Monday, October 31, 2011

Of Bangladesh-India relations
M. Serajul Islam

Daily Sun
October 23, 2011

It is time for our negotiators to get back to the drawing board following the disappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka and assess the reasons for the big gap between expectations and achievements.

Let us set aside our gains like, for example, the settling of land boundary and the 46 RMG items that we will now be able to export to India duty free. Our major concern with India is water for the 54 rivers that come from India and give Bangladesh, its life. A fair demarcation of the maritime boundary holds a major key to our economic development. In 40 years of “incremental diplomacy”, we have only one accord on water sharing and on the maritime boundary; we have been forced to go to the UN

We are not getting the water promised by the Ganges Accord because there is not enough water at Farakkha during the dry season due to upstream depletion. The Teesta Accord that we are now desperate to sign is even in a worse situation. Mamata Banerjee has said recently that there is no water at the point of sharing during the dry season.

Bihar Minister of Water Nitish Kumar has asked for a review of the Ganges Accord. Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar are in fact asking us to look at a crucial issue that our negotiators seem oblivious about – the issue of upstream withdrawal. Over the years since our independence, the Indian states have withdrawn waters from these cross-boundary rivers without ever caring for Bangladesh’s needs, thus pushing us to a process of slow death.

A private TV channel has shown a series of documentaries recently to create public awareness on how our rivers are drying up. I wish our negotiators have seen the documentaries to know our situation and India better. Given our desperation for the Teesta Accord, it is very likely that we would sign an accord that on paper would give 50% share of Teesta waters during the dry season. If we are to believe in our common sense, objective data and Mamata Banerjee, there will be little or no water to share when the time for sharing comes!

One point that most of us missed while analysing the botched up visit of Dr. Manmohon Singh is the little emphasis that our negotiators placed on water sharing till India reneged on the Teesta deal. They were too engrossed with the magic of connectivity hub with which they wanted to launch a new era of Bangladesh-India relations. In fact, they had told us many times during the process of negotiations that Teesta Agreement was almost ready for signature when our Prime Minister visited New Delhi.

Thus our negotiators did not just set water issue aside, they sugar-coated our major playing card, land transit, by promising us great riches as the connectivity hub. In fact, they made it appear like it was in our interest to give India the land transit. Therefore, we should thank Mamata Banerjee for stopping us from signing a Teesta deal that would have been an agreement on paper. In the process, we would have given away to India land transit that holds such immense value to India.

Mamata Banerjee has also helped us hold back on the security card for without her spanner on the Teesta deal, we would have handed over Anup Chetia and also have not signed with India the extradition treaty. In fact, given the state of terrorism, both homegrown and cross-border inside India, India is in desperate need for support and assistance of Bangladesh for a handle on terrorism where they consider Bangladesh a major source of concern. Thus for them AL victory in the last elections and Sheikh Hasina’s offer on security was an answer to their prayers.

Although a lot of what has transpired between Bangladesh and India on security has been outside public knowledge, it can be safely concluded that India needs a lot more time to feel it has secured the security threat from Bangladesh. Hence there is strong reason to feel that despite the concessions we have already made on security – like for instance handing over the top ULFA terrorists – there is much more value of our security card to India. Hence in an ironic sort of way, both the transit and security cards have become stronger because the Indians reneged on the Teesta deal that botched up the visit.

When they get back to the drawing board, our negotiators should first set their priorities right. They should put water in bold letters and place it right on top. While negotiating on water, they should lay claim to a share of all cross-boundary rivers and object to any upstream withdrawal without consulting us. However, keeping in mind that augmentation is the key, our negotiators should seek a regional approach to the water issue. A regional approach has the potential to turn our region into one of the richest in terms of water resources in the world. Indian mindset in dealing with neighbours bilaterally has been the problem.

Equally important to Bangladesh, in fact much more than becoming the connectivity hub, is the need to exploit the rich potentials of hydro-carbons and marine resources in the Bay of Bengal. Where we trusted India to give it land transit and security without demanding our rights on water, trade and land boundary, it awaits explanation why we decided to go to the UN tribunal with our case. When our negotiators go back to the drawing board, they should consider a negotiated settlement on the maritime issue because going to the Tribunal does not rule out bilateral negotiations.

Of course, our present negotiating team will get nowhere with the above. This is where our Prime Minister has a historic role to play. She alone can make India change this mindset by playing the security and land transit cards in exchange. Sadly, because of our poor negotiating skills, we are rather late in playing this strategy because today Sheikh Hasina is not as strong politically as she was when she visited India nearly 2 years ago.

She could make up this weakness by talking with the BNP. It was heartening to see the BNP a lot changed vis-à-vis India. The talks between Khaleda Zia and Manmohon Singh were even followed by a letter from the latter to the former when Dr. Singh returned to New Delhi. Given the state of relationship between her and Khaleda Zia, the discussion on an India policy could be carried on at levels below them to give India the message that Bangladesh, not just the AL, is ready for a paradigm shift in relations.

Meanwhile, at the drawing board, our negotiators should decide to hold on both the security and transit cards and see what India does with the issues it has resolved. If a Teesta deal comes along, so be it but that should not lead to land transit and no more concessions on security, not without India agreeing to deal on the water issue regionally. The water sharing issue cannot be left to incremental diplomacy for Bangladesh may not last long enough to see the end of that process ofnegotiations.

