Sunday, December 9, 2012

Egypt’s Arab Spring: Is democracy flowers flowering or dictatorship returning?

Daily Sun
December 9, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

Mohammad Morsi, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political party representing the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected President in July amidst threat from the military to clip his powers even before he was elected. Earlier, the judges, all elected by the ousted Mubarak regime had declared the democratically elected parliament in which the FJP dominated  Democratic Alliance of Egypt had won 235 seats and an Islamic bloc consisting of the fundamentalist Salafists and others won 123 seats out of 508 in the lower house ,  annulled on technicality. The military and the judges left little doubt in anyone’s mind that they were acting hand in glove to keep the Islamic parties led by the FJP from establishing themselves in Egypt’s post Arab Spring politics without shedding considerable powers to the military; to the judges and to the secular forces where these forces are unable to gain these powers through the democratic process. 

The FJP acted patiently.  Mohammed Morsi and his party did not raise any objection when the court annulled the parliament on technicality. They also remained quiet when the military through a decree clipped the powers of the President just before the final round of the presidential election. The FJP’s silence was a strategic decision; it did not want to give the military an excuse to deny its candidate the chance of winning the election in which the military had its own candidate in General Shefik who was supported by the secular forces of the country where the election was going to the wire. 

Once Morsi was declared elected; he quickly reinstated the parliament that was annulled by the judges. He waited for a while to reverse the decree by which the military had severely clipped the powers of the president and had given themselves wide ranging powers, even to the extent of throwing out the new constitution to be drafted by the committee of the democratically elected parliament. The media called these moves by the military as a “subtle military coup” or a “counter revolution”. Mohamed Morsi’s first move was to remove the popular head of intelligence after the Gaza incident of August in which 18 Egyptian soldiers were killed by a terrorist attack, a General who had the confidence of the US and the Israelis. 

He then moved on the powerful Field Marshal Tantawi who had been included in the civilian cabinet  of  Prime Minister Hesham Qandil  (who is not a member of MB) as the Defense Minister with the Army Chief of Staff General  Sami Anan and a few other top Generals. By these actions, Mohammad Morsi was able to undo a lot of the apprehensions in the minds of many that the Generals would not give up power that easily. Clearly, the FJP proved its worth in playing the cat and mouse game with the military to win back the gains of the democratic revolution in Egypt whose main focus was to end absolute dictatorship in the country and wrest political power from the military and the dreaded intelligence and police forces. 

In the process though, President Morsi pulled out a surprise of his own to match those that the military, in clipping the president’s power with a decree and giving it near absolute power against the elected government, and the judges, by annulling the elected parliament, had delivered earlier. On November 22, just days after his government brokered the cease fire between the Hamas and Israel, the President issued a decree by which he assumed extensive powers that allowed his actions and decisions immunity from the Court. The decree was passed so quietly and suddenly that even the US Secretary of State who was in Cairo two days before the decree was announced, had no clue that it was coming. Washington was taken by surprise. 

The military and the judges were equally surprised, although at this stage, the military is taking the back stage allowing the judges to lead the fight against the decree. The secular forces of Egypt and the nearly 10% Egyptian Christians are giving support to the judges against the decree and the draft constitution. Following rallies in Tahrir Square and disturbances in many parts of the country, the President explained that the powers that he gave himself were temporary and were meant to allow the Constitution to be enacted without the interference of the Courts. Meanwhile, the Committee entrusted to draft the Constitution approved the draft the draft constitution in the absence of the secular political parties that walked out. The draft was hurried through in parliament to stop the Court from declaring the Committee illegal. The new Constitution would now be placed before the people in a referendum on December 15th that again the Judges refused to supervise. 

Egypt thus stands at a cross road. The democratic forces have come a long way. Egypt has had parliamentary and presidential elections that were free and fair. Undemocratic forces led by the military and judges nominated to their positions by the discredited and autocratic regime of President Mubarak have made major efforts against empowering the elected representatives but their efforts have been thwarted so far by the elected government. The only problem in identifying the current actions in the country against the elected government as actions against democracy is the fact that the secular forces have joined hands with the military and the judges; the very secular forces that had ushered in the “Arab Spring” by promising to overthrow the military’s stranglehold on power. The secular forces have again rallied in Tahrir Square against the latest decree of the President as well as the decision of the government to take the constitution for referendum ..


The movement by the secularist forces against the elected government of Mohammad Morsi has created the impression that Egypt’s tryst with democracy has hit a major snag. These forces have even indentified Mohammad Morsi as “the new Pharaoh.” It would perhaps be unfair to be drawn to such an unfair criticism. The government can be faulted for issuing the presidential decree as well hurrying through with the Constitution. Nevertheless, it must also be said that the President has tried to reach out to the military and the judges in the spirit of democracy to explain his actions, especially on the decree that he has said categorically would be temporary till the country has a new Constitution and firmly on road to democracy and would be restricted to “sovereign institutions.”. In the new Egypt, the term of the President would be restricted to two terms of 4 years each, thus ruling out another Hosne Mubarak emerging in Egypt’s politics. 

Further, the secular forces of Egypt fought those in power in free and fair elections but their opponents won by a big majority going by the result of the parliamentary elections. President Morsi himself won with 51.7% of the votes; again in an election that was free and fair. The government’s clear majority in governance notwithstanding, it has not closed the door to discussion. Hence the new forces ruling Egypt cannot be faulted of showing the type of mindset that was shown by the regime of Hosne Mubarak and his military/intelligence/and police. Egypt is 90% Muslim and the majority favour Islam in their public lives or else they would not have voted for the FJP and the other Islamic parties. Further, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt has undergone fundamental changes. Although they would favour Islam in public life, they know that majority of Egyptians would stand up against turning Egypt into an Islamic fundamentalist country. Therefore, there is no serious danger that the new leaders of democratic Egypt would impose on the country the type of Islam that would be unacceptable to the secular spirit of majority of the Egyptians.   

Egypt is going through the birth pangs of democracy. It will take time for democracy to take root keeping in mind that the country has seen little else but absolute dictatorship as long as Egyptians can remember. The political forces will continue to differ with one another; even fight in the streets; demonstrate, get together in Tahrir Square every now and then.  What has changed in Egypt is that when people demonstrate, they can do so without fear of the tanks fighting them, intelligence and police chasing them into their homes and taking many of them away never to be heard of again. Egypt has changed fundamentally towards democracy and the forces vying for political power know too well that they have to fight and win political power democratically and most importantly, share that power.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and a retired Secretary



Inder Kumar Gujral: a visionary leader departs

The Independent,
December, 8, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

I remember vividly when Inder Kumar Gujral had visited Dhaka to attend the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh Business Summit in Dhaka in January 81997. The Sumit was the initiative of Sheikh Hasina who as Prime Minister believed, and correctly so, that the best way to improve relationship among the nations of South Asia was to encourage business and economic relationship among the countries of the region. That was a bold initiative and in a way a departure from SAARC that had failed to make a major impact as a regional organization.

IK Gujral responded to the idea of the Bangladesh Prime Minister spontaneously. Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was also equally enthusiastic to the initiative. Nevertheless, as we sat in negotiations in the Sonargoan Hotel, the venue of the Summit, we got nowhere for at the level of the bureaucrats, there was practically no interest to the enthusiasm of their leaders to the Summit. The Indian and the Pakistani delegations sat for 2 days and still could not agree on a draft declaration. The issue upon which they spent most of the time was whether in the Dhaka Declaration, peace should precede development or the other way round.   

By 7pm on the concluding day of the Summit, India and Pakistan delegations would not concede from their entrenched positions. In frustration, the Bangladesh delegation that was chairing the drafting committee as the host ended the meeting  and reported to  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that as Pakistan and India would not relent from their entrenched positions, the committee was unable to present an agreed draft Dhaka Declaration to the Summiteers. By then the delegations were all packed to depart and in fact, the aircrafts of the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers were ready to take off. 

Sheikh Hasina went to IK Gujral at first and explained to him the position taken by his delegation. Instantly, the Indian Prime Minister called the Indian delegation and instructed the leader that he wanted the Dhaka Declaration ready within the hour! The Pakistan Prime Minister also acted likewise.  We hurriedly went back to the drafting room and had the Dhaka Declaration ready within minutes. The Dhaka Declaration was signed. It was an initiative of Sheikh Hasina that had great potentials but it did not go anywhere because shortly after his visit to Dhaka, IK Gujral lost his position as the Indian Prime Minister. 

IK Gujral unfortunately was not the leader of either the Congress or the BJP when he was the Prime Minister. He had left the Congress in 1980 to join the Janata Dal. He came to power after the Congress withdrew its support to the Janata led United Front coalition government headed by Deve Gowde. As a consequence he was often referred to as the “accidental” Prime Minister.  Nevertheless, in the 11 months he remained in office, from May 1996 to April, 1997, he showed the vision of leading an India with close and friendly relations with all its neighbours. His emphasis was on developing friendly relations with India’s arch rival, Pakistan but he looked upon India’s relations with its smaller nations with equal, if not more importance. 

IK Gujral  developed what was named after him as the “Gujral Doctrine” as a guideline for India in dealing with its smaller neighbours that did not pose any security threat to it. He developed the Doctrine while serving as the Minister for External Affairs in the Janata Government of Deve Gowde.  (IK Gujral was earlier the Minister of External Affairs in the Janata Government headed by VP Singh). The Doctrine applied to India’s neighbours Bangladesh, Nepal; Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives and quite logically excluded Pakistan. The five principles of the Gujral Doctrine were, first, India would deal with the South Asian neighbour minus Pakistan on good faith and trust and provide them their legitimate rights without demanding reciprocity. Second, these neighbours would not allow their territories to be used against the interest of another country. Third, none of these South Asian countries would interfere in one another’s internal affairs. Fourth, the neighbours would respect one another’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Finally, the South Asian neighbours would resolve their conflicts trough consultations and negotiations. 

Unfortunately, the Gujral Doctrine remained a doctrine on paper and did not see the light of day. There were serious critics of the Doctrine, particularly among the bureaucrats and the intelligence who thought that by the Doctrine, India would be surrendering intelligence assets to neighbours without assurance that they would not use such intelligence against India. Following the terrorist attacks on India since 2000, culminating in the 24/11 or the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008, the IK Gujral came under fire in the media. India Today in a report mentioned that these attacks could be launched because of “capability that IK Gujral dismantled as Prime Minister” as a consequence of his vision of developing friendly relations with India’s neighbours.  In fact, the Gujral Doctrine was a non-starter and reflected the intellectual intent of its author against the reality of Indian politics and mindset of Indian politicians and bureaucrats entrusted with responsibility of dealing with its neighbours. This notwithstanding,  IK Gujral that did India a major favour as Prime Minister by his resistance to sign the CTBT that allowed his successor to conduct the Pokhran nuclear tests without a hitch. 

IK Gujral was born in Jhelum, Pakistan in 1919. He had his education in Lahore, in Hailey College of Commerce. He participated in the independence movement and was jailed. As a student, he was a member of the Communist Party of India and although later in his political life, he switched parties a few times, he always favoured the politics of the left. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Congress and played a significant role with others in the inner coterie that helped Indira Gandhi become the Prime Minister of India. He became her Minister of Information at a critical period when her government had imposed press censorship. He was removed from the Ministry in the wake of rumours that he was unwilling to bend to the demands of Sanjay Gandhi that helped establish his impeccable credentials as a politician of integrity. He was appointed as India’s Ambassador to USSR by the Government of Indira Gandhi but was kept in his post by the successive Janata Governments of Moraji Desai and Charan Singh. He proved to be a very successful Ambassador. 

In 1998, IK Gujral left Janata Dal but was elected to the Lok Sabha one last time as an independent. His political career, if it had not been backed by his intellectual abilities, his integrity and statesman like qualities that were well acknowledged, would have hinted at a wavering politician not certain about the party he needed to join to carry forward his ideas and beliefs. In reality though, IK Gujral was a misfit in Indian politics. The attacks on IK Gujral in the media and in the intelligence circles  has been unfortunate because one serious criticisms about India as it becomes a major player in world politics is its failure to deal with its smaller neighbours fairly and with a big heart. The Gujral Doctrine had given India the opportunity to establish on the world stage that it is not a petty minded power; an opportunity that it missed. IK Gujral’s death would be worthwhile only if the present political leadership of India cares to take a dispassionate look again at the Gujral Doctrine that has been and still is potentially an excellent doctrine for peace, security and development of South Asia, excluding Pakistan for the time being. 

The writer is a former career Ambassador


Nischintpur: Wake up call for the government and leaders of the RMG sector

Holiday, December 7, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The country watched the Nischintpur/Tazreen garments factory tragedy unfold before their eyes on the small screen at home. The government did some politics after failing in its arson/conspiracy theory and paying the relatives of the dead financial grants to try and keep things in control. It declared a day of mourning. There was a surreal ring to all these efforts. One felt that fairness and justice are dead in this country, at least for the poor and the unfortunate workers in the factories  whose lives are worth just a price and that too as meager as the pay they receive . Many TV stations allowed in their talk show programmes the opportunity to the owners of the garments factory led by present and past officials of BGMEA to explain the tragedy. Although they regretted the deaths, the RMG owners used their appearances before the media to inform the public that the RMG factories are models of compliance comparable to such factories anywhere and even better and that the owner of Tazreen should not be held responsible for what was an accident after all!

A former BGMEA top official explained that the Tazreen was one such model factory. He told viewers that where compliance required two staircases to be built in each floor of a factory the size of Tazreen; it had an extra third staircase. He however failed to tell viewers one gruesome fact about the three staircases; that it led to the godown in the ground floor and not to the exit! The workers used the 3 staircases to walk to the godown where the fire started due to a transformer that burst where there was to be no transformer under compliance that turned the entire ground floor into an inferno as a result of the materials in the godown that blocked the exit and roasted them alive. The stairs also became funnels that took the fire up the stairs like a chimney and roasted many more workers in the upper floors. There was no way for these workers to walk out because the “compliance perfect” Tazreen had failed to build a wall to create a passage from the stairs to the   exit.                                                                                                                 

The other facts that came out of the tragedy also point to gross negligence on part of those whose duty it was to ensure the factory was compliant. It was built on what was once agricultural land. The road constructed to the factory was an apology of one. It was a major obstruction for the fire service trucks and personnel from reaching the factory after the fire started and fire fighting department was called.  These are serious flaws in compliance that BGMEA officials tried to explain off. Then there were of course the human failings that are of criminal nature. When the fire alarms were sounded, supervisors of Tazreen threatened workers from walking off from their work telling them that there was no fire on the premise. The most serious unexplained part of the human factor of the tragedy was that the workers of Tazreen were locked inside a steel gate at each floor even after the fire went out of control! No supervisor cared to unlock the gates leaving workers to break windows to come out. Those who succeeded lived; those who did not, died. 

Western Ambassadors in Dhaka have been raising their voices about the dangerous conditions in the garment industry in recent times. The US Ambassador who feels and rightly so that the industry has great potentials and already the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy  has also expressed that there are dark clouds in the horizon that must be addressed that the government and the garment factory owners are sadly side-stepping . In an article in Wall Street Journal, a lot of the fears of the western Ambassadors have been reflected while reporting on the Nischintpur tragedy. Appropriately titled “Why Dhaka Keeps Burning: A case study in how favoritism in one industry-garments- hurts everyone else”   the writer Joseph Sternberg has flagged what is wrong with the industry. The writer stated that single minded pursuit of the RMG sector in Bangladesh  has led to a situation where this sector with US$ 19 billion in exports, accounts for 80% of the country’s exports and 17% of the country’s total economic output. Yet curiously what no one seems to talk about or write upon is the fact that the country has no natural advantage in this sector except cheap labour!


Joseph Sternberg explained that such single minded devotion to one industry that is otherwise succeeding is understandable. What is neither understandable nor explainable by economic theory is the fact that after “concerted push into textiles for nearly three decades, the effort has not led to the sequential flowering of other industries, as economic theory would predict.” He blamed lack of government’s vision and over-favoritism to the RMG sector for the failure of the “sequential flowering of other sectors” like it has happened in all other countries that started off their economic journey on the back of a single sector though it must be added that in case of Bangladesh, it continued to favour its one product based economic success in a sector in which it has no natural advantage.    The writer also blamed a nexus between the government and the leaders of the RMG sector for the failure of the “sequential flowering”. Joseph Sternberg felt that low wages and poor working conditions  are deliberate, the product of special labour laws for the RMG sector that ban unionization and regulate pay to keep wages depressed in the name of competitiveness. The writer concluded that these are the why “Dhaka keeps burning”.


The government and the garments owner have been elated in recent times about the flight of RMG business from China to Bangladesh because of abundance of cheap labour in Bangladesh against rising labour costs in this sector in China. The transformation of the Chinese economy no longer requires the country and its businessmen to pay the sort of emphasis on the garments industry as they did when like the Bangladesh economy; the garments industry played a major role in the country’s economy. With labour costs escalating, the Chinese RMG products have been losing its competitiveness. The government and the business sector have been seeing this coming. China has diversified its economy and there has been “sequential flowering of other sectors”.  Therefore while the flight of RMG business from China to Bangladesh has benefitted Bangladesh, Chinese economy has not been affected by the move because in the diversification that it has achieved, RMG sector is not a major factor in the Chinese economy anymore.


Therefore if people in Government and business are seriously thinking of Bangladesh’s economic future, there is no reason for seeing the flight of RMG business from China to Bangladesh as a boon for the country unless they take corrective measures with vision. Bangladesh’s main claim to becoming a leading RMG producing nation is the cheap labour. This is not going to last; in fact this is too good to last unless the government and business look upon this issue seriously. The US$ 45 a month payment the RMG workers receive today at their point of entry is unbelievable.  While acknowledging the compulsions of the RMG owner about raising wages higher and still remaining competitive, they should ask whether an industry that pays such low wage can survive in the long run. Those outside the RMG industry at home and particularly abroad would refer to such low wages and the other conditions in which the workers work and live as a case of slave labour.  

Bangladesh entrepreneurs in the RMG sector have done a lot to be proud. They have given Bangladesh’s economy its biggest boost.  Some of these entrepreneurs are extraordinary leaders of the industry. But the country has over 5000 such factories employing nearly 3 million workers and has been a basic factor in women empowerment in the country.  If one accounted for the subsidiary industries such as packaging, etc that have grown because of the success of the RMG sector, the employment figure would be over 4 million. The mix of these extraordinary leaders who are by far few and the majority who are not is unfortunately a very bad one. By any account, Tazreen owners are guilty of faults for which they must pay under the law of the country. Equally, all the faults that have come to light about Tazreen are major ones against BGMEA’s tall claims of compliance. These must be investigated. Not only must the owners of Tazreen be booked; those whose duty it was to oversee compliance must also be brought under the purview of the law. 

There are many more Tazreens and despite the claims of the BGMEA, compliance for the majority of the RMG factories is mainly on paper for a large number of garment factories.  By the count of those who qualify and extraordinary entrepreneurs in the RMG sector, overwhelming majority of the 5000 RMG factories are sick industries who survive but barely and cut the corners that brings the sector bad name. In a corrupt country like Bangladesh, BGMEA officials should think twice before making the claims that they have made after the Nischintpur tragedy. In fact, they are the ones who should be held guilty for misleading the country than the media that they have accused. They should consider what these sick factories are doing for their lies the seeds of the destruction of the successful RMG sector of Bangladesh.  

Tazreen should be a watershed on a few major counts. First, it should alert the government that the wage structure in the sector is unbelievable and cannot be sustained even in the short run. There are no conspiracy theories in the sector about which the BGMEA and the government tell us every time there are disturbances in the sector. These disturbances are legitimate outpouring of the frustrations of those whose sweat makes few of our compatriots very rich. Second, the government planners should read the WSJ article and take lessons as it should from China. The mainly one track pursuit of the RMG sector can only bring disaster for the future of the country. Diversification is the key and the country should not gloat that RMG business is fleeing from China  to Bangladesh. It may not be business that is coming to Bangladesh; it could be death and destruction unless we see the writings on the wall to which the western Ambassadors are pointing and on which the WSJ and other newspapers are writing. 

Bangladesh, a resource poor country, can achieve the close to 10% growth rate required to become a middle income country and sustain it primarily through external assistance in the form of FDI.  The poor image of the country is unfortunately a major obstacle for such a flow of FDI. To the many factors that have contributed to the poor image of the country abroad, Nischintpur has added one more. It received breaking news coverage  of the TV all over the world where the sad conditions of workers, their poor wages and the other paraphernalia did not do Bangladesh’s poor image any good at all. It simply added fuel to the fire. With the Hatir Jheel project about to be completed shortly, BGMEA’s many storied building will stand right at the middle of it as a reminder of illegality. Unfortunately the BGMEA leaders did not add to their credibility in handing the Nischintpur tragedy as much as Nischintpur did not add to the image of the country. People would be asking as long as this building stands whether the leaders of the garments sector can be trusted in leading the economic sector of the country and whether or not they are taking the country for a ride to which the government is contributing and assisting.

As far as the government is concerned, 112 people dead is a very small matter. That they came from the poor and the disadvantaged section of the society will help the government forget the tragedy quicker. Further, the ability to correct the situation may also no longer be easy now because the corrective measures should have been taken long ago. The RMG sector is moving to the edge of the precipice.  Nevertheless, no one should be misled by the ironic name of the location of Tazreen; there is no scope of being unconcerned or “nischinto” anymore. Nischintpur is a wakeup call for the government and the brilliant entrepreneurs of the RMG sector to work together and correct the grave ills in the sector to avoid the nightmarish consequences that are in the offing.   

The writer is a retired Ambassador.




Bangladesh Test cricket: So near yet so far

Daily Sun
December 2, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Bangladeshi cricket commentator felt he was over the moon when Bangladesh got the last 4 wickets of West Indies cheaply on the 5th morning of the Dhaka Test and had 245 runs to score in 79 overs. Most people thought that was well within the reach of the Bangladesh team as did this commentator. In fact the West Indian commentator Geoffrey Dujon called it a “cake walk”. That “cake walk” became Bangladesh’s 64th loss in 74 Tests it played till the conclusion of the Dhaka Test. It added another defeat in Khulna. What’s wrong with Bangladesh Test cricket? Should a Team with such a dismal record be playing Tests? 

The shameful Test record notwithstanding, Bangladesh has come a long way in Test cricket. There are talents that could be molded into a winning team. A few individual players have class. It is their mindset of the players that must be altered. There are shortcomings in the Team. It does not have Test class fast bowlers and its bowling lacks variety and penetration. Nevertheless, the biggest problem that the Team has is in guiding a group of talented but young players who lack maturity and professional approach. Those in charge of managing the Bangladesh Team have failed it badly. Cricket is big time sports in Bangladesh where the flow of money is huge. Yet the Team is now playing without a regular Coach! In cricket these days, a team without a coach is literally like a ship in the ocean without anyone at the helm. Mushfiqur Rahman, despite his abilities, is immature to lead alone a team that needs iron fisted leadership. 

Cricket is a game   of “glorious uncertainties.” Hence what Bangladesh did in its final innings in Dhaka Test is not unusual. It squandered a game that it should have won easily. Unfortunately for Bangladesh, winning a Test match is something unusual.  Hence the fact that it squandered a Test that it should have won has not just disappointed the  nation. In Khulna, the West Indians scored 648/9 declared and took a 261 runs lead but batted for a long time to give Bangladesh the opportunity to play for a draw. The wicket was placid and there were just 5 sessions of the game left. With a win out of the equation, any other Test team would have played for a draw. Instead the Bangladesh Team batted as if they were chasing a victory target!  A lot has been said of Sakib al Hasan’s 97 on the 4th afternoon in the Khulna Test. Yet for the shot he played and the way he played, he should be reprimanded because with his talents, he could have given Bangladesh a genuine chance of a draw. 

In Dhaka too, the Team played in the same thoughtless manner. Bangladesh Team and its supporters, the sports scribes included, went like the commentator over the moon when the Team scored its highest Test innings of 556. Yet there was something unusual about it that those who praised overlooked. The team faced   a huge total of 527/4 declared but started its innings as if it was playing a limited overs game. In fact, the Team played for most part of the first innings like a 20/20 game. It is true that Tamim Iqbal played a scintillating innings but he could have been out anytime in that innings and it is partly luck that took him to 72. Eventually he was out to a horrendous shot played only in a 20/20 game. On the way he helped Bangladesh reach 100 with a scoring rate of over 7!  All other batsmen scored runs, a rare event for Bangladesh. Yet all of them played like Tamim Iqbal and were out to strokes played only in 20/20. It was  a matter of good luck, placid wicket and no doubt the talent of the batsmen that the Team scored the 556 runs. Ironically, had they scored those runs like Test runs are scored, they would have stayed longer in the crease and ensured an easy draw. 

Recently batting legend Geoffrey Boycott said in an interview that a Test batsman has no business playing risky shots when he walks to the crease. In his book, a Test batsman must spend at least 20-30 minutes upon coming to the crease getting his eyes set. This is a cardinal principle of Test batting. If Boycott was to be the coach of the Bangladesh Team, Tamim would be in the Team only if he stopped playing Test cricket in the 20/20 mould. One could argue against this by pointing to the player’s success with the type of game he plays. Nevertheless the point to consider is the possibility that Tamim could be a much better batsman if he just adapted his batting to the different types of the game.  Tamim’s approach is contagious. No batsman except Naim in his century innings in Dhaka batted the way Boycott would subscribe. Shahreer Nafees in the four innings he played was more a caricature than a batsman. There was no reason why he should be playing Test cricket. 

The point that Bangladesh Test Team does not have a Coach was driven home in the final innings of the Dhaka Test and also in the second Test in Khulna. A good Coach would have told the team to play with confidence their natural game and just keep out playing the rash and atrocious shots. Instead as the West Indian skipper said in a post match interview after the Dhaka Test, the Team was caught in no-man’s land with their natural 20/20 mindset and the need to be cautious. The Team started over cautiously that gave his bowlers the chance to put the Bangladesh team on the defensive. He also said that had the Team got to anywhere near the start they had in the first innings, the game would have been won by Bangladesh easily. Strangely, in their over cautious approach to the second innings, they did not fail to play the 20/20 shots to get out! Clearly, the batsmen have no control over their minds!

A good Coach would have also asked the team to put down its shutters in Dhaka Test once the Team did not get off to a flying start and lost a flurry of wickets in the afternoon session. All Test playing countries do so. Instead, Captain Mushfique led from the front with the risky shots and showed no inclination of trying to save the game. The way he was out in second innings of Khulna Test with defeat staring in the face and a draw quite a possibility should have brought censure against him.  Although other batsmen tried to defend in Dhaka, they too played enough 20/2o shots that they should have kept in the cold storage flagging clearly that they were not given any clear guidance by Team’s think tank. In Khulna, after being behind by 261 runs on first innings and with 5 sessions to go on a batting wicket, the only option left to the Bangladesh Team was to play for a draw. Yet they again played to win (!!) when the thought of  a win was a fantasy and lost by 10 wickets.

 Bangladesh’s Test cricket misfortunes will not be over till the players themselves change their mindset and those guiding the players are able to encourage them to do so and also inculcate professionalism and maturity in the Team. Why was Sakib seen on TV collecting an Award from the Prime Minister at day time a day before the Test when his Team was at practice? The PM’s office should seek an explanation of the Cricket Board on this. Sakib is an outstanding cricketer but for a Team that loses habitually, by simple logic, he is not indispensible. The bottom line is it is time to make mindset the deciding factor whether a player should be in the Test team or not. Perhaps, it is also time to postpone playing Test cricket till we are able to change the mindset of our players.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan











Sunday, December 2, 2012

On decentralization, urbanization and Dhaka

The Indepndent
December 1, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

An interesting discussion in a popular TV talk show recently led me take a trip down the memory lane. My good friend Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed, the former Governor of Bangladesh Bank was on the show together with two Advisers of the past Caretaker Government. They were discussing issues of centralization/ decentralization/urbanization in the context of the deaths of workers in a garment factory in Nischintpur near Dhaka  due to fire and workers/by standers in Chittagong when a girder gave way in an under construction fly-over. Dr Salehuddin Ahmed made a very pertinent point on these serious but neglected issues. He said that successive governments  in Bangladesh since 1971 have erred in their focus on decentralization of government powers  and urbanization that has earned Dhaka the dubious distinction of the worst livable city of the world. 

I remembered my days as a student of Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, our Public Administration teacher in Dhaka University in the 1960s after watching the show. He almost had us get it by heart that decentralization was the key for sound development, urbanization and modernization of any developing country because that is the path that all developed countries took and was modernized successfully. Those were the days when we were demanding transfer of power from the centre to the provinces. The logic of what Dr. Chowdhury taught us was that for balanced development and urbanization, authority and responsibility for development works must be decentralized from the central government to the state/provincial governments and from the provincial governments to the local authorities.  

Dr. Chowdhury did not teach us anything new. He taught an accepted theory   of development and modernization. This is also what Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed said in the talk show; that Bangladesh has followed quite a different and wrong path for its development; urbanization and decentralization. Where the need for the development sectors was decentralization through a transfer of power from Dhaka to the local governments, all governments since 1971 have worked to make Dhaka stronger. They chose to make Dhaka stronger leaving the local governments weak and powerless. Sadly, our political leadership failed to apply in case of independent Bangladesh what they had demanded from Pakistan, namely decentralization of the powers of the central government that was a major demand upon which Bangladesh’s claim for independence was based.  

In fact, it was the military dictatorship of President Hussein Mohammed Ershad that made the only sincere effort for decentralization with the Local Government Act or the Upazilla System. He wanted to make the Upazillas the focus of development of the country. As soon as the country reverted to democracy, local government was the first casualty. Despite lip service from the elected governments, the Centre or Dhaka continued to grow from strength to strength. It is not just in the executive branch of the government that Dhaka has gone from strength to strength; in the elected branch of the government too, it is Dhaka that has become all powerful. The elected officials representing the national parliament have seen to it that elected officials at the local level have little to no power at all so that they could directly interfere and dominate the power structure at the local level as well.  

It is now payback time for the failure of the past governments with decentralization of the powers of the government. A look at Dhaka is enough to see the massive mistakes they have made. As a consequence of concentration of all governmental powers in Dhaka, the city has become the magnet where people are drawn to it because every aspect of their lives, or almost every, are controlled in some government office in Dhaka. Despite all the tall talks by those in government about economic development of the country, whatever number of good schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, etc, there are in the country are all largely located in Dhaka thus providing no incentive to people with means to move out from Dhaka and live in the other cities of the country and the district towns. New divisions have been created to decentralize powers and take pressure away from Dhaka but these have failed to draw power and people away from Dhaka because whatever decentralization of power has been done has been done mainly on paper.. Like bees to the hives, people have been attracted to Dhaka with mindless and senseless encouragement from the government. 

I worked in the Motijheel C/A in a private bank for three years. Officers of the bank living in Uttara were taking up to 3 hours to reach office! I wondered that if the government had built proper a 4 to 6 lane road connecting Dhaka to Comilla for example, it would have sent a lot of people working in Motijheel to this once beautiful district town which with such road connection would have been less than an hour from Motijheel. Likewise, developing the district and sub divisional towns in the radius of 50 miles from Dhaka and connecting these with Dhaka with again proper roads/train/water ways would have developed these towns as satellites of Dhaka without burdening Dhaka’s absurdly poor infrastructure. Instead to encourage the greed of the developers with which the authorities have an evil nexus, the government has allowed low lying and ecologically critical areas around Dhaka to be developed for residential purposes. These so-called residential townships  are using and those coming up will use Dhaka’s infra structure and help Dhaka sink into oblivion even faster!!  

This brings me back to the talk show that led me to write this piece. Two of the guests of the talk show were former Advisers. They were in power for two years. While they were in power, they had no opposition. If they wanted, they could have set many things related to our development back on track. There was for them a proposal ready for construction of Dhaka-Chittagong four lane highway. In fact, the proposal for this critically needed infrastructure project just needed a nod of the government but was allowed to “pick dust” instead to use a phrase used one of the Adviser on the show while criticizing past governments. That road has still not been built 6 years down the road. Meanwhile, the costs have escalated many times. In 40 years, we have not yet been able to connect Dhaka-Chittagong with a modern highway that is resulting in un-necessary deaths everyday because it is used by cars/trucks/buses together with the manual modes of traffic and in many places as a market place making it a death trap and not by any means a highway!  The failure to construct a modern Dhaka-Chittagong highway is indeed a national shame.

If greed is used an  index to describe a country, Bangladesh would easily earn yet another “feather” in its cap. Dhaka’s plight is the outcome of the nexus of greed that exists between the government and people with money. If Dhaka had not been allowed to become the sole magnet for the country and decentralization of powers from Dhaka to the local governments had been the strategy, how would a plot of land on Gulshan Avenue that was worth not even a few lakh Takas after our independence would now be worth Taka 200 crores and more? No sane government anywhere in the world would allow any of these tall structures on the Gulshan Avenue that has shot up land prices to astronomical limits simply because the infrastructure cannot support even single storied buildings on the Avenue. This is why during day time; it takes over an hour to travel from one end of the avenue to the other. In normal traffic, the distance should be covered in 5 to 10 minutes!  

It is perhaps already late to save Dhaka because we have missed the decentralization bus decades ago and with that the opportunity of balanced urbanization and modernization. The sad part is the government is still blissfully ignorant of it all and concentrating more powers in Dhaka to lead to its destruction faster. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador




Need for political wisdom and pragmatism
Weekly Holiday, November 30, 2012

M. Serajul Islam

The recent acts of violence by Jamat have created a great deal of apprehension in the public mind. These acts hint at very dangerous consequences for the already conflict-ridden politics of the country unless dealt with determination and resolved satisfactorily. The BNP has expressed the view that these violent acts of Jamat do not have the party’s support.

We are encouraged by the firm resolve shown by the Home Minister that the government will deal with such violent acts in the manner it deserves; put it down with the legal powers in its hands. Nevertheless, his dismissal of the Government’s intention to sit with Jamat to find a way out through discussions does not augur well. His call to Chhatra League to deal with Jamat activists in the streets have added to more public apprehension and fear. The Home Minister will need to make every effort to resolve the Jamat issue politically and democratically for reasons discussed in this piece. There is a national consensus against Jamat’s recent acts of violence that is a positive sign. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how to deal with the problem. The Home Minister’s resolve to deal with a Jamat ready to go berserk by force alone will not resolve the dangers that Jamaat threatens. Nowhere has force alone resolved such a danger; in fact force has only added fuel to the fire. There is a civil society group that is trying to create pressure on the government with its own strategy. This group, allied to the ruling party, has been active in the country’s politics since the new Government was formed in January, 2009. They came to the political platform with specific demands. First, they wanted secularism to be restored in the Constitution and all the Islamic provisions inserted after the August 15, 1975 changeover to be deleted. Second, they also wanted a ban on the use of religion by any party in the country’s politics. Three, they wanted the Bangladeshi collaborators of the 1971 war crimes to be tried and punished. Finally, they wanted Jamaat to be banned for crimes against humanity in 1971; its use of religion in politics.

In fact, this group never left anyone in doubt that it is Jamaat they were after. They were infuriated by the fact that Jamaat did not only not pay for its alleged crimes; that it did not express allegiance to Bangladesh and still continued to be in politics of the country. Their efforts were successful but only to the extent that through the annulment of the 5th amendment and adoption of the 15th amendment, secularism was restored in the Constitution. However, none of their demands have yet been fulfilled. As a consequence, this group has even expressed its dissatisfaction with the government. This group is now using the latest acts of violence by the Jamaat to re-enforce their other unfulfilled demands reiterating once again forcefully that Jamaat must be banned. They are again demanding the deleting of the Islamic provisions in the Constitution to restore secularism as a state principle in its proper spirit. They feel that secularism and the Islamic provisions cannot remain in the Constitution together.

The country has enough political problems with the unresolved one between the ruling party and the BNP over how to conduct the next elections, a very threatening one for the country. The situation now developing over Jamaat, if not resolved satisfactorily and politically, could push Bangladesh towards consequences too nightmarish even to contemplate. 


The Home Minister who had given hope of dealing with the problem forcefully has also given us cause of apprehension when he called upon the student cadre of the ruling party to resist Jamaat in the streets, a call that brought him censure from his own party men. In fact, if the government gets embroiled in a direct confrontation with the Jamaat, all else, meaning the country’s politics and economics would have to take back stage. It should be remembered that Jamaat has never been a political force in the country’s politics. It has always used the assistance of the dominant political force in the country to rise above the insignificant position where the people of the country have kept them. In all free and fair elections, the Jamaat has never been a force of any reckoning. 


Jamaat’s crimes against humanity

Jamaat came to prominence for the first time in 1971 when the Pakistan military gave it the first taste of political power by making it a collaborator to its acts against humanity. The first AL Government that could have settled the Jamaat issue in its first term because it stayed in power for nearly four years and had unchallenged power when those from Jamaat who had actively taken part in crimes against humanity were still in the country and memories of the people against them still fresh. The Government adopted the Bangladesh Collaborator (Special Tribunals) Order in 1972 and amended the Constitution in 1973 for the trial of members “of any armed or defence or auxiliary forces” for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.” Unfortunately, the trials were bogged down in the country’s legal system and only 752 were tried and convicted. Many in power took advantage of the order to settle old scores leading the government to declare General Amnesty. 


193 Pakistani war criminals

The Amnesty, together with the Shimla Agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1973 to which Bangladesh was a signatory, allowed the 193 Pakistani armed forces officers that Bangladesh wanted to try as war criminals to be repatriated to Pakistan. This helped Jamaat off the hook where the revolutionary spirit of time should have been generated to settle the crimes against humanity committed by Jamaat activists in 1971. The government of President Ziaur Rahman, through the 5th amendment --- that returned to the country the multi-party democracy that was banned by the 4th or BKSAL amendment --- also allowed Jamaat legitimacy by legitimizing religion-based parties in the country. 


Awami League and Jamaat

In 1991-96, the Awami League gave Jamaat further legitimacy as a political force by allying with it to force the BNP Government to accept the Caretaker Government. The BNP built upon what the AL did and gave the Jamaat a taste of political power in its second term of 2001-2006.

Thus all past governments till the present one had left it to the people to deal with Jamaat while they themselves played politics with it. The voters did not make the mistake the governments made. They did not allow Jamaat’s share of seats in the Parliament to even reach double digit except in 2001 elections when its alliance with the BNP gave it 14 seats. They were able to deal with Jamaat where governments failed because of the social safety net against those who use religion in politics that is seldom spoken or written when analysts speak and write about the political reality in Bangladesh; that despite the huge Muslim population that is deeply religious, the people of Bangladesh have always been lukewarm to religion being used in politics. Hence when people have the need of a man of religion for any religious activity, they show respect for the Mullahs and the Maulanas and go to them or call them home with great respect. However when such religious people have asked for their votes, the people have never obliged them, not with disrespect but politely.


Sufis and secularism in Bangladesh 

Thus, secularism that is the need to separate religion and politics in public life is very deeply etched in the consciousness of the people of Bangladesh notwithstanding, what is or is not in the constitution. A lot of this instinctive ability to keep religion and politics apart in their public life comes from the influence of Sufis who played a major role in the spread of Islam in Bangladesh. 

The Sufis left their indelible impression in the minds of the people that have only been strengthened over the centuries. Thus in the British period and afterwards, where the rest of South Asia has suffered from communal commotion s, Bangladesh has largely been spared of such disturbances. In the period after our independence, the young generation has gone into Islam in a big way. Fortunately, they too have not been influenced by the type of fundamentalist Islam that Jamaat preaches. They too have no problem being good Muslims but have also not forgotten the teachings of the Sufis that have influenced their fathers and forefathers. The young generation has gone to Islam but not to Jamaat. These are aspects that the Government and society must consider seriously and think twice before dealing with Jamaat by force or listening to the civil society’s agenda against Jamaat. Although Jamaat is a minor force in Bangladesh and will never come anywhere near political power, not in a thousand years, it has ability to create disturbances that could imperil the future of the country. 


Possible consequence of banning

Take for instance the possible consequence of banning the Jamaat. Will Jamaat accept the Government decision obediently and meekly go home, and then peace and tranquility will prevail? Not a chance. The most likely consequence of banning the Jamaat can be that the party may go underground. Once they do that, it is apprehended that they may change their strategy and start acts of terror instead of civil disturbances they are indulging with at the moment. What distinguishes the Jamaat activists from the rest of us is the beard they have on their faces. What if they choose to shave their beard and in small groups in jeans and T shirts start committing acts of terror in shopping centers and public places?  The Jamaat, pushed against the walls and fighting for its survival, could be transformed into a terrorist organization. Thanks to democracy still working in the country, it has not. It is imperative that the Government should not spare any effort to ensure that Jamaat is not pushed to make such a choice.


Political and democratic way

Fortunately, the way to deal with Jamaat has been shown by senior leaders of the AL. While criticizing the statement of Home Minister M K Alamgir, senior Awami League leader and former general secretary of the party Abdul Jalil has called for a political and democratic way to deal with Jamaat. This is a pragmatic and realistic proposition. In opting for such a course that would be the only reasonable way out, the government should not lose patience and look at the problem realistically. Top Jamaat leaders are in jail on charges of war crimes. If they are proven guilty, they will face capital punishment. Already in the air, the news making rounds is that such judgment against them is in the offing. In fact, this is one of the reasons behind the recent upsurge of violence by the activists of Jamaat. The strategy should be a firm one where the parameters should be set to deal with it not by force alone but through legal means as well, guided by political and democratic considerations. This is where the Government will need to show political wisdom.


The Government would do itself and the country a great service if it would consider the reasons behind the demand by the civil society urging it to ban Jamaat and ban use of religion in politics; such a demand would be tantamount to imposition of a minority view over the majority. Accepting the views of this group to deal with Jamaat will therefore not be democratic either.

However, if politics was an intellectual exercise only, then perhaps this group would be right. Unfortunately for them, politics is more about people and their beliefs and perceptions. In demanding the banning of use of religion in politics, the group has given the clear impression, maybe unwittingly, that they are demanding the ban of Islam in the country’s politics because the other religions in Bangladesh, namely Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, are no factors in this context. So such singling out Islam in a country where the people are overwhelmingly Muslim and deeply religious may not find favour for simple reason of logic and common sense. 


Keeping religion and politics apart

More so, because the people here may not see the need of such a ban because even without it, they have succeeded over many decades---under the British, the Pakistanis and now Bangladesh---in proving that the masses are quite capable of keeping religion and politics apart, comfortably. In 1971 Jamaat used Islam for repugnant motives, and miserably failed. 

Most importantly, the majority people of Bangladesh do not believe that Jamaat is custodian of Islam in Bangladesh.


The over-emphasis of the group on secularism is also an issue that needs careful consideration before going overboard with it. Again, the same logic would apply in considering secularism. In a predominantly Muslim country where people are deeply religious, where illiteracy is still very high, the intellectual mind required to appreciate secularism is absent in overwhelming majority of the people. 

As those who use religion for political gains have no place in their hearts and minds, the people are not concerned what is in the constitution or not; in fact they are blissfully ignorant about it. Unfortunately for the secularists, their demand for removal of the Islamic provisions from the Constitution and the ban on use of religion in the name of secularism are now non-starters because the public would see in these demands a bias against Islam. 


The issue is when at the level of the people, both secularism and Islam can peacefully coexist, why is this group insisting on these demands when such demands, if accepted, could give an incentive to the very Islamist forces they would like to suppress? The 15th amendment has made their demands irrelevant. It is time for the government to make its position clear because the civil group making the demands is allied to the ruling party and the government’s silence is a cause of concern of the people who want the Jamaat issue to be resolved politically.

There is another major aspect that the government would need to consider in dealing with Jamaat; namely the international connotation. As a sovereign country it is the right of Bangladesh to ban Jamaat or take any other action against it as a domestic issue. However if Jamaat is banned because it propagates Islam in politics, then the issue no longer remains domestic.


Remittance is vital for economy

Islam is a religion that is very dear to a large number of countries, and some of those countries are specially important for Bangladesh for economic reasons with 5 million of our expatriates in the region who send billions of US dollars as remittance that is critical to the economy. Therefore, on the issue of banning Jamaat, the Government that has already opted in favour of allowing religion-based political parties to be in politics by the 15th amendment should put an end to the demand by the secularists that is giving out dangerous signals to the Muslim world. 


The call for banning any party is also not a democratic call. In a democratic system, the government cannot ban a political party just because there is such a demand from a section of the population. As long as Jamaat does not resort to acts of terrorism and accepts the right of the people to accept or reject it in elections, the Government cannot ban it and expect Islamic countries to appreciate the decision.


There is however a legal issue with Jamaat that rests with the Election Commission (EC) that must be resolved before allowing Jamaat the right of a legitimate political party. Jamaat’s constitution is in contradiction with the requirements of the EC. The party’s constitution puts allegiance to Allah but not to Bangladesh. This is a sensitive subject and the EC will need all its competence to deal with an extremely sensitive issue. The EC cannot of course demand Jamaat to drop faith in Allah from its constitution more so now after the 15th amendment. It should and must nevertheless demand Jamaat to show allegiance to the country because the people of Bangladesh are united on this demand given the fact that Jamaat had opposed the Bangladesh liberation war and had openly collaborated with the Pakistani military and so far has shown no remorse for it. This is where the Home Minister would need to consider his stance. The Government should put its weight behind the EC and convince the Jamaat that it is in the interest of the party to resolve the issue in a satisfactory manner by means of negotiations and not by force that will benefit Jamaat.  

A lot of what happens with Jamaat over the next few weeks or months will of course depend on what course the war crime trials take. The Government should be prepared for any eventuality both at home and abroad. It does not appear that the case of the war crimes trial has been explained satisfactorily abroad, particularly in the Middle East. It is time that the Government should activate all its diplomatic channels so that Bangladesh’s friends and well wishers are with it on the war trials and understands and appreciates that the trials are being held in a transparent manner where those accused are being given the right of defense. Whatever the Government does, it should be extremely cautious not to force Jamaat to forgo constitutional politics. 


The writer is a retired career diplomat and a regular columnist on foreign affairs and politics.

Bangladesh-India relations: Where stands the paradigm shift?

The Independent

Anniversary Issue: November 29, 2012

M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League took cue in 2008 from the successful thematic campaign of “change” of President Obama. The AL coined “deen bodoler pala” or “time for change” as their campaign theme to give the nation the hope that the dark days into which the country had plunged as a result of the emergency and army rule had ended and it was time for a new beginning. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not wait to show the nation that she meant business about changing to better times when she announced immediately upon assuming the reigns of the government that her major intention in foreign affairs was to put the history of bad relations with India behind and work for a paradigm shift in those relations.

The Prime Minister took unilateral initiatives to send the message to New Delhi about her seriousness. She stated categorically that her government will not allow Bangladesh’s soil to be used by Indian insurgents to launch terrorist and insurgent attacks against India. She backed her statement by handing over to New Delhi seven top ULFA insurgents that helped the Indian Government to break the back of the many decades old ULFA insurgency in Assam. The initiatives were also a message to other insurgent Indian groups that the Bangladesh Government was determined not to allow any of them to use Bangladesh as a sanctuary for their actions. These groups have been using Bangladesh territory as a sanctuary since the Pakistan days, a nexus that was well established at the level of the intelligence and the security although when Bangladesh had an AL Government, there was no indulgence for them at the political level. 

Sheikh Hasina’s initiatives encouraged India to take some actions of its own. It came forward and offered Bangladesh a US 1 billion soft loan, later turning US$ 200 million out of it as grant. In the period when the two countries negotiated in good faith, the Indians also offered concessions on trade and went ahead a long way towards reaching an agreement for sharing the water of the Teesta River. Although major irritants like killing of innocent Bangladeshis in Bangladesh-India border remained despite Indian assurance on zero tolerance, the two sides also negotiated and settled the land boundary agreement (LBA). In the midst of all these, Sheikh Hasina went to New Delhi, an official trip that was upgraded by a breach of protocol to a State Visit. In New Delhi, the two sides signed 56 pages Joint Document (JD) that was more than just a document; the negotiators of the two sides described this JD as a vision document designed to take forward Sheikh Hasina’s vision of a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. 

In the meantime, Bangladesh continued to provide India security assistance that India utilized to take care of its security concerns concerning Bangladesh being the soft underbelly of the country’s security. Bangladesh also provided India land transit form its mainland to the Indian state of Tripura as well as allowed its port of Chittagong on a trial basis that it used to build a power station in Tripura, a project that will help the economic development of the impoverished Indian state that has significant gas potentials in a major way. In Bangladesh, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiators, her Adviser for International Affairs, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Economic Affairs, Dr. Mashiur Rahman went for a media offensive to convince the doubters mainly among the opposition BNP that Bangladesh was not giving away its major playing cards, namely the land transit and the security cards, without benefitting in a major way. 

The two Advisers stated that in exchange for the two major concessions that Bangladesh was offering India, it would receive very significant economic benefits. They mentioned repeatedly that land transit will transform Bangladesh into the regional connectivity hub by integrating the economies of Indian northeast, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh where Bangladesh will also provide the region with the use of the sea ports of Chittagong and Mongla. In fact, Dr. Rizvi stressed that the economic benefits of becoming the regional connectivity hub will be so vast that compared with it, the fees that Bangladesh expected to receive from India by giving it land transit will be “meager.” Perhaps this was the reason why Dr. Mashiur Rahman was angry that Bangladesh was asking for transit fees from India. 

There was an air of great expectancy  among  the people of Bangladesh that they will see the results of the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina had promised at the time the Indian Prime Minister came to Dhaka in September, 2011,. The Prime Minister’s negotiating team was certain that the paradigm shift would be achieved with the inking of the Teesta water sharing agreement and the land boundary agreement during that visit. The two sides also worked a number of other agreements intended to strengthen the paradigm shift in bilateral relations to make it sustainable. On its part, Bangladesh allowed Indian trucks to haul heavy equipments to Tripura using Bangladesh’s weak road infrastructure. Bangladesh also allowed India two more new ports of call in the inland water protocol to allow India to use Bangladesh territory better for transit. Bangladesh did not seek or receive any concessions from India for the new ports of call and meantime continued with its security cooperation with India in earnest.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister of India failed to deliver what Bangladesh expected on his visit to Dhaka. Mamata Banarjee gave a hint at the eleventh hour that the dream of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for a paradigm shift had hit a major road block. She withdrew from the entourage of Manmohon Singh and followed this by refusing to allow the Prime Minister to sign the Teesta deal. She used the power of the province over water under the Indian constitution to stop the deal from being signed. New Delhi meekly acquiesced for reasons of politics because Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool held the balance of power in the Centre. It made no effort to insist on its power to conduct foreign affairs given to it by the Constitution to overcome MB’s objection. 

Though the LBA agreement was inked in Dhaka; the debacle over the Teesta was enough to bring down the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina envisaged. In retaliation for India’s failure to deliver Teesta, Dhaka withdrew exchanging letters that would have given India land transit on a long term basis. Thus the whole edifice of a major shift of Bangladesh-India relations came down suddenly. Although India promised zero tolerance on border killings;  agreed not to proceed on Tippaimukh without Bangladesh on board and signed agreements in areas of trade and other fields, the forward movement of relations was halted on the Teesta issue flagging the importance of water in developing and sustaining Bangladesh-India relations. Both sides nevertheless tried to give a positive spin to the Indian Prime Minister’s visit based on these agreements and the LBA in particular.. Unfortunately, the Indians failed to ratify the LBA because the BJP objected to it when the Indian Prime Minister returned home.  The Indian media blamed its government for these failures, suggesting that India has proved that it cannot be trusted. The international media too was critical on India’s failure to deliver. 

Suddenly, everything looked different in the aftermath of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. The Bangladesh negotiators were quickly off the media, no longer harping on the economic benefits of connectivity. The Prime Minister herself on many occasions urged the Indians to deliver their side of the commitment to carry relations forward; no doubt expressing her disappointment and political predicament for surely the failure of India to deliver pushed her into a tight political corner. Unfortunately, the ability of New Delhi to deliver got stuck in politics and not on good will though it has not been explained why India did not consider the Mamata factor and the BJP’s stand on LBA before the Indian Prime Minister came to Dhaka. It has also not been explained why the Bangladesh negotiators also did not separately see the Mamata factor and BJP’s stand before going ahead and committing Bangladesh major playing cards of land transit and security to India. There was no doubt that on both sides, the negotiators field to do their homework properly and raised expectations that they failed to deliver. 

Nevertheless, Sheikh Hasina’s vision of a paradigm shift and her government’s efforts to achieve it for which she showed great political courage unfortunately not matched by India has not been wasted. Although not given the publicity that it deserved, India’s positive stance on trade that has been the consequence of the initiatives taken by Sheikh Hasina has had very good results. In trade, the gap still remains hugely in favour of India but Bangladesh has made major strides into the Indian market that are expected to develop in the days ahead. In relations between countries, once trade picks up because barriers that had been created previously for reasons of politics have been brought down, there is no return. Thus on the economic track, there is no doubt that Sheikh Hasina’s vision of a paradigm shift has worked positively. 

The more important boost that the negotiations carried out between New Delhi and Dhaka has had has been on the way it has turned the once untouchable subject of land transit on its head. The Bangladesh negotiators in particular have been able to explain to the people across the political divide that Bangladesh will gain major economic benefits in granting land transit because it will make the country the hub of regional connectivity where its ports of Chittagong and Mangla will become the major focus of economic development of the region. Bangladesh economists have on their own initiative exposed the huge benefits of integrating the Indian northeastern states to Bangladesh that would be worth over US$ 100 billion annually eventually if allowed to grow to full potentials. 

The transformation of land transit to connectivity has in fact been the main positive development in Bangladesh-India relations. On the Bangladesh side, it has had positive impact on the BNP that has now shown the willingness to concede land transit to India in return for Bangladesh’s needs of waters of the common rivers and fair resolution of the other outstanding issues. The BNP has also shown positive stance on Indian need for security commitment that the AL Government has already given. The BNP has of course tied the two commitments firmly and unequivocally with India’s commitment and delivery on the needs of Bangladesh. Thus, on the key issues that India wants from Bangladesh, namely the issues of land transit and security, the AL and the BNP have moved to a position of consensus. The BNP has stated categorically that these commitments are conditioned to India granting Bangladesh its fair share of the waters of the common rivers and resolving all other outstanding issues fairly. The AL has made the same point to India when it withdrew the land transit agreement from the negotiating table during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. In fact, since the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, the conduct of bilateral relations has cooled off significantly because India has failed to deliver on its commitment. Bangladesh has complained about lack of Indian interest with regards to its much publicized US$ 1 billion soft loan while India, as recently as in the last meeting of the two countries at Home Secretary level,  complained that Indian insurgents have still many camps located inside Bangladesh.  

Nevertheless, in their own way that reflects the country’s partisan politics, the two mainstream parties of Bangladesh have conveyed to India in no uncertain terms that the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations now depends squarely on India; that such a forward movement will be possible only if India delivers what Bangladesh legitimately expects from it. That the message has not been ignored in New Delhi has been clear by the way it has reacted. In what analysts see as a sea change of New Delhi’s mindset towards Bangladesh, it invited first former President HM Ershad to India. This was followed by a high profile visit of Begum Khaleda Zia to New Delhi. India that in the past did not show much interest in any political party in Bangladesh other than the Awami League has entered into these relationships as part of what has been explained as New Delhi’s initiative to reach out to the democratic multi party polity of Bangladesh. 

There is significant meaning in this new initiative. It suggests that India now realizes two fundamental truths about negotiating with Bangladesh. First, it cannot receive anything from Bangladesh without reciprocity; that even the AL cannot give India anything without India giving Bangladesh was its expects . Second, there is now consensus in the two mainstream parties about the way to deal with India. These realizations of course are hugely important because the negotiations have also brought to surface for knowledge of all on both sides of the massive importance of the land transit and security cards to India. India will not rest in peace unless it has security assurance from Bangladesh because it is literally the “soft underbelly of its security.” Land transit is the key to integrating its fragile northeast to the India mainland not for economic reasons but for security as well. Together these two cards are of such value to New Delhi that if Bangladesh can play these cards as a nation, then it can get what it needs from India. 

These are the truths that have surfaced in the last four years. It is true that the paradigm shift did not happen the way Sheikh Hasina wanted because of factors not in her hands and not even in the hands of New Delhi, not yet at least. It is good that it did not happen her way because it has helped bring BNP on board and of course the realization in India that the ball is in their court; that if it wants  the immensely valuable land transit and security assurances from Bangladesh; it must deliver. New Delhi must also do what Bangladesh has done politically; resolve its own domestic political conflicts before seeking from Bangladesh its interests. In India, the other major party in its politics, the BJP must also come on board for positive relations with Bangladesh that is yet to be.

The parameters for the paradigm shift are now clear. The work that needs to be done is on the Indian side. India must also prove what it promised Begum Khaleda Zia when she visited New Delhi where she made the same positive gestures to India that Sheikh Hasina did upon assuming power. New Delhi must establish that it has no favorites in Bangladesh and that its relations are with the country and not with a political party, a view that Pranab Mukherjee highlighted when he visited Dhaka in May this year. There is yet another positive development towards a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that surfaced during Begum Khaleda’s visit to New Delhi. 

In New Delhi, Begum Zia conveyed to India the idea of a Bangladesh-India-China Consortium with a deep sea port to be constructed in Sonadia for the development of the region. This concept is in fact an up gradation of the idea of connectivity with which the negotiators of Sheikh Hasina successfully transformed land transit into a viable and lucrative economic concept. The Indians showed interest in the idea of the Consortium and asked the BNP leader for more details. In putting this idea across, Begum Zia informed her Indian hosts that she had discussed this in Beijing that she had visited before going to New Delhi and that the Chinese had expressed positive interest in it.  

A Bangladesh-India-China Consortium that could bring in Bhutan and Nepal could also receive a positive support of the Americans if they are approached to finance the cost of the deep sea port given their current interest in the region flagged by the visit of the US President to Myanmar. If the Consortium generates genuine support of India and the US that are now together in a strategic partnership, it could be the beginning of the end of turmoil the region involving China and India and the start of a new era of economic development that could transform the region dramatically. The objective is far away still but the possibilities are now there on board for all concerned to see. Therefore the paradigm shift envisioned by Sheikh Hasina is very much alive but only if India can match her vision that has now become a vision of Bangladesh.

There has to be an interlude in the paradigm shift though. New Delhi does not appear likely to be ready to deliver on either the Teesta or the LBA for domestic politics under the current Congress led Government. Bangladesh’s elections in a little over a year’s time will be another reason for New Delhi to go slow. India too will have elections soon after Bangladesh has its. Therefore it is not likely that the bilateral reactions of the two countries will have any forward movement on the major issues  till elections in both countries.  Nevertheless, enough positives have been generated over the last four years to hope for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which the only remaining part of the process will be to bring the BJP on board and of course a period of waiting for elections and a new government in Dhaka and New Delhi. Meanwhile the ball for the paradigm shift of Sheikh Hasina’s vision is well and alive but in the Indian court.



The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt