Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Media and democracy in Bangladesh

From New Age:

The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, gave a call to editors and media persons to help in the uninterrupted functioning of hard-earned democracy. She made the call at a meeting not with editors but with newspaper owners in the persons of delegates of the Newspaper Owners Association of Bangladesh when they called on her at her official residence Jamuna on Sunday, according to a report filed by the private news agency United News of Bangladesh.

Never mind the meeting was not with editors the relevance of her message will not be lost. The prime minister also requested the media owners to project the various successes and achievements of the government to the people and not to publish ‘untrue’ news. As for publication of untrue news, the media is a vast collective in which there are good guys as well as bad guys. We cannot say that such news items or commentaries are never published which later scrutiny finds to be untrue or grossly exaggerated.

But then no newspaper can consistently publish unfounded stories and survive in business. Readers will not go on paying for false information or analyses. Apart from the law of the land, there are also some institutional checks against irresponsible expression of views. While irresponsible journalism must be shunned by all, experience shows that any reporting that does not accord with the ruling party’s stated position is dubbed false or motivated. As regards the positive projection of the government’s successes and achievements, the government’s elaborate PR mechanism gives the official point of view; the media gives the people’s point of view.

The government handout may boldly publicise that such numbers of cyclone-hit people have been provided relief; the media will highlight that the remaining numbers of cyclone-hit people have not been provided relief. That way the outlooks of the two agencies may never converge. A government which claims to be democratic should show both tolerance and sensitivity. The way things are being run forces us to conclude that elected government does not amount to democratic government.

There is no denying the prime minister’s observation that smooth functioning of democracy is the sine qua non for protecting people’s rights and interests. Traditionally it has been thought that democracy and free press flourish side by side and have an interdependent, almost symbiotic relationship. From this point of view editors and journalists can certainly play an important role in the fostering of democracy. But the foremost task in this regard lies with political leaders, especially those in power. Editors and journalists do not operate the levers of power. They can only examine the reality of the country and give an opinion as to how power should be exercised to reach maximum benefit to the people. They can do their job successfully subject to fulfilment of two conditions.

Firstly they should be free to express their views (within the law, of course) and their views should be given the importance they deserve. Although the Right to Information Act has been legislated (possibly under external pressure) endless rules and restrictions stand in the way of free expression of views. Apart from crippling laws and restrictions, there are harassment and intimidation. In the one year since the present government took over, 229 cases of attack on journalists have been recorded leading to three deaths and 71 serious injuries.

If the elected government has acquired any democratic character it should be reflected in its attitude to the media and the opposition.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bangladesh: walking on a knife-edge?


A RECENT news report that India is preparing to send a commando-style force in Dhaka to guard its diplomatic mission and to protect VIPs is of great concern to many Bangladeshis. Unfortunately, the news has not been covered by most print and electronic media in Bangladesh. Some media outlets appear to be interested more in the daily political bickering, squabbles, gossips and scandals inside Bangladesh than in the ever-increasing foreign control of different state organs. Attempts by foreign powers, especially the US and Indian imperialists, to reduce the country as a vassal state by all possible means, legal or illegal, covert or overt, are going on unabated.

In case some people suggest that the news report on sending Indian troops to Dhaka is another piece anti-India propaganda by vested quarters, it has to be mentioned that the news was published by the New Delhi-based media outlet Press Trust of India as well as the Kolkata-based Ananda Bazar Potrika. So any criticism about its authenticity would be untenable.

For the sake of objectivity, let us quote the PTI news (New Delhi, December 17). Captioned ‘Indian mission in Dhaka to be guarded by SSB troops’, it reads: ‘Facing threat from terror group Laskhar-e-Taiba, India will soon deploy its paramilitary troops to guard its mission in Dhaka. ‘At least 50 specially-trained troops of Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a force that guards Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bhutan borders, will soon be sent to guard the High Commission after getting a clearance from External Affairs Ministry. ‘The personnel have been trained in VIP, mobile and static security duties and would also render technical support responsibilities, official sources said. ‘The troops will be sent soon and an assessment report is being prepared for their deployment, they said, adding SSB personnel will be in addition to the security men provided by Bangladesh government.’ It is clear from the report that the Indian government has already decided to send at least 50 specially trained troops of an elite force to Dhaka and this would be done after getting a clearance from India’s External Affairs Ministry.

And the purpose of this deployment is said to be providing security to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka and other dignitaries from possible attacks by the terror group Laskhar-e-Taiba. The Indian government would probably justify this deployment on the excuse that Laskhar-e-Taiba is a serious threat to its security because this group is allegedly using Bangladesh soil to carry out terrorist activities in India. Three alleged members of this group were arrested last month by Bangladesh security forces, who then also said that they got the intelligence and information about these persons from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was also claimed that this group was taking preparations for attacks on the Indian, British and US embassies in Dhaka.

We do not know how far the story about these alleged terrorists’ plan to attack the three most important embassies in Dhaka is true. But even if it were true, it is the duty of Bangladesh security forces to protect all the foreign embassies including the Indian embassy from any potential terrorist attacks, and not of the Indian SSB commando force. The arrest of the three alleged LeT members in Bangladesh could also be another piece of R&AW-instigated disinformation campaign against Bangladesh and its security forces to portray the country as a ‘failed state’ and its government and security forces as totally ineffective to deal with ‘terrorism’. Such type of R&AW-inspired propaganda against Bangladesh and Muslims is nothing new.

The Indian ruling class and its various establishments suffer from ‘big power’ chauvinism and they have never treated the less powerful neighbours with due respect and dignity. They have always treated Bangladesh with disdain and extracted only one-sided benefits without giving anything in return. Of course, they have very successfully cultivated some important elements within the Bangladesh political establishment and planted agents in different sectors to advance their cause.

The position of the Bangladesh government on the issue is unclear and to a large extent it remains very mysterious. We do not know for sure if the government has already agreed to India’s proposal for stationing the ‘especially trained’ and armed SSB elite forces in Dhaka. If such proposal has not yet been accepted, how is that the Indian government is preparing for sending its forces to Dhaka? On the contrary, if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already agreed to the proposal (nobody else in the government would have the authority or guts to do so), does she really want to hand over the security of the Bangladesh state to the ‘big brother’? Does she accept that Bangladesh security forces are incapable of providing security to foreign diplomatic missions and other VIPs?

Does she understand the consequences of Indian forces moving with arms on Dhaka streets? Besides, there are dozens of other related questions that must be answered by the Awami League government before it becomes a pawn in the hands of their so-called friends. If the friendship is not a one-way but two-way traffic, would India allow armed Bangladeshi elite forces such as SSF to be deployed in New Delhi or Kolkata to provide security to Bangladeshi missions there? In times of a serious crisis, it is not inconceivable that these missions would become natural targets for attacks by various anti-Bangladeshi outfits such as R&AW-inspired Banga Sena or any terrorist (Muslim or Hindu) groups based in India.

If the Indian mission or any of India’s numerous business houses, cultural centre, etc, or any of its thousands of citizens living in Dhaka or elsewhere in Bangladesh come under any kind of attacks by a terrorist group like Laskhar-e-Taiba, Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh or Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (the chances of such acts would only increase after the Indian forces are deployed in Dhaka), what would the government do? Would it allow more Indian troops inside Bangladesh to protect ‘India’s vital national and strategic interests’ and/or ‘help’ the AL government in its ‘fight against terrorism’?

What happens if India itself or any other external actor ‘stages’ some dramatic incidents of sabotage, kidnapping and hostage taking or carries out some high-profile murders, and Bangladesh security forces are not able to make a quick response? Would it be difficult for India’s various agencies to create or take advantage of any serious ‘terrorist’ incidents to ‘volunteer’ more troops inside Bangladesh? Those who want to know do know that imperialist and hegemonic powers do not bother for friendship with a particular group or one political party in economically and militarily weaker states; they only want to advance their own economic and strategic interests by any means – sweet talk, a little crumbs, coercive diplomacy, blackmail, threats, covert actions, creation of internal dissension and strife, and, finally, if the above less visible methods fail, by armed aggression and brutal occupation.

The excuse for such drastic action by the imperial powers is often: ‘restoring civil order’, ‘maintaining peace’, ‘creating stability’, ‘prevention of serious abuses of human rights’, ‘protecting minority rights’, ‘advancing the cause of freedom and democracy’, etc. There are numerous examples in old as well as recent history where the imperial powers did not hesitate to dispense with their one-time ‘friends’ by conspiratorial and/or violent methods. Even in Bangladesh, we have witnessed several instances of ‘regime’ change with not-so-hidden instigation and participation by powerful foreign actors.

After the recent double game played by the AL government against the ULFA leaders who are fighting for their own independence from Indian control, this and other freedom seeking ethnic armed groups in Assam and other regions northeast of Bangladesh would become hostile to Bangladesh and Muslims. If the government proceeds further along the Indian trap of becoming an active partner (or collaborator) in their counterinsurgency campaigns in the northeast, the anti-Indian freedom fighters there may extend their battlefield into Bangladesh territories. India’s war against ULFA and other freedom fighters in the northeast is not ‘our war’ and we must not get involved in that.

In the past, we have observed all governments remain more or less silent on any difficult issue related to foreign countries, especially the US and India. But the silence of the present government on security threats posed by the two imperialist powers is alarming, to say the least. While many ministers miss no opportunity to argue for public acceptance or compliance of India’s multifaceted demands and actions that many consider contrary to Bangladesh’s national interests, they seem to be totally indifferent or oblivious to their foremost duties and obligations, that is, to stand firm against all external and internal adversaries to safeguard the country’s hard-won independence, sovereignty and vital national interests.

The government and people of Bangladesh must not allow the deployment of Indian SSB commando forces on their soil, whatever may be the excuse. Such an arrangement would invariably generate more suspicion, hostility and animosity against both the AL and Indian governments. It would open the country to further Indian and US imperialist intervention on this or that excuse. The people of Bangladesh wish to live in peace with their Indian neighbours, but they must never accept the presence of Indian troops on their soil.

Bangladesh security forces have suffered some serious setbacks during the last three years due first to the misguided ‘Gang of Four Generals’ and then to the mishandling of the armed and security forces by the AL government, especially after the tragic Peelkhana massacre. But we are confident that the armed and security forces would soon recover from the setbacks forced upon them by the nation’s local and foreign enemies and they would definitely stand side by side with the patriotic people to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and security.

Dr KMA Malik is a former professor of chemistry, Dhaka University, and a lecturer in chemistry, Cardiff University

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bangladesh and ULFA relations: the future

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW/Paresh Baruah, Commander-in-chief, ULFA

The man who meticulously plans all of ULFA's strikes, commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, is not one to mince words. He is said to have set up base in Myanmar's Kachin Hills bordering China's Yunnan province, running guns for the Chinese. On December 4 morning, even as the Bangladesh authorities were preparing to hand over Arabinda Rajkhowa and his family to the BSF at Dawki outpost in Meghalaya, he called up Sarbari Bhaumik to insist that there was no question of negotiations with India unless Delhi agreed to include the issue of Assam’s sovereignty on the agenda for talks.

Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
Will Arabinda Rajkhowa bow to pressure and start negotiations with India?
ULFA is always keen to start negotiations and sort out the problems through dialogue. But any such negotiations, any talks, will have to have the issue of Assam’s sovereignty on its agenda. Otherwise we are not talking. I will expect our chairman to remember that 11,000 of our fighters, young Assamese who dreamt of freedom, have laid down their lives for sovereignty. We will dishonour their souls if we quietly drop the issue of Assam’s sovereignty from any negotiations.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram has made it clear that India will only talk to ULFA if the demand for sovereignty is dropped.
We will not talk to India if the issue is not included on the agenda. That is our position as an organisation and my position as an individual and as the leader of our movement.

But there are reports in the Indian media that Rajkhowa might start talks by dropping the demand for Assam’s sovereignty.

I don’t think it is true. The Indians have turned it into a huge drama but I think our chairman will not betray the sentiments and feelings of all our freedom fighters and the freedom-loving people of Assam. At the end of the day, organisations matter, leaders don’t. If an individual leader betrays the feeling of the collective, he should be prepared to face the consequences .

The media is talking of a split in your organisation.
That is a huge nonsense. I have a very poor opinion of the Indian media, specially the so-called national media. They are jingoistic, they don’t see the reality on the ground. They write what the intelligence or the administration tells them to. There is no split in ULFA. Most of our central committee members and founders are in jail and you must have seen them telling journalists in Guwahati in no uncertain terms that there cannot be any talks without sovereignty being on the agenda and without me being a part of the negotiations. There is total consensus on this issue right across ULFA, within our central committee and from top to bottom.

So there is no split in ULFA?
I repeat, there is no split in ULFA. Some self-styled security analysts are also suggesting there is a three-way split in ULFA. They are shamelessly working for the Indian state and saying what they are told to. The reality is that from time to time, some of our people have walked out from the organisation and called it a day because they had lost hope in our struggle. Any struggle for freedom, specially against a powerful state like India, cannot be a road without thorns. We will have to face many challenges. But some of our people at times lose hope and go away. That is fine so long as they don’t become lackeys of the Indian state and work against our national movement.

If Rajkhowa walks away and starts talks with India by dropping the sovereignty demand, how would you react?
Let us not talk about ifs and buts. Our senior leaders will not betray the movement but, as I said, if someone does that, it will be at his own peril.

Why is the Bangladesh government after your group?
I really don’t understand why the new government of Bangladesh is succumbing to Indian hegemonist designs. They will pay dearly for what they are doing.

Are you threatening violent action against Bangladesh?
I am not threatening anyone. But if Bangladesh has expectations from India and are doing all this to make Delhi happy, they will be quickly belied. They will get nothing for what they are doing.

There are reports that you are seeking, and perhaps getting, Chinese help.
China is upset with India for its growing strategic relationship with the US. A major confrontation between India and China is in the offing.

But what if that happens? How does it help your cause?
Small people like us may either benefit from such a huge conflict of titans and gain our independence or get sandwiched and crushed between the two giants. It is worth taking a risk, is it not?