March 25, 2008

Pilger-Moudud Controversy

Background here

Mr. Moudud is a snake no one likes but every politician wants on their team.

Mr. Moudud is also incarcerated on ridiculously trivial charges.

The “controversy” over at UV is starting to border on the Gulliverian debate of which side to break an egg on. It pretty much boils down to this: when advocating for due process in Bangladesh, should we or should we not note that some of the most ill-reputed people are on trial. That’s really all there is to it folks! Otherwise, I think it’s safe to say that everyone arguing there is for fair trials and fair convictions/acquittals, instead of kangaroo courts and rubber-stamped verdicts.

So what’s interesting here and why am I writing about this?

I think the debate is a preview of what promises to be the next major cleavage in Bangladeshi politics, assuming we continue down the path we are on: minus-2 version-2, candidates barred from contesting polls based on speedy trials, the neutering of the AL and the hijacking of the BNP. As each side’s position hardens and moves away from the other’s, two camps will emerge among the chatterati: the Daily Star-CTG camp and the BNP (mainstream/Khaleda-ponthi… is there any other kind?) camp, for lack of better terms. The DS-CTG camp will keep reminding people of all the bad things that “these politicians” did. The BNP camp will simply say that this is undemocratic, unconstitutional and against the fundamental rights of our people.

Squeezed in between will be genuine human rights activists like those at UV – and I want to draw a distinction here between those truly committed to human rights above partisanship like the good people at Drishtipat, and those who use “human rights” to further their own agenda, from the left or the right or simply out of a commitment to “journalism without fear or favour”!

Now please note that both camps will be right. Factually correct, if only partial in their reporting. If I had to choose sides – and I hate choosing sides that are partial in their acknowledgement of the truth – I would choose the BNP side over the other any day. Not because I think the crimes of the 4-party government were small (they weren’t), but because the BNP-camp addresses concerns more dear to my heart.

Politicians make mistakes. To repeat an old cliché, these must be dealt with politically: i.e. through the political process as outlined in the constitution. Reminding us constantly that Moudud reaped what he sowed is unfortunately a bit too much like the tastelessness of certain remarks made against both Mujib and (at times more so) against Zia. And equally wrong-headed!

Yes, incarceration is not assassination. But – this might come as a shock to some - the land and its underestimated people recognize two ways of dealing with errant political leaders: constitutionally and unconstitutionally. It doesn’t matter to the law - and, I argue, to the people - whether the unconstitutionality involves brutality and murders of the past. Or the hostage-taking and torture of politicians by holier-than-thou bureaucrats of the present. Mujib and Zia were dealt with unconstitutionally and I doubt the good people of the DS-CTG camp applaud that or the resultant complications that haunt us to this day. Bloggers like Mash have been pointing this out since January 12th, and I confess that it took some time before I came to a similar realization.

So why are they silent, complicit or active at further unconstitutionality?

It’s a fallacy of bhodrolokes in the DS-CTG camp that they underestimate the “ordinary people”. They think that our people see only the surface of events without noting their deeper significance. They have no idea about such difficult phrases/ideas as “due process” and “constitutionality”. Inherently, we all have an idea about these things. In the long run, only those who advocate (or are seen to advocate) fairness and consistency who are going to win out. The BNP-camp is the one that’s doing it right now. Not their opponents.

Which is a pity, for the Daily Star was a good paper for a while there while Moudud ran amok. As a friend of mine far, far more experienced in the ways of Bangladeshi politics said soon after 1/11: “Where you stand today will determine how you’re perceived for the next decade or so.” The Daily Star people seem to be standing on the wrong side of history after getting it more or less right on a host of key issues for more than ten years.

A pity really.

March 21, 2008

Arif is free

Drishtipat and E-Bangladesh are reporting that cartoonist Arif has been released from his six month incarceration. This blog promised to highlight his plight until justice was done. We now thank all those who helped Arif in his struggle: other bloggers, letter writers, petitioners, and most of all, Barrister Sara Hossain and her team. When the issue moved off the headlines, Sara and her team kept on fighting the lonely legal battles. This blog also notes the cowardice of our major editors, who disowned Arif in his hour of need, and who refused to publish any op-ed on the issue. And finally, we wish Arif well for his life ahead.

