Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bangladesh Ambassadors: An unscheduled meeting and Indian flag

Daily Sun
July 23rd, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

At her press conference recently, the Foreign Minister explained that the meeting between the Bangladesh Permanent Representative and the Dalai Lama was “unscheduled’. She said that at international conferences, such unscheduled conferences take place and she saw no fault with the “unscheduled” meeting.

No further details have been revealed on this “unscheduled” meeting. It appeared as if the Foreign Minister was referring to some international conference where the Dalai Lama and our Permanent Representative came across each other and held the meeting. A visit to the Dalai Lama’s website has not revealed to me that he was in New York for any international conference. Hence the question where the two met unscheduled remains unanswered.

The issue here is extremely serious for Bangladesh-China relations. The Dalai Lama’s visit to the US this time and particularly his meeting with President Obama at the White House raised more than the usual anger in Beijing. Nevertheless, the President met Dalai Lama for domestic political reasons.

Hence any one with some knowledge of international relations should have been aware that the Chinese would be following this visit under the microscope. Given the Chinese sensitivity with the Dalai Lama and the importance of Sino-Bangladesh bilateral relations, it is unbelievable that a senior Bangladesh diplomat would have an unscheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese are not going to be too pleased with such an “unscheduled’ meeting either. Of course, they would not be making any fuss about it because as a sovereign country, Bangladesh can allow its Permanent Representative to meet the Dalai Lama even for a scheduled meeting. However, in diplomacy there is a price for exercising such sovereign rights. Chinese are serious customers in the art of diplomacy and they may not be easily convinced that the meeting was unscheduled and leave it at that.

The Permanent Representative in New York has committed a diplomatic faux pas; unwittingly perhaps. The case with our Ambassador in Nepal is quite a different story. From the stories that have come to the media that have not been contradicted by the Foreign Ministry, he has been involved in acts that are unimaginable even in a nightmare in Bangladesh’s diplomatic endeavors.

He is alleged to have escorted an Indian Army General in his official car with the Indian flag flying! In a function to mark Mujibnagar Day, he ordered the national anthem of India to be played together with those of Bangladesh and Nepal. Then there are allegations against him of moral misconduct. The Ambassador dismissed such allegations as “conspiracy against him.” The Foreign Secretary played the allegations down when he told a journalist that he will know about the Ministry’s action at the right time.

The Ambassador in question is a former teacher of BUET and from the minority community. One wonders whether he was chosen for the job because of the latter reason. If that is the case, it would be an irony because the ruling party is firmly committed to secularism. Even Nepal that is a Hindu country has unofficially expressed its desire that the Ambassador should be withdrawn post haste because of his undesirable activities.

In case of both the Permanent Representative in New York and the Ambassador in Nepal, it is very much possible that the media may have not produced the correct stories or may have twisted facts while reporting. Nevertheless, wrong perceptions have come out into the open concerning their alleged activities that may affect Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with countries very important to its foreign policy priorities. Hence it is imperative for the Foreign Ministry to be more transparent and pro-active with what both the Ambassadors did. Thus far it has acted indecisively and has not shown any indication that matters are in its hands.

There was another embarrassing incident involving the Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan. The case was one of sexual harassment. That case too was allowed to linger too long. According to media reports, he has since been brought home after an investigation was conducted to the allegations against him that proved that the Ambassador was at fault.

The Japanese are sophisticated and cultured and do not express their displeasure forcefully. Nevertheless, it would be foolhardy for the Bangladesh Government to expect that the Ambassador’s extremely serious and unethical and immoral discretions would be forgotten just because we are inclined to forget it.

Indiscretions and immoral acts by anyone are human errors. Nevertheless, Ambassadors cannot commit the errors of which our Ambassadors stand accused because such errors embarrass the nation and seriously puts at risk important national interests. When Ambassadors are so accused, the sending country does not have the time on its side to deal with such cases at its convenience. In diplomacy, a correct way to deal with the errors that our Ambassadors have committed is to bring them home for “consultations” while investigating/examining the allegations.

In case of our Ambassador in Japan, the Foreign Ministry should have brought him home for consultations as soon as the allegations were made. The long delay has most definitely given Japan the wrong perception about our country and government. It is incredible that the Ambassador in Nepal is still in his post. The PR in New York has flagged the dangers of appointing a non-career Ambassador to one of Bangladesh’s most important diplomatic posts without giving him the necessary briefing about the imperatives of Bangladesh’s diplomacy. His faux pas is too serious to be explained away as the Foreign Minister has done as an “unscheduled” meeting.

There is an urgent and imperative need to review the process of appointment of Ambassadors and the way they act in their posts to save the country’s frail image and for the sake of achieving Bangladesh’s foreign policy goals. It seems that the Foreign Ministry’s role in the appointment and supervision of Ambassadors has weakened considerably. It is time that rationality is restored by giving the Foreign Ministry the power and clout to deal with Ambassadors to make them professional and competent. One suspects that politics is partly responsible for the damages the Ambassadors have done to Bangladesh and are being allowed to continue doing. That needs to end in haste for the sake of the country.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Deaths of a young man and 43 students

The Independent
As I See It Column
July 22nd, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I had written quite some time ago in this column about the dangers for pedestrians from falling building materials as builders do not take the minimum of safety precautions. Hence I was deeply saddened but hardly surprised that a life of a young man when a brick fell on his head and killed him instantly as he was walking by a under construction high rise building. What is surprising is that such deaths do not happen every day in good numbers because pedestrians walk past such under construction buildings everyday and somehow, perhaps by the Almighty’s mercy, escape death the way it befell on this unfortunate young man.

