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Horror and grief: a nation besieged

Text by Rahnuma Ahmed

Photos by DrikNews

One of the factors that is said to have contributed to the rebellion. The previous government (under emergency rule) had initiated a programme of providing subsidised food to tackle the unprecedented increase in food costs. The army is said to have whisked away huge amounts of money through the programme, while BDR staff complain of not even receiving legitimate payment for extra work. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 03 2008. Muniruzzaman/DrikNews

One of the factors that is said to have contributed to the rebellion. The previous government (under emergency rule) had initiated a programme of providing subsidised food to tackle the unprecedented increase in food costs. The army is said to have whisked away huge amounts of money through the programme, while BDR staff complain of not even receiving legitimate payment for extra work. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 03 2008. Muniruzzaman/DrikNews

The military cordoned off parts of Dhanmondi in an effort to quell the uprising. Soldiers in Satmasjid Road. Dhanmondi. 9:30 am. 25th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

The military cordoned off parts of Dhanmondi in an effort to quell the uprising. Soldiers in Satmasjid Road. Dhanmondi. 9:30 am. 25th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

BODIES of army officers had been found, they had been dumped in the sewage canals that lay underneath the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. Two dead bodies had been the first ones to surface, far away, in Kamrangirchar.

Three civilians had died too, on the very first day. But as news of fifteen more dead bodies of army officers surfaced the next day, the civilian deaths seemed to pale away.

While the extent of the conflict was unclear bodies of slain police and civilians were found. Many lay unattended as sniper fire prevented medical help from reaching. 25th February. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Adnan/DrikNews

While the extent of the conflict was unclear bodies of slain police and civilians were found. Many lay unattended as sniper fire prevented medical help from reaching. Later bodies of soldiers were found, in water bodies near Dhanmondi as well as in mass graves. 25th February. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Adnan/DrikNews

And then a mass grave was discovered in the BDR grounds. Thirty-eight dead bodies were unearthed, including that of the director general Shakil Ahmed. A couple of other bodies were found, killed and dumped in ponds, drains, and sewage lines.

Many innocent civilians got caught up in the fight. Bus helper Muhammad Babu talks of his near escape. One of his compatriots died while two others were hit by bullets. 25th February 2009. Dhanmondi. Noor Alam/DrikNews

Many innocent civilians got caught up in the fight. Bus helper Muhammad Babu talks of his near escape. One of his compatriots died while two others were hit by bullets. 25th February 2009. Dhanmondi. Noor Alam/DrikNews

As the long hours passed, the whole nation seemed to be holding back its breath, aghast at the enormity of what had happened. At the carnage that had accompanied the rebellion. People gathered around to listen to the radio, watched breaking news spots on television, read aloud newspapers. News travelled through word of mouth. Collective sighs of relief were heaved when family members who had been held hostage were released. But the discovery of more mass graves, the news of family members also having been killed, of the many scores still missing, leave people speechless.

The conflict spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The BDR of Baitul Izzat BDR Training Centre, Satkania, rebelled on the 26th February. There was heavy gunfire inside the camp 9.30 am spreading panic in the area. After the shooting BDR took control of the training centre. BDR claimed that army started the gunfire. Trainee BDRs discarded their uniforms and ran away to nearby villages. Chittagong, Bangladesh. February 27 2009. Raj Aniket/DrikNews

The conflict spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The BDR of Baitul Izzat BDR Training Centre, Satkania, rebelled on the 26th February. There was heavy gunfire inside the camp 9.30 am spreading panic in the area. After the shooting BDR took control of the training centre. BDR claimed that army started the gunfire. Trainee BDRs discarded their uniforms and ran away to nearby villages. Chittagong, Bangladesh. February 27 2009. Raj Aniket/DrikNews

As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh. A H Arif/DrikNews

As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh. A H Arif/DrikNews

Horror, incredulity, and a sort of numbness have set in. Scores still remain missing, as the gagging stench of decomposing flesh hangs over Pilkhana grounds.