March 20, 2008

The Irony of Being Naya Diganta

As Jyoti bhai pointed out, Naya Diganta was one of the few papers to carry the news about the torture report issued by HRW. I have already discussed certain aspects of the interrogations transcripts. Yet another that obviously caught my attention was the almost exclusive focus on India throughout. I don’t know if this was a solely a scare-tactic or whether the intelligence agencies really believe that one, and ONLY one country out there mean us any harm and everyone else is a সাধু. I sincerely hope it’s the former.

But even if it was a scare tactic, what enables this sort of tactic in the first place? A disproportionately large fear of India within our populace, stroked by the communally-charged elders, certain political forces, a parochial and outdated foreign policy (if one can call it that) community, and the media. Naya Diganta, while focusing on certain very worthwhile India-related stories, does run others that make it seem like a card-carrying member of this sort of baseless India-bashing group. Which ironically enables the very torture on suspicion that it has run a story about! Are these guys so dumb that they don’t see the irony?

At the risk of repetition: there is nothing wrong with a focus on India. My beef is with an exclusive, wrong-headed focus, not cool-headed analysis. I have previously described the latter attitude as that of a foreign-policy hawk, and the former as that of dodos. It seems that in Bangladeshi foreign policy circles, we have don’t have hawks and doves, but instead are blessed with do-nothings or dodos.

I’m not quite sure where to put Naya Diganta in that category. When I see ND reporting on how the civil aviation delegation might have sold us out during negotiations in Delhi - the civil aviation secretary was made OSD on return - my heart warms up. (New Age had a similar report). That is an instance of keeping people informed about the relevant points and people, thus adopting a tough stance vis a vis India.

However, a few days previously, I had seen this absolutely incredible report on how apparently there was a vast আন্তরজাতিক চক্র (International Conspiracy with a capital I and C) led by none other than that Ancient and All-Powerful Secret Cabal, the Indian Thread Makers! This Secret Cabal is apparently in control of some NGO in UK which has managed to convince major retailers like Marks and Spencer’s not to buy from Bangladeshi suppliers if they use Uzbeki cotton. Of course, I am tempted to ask why the Indian government is so stupid as to let a bunch of thread-makers disturb their diplomatic ties with a country that is increasingly becoming a major regional supplier of gas even as India is becoming ever more energy-hungry, but such questions are more likely to fall on deaf ears. Worse, they can get me in trouble with the (lack of) intelligence services for harbouring “pro-Indian” sentiments!

I understand that ND does not like the current government. Nor do they like India or Daily Star journalists who talk openly about Jamaat’s connections to religiously-inspired violence in Bangladesh. (It is said that ND is backed by Jamaat-leaning individuals; I’m also told that it gives space in its monthly magazine to some staunch left-leaning “secularists”, and not just Farhad Mazhar!). So the irony of these two reports within the span of a week is simply laughable. Or is it simply the cynicism of using a more helpless adversary like a tortured journalist to get a bigger fish, like the current government?

Lastly, at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, let me say once more: if crying “wolf” becomes the national pastime, you will have a desensitized, disbelieving population that really doesn’t care about TRUE stories of being pushed around by its bigger neighbor to the east. And if that happens, there is clearly only one winner: India.

Tip to Naya Diganta: stick to facts. Leave the conspiracy theories for the fools who fall for them.

March 08, 2008

Professor Muzaffer Ahmed and our Farce-Perception Index

Professor Muzaffer Ahmed was awarded the Ekushey Padak this year. This blog congratulates him on that.

His work with TIB has managed to publicise more allegations, appearances and perceptions of corruption more effectively than opposition political parties sitting in the highest political body of the land or media dinosaurs sitting in their offices.

