June 29, 2007

The Many Fallacies of Syed Badrul Ahsan

I know, I know. I'm squeezing this lemon bitter. This man is one part of all that is wrong with his generation. He's blatantly partisan without even knowing it. He represents the liberal part, and I'll highlight the more conservative part soon enough.

Take his tribute to Jahanara Imam, in which he manages to insert this little gem:

"When you reflect on the life that Jahanara Imam went through, you will have cause to recall the glamour that once defined her being. It was glamour that did not come with the glitter one associates with it. It was indeed a pattern of living, which once was emblematic of the urbanity and sophistication that came easily to Bengalis in the days when nationalism began to dig increasingly deeper roots in their consciousness."

Ah yes, the URBANity of Bangali nationalism! Shows exactly the hidden assumption he operates under, namely that the urban middle class essentially represents the entire nation. That is why we can get rid of rickshas from our roads and evict slum dwellers from wastelands and patronise madrasha students as being unpatriotic. All in the name of improving, beautifying and building this Bangali nation because we, the middle class, are the nation. Read Syed Badrul Ahsan's writings carefully and this is the hidden assumption you will find everywhere! A true product of his time.

But that was minor by itself. The rest of the writing was good, so I overlooked it. The next day there followed this editorial, where he criticises the performance of the Foreign Office since Dr. Kamal's "glory days" and advocates for the appointment of diplomats drawn from fields other than diplomacy:

"They did poorly, not because they did not know their job but because they worked in the mistaken, pretty selfish belief that they were there to serve a partisan government rather than an entire country. There are, thus, the pitfalls associated with sending men and women from outside the foreign service abroad.

On balance, though, it is always people from academia, journalism and politics who make a bigger impression on the outside world than do those who have professionally been trained to speak for their country abroad."

Marvellous. Simply marvellous. Yes, that is what we need to do to overcome the very partisanship he criticises. MORE personal appointments from outside the BCS, not better trained diplomats. I mean, when we let politicians bring in people from outside the Foreign Office to head embassies, SURELY they are not going to appoint someone PARTISAN! Perish the thought.

There are no figures, no statistics, not even a proposed indicator on how we should measure the success of our embassies. These things would have been of immense value, but alas they are utterly less glamorous than advocating for "journalists" and poets like Pablo Neruda to be appointed. And let's face it, glamour and image are everything in diplomacy. A good knowledge of the WTO or IMF or other international treaties... mehhh, that's all for these "partisan" professional diplomats.

And by the way, Neruda's loyalties seem to have lain more with Stalin than with Chile.

June 27, 2007

"Made in Bangladesh" - from Clothes to Personalized Homepages

When I was young (and it is quite far off and not as recent as I like to pretend), there was this distinct feeling in the air that "Made in Bangladesh" was somehow not good enough. The 90s saw that memorable TV ad in which a father comes back from that oft-visited place called "abroad"/"bidesh" and hands out gifts. With typical bad acting, all the recipients of said gifts feign surprise when they find out that they were "Made in Bangladesh" (MIB).

The 90s saw a new born belief in Bangladesh and its abilities, culminating in the 2000s where almost every advertisement on television is draped in the red and green. So it surprised me when a good friend of mine expressed reservations about wearing MIB as recently as last summer after my annual Bongo Bajar/ Dhaka College shopping spree. How far this was a class issue (after all, she was wearing stuff from Westecs, also MIB), and how far this was the old colonial hangover I couldn't tell. A bit of both I suspected. It is definitely an elite issue. Since the elite have economic and social trend-setting power, making them consumers par excellence, this makes it an important factor for entrepreneurs to reckon with.

And it is a colonial hangover. It wasn't for nothing that Gandhi spun his own cloth. True, the immediate purpose was to break the monopoly of British textiles. But the long-term impact on the Indian psyche has been to rid them of the shame of consuming Indian, at least among the elite.

Bangladeshi entrepreneurs toil under this burden. Given two equally good choices between a Deshi and a bideshi product, most of my generation would choose the bideshi one. Most of the time of course, we were given a choice between a far superior foreign product and a very mediocre MIB product. BTV, with its unintentionally funny ads as described above and even funnier news, is a good example of this.

Clothes however do not fall into this category. Bangladesh pretty much clothes the entire world. What we don't do is make Armani shirts. Maybe we do, but "they" put in the logo and reap the profits when our elites buy them.

Here we come to the thorny issue of cultural products. Whose "culture" is better? Is English/bideshi music and movies really better than Bangla ones (no to the former, yes to the latter; it's simply a matter of taste and there's no right or wrong when it comes to that)? Whose brands are better? I used to know people who would wear nothing but Nike and would probably gouge their eyes out anything else MIB. Yes, it was that intense.

Needless to say, I wear my MIB clothes pretty proudly in foreign lands. True, I don't have a swish or a union jack showing, but I find I can live without such symbols. I, however, refuse to wear lungis. No cultural inferiority there (I hope), just never got used to them.

Recently, I've been hearing a lot about Pageflakes. 3rd world view did an entry on it last month which tickled my curiosity. It’s a personalized home page, with different modules known as "flakes" allowing you to build it up from scratch and individualize it to your heart’s content.

What really got me interested is the fact that their Chief Technology Officer is Bangladeshi. 3rd world view also reports that 18 Bangladeshis currently work for it, while Patricia from Underdogs Fight Back tells us that 3 Bangladeshi engineers were the original core developers. Bangladesh Corporate Blog mentions it when it wonders if a Bangladeshi MNC is ever going to be possible (incidentally, they forgot to mention by name the one city in which a truly Bangladeshi MNC would need to base itself in. No points for guessing which city.)

So here’s my small request to my readers. I’m not urging you to use personalized home pages (I don’t). I’m not urging you to switch from one in which you’re comfortable. I’m not urging you to sign up for an inferior product out of patriotism (economic nationalism is over-rated and passe). I’m simply saying that if you’re thinking of starting a personalized home page, you MIGHT consider consuming something MIB over Google or Yahoo. At least till some red and green seeps into the top tiers of those companies too!