After the military was initially kept back, tanks were deployed. More than 10 tanks and one APC (armed personnel carrier) took position in front of Abahani sports ground, while soldiers took position inside the field. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

After the military was initially kept back, tanks were deployed. More than 10 tanks and one APC (armed personnel carrier) took position in front of Abahani sports ground, while soldiers took position inside the field. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

How could the jawans go on such a killing spree to right the wrongs done to them? What on earth could have possessed them? These are questions that are repeated endlessly by people in all parts of the country. Yes, they did have grievances (over not being given full rations, not being sent abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, over low pay, unpaid daily allowances promised for extra duties rendered, recruitment from the army to the higher, decision-making positions, etc, etc) but surely, their course of action was disproportionate by all accounts. Not to mention, suicidal (as I write, the idea of disbanding the BDR is being considered).

Is there more to it than meets the eye? In a crisis as grave as the one that faces the nation now, where does one seek answers to the truth? It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers. But what if some of the questions being raised are seen, especially by powerful sections, as blaming the victims of the tragedy? Do we have the resources, the intellectual capacity, the political will, and above all, the courage, to raise the right questions? Will these be tolerated, in moments of such deep grief, where passions rage high?

Were unseen forces at work? Wild conspiracy theories are doing the rounds. Do these not block off hard-headed attempts at understanding whether unseen forces were really at work? Surely we need to know the truth, in the interests of the nation-state, and in the interests of the survival of the many millions who live within its boundaries. It is a nation whose citizens are proud of their hard-earned and fought-for independence, and of their sovereignty, notwithstanding the deep fractures that cause long-standing divisions.

A girl just released from the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

A girl just released from the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

I see women and children seated on the pavement or standing outside the BDR gates, keeping long hours of vigil, for news of their loved ones. I see a few faces break down in tears as yet another body is identified. I see some women reach out to console, while others, who still have shreds of hope, lower their heads in shared grief. Hoping against hope that their husbands, or fathers, or brothers or sons will return. Alive.

Family members of the hostages were released in front of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

Family members of the hostages were released in front of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

Army tanks moved into the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. After 33 hours the rebel BDR soldiers surrendered and went back to their barracks, and police and army took over the BDR headquarters. A woman waited outside the headquarters for news of missing relatives. 27th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

Army tanks moved into the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. After 33 hours the rebel BDR soldiers surrendered and went back to their barracks, and police and army took over the BDR headquarters. A woman waited outside the headquarters for news of missing relatives. 27th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

I see a mother holding up a wedding photograph of her missing son and his newly-wed bride. I grieve for them, just as I grieve for much-respected inspector general of police Nur Mohammad’s daughter, widowed, at two months. Scores remain missing, still.

I read of the Indian government’s offer to send a peace mission to give security to the Calcutta-Dhaka-Calcutta Moitree Express that runs between the two cities on Saturdays and Sundays, to be manned by Indian paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force, the Railway Protection Force, maybe, even the Border Security Force (The Telegraph, February 27).

I listen to balance in reporting being urged, particularly in the case of the electronic media, since the accusations of the BDR jawans had been highlighted on the first day of the rebellion in some of the private TV channels. It is being said, the other side’s version, that of the army officers, had not been sought, that it had not been reported. But surely the lack of press briefings, either from the government or the Home Ministry, or from the ISPR, contributed to this situation? I listen to a discussant argue that command failure, intelligence failure and corruption should not be mentioned. I cannot help but wonder, how does one seek out the truth where such a besieged mentality operates, where collective grief, horror and condemnation can be offered and accepted but only on terms that are acceptable to the recipient? Where narratives of grief and pain and horror seem to be overlaid with other narratives, that of the right to rule.

A candlelight vigil to mourn the dead in a park opposite the BDR headquarters. People of all religions offered silent prayers for the victims. 1st March. Dhaka Bangladesh. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

A candlelight vigil to mourn the dead in a park opposite the BDR headquarters. People of all religions offered silent prayers for the victims. 1st March. Dhaka Bangladesh. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

The dead cannot be brought back to life, nor can the brutal happenings be erased from the nation’s history. We can only console the bereaved. We can only learn lessons from it, as a nation.