Indeed, so damning are these allegations that they have managed to put about a hundred plus people behind bars, but not on any evidence of corruption which is admissible in a court of law. Finding evidence of corruption after all seems not to be TIB’s job. They seem concerned more with the perception of corruption than with evidence of corruption itself. Which might just be thematically appropriate. He is after all receiving the Ekushey Padak from a government whose members are concerned more with the perception of prosperity, rule of law, and democracy rather than any evidence of it; and in choosing a man whose contribution to society is more in the perception of a select few rather than in the evidence of benefit to the general masses, this government seems to have remained true to its nature.

The perception of corruption seems to have gone down since that perception-changing, paradigm-challenging, simply, absolutely, unquestionably wicked awesome and generally kickass day which has become enshrined in our vocabulary as 1/11. Those three 1’s separated by that angular line are unavoidable nowadays, turning up like the name/title/portraits of a Bengali/Bangladeshi nationalist leader during their respective party’s rule.

Yes, 1/11 seems to have brought about seismic changes in Bangladeshi politics.

Suddenly, we have all these people with PhDs coming out of the woodworks to join politics without a single thought to building support bases amongst the general population, generally regarded as a prerequisite to successful political participation in a democracy.

Suddenly, Dr. Kamal “Jowls of Steel” Hussein is electable again.

Suddenly, we are no longer sure if Hannan “অসহায় মানব” Shah is a real person or a Monopoly™ token which is repeatedly landing on the “Go to Jail” spot.

Suddenly, Osmani look-alikes (our answer to Elvis impersonators) are being shoved down our throats with all the energy of a demented aunty force-feeding you on Eid day.

Suddenly, Canadians are thinking of invading Bangladesh, one human-rights lawyer at a time. “Today Bangladesh, tomorrow downtown Toronto…. Or maybe not!”

Most ominously, H.M. “িবশ্ব েবহায়া” Ershad is neither getting married nor divorced (nor estranged, sued, etc.) Do we really need further proof that some great cosmic change has come upon us?

You may argue that these are not seismic changes, but I say to you: don’t they appear to be seismic changes? My Political-Change-Perception Index (PoChaI) is tingling again! Massive changes are underway. I perceive it.

And it’s not just me! Muzaffer Ahmed’s PoChaI must be tingling as well. And I’m not saying that because he was awarded the Ekushey Padak. Governments have given awards even to their trenchant critics from the time of Shawkat Osman and Ayub Khan’s stormy exchange of mutual recognition in the 50’s. No, there is a better reason for us to think that Muzaffer Ahmed’s senses are not just tingling, but overloaded. A friend of mine tells me that a new book has been launched, a selection of the army chief’s speeches and writings. It was launched on 20 Feb, and apparently the TV channels could not get enough of it (I haven’t seen a newspaper item on it, so I leave readers to find their own links). Guess who was present and spoke on the book launch? Yep: one Dr. Muzaffer Ahmed. Blissfully oblivious that there is no greater corruption than corrupting a political system. Must be all that sensory overload.

Say, what do you call a man who can measures others’ perceptions of corruption but fails to perceive evidence of a conflict of interest in his own role as a public intellectual outspoken about corruption? An idiot or a sell-out? Whichever you say, you miss the important point: with that punjabi and shawl, he doesn’t appear to be either.

And what do you call a man who appears to have given his approval to attempts at subverting our nascent democracy in return for an award? Corruption? Maybe. But not the appearance of it. Perish the thought!

Is anyone else’s farce-perception index shooting up?After TIB is dead and buried, we will still need citizens’ organizations that monitor government corruption on behalf of the citizenry. With TIB’s glorious precedence – as exemplified by Muzaffer Ahmed in the glorious month of February– in pointing out the corruption of all governments with equal energy to guide us, can we possibly go wrong? I perceive not.

March 07, 2008

Tasneem Khalil’s Torture: A Pop-Psychological Analysis of the Intelligence Agencies

“কাদতে আসিনি, ফাসির দাবী নিয়ে এসেছি” – মাহবুব-উল-আলম

Apologies firstly for being MIA and secondly for playing a pop psychologist hack like Dr. Phil. But the recent HRW report really is too distressing to let pass by without some observations. First and foremost though, I lend my voice to those who find torture abhorrent on principle and absolutely useless on practical grounds. My deepest sympathies lie with Mr. Khalil and his family, for it is with our tax- money and the silent consent of our informed but selfish middle classes, that they had to suffer.

