerated by Islamist forces) and were highly unconvinced by India's secularism with it's Oshok Sthombos and increasing tolerance for Hindutva parties. One can make a case that "secularism" was not "marketed" properly for their consumption. And because it was not so marketed, it ended up being counter-productive to the goal of harmony among the different religious groups in Bangladesh.

Making the case worse on a micro-level was the fact that the biggest adherents of "secularism" not only had vague ideas about what they meant (India? Turkey? U.S.? Soviet? All?), but were among the most Westernised of elites who pooh-pooh-ed religion as either "the opium of the masses" or "not made for advanced industrial societies". Much worse, they used evidence that is dicounted (if not discredited) even in the West nowadays on account of having been "Orientalist" at best and downright racist at worst. So far, to my limited knowledge, the only person who has tried to bring this issue to the fore is Tarek Masud. In "Matir Moina", the uncle of the boy is walking with friends over fields and streams, and they are all debating over whether Communism or Democracy is "authentic" or not and whether Islam is an "import". That scene is a must-watch not only for those concerned with what Bangalis see as culturally authentic but also for those who think that the mythical "average Bangali" cannot debate hard topics, but is passionate, easily mis-led and of course a coward who sits around all day. Tellingly, the uncle dies resisiting the Pakistani army and thus his concerns are lost.

Again on the micro-level, the secularists did not lose the moral high ground by preaching tolerance, but they did lose the "culturally authentic" ground to Islamists by adopting unfamiliar idioms, such as "Human Rights" and "false consciousness", with no attempts to indigenize them. They ended up being simply yet another (mostly urban) set with Western ideas to be resisted. And it is this resistance that is fuelling the current batch of militants, not some ideological affinity with the concept of "Pakistan" as in '71. Also on the micro-level is the initial mistake I point to: secularism is not the opposite of communalism, tolerance and respect for others are. If those two things were achieved, it would matter little whether a believer (whatever religion, organised or personal) or a secularist were in power.

Some say that globalization is to blame. It probably is. Less in the purely economic sense, but in a more holistic sense that it rewards and promotes elites, whether political, economic or intellectual, who are "culturally unauthentic" and only too happy to be so. The day secularism is sold as both authentically Bangladeshi (yes, this still needs to be done!) and Islamic is the day this resistance will fade. That however, needs getting down to the nitty-gritty, talking to madrassahs and using their own arguments, their own language and their own historical touchstones. Less the glories of secular Turkey and more the glories of Andalus. Arabic lessons anyone?

(And for those of you who are interested, I'll be doing another piece sometime this week titled "Islamism and its discontents". Not to retain some sort of "balance", a la CTG treatment of BNP and AL, but because it's something I'm genuinely interested in.)

May 04, 2007

Media concerns

(Decided that this story needs it's own space)

It seems the government might be banning websites as well a la China. No, no, no need to worry! Your porn will be safe (doubly so if you're a government employee/BTTB linesman and can work beyond the Great Firewall of Bangladesh). They're not banning ALL websites, just those that carry "anti-state" rhetoric. Whew, that's good. 'Cause everyone knows THIS website loves the state but criticises every government for being the same, boorish, narrow-minded, colonial, paternatilistic, patriarchal, condescending, exclusive oligarchy as the last one!

But yes, back to the real issue, our paternalistic government has decided what is too much for our eyes and ears, and what is not. You see, 150 million people of BD, you all are still CHILDREN. You don't know the CRAAAAZZZZYYY *insert jazz hands* ideas that are out there. Your government is simply trying to protect you. Unfortunately you all are also children of a very, very poor father who cannot provide for you and beats you up if you want more. He wants you to move into a market economy, but alas without the latest technologies to ensure that the market economy can function with near-perfect information. See he wants you to take initiative, but doesn't want you to KNOW anything that might help you take initiative. Hey, here's a pickle: does a site showing rising unemployment in some region of Bangladesh qualify as "anti-state"? Just wait for a call from your friendly, neighbourhood PID-officer... or maybe 25 of them.


Daily Star carries a story about a UNDP and Media Initiative for Public Policy organised discussion on the "Right to Information" act. The headlines say that the speakers asked the government to implement this act immediately and even "pointed out several loopholes in the draft copy". Would those loopholes concern "anti-state material"?