Equally unfortunate but on a scale much larger was the fate that befell the 43 school students in Mirarsarai in Chittagong. These school students were returning after watching a football match in an open truck that went off the road and into a ditch full of water sending them to their deaths. The unbelievable part of the accident was the fact that the truck was being driven by a helper of the driver!

In Bangladesh, human life has become the most dispensable commodity.. Otherwise such deaths should never have taken place. In the midst of the booming construction business in the city, we all see how the builders have taken away our roads. They pile construction materials on the footpaths as if they own these paths meant for the public to walk in safety. They bring in trucks and building machineries at night and do not care about disturbing people when many have to just sit up and wait till these “criminals” finish their illegal activities.

Most roads inside residential areas that are not meant for heavy trucks and construction machineries are destroyed at will by these builders. In many places, these builders take away even a part of the road, not satisfied with taking away the foot paths totally. The way they use these public space for their benefit places the pedestrians at risk. The pedestrians have to walk on the roads instead of the footpaths. It may be a matter of great discomfort for the people of Dhaka that we have the worst traffic jam in the world. But it is the traffic jam that is saving many lives because had traffic been moving fast, there would have been many more deaths because of the illegal activities of the builders.

The construction sites are death traps. Little or no safety precautions are taken to protect the pedestrians walking on foot paths/roads from falling materials such as bricks, rods, cement, etc. Thus the death of this school student is by no means an accident. It is the consequence of willful disregard for public safety in which the builder and the authorities supposed to supervise have failed to perform their duties. The builders also take no safety measures for workers many of whom regularly fall and die.

The deaths of the 43 school children were no accident either. Their deaths were due to the failure authorities in performing their duties. It was a cruel joke to read that the authorities apprehended 20 so called drivers with forged licenses. Helpers drive busses/trucks in incredible numbers in full knowledge of the authorities. In fact, there is a nexus of corruption here involving the traffic authorities that has been sustained, unbelievably, in full knowledge of both the authorities and the public. One has to go out to the roads that connect the cities and towns of Bangladesh to see madness that rules our roads, where the heavy vehicles are driven in a manner as they are nowhere else. Again, it is the congestion on these roads that saves many lives as these criminals who masquerade as drivers cannot drive as they wish.

After the death of the young man, 6 laborers were arrested. After the deaths of the 43 students, the authorities arrested 20 drivers. These actions by the authorities are a joke. In case of the student, those who need to answer are, first, the builders. By arresting the laborers who are themselves exposed to danger all the time by the builders’ utter indifference to safety,, the authorities have helped take some of the heat for the builders.

Second, the Rajuk authorities should have also been hauled for this death. Under the law, supervision of construction of every building in the city is the responsibility of this body. If it was doing its duty, most of the construction sites of the city would have been closed on even a liberal interpretation of safety standards and many deaths would not have occurred including that of this student.

Third, the law enforcing agencies themselves should have been taken to task for allowing the builders break laws by spreading all sorts of hazardous materials , including taking over foot paths and roads , around their building sites with no concern for safety of the public. Surely, these builders cannot be breaking laws with contempt without the connivance of the law enforcing agencies.

On the 43 deaths, the need is to answer a few basic questions that have not even been raised. First, how long will the authorities allow murders to be committed on our national highways by letting helpers and drivers with forged driving licenses drive on these roads whose numbers have never been accounted for but by common knowledge is a very large one. The graphic videos we see every day on news programs of private TV channels leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that such accidents are almost in all cases the result of incompetent and criminal driving where the law enforcing agencies keep on looking the other way.

The other question not asked is why the school authorities and guardians of the students allowed them to use a truck that is the most dangerous mode of transport in Bangladesh and one not meant for human transportation. It is good for the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to have visited the parents and relatives of those who died. However, these senseless and tragic deaths are occurring every day and in numbers that are increasing. The need of the moment is a national consensus to deal with these deaths that are not accidents but murders being committed because those who can stop these are not doing their jobs.

It is a great mystery that even after 4 decades of independence; we have between Dhaka-Chittagong where most of the deaths take place, roads that are a disgrace to the nation. The roads are virtual death traps and it is the traffic jam that saves many more lives being lost. The Dhaka-Chittagong highway has not been built so far not because of lack of finance but because of unethical reasons for which many in past governments are responsible.

A Judge has asked the builder of the site where the young man was killed to appear in the Court. This is encouraging. It is way past time to hold those responsible for failing to make buildings and roads safe, to task. We have capital punishment in this country. Why can’t we put the case of the helper who killed the 43 school students on a fast track and mete out the maximum punishment to him? For the builder who has been taken to Court, exemplary punishment should be served within the due process of law. Human life cannot be exchanged for money. Yet, to save lives why not impose on this builder a fine so hefty that other builders would be forced to make safety at building sites their first priority.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Monday, July 18, 2011

New era of Bangladesh-India relations based on development-democracy-demography.

Daily Sun
July 17th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Bangladesh-India relations are on a roller coaster. After dipping to a low with some offensive remarks made by the Indian Prime Minister, things have brightened up lately following the visit to Dhaka by the Indian Foreign Minister Mr. Krishnan. At the same time, the Indian Prime Minister’s Office removed the offensive remarks from the PM’s official website and the Indian Government announced the dates of Mr. Singh’s visit to Dhaka in early September preceded by a preparatory visit by the Indian Home Minister.

Mr. Krishnan’s visit too was a preparatory one. His visit gave a preview of what Bangladesh could expect from Dr Singh’s visit. There would be a deal on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta. The 6.5 miles of demarcated land boundary that has been pending settlement for over 3 and a half decades would be finally resolved together with exchange of land under adverse possession. There were also hints of concessions from India on trade to help ease the balance that weighs too heavily in India’s favour.