This has got to stop.

Beyond that, I’d like to try and glean something about the psyche of the intelligence agencies from the very graphic details that have come out. A strong focus throughout the interrogation seemed to be on Mr. Khalil’s foreign and diplomatic contacts, casting those in a negative light. I find this line of thinking rather intriguing, especially when coming from members of “one of the foremost contributors to UN peacekeeping missions”, and would like to pursue this further.

The following is neither scientific nor comprehensive and is based on my limited observations of human behaviour. What exactly is going through the unconscious minds of these people when they act like this? Why is it halal for the military to have foreign contacts, and not civilians?

These are the questions I’d like to answer.

I assume that a section of Bangladeshis look unconsciously upon the foreign community as parents, “the hand that feeds them” financially and ideologically. Given this assumption, intelligence officials in particular and the military in general find themselves unconsciously acting out two roles: 1) the jealous, older sibling to the civilians’ younger sibling; 2) the rebellious child who tries but fails to escape the bonds/bounds set up by their tyrannical and exploitative “parents”, the donors and UN big five. These two are not necessarily mutually exclusive and indeed feed off each other.

Role 1 means that these intelligence officials secretly resent civilians such as journalists, NGO-workers, local embassy/ UN staff, college students, doctors, scientists, artists etc. for their foreign connections, especially those with foreign governments. Since all “foreigners” are essentially the same to these people, any connection with “foreigners” is seen as trampling on the territory of the big brother. “A refusal to share the royal teat”, as someone says in “The Good Shepherd”, is an apt description (I apologise for the crudeness). After all, the more “love” (read: money) that these parents expend on their younger siblings, the less there is for the big brother.

Role 2 is of even greater interest. Here we focus on why - when the GOB and the armed forces are supposedly on a neutral, “hostile-to-none” foreign policy - are they so bloody paranoid about their citizens interacting with foreigners? Could it be that their own hands are tied thanks to the large amount of “donor aid” (Europe), lucrative peace-keeping missions (America) and the cheap weapons (China) that are sent their way? Could it be that they would like nothing better than to secure the sovereignty of their country and its independence, but are too utterly addicted to the rewards of not doing so, and unconsciously they know it?

If we follow this line of thinking, there are some interesting results. For then, civvies like Mr. Khalil become not a rival, but their own guilt-ridden consciences. Mr. Khalil did not just criticize the armed forces in his blog. As far as I recall, he has also spoken out against the ill-effect of the global capitalist system and the influx of “donor aid” to create a comprador, spineless “civil society”. He has done by the pen what these men have been too impotent (I use the word deliberately) to do with their guns: break free of the tyrannical parental units. When they torture conscientious people like Tasneem Khalil, they unconsciously torture their past selves: the now-unrecognizable dreamers they were when they entered the service. They dreamt of standing up to their tyrannical parent in their own way. They found out that not only does the parent ensure their existence, but that others are doing a far better job of breaking free than they are. They can’t fight the parent. So they fight those who have successfully usurped their dreams and are living it.

With some amusement, I read a New Age report a few days back that the ACC (led by an ex-army man) has promised to look into corruption within the military. And who did they make this “promise” to? Not to civvies like ourselves, no! Or heaven forbid, to our elected representatives, their political masters! But to a visiting Danish parliamentary delegation. I repeat, a Danish parliamentary delegation. Apparently they refused to comment on it afterwards to our media.

Read that last paragraph again and tell me that there’s nothing rotten with that picture.
That is the sad tale of dependence and misdirected rebellion I read between the lines of their “interrogation”: the miserable antics of a bunch of impotent, insecure frat-boys playing out their unconscious desires to break free of the very same parental unit that sustains them and their jealousy, resulting in torture, of someone who has broken free of the system, thus fulfilling and usurping their aspirations!

Pathetic to see a bunch of boys trying to be real men? You bet.

March 05, 2008

No Country for Young Men

Yeats should have sailed to Bangladesh.

