Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bangladesh-India Home Secretary Level Talks

Published in Daily Sun
Jnauary 30th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The leader of the Bangladesh side at the Bangladesh-India Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting that preceded the Home Secretary level meeting held in Dhaka on 20-21 January made an interesting observation. He said that the tone of the meeting “was so cordial that they could not remember when an Indo-Bangladesh meeting was held in such a congenial atmosphere in the last 7-8 years.” I am not sure whether the Joint Secretary was making an honest assessment s or a political statement. Clearly, what he said had serious political underpinning because he roped in the entire BNP period and that of the Caretaker Government to give the impression that both had failed in dealing with Bangladesh-India relations.

The BNP Government was not friendly towards India. One can criticize the BNP Government on a number of grounds but on Bangladesh-India relations, Bangladesh as a nation can honestly feel that India has not been a friendly neighbour. On major issues of water, trade and demarcation of the maritime boundary, India has not treated Bangladesh fairly.

Since Awami League came to power, Bangladesh has taken the lead to create the “congenial atmosphere” about which the Bangladesh leader at the JWG meeting was excited. Bangladesh’s cooperation has broken the back of the ULFA insurgency that was a major security concern for India. In fact Bangladesh’s cooperation has created the grounds for ULFA to return to the negotiating table with the Indian central government with the possibility of assuming political power through constitutional politics. Bangladesh is also pro-actively keeping up on the promise made by its Prime Minister immediately she assumed office not to allow Bangladeshi soil to be used to carry out terrorist attacks on friendly India.

Bangladesh has also agreed to allow India transit from its mainland to the landlocked northeastern states through Bangladesh and to these states, the permission to use its seaport in Chittagong. Both the concessions have long been considered by Bangladesh to be its only bargaining chips with India.

In return, India has signed an agreement with Bangladesh for a US$ 1 billion soft loan for infrastructure development of which a little over
US $ 600 million has been earmarked for use in projects to help build the infrastructure for transit. The loan has been projected by India and excitedly supported by Bangladesh Government as a big concession. Nevertheless, it has now run into trouble as more and more criticisms are coming about it not necessarily from the BNP and its supporters.

It is therefore surprising why the Bangladesh side that has made the major overtures for improving relations with India has also been the side drumming up support for a new era of bilateral relations with the Indian side not matching Bangladesh’s excitement. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh has taken the lead to convince the people of Bangladesh about Indian intentions to give the positive spin by suggesting that Bangladesh-India are moving towards a paradigm shift for the better in their bilateral relations. The line taken by the Foreign Minister has been strongly backed by other Ministers. In fact, that is the line of the Government.

The Indian media however has been as excited with Bangladesh as Bangladesh Government has been with itself about the prospects of great things happening in Bangladesh-India relations. They recommended to the Indian Government strongly to meet Bangladesh’s major demands on water, trade and maritime boundary demarcation to reciprocate on Bangladesh sincerity in handing over the ULFA terrorists.

That all’s not going well in Bangladesh-India relations was however reflected by criticism of at least one important Minister who expressed in the media serious reservations about Indian bureaucracy to move relations ahead by meeting Bangladesh’s legitimate concerns on the issue of bilateral trade. The BNP that represents a major part of Bangladesh’s population despite its poor strength in the Parliament dismissed the deals with India as “sell out.”

The issue of killing of innocent and unarmed Bangladeshis regularly by the BSF that has been documented by the report of New York based Human Rights Watch has now emerged as a major concern for Bangladesh. The killing of the 15 year old girl Felani and the way her dead body was flung on the barbed wire that India has built on the border had incensed sentiments in Bangladesh just days before the Home Secretary level talks in Dhaka. Bangladeshis were also angry with their government over the long delay to protest the death of Felani. The Foreign Ministry took ten days to call the Indian High Commissioner to hand over to him a protest note.

The Indian side leading to the Dhaka talks had not taken Bangladesh’s protests seriously. In fact, the Director-General of BSF said that the Bangladeshis have been killed in a place where they were not supposed to be in the first instance, thus insensitively thrashing Bangladeshi sentiments and its legal stand on an issue that has potential to destroy gains in improvement of bilateral relations. Human Rights Watch in its Report last year recorded many cases where innocent Bangladeshis had been killed while running away, shot in the back. The report questioned why such unarmed Bangladeshis could not be captured instead. The Report also found no evidence that Bangladeshis killed in the border had any terrorist connections.