During the visit, the High Commissioners of the two countries signed an agreement on protection and promotion of investments. This agreement has been welcomed by the business community in Bangladesh. They expect substantial Indian investment to come to this country.. The agreement could also open prospect of Bangladeshi investments into northeast India.

Mr. Krishnan’s programme in Dhaka was a tight one. He made courtesy calls on the President and the Prime Minister; held official talks with his Bangladesh counterpart Ms. Dipu Moni and also had a meeting with the Bangladesh Finance Minister. His predecessor Mr. Pranab Mukherjee had given wrong signals by meeting the then Army Chief and avoiding meeting the Leader of the Opposition when he visited Bangladesh in February, 2009. Mr. Krishnan avoided any contact with the military and met Begum Khaleda Zia, thus creating a positive environment for his important visit.

Mr. Krishnan’s visit was defined by his speech at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Issues where he outlined the nature of relations India wants with Bangladesh. He said that both India and Bangladesh are beneficiaries of development-democracy-demography dividend that will provide the right impetus for bringing the two countries closer together.

The Indian Minister said that both India and Bangladesh are experiencing growth of high proportion of “educated and trained youth, despite the large population” to positively impact on development. In fact, the Minister said that the economic development Bangladesh and India are experiencing “is even more remarkable than the global trend.” Such experiences are setting aside suspicion and conflict and bringing the region in alignment with the rest of the world. He reasoned that for Bangladesh and India, “this is a mission in which we may join hands to create a new global architecture.”

The Indian Minister put forward a vision of a relationship that would tie the two countries in a relationship deep into the future. That vision is documented in the Joint Communiqué that was adopted during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi that is now being implemented for the paradigm shift in bilateral relations. He underscored the importance of India’s US$ 1 billion line of credit for infra structural projects for connectivity. He stressed upon the need to build a physical and an institutional framework to strengthen connectivity for improving the livelihood of the people and preparing them for a better future.

Mr. Krishnan also mentioned that a number of agreements are in final stages of negotiations for signature during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. These agreements are related to outstanding land border issues; on Teesta water sharing; on overcoming the trade deficit and taking forward regional connectivity.

Two important contentious issues did not figure in Mr. Krishnan’s speech. One is the demarcation of the maritime boundary for which Bangladesh has closed the door for bilateral negotiations by going to the Tribunal on the Law of the Seas. Killing of innocent Bangladeshis by the BSF on Bangladesh-India borders that is a very emotive issue in Bangladesh also did not figure in his speech. On the latter issue, Mr. Krishnan spoke elsewhere and hinted that in future, BSF would use non-lethal weapons.

Going by his speech at BIISS, there are elements that Bangladesh would need to examine before believing in the vision the Indian Minister has envisaged. True, terrorism is a regional and a global problem. However, it is not so by a long mile as far as Bangladesh is concerned. For India, terrorism is a major problem; for Bangladesh it is not even a minor one. In fact, Bangladesh has exposed itself to ULFA terrorists by handing its top leaders to Indian security who vowed revenge.

Mr. Krishnan is also off the mark in using the development-democracy-demography model. India and Bangladesh are not on the same plane by a long distance on development and democracy for a common ground for cooperation. Indian democracy is deeply entrenched and institutionalized; Bangladesh’s is not. Indian development has amazed the world; Bangladesh is struggling to remain afloat. On the demographic front too, Bangladesh is today showing signs of sinking.

Nevertheless, Mr. Krishnan’s visit has shown promises; that perhaps India is finally looking at Bangladesh positively. It is likely that some of the issues that had kept bilateral relations almost antagonistic may finally be resolved; issues of water sharing, trade deficit and land border demarcation. Of the promises in the air, the most attractive is regional connectivity. If Bangladesh becomes the sub-regional connectivity hub, then there could indeed be a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.

India’s track record on keeping promises made to Bangladesh, however, is not encouraging. Even Indian media is not optimistic about these promises; else they would not have called these promises “a bagful of nothing.” In this context, one must take note of what the Leader of the Opposition said upon meeting the Indian Minister. She wanted all the deals r being made to be placed in parliament for sake of transparency before signing.

An editorial by leading English daily was critical of Begum Khaleda Zia for making such a submission to the Indian Minister. This notwithstanding little has come to public domain about details of what India would do for Bangladesh except overtly optimistic statements of Bangladesh officials. The importance of public knowledge of such deals can hardly be underestimated given the partisan nature of politics in the country. It is absolutely essential to know the details of the proposed Teesta agreement because it will set the precedence for sharing of waters of the other cross-boundary rivers. On land boundary, already there are signs of uneasiness on Bangladesh side in areas such as Sylhet.

It is of critical importance for Bangladesh to have friendly relations with India to achieve the full potentials of its strategic geo-political location vis-à-vis India. However, for such forward movement, it is equally important that the nation as a whole and not just the ruling party must be convinced of what Bangladesh would be giving to India and what it would be receiving in reciprocity. Thus far, this does not seem to be the case. One can criticize the BNP for its stand on India but there cannot be sustainable friendly relations with India without the former on board.

Therefore the ruling party in Bangladesh must open discussion with the opposition or else all the optimism that the Government is spreading on Bangladesh-India relations could quickly vanish into thin air. On India’s part, it too should bear in mind this fact while proceeding towards the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

A nation in moral crisis

The Independent
As I See It column,
July 16th.,2011
M. Serajul islam

My driver had been nagging me for quite some time that the car was consuming a lot more fuel and the mileage per liter had fallen substantially. I thought the driver was talking nonsense because the car is comparatively new and the mileage could not just have fallen like that. But the driver persisted with his complaint and after a while I also found out that I was paying more money on oil than before.