In the meantime, I’ll see what I can do about the lungi-phobia.

June 26, 2007

Remembering Shohid Jononi

26th June marks the death anniversary of one of those Bangladeshis whose love for the motherland is above question. It is a reflection of the nature of the true patriot that she had government charges against her name even as she lay dying. Those who love Bangladesh must be ever ready, ever vigilant to protect Bangladeshis, even if it means being at odds with the government of the day, whatever their political hue, whatever their political rhetoric. Jahanara Imam was one such patriot.

Unlike many, she was no hollow patriot. Not for her the nationalism that rehabilitated former collaborators. Not for her the elitism that played to well-fed, clothed urban Dhaka-ites. Not for her the Islam that overlooks the suffering of the weak and poor.

No. She gave her all. A son and a husband to the struggle for an entire people's freedom. Her pen to chronicle the forgotten pages of history. Her failing light to a cause that was as politically dangerous as it was right.

The least we can give her in return is remembrance. God bless your soul mother of martyrs!

June 24, 2007

Foot in Mouth of (back in) the Day

Our winner today: the Sandhurst-"educated" Mr. Ayub Khan, once the most powerful man in Bangladesh.

Recently, his diaries have been published which really does not contain any surprises for any Bangali (not "Bengali", you Urdu-speaking, North Indian, colonised piece of ****) who has read the relevant parts of his autobiography "Friends not Masters". Not to give any more circulation to this sort of colonial, Orientalist crap peddling itself as scholarship simply because a powerful man wrote it, but my "favourite" quote has to be Ayub on the Bangalis he so despised (and therefore was the BEST person to judge impassionately): "they have no culture and language of their own, nor have they been able to assimilate the culture of the Muslims of the sub-continent, by turning their back on Urdu."

Yes. Last time I checked, both the Quran and the Hadith emphasised a good Urdu education for all Muslims. Ayub Khan wouldn't know a real Muslim if he got hit by one. Which is why he didn't see Mujib and his millions coming straight at him. His legacy to Pakistan was this enormous amount of institutional blindness that he left behind. Which is why they didn't see us either, and still don't get us.

Foot firmly in Mouth for the last 60 years and counting till your "country" breaks up into four ethnic fiefdoms. We'll see how "Muslim" Urdu is at that point.

Joy Bangla!

(PS. To those who are curious: I deliberately do not consider our two leaders for this prize because I do not want to hand this out every single day. And no, saying "Joy Bangla" does not make me an Awami League supporter. And yes, I do consider Bangla to be a Muslim language. Hindu, Christian and Buddhist too.)

June 22, 2007

Unworthy of Mujib's Legacy

Despite my recent admiration for the party chief's politicking abilities and my everlasting admiration for Mujib (I repeat: the Greatest Bangali in written history!) I still contend that AL supporters, their tactics and beliefs little befits the party of Suhrawardy, Mujib and Tajuddin.

Only a commendable few on the blogosphere are talking about the continuity of the party. Most seem to equate Mrs. Hasina with the Awami League, the very anti-thesis of INTERNAL reform that they have been supporting as opposed to reform forced from the outside. The lowest point of the discourse (online anyway) has been commenting on the weight and girth of one of the reformist leaders. Hmmmm... now why does this ring a bell?

(No, I'm not linking to the comments, because I respect most of the rest of what I've heard these people say.)

June 21, 2007

The Politics of Silence

When the poet Shamsur Rahman died last summer, Jamaat-e-Islaami remained silent. It spoke volumes.

We are taught that it is the duty of every Muslim to mourn the death of another. Perhaps Jamaat did not approve of the Poet’s writings. Yet, instances of Muslims mourning the death of Muslims they had differed with in life are sprinkled throughout history. Perhaps, they had thought he was not a “true” Muslim. We are taught that Muslims do not pass judgment on the religiosity of other Muslims. That was for God alone. Yet, when the Poet died, Jamaat - that self-proclaimed champion of Islam and protector of Muslims - remained silent. They did not issue any public messages of condolences, did not attend the funeral for the television cameras to see and certainly did not see it fit to say, at the very least, that a Muslim of some note within the community had died.

This is not a polemic against Jamaat and it’s inherently anti-Islamic stance on issues and personalities relating to our Independence War. This is a short exploration on silence and its rather loud reverberations. The “political economy”, if you will, of what/who we choose to focus on when we create the little stories through which we grasp reality.

Consider the two Big Guns. Their myths about their respective Great Leaders are smeared with desert spaces whose size would scare even the redoubtable Robert Frost - in other words, with silence. No one talks of famine, of Shiraj “Crossfire” Shikder, of misallocation of precious little resources, of “from today you’re all Bangalis” or of a “constitutional” autocracy nowadays. Similarly, no one talks of rehabilitation of anti-Bangladeshi forces in the name of nationalism, of Muslim-chauvinistic elements in a multi-religious state in the name of state-building, of farcical elections or of “making politics difficult”. No one of course, except the other side. But their silence has already compromised their credibility.

And of course, neither side really wants to talk about Suhrawardy, Fazlul Haque, Bhashani, Osmani… you get the drift. Nor have any attempts been made by their governments to gather the personal stories of freedom fighters, because heaven knows, all of them surely did not fight for “nationalism” or “Islam” or “socialism and secularism” or “for our Great Leader” or “under our Great Leader”. Some merely fought to survive, for honour and self-respect and for their communities. And don’t even get me started on the silencing of women’s voices, the very women who suffered through those nine months. Or of the children who were adopted by the same Westerners that both Islamists and Marxists alike like to condemn for their “Imperialist” ways. Men, women and children - all silenced. What’s left? Two dead leaders and a bunch of people robbing us in their names.