Typically, the relevant government advisor talked his way around this demand. A few choice quotes with praise and blame assigned where due:

1. ""If the people do not have confidence in an elected government, the laws will be ineffective. The people must have the ability to uphold democracy and make the government refrain from doing anything that jeopardises their rights," he said." - Advisor Mainul Hosein, I applaud you for saying this. I hope you give people access to unfettered information. Unfettered by things such as censors, firewalls and book-burning committes. Because lack of knowledge will mean that the people will (a) not know what the government is up to so as to make it "refrain from doing anything that jeopardises their rights" and/or (b) oppose the government on the wrong issues, based on purely suspicion, thus further giving credence to the colonial myth of Bangalis as an "over-emotional", "easily-duped" people who must be led.

2.""The issues of bringing reforms to different sectors, including democracy, judicial system and the mass media, have come to the fore due to corruption and the failure of our politicians. As the state system was also being criminalised, the country could not be run without the military help," the adviser said." - Correct me if I'm wrong Sir, but when did the question of reforms in mass media ever come about? And what do corrupt politicians have to do with it? Why, even NTV ran news critical of the BNP regime and gave full coverage to AL events! But hey, media reform might just be the next BIG thing. So don't be surprised to see some more editors picked up and put in jails. Oh and by "reform", I do mean silencing dissent.

3. "He also said, "As we are going through the state of emergency and a great crisis, we express our concern over different issues on different occasions. Journalists must understand that we are here not to remain in power and sometimes we advise you out of tension. Do not think that our mistakes or advices are ill-motivated."
The adviser also called on journalists to remain careful, saying, "Some journalists and editors also misuse power to carry out different types of activities. Journalists should also bring about reforms within themselves.""
- Ohh I see! So you're just WORRIED about the state of the media and tense that they may cause trouble! Within three paragraphs, you've lost my trust Advisor. Here's how: your tension results in media censorship. That leads to the deterioration in quality of media coverage. As a result, we don't get served. That's about all the reform the media needs. I don't see you contributing to it.

But I agree with you. The media IS the reason for all our troubles. If they did not report on the nasty things that other people were doing, then the rest of us could go to sleep at night and not be worried unduly. I completely, COMPLETELY see your point.

I don't think the Honourable Advisor will ever read this, but for those of you wondering about my rage, here's the low-down: throughout the 90s media freedom was the only thing that seemed to be getting better. True, people were getting beaten up, but a lot more were taking courageous stances to address more and more "taboo" political issues. Now, we seem to be regressing, back to the general, back to emergency, back to BAKSAL. But then, the 70s were a cool time to be alive, huh?

May 03, 2007

Fear and Loathing at Nagorik Shokti - or why I supported Yunus and now am terribly disappointed

(Funny update below)

And so it ends not with a whimper, but a bang. Eliot's poetry holds no metaphor that can capture the enormous amount of pessimism with which I regard the immediate short-run in Bangladesh. Yes, you heard me right: the author of the Wasteland has failed to match my mood.

I woke up this morning to find that Yunus has decided not to float his party after all. It's a true testament to the times that I got the news first off Drishtipat, then off the Daily Star. Because with the press restrictions in place, the media has become increasingly worthless as a source of REAL news.

Full disclosure: I am not related to him, nor have I ever been an employee or intern at Grameen organizations. I have met him once. I got a photo and an autograph out of it, neither of which I really wanted at the time but was pushed into by my parents. And no, my parents are not the Dhaka "secular humanist", "ekatturer chetona"-types. In fact, they are highly skeptical of this whole "NGO-thing" as they call it.

No I came to respect Yunus later on, in college, in a land far, far away from the humidly green Delta. And then too, only for his creativity. That a man at the height of the "Cold War" ("an ethnocentric term" - Naveed Sheikh) could rise above the two petty ideologies - which had needlessly polarized Bangladesh as well as the rest of the world where the war was anything but "Cold" - and do something different for the "Third World" came as a nice little surprise. That he was from Bangladesh filled my heart with joy. The only thing that could have been more perfect was if he had been from my beloved Dhaka, but alas....