Security and land transit for our water needs could eventually create the mutual trust in Bangladesh-India relations with which resolving the demarcation of the maritime boundary could be achieved effortlessly. However, the driving force for achieving the above must be political will to change the negative bureaucratic mindset that is more pronounced on the Indian side.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Television then and now

As I See it Column
The Independent
15 October, 2011
M Serajul Islam

I still remember the first programme on TV in what was then East Pakistan. The attraction that the small screen held for us in those days was something that has little comparison with what pleasure the TV gives us today, its humungous expansion in terms of numbers and technology notwithstanding.

Abdullah Abu Sayeed took viewers like me on a trip down the memory land the other day on what TV was to us growing up and now. Abdullah Abu Sayeed who needs no introduction to readers of this column for his contribution to our society as President of Bangladesh Biswa Sahityya Kendra and winner of Magsaysay Award, eloquently and in a nonchalant way described the transformation of the small screen over the decades in a TV interview on a private TV channel recently..

He said that thanks to the floodgate of private TV channels, we have banished from the TV programmes those aspects of our culture and heritage that are our strongest points. As instances, he said private TV channels almost entirely avoid programmes of classical music; on traditional music and songs of Bangladesh, etc. His sarcastic remark that Rabindra Sangeet has not yet been banished perhaps because of fear of the great man underscored the point poignantly that the private TV channels run on profit motive primarily dishing for viewers cheap programmers that needs no talent or brains to produce.

In my trip down the memory lane, I remembered a programme in which Mostafa Monwar spoke to the viewers back in the late 1960s. Those were the days when most programmes were live and the technological support was primitive. He showed the utter lack of space and equipment in the DIT Bhavan from where the TV station functioned. Yet, that station gave the viewers quality programmes in plenty that the explosion of TV stations together today cannot match.

Take for instance programmes such as “Apner Doctor” hosted by Dr. Badrudozza Chowdhury, later on to become a top politician of the country and eventually our President. That was one programme that we watched with rapt attention both for quality of production and for the brilliance of Dr. Badrudozza.

My eldest sister used to live in Islamabad in the 1960s. Those days, the regional TV stations used to air recorded programmes from one another. The Islamabad station used to show Dhaka TVs programme as the last programme of the evening, close to midnight, deliberately. One evening, as my sister waited for the programme of Dhaka TV, she was disappointed that it was a book review and that too on a book of science. Nevertheless she sat through but instead of being bored she was enthralled as the reviewer was Munir Chowdhury. My sister said that he kept the audience glued to the TV by his sheer brilliance.

There were many like Dr. Badrudozza and Munir Chowdhury who did programmes those days that were equivalent of our present day talk shows about which Abdullah Abu Sayeed had interesting comments in the programme aired on Channel 1. He called the present day talk shows as shouting contests. Those days, there were quality dramas, enough of classical music; songs and music with deep roots in our culture; dance programmes; etc. In Salimullah Muslim Hall in the late 1960s, we used to eat our dinner early to get a place in the TV room for the weekly drama. After each, we used to spend time discussing the drama and always impressed with most of what we viewed

These days, we have some artistes in drama who are comparable and perhaps better than those in the past. However, the mix of these few good artistes with a majority, in fact overwhelming majority, of below average is such that the talent of the few good ones are lost in the mix. Then again the demand of the few good ones is so much that they end up wasting their talent by spreading themselves too thin! The lack of talent in dramas is further worsened by the absence of script writers.

The poor quality of the TV programmes sunk on me as I flipped and flipped to watch a TV programme that I could enjoy during the last Eid holidays. I could not find one to hold my attention. With all fairness, I must admit that I could not concentrate on any programme long enough to make a fair assessment. Nevertheless, no one among friends or family told me that he or she had watched a programme worth mentioning.

There is a distinct downward trend in the quality of programmes then and now. This trend downward is an unacceptable one because the viewers have grown many times as has number of TV stations and most importantly, technology. In the programme in which Abdullah Abu Sayeed spoke, the interviewer interjected to mention that the TV stations say in their defense for poor quality of the programmes that they simply cater to public demand. Abdulla Abu Sayeed rejected this view. He said that it is because of the standard and taste of our viewers that our TV stations do not dare show obscenity on the small screens that we see in neighbouring countries and elsewhere.

The expertise to run private TV stations and talent for quality programmes have not matched the sudden and dramatic explosion in number of private TV channels. That explains the poor quality of programmes. The other factor for the poor quality is the greed of these stations for money. It would be better to call our TV stations advertising firms with interjection of programmes so that the viewers stay tuned. Abdullah Abu Sayeed thus pleaded that the TV stations would try and make one quality programme of an hour duration a day or a week. According to him and I agree entirely, even that is not happening.

Yet new stations are coming like mushrooms. From a business point of view, it does not make sense for there is already an over-saturation of private TV channels. Together with allowing new TV stations, the government is coming with new national broadcast policy to regulate programmes in these stations. Something is surely amiss here. One has to wonder which programmes the Government is considering regulating. The Prime Minister’s recent caustic remarks about TV talk shows suggest that the government is not happy about the often unfettered criticisms about its activities. These talk shows and news programmes could be the main reason for the need of new guidelines for the private TV channels.