Or think a bit more globally. Old-style communists - the few that are left anyway - always condemn “imperialism”. Yet, they consistently overlook the history of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe, as manifested in Hungary and Czekoslovakia. Once again, silence. Conversely, take the more fashionable case nowadays of one Mr. George “Dubya” Bush, who has publicly called for democracy in the Muslim world but has also publicly shaken hands with Musharraf, Mubarak and the Saudi monarchs. In other words, more silence. Islamists outside Bangladesh too practice this silence. Otherwise how can you explain the lack of sympathy when Muslim regimes oppress Muslim citizens, be they in Kurds, Kazakhs, Berbers, Rohingya refugees or Balochi warriors? Of course the one I take most personally is the silence of 1971 ...

And it’s not a recent or simply political phenomenon either. Post-modernist historians such as Said, Spivak and Bhaba have continuously pointed out how history is written from the perspective of the powerful even when written by supposedly neutral scholars. Not only does the victor write history, but s/he also gives voice to the vanquished. True, that is not the silence I’m referring to, but it leads to it. With the weakening of the vanquished voice, it becomes increasingly impossible to believe that once it was South Asia that was the more prosperous society, with a net positive balance of payments and its own functioning legal system. With disbelief comes silence, perpetuated by a thousand amnesiac PhDs as “fact” and “evidence”. That is the tragedy of silence.

June 20, 2007

Mrs. Hasina's final gambit? New generation's first hope?

(updated below)

In her interview with the Daily Star, Mrs. Sheikh Hasina Wajed claimed that she wanted deeper reforms than those that "dissidents" within her party proposed. Today's Daily Star reports that she has come up with them.

She not only wants a complete separation of party politics and government politics as she claimed in the interview. She also wants 60 years to be the age-limit set for all presidium members of the AL.

What this move does is pretty simple: it puts other "dinosaurs" (old AND slow moving) such as Tofael and Motia Chowdhury in the same boat as her. The end of the article carries a list of other "heavweights" over 60.

But what this move accomplishes is amazing. It gets her allies in her fight to stay on. It does this by transforming the fight into one between the Old Guard" vs. the "New Upstarts", instead of the old fight between the Chairperson vs. the Rest. Amazing really! Sheer political genius. Frankly, I never thought her capable of it.

Well played madam, well played!

Further thoughts: When I initially described this move as "a gambit" and ended with "well played", I did so intentionally, to evoke the chess-like quality of politics and highlight what a skilled player Mrs. Sheikh Hasina has proven herself to be by making this move (alas! if only we had seen this while she was in opposition).

It just shows how much chess I know that "gambit" refers to a situation where a pawn is sacrificed. Mrs. Sheikh Hasina has made a move that will sacrifice her own political career, or what could be quite accurately called a "Queen sacrifice". Whether her opponents will take the bait or not is of course another story.

But here's the really amazing part of this move: she wins either way, whether her opponents takes the bait or not.

Consider this: if her opponents do push forward with the reforms and she does retire voluntarily, with silence and dignity, in accordance with her own new rule, her popularity shoots up. In that situation, even if she does not come back "out of popular demand", she goes down in history as one of the most selfless politicians we have ever had. If her opponents decide to discontinue their call for reforms, she stays on as Chairperson with a fresh mandate and greater legitimacy than ever. Of course the first victory is a bit more long-term than the second, which is what makes me think that the second is what she'll go with.

Here's what I think will happen: the over-60-ites are all shuffling behind the scenes right now with renewed energy. Their livelihoods are being threatened, not just that of the Chairperson. They orchestrate mass rallies soon (or as soon as the ban on politics is lifted) calling on Mrs. Hasina to stay on. If she does, they do too.

Oh the sheer genius of it! I still can't get over this magnificent instance of issue-linkage, pinning others' fate to hers. Frankly her talents are wasted within the Awami League. She would have been an international negotiator par excellence.

June 19, 2007

Contribution, Extortion, Corruption

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan wrote a very confused and confusing article about what distinguishes "extortion" from "contribution", dealing exclusively with the charges brought against Mrs. Sheikh Hasina Wazed. He points out four things that make it difficult to distinguish between extortion and donation in Bangladesh:

1. Lack of legislation regulating funds of the parties.

2. Lack of independent auditing process by the parties themselves.

3. Lack of funding from the state.

4. The fact that the chief executive and the chief of party are the same.

Unfortunately, all these points could be used to partially exonerate Tareq himself (#4 especially) should he simply play the semantic trick of calling everything a "contribution" from now on. Nobody wants that to happen. Of course, in his case there's a LOT to be re-labelled.

Two questions: why doesn't the Awami League audit independently already? This isn't rhetorical, I'm sure there is a good answer and I want to know. Secondly, why didn't it push forward such legislative measures when it was in power (surely their need wasn't that much harder to see in 1999/2000)? This one's rhetorical. When legislation curtails one's own majoritarian powers, it is effectively not pursued.

This is simply another instance of how much damage Awami League supporters can do to their cause with such logic. Earlier, when the party chief spoke to the Daily Star, she came across for the most part as an honest politician who genuinely believes in her innocence in these cases. Reading this article totally ruined that image.

But the article did serve to remind me of King Henry's "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?" in Shakespeare's Richard II. The "living fear" is Henry's rival Richard II, and a nobleman interprets Henry's words as an indirect command and assassinates Richard. Henry ends up denying issuing any such order and exiles the nobleman.

Just goes to show that the serious student of politics must always start with Shakespeare as her/his guide. After all, Henry argues, it was merely a wish, not a command. The nobleman committed the crime of his own free will. Yet, academics have pointed out ever since, what would have happened to the nobleman had he not committed the crime? And the answer to that defines Henry's guilt or innocence as king.

Instead of blaming the system for not being helping us distinguish between what is legally considered a contribution and what is considered an extortion, let me propose a simpler benchmark: "aapon ichcha" or "one's own will" or "lack of coercion". When Mujib gave out his clarion call on that fateful day at Suhrawardy Uddyan in 1971, he noted: "Aapon ichchay manush raastay beriye porlo". The most powerful leader in the country noted the importance of adding "aapon ichchay" or in other words "of our own free will" and "without coercion".

The difference between a contribution and an extortion is simply that: contributions are made out of one's own free will while extortion implies force or coercion.

Since the 90s, what have we the people done "aapon ichchay", without coercion?