So when he announced his political ambitions, I hoped again that he would be able to overcome the AL-BNP political polarizations and the whole secular-Islam social polarization: both needless, both meaningless, both absolutely artificial. After all, this was the man who had overcome that other spectacular piece of binary thinking - market vs. central planning. After all, he was neither KZ or SH, not even loosely related. After all, he had declared proudly that he had gone and prayed after winning the Nobel Prize. I didn't think he would make all this change immediately, but in the long-term through example.

I remained skeptical of his short-term goals, especially as any news of his policies were not forthcoming. I remained skeptical too of his conflict of interest with being both in government and still regarded as being part of "civil society". You are either one or the other, no exceptions. Yet, one remained optimistic.

I heard criticisms of him. Most were irrelevant to say the least. Let me just reproduce some major strands of argument:

1)Don't come into politics. It's not for clean people. And oh yes, we need reform.: I don't think refuting this is worth my time or effort.

2)He's a market-centric bastard in the pocket of MNCs: Yes. He is market-centric. And he does deal with MNCs. Fortunately, unlike most of us, he became a master of the market system and an almost-equal partner of MNCs, instead of remaining their snivelling or frightful slave like the rest of us. This one came mostly from ex-communists and the odd conformist-non-conformists who did not like all the hype surrounding Yunus.

3)Grameen doesn't really work. Yunus is a sham: SH is nothing like Mujib (indisputably the Greatest son/daughter of this Soil in known history) and KZ or TR is nothing like president Zia. The day you call them "shams" to their face, I'll believe you're not a partisan hack.

3)Just because he made a poverty-reduction scheme work doesn't mean that he knows how to run government: Oh yeah? Then what ensures that you know how to run government? Degrees from American colleges with no practical experience? Practical experience in siphoning off cash to INVEST in other countries (no degree required)? Being someone's widow or daughter or son or grandson? Being convicted of running ethnic-cleansing hit-squads in '71? Being an accountant, a lawyer who has found more loopholes in the constitution than he has fixed, a general who wrote poetry and made a mockery of his own religion and country? This list is seriously endless. So why are people so ready to dismiss him without giving him a chance when we've given every third-rate BCL/BCD "cadre"-leader a try without asking for his resume? Or is that an uncomfortable question?

Then there was 1/11. Rumour flew that he had been approached to become Chief Advisor. Rumour also had it that he turned it down. Well, good job I said. Who wants to be a figurehead anyway? I mean, look at Fakru! And Iajuddin before that. (And on the topic of Iajuddin, has a scholar ever harmed his country more?)

And now of course he's decided to call it quits. People suspect the AL's rhethoric but that's probably giving the AL too much credit at this point. More likely (and this is PURE SPECULATION), he did not want to get involved in the only party that will probably have power over the next five years: a sort of hegemonic party like the NDP in Egypt, the Baath in Syria or the JP under Ershad. Our way or the highway seems to be the rule from hereonin. He chose the highway.

Yet... yet... if had stood up to the powers that be at this point, formed his party and called for elections, he would have been the hero of the people. He decided to take the quiet route, Lord knows under what sort of pressure. Another high, followed by yet another low. Goodbye Nagorik Shokti and hello Vegas. My friend, I missed you.

Update: Best reaction to this news comes from shadakalo's blog: "OK, its official. Worldwide poverty alleviation is easier than leading Bangladesh." Even at the worst of times, our sense of humour has rescued us.

Two follow-ups

New Age has two interesting scraps of information. I'll link them tomorrow (Friday in BD) because the website has this really annoying feature where the permalink to any news item is available only the day after.

Follow-up: "Monir Hossain, 22, a rickshaw puller, sustained severe burn injury in the right hand after a bomb, kept inside a packet, had gone off in front of the new railway terminal in Chittagong minutes before 7:00am, the New Age correspondent in Chittagong reported.
Munir was admitted to Chittagong Medical College Hospital. He had to have the wrist amputated at the CMCH.
Munir told pressmen at the hospital that the explosion had taken place as he tried to open a packet containing a small watch.
‘A female beggar gave me the packet and requested to open it. But it exploded with a bang as I tried to open it,’ he said, adding the beggar told him that she had been supplied with the packet by a stranger."