The government seems poised to subject these TV stations to politics. Already, strong views have emerged against the guidelines, a draft of which has already come to the hands of the media. Thus instead of encouraging the private TV stations to change for the better by quality programmes with focus on our culture, our history and our ethos and less on money making greed, the government seems inclined to turn the private TV channels into what Bangladesh TV has become over the years, a mouthpiece for government propaganda.

The mindset here is unbelievable. When we were watching TV under the Pakistani regime, the programmes were largely above politics and quality productions with emphasis on our culture and our society. Come independence, we transformed that medium into a vehicle for government propaganda. Now we are about to see government guidelines to bring the private TV channels into the same frame!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Teesta deal, land transit and Bangladesh’s interests

The Holiday
14 October,2011
M. Serajul Islam

Our Economic Adviser’s statement to the media that there is no link between Teesta pact and land transit was very clear, without any room for confusion. There is however a little problem, in fact a major one, for someone like me who is trying to follow our bilateral relations with India seriously, knowing that our future depends to a great extent on how we streamline our relations with our neighbour.

The problem with the Adviser’s statement on Teesta and transit arises from another very forceful statement given to the media on the day the Indian Prime Minister had arrived in Dhaka. Bangladesh had hoped that on that visit, Dr. Manmohon Singh would show India’s big heart for the concessions our Prime Minister courageously and unilaterally made on India’s security concerns and land transit needs.

In fact, we were told ever since our Prime Minister went on that historic trip to New Delhi that we just would have to wait for the Indian Prime Minister’s return visit to Dhaka to see what a magnanimous power India is. Dramatically and what can only be described as an anti-climax of historic proportions, the Indian Foreign Secretary went to the media late on the afternoon of September 5th and announced that the Teesta deal was off.

Quite clearly, our negotiators were caught off guard for the sensitivity of water in Bangladesh is something that no one can in the right mind underestimate. As a result, Bangladesh committed a diplomatic faux pas, again of historic proportions. Next day, with the Indian Prime Minister in Dhaka for his historic return visit, our Foreign Secretary summoned the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry and clearly told him as unequivocally as the Economic Adviser now that Bangladesh was withdrawing the land transit because India had taken the Teesta deal off the table.

The Foreign Secretary explained the rather undiplomatic diplomatic move (a country does not do so when it has invited that High Commissioner’s Head of Government for a friendly official visit and that too from a country about whom our negotiators had so positively briefed us) as a part of Bangladesh’s incremental diplomacy. Thus by one act, the Foreign Secretary changed the course of our negotiators who had promised us that Manmohon Singh’s visit would result in a paradigm shift in our bilateral relations.

Of course the Foreign Secretary was dutifully carrying out an instruction in which he had no part to play. So he could not be bothered or was not allowed to bother about diplomatic dos and don’ts. Nevertheless, by what the Economic Adviser has now said, there is definitely a conflict and a serious one between his statement and that of the Foreign Secretary. The Government or whoever has the responsibility of deciding on foreign affairs must clear this confusion on whether Teesta accord and land transit are tied, as the Foreign Secretary has said, or not according to the Economic Adviser.

My own view on this controversy is that the Economic Adviser is right. There was no land transit agreement on the table during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. In fact, land, river and rail transits were agreed between Bangladesh and India during the first Awami League Government under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Subsequently separate protocols were also signed on these transits under the government of President Ziaur Rahman. During the visit, the two sides were supposed to merely exchange letters to formalize land transit that had already been granted.

In fact, the US$ 1 billion soft loan that Bangladesh has accepted from India is already being spent to build the road and related infrastructure for land transit to India. Separately, Tripura has already been using land transit as well as rail transit from Chittagong port for its power station for which the Chief Minister of Tripura expressed great gratitude to Bangladesh as this privilege is transforming the economic future of the state.

Recently, all newspapers have carried pictures with news items of containerized cargo being carried from Paschim Bangla on river vessels for trans-shipment to heavy vehicles for the Indian northeastern states. So what was the Foreign Secretary talking about when he so “courageously” told off the Indian High Commissioner that Bangladesh was withdrawing its offer of land transit?

It is not difficult to put together a scenario of what happened in the evening of the 5th among those who negotiated with India to explain the Foreign Secretary’s action. They were expecting that the next day our Prime Minister would go before the nation with a deal on Teesta and Feni rivers and add that these two deals were prelude to sharing of the other common rivers. The deal was supposed to be the icing on the cake for the party for celebrating a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.

When Mamata Banarjee broke the party on the Teesta, our negotiators were bamboozled. It was then that they came up with the idea of summoning the Indian High Commissioner. It was like withdrawing an item from the menu of the banquet for the Indian Prime Minister that he has already been served! The government through the poor Foreign Ministry tried to cover up in a thoroughly unprofessional manner its unprofessional handling of the botched negotiations with India.

Our negotiators messed up a golden opportunity of a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations, an opportunity that our Prime Minister had opened up by her bold but politically risky gestures to India on security and land transit. It is time to prepare for future negotiations with India for there is now way we can even think we have a future without Indian friendship and cooperation. To do that, first, we need to clarify the land transit issue. Surely, by our ineptitude, we have given it, but almost. We still hold on to it enough to make India come back to us

Begum Khaleda Zia has made a strong statement that BNP would not allow sell out of the country and it was land transit to which she was pointing. The ruling party should pay heed to it and contrary to what the Economic Adviser has said, tie land transit not just to Teesta but also to share of all other cross boundary rivers. We are under-valuing our importance to India. Our negotiators should read former Indian Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner Muchkund Dubey’s article that appeared recently in The Daily Star.