If we have ventured out on the streets or opened our businesses during general strikes, we have been COERCED into our homes and FORCED to shut down our businesses.

If we have ventured out in support of strikes, of our right to protest, we have been COERCED into staying silent and into retreating back home, black and blue from the baton.

If we have expressed opinions that did not fall into the party line at what should have been the most tolerant place in all of Dhaka - the University Campus - we have been FORCED to face the consequences, at times in terms of violence.

If we expressed criticism of our leaders in print or on air, we were FORCED into silence, exile or worse.

And this has been true of all political parties. So when they suddenly start talking about VOLUNTARY contributions as opposed to extortion, one has to ask:

Why not VOLUNTARY strikes as opposed to the bus/car-smashing, "picketing" and businesses-closing that took place during hartals for 15 years?

Why not respect our right to VOLTUNARILY protest on the streets instead of treating us like criminals when we do?

Why not foster a culture where students VOLUNTARILY come to embrace your party's views instead of threatening opposing students with the loss of residence and perhaps even of their lives?

Why not allow the press to write what it wants, the television channels to say what they want, so that they VOLUNTARILY praise you when you deserve it?

None of this sort of voluntary activity was present for the last 15 years. So, needless to say, I find it somewhat hard to digest that businessmen voluntarily gave money to these parties. If they're not giving of their own free will, by definition those funds are being extorted.

Of course, those funds could always have been contributed in order to get some political favour in return. There's a word for that last one however, and it's really popular back home at the moment: corruption.

Note to CTG: stop coming up with semi-bogus cases and investigate the frigate purchase already. Foreigners "contributing" funds to political parties is a shady enough fact by itself.

June 18, 2007

My reaction to 300

As shamsir once said on Addafication , "Blame the lack of posts on the good weather". So this is where I recycle some old stuff I wrote before reviving this blog. Enjoy, and expect more stuff on the "Middle East" because I'm going through that phase again!


It’s the year 480 B.C. and King Leonidas of Sparta has sent one of his hyper-masculine soldiers back from the battlefield of Thermopylae to tell others of the events that had transpired there. I believe this is highly accurate. As anyone who has spent time around old war veterans can attest, this is a highly accurate celluloid version of one of those “during the war” stories.

The soldier dutifully tells the Senators (and us) of how one day a Persian ambassador appears at the gates of Sparta, although the Senators must have known this as well as him, but it’s just more masculine that way you see! The ambassador appears brandishing the heads of fallen kings (what Robert Art defines as “swagger”) and warning the Spartan King that a coalition of the willing "the thousand nations of the Persian Empire” are gathering. All the God-King (a clever way of addressing the problem of Church and State thoroughly overlooked by Jefferson!) wants in return is a tribute of “earth and water”.

Now this is really a harmless symbol indicating that “you’re with us” and not, say… I dunno, “against us” for lack of better words! Harmless really. But Leonidas is no poet to be analysing symbols. He is a manly man, and like all manly men he has inherited the kingship from his father, so he has to push this ambassador down what is surely the dumbest city-centre ever built. Moral of the story: don’t go downtown after dark in Sparta or you might fall into the crater left behind by the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs. Yes that very same one.

But our good king cannot wage war before consulting the priests of the ancient order who have been active since “tthimes immohtal” as the priest reminds us doing his best Peter O’Toole. Yes, these poor people still have not figured out how to separate Church and State. But don’t worry, the film-makers will distract the mainly North American audience from that flaw in their social structure by showing us how lecherous, leprous (give them a break, this is bC! There are no miraculous cures for leprosy at this point!) and corruptible these priests really are. Wait a minute: a war sanctioned by priests who aren’t in touch with the people? There's a word for that, but I can't for the life of me (insert finger snaps) remember it. Oh well, it probably would have sounded dirty to the audience anyway! Oh no wait, it's called a Crusade. Whew, dodged a bullet.

Our manly king takes 300 manly men to fight with him at this place called Thermopylae. Although most of the ships drown, as we know Asia has never lacked people. So those immigating invading hordes from Asia just keep coming. This is easily the best part of the movie. The action is superb. The special effects are seamless. The colour scheme is suitably grim (more on that later).

What distracted me from all this (and by extension my friend beside me, who was coincidentally of Greek descent) was the unintentional homosexual subtext I’d been warned about in the reviews . Nope, not Xerxes’s shoulder rub (now what other prominent politician do we know who likes to give unsoliticted shoulder rubs?). Although that moment was sort of funny, the Xerxes depiction smacked of homophobia. What was really funny was the dialogue between the Spartans themselves. “Nice thrust”? “Who’ll watch your back”? All this after referring to Athenians disparagingly as “philosophers and ummm… boy lovers” (direct quote)? At one point, the tension between these two Spartan soldiers becomes so acutely embarrassing that you feel like screaming “get a room, you two”. But of course they can’t. Not only because they don’t have rooms (I also didn’t see a single tent. Like Chuck Norris, Spartan men don’t sleep, they wait.), leaving you to laugh as the rest of the audience starts giggling.

A lot has been and will be said about this movie’s cinematography, art direction and video-game look, which are either the best or worse things to happen to movies yet depending on whom you’re talking to. But if you ask me, critics would have gone crazy over this one if it was shot in Sin City-style silhouettes only to heighten the moral contrast between the Spartans and the Persians. Even B/W is way too many shades of grey for this movie.

Apologies are due to everyone who liked this movie. I did too in a sense. Honest. I like a shot of cinematic testosterone as much as the next person, but I like it more when it’s a la Tarantino or Scorsese, preferrably the latter. And I tried not to read any geo-political significance into all this. That wasn’t too hard given I was laughing at the cheesy dialogue half the time. I’m all for art being just art (and I hope the people who agree with me on this give V for Vendetta the same treatment!)But I suppose it’s the times we live in and the reviews we read. The reviewer for variety says in an intended understatement that this movie “might be greeted with muted enthusiasm in the Middle East”. Maybe. If Middle-Easterners see only skin colour and no allegory. (I think it’s pertinent to mention here that while the Spartan army are monochromatically drawn from one race, the Persians are multi-racial and if their elephants and rhinos are anything to go by, slightly multi-cultural too.) My guess however is that this movie might just rock the casbah and our old friend Shareef will like it but have doubts about owning it on DVD given the corny factor.