It is the nation – as a whole – that grieves for the army officers, and their family members. It is the nation that must stay united, since the crisis seems grave enough to threaten our existence. It is the nation that must come together to seek answers, and to discover the truth. A unity of interests must prevail, rather than that of any particular institution. Or else, I fear, we would be doing injustice to those who lost their lives at Pilkhana.

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Written 1 March 2009, published in New Age 6 March 2009

Earlier coverage:

March 6, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The novelist in wartime

By Haruki Murakami

In this powerful speech, the great author explains his controversial decision to accept a literary prize in Israel and why we need to fight the System.

I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies. Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies — which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true — the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. In Japan a fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The U.N. reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens — children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me — and especially if they are warning me — “Don’t go there,” “Don’t do that,” I tend to want to “go there” and “do that.” It’s in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.

Please do allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is “the System.” The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others — coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories — stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the battlefield. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.

My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong — and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made the System. That is all I have to say to you.

February 21, 2009 Posted by | Global Issues | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Small Bridge to Cross

Landslides are dangerous. Things get buried. People get hurt. The 9th parliamentary elections was to return Bangladesh from a two year military backed caretaker rule to an elected Government. The gathering on the last campaign day was massive, but there were fewer women and more people with white caps than one expected. The BNP candidate in Paltan Maidan boasted of how EVERY household in his candidacy, had assured him of their vote. Awami League candidates, the previous day, postured similarly, but both sides probably felt there was a reasonable chance of winning. The two-year gap between BNP’s misrule and the elections, might have eroded some of the moral gains that Awami League would otherwise have had. Voters sometimes have short memories. A landslide election win for anyone was not on the cards.

The Bangladeshi voter however, is remarkably savvy. They voted out Bhutto in 1971. Despite genocide, it did lead to independence. Since then, in every reasonably free and fair election they have had, they have voted with their heads. Hasina’s lack of repentance about BAKSHAL and previous Awami League misrule cost her the 1991 elections. Khaleda’s police fired upon farmers demanding fertilisers. Even a rigged election didn’t help her in 1996. ‘Safe’ seats of numerous ministers were lost in the re-taken polls. Hasina blew it in her term with her thugs causing havoc on campus and her ministers demanding that journalists be beaten up. The votes went to BNP. Khaleda went overboard yet again, with corruption reaching new heights, and her sons unleashing terror. Rising prices didn’t help. Khaleda made an attempt at apology. It was too little too late. The pendulum swung. History does not appear to be either party’s strong point.

There has however, been a change in the recent script. Political skirmishes in the past, were largely between political cadre, and localised. A few cocktails might have been thrown, but since the killing of general Zia, there had been few assassination attempts. Until recently. Bomb attacks were a new thing. The capture of trucks laden with small arms. The vigilante groups in the rampage in the north. The targeted attacks on secular scholars, were new. Assassination attempts on Hasina took political violence to new levels. The BNP brought in its own vigilante. The black bandanas of the Rapid Action Battalion became another source of terror with hundreds of ‘crossfire’ deaths to their credit.

Against this backdrop, the landslide win of the Awami League, had analysts gushing with excitement. The superlatives flowed. People cheered this ‘historic victory’. A change of government generally starts with a witch-hunt, traditionally meted out to the opposition party previously in power. This caretaker government had stayed rather longer than usual. Given the documented torture of ‘rajkumar’ Tariq Zia (Khaleda’s son and the general secretary of her party), BNP’s return to power would not have been so comfortable for the incumbent government and its unofficial backers. Hasina’s promise of ratifying the misdeeds of this government meant she was the safer bet.

Accusations of the military having actively engineered the Awami League win is probably exaggerated, though news of intimidation was not infrequent, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But that too is history. Hasina’s position regarding her neighbours is more pertinent. She has already declared solidarity towards Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The relationship towards big brother India, will probably have more to do with the relationship with bigger brother USA. The US has always played a major role in recent subcontinental politics. The 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was needed when the USSR was dominant. Today, the US, Israel and India are close allies, the war on terror being a collective pet project. A pliant military and a grateful Hasina will both play the game. The routing of Jamaat in the elections has to do with people’s sentiments. The war on war criminals to the war on terror is a small bridge to cross. The fluttering flag of democracy will obscure a few indiscretions along the way.

January 16, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh, elections | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Elections 2008. Victory, impunity and terror

Rahnuma Ahmed


I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.’
— Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party

Electoral democracy

It was a victory for electoral democracy.

I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn’t register with any political party’. Someone else’s photo, name, and father’s name graced the space where Saif’s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.

Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.

A young voter in Dhanmondi Girls High School in Dhaka, shows the ink stains on his thumb, as evidence of having voted. 29th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A young voter in Dhanmondi Girls High School in Dhaka, shows the ink stains on his thumb, as evidence of having voted. 29th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition — whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government — would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.

In the early hours of the morning, as AL’s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.

Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League’s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution — a ballot box revolution — had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.

There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.

I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia’s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government’s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.

At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ‘unprecedented rigging,’ or of the polls having been conducted according to a ‘blueprint’. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID’s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ‘bribe money’, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel’s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.

Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.

A ‘smooth transition’: impunity in the offing?

Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…

How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ‘inalienable’ fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy — be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.

Allying with bigger terrorists

The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army’s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ‘terrorists.’ A seamless whole seems to be in the making.

And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina’s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ‘the spirit of 1971’ will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.

January 8, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh, elections, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Re-constructing the nation. Imperial designers at work

Rahnuma Ahmed

After all, one cannot permit the feud between the two parties to destroy the nation. We must dedicate ourselves to higher causes instead. Our bodies and souls must be dedicated to the defense of empire, and to its interests.

`Shamorik, Beshamorik o Jameson’er Ccholke Pora Totto,’ Shomokal, July 4, 2007.

I had written these words nearly a year and a half ago. I wish I had been wrong.

The words were based on my readings of the `universalisation’ of the US empire’s interests throughout the world by means of armed coercion and ideological hegemony, and my interpretation of political events at home. At the sudden installation of the military-backed caretaker regime on 11 January 2007, and at the Chief Advisor’s vows: to crackdown on corruption and establish the rule of law, and to initiate strict reforms aimed at ensuring long-term stability and restoring democracy in national politics.

Before the installation of the Fakhruddin-led government, before the scheduled January 2007 national elections, even before late 2006 when some of the streets of Dhaka city had turned into battle-fields of opposing political parties, Western diplomats in Dhaka had been frenziedly active. Particularly the US Ambassador Patricia Butenis, and the British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury. But I must not fail to mention other western diplomats, those from the EU and from western European nations, from Canada, and from Australia. And how can one ever forget Ms Renata Dessalien, the UN’s Resident Coordinator? Even the blind, I felt, could not fail to notice the fury and madness that seemed to possess these western diplomats: holding discussions and meetings with politicians, some of these closed-door, making off-the-cuff statements to press and television reporters, constantly advising and preaching to the politicians, to the nation at large. On occassions, the Indian High Commissioner too, had joined in the fray.

It was a frenzy that did not abate with the installation of the interim government. It is a frenzy that still continues. Later entrants to this proselytising club have been the diplomats of some of the Muslim nations, happen-chance choir boys to western soloists.

I have friends who are cynical, who think that western diplomats posted in Dhaka — for them ‘outposts’ — are from far worse outposts themselves, that they do not possess much in the way of education, culture, and refinement, that they have probably not read the Vienna Convention and hence are totally unaware of the norms of diplomacy that are obligatory. One of them even said, maybe they don’t know of it’s existence? Hey, what about doing a questionnaire survey…? Another friend chipped in, you know, in some ways they are quite similar to our politicians, these diplomats are also surrounded by sycophants, by our politicians, writers, university teachers, lawyers, journalists, NGO and development-wallahs, they seem to hang on to every word that they say.