For in Bangladesh, the old in one another’s arms dance on the bloodied corpses of the young.

I speak not only of “cowardly liberals” such as our twin editors, who seem to have sacrificed a man each to save their own political hides. Whereas they should have been leaders, voices of experience and bulwarks of strength who sheltered the more adventurous of their flock – Mohammad Arifur Rahman and Tasneem Khalil – they have instead proven themselves to be sell-outs and sycophants through not just their “sacrifices” but also their silence.

No, I come not to speak only of these so-called progressive voices of a decrepit generation with suitably unoriginal, decrepit ideas. I speak also of other older, more honourable men. Men who vow to keep us safe, where “us” equals every person who inhabits our green land. Men who send our finest and bravest to battle. Men who have taken on young men and women to fight for their land and are responsible for their safety.

After a generation of INDOCTRINATING our young army personnel against India as opposed to TRAINING THEM TO THINK about countering India’s influence meaningfully, I see the most honourable of men travel to Delhi. The Bangladeshi media reports sycophantically on it. The Indian media talks about “joint exercises” aimed at eradicating the Indian North-East of “rebels” and “terrorists”.

Now unlike Mr. Farhad Mazhar, whose write-up on the topic I appreciated highly and urge everyone to read for its section on the Bay of Bengal gas blocks issue, I am not about to make emotional appeals that go like, “Our army is going India’s bidding!”. Joint exercises are not doing anyone’s “bidding” and, if our army is to become/remain well-trained and have a global outlook instead of the parochial one that pervades it, such exercises are positive. I will not make such emotional appeals.

I will humbly point out a small, probable scenario: the only reason these “rebels” have not turned their guns against us is because we turn a blind eye to them (at the least) when they want to use our territory as refuge. If we start to carry out “joint exercises”, they may not appreciate it and we might have our own little problems on the northern border. The Hindistani (my latest word for “North Indian”) elite at the Indian centre does not quite understand that there are real grievances at work in these areas. They seem to be under the impression that these insurgencies are being “fed” by our military, and that if our military suddenly switches sides, that is going to stop the insurgency. In the presence of real grievances, this is not about to happen. Indeed military solutions to insurgencies are highly prone to failure (too lazy to link).

And if this does happen who will pay the price for the switch? Our young of course. The ones who were indoctrinated against “Indians” will then be re-indoctrinated against a new set of “Indians”, you know, the ones with “chinky” eyes. They will fight and they will be sacrificed, while old men play golf and talk expensive horses or arms deals with American secretaries of defence.

As far as I know, no promises have been made. But given the alacrity of old men to sacrifice the young in this country, should I not be fearful? Give me one reason why I shouldn’t be? We’ve talked so much about the riots of August, but did anybody really focus on the Tragedy of young, 20-something Bangladeshi students fighting young, 20-something Bangladeshis in uniform, simply because all their elders are obstinate old men who didn’t get along in the heat of the 70’s?
And I’m not even going to start talking about the issue that this New Age editorial brought up, to wit the issue of undignified, box-like structures at the border. I’d just like our pan-Bengali-rhetoric sprouting folk to stand up and say something at this point. Yes, that’s you Mr. Aly Zaker! You too Mr. Syed Badrul Ahsan! Decrepit old men with decrepit old ideas the whole lot of them!

I’ll end with a jibe that I should know better to make, but simply can’t resist. A certain blogger who enjoys putting down economists (perhaps under the mistaken impression that I am a student of economics!) has previously expressed his admiration for the man in uniform on horseback. Now it seems that the man in uniform has gone to Delhi to beg for rice. And I contend we have come to this because all the economists have been pooh-poohed from the left as “IMF-stooges”, from the right as “shushils” and by this blogger as purveyors of “craponomics”.

But of all of these pooh-pooh-ers, only the last has something to be happy about in all this. The Indians gave this most honourable man in uniform a few horses, so it seems that our fellow blogger’s dreams of having the Man-on-Horseback president will be fulfilled, even if begging for rice and doing India’s dirty work is the price of that dream.

And I thought it was only the economists who ran the country on craponomics!