I sent the car to the repair shop. The owner is educated and articulate in explaining the working details of a car even to someone like me who is not well conversant with the workings of a car engine.
He said that my car is in perfect condition; almost as good as new. The problem is with the petrol pump/s from where I have been buying petrol. He said most of the pumps are supplying adulterated fuel. Even the brand new cars are having the same problem as I am having with my car.

Where are we going as a nation? Such fraud in public life is now common place. Four of my sisters who live in the US together with a number of nephews and nieces are now in Dhaka. They have come to attend the marriage of my daughter. When I extended invitation to them to come for the wedding, I had told them that this is a wonderful time to visit Bangladesh as this is the season of mango, the king of fruits.
Soon after they arrived here, there was news on how the mango traders are ripening mangoes these days by spraying dangerous chemicals. One leading English daily showed truck loads of such poisonous mangoes being destroyed.

My sisters asked me what have the authorities done to the traders responsible for poisoning. I said nothing, then paused and said that there could be some fine ones perhaps although I also added that I had not read of any such punishment being meted out to these criminals.

I wrote in the past articles here about formalin used by the fish traders. When I was growing up, I could never go to the fish market because of the flies. Thanks to our fish traders, the fish markets are now fly proof. It is for a “small” price of poisoning the customers. On mangoes, a group of traders to prove their honesty have advertised boldly in front of their shops that they sell only “poison-free” mangoes!
There is a serious disconnect here. The advertisement by these mango traders suggests that all other mango shops other than theirs sell poisonous mangos! More importantly, how could the authorities allow such advertisements to be publicly made?
Imagine what foreigners would think if they could read Bangla or someone interpreted the ads for them. Surely the would think they are in a place where law of the jungle prevails.

It is not with just the mangoes and fish that these unscrupulous traders have put the people at risk; chemicals are now openly used in most types of fruits and vegetables to keep them fresh. Apples can be kept in the open without any fear of rotting as long as one wishes. Even bananas are not wasted when left for days in the open.

One understands that in a poor country, there would be unscrupulous traders who would be greedy and try to make money by foul means. However, it is incredible that these traders would use chemicals on edible commodities knowing full well that by such use they would be poisoning innocent people slowly and sending them to their deaths.

This is something perhaps unique for it is hard to imagine that traders in any other society would stoop so slow as to do what they are doing in Bangladesh almost nonchalantly.It is even more incredible that so far little action has been taken by the authorities to deter these unscrupulous traders from slow poisoning the people. Even the mobile courts that were sent to catch and punish these traders have ceased going after them.

It seems that evil has won after all and the authorities have given up going after them for mysterious reasons. Is it just possible that there is an evil nexus working here so powerful that nothing can be done against those slow poisoning the people?
It is just not among the traders that we see such a moral degradation. The way the authorities and the people in general are accepting such action of traders without much protest or action also hints at a moral degradation in rest of the society.
Such moral degradation is now visible all around us; in almost all spheres of our public and private lives. Although the last CG committed many excesses; on the issue of corruption in public life it had succeeded in creating public corruption. Unfortunately, with the return of elected government, corruption has returned in full fury.

The assault on the school girl by her teacher of one of Dhaka’s top schools is another sign of the depth of moral degradation to which we have fallen. It may not have been very unusual that a school teacher has committed such a detestable act; it happens in the best of societies. What is incredible here is the action of the school authorities who have tried to keep it from coming into the open.

In fact, this school’s moral degradation started earlier. There was a time when merit was the only criterion for admission to this school. It is now an open secret that students are being admitted to this school for a hefty amount of money.
As a girl’s school, this institution used to have only two male teachers. But the school now has 6 male teachers and politics is very nearly ruining the school by hitting where it hurts most; its moral foundation that once made it a pristine girls’ school in the country.

The government that is so indifferent to the slide of the country towards moral degradation is by no means incapable of taking punitive measures where it wants. Recently, I was dumbfounded listening to a RAB official in a talk show defending the extra-judicial killings as if there is no harm done there.

Human life seems so dispensable in Bangladesh! He also proudly claimed that there is peace in the country because of the 8000 plus RAB officials who are serving the nation dedicatedly!

When it comes to beating up the opposition, the police can be ferocious as we have seen with the beating given to the Opposition Chief Whip. Why can’t this law enforcing forces act with the same dedication with the criminal traders under the purview of the law, traders who sell poisonous mangoes or the petrol pumps that sell adulterated petrol or the teacher who violates his student or the school authorities that admits students for a price?

The civil society that plays a fundamental role with problems of moral degradation in all societies has lost its value in Bangladesh because of its role during the last Caretaker Government.

Its support for a third force that brought the military into politics has hurt its credibility. Hence we are not witnessing any serious efforts by the civil society to deal with the moral crisis in the country..

That leaves the politicians to do the needful. Unfortunately, the politicians are busy fighting themselves. They have no time to deal with the deteriorating moral crisis. In fact, the nature of our politics is one major cause for the moral crisis we are in. Unless our quality of politics improves, the deepening moral crisis could destroy us as a nation.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Indian PM’s faux pas and Bangladesh government’s reaction

Daily Sun,
Saturday, July 10, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Dr. Manmohon Singh has disappointed many in Bangladesh by his remarks about the country and its politics in a recent meeting with Indian newspaper editors. The Prime Minister’s website carried these remarks for a few days. When it caused criticism in India and in unofficial circles in Bangladesh, the remarks were hastily withdrawn with no serious explanation.