June 15, 2007

A Farewell to Palestine

Golda Meir once claimed, "There was no such thing as Palestinians" before 1947. One can argue that after 1947, there definitely was an identity that could be called Palestinian. Historians will one day look upon June 14th 2007 as the day that identity died.

I try to keep up with the news as best as I can. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I read news reports that Gaza and the West Bank might be splitting, with Hamas and Fatah respectively in control.

There are reasons why I don't write about the Israel-Palestine situation. First and foremost, I feel that as Muslims we are taught to be needlessly Arab-centric and the obsession with Palestine is a sign of that. Muslims suffer in a lot of other places, such as Kashmir, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Iraq (before and after 2003), Afghanistan (before and after 2001), Sudan, Syria, Myanmar, Thailand, and even Bangladesh. Why single out Palestine as the greatest example? Secondly, as a very proud Bangali Muslim, I feel slighted that Arabs expect us to care about their conflicts when they were "less than helpful" (quotation marks denote understatement) with "our little problem" in 1971. Thirdly, it's too easy and cliche to write about the Territories without having been there. Fourth, it's not terribly relevant to Bangladesh.

None of which is to deny the severe human rights abuses that take place there, that the people of West Bank still live under a military occupation. Or to forget that along with sub-Saharan Africa, Gaza is the only place that has seen negative GDP growth since 1999, the year the second Intifada broke out.

I'm writing about Palestine today not only because I'm surprised at the news, but because I feel that the lessons of what went wrong have some relevance for Bangladesh. Besides, it's not everyday that I get to write about what might be the birth of a new country or two.

How did it come to this? Part of the blame lies with Arafat. Whatever the virtues and flaws of the Chairman were, institution-building and personal coruption were not part of them. He ran the entire Palestinian Authority like a personal fiefdom. That did not mean he stole public money: he lived in a small two-room flat probably much simpler than yours or mine, and in his spare time drank tea with honey and watched cartoons. Nor did that mean the people were unhappy: they got their water pumps, their schools, government jobs, pretty much everything they wanted. Provided they were loyal to Arafat. Note, not Fatah, Arafat's party, but Arafat himself.

After his death, the party simply expanded its service coverage to include more Fatah loyalists instead of Arafat loyalists. Not that there was much discrepancy between the two groups. At no time did it try to be representative of the entire Palestinian people. As a result, the security forces came to include Fatah loyalists only, since government jobs were the reward for continuing loyalty. And what do you expect Fatah loyalists to do except to fight for Fatah and kill off all dissent?

Now none of this means that Hamas does not operate in similar fashion. Yes, it has charities and social welfare programs, but it also has its own security forces loyal to itself and not the Palestinian people as a whole. After Hamas' victory in the January 2006 elections, it seemed only a matter of time before fighting would erupt given the fragmented nature of the Palestinian polity, especially its armed elements. It did. And finally we end up with this: the fragmented state mirroring the internal fragmentation.

Yes, this is a very simple picture. Yes, Western countries cutting off aid, the political system, the proliferation of arms all have something to do with the current situation. But this you have to admit: if Fatah had not built up a politicised Palestinian security force that would serve regime interest over state interest (when they eventually had a state... if ever!), the chances of all this violence would have been significantly reduced. If Hamas had not followed suit, the prospects of such outright violence would have diminished even further.

Instead, we hear reports of our Islamist friends Hamas, "liberating" Gaza from Fatah security personnel and then executing them. Whatever you call that - "barbarism", "animalism", "brutality" are a few words that come to mind - that is not Islam.

So farewell Palestine, and rest in peace Edward Said. One hopes for your sake that other post-colonial states avoid the tragic mistakes of your countrymen. And yes, I do have a particular state in mind.

June 14, 2007

A Responsible Media

It is the duty of a responsible media to provide people with all the information they need to judge their political representatives. They discharge this duty best when they exercise a healthy skepticism of political authority.

But it must be skeptical on a case-per-case, issue-by-issue basis. This means that even if they are supportive - nay, absolutely captivated - by any one government policy (say.... I dunno.... arresting corrupt people regardless of how powerful they are), they must not stop questioning the government on all other policies, such as leaking vital interrogation information.

Now I'm pretty sure you all know what I'm talking about. Recently the detailed testimony of remanded politicians was brought into the limelight by the media. Audio recordings of their testimony is available online, and a vibrant debate on the ethics of leaking these to the press is taking place, as usual, on Drishtipat.

And that's the problem. The debate is taking place on DP, not the media. The media itself is too ecstatic at being made privy to secret conversations to question the WHY of it. There are several issues at stake here:

One, whether the information should have been published at all. When it was being made available, there was no good reason for the media to censor itself. They have not.

Two, whether the media should not question, in print not personally, the motives behind such a leak. The media have not. Usually, leaks from the authorities incriminate themselves. In which case, the media has a case for reliance on leaks. In this case, the leak is incriminating third-parties over which the authorities have sway, ie. citizens (albeit powerful, corrupt citizens). Essentially, by publishing these leaks without questioning their method and motive, respected media outlets such as Prothom Alo are turning into mouthpieces for those NOW in authority.

Why is this important? Because it essentially means that the media is failing us. Once most of us catch on to this fact, we will lose trust in the media. It will take ages for them to win back our trust. In the meantime, those in authority will keep doing their thing and the watchdog will keep barking. But the people will not listen. That's the vicious cycle of corruption. That is why ordinary people could dismiss tales of BNP or AL corruption citing mistrust in the media. That is why these confessions are possible in the first place. The watchdog barked, but no one listened.

