Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is happening in the Foreign Ministry?

Daily Sun
Jauary 29, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

A Foreign Ministry official on conditions on anonymity recently answered a reporter’s query by saying that it is sheer negligence why the Government has failed to appoint a new High Commissioner in South Africa a year after Mr. Shahidul Islam was posted out from Pretoria to Riyadh. It is just not with Pretoria that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs showing negligence. The Ambassador from Japan was brought back after an allegation of sexual misconduct by a locally based female employee.

Both the Missions are of great importance to Bangladesh. Japan is our largest bilateral donor. The Japanese must not be amused either that the post in Tokyo has been kept vacant so long. Nor would the Japanese Gaimashu be amused at the laid back reaction of our Foreign Ministry in recalling the former Ambassador. Pretoria has in recent times become very important because there are now 50,000 to 60,000 Bangladeshis in South Africa that is fast becoming a major manpower export market for Bangladesh.

It could be very well the case that at Tokyo and Pretoria, MFA may be in the process of placing new Ambassador/High Commissioner, although the news at MFA on new postings to the Missions from the Ministry is depressing for the career diplomats. A file from MFA for posting of about a dozen officers from the Ministry to the Missions was recently returned by the PMO after lying there for 2 months without a decision. All these suggest that something is seriously amiss at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MFA official who has accused his superiors at the Ministry of sheer negligence not only made a major charge; he could not have been more correct in his accusation. In fact, he has hit the bull’s eye in what is really happening in the MFA these days.

The practice in the MFA, one that has kept it going all these years, has been to keep an Ambassador at his post for three years in case of the career diplomats. In case of those who are appointed on contract, the tenure is for 2 years in case of most and three years in case of a few. This system has fallen into the way side since this present government came to office without any new system in place.
Ambassadors appointed on contract basis are being given extensions at will without any policy. Career Ambassadors whose lot these days is to be appointed to the less important Bangladesh Embassies are more or less forgotten. Many officers have stayed beyond the customary three years and they are not sure if they would be moved to another station in the remainder of the tenure of this government. The result of the failure of this government to rotate/recall Ambassadors on a fixed tenure basis is having a negative effect at the senior officers working at the Ministry. Many of them who have been expecting that in the system of recall/rotation, they would be posted out as an Ambassador are on the verge of giving up hoping that they would be posted in the remaining years of this government’s tenure.

Even with the Foreign Secretary, this government seems to have lost track of time. He has been in his post over two years that in case of the post he is holding is the normal tenure. Rotating the post of the Foreign Secretary was also a part of the system of rotation that had been in place at MFA and had helped the Ministry function professionally although in the last BNP term this was interfered with whose impact was not a positive one. Even here, this Government seems to have no policy and inertia here too is helping complicate the gridlock in the MFA in terms of personnel management. The recent extension given to government servants’ retirement age should have allowed the Ministry to use it to straighten the rotation system for good purpose. So far that seems not to have been the case.

With not much substantive work in its hands, one has to wonder what really keeps the MFA busy these days. Nevertheless, the Foreign Ministry is constantly a topic of discussion among many because of the way the government is handling foreign affairs in general and our bilateral relations with India in particular. As former career diplomats, and there are a large number of us these days following events in the Foreign Ministry in our retirement, we often feel disappointed at the way the Ministry has been marginalized. It is this same Ministry that had been the focal point when the BDR had dealt with the BSF in a way that had made the nation proud during the Padua incident in 2001. Then Foreign Secretary Mr. Muazzem Ali had performed a national duty in a manner that made the career diplomats feel really good.

The same Ministry now watches in silence the Government making a mess of its relations with India, with little to do in dealing with our most important neighbour. We have seen how two of the Prime Minister’s Advisers preempted the Foreign Minister in arranging the failed visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka. When Bangladesh was caught with its pants down with India withdrawing the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement from the table at literally the 11th hour, the Foreign Secretary was made to call the Indian High Commissioner to inform him that Bangladesh was withdrawing the land transit agreement in retaliation. The power that ordered the FS to act must have forgotten that the land transit deal had already been signed off to India and there was nothing to take off the table in retaliation! That act only proved that MFA had been reduced to do the errands in dealing with India.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had showed the vision to take Bangladesh-India relations out of the doldrums to which successive Bangladesh regimes and Indian Governments had pushed it. She wanted a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for mutual advantage of both. Unfortunately, by leaving dealing with India in the hands of those who has had no experience in diplomacy, we have lost on all counts whereas India holds all the cards. Politically, where handling relations with India should have given the AL a clear advantage in the next polls, its mishandling of relations with India would no doubt cost it a big way in those polls.
It is strange that India, after receiving so much from Bangladesh, has done almost nothing in reciprocity to let the ruling party face an increasing public discontent on the India factor. In the face of such discontent, the Acting Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka has said, as reported in a section of the press, that Bangladesh-India relations have never been so good in the last 80 years!! To complete the strange way India has been handling its relations with Bangladesh, it has appointed a Joint Secretary to be its next High Commissioner in Dhaka. Whereas we have someone of the rank of a State Minister in New Delhi, this is the Indian way of reciprocating. Truly, New Delhi must have downgraded us in their estimation to levels that our Government does not see and the MFA dos not dare to point out.

Nevertheless two years still remain for this government and foreign affairs, particularly our relations with India, will indeed be a major issue in the next polls. With this in view, the ruling party should focus on MFA and allow it the role that any Foreign Ministry plays in any Government elsewhere. As it stands now, MFA is not even in the periphery of foreign policy formulation and implementation and the cadre of professional diplomats languishing in despair. It is time to set things right and allow MFA to function.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

What’s wrong in the public university campuses?

As I See It Column
The Independent
January 28, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The private TV channels are doing a very good job in creating public awareness in what is happening in our public life. They are exposing the problems and underscoring the concerns in most minds these days except those who run this government that all is not well in the country. For the government, the country has never been better run than it has been since it came to power that is hardly the case.

Recently, one of these channels with a news crew spent time with the leaders of two of the man students’ parties of the country, the Chatra League that is the student wing of the ruling party and Chatra Dal with affiliations with the BNP. It was very revealing in more ways one and has been aired at a time when the country is witnessing vandalism by one of these parties that again is a major concern of everyone but the Government that sees peace in the educational institutions with the mentality of the ostrich.

The viewers saw that the Chatra League President’s job (!) is full time and much more. The program left viewers wondering whether he is full time politician for surely he did not appear to be a student. He did not reveal anything during the interview from which viewers could sense that he is in anyway assisting either himself or those coming to him with any problem related to studies that is the major reason why he and those he has been shown with are in the University in the first place.

After his morning audience with his “constituents” in his own house, he has been shown moving to the university in apparently his own car with his aides in attendance like he is a politician of stature. Next he has been shown moving from one meeting to another, meeting a sundry of people in the manner a politician does. Finally, when he was asked to speak to the TV channel, hi did what these student leaders do best; gave a good speech about the virtues of student politics! To the viewers, he appeared to have more powers than our President!