It was therefore somewhat surprising that the Bangladesh side was so upbeat at the JWG Talks. At the Secretary level talks, the Indians regretted the death of Felani but added that the Bangladeshi Government should inform people in the border about the dangers of crossing the border illegally. The Indian Home Secretary said that an independent inquiry has been constituted to find out the guilty for legal action. There was however no apology from India for killing Felani or innocent Bangladeshis before.

The Secretary level talks also reviewed the security and related issues that have been on the negotiating table for a long time such as the 6.5 miles of un-demarcated border, enclaves and the need to maintain a peaceful border which extends over 4000 km. The Bangladesh Home Secretary expressed firm conviction that within a month or two, all these issues would be resolved. The Indian Home Secretary backed the conviction. The good news emanating out of the talks was that the Indian Home Minister Mr. PR Chidambaram would be visiting Bangladesh before the Indian Prime Minister comes to Dhaka. The other good news for the Bangladesh Government was India’s willingness to trace out two convicted killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, now reported to be in hiding in India.

All eyes would now on the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh that is being delayed for reasons not known to those watching and observing Bangladesh-India relations. The return visit of Dr. Manmohon Singh was expected to take place last year. Now according to the Indian Foreign Minister, this visit would take place “any time this year.” When Dr. Singh comes to Dhaka, Bangladesh would be looking eagerly for India not just to match the excitement and enthusiasm in Bangladesh official circles about India and Bangladesh- India relations but for some major concessions in areas of trade, water and maritime boundary demarcation. Before he comes though, the killing of innocent Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border must cease altogether. No clear assurances came out from the Indian side at the Home Secretary level talks on the last named issue.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a retired Secretary to the Government.

On municipal elections: wake up call for AL and hope for BNP

Published in The Independent
January 29th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Under the law, local government elections have to be non-party based. None the less, the recently held municipal elections have been little else but party based. In a country where elections in public universities and professional bodies are overtly political where groups contesting in such elections openly expose their connections with the mainstream political parties , it is un-realistic to expect that political parties would have keep away from local government elections.

National leaders of the mainstream parties thus gave both covert and overt support in a variety of ways to their respective “unofficial” candidates as they have done in all past such elections in the recently held municipal elections. Such influence of the political parties was there for everyone to see more glaringly than in the past. In fact, the visit of the Prime Minister and former President Ershad to Rangpur just days before the elections in Rajshahi and Rangpur together was undertaken as a message to the voters in the local government elections there.

The ruling party has thus reasons to be concerned about the over-all results of these elections. In the 236 posts for which results were announced out of 242 contested, the AL backed candidates won 88 posts against 92 by BNP backed ones. Both parties faced rebellion from within. Such “rebel” candidates with link to the AL won 23 seats and 11won with link to the BNP. The Jamat won 5 posts while the Jatiya party only 1. The results of last round of these elections for 14 more municipalities were not available at the time of writing this piece.

The elections were peaceful in Rajshahi and Rangpur in the first phase but was not so in Barisal and Feni, Noakhali, and Laxmipur. The ruling party’s interference was noticeable in the later phases in Barisal where it won all but one seat and in Feni, Noakhali and Laxmipur where there was violence by the ruling party cadres leading to cancellation of election in a number of municipalities.

The Prime Minister described the elections as the most peaceful in Bangladesh’s history. The reversal of BNP’s fortunes in Barisal and violence in Feni, Noakhali and Laxmipur nevertheless makes the Prime Minister claim a little difficult to accept. However, after the BNP backed candidates fared well in Chittagong and Sylhet Division, credibility was restored to the elections. However, on balance, the elections were not convincing enough to show enough political maturity to abolish the Caretaker Government for national elections under the elected government that the ruling party would like.

The municipal elections were a report card on the status of politics in the country. Although nearly 7 million people voted, the voters were a mix that made the elections very interesting in the context of the politics of the country. It was neither held in the big cities nor in the rural areas but in small towns where the urban and rural population blend smoothly. Hence it helped reflect the mood of the people nationally more truthfully than national or rural/ union parisad elections.