That is however still a long way away. For now, let's inspect the current mood. Already on DP someone has said:

"When people (except a film maker) watch the movie they are not interest in finding the film making or releasing process; they just want to know the story of the movie. Similarly if someone tries to pursue us to focus on making and release processing of the interrogation tape, then sorry, I will not be convinced as I really don’t need to know how the tape has been released. All I am concern about the truth of the tape story; truth about our political leaders injusticeness towards the general people, truth about their depravity; truth about how they swindled with 150 million people and looted tax payers money"

Which is pretty much what the Prothom Alo staff and the average woman on the street is thinking. I love the analogy, that of the movies. Leaving aside the irony of comparing allegedly edited (if not scripted) confessions to movies, the analogy speaks volumes about our national mindset. Dhaliwood movies are known for their caricatures rather than their characters. Heroes are angels, villains are devils. Having assigned the CTG to the hero role, can it do ANY wrong? The heroism of the hero and the villainy of the villains is the entire story. If the hero is acting improperly, that by definition cannot be the story can it? That must be the film-maker's fault. Probably forgot to say cut.

More seriously, if tomorrow I published "leaks" by either Mr. Motiur Rahman, editor of PA, or the author of the above comment in which they confessed to stealing millions and besmirched their reputations, perhaps they would be more interested in the ethics of HOW the news is being made and HOW they're getting the news instead of the news itself. But that's just a guess. Given their stances, they just might decide to embrace their fate and remain quiet. So stay tuned folks: I want to feel the rush of screwing over those who do not care about ethics. Unethically.

This is not to suggest that our politicians themselves have been the paragons of following due process and upholding press freedom. FAR from it. It would be nice though if they could be taped promising that they would never do to ordinary citizens what is being done to them now, and then hold them to those promises. Now THAT would be a systemic change. And if you're shuddering after reading the last two paragraphs, my apologies: there's a little fascist inside me waiting for a populist mandate!

Coming back to our media, it is by no means along or unique in being used by the government. The American media pretty much abdicated its world-famous watchdog role when in the prelude to the Second Gulf War, it was invited to embed itself with the military and be bedded by the democratically elected American government.

Needless to say, after all such romantic trysts entered with guilty consciences, recriminations are flying and a period of serious self-examination is being undertaken by at least one party. But they're talking about it louder and louder, especially in the wake of the Valerie Plame affair. Journalist Robert Novak who revealed Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent (which he learnt from a White House leak designed to discredit Plame's husband) has instigated the most interesting debate I know about the relationship between a country's government and its media. He has also had the honour of being labelled "a douchebag of liberty" by Jon Stewart.

Part of the problem is that our media is nowhere near as old and invested with informal traditions as the American one is. The other is that it takes things very personally, which is not altogether its fault. This leads to what Nowhere in the Middle aptly calls their "gotcha spirit", in which they go after individuals instead of issues. To give you some straight advice, Mr. Rahman and the rest of PA: hate the game, not the playa'!

June 13, 2007

Interesting snippets

1. Professor Jalal Alamgir writes a very interesting piece in the Daily Star today about the record of our two parties. He cites studies that find no difference between their records on economic growth, but finds the Awami League government's record on human rights and quality of governance a lot better.

What interests me is that he does not look at the state of income distribution across time, through the reign of military and political governments. It's a widely accepted fact that Bangladesh's unprecedented growth rate has been due to the falling of trade barriers worldwide following the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the presence of a political government overseeing high growth rates is a happy coincidence at best. Military governments can achieve as much growth as civilian ones (e.g. Ayub). No one asserts that they can achieve the same level of development. Decreasing inequality has everything to do with development.

I'll probably have more to say about Professor Alamgir's choice of indicators for "human rights" and "quality of governance indicators". Nevertheless, an important piece and a timely reminder not to be swayed by "fashions in thought". You reading this, DS columnists? Just a tiny reminder to Prof. Alamgir though: stereotyping an entire 150 million group of people (our cousins in Calcutta are of course NOT hujugey, they're still stuck with notions of superiority!) to prove that stereotyping an elite sub-set is wrong, sounds ridiculously like saying "all white people are racist". If all Black people in the U.S. were rich and powerful that is.

2. Interesting addition to the microcredit scheme in India as reported here. An Indian economist and activist has opened up a school for rural women where they can take courses "in entrepreneurship, accountancy, bank finance, marketing skills and confidence-building for a piffling Rs150 (US$3.70) for a three-month basic course and Rs600 for a six-month advanced one." A degree also ensures automatic eligibility for receiving loans. Name: Udyogini Business School. I'd say that translates well.

June 07, 2007

Our Real National Shame

For those who need more confirmation that our political parties do not care about our religious minorities, here is Professor Abul Barkat’s study on the Vested Property Act.

Following the 1965 war with India, the Ayub government in its infinite wisdom decided to constitute something called the "Enemy Property Act". It allowed them to declare any citizen an "enemy" and confiscate their property. How, when and why Hindus became enemies after living in Pakistan as citizens for 17 years was never really clarified. But then again, this was our thick-headed, Sandhurst educated friend (not master!) Ayub, so logic took a backseat as was usual.

Following Bangladesh’s independence, Mujib’s Awami League government- the Epitome of "Dhormoniropekhkhota", the Protector of the "Minorities" - reconstituted the act in 1974 calling it the Vested Property Act. Bravo! Needless to say political-economists would have had a lot to say about the reasons behind such a move. But also needless to mention, not many political economists among the Dhaka intelligentsia have bothered to investigate these reasons.

So the epithet (good to some, bad to others) of being "minority-friendly" stuck. Everything was fine and dandy till our villainous friend and master Zia came along, rehabilitated Jamaat and inserted "Bismillah" into the constitution. After that the REAL persecution of Hindus started. Or so goes the tale.

Yet, as Barkat shows, who the beneficiaries of such confiscations ("legal" till 2001) were depended solely on who was in power. During 2001-2006:

45% of the land grabbers were affiliated with the BNP,
31 % with the Awami League,
8% with Jamaat-e-Islami
6% with the Jatiya Party and other political organisations.

