Sunday, February 21, 2010

No promise to make in this year's Ekushey February

Shouldn't I stand dumb in silence at the Ekushey Minar?
Muhammad Habibur Rahman

Twenty-first February this year
I have got no promise to make.
I have got no vow to take

For all these years
The promises that I made every year
The vows that I took every year
Remain unattended and unfulfilled.

All my efforts came to naught
All were cries in the wilderness
Exercises in futilityLike the dreams of a dumb person.

Before liberation
We thought that these vows
Would inspire us.Didn't they inspire?
Perhaps they did
After liberationI cannot meet these questions anymore
Face to face.

After liberation
If I go to power I will fulfill my promises.
After forming the governmentI said these were very hard promises
And could not be fulfilled in one term

When you go to power
You get forgetful
And often suffer from dementia

Great intentions become small and smaller
And then forgotten
And turn annoyingly
Meaningless and purposeless
Broken promises do pile up

On twenty-six March
We took vows to build
An exploitation-free society.

On the sixteenth December
We take vows to build
A secular society
Our vows steal the headlines
Of the following day's newspapers
Flashed in bold letters
And sometimes in red ones

Twenty-first February this year
I have got no promise to make.
I have got no vow to take.
For all my vows that are dead long ago I shall stand dumb in silence

With my head hanging down
For honoring all my unfulfilled promises
For all my past vows that are dead long ago.
Twenty-first February this year
Shouldn't I stand dumb in silence at the Ekushey Minar?

(Muhammad Habibur Rahman is former Chief Justice of Bangladesh and former Chief Adviser, Caretaker Government.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Challenges of blending Islam with secular democracy in Bangladesh

Political modernity is believed to have begun with the separation of religion from the State. Bangladesh is not the only country where the concept of the secular State and politics has faced serious challenges in recent years. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India continues to be a threat in Indian politics.

Tuesday’s ruling by the Bangladesh supreme court, restoring “secularism” to the country’s constitution and paving the way for a ban on religion-based political parties, is, therefore, of historic significance both for the country and the subcontinent. There are other important aspects of the ruling, especially the one that makes army takeovers “unconstitutional”.

But, more than anything else, it is the return of “secularism” to the country’s constitution that is the high point of the judgment. It reflects the new nation’s struggle to blend Islam with secular democracy and nationalism. The country has a mixed record in achieving this, but the successes seem to outweigh the failures.

However, the legal battle over the fifth amendment shows deep divisions within the political class in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is clearly upset with the ruling, especially because it makes its founder, Ziaur Rahman, look like a tinpot dictator.

The BNP’s ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has even more reasons to be unhappy. As the biggest religion-based party, it may face a ban if the ruling is written into the constitution. But the issues that the ruling raises are not political; they are central to the nation-building process in Bangladesh. Repeated army takeovers and martial laws once threatened to make the country a banana republic. In recent years, the rise of religious fundamentalism made the world worry about Bangladesh.

The court ruling brings an assurance of a change that Bangladesh desperately needed. But only a vigilant public can defend the rights that the constitution gives it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The moment for grand visions and grander actions for Bangladesh and India

Mahfuz Anam, editor, daily Star, writes this op-ed in the Times of India.

The history of mutual suspicion, petty bickering on trade negotiations, cavalier attitudes on border killings, dangerous gamesmanship with arms smuggling, etc, of the last three decades of Bangladesh-India relations would not normally justify the agreements that Sheikh Hasina penned sometime ago in Delhi. Only vision would.

A vision of a South Asia doing what ASEAN did several decades ago, of trusting neighbours rather than of subverting them, of fighting poverty and not using it to justify other failures, of a thriving marketplace of goods and services rather than of counting items in the negative list. In the latest agreement, Bangladesh has moved towards such a vision. Has India responded? For us, the jury is still out.

Take the two biggest concerns of the two sides: for India they are security and connectivity with the north-east; for Bangladesh water sharing and trade imbalance. There is a feeling that the clarity and precision with which Bangladesh responded to its neighbour's concerns were not reciprocated in equal measure by India.

On Indian security concerns, Bangladesh's commitment was unequivocal: it will not permit the use of Bangladeshi soil for activities inimical to any other country, basically meaning India. It was in dramatic contrast to the past when India's worries about terrorist links and arms transit fell on deaf ears. India desperately needed friendly borders in the east that Bangladesh has now assured and is following up by decisive deeds. Sheikh Hasina has launched the most determined and widespread actions against internal militants and extremists and is systematically dismantling the terrorist infrastructure.

The permission for the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports for shipment of Indian goods to the north-east is a very important step forward. With Bangladesh's present position on Asian highway and railway routes, the regional and sub-regional connectivity scenario is set to undergo a fundamental change. On Bangladesh's priorities water sharing and trade imbalance there is no dramatic progress.

On Teesta water sharing, the positive development is that the ministerial level joint river commission meeting will be held within March, 2010. But it still leaves us with an uncomfortable ambiguity about the outcome. On the Tipaimukh dam issue, sadly, there was nothing new. The Indian prime minister reiterated his government's earlier stand that India will do nothing that will harm Bangladesh's interest. Such broad and generalised expression of good intention is definitely welcome.

However clearer wording that further activity on Tipaimukh would only be undertaken after consultation with Bangladesh would have helped assuage remaining worries. On enhancement of economic and trade relations, especially giving Bangladeshi exports (which are meager to start with) zero tariff access, the issue remained mired in the politics of an ever narrowing negative list which will now come down by 47 from 260 items, which earlier was higher still.

The absurdity is that India earns a meagre $10 to $15 million in taxes from exports from Bangladesh of around $300 million. That is what it would have cost India to give Bangladesh zero tariff. The promise of rebuilding of our railways, roads, bridges including the two ports, is welcome. The $1 billion credit line will serve to stimulate early action. However, all these are ancillary to both the functionality and efficiency of connectivity, which is a euphemism for 'transit'.

The offer of 250 MW of electricity is of extreme relevance and among the most significant gains Bangladesh stands to make. Another hopeful sign is the agreement to amicably demarcate our maritime boundary.

Predictably, the Bangladeshi opposition, led by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, have called the agreements a total surrender of Bangladesh's interest to India. They have called for opposition unity and are clearly marking time for an appropriate moment to strike against Sheikh Hasina's government. Manmohan Singh's government must guard against the agreement getting entrapped in a bureaucratic maze, implementing its provisions soon.

As a first step, India should formally assure that, as an upper riparian state, it will always consider Bangladesh's interest and display maximum openness and transparency on water sharing. Killings on the border must immediately stop and the promised 24-hour access to Tin Bigha implemented.

On maritime boundary, it should go for a liberal interpretation and allow Bangladesh access to all available hydrocarbon and fish resources. Zero tariff access must be granted to all Bangladeshi exports. This must be followed by elimination of all inter-state taxes and non-tariff barriers. We must institutionalise annual summit and informal meetings in-between, for a few hours on one-day trips, as EU heads of governments have done.

Such a step will do wonders for our relations. The moment is opportune for India and Bangladesh to lay the foundation of a durable, mutually beneficial relationship that will transform the region's strategic and security scene.

Now is the moment for grand visions and grander actions.

If Bangladesh was guilty of being shackled to the mindset of the past, let India not be accused of having failed to think outside the box when opportunity beckoned.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Power shift in Bangladesh's politics

Received via e-mail:


There has been a distinct shift in Bangladeshi politics in the year since the Awami League (AL) won the last parliamentary election. The ruling party appears to have worked overtime in its bid to weaken the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and marginalise its Islamist allies. The AL has also taken the bold step of seeking to mend relations with neighbouring India. These moves appear to be succeeding so far, but a backlash cannot be ruled out.

Many analysts believe that the AL has used its first year in office to neutralise the BNP, a local Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and other pro-Pakistani forces. Proponents of this view believe that the government has the full support of the security forces and thus would remain in control in the event of street protests, terror attacks or a major crisis. However, others fear that such a strategy could have dire consequences.

They believe that the AL is seriously underestimating the risks of alienating the opposition parties, who still managed to garner over 40% of the votes cast in the December 2008 parliamentary election. They fear that that the apparent attempt by the AL to marginalise Islamist groups will make the government a prime target for possible terrorist attacks.
Several of the issues that the government has put at the top of its agenda are extremely controversial.

First, the government's decision to pursue better relations with India is a marked departure from the stance of previous administrations. The initiative is likely to prove problematic, given Bangladesh's strong tradition of anti-Indian sentiment.

Second, the government plans to prosecute alleged war criminals. In practice, this means that leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's fourth-largest political party, could stand trial for allegedly committing atrocities during the war of secession from what was then known as West Pakistan in 1971.

Third, the government has expressed a desire to revert to the core values espoused in the 1972 constitution, one of which is the prohibition of religion-based political parties.

Fourth, it has expedited criminal investigations into a grenade attack on an AL rally, which took place in August 2004, left 23 AL leaders dead and injured over 300 people. The AL believes that the perpetrators of the attack wanted to kill the party's leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who is now prime minister.

Of the plans outlined thus far, the government's support for a ban on all religion-based political parties could pose the most serious threat to political stability, as such a move would marginalise these parties and their supporters, who might choose to join more extreme groups. Religion-based parties have operated freely in Bangladesh since an amendment to the constitution in 1979.

However, on January 3rd 2010 the Supreme Court lifted the suspension of a four-year-old High Court verdict that had declared illegal and unconstitutional the fifth amendment to the constitution. The amendment legitimised all successive governments after the assassination of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from 1975 until April 1979, and it was in this period that the ban on religion-based parties was lifted.

The government has said that the latest decision will force Islamist parties to drop Islam from their names. However, the latest ruling from the Supreme Court does not affect constitutional amendments that made Islam the country's official religion in 1988 and incorporated a Koranic verse into the preamble of the constitution.

At present, a dozen political parties refer to Islam, including Jamaat-e-Islami, an important ally of the BNP. Bangladesh's Islamist parties have already threatened to launch a movement if the government proceeds with its plans. The issue is at the heart of the AL strategy to reinstate the country's first constitution, which has four fundamental principles: nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.

Befriending India
Perhaps the most visible political change since early 2009 has been the start of a process to strengthen relations with India. This has been made possible by the fact that the ruling Congress party in India, which has long-standing ties to the AL, firmly backs the government led by Sheikh Hasina. At the same time, the government appears committed to addressing one of India's main concerns: that Bangladesh harbours terrorists wanting to launch attacks against India on Indian soil.

The AL has started to tackle this problem to improve bilateral relations. In December 2009 Bangladeshi security forces arrested and handed over to the India authorities Arabinda Rajkhowa, the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a militant group fighting for an independent homeland for ethnic Assamese in India's north-eastern state of Assam.

For India, the arrest is a big step towards defeating the ULFA, which it has long accused of waging a proxy war in its north-eastern states on behalf of the intelligence services of Pakistan and Bangladesh. India hopes that Bangladesh will hand over other insurgents, as well as suspected members of a group based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Toiba, which it believes is responsible for the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008.

On January 11th 2010 Sheikh Hasina made a state visit to India. Officials on both sides welcomed a number of agreements made during the visit that aim to strengthen economic and security ties. Economic statistics belie the two countries' shared history and geography. Bangladesh's biggest trading partner is China, and India is not even in the top ten foreign investors in Bangladesh.

The biggest difficulty for the AL may be to explain its new policy of engaging with India to Bangladeshi voters who have a strong tradition of anti-Indian sentiment. The government's new friendship with India has already become a big political issue in Bangladesh, with the BNP accusing the government of "selling out" to India.