The life of the leader of the Chatra Dal is quite a contrast. He has been shown to be staying in a better house than the Chatra League leader. The interviewer did not fail to mention that he is married and has a daughter. This leader did not deny the views expressed by the interviewer that made viewers feel more disgusted with student politics. His interview however revealed what the ruling party is doing with the opposition and those who do not belong in its folds these days. The Chatra Dal leader has to spend a good part of his morning hours appearing in the court that is trying 22 cases against him!
The programme revealed a very dark side of students’ politics; that it has very little to do with welfare of the students but a lot with many things undesirable happening in Dhaka University in the name of students politics. It is all about seats in the residential halls; admission and tenders and business in the campus related to development work of the university. It has very little to nothing to do with welfare of the general students who become victims unless they toe the lines of the students’ wing of the party in power who have the entire law and administration on their side to carry on their illegitimate work on the campus.
Back in the 1960s when we were under the military dictatorship of first Ayub Khan and then Yahya Khan, there was the National Students Federation that was linked with the government led by Monem Khan for most of the decade. Yet, other students parties like the EPSU of the pro-China and pro-Moscow and the Chatra League were also an active part of the students’ politics of the campus. In fact, the NSF had only a minor hold in the unions of the University residential halls. Most of the unions were under the two leftist parties. The students parties were allowed to run their affairs almost unhindered. In fact, as the decade became more and more volatile on the question of rights of East Pakistan, it was the students’ parties that showed the way to the politicians.

Looking back to the 1960s and now, it is like comparing the good with the evil. After the recent happenings in Jahangirnagar University, it is so frustrating when one has to hear politicians on talk shows of the TV channels lauding the virtues of students’ politics. When they speak that way, don’t they even for once think of how many innocent lives have been lost due to what they call students’ politics whose virtues they laud? How can they be so blind to the absolute criminalization that has come about with students’ politics? Would any sane father knowingly allow his son to be a member of any of the students’ party?

Jahangirnagar University’s recent rise to notoriety should help the nation’s conscience to rise and answer these questions. When this university was sliding into pure and simple criminality due to the activities of the Chatra League following the change of government, the Vice-Chancellor came with an excuse that should have led to his removal. He blamed the criminality on the Chatra Dal who has said had penetrated into the Chatra League instead of dealing with it to strengthen his position with the ruling party. It has now been revealed by the media that he is an active patron of a rogue faction of the Chatra League that is not officially approved by the party’s central committee! So far, nothing has happened about the death of Zubair except 3 students have been expelled. Surely, our national conscience is dead or else the Vice Chancellor of JU would not have been in his post.

The ruling party has an election pledge and a vision of building a digital Bangladesh. That Bangladesh can only be built by an educated new generation with public universities like Dhaka and Jahangirnagar Universities providing the leaders. The criminalization going on in the educational intuitions can only lead to one logical conclusion; that digital Bangladesh will remain a political slogan as long as criminals are allowed such a free hand in the campuses. The government is silently abetting this criminalization by not doing anything with those who openly move in the campuses with machetes and other dangerous that they also have used and killed those who have not followed their criminal orders.
Students have openly said on the program with which I started this piece that their lives have been turned into hell by students’ politics. The teachers who should have played a parent-like role themselves indulge in the same politics as the students of which the VC of Jahangirnagar University is an example. Politicians on both sides of the political divide, instead of destroying the Frankenstein of students’ and teachers’ politics, sustain it for reasons that they alone can explain.

When students’ politics played its glorious role in the decade preceding our war of liberation, there were multiple causes such as the lures of international communism and the demands of Bengali nationalism to encourage and sustain it. These causes are now history and no new cause has come up for sustaining students’ politics. Instead students’ politics has fallen into hands of organized groups who terrorize the campuses for the interests of those who lead these groups. It is time to stop this immediately if we love the country. With it, let us also call for an end to the politics that the university teachers indulge at our expense only to destroy the future of our children.

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

Former President Ershad invokes the Almighty

The Holiday
January 27, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had said in his hey days that in politics, there is never a position of no return. What he meant was that a politician can make somersaults anytime; swing like the pendulum in taking positions on politics and political issues. Mr. Bhutto in his long career proved what he said with the life he lived. Our very own former President General HM Ershad would have made Mr. Bhutto proud for he is proving with his politics that everything is possible for him in terms of changing and taking stand on politics and politics issues.

In fact, he has gone a step forward. After calling Sheikh Hasina his sister, signing on the dotted lines to jump on the AL’s bandwagon before the next elections, he is now speaking in a manner no different from the official opposition, the BNP while remaining a part of the coalition that is running the government. In a recent speech at his party’s headquarters, he told his supporters that the Almighty has kept him alive so long so that he could come to power and deliver the country from its current misrule!

During his party’s long march to the Teesta Barrage, the former President attacked the government in the speeches he made at the Barrage site as well as in the road side meetings while going to the site on an issue that has the potentials of becoming the ruling party’s Achilles’ heel for the next elections, namely its handling of our relations with India. He claimed all the glory for construction of the Teesta Barrage at a time when water flowed on the River Teesta on our side. He went on to blame subsequent governments that came to power after his ouster for failing to receive from India an agreement for a fair share of the water of the Teesta that has been turned waterless in Bangladesh causing havoc in the lives of millions who depend on the Teesta water for irrigation and their livelihood.

The former President has clearly sensed that the India factor is fast becoming an issue in our politics. He is cashing upon it He has also sensed that public support has shifted considerably from the ruling party on the other issues of governance such as the state of the economy, corruption and the rest that had brought the BNP Government down in a disastrous way.

In fact, in a TV Talk show recently, former Prime Minister and JP leader Kazi Zafar Ahmed took the ruling party apart on the failure of the government to deliver. He also accused the AL for breaking a good number of promises it made to the JP of which one was to make Mr. HM Ershad the President. Another commitment that he AL broke on wining the elections handsomely was to deny the Jatiya party a fair share of ministerial posts instead of just one. President Ershad has stated very unequivocally that the JP would go alone in the next elections. Clearly, the Jatiya Party has its sights set for the next elections.

The sudden and unexpected activities of Mr. HM Ershad and the JP have raised in the minds of the politically conscious people quite a few questions. Why is the AL allowing the JP to carry out what it is doing while still allowing it to remain a part of the ruling coalition? The AL is not known for its generosity to those who are so openly critical of it. President Ershad is these days criticizing the AL in the same vein as the BNP. Yet while the AL is doing everything to create hurdles for the BNP in its role as an opposition political party; it is not taking any such action against the Jatiya Party. It seems weird and suspicious that Mr. HM Ershad is being able to criticize the government with such consummate ease. What President Ershad and the JP are doing is extremely unusual in the politics of coalition government in a parliamentary democracy. It is this unusual nature of Mr. HM Ershad’s role that has given rise to speculation that all that the JP is doing is part of a well thought strategy that has the approval of the ruling party.