His ‘97 study showed the opposite trend:

44% with the Awami League
32 % with the BNP

(figures for Jamaat and JP not given)

And did I mention that the Awami League government repealed the act in 2001? Yeah, even New Age calls it an "act of tokenism". And rightly so! After all, they had 5 years to do so but chose to do it only right before elections, after five years of allowing supporters to plunder the property of the citizens of Bangladesh by labelling them "the enemy".

And before you BNP-supporters get too excited, let me point out that the study also finds that the violence faced by minority religious communities increased under the BNP-Jamaat government. After all, if the law was repealed but the confiscation still went on, it had to be done somehow right? Who’s on for a good old-fashioned pogrom to seize their property?

This brings me to the point I’ve been trying to make over and over again on these pages: that religious identity politics are driven more by the political-economy of control over scarce resources than by religion. But hey, who’s listening? Certainly not "secularists" who think that taking "Bismillah" out of the constitution is going to magically empower our Hindu citizens. And since most of our intelligentsia falls into this category, that should answer our question as to why they haven’t really looked into the reasons behind the Vested Property Act being instituted in the first place in 1974 in a Bangladesh supposedly built on a secular Bangali nationalism.

In conclusion, both parties stink. Jamaat would stink if it had more power as would JP. And because of them, we as a nation should hang our heads in shame. Because we stink too.

Oh and while we do that, the Indian media covers the story with its usual neutrality and balance, quoting only the 2001-2006 figures and not the 1997 figures. Kudos gentlemen, kudos! And you wonder why we don’t get along…

June 06, 2007

More doublespeak from Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens' latest in his weekly column on Slate.com is ludicrous even by his usual low standards.

First there is his amateurish attempt to compare U.N. missions in East Timor and Lebanon with the post-invasion mandate given to coalition troops in Iraq. In Lebanon and East Timor, the U.N. authorised intervention BEFORE the troops were on the ground. Is 2003 really that far back in time? How fast can you say "unilateralism"? How fast can you forget it? Oh, and there are no U.N. troops in Gaza, just U.N. staff. Frankly, I feel stupid even writing stuff this obvious...

Then there is his attempt to show that all violence against coalition troops in Iraq are religion-inspired, an attempt not without its couterpart in Bangladesh:

"You could read acres of news from that country as it undergoes everything that the death squads of the parties of God can inflict on a society"

Followed by this gem: "The assaults by the Baathists and the Bin Ladenists on the U.N. presence have been especially vicious"

Take a fucking introductory course to modern Arab politics for God's humanity's sakes! Everyone knows the Baathists were pretty fucking secular. After all, it was founded on principles of Arab unity regardless of religion. By a Muslim and a Christian Arab. Doesn't mean that Baathists did not turn out to be some of the most ruthless killers in the Arab world!

But no, it's these religious types that cause ALL the violence in the world. If only these natives would give up their primitive ways and embrace modern, post-industrial values like us civilised folk, who support wars launched by born-again leaders with direct hot-lines to God (whom I believe doesn't exist, but whatever...)


June 05, 2007

The first UN-backed coup?

Cross-posted on Drishtipat. Interesting discussion taking off there

(Update below)

Keep Me Honest has reproduced a Wall Street Journal article on Bangladesh which is definitely worth a read.

While we have all heard about the to-and-fro movements of Western diplomats (in all fairness, only Beauty Apa and Anwar Chacha!), we have heard very little of the statement issued publicly by the Resident Coordinator of UNDP, Renata Lok Dessallien, the highest-ranking UN official in Bangladesh:

"In a formal statement released in Dhaka, the most senior U.N. official in Bangladesh, Renata Lok Dessallien, cautioned that the scheduled election “would not be considered credible or legitimate.” Because of this, her statement warned, there may be “implications” for the Bangladesh army’s future participation in U.N. peacekeeping should the election be allowed to take place."

There's quite a bit to be said about the information in this one paragraph alone.

Let's start with the U.N. for example. The UNDP and DPKO are separate entities. The former is an agency under the Economic and Social Council, while the latter is a department in the Secretariat. Indeed, traditionally such has been the disparate nature of the U.N. that when they go into peacekeeping missions, they need a non-coercive, advisory body called OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to coordinate the different bureacracies. So how does the UNDP Resident Coordinator make veiled threats about peacekeeping quotas?

(And since when does an election, no matter how farcical, ruin any country's peacekeeping prospects. If it did, then Pakistan would not be the second-highest troop contributor under Musharraf. More in the update below.)

Now this is only my humble opinion, but part of the reason lies with the restructuring of the U.N. SG's office that took place under Kofi Annan in 2005 to make it more of an executive cabinet. One assumes that this "cabinet" has control over peacekeeping quotas as well as the UNDP. An influential member of this "cabinet" is Kemal Dervis, the UNDP Administrator and Dessallien's boss, sometimes also referred to as the third-most powerful person within the U.N. system. However, he is not in charge of peacekeeping operations, the under-secretary for which is Jean-Marie Guéhenno.

Mr. Dervis is a former Economic Minister for Turkey, having served in the Cabinet of a Bangla-speaking, Tagore-translating Turkish Prime Minister (not relevant, just funny). More importantly, he is a former World Bank official, much like boss man (or is that an "epistemological" error?) Dr. Fakhruddin . Dervis is also said to have drawn some comparison with military interventions in Turkey
when he met Dr. Iftekhar Chowdhury in Feburary.

So what am I trying to say? That this obviously secular, Kemal-loving, pro-soft coups Turk orchestrated our current state of emergency? No, not at all. Nor do I believe that the Security Council Permanent Five decided to play their Great Game through the U.N. As reported, their embassies were not too shy about doing so without the cover of the U.N. This is less of a statement and more of a question. Or perhaps, several.

What possessed the normally reticent and divided U.N. to issue this statement, one clearly meant to influence a country's military and thus undermine its sovereignty? For anyone who knows the history of the U.N., sovereignty is a cornerstone of the system, and the U.N. has generally been reluctant to undermine it. Yes, I echo the sentiments of the American right-wing when I worry about the U.N. undermining sovereignty. But the truth is that the U.N. does not have the power to undermine U.S. sovereignty, and has historically restrained itself from violating the sovereignty of its weaker member states. Bangladesh-2007 could indicate a major policy-shift.