Muchkund Dubey has argued that the land transit is of “supreme significance” to India because it is the key to integration of mainland India with its fragile northeastern states and also India’s pathway to Southeast Asia and Near East. In a way Mamata Banarjee’s move may have been divine intervention for it stopped Bangladesh short of giving this supremely significant gift to India almost free. The infra-structure for land transit will take many more years. We should use this time Mamata Banarjee has given us to go slow on land transit and bring issues of water, maritime boundary and the rest on the table for solution on quid pro quo basis.

India has benefitted a great deal from our security concessions but there is still much more for India here. We should combine the partially spent security and land transit cards together and not just tie in to Teesta but to all other rivers and the rest of our legitimate demands from India. To do that, our negotiators must read MD’s article to restrain their belief on Indian magnanimity. Muchkund Dubey described the attitude of “Indian political leaders, senior officials, business magnates and strategic thinkers towards Bangladesh” as “one of disdain and apathy.”

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

India-Afghanistan: strategic partnership or new threat to peace?

Daily Sun
October 9,2011
M. Serajul Islam

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just completed an official visit to India that is significant in more ways than one. During the visit, Afghanistan and India signed a “strategic partnership”, the first Afghanistan has signed with any country. Such agreements between countries are significant. This one is significant too but this one could also be ominous for peace in Afghanistan. It could pave the way for India and Pakistan to engage in the country in proxy conflicts.

At the signing ceremony, Hamid Karzai and Manmohon Singh spoke of high objectives of peace and development that they assured would result from the agreement. It may as well accrue out of the agreement or it may even bring just the opposite results. Two important players in Afghanistan that started the war on terror as partners themselves have different views on the Afghanistan-India partnership. In fact, the agreement could start the process of their parting of ways.

The US is committed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan and towards by 2014 and that withdrawal process has started. With withdrawal of US troops, the US led multilateral UN Security Council sponsored ISAF forces would also end their mission. As the end of US and ISAF missions in Afghanistan draws near, the country is hardly in state to make the US and UN confident that the war on terror would be won by the time they left Afghanistan.

In fact, the Taliban against whom the war was started for hosting Al Qaeda is far from being obliterated. Its resurgence has been acknowledged even by the United States itself that has encouraged the Karzai administration to engage in negotiations with the Taliban to isolate the moderates from the extremists and bring the former into the mainstream of the future political process in Afghanistan.

That process has apparently ended in failure. The recent assassination by the Taliban of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was leading the negotiations has led the National Security Adviser to Hamid Karzai to state in New Delhi that the process “was a bad joke.” Burhanuddin Rabbani was in New Delhi in July. The Indian Prime Minister said that India was greatly encouraged “by his vision” and that his death has increased the resolve of the two countries to jointly fight terrorism.

The end of Hamid Karzai Government’s efforts at US insistence to negotiate with Taliban is a loss for Pakistan because of the latter’s closeness with the Taliban. The strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India that has come in the wake of the apparent abandonment of engagement with the Taliban could signal the weakening of Pakistan’s position in Afghanistan that has considered the country as its backyard. What is worse for Pakistan is that it is losing out in Afghanistan to its nemesis India. The umbrella of the strategic partnership will now allow India that has already pledged US$ 2 billion to Afghanistan in aid since 2002 to assist Afghanistan in “capacity building” that will include areas of education and overall economic development. India would also train Afghan police and security forces but this was not mentioned by either leader at the press conference in New Delhi.

The Afghan-India strategic partnership could not have come at a worse time for Pakistan. In recent times, particularly following the death of Osama Ben Laden, Pakistan-USA relations have been declining very fast. Outgoing Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen threw some major salvos at Pakistan before handing charge. He accused Pakistan of “exporting” extremism to Afghanistan through proxies and called the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of the ISI. Although President Obama watered down the scathing views of Admiral Mullen , the latter’s remarks no doubt point to Pakistan-USA partnership in the war on terror hitting rock bottom.

The entry of India at this critical juncture in Afghanistan no doubt has the support of the United States that is desperate to see Afghanistan in some shape in security terms before it leaves, a desperation that had led it earlier to encourage Hamid Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban. By all accounts, the situation in Afghanistan is hardly encouraging. It is not just that the Taliban is far from being defeated; there are enough indications to suggest that it is in fairly good shape to challenge the Karzai Government once foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

Therefore, the strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan may not be good for the future of Afghanistan. It may not be good for India either. For Afghanistan, India’s entry will only change the course of the war on terror there. As long as the US and allied troops are there, the Taliban and other groups would be targeting these troops while trying to bring down the Karzai Government. Once the US and its allies leave, the target would change but not the war. The Indians would not be sending to Afghanistan any fighting troops yet although Manmohon Singh’s commitment “to stand by Afghanistan” once US and ISAF troops leave does not rule out that either. Meanwhile, their trainers and other experts who would be working there would become the new targets of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

Pakistan would feel more than justified to provide whatever support these groups need now that President Karzai has made the clear preference for India over Pakistan that India has accepted by moving into its backyard. His reference to Pakistan upon returning to Kabul from New Delhi that India is a fried while Pakistan is a “twin brother” has not been taken seriously by anyone, least of all Pakistan.
The Indians have not shown much common sense in deciding to extend to Afghanistan “strategic assistance” in addition to financial aid and other expertise because the temptation to fiddle with Pakistan was perhaps too much for it to check. In doing so, the Indians have forgotten to take a look at history. The British entered Afghanistan and came back totally defeated. The Soviets met the same fate. The US would not be leaving Afghanistan in 2014 as victors either.

In all these politics of external powers Afghanistan will become the ultimate victim as it has in the past. External politics, this time with Hamid Karzai as a willing accomplice, is preparing the stage for Afghanistan to become the theatre of proxy wars of two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan once the US and its allies leave. The possible engagement of Pakistan and India in proxy wars in Afghanistan could have ominous consequences on South Asia where peace is what is holding the region from emerging on the world scene with its full potentials.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan

Right of Information: Theory and reality

As I See It
The Independent
October 8, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Every morning, I pass by my own former place of employment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then the office of the Director-General of Education and the Bangladesh Secretariat. I see how serious all these three places are to keep their distance from the public. In fact, in recent times, the Bangladesh Secretariat has fortified its compound more so as to make access of the public even more difficult.

It is not just perceptions that I draw from what I see from the outside. My own experience in gathering information in the Froeign Ministry is a mixed one. From one senior officer, I received both cooperation and courtesy for information I sought and from another, neither. In fact, the latter was downright rude. He neither heard of RTI nor cared about it.

The observations are to put the RTI with which the Government is making some loud noises, in proper context. As the government, or more precisely, the National Information Commission, is projecting the RTI, one could be led to believe that a revolution in democracy has been achieved in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, like most developing countries that were colonies of western powers, has faced tremendous difficulties in transforming its government from its role in the colonial days as an oppressor of people’s rights to its upholder. RTI is the end of the process of that transformation with other elements such as right to vote freely and fairly, guarantee of all forms of freedom being those that have come earlier and achieved more easily.

RTI has been the most difficult to achieve because it challenges the government directly in governance. Under such issues as “official secrecy” and security, most former colonies in reality did not behave like their peoples’ tryst with colonial power was over. In fact, many governments started behaving like new colonial masters. India, considered as a role model in conversion from colony to democracy, is a case in point.

The constitution of India has guaranteed its people all rights no less than the advanced democracies when it was adopted after India became independent in 1947. Yet, it was only in the year 2002, that India adopted the Freedom of Information Act that never came into effective force because of complications. Separately, in the 1990s, the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sanghatana (MKSS) carried out a RTI movement seeking transparency in government’s action in the grass roots level in village accounts.

MKSS’ efforts were so successful that it inspired national level civil society activists and groups to seek a national RTI Act. In the late 1990s, the Congress became interested in the movement. Sonia Gandhi herself took interest and made it a part of Congress’ election promises. Upon replacing the BJP, the Congress led Government enacted the RTI Act in 2005.

In India, the RTI has been assisted by the strength of its parliamentary democracy and politics; strong and independent media; and independent courts not subjected to government or party influence. Above all, the RTI Act has been complemented by a mindset in India where even the members of the ruling party know that they are not above the law when caught in act of corruption or acting against the interest of the people.

The force of the RTI was brought to focus in India recently when it netted top government functionaries in a manner that had the Congress led Government in deep crisis. A document secured under RTI written by an officer of the Ministry of Finance suggested that P. Chidambaram as Finance Minister could have interfered to get the telecommunications Minister A Raja to cancel the 2G licenses that eventually became as the “2G spectrum scam” involving a loss of 22 billion British pounds, the biggest corruption case ever in Indian history for which A Raja could spend his life in jail.

Our RTI Act has all the potentials and possibilities of the Indian RTI but in theory only. No serious civil society movement went into the enactment of the Act. It has been Government sponsored. Although we have a press capable of supporting the RTI to become a strong force in our democracy; we do not have the quality of parliamentary politics and strength of the courts that India and other countries have where RTI has taken roots.

Under the RTI, all our Ministries are supposed to have a Public Information Officer modeled after India to whom the public can apply for information and documents. I have no idea if our Ministries have such an officer. If they have, the fortresses that our Ministries are, I am not so sure how they would access the officer to get their rights under the RTI. Quite often, we see the Information Commissioner, a former colleague; speak eloquently at seminars and talk shows. I am afraid he faces a humungous task for on his shoulders, the nation has placed the task that in India is being carried out with the support of its quality politics; its media; its courts; its active civil society and a mindset in government and politics that has changed to make space for citizen’s RTI.

In Bangladesh, it is the quality of our politics that imposes the most difficult challenge for a RTI Act ever to become an important element of establishing democracy in the country. Even if we have the PIO in every Ministry, it is absurd to even think that he would release any document to the public that could embarrass a Minister or anyone with links to the ruling party. The reader should spare a moment and consider his chances of seeking information or documents from the PMO concerning the actions of the Prime Minister and her officials that could be source of embarrassment or political trouble.

There are numerous ways in the hands of the bureaucracy if it wants to or existing conditions compel it, to avoid what has happened in Indian politics recently with the Home Minister P Chidambaram. It is politics and mindset that are the most important factors for RTI to be successful. In Bangladesh, politics and mindset that are the two important impediments to RTI are not likely to change, not at any time in the near future. What we are likely to get for the time being is information and document under RTI to hang opposition when they were in power and innocuous and benign information and documents related to the ruling party.

The civil society that in India has been the prime force for the successful RTI movement is divided in Bangladesh on party lines, almost completely. Hence, it too cannot help in establishing RTI. Therefore, the government sponsored RTI in Bangladesh will be little more than an exercise in theory until the quality of politics achieves a paradigm shift. Meanwhile, government offices will continue to find physical ways too to keep the public out.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

BGB- BSF talks: Deaths at border continue

October 7, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

During the recently concluded meeting of chiefs of BGB and BSF, there was disagreement on how many people were killed by the BSF on the Bangladesh-India border this year. The figure of 7 given by the Director-General of BSF has been contested by the leader of the Bangladesh side who put the number at 12. Odhikar, a human rights organization, put the number at 21 adding that the BSF has not yet abandoned its policy of “shoot at sight” that was assured by the Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

The deaths are a contentious issue in Bangladesh-India relations. So far, over a 1000 Bangladeshis have been killed in the last one decade; deaths that have been documented in reports by human rights organizations including the New York based Human Rights Watch. These reports show that the Bangladeshis were shot to kill simply, as a former Indian Foreign Secretary had said, for being in a wrong place at a wrong time.

Nirupoma Rao was right when she said on her official visit to Dhaka last year that our citizens who were killed should not have where they were shot. Except this one, she missed or ignored a host of other points for a correct perspective of an extremely serious problem. In fact, she distorted the problem. The major point she missed was that the Bangladeshis could have easily been apprehended and their lives spared. They were unarmed, not terrorists and killed from behind while running away.

There were other points she missed. She missed acknowledging that India has the border fenced by barbed wire where these deaths occur and thus impenetrable except through check posts for legal trade and legal human traffic. The Indian BSF controls the check posts. Nevertheless, illegal trade and human trafficking, or smuggling, worth over US$ 2-3 billion a year occurs between Bangladesh and India mainly through these gates and check points.

New York Times writing on the fencing not too long ago reported that an entire village in Bangladesh can cross the border by paying the right amount of money to the BSF. The same goes for illegal trade. In fact, well organized smuggling groups on the Indian side control the illegal trade and human trafficking where complicity of the BSF is self-evident. The depth and extent of collaboration of other government agencies is palpably evident from the case of phensedyl smuggling. Phensedyl has no market in the Indian state of Paschim Banga (PB). In Bangladesh, it is a widely used addictive drug. In PB close to Bangladesh-India border, with full knowledge of the Indian authorities, phensedyl factories have been set up so that their products can be smuggled to Bangladesh!

The case of cattle smuggling from India to Bangladesh is another example of deep complicity and/or knowledge of the Indian authorities in sustaining smuggling because of the sheer financial gains that is worth in billions of US $ . Secular India does not allow beef to be marketed locally except in Kolkata and Kerala. Nevertheless it looks the other way as cattle are bought as far away from Bangladesh-India border as Punjab to be smuggled to Bangladesh where it has a huge market.

The deaths of Bangladeshis and also Indians occur on the border mainly when deals through which such illegal trade is carried out, goes foul. The Bangladeshis who are used as human shields by the smugglers are then caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. When the deals are smooth on human trafficking, the Bangladeshis cross the border more smoothly than those who cross the border with valid visa. Likewise, when deals on goods are smooth, these are allowed to cross the border without any barrier where legal goods are subjected on the Indian side to all sorts of tariff and non-tariff barriers.

The saddest part of all these is that Indian actions on the border just not ends killing innocent Bangladeshis; it also results in victimizing the victim. We get a bad name internationally as the fence on our border by India gives the rest of the world the impression that Bangladeshis are migrating illegally to India in millions because of unbearable economic hardships. The Indians, when the BJP was in power, came up with an absurd number of 20 million Bangladeshis in India. They have never told us how they arrived at the absurd figure.

Instead, the BJP Government had threatened to “round up” these alleged Bangladeshis to force them across the border! India that is making claims of becoming a world power, must behave in a manner that goes with the status it seeks in world politics. It must provide Bangladesh with a list of the 20 million illegal Bangladeshis. In preparing the list, it must bear in mind that anyone speaking Bangla in other parts of India is not necessarily a Bangladeshi for there are 130 million people of PB whose mother tongue is Bangla too.

India must also keep in mind that its economic development notwithstanding, India is no USA or Canada for Bangladeshis to risk their lives, bribe the BSF and seek a livelihood in the slums of India. People of PB have more compelling reasons to do so for as a sovereign country, Bangladeshis can seek what they are accused of seeking in India, in the ME and other parts of the world where 7 million Bangladeshis have already migrated.

There are of course Bangladeshis in India illegally but the number of 20 million is absurd to be true. The Bangladeshis who land up in other parts of India are in fact victims of smuggling rackets on the Indian side of Bangladesh-India border. Many of them are promised jobs in the ME and land up in India and even in Pakistan where these human traffickers abandon them.

It is time for Bangladesh to flag to India the instances where its own governmental agencies are involved in acts that are illegal, affecting Bangladesh-India relations adversely and giving Bangladesh a bad name internationally. We are the victims; subjected to indiscriminate shootings leading to deaths; fenced; being cheated of revenue due to smuggling rackets who operate with full knowledge of the authorities and in case of the BSF, its patronage. Yet, we are projected by the Indian government and its media not as offenders!

Coming back to DG, BSF’s claim of 7 deaths, not even one is acceptable to Bangladesh for it is murder in cold blood and brings back the memories of the thousand innocent victims killed so far. The hypocrisy with the illegal trade of cattle should end and the trade should be made legal. Bangladesh is losing huge revenue to the Indian smugglers and their official patrons. The Indian Government should take immediate steps to destroy the smuggling network whose roots are on its side and sustained the BSF that is the cause of deaths of the innocent Bangladeshis for which the Government of India owes Bangladesh an official apology.

As the victim, Bangladesh should be vocal on what happens on the Bangladesh-India border not just at border related talks but at all other bilateral forums for we are allowing India to literally get away with murder.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Foreign Policy, research and pursuance of our national interests

Daily Sun
October 2, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I often wonder how our Government copes with the task of foreign policy formulation in the current international situation where the task of dealing with this subject is one of the most difficult for any government as a consequence of the breakdown of the bipolar world. In the Cold War period, foreign policy was either pro-US or pro-Soviet with little maneuvering ground or the need for it in between. Foreign policy issues for countries such as ours were either pro- America or pro- Soviet.

Since the end of the bipolar world, the need for permutation and combination in foreign policy issues have become so complex that for determining national interest, any foreign policy topic has to be researched and analyzed before a policy can be reached. In most countries, in fact in all except our own, it is the Foreign Ministry that leads in formulation of foreign policy out of a myriad of complex issues so that the best interest of the country is served. In the Foreign Ministry of these countries, research is a very important and integral part of its work, so as to arm the policy makers with all the options so that the best policy can be formulated.

To cope with the increasing complexity of foreign policy formulation, the Foreign Ministry in most countries uses think tanks and research institutions because alone it cannot cope up with the work load. In my own experience in Tokyo, I have seen the Japanese Foreign Ministry work closely with the think tanks in its effort to arrive at the best policy on respective foreign policy issues.

In our Foreign Ministry, we are almost totally oblivious to the need of research in pursuit of our foreign policy. In the 1960s, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry had recruited Dr. GW Chowdhury as the Director-General of Research in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a time when his renown as a scholar was internationally acclaimed. In fact, he went on from the post to become a Federal Minister in the Government of Pakistan.

In our Foreign Ministry, an apology of an attempt was made in the late 1970s to follow the tradition that Pakistan had set in recruiting a scholar for research. The attempt was made at the level of a Director than ended in a fruitless exercise. I guess there is a post of a Director for Research still in the organogram of our Foreign Ministry in which no one is interested as it has never been filled up. At least, I am not aware if it has ever been occupied.

We thus have a Foreign Ministry that does not feel the need of research in pursuit of its work in matters of foreign policy formulation. It is incredible that it does not because even the thought that a country can formulate foreign policy without research is in itself irrational. In theory, the Foreign Ministry funds two think tanks or call them research institutes in you want but I am not sure if the former makes any use of either.

The two institutes are the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) and the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA). The Ministry funds the former with the Ministry of Defense and the latter with the Ministry of Law. In BIISS, the tradition has been to have one of the two key posts of Chairman and the Director-General from MOFA. As a mark of the Ministry lack of inclination for research, both posts at BIISS today are held by members of the armed forces.

In the days after independence, BILIA was an institute of international repute. In fact the institution had a key role to play in the development of laws related to crimes against humanity. At a time when the country is united on the need to try those who committed crimes against humanity in 1971, BILIA could have played a major supporting role that it has failed to do. The Foreign Ministry that has long ago ceased taking active interest in BILLIA has thus failed to contribute to policy formulation on an issue of great importance to the nation because of its strange lack of interest in issues of research and research institutions.

The Ministry has also failed to use BIISS as a research institution that was palpably visible in its role or the lack of it in connection with the Government’s efforts to improve relations with India. In the nearly two years between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India and the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, BIISS could have been used significantly in research and enhancing public awareness, two areas where our side fell well short that caught us unprepared to negotiate with India to secure our national interest.

Meanwhile, significant developments are taking place in our region. Chinese Prime Minister has recently visited New Delhi, following President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron and President Sarkozy, underlying India’s emergence as a world power. Despite Wen Jiabao’s efforts to win Indian friendship, the two sides are locking horns in the region and abroad. The two countries that together make up 40% of world’s population are fighting hard for oil that is becoming increasingly worse with China ahead in the race.

We seem unaware and unconcerned about these developments that are crucial for our foreign policy formulation as we are strategically located for both. After decades of developing excellent relations with China, we have shown our preference for India in our aborted attempt to make a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. As a sovereign country, it is our right to pursue our interests with any country we decide. Nevertheless, we could have handled the options in a better way if our foreign policy makers had the benefit of research or awareness for the need of it.

The Foreign Ministry, unfortunately, is not really in charge fully of either formulation of foreign policy or its implementation. Hence it would be unfair to put the blame on MOFA for its lack of interest in research. In fact, its primary responsibility to conduct our bilateral relations with India for instance has been taken away from it and placed with the Prime Minister’s Advisers. This is a main reason why Bangladesh has faltered in achieving its interests in the disappointing initiatives in Bangladesh-India relations. There were gaping flaws in research on the issues our side negotiated.

It is therefore an urgent need to place foreign policy formulation and implementation in charge of MOFA. The latter in turn must put the utmost emphasis on research in foreign policy formulation and to that end, build its research division and give it as much importance as it gives to its other divisions. In acknowledgement of the fact that even after a fully fledged research division in created in MOFA there would be additional need of research, the potentials of both BISSS and BILIA should be fully exploited to the fullest extent.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

On belief in divinity

As I See It
The Independent
October 1, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

As a young Lecturer of Dhaka University, I went to Bhola when the island was struck by one of the worst natural disasters in history as a member of a relief team of DU teachers. The tidal wave and storm that struck the southern coast of then East Pakistan on November 11, 1970, killed nearly half a million people.

In one week we stayed in the island, we visited hundreds of households. Those days, every household in rural Bangladesh housed joint families and the average number of people in each household was in dozens. There was not one household that we visited that did not lose many lives to the disaster. Yet there was no wailing among those who lived to mourn. They accepted the deaths as a will of Allah with patience.

Those were also the days when many of our friends in Dhaka University and students in the other educational institutions were motivated by the lures of communism. They took pride in decrying religion and believed in Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the masses and an instrument of oppression of the ruling class.

My tryst with the disaster victims in Bhola left me convinced that it is religion that is our savior, then and now. Those that the disaster spared in Bhola in November, 1970, could stand up and face their personal tragedy because of their belief in the divine power. Their faith in religion helped them keep the tragedy aside and move ahead with their lives.

In later years, when I saw people in poverty and there have always been tens of millions of them, I understood the value of religion in a poor, impoverished country like ours. It is religion that keeps people from going crazy and accepting their fate as a will of Allah. It is religion that tells them that in the life hereafter, their sufferings will be compensated. In my younger days, I remember arguing with my friends about the importance of religion in our lives though I was then by no means religious.

I have not grown any more religious over the years but my faith in religion has grown stronger. I think often that if there is no divine power, how then is Bangladesh surviving? A look at our governance shows a Prime Minister ruling with a well acknowledged weak council of ministers; a weak and highly politicized bureaucracy; a non-functioning parliament and a politics where ruling party and the opposition are at each other’s throats. Without a diving power looking at us, there is no reason for our country to move forward. Yet it is and in economic indicators of growth, doing very well!

Our population has doubled since we became independent and growing. The density is so high that it is incredible how so many people are living in so little space. It is perhaps the only country in the world where rivers are being filled to make space for habitation and business! In filling up rivers, it is not just a section of greedy people in the game; even government’s civil and military establishments have been exposed in the act.

With such being the state of affairs, a section amongst us are pushing hard to make Bangladesh secular. A few are asking Jamat be banned. Those pushing for secular Bangladesh are not taking into consideration the fact that it made little difference when we had secularism as a state principle in our constitution from 1972-1975 and it was deleted from the constitution from 1975 till being restored again recently . It did not matter either way to the people who behaved as Bangladeshis always have; with the minimum of communal bias. In fact, in history of South Asia, where all parts have suffered communal tensions and continue to do so, we in what constitutes Bangladesh have seen the minimum of communal violence.

As for those seeking to ban Jamat, they are making a major mistake. If we believe that democracy is consensus politics, then one issue upon which we have a consensus is rejecting Jamat because it uses religion as a political weapon. One should see Jamat’s electoral performance for proof of our rejection of Jamat. This notwithstanding, banning Jamat will hurt many people, most of whom are not literate. They may feel that Jamat has been banned because it projects Islam on which majority of the Muslims of this country has unflinching faith. Of course, for Jamat, banning it will give it the cause to do the type of politics that those trying to ban Jamat are suggesting; spread religious fundamentalism and extremism in the country.

All these bring me to the point I want to make. Faith in the Almighty in our lives is not a bad thing. For one, it is what keeps the mental balance in those who otherwise may not be able to keep that balance because of poverty; vicissitudes of life and other injustices. The number of such people in Bangladesh is huge. The other point is except the truly agnostics, everyone else in Bangladesh believes in divinity in one form or another.

Many of us who are not atheist or agnostic were given another chance to have a hard look at divinity. The two minutes that shook Dhaka and rest of the country has reminded us that if Allah or God or call Him by any other name had not been there, Dhaka would have been history had the earthquake of a few days ago hit a few hundred km south from its epicenter.

More importantly, now that we know that Dhaka could be that epicenter any day, we have no chance to save Dhaka. The greed and lack of vision of our elites have placed Dhaka on an irreversible course to an impending disaster. Either we have to bring down 40% of our high rises and build them again, which is not possible, or just pray to the Almighty and hope He is there to save us from the disaster.

Thus there are many reasons that should encourage us not to take chance with the divine power. Most important of all is a fact that goes by unacknowledged. It is religion that has served us well and it is politics that has not. Except at the hands of the Pakistanis in 1971, religion has complemented politics and never threatened it in our history. Its potential has not been fully exploited; in fact misrepresented by a section. It is time we use the force of religion to build a better society that can help us build a better country.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.