The elections revealed that the huge popularity of the ruling party has waned a great deal in the last two years. It also exposed what is an open secret, that both the mainstream parties have problems within their respective parties. In many seats more 2 or more candidates have contested from the same party, one sanctioned by the party and the other not so who chose to contest anyway on his own. In case of the AL, 23 candidates won seats who have not been backed by the party. In case of the BNP; the number of such rebels was 10. In AL’s case, there was widespread suspicion that some senior members of the party who are not in favour of the party’s high command had encouraged the cause of the rebels. This was also true of the BNP but to a much lesser degree.

There were also a few other revelations worth noting. In the northern districts, the ruling coalition lost very badly and in Rangpur considered to be a forte of former President Ershad, the Jatiya Party linked candidates were wiped out. Even the joint appearance of the Prime Minister and the former President in what was covertly undertaken with the municipal elections in view; the voters rejected the ruling coalition. Nationally, the position of the Jatiya Party would be considerably weakened as a consequence of its poor performance in the municipal polls.

The election results were a clear message for the AL to shape up. It was however not an indication of a shift among the voters for the BNP as it would like to believe. Although the AL was eager to explain that these elections were fought on local ones where not national politics but personalities were on test, it was also mindful that a poor performance would have an impact upon its national standing. In that sense, it would do the AL a lot of good to accept the results as a wakeup call for the next national elections. It should be mindful that the people have taken note of the fact that it has not delivered on its election promises of cheaper prices of essentials, particularly rice, improved law and order; increased supply of power and trial of the war criminals. The BNP of can take heart from the elections that the AL is no longer invincible keeping the next elections in view. It could also feel happy that it put much less efforts in the elections than the AL but with better results.

The growth of private TV channels in a good number, private radio stations and of course the newspapers have helped bring down the wall between the nation’s capital and people living outside Dhaka. Thinking national is now the trend in the country. In the past, voters in the local level were influenced to vote for candidates of the ruling party to gain government’s assistance and support for local issues. In the municipal elections this time, the people have voted by giving national issues more importance than the local ones.

The law to keep local government elections non party based is also supported by the civil societies and for good reasons. Political parties would need large resources for direct involvement in such elections which in turn would mean investing more money and people. Such needs would force the parties to raise money through corrupt means such as extortion, etc. Further, it would lead the parties to take over local bodies directly using such control not for people’s welfare but their own. The negative and conflict ridden face of national politics would then be taken to the grassroots.

The existing law forbidding political parties from getting directly involved in local elections should continue. The results of the just concluded municipal elections could be a timely warning for both the political parties if they take lessons from it. For the AL, it could additionally encourage the Prime Minister to bring back to the Cabinet the party stalwarts that she has kept in the cold who have proven their strength that the former can ignore only at the party’s peril.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Foreign Service Years: the Washington tenure

Published in The Independent, January 25th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

My posting to our Embassy in Washington in June, 1990 was as a Political Counsellor was in a way like home coming for personal reasons. Of my six sisters, four lived at that time in Nashville, the home of country music. Apart from this personal angle of my posting to Washington, I found the tenure in world’s number one capital quite different from my two earlier postings to Canberra and New Delhi in a lot many ways.

Washington was those days as it is now, one of our bigger missions, somewhat the same size as the Embassy in New Delhi. It had all the attached wings as Commerce, Economic and Defense. My Ambassador upon arrival was Mr. Ataul Karim, a career diplomat of the 1955 batch of the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service. Ambassador Karim was then also concurrently accredited as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. In effect, it was the Alternative Representative Mr. AHG Mohiuddin who was in charge with Ambassador Karim just lending his name in an ornamental way. Very soon after my arrival, Mr. AHG Mohiuddin was made the Permanent Representative.

Ambassador Karim was very reserved, somewhat introverted. He looked serious all the time and gave the impression of being a difficult boss. Before my posting to Washington, I had not served with him either at the Headquarters or in the Mission. Therefore my first few days with him were uneasy from my side. But as I settled down in the post, I found him pleasant; very understanding and compassionate. I remember a telephone call from Dhaka after I had been in the post for a year that my father was in his death bed. It was a Sunday and I called him on the phone to seek his permission to see him at the Residence with an application to go to Dhaka on emergency leave. When I met him, he just asked the condition of my father and signed the application praying that I would be able to see my father for one last time.

Soon after I arrived in my post, events in Dhaka had turned tense with the political movement against General Ershad at its peak. At the Embassy, we had a motley group that wanted the General’s end to come as quickly as possible. In the group, there was Brigadier Sabihuddin Ahmed who was posted to Washington as a Minister and who had a heart transplant operation before I arrived I my post. There was Mr. Mahbubul Alam, the current editor of The Independent who was then the Press Minister and Humayun Kabir who later was the Ambassador in Washington. In the weeks and days leading to the President Ershad’s downfall, some of us used to spend endless hours discussing the downfall and taking bets on how long the regime would last. On refection now about those days, I can only say that those 10 years of military government were unbearable and we were just impatient to see him go. It must nevertheless be said that although in the Embassy we were anxious to see President Ershad go, to the hosts we represented the military Government to the best of our abilities because while abroad as diplomats, we cannot oppose the government without opposing the country. Our enthusiasm to see the downfall of President Ershad was however not matched by Ambassador Karim who had been given a two years extension and thus wanted the President to continue.

President Ershad’s commitment of troops for the US led first Gulf War had made him a firm favourite of the US Government. The Mission’s standing with the US State Department was also enhanced substantially after our commitment of troops. Before the Gulf War, the Ambassador’s normal contact at the State Department was at the level of the Deputy Assistant Secretary and only on special occasions, was he able to meet the Assistant Secretary. During the Gulf War, Ambassador Karim was able to meet the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs on request very easily.

The Gulf War aside, President Ershad was able to befriend important people in the Washington based Prayer Breakfast Group, a conservative group with deep links in the Republican Party. In the late 80s, the Government had appointed Mr. Bannerman as a lobbyist in Washington who before becoming a lobbyist was a staffer of Republican Senator Richard Lugar. It was largely his contribution that led to the contact of President Ershad with the Breakfast Group. This Group those days was led by a gentleman named Mr. Douglas Coe. I was present in a couple of meetings between Ambassador Karim and Mr. Coe at the office of the Prayer Breakfast Group in Virginia not far from our Embassy in Wisconsin Avenue. The meetings were in preparation of the visit that President Ershad took to the United States in October, 1990. Mr. Douglas Coe and his Group hosted President Ershad in Colorado on a weekend of golf and leisure.

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. When President Ershad fell and democracy was established in Bangladesh, the United States, the champion of democracy, was not happy with the change. The reason was its national interest, that precedes all else in the conduct of foreign relations. If ever Bangladesh had made the US happy, it was President Ershad’s decision to commit troops for the Gulf War that Bangladesh did before most nations who joined the US led coalition. The US that was still involved in the war was wary that a new administration in Bangladesh would reverse President Ershad’s decision.

Those days, I used to accompany Ambassador Karim to all his official meetings. I remember both at the State Department and in the Congress, Ambassador Karim was spared no harsh words in conveying the US’s displeasure with politics in Bangladesh. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia those days was Mrs. Tereshita Schaffer whose husband Mr. Howard Schaffer was the US Ambassador to Dhaka and was a close friend of President Ershad. Ambassador Karim was summoned quite a few times to the State Department where Mrs. Tereshita Shaffer delivered strong messages about politics in Bangladesh where the USA’s concern was clearly in favour of General Ershad. In the Congress too Ambassador Karim faced the same music where the sentiment was in favour of the military regime.

Mr. Abul Ahsan, at that time the Foreign Secretary, was named to succeed Ambassador Ataul Karim after the BNP took office in Bangladesh. That angered the latter who felt that he should have been allowed to complete the extension that was given to him by the Ershad Government. Nevertheless, it was quite a few months before Mr. Abul Ahsan replaced him. In the meantime, Mr. Saifur Rahman paid a visit to Washington during which he had called on Congressman Tony Hall. At that meeting, the Congressman made a few blunt remarks in favour of Mr. Ershad who was by then in jail. Mr. Saifur Rahman gave the Congressman an emotional briefing about how he was taken to jail and the torture to which he was subjected by President Ershad’s intelligence. At one stage, he suddenly lifted his trouser up to the knee to show an injury mark that intelligence forces of President Ershad had inflicted on him. After the meeting, I could not help congratulating the Minister at the way he cornered the Congressman who just dropped the subject of President Ershad after the Minister’s briefing.

In fact, soon after that meeting, Brigadier Sabihuddin who by then had left the Embassy came to my office and asked me to give him a draft of a letter from Congressman Hall to then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Within a few hours, Brigadier Sabihuddin was back in my office with the letter signed by the Congressman and addressed to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia where he congratulated her and offered her his support for enhancement of Bangladesh-US relations! Brigadier Sabihuddin was given the letter to personally carry it to the Prime Minister. I wondered how this was done. Later I learnt and Brigadier Sabihuddin corroborated the fact that in the USA, the staffers of Congressmen most often sign such letter with an electronic pen where more often than not, Congressmen are unaware or just kept informed of such letters as the one to Begum Khaleda Zia.

Ambassador Ataul Karim passed away late last year, lamented by those who knew him as one of our finest diplomats. Brigadier Sabihuddin Ahmed died in Washington two years ago. He was an amazing man whom I respected for his great courage and integrity.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On schools, education and lottery

Published in The Independent, January 21st; 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Not very long ago, newspapers carried headline news with pictures that showed children and their parents involved in lottery to get seats in some of the city’s top schools! I expected leading newspapers would express indignation and civil societies great concern that such a predicament should await our children in a country where we spare no opportunity to stress our love and devotion to such issues as fundamental and human rights and democracy.

There was no editorial and no concern from any group on pushing our children and their guardians to face such a predicament. Worldwide, right of education up to the end of school level is taken for granted, with the government and the private sectors in pro-active partnership. Even in our Pakistani days, a period we tend to write off with contempt, things were better. Guardians could pick from a number of schools where they could place their children and the only thing that was required was for the children to take an admission test to enter a school of choice. Schooling those days for the middle and not so affluent section of the society was there for granted and we got it without asking.

Somewhere down the journey as an independent nation, our education system turned on its head. In Dhaka, private schools started to spring up like mushrooms, particularly in areas where the affluent reside, places like Dhanmandi, Gulshan and Banani. A schism was introduced into the educational system un-noticed or deliberately overlooked by those responsible for regulating education. The government schools of pre-independence days that provided quality education and were in high demand fell from grace as those well placed in the city and the novae riche started to send their children to these mushroom growth of new private schools. Some of the elites even sent their children to boarding schools in India.

In the midst of all these, the once excellent government schools of Dhaka to which the elites and the ordinary citizens of the city sent their children lost not just their standing but also the quality of education they once provided. Thus if the schools of Dhaka are to be taken as a yardstick for development, it could be very easily said that the country has moved away from the right direction. The rich and powerful and the poor do not send their children to the same schools anymore. The government schools are for the less affluent in society and hence the standard of education there does not seem to be the concern of those in position to assist these institutions because their children do not attend these institutions anyway.

It is indeed very sad that a sorry state of affairs dominate the education system in Dhaka. In the country, the situation is even worse. The once proud schools of the old district system of the Pakistani days, for instance the Government Zilla Schools, are there in name only. In the good old days, they used to compete with the best schools in Dhaka and often do better, particularly when it used to getting places in the merit lists of the SSC examinations. These days, two developments speak of the status of schools outside Dhaka. The Government finds it almost impossible to post officers from Dhaka to the districts because no one who has school going children are willing to leave the capital. Those who are forced to leave, do so without their families. Affluent people in the districts have a second home in Dhaka for their children’s education.

Added to these facts about schools in Dhaka and in the country, some more worrying aspects have been added that policy makers for strange reasons have avoided noticing. This is the commercialization of schools. Some of the private schools that have been established co-terminus with the failure of government schools to deliver or meet up with demand have started charging unbelievable sums as tuition fees, thus making good primary and secondary education out of the reach of the majority of the potential students with not so affluent parents. Instead of strengthening the existing government schools or establishing news schools to meet demand with rising population, successive governments instead poured money into colleges, turning hundreds of private colleges in the district and erstwhile sub-divisions into government institutions.

Nationalizing of private colleges would have made sense if the Government had adequate funds and wanted to extend higher secondary education to the common people. Unfortunately, the Government did not have the adequate funds and nationalized the colleges for purely political reasons and sadly, at the expense of the government schools. It has finally taken the Prime Minister to try and correct what has been a major flaw in the way successive governments have handled primary and secondary education, in other words schooling up to class 10.

Addressing Teachers and Employees Welfare Trust of Private Educational Institutions recently, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would establish 11 new schools in the capital to counteract what she termed as “admission business” by some vested quarters at some of the established schools in the city. No doubt she was referring to an open secret that seats in some of the leading schools are sold for cash. In one of these schools, parents have contested to become members of the school’s board in the same way politicians contest national or local elections, with all the festoons and placards and money for campaigning. The authorities should have cracked down on such interest of parents because this was an overt expression of the “vested quarters” to turn schools into establishments for corruption.

The whole country will soon be gripped by events for Bangla. We will witness our annual homage to the language martyrs and our commitment for our mother tongue. In the midst of these events, we should spare a moment and look at schools in Dhaka and see what we have done for the language. When Bangla was being cornered in the Pakistani days, there was just one school of worth in Dhaka that taught in the English medium. That school was St. Gregory’s that also had a Bengali medium section In Dhaka there are now just too many English medium schools to count. The elites and the well to do send their children to these schools and then turn up in public forums to give fiery speeches for Bangla! If their love for Bangla was genuine, they should have intervened when these schools were being established; encouraged those establishing them through laws and regulations to make Bangla the medium of instruction and at the same time ensure that English was taught as a second language. Sadly, in our school system neither the cause of Bangla nor the importance of English has been served in any meaningful way in schools where the vast majority of our children study.

Education is the backbone of any nation. It is not a cliché but the bottom line for development of any country. It is time that we focus on education, particularly at the school level. The past and existing faults in the system or the lack of it are obvious. The Prime Minister has set the right directions. Let our children not be hostage to business interests of vested quarters. We should be ashamed for subjecting our children to enter into lottery to get admitted in a school that should be his/her birth right.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Bangladesh and Secularism

The Independent
Post Editorial
Saturday, 08 January 2011
Author / Source : M Serajul Islam

The annulment of the 5th Amendment by the Supreme Court early in the current term of the Awami League led to the need to restore certain fundamental elements of the 1972 Constitution that the 5th Amendment had deleted. Of these, the need to restore secularism is the most important. A section within the ruling party and civil society has been putting strong pressure on the government for its restoration. In a parliament where the Awami League has a 3/4th majority, acceding to the demands of these groups is a fairly simple matter. The Law Minister who has the primary responsibility for restoring secularism as a fundamental principle of state policy has assured unequivocally that this would be done. Nevertheless, a long time has elapsed but the government has not yet restored secularism in the Constitution.

The delay naturally raises questions in the public mind on whether the government has doubts about the issue. The delay also gives credence to what some feel that restoration of secularism in the Constitution may not be as easy as the protagonists would like them to believe. When the 1972 Constitution was written, the country had just become independent after a war of liberation during which the Pakistani army and their local collaborators used Islam to justify genocide and crimes against humanity. Thus when Secularism together with Nationalism, Socialism and Democracy were named as fundamental principles of state policy, the provision was perfectly in tune with the sentiments and emotions of the people.

The period preceding the 5th Amendment was tumultuous in the history of Bangladesh. The 4th Amendment, better known as the BAKSAL amendment, had frustrated a lot of people. Thereafter the dastardly nature of the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family added to their disappointment and frustrations. Hence when Secularism was deleted and Islam and other Islamic provisions inserted, there was indifference among the people who had more serious issues to be concerned with. During the decade-long Ershad regime, when democracy was held captive, the movement was against the military dictatorship. The political leadership of both the BNP and the AL that led the movement were too involved with restoring democracy and not secularism. There was little interest to restore secularism as a state principle even after democratic rule was restored in 1991. In its first term in office, the AL too was little bothered with secularism. In fact, the demand for bringing back secularism into the Constitution was the result of the High Court ruling of 2005 during the BNP era.

When a plaintiff asked for a ruling against a martial law regulation against the ownership of Moon Cinema, the Court ruled the entire 5th Amendment that had deleted secularism had also validated executive orders under martial law following the change of government in August 1975, as illegal. The BNP Government used legal means to hold the ruling of the High Court from going to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for a final ruling but when the AL returned, it moved the Supreme Court that called upon the government to restore the 1972 Constitution, not just with the issue of secularism but together with the Islamic provisions introduced through the 5th Amendment.

More than three decades have passed by between the deletion of secularism and introduction of the Islamic provisions. In those three decades, while the people politically marginalized the parties who collaborated with the Pakistanis in 1971 and used Islam as a political weapon, Islam itself gained in strength. Further, Bangladesh is an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country where the majority of the people are good Muslims who love their religion. Most of them are not educated enough to understand secularism the way its protagonists know and understand the concept.

Unfortunately the latter in their enthusiasm to turn Bangladesh secular by re-insertion of the concept into the Constitution also went ahead and demanded the banning of political parties that use religion as a strategy. This was reflected in the media as a call for banning Islam-based political parties. In fact, senior leaders of the ruling party have demanded the banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami that is an Islam-based party.

As things stand, the government must just not reinsert secularism to abide by the court’s ruling on the annulment of the 5th Amendment but must also ban parties that use religion as well and other Islamic insertions such as making Islam a state religion. If these are not done, the secular character of the Constitution cannot be restored nor the court’s ruling. There lies the dilemma because the government is aware of the consequences of taking out the Islamic provisions. As one senior civil servant said in a TV talk show: taking out secularism was easy but once the Islamic provisions have been inserted, taking these out in a predominantly Muslim state like Bangladesh would be almost impossible unless the government wants to establish secularism in the Constitution at any cost. Clearly, the government is unwilling to take the test and statements have been made by senior leaders of the ruling party that the Islamic provisions introduced by the 5th and 7th amendments would not be taken out of the Constitution.

Between the 5th Amendment and today, while Islamic parties have been marginalized, Islam itself has grown stronger. Thanks to the international press, with the active support of the media next door, and encouragement given to Islamic fundamentalists by the last BNP Government, a wrong perception was given about Bangladesh that it was going the fundamentalist way. However, with the end of the BNP tenure, the fundamentalist threat folded and even the executions of the top terrorists like Bangla Bhai and his associates did not cause the faintest of backlash. Those five years of BNP notwithstanding, Islam has become a moral and ethical alternative to many, including the new generations.

It is time to take a fresh look at Islam in Bangladesh in a historical perspective. Bangladesh has not seen the type of communalism the rest of South Asia has seen. The majority Muslims of Bengal, later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh have lived in harmony with the minority Hindus. In next door India, Hindu-Muslim riots occur regularly where, as in the Gujarat riots, the State Government has actively participated against the Muslims. In recent times, Christians have shared the fate of the Muslims in the wake of rising Hindu fundamentalism. Yet, India protects secularism as a constitutional guarantee; Bangladesh does not. In one of the WikiLeaks disclosure, Rahul Gandhi has been quoted expressing more fear for Hindu fundamentalism than Islamic. Bangladesh, on evidence, thus has better secular credentials without constitutional guarantee than India with it.

The reason is a simple one. Bangladeshi Muslims are by nature secular. They respect religious leaders on religious matters but when the religious leaders have sought their votes, Bangladeshi Muslims have always rejected them. There is thus a safety net among Bangladeshi Muslims against Islamic fundamentalism and those who use Islam for politics.

Therefore, inserting secularism at the expense of the Islamic provisions and banning religion based parties in the Constitution would achieve little but could hurt the Islamic sentiments of the people and, in case of Jamaat, end up giving it a cause to fight and create political instability. Without taking the Islamic provisions out and without banning parties like Jamaat and just inserting secularism would leave the Constitution facing a contradiction that would demean its credibility.

Thus the government needs to show maturity in dealing with secularism if it wants to save the country from becoming another Algeria. The Islamic fundamentalists have no cause now. If the issue of secularism is not handled with a perspective of history and reality, it could create the very conditions for which the Islamic fundamentalists are praying.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh

Sunday, January 2, 2011

‘Pat down’ for Indian ambassador sets US-India on course of conflict

Published in The Daily Sun, 2nd January, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

India and the United States are caught in a diplomatic row that contrasts sharply with the ambiance that surrounded the state visit of President Obama last November when both nations were gaga over visit that had opened a new era of bilateral relations. The row is over the Indian ambassador to Washington Meera Shankar. On an official visit to Mississippi, the Ambassador was subjected to humiliating security check at Jackson Airport even after the security officials were informed that she was the Indian ambassador to the United States.

The ambassador was not subjected to the routine security checks that are uncomfortable but customary in US airports. Meera Shankar faced “pat down” check after she was singled out because she was wearing the sari. The “pat down” security has been recently introduced by the Transport Security Authority (TSA) together with a new full body scanning machine that scans the entire body of the passenger for the officials to see through an individual’s clothing that many passengers, particularly from Muslim and conservative societies, find offensive. A passenger has the choice of the “pat down” or the scanning machine. Where the “pat down” is chosen, a security official feels every part of the passenger’s body. A female passenger can ask for a female security official for the “pat down” security check.

The ambassador’s conflict with airport security officials was not the first time an Indian ambassador has been subjected to humiliating checks at airport security. Meera Shankar’s predecessor Ronen Sen and his wife during their four years’ stay in USA were subjected to humiliating checks a number of times even after security officials were aware of their diplomatic status. Indian diplomats and dignitaries seem to have problem at US airports fairly regularly. Former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandez had two serious conflicts with US security; one at IAD when he was on an official visit. Recently, Indian Minister for Civil Aviation Praful Patel was subjected to humiliations at Chicago airport but the Indian Government let that pass because the Minister was on a private visit to USA. On November 13, Indian permanent representative to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri was asked to take his turban off at Austin Airport, Texas. After a 20 minutes hassle, the security allowed Hardeep Singh to check his own turban and later the security examined his hands for explosives! WikiLeaks leaks on communications from the US Secretary of State recently did not show that Hillary Clinton was particularly happy with Indian diplomats.

Quite understandably, Meera Shankar was very angry and let her anger be known to the officials at Jackson and to the State Department at Washington. New Delhi was furious. Indian Foreign Minister Krishnan called the incident “unacceptable” and said that the Indian Government would take it up officially with US Government so that “such unpleasant incidents do not recur.” US Secretary of State asked for an inquiry but did not apologize while TSA said that security officials applied the checks according to procedure.

The incidents have raised the issue of treatment of diplomats in the host country. The State Department is placing security needs ahead of diplomatic niceties, even in case of ambassadors. The Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) is clear; the host country should ensure that diplomats do not face hindrance to perform the functions for which they are sent. All that the host asks in reciprocity for granting diplomats such privileges is for them to agree not to interfere in the politics of the host country. The VCDR does not however clarify whether diplomats are exempt from security checks at airports to include incidents arising out of “pat down” checks simply because when the Convention was written, no one visualised that one day there would be a 9/11 and diplomats would be subjected to all sorts of security checks, even humiliating ones as the pat down or the scanner. “Pat down” and full body scan are not routine checks; they run into fundamental conflict in allowing an ambassador the freedom s/he needs to perform their job. Meera Shankar has said she would never again travel to Mississippi and subject herself to such humiliation.

Official opinion backs the controversial systems but Americans are divided over it. Nevertheless, one cannot question the need to meet security loopholes ahead of diplomats’ privileges. One must of course question whether TSA’s scanner and “pat down” systems have been deployed with due consideration to what is proper for many who are diplomats, or come from foreign cultures. It is not that the TSA has not even thought of such considerations; it has gone ahead and implemented the systems on totally wrong presumptions. In case of both Meera Shankar and Hardeep Singh Puri, the mistakes have been blatantly flagged. TSA assumed both Meera Shankar and Hardeep Singh’s dresses were those likely to be worn by potential terrorists. Unfortunately, one is a Hindu and the other a Sikh and they follow religions not connected with those that the TSA subjectively consider as potential terrorists.

Diplomatic norms notwithstanding, “pat down” and full body scanning are offensive for cultural reasons to people of other cultures who are otherwise perfect model for any security system. Scanning is so offensive to women of not just Muslim culture but all oriental cultures that they would give up travelling rather than subject themselves to a scanner. These women would also feel offended if they were being subjected to the search that is required under “pat down” even where carried out by a female TSA official.

That brings us back to the issue of treatment to diplomats. There are many like these two ambassadors who wear the sari and the turban for cultural and religious reasons. Therefore to accede to the TSA dictate, the Vienna Convention would need to be amended and diplomats should be warned against the sari and the turban which would cause a major impediment to the freedom of a diplomat and conflict with the spirit of VCDR on treatment of diplomats in a host country.

There has to be a way around this issue. The TSA must surely realise that they have run the risk of being accused of racial profiling and that too, on mistaken assumptions with the sari and turban. It is not that all those wearing the sari are subjected to “pat down”. They let go many sari wearing and turbaned passengers without the “pat down”. Former permanent representative of Bangladesh to the UN Anawarul Karim Chowdhury, when interviewed by Washington Post in connection with the Meera Shankar incident, said that he and his wife who wears the sari have travelled frequently without hassle. Hence in case of the Indian ambassador, the “pat down” could have been avoided by other security checks.

In the coming days and weeks, India and the US will surely work this out. Meanwhile, there will be a lot of people who would anxiously watch the outcome. Whatever the outcome, the privileged days of diplomats are on the decline. Is there diplomatic immunity anymore?

Writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.