Secondly, who pulled the strings behind the scenes? Not only does the U.N. lack legitimacy in the form of popular representation (otherwise it would be the "sovereign"), it is also notoriously opaque to the stakeholders. I've already fingered Dervis as a possible mastermind. But it could be pretty much anybody else! Perhaps Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, who also serves on the "cabinet" and hails from Bangladesh? The possibilities are endless. The important thing is, we don't know and they have left it open to speculation. Much like the CTG, and with the same long-term consequences: a gradual deterioration of the people's trust in these institutions.

Worse, parts of the U.N. are highly in favour of a bottom-up development agenda, in which governments discuss issues with stakeholders to hear their concerns and get their inputs. By putting forward this example of top-down, opaque politicking on a global scale, in which the U.N. RC starts making veiled threats to incite the armed forces, the U.N. has probably lost the moral high ground for preaching its development model vis a vis future host governments in Bangladesh. Amartya Sen and Mahbubul Haque's "Human Development": R.I.P.

Shifting away from the U.N. to our domestic politics: one keeps hearing that the potential loss of peacekeeping revenue stops them from taking over completely. yet from the article, it seems that that possibility is what made them act in the first place! It does indicate however that when Chief Advisor Fakhruddin says, "I'm in charge", he's not being altogether dishonest. He might just mean that (Bangladeshi? More on this below) bureaucrats with U.N. experience are calling the shots. If this is true, then so far they have managed to control the army by being able to influence DPKO. Once they are unable to do so anymore, elections might be an option because I don't think they want a total military takeover any more than the politicians do.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, what does the UN RC statement say about our military? One hopes that it did not have too much of an effect on their decision to do what they did. Because if it did, then we might just be in big trouble as a sovereign nation. I'd rather have a patriotic but inefficient and disorderly military as we did in the late 70's, than have an efficient one whose loyalties are less to their nation and their people than to foreigners with cash. Again, it's the opacity and bureaucratic tangle of the U.N. that prevents us from knowing who was calling the shots: people with little investment - personal, emotional, economic, political - in our country (like Dervis) or our citizens serving in New York (like Chowdhury). If the military are not under Bangladeshi civilian control - bureaucratic or political - far better they are their own masters than controlled by faceless, nameless bureacrats across the seas.

They used to have a name for that in the old days...

Update: Googling "Renata Lok Dessallien"+statement leads first to this site and then to her original statement. Needless to say I'm flattered.

From the Handbook on United Nations Multi-Dimensional Peacekeeping, pg. 73:

As soon as DPKO becomes aware of the need for a military element in any particular situation, it establishes informal contacts with potential troop and personnel-contributing States. Based on a proposed concept of operations, DPKO identifies the type and capability of military elements needed. DPKO must also consider a number of political issues when selecting contributions for a specific situation, including the stated preferences of the parties to the conflict, the need for broad geographic representation and the historical or cultural ties a potential contributor may have with the region or State in question.

One can see, if further proof were needed after Pakistan, that the local political conditions of the troop-contributing country is not exactly on the list of priorities especially with U.N. peacekeeping missions are at an all time-high.

June 03, 2007

Two months on - a personal note

Tomorrow will be two months since I've revived this blog, turning it from a personal summer journal in Dhaka into an impersonal all-rants accepted blog about Dhaka. It has been two eventful, invigorating, virtual months.

Initially, I expected very few people to read the blog, even less to take it seriously. In May alone, I had over a thousand hits to these pages. So I know at least people are reading it. And to those of you who have taken the trouble to leave comments behind, I thank you for taking me seriously enough to do so. It was truly my privilege to have a conversation with you. Special thanks must go to Mr. ABC who took the news on these pages SO seriously that he decided to issue threats (alas, I was not alone in receiving this most unwelcome attention!).

Eventful it certainly has been, especially this last month: from bomb blasts in three stations to the arrest of a journalist. I just wrote about them because I could do nothing else. That my words could have any real world repercussions was not something I believed. I still don't believe it, but the drama surrounding the arrest and the subsequent threats suitably tempered my disbelief.

Invigorating it certainly has been. Through this blog, I have met keen, incisive and perceptive individuals I rarely expected to meet outside a university campus. Some have increased my knowledge of matters, others have given me different perspectives to approach issues from, yet others have impressed me to no end with their tolerant attitudes, their kindness and helpfulness, and not a few have challenged me to clarify and even re-define my opinions. You know who you are. And if you knew me personally, you'd know that these are the qualities I value in people in real life. So thank you.

Lastly, some random things I ought to make clarify about the inherent biases at work when I write my pieces. It's a social science thing.....:

1) I'm a Bangladeshi nationalist and Muslim, both by birth and choice. My opinions are inevitably coloured by these identities.

2) I'm a firm believer in people's right to hold any sort of opinions, even those contrary to my nationalism and religion. That is why I condemned the threats against Rushdie, even though I beieved that the Satanic Verses theory was stupid and his fiction since Midnight's Children was putrid. That is why I condemned the attack against our very own Dr. Humayun Azad, whose religious faith obviously differs from mine but whose writings on feminism I have cherished dearly. Paradoxically, it makes me unable to issue the blanket condemnation now in fashion to Islamist political forces that practice a degree of pluralism (there are none in Bangladesh).

3) I'm a firm believer in non-violence and on the fence about violence sanctioned by law. That is why I don't like the state of our present student politics, the present state of our "religious" discourse (or what goes on in its name in the Muslim world: see, Dr. Azad above, plus Nagoub) or any of our political parties.

4) If I had written our '71 constitution, I would have only put in the word "Democracy" in there. From this comes my distaste for our two major parties, one of which sacrifices democracy to protect "socialism and secularism" (or so it has said) while the other sacrifices democracy to protect "nationalism" (or so it has said). This also makes me unable to support JIB, JP and any other "third force", be it bureaucratic, military or technocratic.

And if you ever find me straying from this spirit, leave a comment, a rant or send me an email. Trust me, I'll appreciate it.