One man's livelihood is at stake right now thanks to such mindless actions. I hope someone helps him find a new job or something, but most likely I will never know sitting all bubble-wrapped and protected. At least, he is alive.

Tidbit: In this post I had said: "Why the Ahmadiyas with a population of 200,000? Ask the impoverished, frustrated, 20-30-something, average looking guy (and it's inevitably a guy) who supports such pogroms, be they in Gujarat-2000, Munich-33-45 or Dehli-85. "They are the cause of all our troubles". Chilling but true: evil has a mundane face.

Thus, I have very mixed emotions about another New Age report on JMB that says: "Based on his confessional statements, the law enforcers have launched a massive man hunt for the rest of the 38 suicide squad commanders across the country.
The others commanders are identified as Khandaker Arifur Rahman alias Arif, 25, Al Saniur Rahman Chhotan, 20, Shamim Iqbal Suman, 21, Mohammad Sarfaraj, 28, Joynal Abedin Towfiq, 25, Habibur Rahman Limon, 22, Jalal Uddin, 30, Kalam, 25, Shahin, 18, Billal, 18, Mohammad Jalal, 18, Bipul, 22, Firoj, 20, Tanvir, 20, Ohidul, 22, Sumon Rahman, 19, Arif, 25, Shahabul, 20, Mohammad Suman, 18, Badal, 22, Shanti, 20, Rajan, 19, Ziko, 18, Ruhul, 30, Masum, 20, Saiful, 20, Mohan, 26, Sajal, 20, Tutul, 21, Shafiqul, 18, Sattar, 20, Hakim, 19, Pulak, 19, Imtiaj, 18, Arafat, 18, Rahim, 18, Shetu, 20, and Hazi Nazmul, 23."

Somehow though, the taste of vindication cannot cover the stronger, sourer taste of imminent danger.

Funniest shit of the day - Dr. Strangelove edition

Hint: if you have fifth-rate human resources, do not implement first-rate technology. Here's why.

May 02, 2007

The Morning After

(Updated below)

Woke up this morning with the blogsphere buzzing. I'm not going to duplicate far better efforts at capturing this buzz. You may find these on the 3rd world view and Global Voices Online. For reactions to news, check out Drishtipat.

My own thoughts, a bit more collected than last time:

1) Attempts to connect this with JMB seem particularly futile. All Islamist movements in South Asia are essentially proponents of "cultural authenticity", by which they simply mean they are anti-everything-that-looks-sounds-feels-ever-so-slightly-Western. Japanese, Chinese, Persian, Arabian, Sudanese are fine. Just not "Western". JMB targetted courts and the police. These people are targetting a sub-section of NGOs (those they deem to be "Western" and thus deserving of the title "NGO") and an oft-maligned minority. JMB's demands were state-directed and ambitious. These people seem particularly aimless and absolutely unambitious if they are taking on NGOs and Ahmaddiyas. Powerful groups, those two are not. Well, certainly not compared to the judiciary and the police.

2) As I said yesterday and I've been hammering the point over and over this last week: NGO does not denote only those organizations that work for liberal values, where "liberal" is defined in a Western context. NGO does not denote only those organizations that are taking money from donors. The more we use the term NGO is a narrow sense, the less potent civil society becomes everyday.

3) The government's response was fast, and kudos to them for that whatever their other flaws. "Strategy of tension" as I mentioned in the first update? Hopefully not. Rogue military elements would have used much more powerful bombs, way more synchronised to make an even bigger impact. There are no reports of bombs being recovered as of yet, but if there are, we have the government to thank for a fast response that may have deterred other potential miscreants.

What to expect from this? Hopefully nothing. Maybe a greater tightening of the martial grip around the country. Definitely greater Western pressure to clean up ship. And they might not mind who does it for them: a democratic government or a military-bureaucratic dictatorship. Are we headed the Pakistan way? One hopes not. Because if there is one thing I'm completely sure of: a dictator may help stem social pressures in the short-run, but simply intensifies their impact in the long-run. And this is doubly true for the egalitarian, opinionated, "politically conscious" and arrogant Bangladeshis than for their sleepier co-religionists in Pakistan.

Update: On Drishtipat (link above), Naeem asks:

How exactly does one become the “Al Qaeda” branch in Bangladesh? Was there an initiation ceremony? Little wallet size cards?

I've read this somewhere, and the wikipedia article on AQ has details about how the organizational structure is loosely-knit and non-hierarchical. In other words, anyone can call themselves AQ nowadays.

He also asks:

Of all targets, why again Ahmadiyas (Kadianis)? Population of 200,000? Why not the expected targets of “AQ”– US, ES Embassy, “The West”, bla bla?

It's easy to forget that AQ's roots lie in trying to overthrow domestic Arab governments. That is why JMB was a lot more like them than these guys.

Why the Ahmadiyas with a population of 200,000? Ask the impoverished, frustrated, 20-30-something, average looking guy (and it's inevitably a guy) who supports such pogroms, be they in Gujarat-2000, Munich-33-45 or Dehli-85. "They are the cause of all our troubles". Chilling but true: evil has a mundane face.

May 01, 2007

Breaking News: Bomb blasts in Bangladesh. Dhaka, Chittagong and Syhlet Railway stations hit

The DS is reporting that blasts rock these three railway stations with details to come. Anyone who has any details, post them now. Even if it turns out to be a red herring, I'll be keeping my eyes on this one for a little while. Goodbye sleep!


(thank you reuters!)

First update (of many I feel) @ 12:21 BST, 2:21 EST: Reuters. Is this a hoax or perhaps (excuse a bit of sleep-deprived paranoia) a "strategy of tension"? Because frankly, what kind of dumbasses make demands like "If Hazrat (Prophet) Mohammad is not declared the superman of the world by May 10, all non-governmental organisations will be blown up"? Who wrote this and what was he smoking?

Update 2 @12:36 BST, 2:36 EST: Brisbane Times is reporting a slightly different version of things linking this to the anti-Ahmaddiya elements. Possible AL/SH implication thanks to the MOU with Khelafat-Mojlish? Hmmm....

Update 3 @12:39 BST, 2:39 EST: Devices hidden inside small bags reports China Post. Sounds like Mumbai blasts copycats.

Update 4 @12:49 BST, 2:49 EST: AFP reporting on the anti-Ahmaddiya angle via Turkish Press. Also, finally we know when it happened! 7 in the morning, BST. Does news still travel this slow? More importantly, was it coordinated and simultaneous this time as well? Most importantly, has the government responded by increasing security at other transport hubs?

Reminder: I'm highly interested in learning about what you saw and what you think is going on if you're in Dhaka, Chittagong or Syhlet. So feel free to comment.

Update 5 @12:54 BST, 2:54 EST: Daily Star puts up the big, bold, red breaking news banners it reserves for truly important news. Apparently Jadid al-Qaeda Bangladesh has claimed responsibility. "Details will be available soon," they say. "Links will be available soon," I say.

Update 6 @13:08 BST, 3:08 EST: Naeem on Drishtipat reports from Dhaka on the events as they transpired. Seems like the government has increased security. Good early response! Nothing else new here except the confirmation of both demands: NGO workers cease working and "Kadianis" (Ahmaddiyas) be declared non-Muslim. Also new: timing of the bombs is reported to be between 6:45 and 9:30. Not simultaneous by any means then.

Update 7 @ 13:22 BST, 3:22 EST: Daily Star reports pretty much the same times of explosion as above but calls it "near-simultaneous". We have a lot to be worried about when it comes to this sort of things, but needless panic mongering is not going to help!

Dhaka: 6:45 am
Syhlet: 7:15 am
Chittagong: 9:30 am

Near simultaneous is a bit of a stretch. We are only as afraid as we want to be.

Monitoring the blogs, this is the only thing I got. It links to a Bangla blog.

Update 8 @ 13:33BST, 3:33 EST: Reuters has updated. Two quotes:

"The bombs were kept in cotton sacks, along with the metal sheets. They exploded before anyone detected them," said police Inspector Abu Zafar Alam at Kamalapur, Bangladesh's biggest railway terminal.

"This (Tuesday's blasts) proved they are still active and dared to show their teeth," said one security official who asked not to be named.

Update 9 @13:54 BST, 3:54 EST: Brisbane Times updates. And just as I'm about to google "jadid" to see what it means, the paper reports that it stands for "new". "New"? As in "Old wine in new bottles" sort of "new"?

Reminder: I'm highly interested in learning about what you saw and what you think is going on if you're in Dhaka, Chittagong or Syhlet. So feel free to comment.

Update 10 @14:21 BST, 4:21 EST: Reuter adds that Munir Hossain, the ricksha-wala who was injured, tried to open one of the sacks containing the bombs before it exploded. No details of injuries or their seriousness. Can't really blame them. After all, Daily Star has not even put up a name or profession yet! Of course, if it happened to be someone "important" ...

Update 11 @14:26 BST, 4:26 EST: CNN joins the fray with the headline "Bangladesh railway blasts signed 'al Qaeda'". It's running in both US and international editions. It has the Reuters byline, so no need to get excited.
CNN, please don't ever change: we love you just the way you are.

Update 12 @14:34 BST, 4:34 EST: Zee News reports that Munir Hossain has been admitted to a local hospital.

Editorialising on the run: How are these blasts going to be spun? Moin on Drishtipat (comment 6) says that M&M are trying to play it down. So maybe "strategy of tension" was a bit of a leap. But one will have to wait and see.

On the same page Naeem asks if Bangladesh is "once again being used as a chessboard for puppetmasters", a reference I assume to '71 and the Cold War politics surrounding it. Well, the Cold War is over and Bangladesh really has more state capacity than before, although maybe not as much as the government would like to believe.

Before we blame "foreign interests", it's much more productive to look ourselves in the mirror and ask: what are we doing wrong? These blasts are at best gimmicks. A sort of publicity stunt for a very dangerous message. However, they do point to that very awful trend where the whole concept of civil society and NGO are being reified (as discussed in DP and on this blog a few days back). Aren't there Islamic NGOs active in Bangladesh too?

It's the deaf talking to the deaf, punctuating their sentences with bomb blasts.

Update 13 @15:11 BST, 5:11 EST: At 8:41 GMT, BBC catches on.

Update 14 @ 15:24 BST, 5:24 EST: Mumbai-based Daily News and Analysis runs the story 19 minutes ago. From people who believe that Woolmer may have been murdered thanks to a fatwa from a radical group, I don't quite know what spin to expect!

Update 15 @15:36 BST, 5:36 EST: Rajputro has this to say about the timing:

Many Bangladeshis were travelling out of Dhaka taking advantage of a two-day public holiday for May Day and a Buddhist religious festival on Wednesday. Since friday and saturday are weekly holidays, if you take leave on thursday you'll make it a five day holiday. But now people are afraid of making a move.

Intelligence groups last month alerted the government that Islamist militants were regrouping after the execution of the militant leaders of the outlawed Islamist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen....

Funny enough, today was the first day of "Bangladesh Railway Service week". Nice service I should say.

He also adds:

Law and order advisory chairman Mainul Hosein said the bomb blasts were "nothing serious" which sounded like what political parties used to say during their reign. He also added that someone might do this to show this government a failure. Sounds familiar, huh?

Couldn't agree more! To which I might add a small anecdote. The day of the 62 district simultaneous bombings coincided with a lawyer's organization's rally at the Supreme Court. When the bombs denotated, these lawyers started a procession protesting the attack on "them" and accusing their opponents of having carried it out to prevent their rally. Yes, the whole world does revolve around them...

Update 16 @15:53 BST, 5:53 EST (Yes, dawn!): Talking about reification of the terms "civil society" and "NGO", Reuters has updated yet again:

The militants had previously threatened non-governmental organizations, especially those working to promote women's rights in the mainly Muslim South Asian country.

"We are not afraid, we are united and will keep on working for the people," Khushi Kabir, leader of a women's NGO group, Nijera Kori, told Reuters. "The latest blasts indicate that they are yet to be uprooted."

In short, "NGOs" are those organizations that do women's rights and poverty-reduction. Not, say an Ahmaddiya charity that might do relief/poverty reduction even thought technically they too are NGOs. Or maybe a madrassa or two that oppose these militants.

Of course, even the militants share that Manichean worldview as well! Irony comes in many forms.