But I think these `reasons’ let them off too easily. I also see no reason to deny the bitter hostility between the two main political parties, a hostility that was aggravated by the 2004 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina outside the Awami League party office in Gulistan. One that was further deepened by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s accusation that the `militants’ behind the grenade attacks were `accomplices’ of the AL. Of gnawing suspicions of poll-rigging, ones that became increasingly clearer as the parliamentary elections to be held under the caretaker government of president Iajuddin Ahmed in January 2007 approached. Accusations and counter-accusations have been heaped on to fractures that divide the nation, that are deeply embedded in the nation’s political history of autocratic civilian governments, preceded or followed by military dictators. A nation that faced a threat at birth when the US Seventh Fleet entered the Bay of Bengal in 1971, days before independence, and yet again, suffered more grievously, in August 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, and most of his family members, were assassinated. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s name has forever remained linked with the coup’s conspirators.

I do not know whether any of the western diplomats had stoked the fires of intolerance that was on display on either side, in late 2006. But I do know from newspaper reports that Ms Butenis had been present at a luncheon meeting organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership, where a video film on the violent events of 28 October 2006 was screened.

A question that is hardly raised, let alone discussed in `civil society’ forums, deliberating endlessly on the urgent need for national unity, is: is the unity to be forged against the west’s imperial interests, or is it to be accomplished to serve these interests further? What paths are open to us? What are the consequences of the paths that we tread upon, for us and for our future generations?

Footprints in the sand

The cat was let out of the bag by the World Bank’s Vice-President Praful C Patel, on a visit to Dhaka, in December 2007. “What [had] looked possible before,” said Patel, “like the minus-two approach,” no longer seems possible. The leaders of AL and BNP have a “very strong and powerful power base.” Rumors that the caretaker government was attempting to apply the minus two formula had been circulating for months, only to be vehemently denied. The government had insisted that it only sought to create a level playing field, one in which all political parties could participate freely and fairly. Strategies for restoring democracy to Bangladesh, it seems, were being planned most undemocratically.

And, of course, there was the slip made by the more-than-voluble British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who had commented on the Dhaka university student protests of August 2007, protests that had spread to other public universities and educational institutions, and was later brutally put down by the army with the imposition of curfew. “Initially spontaneous,” these protests, said Mr Choudhury, had signalled “something much bigger, something much sinister.” He had felt obliged to inform us, “A lot of money and co-ordination came into the equation.”

Ms Butenis has been succeeded by James Francis Moriarty, in the words of the well-known Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, “an American cowboy in a Nepali china shop.” Dixit should know since Mr Moriarty had been the US ambassador to Nepal (2004-2007), before being posted to Bangladesh. In response to reports of the infamous killings and destruction of property in Kapilavastu in the Terai by death squads, based on Latin American paramilitary “death squad” models, Moriarty is reported to have said, it was a reason for “optimism.” Later, when confronted with this report and asked for further comments, he had said, his main concern was that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was running out of bullets. As US ambassador to Nepal, Mr Moriarty is reported to have visited army camps, to have frequently given speeches about domestic political affairs, to have visited Nepal’s Terai region, to have instigated Madhesi leaders to take actions against the Maoists, and to have machinated to get the Seven Party Alliance to break their pact with the Maoists.


The US ambassador to Bangladesh, James F Moriarty, at a meeting with the foreign adviser to the military-controlled interim government, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury… Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomatic activity seems to have fallen on Mr Moriarty.
— Focusbangla photo

The US military involvement in Nepal is said to have increased considerably after Christina Rocca was appointed the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia in 2001. (Ms Rocca is familiar to many Bangladeshis, too). Millions of dollars have been pumped into building-up Nepal’s security forces, military exchange programs have been expanded, the Royal Nepalese Army has increased in numbers, from 35,000 before 2001, to 100,000 in 2005, with further increases of up to 150,000 projected for this year. Permanent headquarters have been built for US `advisers’ adjacent to RNA headquarters in Kathmandu’s city centre. The US army has trained Nepalese security forces in `special operations’ through its International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program. In 2003, Ms Rocca is reported to have tabled the proposition that RNA troops be sent to Iraq. This was politely declined by the Nepalese government, but it had gone on to request for “more weapons, helicopters, surveillance equipment that would enable the army to find and kill the revolutionary leadership, and the continuation of counter-insurgency training.”

Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomat-ic activity has fallen on Mr Moriarty, who has made visits from madrasas in Rangpur to the Kumudini Welfare Trust complex in Tangail, to holding meetings with AL, BNP, Jatiya party and Jamaat’s local-level politicians in Rangpur, discussing their present organisational structures, all in the interests of `strengthening democracy.’ There are other newspaper reports too. Recently, representatives of US Department of Homeland Security, US Pacific Command, and US Border Patrol completed a survey on border security in Bangladesh. According to reports, the Bangladesh government has not yet been informed of the details of the survey.

National unity? Of course. But in whose interests?

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First published in New Age on 22nd December 2008

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed, World | , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering December 1971

Winter, War and Refugee Camps

Julian Francis

“So, what were you doing in December, 1971?”, asked a colleague the other day. Every year at this time, as well as in the month of March, I remember vividly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In charge of OXFAM’s refugee relief programme covering 500,000 refugees, I was very worried about the onset of winter as many of the camps in which we were working were in very cold areas of North Bengal as well as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. We were having great difficulty in getting supplies of warm clothes and blankets through to the refugee camps because the roads in the border areas had been choked with Indian military supplies in November and early December. Sometimes we used old Dakota aircraft and flew supplies from Kolkata to air strips in Cooch Behar and West Dinajpur, but that was quite expensive. At the beginning of December 1971, we were expecting a chartered aircraft from OXFAM-America full of medical supplies worth about US$ 900,000 which were difficult to obtain in India, but at the last moment it was diverted to Madras because of the outbreak of war and we had to clear the supplies through Customs and transport them to Kolkata.

After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, enjoying a beer after a long day’s work and managed to get the Pakistan Radio’s English News and the propaganda machine said that the Pakistan Air Force had scored a direct hit on the Kolkata telephone exchange and that the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly! I remember that it was on 7th December that we learnt with horror that President Nixon had ordered the US 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an effort to prevent the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces from defeating the Pakistanis. Officially, this super flotilla – ‘the most powerful force in the world’ – was said to be going to evacuate a few American citizens from Dhaka, but the intention was clear. I remember how a well-known American doctor, working closely with us in the refugee camps, Dr Jon Rohde, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.

As the fighting intensified, my main concern was not only to keep relief supplies moving to the refugee camps but to ensure the safety of all our staff. The young doctors from the Kolkata and Bombay medical colleges and the Gandhian workers from Orissa and Gujarat had to be withdrawn for their own safety.

We were sure in those early days of the short war that it would be over very soon and that Bangladesh would be free, but we were very aware of the great relief and rehabilitation needs for the future and so we were already calculating what sort of assistance OXFAM could provide and through which organizations we might be able to work. I see from a telex which I sent in December 1971 that it was estimated by some that Bangladesh would need half a million tons of rice per month and that there was an immediate need of 1,000 trucks, 500 buses and that “most shelter materials such as bamboos had been destroyed by the Pakistani Army. OXFAM was one of the first donors of BRAC, which is now probably the largest NGO in the world, and OXFAM also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.

We were also able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways authority wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after my experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the river at Goalondo to this day, some 36 years later.

As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in an orderly way. One day in early February 1972, I was called out of the OXFAM office and there in the garden were about 300 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, , had fashioned some ‘woollen flowers’ These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks to OXFAM. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment.

These, then, are a few of my memories……..

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Julian Francis who, since the War of Liberation, has had a long association with Bangladesh working in many poverty alleviation projects, is currently working as ‘Programme & Implementation Advisor’ at the DFID supported ‘Chars Livelihoods Programme’, RDA, Bogra

December 16, 2008 Posted by | 1971, Bangladesh | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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