India is a major player in world affairs. Hence what its Prime Minister speaks officially, particularly about a neighbour that is suspicious of it, is spoken after due consideration. Hence his offensive remarks about Bangladesh and its politics must have been discussed with his aides and other concerned officials. It could not have just dropped into his head the moment he made these remarks. Therefore the remarks cannot be forgotten simply by deleting it from the PM’s website.

Dr. Singh said 25% of the people of Bangladesh are Jamaat activists who are in the clutches of the ISI. He also mentioned that the same percentage of the people of Bangladesh is also very anti-Indian. These negative facts notwithstanding, “generous” India, although not a rich nation, has offered Bangladesh a US$ 1 billion line of credit for economic infra-structure development in Bangladesh. Dr. Singh however acknowledged Bangladesh’s gesture in meeting its security concerns.

It is incredible that Dr. Singh would believe that 25% of the people of Bangladesh are Jamaat supporters. If that is a fact, with the BNP, the two would have by now made the AL history. The fact is Jamaat’s support among the people has always been in the low single digit. In the last elections, it polled 4% of the votes against 7% by President Ershad’s Jatiya party. His remarks about the extent of ISI influence in Bangladesh are offensive. It is true that past military governments and BNP have given in the past ISI leverage in Bangladesh’s politics. It is nevertheless way off the mark to suggest that 25% of Bangladeshis “are in the clutches of the ISI.” Perhaps Dr. Singh is not aware of Bangladesh’s history to suggest that 25% of the people would be so “controlled” by Pakistan’s military intelligence!

On the issue of Indian generosity, Indian line of credit of US$ 1 billion can hardly be called a generous act. 80% of the loan is tied to buying goods and services from India. Most importantly, it will be spent mostly for building infrastructure to facilitate transit of Indian goods from mainland India to Indian northeastern provinces through Bangladesh that has long been a major desire of India. Such land transit is expected to have major impact on the seven provinces’ economic and social development by cutting down of cost of transportation of goods and services and time. The successive governments of Bangladesh, in the past till the present, considered the land transit card valuable enough to help Bangladesh negotiate with India outstanding issues like share of water of common rivers, trade deficit, land and maritime boundaries favorably. It has given away this card without any reciprocal gesture. The US$ 1 billion is hardly one because it will be spent for the benefit of India more than for Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has done even a far bigger favour to India by handing over to Indian security the top ULFA insurgents that has broken the back of this long standing insurgency. It has also committed itself fully to India’s security interests. Since the present government came to office, it is generally believed in Bangladesh that it is not the ISI but Indian security agency RAW that has been given unhindered access in the country.

In fact, in history of Bangladesh-India relations, it is Bangladesh that has always shown generosity and India, the reverse. In 1974, after the Indira-Mujib agreement on land boundary was signed, Bangladesh kept its commitment while India, 37 years after the agreement was signed, is still dragging its foot on its commitments. In fact, one of the “generous” concessions that India would be making to Bangladesh in the near future is giving Bangladeshis 24 hour’s access to the enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota, something it had committed almost 4 decades ago.

Bangladesh also gave India concession to install the Farakkha Barrage on a trial basis in April, 1975 that India unilaterally extended without Bangladesh’s concurrence to withdraw water from the Ganges at will. The trial agreement was finally converted into a bilateral agreement 25 years afterwards in 1996. In early 1990s, after the SAPTA agreement was signed, Bangladesh lowered its tariff against host of Indian goods that India never reciprocated fully.

In the face of all the above, it is absurd that Dr. Singh could have been so insensitive to have twisted truth in the manner he has. It is also hard to believe that his comments were inadvertent for it fits the mindset that the Indian bureaucracy has shown over the years in negotiating with Bangladesh. During a recent visit of journalists to India, even the Indian Finance Minister has acknowledged about this negative mindset in the Indian bureaucracy about Bangladesh.

Thus it was equally incredible that the Bangladesh government would react the way it has to Dr. Singh’s offensive comments. One senior Minister said Dr. Singh’s statements were “taken out of context”. The Foreign Secretary saw no necessity to make a formal complaint as he was fully satisfied by the explanation given by the Indian side. It appeared as if the Bangladesh Government was being apologetic that in India itself Dr. Singh’s comments created such widespread criticism that was the main reason why these were deleted from the PM’s website.

The nature of Dr. Singh’s comments, its withdrawal from the official website and the official reaction from Bangladesh left many wondering what is happening in Bangladesh-India relations. It is incredible that Bangladesh side would show such subservience to India as not to even raise an eyebrow, let alone a note of protest, on such a serious faux pas by the Indian Prime Minister that insulted and humiliated the nation. It brings back to memory the long delay that the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry took to register a note of protest on the Felani murder by the Indian BSF that incensed Bangladeshis. It also makes one wonder why senior officials of Bangladesh government are taking up Indian causes more aggressively than the Indian themselves where India, except for 1971, dealt with Bangladesh with not much generosity. One senior official even said that Bangladesh would prove itself uncivilised to charge from India any fee for granting it transit!

Indian Foreign Minister is in town at the time of filing this piece. So far what has been known of his visit is that India would be granting Bangladesh “concessions” that it had committed to Bangladesh decades ago! The Indian Home Minister is expected to come soon and the Prime Minister will come in early September. These visits are being undertaken way too belatedly for politics in Bangladesh has turned a bend towards dangerous pastures. With the caretaker government issue, the ruling party has created the most fertile grounds for confrontational politics that is bound to create equally fertile grounds for the opposition to play the India card. Dr. Singh has also helped in this respect by his insensitive remarks.