The speculation centers on the ruling party’s desire to hold the next elections under an interim government to be headed by it. The BNP has already dismissed its participation under such a system that it thinks is a blueprint of the ruling party to return to power. The ruling party is preparing the JP as a major opposition so that it could show the critics particularly those outside the country that it is a major party fit to play the role of the opposition to give legitimacy to the proposed elections under the interim government. Such a speculation makes sense as the JP has already started behaving as the main opposition and has also announced that it has chosen 200 candidates for the elections still 2 years away and is in the process of selection the remaining 100.
The JP’s hurry to nominate candidates when even the AL has not started talking about the issue may have spilled the beans; that in all these there is collusion between it and the ruling party. Those speculating on collusion also see this strategy as a very naïve one that would go more for the benefit of the BNP than the AL and the JP. For one, the Jatiya Party is still a party on the fringe having polled only in low single digit of the votes in the last elections for the people to take it as a serious opposition to replace the BNP in the event the latter refrained from the election sunder the interim government. Then, there is the major issue of credibility of the former President. There are few who would be prepared to accept him for whatever he may have done in his decade long illegitimate rule of the country because on the trust factor; he has been the worst politicians ever in our politics. Finally, he carries the baggage of the army that the people do not want in politics in any form.

In fact, Mr. HM Ershad and some of his colleagues are creating public opinion against the Awami League on issues that a large number of people consider to be correct. However, the JP is giving itself far too much credit in believing that the people who would otherwise be voting for the BNP in the next general elections would vote for it instead and that BNP would be forgotten in the country and the rest of the world would accept a general elections without the BNP as legitimate and fair. This is a fairy tale script and to realize such a script, President Ershad would indeed need divine intervention. The AL would of course need to pray to the Almighty to come to the aid of President Ershad for that would ensure the AL’s return to power with the “loyal” JP as the opposition.

One will have to be out of one’s mind to expect that such a naïve approach to serious politics would serve any purpose. As for President HM Ershad, there could still be twist in the tale and the AL should not be surprised to see that he has become a part of the opposition coalition led by the BNP. For its own sake, the AL needs to bring President HM Ershad under control for as a coalition partner, it cannot let him act as the loose cannon without public suspicion enhancing that there is a game the two are playing.

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

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On a historic chance the President missed

As I See It Column
The Independent
January 21, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

I listened with rapt attention the briefing given to the TV channels by Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta upon coming out of Bangobhavan following the Awami League’s meeting with the President as part of his dialogue with the political parties to choose the new Election Commission. The Minister has a way with words. He called the dialogue of the President as not just something unique in Bangladesh’s history; he described the President’s initiative as the first of its kind in the history of South Asia.

The Minister also quoted from the Constitution to state that the President has the power under it to choose the EC and that he has undertaken the exercise as a leader with vision and experience. Another Minister, Mr. Obaidul Quader who is currently riding very high, ridiculed the opposition while giving the ruling party all the credit for running the government effectively. He said that the opposition is doing what it is supposed to do, oppose and his party is doing what it is expected to do, deliver!

Mr. Suranjit Sen interpretation of the Constitution was not correct for Bangladesh is more than a parliamentary system; it is prime ministerial one. In such a system of government, the President has no powers except the ceremonial ones. He cannot do anything in politics and government without instructions of the Prime Minister. Hence Mr. Gupta’s credit to the President is simply his way of playing with words. Nevertheless, he has not done himself or the government any credit by trying to give an impression in the media about the President that is misleading.

Take for example the issue whether the President really has any role in choosing an EC through his dialogue with the political parties. Although it has not happened, what if the President had by some miracle come to a concrete decision on who would be in the next Election Commission? How would he go about it? What if the Prime Minister did not agree with the list? It is for politicians to play with words. For us who understand politics in simple terms, the way the dialogue has taken place has had nothing to do at all with the President’s vision or wisdom. He was simply under instructions to play a role and he carried it out obediently.

The whole matter of involving the President in selecting the new EC originated from the Prime Minister’s office. The reason is obvious. The ruling party is stuck with the opposition’s firm demand for restoration of the caretaker government that is being backed by many who are known for their leanings for the ruling party. To make matters worse, the opposition’s demand for restoration of the caretaker government for the next two general elections in line with the recommendation of the Supreme Court has steadily gathered bipartisan support across the country.

The demand for restoration of the CG system has come in the way of the ruling party’s strategy of elections under the interim government that it would lead. As part of the strategy that is aimed at ensuring its return to power, the ruling party is in the process of placing officials in the civil and police administration sympathetic to it who would play crucial roles in the conduct of the next general elections. It has already placed its party activists in the district councils as administrators. The ruling party wants the nation to ignore the strategy that it is putting into place by accepting its contention that an EC selected by consensus, or an attempt at such, would be enough for holding free and fair elections under an interim government headed by it without the necessity of restoring the CG system.

The President has been used to implement this intent of the ruling party. Those who encouraged the President to undertake the dialogue knew very well that the Constitution did not empower him to do what he undertook to do. The parties that went to Bangobhavan also knew about the President’s limitations as well as the true reason of his initiative. It was all a political game that those who participated in the dialogue played where the reason that was given for the initiative, namely the need to choose an EC, was never an issue at all.

The opposition went to the dialogue with a clear strategy of its own; to impress upon the Prime Minister through the President that she needs to restore the caretaker government. The BNP was not alone in seeking extension of the CG system. Except the ruling party, almost all other party, and there were a large number of them, favoured the extension of the CG system for 2 more terms. They were not very interested in the EC that they thought could wait till the issue of the CG was resolved. The term of the existing EC expires next month. Therefore the next EC must be selected without delay. By-election is due in the seat that has fallen vacant due to the death of Mr. Abdur Razzak. The failed dialogue undertaken by the President has pushed the ruling party to choose an EC on its own that will no doubt be rejected by the BNP and render credence to its accusation that the ruling party is working for a strategy to return to power by unfair means. Powerless as he may be in a constitutional sense, the President has an unique position by virtue of his office that places him above all legal powers in the country; a moral power. His dialogue had given him the insight to the politics of the country. He was given a clear sense that unless there is a consensus between the ruling party and the BNP on the system under which the next general elections would be held, the country would be pushed towards a deep political crisis.

Therefore a historical chance had come before Mr. Zillur Rahman to exercise his moral power to save the country from an impending political crisis that could be disastrous for everyone. He could have used his dialogue to encourage the Prime Minister to come to an understanding on the system for holding the next elections. He could also have played a role in that to earn for himself respect of all Bangladeshis. However the dialogue for selecting an EC, unsuccessful as it has been, that Mr. Suranjit Gupta has called historical, has in fact diminished his standing with his people.

Sadly, he himself has underscored how utterly powerless he is. In the end, where almost all the parties urged him to help re-establish the CG system, all the President did was recommend the formation of a search committee to form the new EC! Did he need to waste his time and those who attended his dialogue to come with this recommendation? Clearly the answer must be in the negative. Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta could not have been more mistaken in expressing those glorious compliments to the President and his vision! In the end, the BNP has come out with some of the points; its demand for the CG has gained more public acceptance.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Are we facing external cultural aggression?

The Holiday
January 20, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

A common subject of discussion these days, apart from the sad state of our politics and economy, is about our culture. More precisely, a lot of people these days are talking about our culture being subjected to an aggression from outside. Clearly, India is the main focus. One need not look very far to see this. In Dhaka and in towns around the country, this is visible in the family.

In most families that have the cable TV, and these are the families where people who decide the future of the country also live, the impact of Indian TV serials; dances and songs and the paraphernalia of TV programmes keep many hooked. While India is building barbed wire fences to keep us physically apart, it is entering our houses with consummate ease through the use of technology. Thus, in marriage ceremonies of the well to do; the impact of the Indian culture is palpably evident. The songs and dances at these marriages are scripted and choreographed or copied from India.

All these confuse me and make me apprehensive. I do not understand why and how a country that never stops in claiming such a great deal of excellence in terms of its culture, tradition and history can so easily accept to the extent of being dominated by what is most definitely no part of that culture and history. The same people in whose families such abundance of the Indian culture has penetrated come out publicly and say how different and culturally rich we the people of Bangladesh are!

It is just not this cultural aggression that is a subject of concern of many these days; it is also the sudden visibility of the members of the major minority community in public life, particularly in places where the government has a role to play. I asked a friend who recently retired from a major Commission of the government whether his replacement would be from the service he belonged to before he joined the Commission. He said that was unlikely as the government was looking to replace him by one who belonged to the Hindu community. There are words of mouth afloat in Dhaka University circles about the preponderance of the members of the minority community in terms of recruitment, promotion and other privileges in this premier institution of the country.

In recent times, the media; particularly the electronic media, has established credibility that has been one of the very few major positive developments in our otherwise bleak political environment. Even here, we are seeing that the members of the minority community are being represented in a disproportionate manner. One cannot help being suspicious that an invisible hand may be working according to a plan. In fact, such a suspicion is fairly widespread in the country these days.

We are also witnessing simultaneously resurgence of Rabindranath Tagore in a manner that is raising a lot of eyebrows. In a Ministry of the Government, a cultural function was arranged recently that was scripted and choreographed heavily on the literature of Rabindranath Tagore. The songs, the dresses and the other paraphernalia left many of us who watched this function thinking that this programme would have better fitted culturally if it were held in Paschim Bangla rather than in Bangladesh.

Without any offence to those who love and admire Rabindranath Tagore to the extent of deifying him, let this be said. Let us read the works of the great poet as we read the works of any great poet of the world; may be read him more as he has written in our language. Let us not make him and his works the foundation of our lives and our culture. Let us not deify him for in the religion of the overwhelming majority of our people, it is blasphemy to deify any individual. Sadly as well, the works of Rabindranath Tagore reflects very little of the culture of the Muslims.
Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country where a vast majority of our people is uneducated. Fortunately, they are not orthodox having been influenced for centuries by Sufism. Our Islam is tolerant. Nevertheless even this liberal and tolerant Islam has fundamental differences with Hinduism. We have also had bad experience of living for a century and a half under the oppressive Zamindari system that was dominated by the Hindus. Therefore, one does not need much common sense to conclude that a disproportionate resurgence of the culture of the minority or minorities in public life would bring a backlash that is totally undesirable.

To add adversely to this situation is the issue of current status of Bangladesh-India relations. Since this Government came to power, it has gone out of the way to placate the Indians. The Government gave the Indians a blank cheque on their security needs. It also gave the Indians land transit from mainland India to its fragile northeast states. Bangladesh’s hopes were that India would give it a fair share of the waters of the common rivers and also stop killings of innocent Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border together with accepting Bangladesh’s demands on trade, demarcation of land and maritime boundaries.
India instead failed to sign the Teesta agreement and abandon the Tippaimukh project. The killings in the border have not stopped. In using the land transit granted to it unilaterally on a trial basis, the Indians have been insensitive in defiling the River Teesta to carry heavy vehicles with heavy equipments to go to Tripura. As a consequence, feelings in Bangladesh for India are at an all time low.

This is where my apprehension lies. Apparently, there is reason to feel uncomfortable about a well thought out plan that may be in action; to bring Indian culture and those elements of Bengali culture that represent Hindu culture ahead of our Muslim culture and heritage. In this plan, one can also see visible favours being extended to the members of the Hindu community in the Government and in government funded educational and other institutions.

Minority communities everywhere have grievances. In Bangladesh too, the minorities have their legitimate complaints. These complaints need to be dealt with overtly and not covertly. It is a reality that the major minority community in Bangladesh looks to India for a wide variety of reasons. India too has an interest in their welfare. Those who perceive that they are being given favoured treatment believe that this is so because Indian wants it this way and the Government is eager to make India happy. The change in the treatment of the minority community is thus being attributed to India with our government obliging leading the BNP to openly accuse the latter of selling out to India.

The Indian High Commission is playing a very active role in this perceived cultural aggression. On my mobile, I have a SMS on a regular basis inviting me to cultural events at the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre at Gulshan where people are treated to evenings of Indian culture free. The Indians are paying huge amounts of money in exposing us to their culture. Surely, there is a purpose behind such generosity. A local elite club in Dhaka till recently had acted as almost an extension of the Indian High Commission in its efforts to win over Bangladeshis through culture. Luckily, those who acted as conduits for this have since been removed from the Club’s leadership and their over indulgence with the Indians on cultural cooperation was one reason for their removal.

The rich culture and tradition of the Muslims of Bangladesh enriched by the glorious war of liberation leaves enough space for legitimate hopes and aspirations of the minority community to be legally and legitimately accommodated. Equally, it can accept any writer of any stature without being submerged by his work or for that matter, anything India has to offer on the cultural front that is good for us. The perceived external cultural aggression; special favours to the Hindu community and over indulgence with Rabindranath Tagore are potentially dangerous for peace in Bangladesh.
Therefore, on the issue of the public perception of official indulgence in favour of the minorities, the Government needs to be transparent. If it is indeed doing so because of past indifference to the minorities, the government has a duty to take the public into confidence as it did with annulment of the vested property act. If the government is not providing special privileges to help the minorities, let it say so openly. The perception growing to the contrary needs to be nipped in the bud if it is not correct.

Rabindra Tagore’s creations are immortal. By trying to build a cult with him and his work, the Rabindra activists are making a mistake. His works will survive in Bangladesh without the need of activists. As for the role of the Indian High Commission on the cultural front, there is need for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to supervise and put some control on its activities for there is surely over-indulgence here. As for cultural invasion from India through the TV, this is difficult to regulate. We have only ourselves to blame a great deal for the steady and negative influence of Indian culture in our lives. May be our cultural roots are not as strong as our cultural activists publicly claim it to be.

Bangladesh was created in 1971 by blood where our National Poet Nazrul Islam gave us major inspiration to fight the oppressors. We did not need to seek assistance to fight and win our liberation from any source but what was ours, politically, historically and culturally. Therefore, on the issue of culture, it is that of the majority people that must dominate in Bangladesh. On the issue of special privileges to the minority community, we have no need to do anything covertly for we have never had any public policy of discrimination. The government needs to take serious note of the public perceptions to save the country from moving towards confrontation on issues of culture and communal relations keeping in mind that on both, Bangladesh’s record is better than any nation in South Asia.


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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Prime Minister’s Tripura visit

Daily Sun
January 15, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister’s visit to Tripura is significant in more ways than one. She has been awarded a honourary doctorate there that has enhanced her standing in that state and added to the importance of Bangladesh in Tripura. Tripura had special significance to Bangladesh in the context of our liberation war. In 1971, it looked after a large number of our compatriots who had fled to the Indian state for fear of their lives.

The Prime Minister’s visit, the first by a Bangladesh head of government not just to Tripura but to any Northeastern state, allowed her to express Bangladesh’s gratitude for 1971. However, times are different. The visit has been undertaken after three years of the Awami League government that has gone out of the way to make India happy. The steps Bangladesh had taken were to encourage India to reciprocate on Bangladesh’s long standing demands for a fair share of waters of the common rivers; on trade imbalance and a few other issues.
Unfortunately, India has done very little to match Bangladesh’s generosity from which the state of Tripura has been a major beneficiary. Immediately on assuming office, Sheikh Hasina had said that her government will not allow Bangladesh soil to be used for any acts of insurgency or terrorism aimed at India. In keeping this commitment, Bangladesh handed 7 top ULFA leaders who were in Bangladesh to the Indian security that has broken the back of the ULFA insurgency movement. To this, Bangladesh also granted India land transit on trial.

Very little has come from India for all that the Bangladesh Government did for India, At literally the 11th hour, when the entire Bangladesh was expecting to see if indeed India had the sincerity of reciprocating after accepting the concessions from Bangladesh, they reneged on Teesta. Later they did the same on Tippaimukh and they have not stopped the killings in the border that is a very sensitive issue in Bangladesh.

Importantly for Tripura, Bangladesh’s offer to India to use land transit has had a significant impact on the state. The Chief Minister of Tripura Mr. Manik Sarker gratefully acknowledged this assistance in a press conference he held in Dhaka during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh. In fact, it is to carry heavy equipments to his state to build a power plant that the Indians have insensitively defiled the River Teesta that has had a very negative impact on the standing of the India in Bangladesh.

It is a different Sheikh Hasina who went to Tripura. She has been very badly let down by the Indians. It is therefore quite understandable that she said that India has to be more liberal if it wants to develop relationship with Bangladesh when the Chief Minister of Tripura called on her during her visit. The Chief Minister Sen agreed with Sheikh Hasina. He said that India must come forward and sacrifice as a big neighbour.

Quite clearly Mr. Manik Sarker knows better than anyone that India has let Bangladesh down in general and a friendly government in Dhaka in particular. Nevertheless, the Chief Minister must also consider that so far, it is Bangladesh that has made the sacrifices and that as the big neighbour, it has not shown the heart. The Chief Minister must also know that the government of Bangladesh is no longer in a position to give India anymore and that it is India that must do its part. He needs to talk with the Indian centre because without pressure from people in power like him, the Indian centre will not act to encourage Bangladesh to extend land transit that is so crucial to his State.

There are a few other important issues that Sheikh Hasina’s visit has brought out into open. One criticism that was made against the Bangladesh negotiators when Ms. Mamata Banarjee refused to agree to the Teesta water sharing agreement was that our side should have discussed with the Paschim Bangla Chief Minister ahead of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka to know her stand on the Teesta issue. In defense, the negotiators had argued that as a sovereign state, Bangladesh cannot hold discussions on bilateral matters with a state of India. In Tripura, our Prime Minister did not just receive her honourary doctorate; she held discussions of a whole range of issues that should be discussed with the Indian centre. Central leaders, for example Vice President Mr. Hamid Ansari was present in Tripura for Sheikh Hasina’s visit.

In fact, there should be more such initiatives by Bangladesh to interact with the neighbouring states of India, in particular with the Indian Northeast. Bangladesh would stand to gain better results with this strategy than by depending on the Centre and being let down almost every time. Our foreign policy leaders have failed to understand that in India, the Centre is not as strong or as dependable as they think.
The states of India these days play a significant role in maintaining the government at the Centre. The old theory that India is a quasi-federation where the Centre has the power and authority to impose its will on the states is no longer the case. The emergence of the small parties with roots in the states that play a significant role to form a government at the centre has made the states powerful these days.

We have seen state power in the way Ms. Mamata Banarjee rejected the Centre’s request to sign the Teesta deal right at the 11th hour. On the stand that water is a state subject, she dictated the Centre and opted out of the entourage of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka, leaving Mr. Manmohon Singh and the Indian Government to appear to have betrayed Bangladesh. The fact that foreign affairs is the responsibility of the Indian centre had no bearing at all to convince the PB Chief Minister that she was out of her line in refusing to sign the Teesta Agreement with Bangladesh.

It is not clear whether the foreign policy guardians of Bangladesh have taken this factor into account while organizing the Prime Minister’s visit to Tripura. If they have not, they should take this factor into consideration and interact more with the Seven Sisters and PB to build leverage so as to be able to get its voice heard in New Delhi. Sheikh Hasina’s generosity for past three years may have brought little for Bangladesh for New Delhi. It has however proven to the impoverished Northeastern States the great value of Bangladesh. It may be a good strategy if Sheikh Hasina would look at other Universities in these States for more honourary doctorates and do some diplomacy that her team in the past has failed to do.

It was a surprise to see that Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Dr. Mashiur Rahman were not members of the Prime Minister’s delegation. They were the ones who were arguing strongly the Indian case from the perspective of its centre. Perhaps, the Prime Minister is taking charge of our relations with India. It would be good for her, Bangladesh and Bangladesh-India relations that she would because her team has let her down badly by being more Indian than the Indians, making the India factor a liability for her party looking ahead to the next general elections.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

On what our political parties need to do for the country

The Independent
As I See It Column
14 January 2012
M. Serajul Islam

An Ambassador at a reception had suggested that I should write in one of my columns what the country expects of the two mainstream political parties for the good of the country. I told him I would but then had to delay for I had other topics to write on. It is good I delayed for meanwhile the ruling party has completed its third year in office. The BNP is also beginning to play its rightful role as an opposition, albeit outside the parliament.

In my discussion with this Ambassador, I had told him that Bangladesh is poised to develop faster and better than its neighbours in South Asia because it does not suffer from internal divisions and problems of the other countries in the region. I had told him that Bangladesh is a homogenous country and the divisions that are there are not as formidable obstacles to nation building as they are in other nations in South Asia.

I had told him we have no regional divide. The religious divide is there but we have historically the best inter-religious relationship among the countries of our region. Our society is egalitarian that also blunts the rich-poor divide although in recent times, the gap is extending. I told the Ambassador that it is the politics of conflict between the two mainstream parties that is not allowing the country from becoming one of the most successful countries in the region by benefitting from the natural advantages it has in nation building. I have scribed in the succeeding paragraphs a response to the Ambassador.

The Prime Minister in her speech to mark the occasion of her government’s completion of 3 years in office has given those who support her enough reasons to take heart for our future. She has said that the election promises her party had made are on course and the country has never been in a better shape that it is today. The opposition has dismissed all her claims. The problem of Bangladesh lies in these two statements. In any country that has a two party system and practices democracy, the parties often criticize each other. This is natural. However, the way it happens in Bangladesh is different from other countries because in between the opposing views of the ruling party and the opposition that extends to all issues crucial for the country, there is just nothing on which they agree. The utter lack of bipartisanship on national issues is the single most important hindrance that is keeping Bangladesh from reaching its full potentials.
The lack of bipartisanship has basis in issues that is also unique to Bangladesh. It comes from the differing views of history of our independence that the two parties take. Every nation takes serious note of its history to draw from it inspiration to give the country a sense of direction. In our case, our mainstream parties look at history to play a zero-sum game to divide the nation. The AL’s view of history is a simplistic one. It believes that its leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had dreamt of Bangladesh soon after Pakistan was created in 1947. He led the war of liberation with his party and hence all credit for the independence of Bangladesh must go to his vision and leadership and the Awami League. The AL dismisses with contempt the claim of anyone to take anything away from Bangabandhu. It does not believe that any other party other than AL had any role in our independence.

The BNP that did not exist in 1971 takes a different view. It is not willing to give either Bangabandhu the sole credit for the liberation of Bangladesh or willing to accept that the AL as the only party to be credited for our independence. It believes that its leader Ziaur Rahman had announced the independence of Bangladesh that started the liberation. It also emphasizes that he led the fight against the Pakistani military in the theatre of war and hence he must also be given a share of glory for the independence of Bangladesh. It is not willing to accept that the AL’s role as the only party that should get the credit for our liberation. It believes that those who fought with arms against the enemy and won has a better claim to credit for our independence.

The claim and counter claim for our liberation has divided the nation that had stood as a monolithic whole in 1971 that was the main inspiration of our liberation. Today on all issues with which our future is linked, the BNP looks at one direction, the AL in the opposite way. This difference that originates basically from the AL’s claim of all glory and BNP’s refusal to accept it has been extended by the AL to its ridiculous limit. The AL today accuses the BNP with its formidable support among the people as anti-Bangladeshi elements because of its alliance with Jamat forgetting that for 5 years when BNP was in power it shared the same platform with Jamat led then by Ghulam Azam to force the Government to accept its demands, including the introduction of the caretaker government system!

How a nation that had a handful of anti-Bangladesh elements in 1971 can have so many millions of anti-Bangladesh elements today defies common sense and logic. Sadly, such an attitude of the ruling party has divided the nation into two conflicting camps that today stands as a formidable obstacle to our future. Of course both the AL and the BNP are wrong in their interpretation of history. The only sane way to get out of it, and out of it we must to realize our full potentials, is to leave the discussion on history to the Universities and research institutions and to let politics move ahead.

These negatives have led to a mindset in the two mainstream political parties this is absolutely undesirable for democracy that was the main reason why the people of Bangladesh rose in 1971. The mindset is to cling to power at any cost; a mindset that is the anti-theses of democracy. It was this mindset that had led to the AL’s demand for a system of elections to be conducted by a non-party neutral government or the caretaker government system. Although AL’s movement was successful and the CG system was made a part of the constitution by amendment and also helped achieve fair and free elections, the loser never accepted the verdict, a mindset in which the AL’s negative manifestation was more pronounced than that of the BNP.

The CG system, despite the loser’s unwillingness to accept defeat, nevertheless helped Bangladesh achieve 3 free and fair elections and peaceful change of government. When the CG system was introduced, it was given a time limit which expired with the last general elections. The Court recommended that the CG system should be kept for 2 more general elections that the ruling party overlooked and has, using its parliamentary majority, introduced a system of interim government that would allow it to hold the next general elections. The BNP has refused to accept the interim system and is currently building up public opinion democratically against it. The deadlock has the potentials to destroy the country. The two mainstream parties have a duty towards the nation to resolve this danger.

Geopolitics places Bangladesh in a position that makes it supremely significant to India. India on its parts holds the key to Bangladesh’s survival as a country. Unfortunately, on India too, the two mainstream parties hold opposing views that has allowed India to acquire all its interests from Bangladesh without giving us our legitimate needs and rights. The two parties must come together on the issue of India for Bangladesh’s survival and its future.

A minimum faith and commitment in democracy should allow the two mainstream parties to come together on the main issues pushing Bangladesh towards marginalization, namely political partisanship, distorted versions of history, partisan system of national elections and lack of a national policy on India based on our interests. If the two mainstream parties work for these four goals with sincerity, Bangladesh’s future would be assured and sustained; if not, Bangladesh would always be in danger of becoming a failed state. It is politics not economics that is standing in the way of Bangladesh’s better future.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mr. Chidambaram’s praises and promises

The Holiday
Janauary 13, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

In the Northeastern States Business Summit held recently, India Home Minister Mr. Palaniappan Chidambaram has said a lot of good things about Bangladesh that is music for any Bangladeshi’s ear. He has complemented Sheikh Hasina for her “vision and statesmanship” that he said has brought Bangladesh and India as close as the two countries were in 1971. He has also assured Bangladesh that the Indian Government is going to grant us most preferred nation (MFN) status. He said: “It is India's responsibility to ensure that capital flows from India to Bangladesh to start businesses." to make Bangladesh the hub of business and investment in the region. One could not miss in Mr. Chidambaram’s statements the echo of what Dr. Gowhar Rizvi had been telling us before the failed visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka.

Any Bangladeshi heart would crave to believe Indian Home Minister. However, the head of the same Bangladeshi receives a different message; a message of caution. The reasons are obvious. Take for instance the Home Minister and his credibility on issues of substance to Bangladesh. He is the Home Minister of India but making promises that are not for him to make. Granting MFN status or businesses and investments are not his responsibilities. Then, this is the same Minister who came to Dhaka in July last year and promised zero tolerance on killings of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the BSF; a commitment that has not been kept.

As the Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram understands more than any other Indian Minister the true value of the seven ULFA terrorists that Bangladesh secretly handed to the Indian security. The Indian media had then strongly urged its Government to give Bangladesh whatever it expected from India for this security cooperation. Yet, in subsequent negotiations, there was no recognition of this major gift from Bangladesh to India. The Indian Government also failed to reciprocate of another major gift from Bangladesh, namely land transit, that former Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Muchkund Dubey considers of “supreme significance” to Indian in general, and the Northeastern States in particular.

Instead, under Mr. Chidambaram’s watch, the Indian BSF still continues to kill innocent Bangladeshis on the border. Still, the Indian Government continues to point fingers at those who are the victims, asking questions why in the first place were they in the border. They conveniently forget while giving such explanations that it is the Home Minister who had committed his government to zero tolerance to killings of innocent Bangladeshis by the BSF. He had said that BSF would use rubber bullets in place of live ones.

One has to wonder whether these Indian Ministers realize that people in Bangladesh have memories; that on the trust factor, people in Bangladesh are no longer confident whether India can be trusted to keep promises/commitments/agreements it makes. The Indian Ministers, unlike ours, do not say anything just for the sake of saying. Their statements in public, particularly those aimed at another country, are made with good reasons. Hence, Mr. Chidambaram is well aware of feelings in Bangladesh about India because of its failure to reciprocate to the concessions made by Bangladesh on security and land transit. Yet he went ahead and made new promises to Bangladesh, renewed old ones and reiterated India’s good feelings and friendship for us for good reasons. He also chose the Business Summit for the Northeastern States for this for equally good reasons.

The Northeast States of India stands to gain in a major way from Bangladesh’s decision to grant India land transit. The trial run that Bangladesh granted to India has already shown the Northeastern States what a big role Bangladesh can play in their future. In fact, the Tripura Chief Minister was gaga talking to the media when he had accompanied the Indian Prime Minister on his visit while explaining how Bangladesh’s cooperation to build the power plant in his state has opened vast economic opportunities for Tripura.

That trial run now needs to be renewed and made long term. The Indians have officially written to the Bangladesh Government in this regard. This time, however, there is a marked change in Bangladesh’s response. Up to the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s negotiators were the ones excited about the benefits that Bangladesh would reap as a consequence of Indian friendship. In fact, it was Dr. Gowhar Rizvi who was telling us what Mr. Chidambaram has said in his statement in the Northeastern Summit. Dr. Rizvi, the Foreign Minister and Dr. Mashiur Rahman are no longer making the strong statements about friendship with India or the benefits such friendship would bring for Bangladesh.

India’s ability to deliver on its promises on Teesta and Tippaimukh ; continued killings in the border and insensitivity in the way the Titash River has been defiled during the trial land transit run have combined to take away the enthusiasm of the Bangladesh negotiators who were earlier showing the willingness to give the Indians anything without even being asked. This time, the reluctance to grant India extension on the land transit is coming from the bureaucracy. Legal questions are being raised at the desk levels of the Government Ministries concerned where the Ministers and Advisers are no longer in a position to favour India at will anymore. No doubt, the message has finally sunk, thanks to the role of the media, that Bangladesh should not give India one more inch till India shows it can be trusted.

The economics of land transit, that Bangladesh would become rich as the connectivity hub of the region, has thus lost its appeal in Bangladesh. The concept of connectivity hub was very cleverly articulated by the Indians to make land transit acceptable in Bangladesh. Thanks to Dr. Rizvi, Dr. Rahman and Dipu Moni, we were led to believe that we were indeed going to gain economically in a major way as the connectivity hub of the region. By doing nothing on promises and commitments made on issues such as Teesta, Tippaimukh and border killings, the Indians have just not let their friends in Bangladesh down; they have helped strengthen the perception articulated by the opposition political parties in Bangladesh led by the BNP that India is not trust worthy. From being a BNP feeling, the factor of India and trust is becoming more widely acceptable across the political divide.

In fact, in the three years of AL rule, India’s failure to reciprocate has taken the wind out of the sail of those championing the Indian cause in the Bangladesh Government. More importantly in the process, India has put into jeopardy the great window of opportunity that Sheikh Hasina had opened for Indian Northeastern States. It is not just the prospects of these states that are in jeopardy; in jeopardy too is the possibility of a paradigm shift of Bangladesh-India relations that Sheikh Hasina’s courageous decisions to unilaterally grant India land transit and security cooperation had created.

Bangladesh thus has no reason to take seriously Mr. Chidambaram’s offers of MFN, of making Bangladesh rich as the connectivity and investment hub unless it wants to be misled again. His statement was also made to send a message to the Northeastern States that it is seriously pursuing with Bangladesh for its economic future. Nevertheless, it is time for India to do its share for the gifts and concessions that it has accepted from Bangladesh. It needs to sign the Teesta agreement without any further delay and abandon the Tippaimukh project. It needs to show not by promise but by deed that it would not kill innocent Bangladeshis any more on the border. Only then it should ask for the extension of the land transit and furthers security cooperation from Bangladesh. Public opinion has significantly shifted for the Bangladesh Government to grant any further concessions/gifts to India. .

In fact, unwittingly, the ruling party has created for itself a significant baggage looking ahead into the next elections. The India factor seems likely to become major hurdle in the next elections for the ruling party because it has given to India major concessions without receiving from India what it expected. Mr. Chidambaram sugar coated statements about Bangladesh has thus been largely ignored in Bangladesh, even by those who see it our national duty to do whatever India wants. By its greed and small heartedness, India has pushed Sheikh Hasina into a corner. She cannot now allow India extension on the trial run without placing her party and her own political credibility at peril.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dr. Amartya Sen and few questions

Daily Sun
January 8th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

One issue that has been keeping me thinking in recent days is Noble Laureate Amartya Sen’s visits to Bangladesh.  We all know what a brilliant economist he is. We also take pride in the fact that he speaks our mother tongue and his early education had been in Dhaka. In fact, we have shown it openly that we consider him very dear to us by inviting him to visit our country almost regularly. He has paid our gratitude back. He has spoken well of Bangladesh in his writings and in his public speeches.

In fact, he has given Bangladesh a lot of credit for doing better than India on human development issues such as education, life expectancy, immunization and maternal mortality. It makes us feel very happy when he says good things about our economic and social development. Dr. Sen’s comments were first made  some years ago and repeated many times and quoted by Bangladeshi writers extensively.  In an interview in a local TV channel during his recent visit to Dhaka, Dr. Sen has again stated his assessment on Bangladesh.

In New Delhi before coming to Dhaka, Dr. Sen had this to say in a seminar: “The tragedy is that not only China, but even Bangladesh is now doing better on almost every one of these social indicators than India is doing .... Every country Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are ahead already.” Dr. Sen’ good comments are thus not limited to Bangladesh alone. He feels the same way about Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Nepal as well.

Dr. Sen’s undoubted worth as an economist notwithstanding, his views about Bangladesh’s progress in human development issues do not attract as much attention these days because these have been repeated too often. These days, Bangladesh’s main concern is with politics that is becoming more and more conflict prone. This is   creating apprehensions in the public mind that the good achievements on human development issues would be offset by the difficulties in politics that lie ahead for Bangladesh.

Dr. Amartya Sen’s goodwill for Bangladesh is thus no longer news in this country. In fact his frequent visits to Bangladesh have started to make a few people think whether he is inadvertently stepping into an area that may not be doing his good name any credit. The point was addressed in a TV talk show recently. A Professor of a private university questioned with a great deal of humility and apology to the Noble Laureate as to why he is invited so frequently to national events in Bangladesh.

The Professor thought that the country has a Noble Prize winner of its own who is known around the world in a way no less honoruable than Dr. Sen. He questioned the wisdom of those who thought it wise to keep Dr. Yunus out of the celebrations and bring Dr. Sen in his place. One wonders whether Dr. Sen has not noticed the strange happenings concerning Dr. Yunus when he visits Dhaka these days after our Noble Laureate has been made controversial by the Government. If he has not, then someone should tell him that he has stepped into politics that those in government are playing with Dr. Yunus. In fact, knowing the character and righteousness of Dr. Sen, a lot of his admirers in Bangladesh are concerned that individuals and groups in Bangladesh are using him in playing politics.

The Government’s handling of Dr. Yunus and the way he was sent out of the Grameen Bank (GB) will be one of the unsolved mysteries of our time. A man who has become synonymous with the positive image of Bangladesh abroad; one who has achieved by his work and his personality the friendship of some of the most powerful men and women of our times has received  humiliation in his own country in a manner that defies both logic and common sense. We are now seeing the results of the way we have dealt with our Noble Laureate. Doors abroad in the capitals where our future lie are closing or have already closed because we have  offended  powerful individuals abroad who had requested our government to deal with Dr. Yunus  in a manner than does not compromise his respect and reputation.

The government’s points against Dr. Yunus were that the GM was a “blood sucking” organization under his leadership. Additionally, it had accused the Noble Laureate of corruption in the GB while he headed it. It is now over a year that Dr. Yunus has been removed from GB. The Bank is now in control of the Government. In this period, the Government has not lowered the interest rate structure that is still the same as it was when the Noble Laureate was the Managing Director of the Bank.

A committee was set up by the Government after Dr. Yunus had left the Bank to look into the affairs of the Bank. Its report found that other well known micro credit institutions in the country charge higher rates of interests than the GB! The Committee also cleared Dr. Yunus of any wrong doing on the count of financial corruption or irregularities. In fact, these developments in GB and concerning Dr. Yunus have underscored that the Government’s accusations against him had little substance.

As for the Noble Laureate’s standing in the power corridors of the world and in the western countries, his removal from GB and the way it was done has in fact enhanced his stature. He is still being received in countries that he visits at the highest levels and with respect that has not diminished even a bit. Most recently, he has been given a honourary doctorate by the prestigious London School of Economics, the 20th individual to be so honoured in the institution’s long history.

All these bring me back to the frequent visits of Dr. Sen to Bangladesh and the mindset of those who invite him for our national occasions. It has become obvious that he is brought in order to keep out Dr. Yunus from being either the Chief Guest or Guest of Honour at these functions.  It is highly unethical thing that those who invite Dr. Sen this way are doing; using one Noble Laureate to dishonor another Noble Laureate.  It is now for Dr. Amartya Sen himself to take note of what motivates people these days to invite him to Bangladesh. We who are his admirers only hope that before he comes to Bangladesh for another visit, he would make sure about the real intentions of those who invite him. 

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

On the President’s Dialogue

The Independent
As I See It Column
January 7th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The President’s ongoing dialogue with the political parties for choosing the next Election Commission (EC) suggests that the ruling party is not comfortable with the way support is building in the country for the next general elections to be held under the abrogated caretaker Government. Individuals in public life well known for their pro-AL leanings are speaking strongly in the media to urge the AL to give up its insistence to hold the next elections under an interim government under Sheikh Hasina. There are few such people in public life who are showing any interest in the ongoing dialogue of the President for selecting the EC.

The reasons encouraging these individuals to speak in favour of the CG system are too obvious to need explanation, only the ruling party for reasons of its own is not willing to accept, not yet. It was the Awami League that had not allowed the BNP to govern effectively in its 1991-96 term to make it accept the caretaker government system. The argument put forward by it with Jamat by its side was that the BNP could not be trusted to hold the national elections under an interim administration because it would use its authority to interfere in the process and manipulate the results in its favour.

The BNP was forced to concede to the AL’s demand. The people heaved a sigh of relief because the 1996 elections held under the CG system were free and fair. In a closely fought election where no party was able to interfere in the election process, the AL won marginally. The point was driven home that free and fair elections could be held only when no political party would have any role in holding the elections. The examples of 1973 and 1986 were there as nightmares to encourage the people to accept the caretaker government system as an answer to their prayers to hold free and fair elections.

The AL’s strong opposition towards a party having anything to do with the national elections, whether in fact or imaginary,  was brought home by their stand against Justice KM Hasan becoming the Chief Adviser of the Caretaker Government after the BNP completed its tenure in end of 2006. On the ground that Justice KM Hasan was in the late 1970s a member of the BNP that he gave up become a Judge, the AL took to the streets to stop him from taking up his constitutionally entitled position. The AL came out with “lathi, shota and boita” and the ensuing political crisis pushed the country towards emergency and military rule.

The AL’s championing the cause of the CG system in 1991-96 and its protest against Justice Hasan in 2006 pointed to one simple fact; that it believed that national elections cannot be free and fair  if a political party had even one of its members or one assumed to be so in a key position of government under which the elections were being held. The same party is now asking the BNP to go for national elections under a system that it has now made a part of the constitution, the system of the interim government. Under this system, the ruling party will hand power to an interim government to be formed and led by it. In other words, under this system it will be Sheikh Hasina who will supervise the next elections with her party members as the interim cabinet.

To make it worse for the BNP, the AL has meanwhile politicized the bureaucracy heavily in its favour. It is in the process of placing in key posts in civil and police administration at the field level with those who are its activists, posts that will play key roles in the next elections. Recently, the Awami League has placed as Administrators in the District Councils, its party loyalists. The way the AL has taken these steps has not left anyone in doubt as to what its real intentions are. Its demand in the past even not to have one single individual from the ruling party to have anything to do with holding the national elections makes it strange to accept that it is the same party now proposing to the nation to hold the next general elections with all powers at its disposal to interfere in the elections if it chooses.

The AL however believes it will be able to convince the nation that it has no intention of interfering in the general elections  to be held through the EC, its steps to the contrary notwithstanding. It has proposed to allow the EC the authority and independence to conduct a free and fair election. It is to help choose such an EC by consensus in place of the old one that will go out of office in February that it has decided to use the President to enter into a dialogue with the political parties.

Unfortunately, the palpably evident blueprint the AL has put in place in all other structures of the government that will play crucial role in the conduct the next elections suggest that an EC, even if chosen by consensus and given independence, will simply not be able to function in a manner where it will be in any risk of losing.  It is this clear blueprint that has encouraged the outgoing CEC to state categorically in the media that there is no other alternative to holding the next general elections in a free and fair manner without re-introducing the CG system. It is this stand that many well known individuals who are well known for close connections with the AL are echoing in public these days.

Thus the President’s dialogue is in effect like treating a very serious heart patient for leg injury. To make matters worse, the President also has no authority under the constitution to do what he is doing. Either he has forgotten or those who advised him have cared not to  point this out to him that he is no better and no worse than a mere ceremonial head. His only “power” is to sign on the dotted line where the Prime Minister wants it.

The BNP that had initially summarily dismissed taking part in the dialogue has done a smart thing by reconsidering its decision. It should use the opportunity to sit with the President to tell him to carry a simple message to the Prime Minister that the only way to save Bangladesh is to deal with the heart of the current crisis in politics in Bangladesh which is the caretaker government issue. The BNP should also request the President to convey a related message to the Prime Minister that the issue of the EC is one that would resolve itself automatically once the heart of the crisis is treated. There is no need for the President to waste his time and those of the political parties in trying to choose the next EC by consensus which is not going to happen anyway.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email