India can achieve the fullest benefits of land transit and its security concerns, two extremely important foreign policy goals for it, only when the Bangladesh government led by the ruling party has full and total control with the opposition in no position to do anything. It is just possible that Dr. Singh by his faux pas may have unwittingly spilled the beans; that there is a game plan involving the two governments to use Islamic extremism to strengthen the position of the ruling party in Bangladesh. One wonders!

The writer is a former Ambassador

to Japan.

On our ‘brave’ police force: civil order or disorder?

The Independent,
As I See It Column
Saturday, 9th., 2011

M. Serajul Islam

The picture that most newspapers posted on the second day of BNP’s 48-hour hartal was a police officer landing a blow on the face of a man lying on the street. The police officer was easily recognizable from his uniform. So was the man he was assaulting. The man was unarmed. He is the Chief Whip of the opposition in parliament, Mr. Zainul Abdin Farroque!

The dastardly acts were also caught live on camera by the private TV channels. He was beaten, ripped off his shirt, dragged, thrown from the vehicle bleeding in the head and face and later landed in the ICU of a local hospital.

From newspaper reports, it was also revealed that the Chief Whip was targeted intentionally and brutally assaulted the way he was. To make a comedy out of a tragedy, the authorities later filed a case against him for assaulting police on duty!

The script is not a new one. The police have acted this way as long as its history in this country and in this region. They assaulted the freedom fighters under the British in the same manner. In the same way, they beat up opposition political leaders during the Pakistan time.
The British and the Pakistani regimes did not believe that there could be any opposition to the government. They used the police for browbeating the opposition into submission. In the end, both failed miserably.

Unfortunately for us, these two oppressive and detestable regimes of the past have left their indelible mark on all governments in Bangladesh, both elected and unelected, in encouraging them to use the police for oppressing the political opposition.

In fact all Bangladesh governments have taken the strategies used by the British and the Pakistani governments to their hearts and have refined it to deal with the opposition in ways that are a regression of democracy.

The present government has fine tuned police brutality for subjugating the opposition in a number of newer ways whose preview were there for the nation to see during the recent hartal. First, as a strategy, it employed a larger number of police officials and greater force to stop the opposition from picketing, something not seen in past police ways of dealing with hartal activists. This strategy worked very well and the opposition was not allowed to do any picketing at all during the hartal.

Second, a qualitative change was in view during the recent hartal in the use of police against the opposition. This police on duty have shown political commitment against hartal activists. In the past, police have been brutal because of conflict with hartal activists who were also armed and posed danger to them.

This time, the hartal activists were almost benign in their commitment to hartal but the police acted against them brutally with very little provocation out of political commitment for the ruling party.

The way the Chief Whip was singled out and beaten was in no sense a spontaneous act. It was well calculated and deliberate and was taken under instruction of higher political authority with which the police force complied like activists of the ruling party.

This time, the hartal activists lacked leadership because most opposition leaders are now afraid of being arrested and taken into remand. There are few politicians today in the opposition ranks who have the courage to face the threat of remand that is a leaf that the present police force has accepted as a legacy for torturing opposition from the last Caretaker Government. In fact, opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia had reprimanded her senior colleagues for their lack of courage during the few hartals that the BNP had called in the past under this government.

These facts notwithstanding, the police used every opportunity to beat up opposition leaders during the 48-hour hartal with the clear intention to discourage them against actively picketing for hartal. Strangely, the police was not so focused or ferocious while hartal activists broke cars and burnt down busses.

Clearly, the strategy of the police has been to allow hartal activists to attack and vandalize cars and buses to create contempt in the public mind against the opposition. At the same, the police provoked and went after the opposition leaders to scare them from leading processions for picketing in favour of hartal. Apparently, the strategy was worked out at party level and the police carried out like activists of the ruling party.

Thus police actions during the two-day hartal has underscored the fact that although our politicians have been “fighting” for democracy for many decades, but the mindset of the politicians who have gone on to rule is no better or no worse than the British and Pakistani rulers.

In fact, the present government has shown a marked deterioration even in such a contemptible mindset. It has clearly underscored its intentions to use the police force to ensure the objectives of the ruling party against the opposition.

It is an irony that the ruling party while in the opposition has been the most vocal protagonist of hartal claiming it to be a democratic right of the opposition. Its commitment to hartal was such that it makes the ones undertaken by the opposition in the present term of the ruling party look almost innocuous and benign.

The latest hartal that the opposition had called was to challenge certain fundamental changes in the Constitution that the ruling party brought unilaterally for ensuring its victory in the next elections. Even on such a serious issue, the opposition has not shown even a bit of the ferocity that the ruling party had shown during hartals that it had called for issues far less significant. Yet they were dealt with ferociously.

In fact, the constitutional changes that the ruling party has introduced are all designed to reintroduce the 4th Amendment to the Constitution in a new format. The Baksal imprint is written so large in the present politics of the ruling party that one has to pause and wonder what is it that is really guiding it towards such a dangerous frontier in the politics of the country. It is forgetting one fundamental difference between the two periods.

In 1974, the Awami League was the only political party of consequence in the country. It had in leadership role Bangabandhu Sheikh Rahman. Yet, its journey with one-party government was too shortlived with tragedy beyond comprehension. Today, a major segment of the people of the country are opposed to the ruling party and as for leadership, there cannot be any comparison.

The “brave” police force of Bangladesh has shown a preview of the nature of politics to come by the brutal and uncivilized way they handled the opposition. It would do the government and the ruling party a great deal of good to consider why despite such police brutality that did not allow the opposition any chance for picketing, the 48-hour hartal was successful all across the country where the overwhelming majority of the people simply detest hartal. It could look at the sense of deep frustration among the people who were promised so much but so far have been given so little.

The ruling party seems to be forgetting that 75 million people became one in 1971 for democracy and no matter what it does or wishes, it can never achieve anything by undemocratic ways. It is also the verdict of history. Its political acts over the last few months have been anything but democratic. It is high time that it mended its ways for itself and the nation.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt

CG system: Introduced and abolished for democracy

Daily Sun
Monday, July 4, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I am not so sure if the Awami League is aware of its own history of agitations over the past four decades. I sometimes even suspect if it is even aware of the history of the country that it so proudly claims to have written.

If it did, it would not have claimed that elections are fair only when it is conducted by elected representatives of the people. It would also not have so summarily rejected the concept of the Caretaker Government by misusing its 3/4th majority which is only in the four walls of parliament and not so in the country.

The fact of history is in all the elections that have been held in Bangladesh, those that have been conducted by the elected representatives have been almost all abjectly fraudulent. Take for instance the 1973 elections. It was well known that in the 1973 elections, the government machinery interfered in the election process in a manner that made it look like that only Awami League candidates were contesting each other where those of opposing parties contested only to lose their security deposits. In fact, many did. Ballot boxes were stuffed in favour of ruling party candidates outside polling centres and counted as legitimate votes by polling officials in league with the party in power.

President Ershad also held elections in 1986 in which Awami League contested in the same manner. That election was also one that showed how easily those who conduct elections can interfere and win without the opposition even having a slight chance of making a contest out of it. In that election, even number of the seats was decided before the elections and Awami League received exactly as many seats as was negotiated ahead of the elections.

The case of by-elections under elected governments is even worse. Magura will forever remain in the history of elections in Bangladesh as the limit and the extent to which a party in power can influence the election process. In the by-elections in Bangladesh, only those seats have been won by the opposition party where the government “decided” not to win.

The reasons why the party in power wins elections it conducts so easily are manifold. First, in our political culture, political parties have not learnt to accept defeat as a part of the inevitable process of election. They believe only in winning at any cost. Second, in elections in Bangladesh, those involved in conducting it, like the polling officers, the police and civil administration have immense powers to influence outcome. Third, the Election Commission can take action in case where the polling officers/police and civil administration take sides in favour of one candidate or another only in theory in Bangladesh. In practice, as a body, excepting its Commissioners, the EC is subordinate to the executive. Even where the EC has intention to interfere on side of fairness, they are almost always unable to take action because they cannot fight an entire administration. In fact, the EC has no known record in Bangladesh of ever exercising its powers in favour of a candidate who lost an election by fraudulent means where there has been large number of such cases.

In contrast, all three elections held in the country under the CG have been free and fair. It has been so attested by national and international observers that included teams from the Commonwealth, International Democratic Institute of Washington and SAARC, institutions that had no subjective interest in favour of any of the contesting parties. In fact, in 1996, it was BNP that was unseated from power by the first CG that unseated AL in 2001. In 2008, again under the CG, it was BNP that was unseated. Therefore except in the minds of AL and the Judges, there was no apprehension in anyone’s mind that elections under the CG have been anything but fair and free that allowed a peaceful transition from one democratic government to another.

What is dangerous for democracy and Bangladesh’s future is the way AL is moving towards the next elections under its administration. First, it has totally politicised the civil bureaucracy. Thus by the time the next elections are held, all officers in civil bureaucracy who would be directly involved in the elections would be AL activists. Second, the entire police administration has been likewise politicised where all police officials to be involved in maintaining law and order during the next elections would also be ruling party activists. The EC that will be crucial to holding a free and fair election would have new Commissioners well ahead of the next elections. AL has left no one in doubt that it has no intention of placing anyone in public office not overtly and covertly loyal to it.

Thus the interim AL administration that will hold the next elections will have a civil bureaucracy, police administration and EC manned by its party activists. Going by the mindset AL has shown the people of Bangladesh over the past four decades, only someone in mental paralysis should expect that AL would in any way put its re-election in

any jeopardy.

It is indeed a cruel irony that all this is being done in the name of democracy! Nevertheless it is not new what AL is doing. In history, many of the worst anti-people moves by political parties in power have been done in the name of democracy. Indian history of the 1970s is one notable example. Thus AL that had put a gridlock on government during BNP’s tenure from 1991-96 to force BNP to introduce the CG system to protect democracy in place of elections under an interim government has forgotten its own past. It has now done a flip-flop, abolished the CG system as un-democratic and has introduced elections under the Interim Government as a democratic way to change government!

There is a major problem in what AL is doing even if one overlooks all the contradictions in the way AL is playing politics these days. It is true it enjoys a 3/4th majority in parliament. Unfortunately, in the country, its support is way short of it. Today AL does not even have a simple majority in terms of support in the country; it never had and won the last elections with 48% of the total votes cast and that too, with 13 other parties! In fact, today its support would be anything in the upper 30% of the people of Bangladesh leaving staggering 60% or more opposed to it.

With such a support base, it is inconceivable how AL hopes to carry home its plan for holding the next elections under an interim government that is not even a veiled blue print to return to power. If AL gets its way, history would be proven wrong for the minority has never been able to win the manner AL is proceeding.

What will happen instead is the country will slide into chaos. BNP and its allies have already made that clear. Given the opposition’s strong return in local government elections, AL can only ignore its strength at its and the country’s peril. It is high time that AL came out of the four walls of parliament where its 3/4th majority without the opposition in attendance have made it totally oblivious to the reality in the country.

The writer is a former Ambassador
to Japan.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Can an interim govt be an alternative to CG?

The Independent
As I See It Column
Saturday, 2nd., July, 2011

Constitutional Special Committee Vice Chairman Mr. Suranjit Sengupta is changing his position so often that it is difficult to focus on what he is saying at all. Immediately before the committee submitted its report, he said that the report would not include anything on Caretaker Government and it would be decided by the parliament. When the report was submitted and released to the media, the annulment of the Caretaker Government provision was the top item in the report’s list of recommendations!

Now Mr. Sengupta is harping on the concept of an Interim Government as an alternative to the Caretaker Government. He is selling the concept as if it is something innovative in a parliamentary system. He has suggested a more powerful Election Commission to make an election under an Interim Government democratic and acceptable to the public in place of elections under a Caretaker Government.

In the first place, there is nothing innovative in what Mr. Sengupta has said. In truth, when a parliament in a parliamentary system completes its term, it automatically stands abrogated. The executive, that is the Prime Minister and his/her Ministers continue with the day to day functions of the government while the authority responsible for holding elections, in our case it would be the Election Commission, holds the elections to elect a new parliament. The party that has the majority in the parliament forms the next government to which the Interim Government hands over power.

The problem of elections under an interim government is well documented in the history of most developing democracies. We need not go very far to find an example. In next door India, the interim government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi was accused of using the government machinery for winning the 1971 elections by unfair means. Mrs. Gandhi herself was accused of using her official power illegally to win her own seat to Parliament.

The rest is history. In a historic judgment in 1975, the Allahabad High Court declared her election null and void as she was found guilty of using her official position as the interim Prime Minister unfairly and illegally to influence the result of the election in her party’s favour. She was also banned from contesting in an election for six years but serious charges such as bribing voters and election malpractices were dropped.

The court’s verdict pushed India towards civil disturbance across the country. In the face of serious unrest, Mrs. Gandhi declared emergency in June 1975. For the next two years, she ruled the country under a virtual dictatorship with massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition.

She used the emergency and the 2/3 majority she enjoyed in parliament to impose her will on major political issues facing the country. In January 1977, she called for fresh Lok Sabha elections and lost to the Janata Party of Mr. Moraji Desai by a thin majority. In the process, India and Indian democracy were saved but it came close to being turned into a fascist, autocratic government.

It is such a prospect towards which Mr. Sengupta is pushing Bangladesh. India returned from the brink because of the institutional strength of its democracy. In contrast, and a very sharp one too, we have none of the institutional strength that helped bring India back from the brink of dictatorship and arbitrary rule. The Awami League, since coming to power with a 3/4th majority, has shown no signs of accommodating the opposition, either in parliament or outside it.
The other dangerous signs that the ruling party has shown that makes the possibility of elections under an interim government to be headed by the ruling party perilous for democracy are its perception of the party and government. In dealing with the bureaucracy, the ruling party has obliterated the distinction between the two.

In other words, it has in no uncertain terms made bureaucrats’ loyalty to the ruling party as a condition for their serving in the civil bureaucracy. Half-baked theories on what type of bureaucracy the ruling party is seeking are hazardous for a parliamentary democracy. In such theories, political neutrality of the bureaucracy that is a basic pre-requisite for parliamentary democracy has been destroyed totally.

In fact, in key positions of the civil bureaucracy, it is just not mere loyalty that is a criterion for placement. Key positions have been given to bureaucrats who are no less party activists as those who have been recruited by the party and working in the party.

The Election Commission has shown its intent to be strong and independent. Unfortunately, both in structure and design, like the rest of the civil bureaucracy, it is also fragile to the will of the ruling party. Except for the Chief Election Commissioner and the Commissioners who are theoretically independent, the rest of the EC is not by any remote stretch of the imagination neutral enough to hold a free and fair election under an interim government that would be formed by the ruling party.

To make matters worse, the three commissioners in the EC who were recruited by the last Caretaker Government would be gone by the time the next elections are held. They would be replaced by new commissioners who would be selected by the ruling party.

To expect that the ruling party would choose neutral and competent people who would dare to act as the Election Commission in, for instance, India would be a very fond wish but very unrealistic. In fact, it is only likely that the new members of the Commission would behave as the senior secretaries of the government these days.

That would leave the courts as the last hope to keep an interim government from following in the footsteps of what the Congress did in 1971. Unfortunately, the courts’ recent handling of political issues has deeply worried the public. In a number of instances the desires of the ruling party and the rulings of the court on constitutional issues have shown unusual similarities.

It would therefore be unrealistic to expect that the courts in Bangladesh will act anything like the Allahabad Court did in the case of Mrs. Gandhi in the event the opposition moved to seek its support on election issues.

Hence elections under an Interim government in Bangladesh could bring results even worse than what followed in India under Mrs. Gandhi’s interim government. In India then, at least, there was a politically neutral bureaucracy, a superior courts held in high esteem whose impartiality was above question and an Election Commission independent of the executive and powerful.
In Bangladesh, the ruling party has ensured that in the structures that are essential to hold a free and fair election, there are only those who are activists and loyalists of the ruling party. Hence an election under an interim government of the ruling party is but a blueprint for its return to power.

Unfortunately, the opposition in Bangladesh is formidable in the country despite its 34 seats in Parliament. The attempt of the ruling party to return to power under an interim government and civil bureaucracy that is now in its favour will surely lead to civil unrest where the prospect of elections and peaceful transfer of power would be the surest casualties.

Mr. Suranjit Sengupta would have done himself and the country a great favour if he would have considered some of the issues raised here rather than trying to predict the Prime Minister's thinking to make the recommendations of the Committee he co-chaired. The Committee has in fact helped the country move closer to an impending political impasse of a serious nature.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt.