Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dear Visitors to the Blog

Last Wednesday, the 25th of April, I was in a panel together with Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelly and Dr. Amena Mohsin in the VOA programme "Hello Washington". If you are interested to listen to the discussion programme that was on US-Bangladesh security relations, please visit the following link.


Ambassador M. Serajul Islam

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Friendly India fences Bangladesh

Daily Sun
April 28, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

By the end of this year, India will complete fencing the 4053 km border with Bangladesh that it started 25 years ago. India started building the fence to stop Bangladeshis in large numbers from illegally migrating to India. At various times, India has stated that 10 to 20 million Bangladeshis were illegally living in India, claims that Bangladesh has dismissed consistently as exaggerated and ill motivated. During the tenure of the BJP, there was also the talk of a “push-in” or sending these alleged Bangladeshis across the border forcibly! 

The present government in New Delhi however has not raised the issue of so-called illegal Bangladeshis. Nevertheless, it continued to complete the fence. The present government of Bangladesh on its part has not considered it necessary to question Indian about the fence. In fact, it has gone out of the way to please India while ignoring the fact that the Indians have just not been completing the fence; in places they have been strengthening it as well. At the lowest point, the fence is “four metres and floodlit, with menacing spools of razor at its base and top “. 

The Indians have also turned the Bangladesh-India border as one that does not even indicate that the two countries have reasonably friendly bilateral relations. In fact, the hints are all to the contrary. Unknown to the rest of the world and amidst strange efforts of the present governments in New Delhi and Dhaka to push it under the carpet, the fence is openly referred by people living in the border on the Bangladesh side as “Berlin Wall of Asia.”

It is just not the name that is reprehensible for Bangladeshis. It is the treatment that people living there are subjected to by the Border Security Forces of India that guards the barbed wire fence that is more reprehensible. Leading newspapers of the world like the New York Times, London’s Economist, etc have highlighted the unfortunate plights of the Bangladeshis, although such reports have so far not attracted serious attention of the international community that it deserves. 

In a recent article in The Age, a leading Australian newspaper, its reporter has filed a report based on his visit to the Bangladesh-India border. He interviewed the BSF and researched about the unfortunate plight and predicament of Bangladesh and Bangladeshis living on Bangladesh-India border. The report was headlined “Indian border force cross the lines” that pointed an accusing finger at India on a number of counts. 

The reporter Ben Doherty focused on the nature of the fence and the way it is guarded. He felt such a fence could have made sense on India-Pakistan and India-China borders but not Bangladesh-India border. He highlighted the deaths of mainly Bangladeshis at the hands of the BSF to underscore massive human rights violations. He interviewed human rights organizations in both India and Bangladesh to come to this conclusion. Indian HR organization Mausam’s General Secretary told him that BSF was killing Bangladeshis and Indians with impunity “because they are never charged with any punishment.” 

The Indians have now introduced a new element to rationalize the fence. They feel that with the adverse impact of climate change in Bangladesh, alleged mass migration of Bangladeshis to India would increase in the future.  In making their assertions on the fence, the Indians have never addressed the issue as a responsible power. Indian governments have simply quoted an unbelievable number off the cuff without ever being able to give Bangladesh even a partial list of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants it claims to be in India. 

In claiming such an unbelievable number, the Indians have included all Bengali speaking people found outside West Bengal as Bangladeshis, forgetting that there are 130 million people of Paschim Bangla who also speak Bangla. The way the issue was projected when it blew into a major conflict during the BJP tenure underpinned an anti-Bangladesh and anti-Muslim bias in the Indian claim. If indeed there were a number of illegal Bangladeshis closer to what the Indians claims, then it would have been reflected in reports of independent international bodies and organizations that study and report on migration. 

International reporters like Doherty and others who have written have all been critical of India for first, building physical barriers between nations that have been condemned into the garbage of history, and second, for the untenable reasons that India has put forward to build the “Berlin Wall of Asia.” They have all also unequivocally condemned the BSF for its wanton violation of HR and the Indian Government for failing to restrain its trigger happy BSF. 

It is an irony that India is caging Bangladesh when the AL led Government is going out of its way to be friendly to India. In fact, the ruling party is now facing a serious political situation because of India’s failure to reciprocate after Bangladesh had unilaterally given India full cooperation on its security concerns and a trial run of land transit.  The border fence and the atrocities of the BSF are going to be additional factors against the AL in the next general elections. 

These factors apart, the fence adds to the negative image that Bangladesh has historically suffered ever since that insensitive statement of Henry Kissinger that  an independent Bangladesh would become an “international basket case”. Bangladesh has come a long way since that remark. Today it shows all the positive signs of becoming a middle income country. Seven million Bangladeshis live abroad legally and collectively remit US$ 12 billion a year with a similar figure lost because of the Hundi operators or illegal money operators with network in India. 

 The opportunity of such a large number of Bangladeshis to serve abroad legally and the significant strides that Bangladesh has made in economic and social development raises serious doubt on the Indian claim of illegal mass migration. Indian Noble Laureate Amarta Sen has said that on key social and economic indicators of growth, Bangladesh is ahead even of India in South Asia. 

For Bangladesh, the fence when completed and publicized around the world would become be a major hurdle in projecting the image it needs to attract foreign investment. Ironically it is India that has held out the promise to the present government in Bangladesh that if it gave it land transit, it would help make Bangladesh the regional hub of connectivity. A country that offers such promise for Bangladesh is building and strengthening the “Berlin Wall of Asia” because it believes that Bangladeshis would migrate in masses to India because of economic depravity and adverse impact of climate change! There is a serious contradiction in what India promises for Bangladesh with the connectivity hub and what it is doing with the fence. 

It is a tragedy that those in charge of our relations with India do not see through this contradiction and muster the courage to question India on the fence when it has the potential to give Bangladesh an image that would be disastrous for the country’s future. As for more contradiction, the country that accepted 10 million refugees from Bangladesh in 1971 is now fencing the same country so that they would not be able to flee to avoid death and depravation due to the adverse effects of climate change! 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

On resignation of Ministers and the constitution

As I see It Column
The Independent
April 27, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

During President Ershad’s tenure, there was a Law Secretary who used to pride himself that he could interpret any of the Government’s decisions as constitutionally correct given enough of coco cola to drink and a little time to think. The Secretary was addicted to the drink! He always found the legal reasons to defend the Government on constitutional issues. As long as HM Ershad was in power, most of the constitutional experts of the time did not raise commotions over his constitutional interpretations. 

In fact, till the end of the last term of the BNP, constitutional issues were more or less academic.  The AL, while in the opposition and fighting the last BNP government on the issue of the Chief Adviser of the CG, tried and succeeded in using the constitutional provision on the appointment of the CA to put a spanner on the government that ended by bringing the emergency and the army to assume power.  

On assuming power, the AL continued to uphold the importance of the constitution to bring changes aimed at re-establishing the constitution of 1972 and thereby, the democratic and secular character of Bangladesh. For a while, people who were not AL supporters and neutral thought that the AL’s faith in constitution was well intentioned. In particular, they welcomed the re-introduction of the secular character of the Constitution.  

Unfortunately, those who welcomed the AL’s faith in the constitution soon found that it was using that faith more in the interest of the party than the country. That was evident when it went to the Court for ending the 13th amendment that had established the CG system. The Court ended the CG system but also recommended that given the nature of politics in the country, the CG system should be retained for 2 more national elections. 

The AL did not wait for the Court to write its full judgment. Instead, it went ahead and used its parliamentary majority to end the CG system for good where the whole process took less than 4 minutes to complete! That exposed the fact that the AL’s respect for the Constitution was intended more for furthering its political interests. It has now placed before the country a political problem that threatens to push it to the edge.  

In fact, the AL has shown the same mindset that President Ershad had shown by its acts related to the constitution. That mindset was evident in the Railway gate scandal concerning Suranjit Sen Gupta. When SSG addressed a press conference and resigned as the Minister for Railways the evening after meeting the Prime Minster, everybody took it for granted that he was not just out of the Railway Ministry but also out of the Cabinet. There was no reason for anyone to think anything to the contrary. There was a national outcry to sack him. Such a demand came from senior leaders of his party. The BNP of course wanted his ouster. 

The Prime Minister herself was never happy with SSG. He was a leading reformist in the party who had taken a stand that was designed to clip her wings when she was incarcerated under the CG. Thus when she became the Prime Minister, she clipped the wings of the reformists instead.  SSG was able to find his way to the Cabinet after being in the wilderness for nearly 3 years as he had become an embarrassment to the party by his criticisms that were directed even at the Prime Minister. Thus when SSG dug his own hole with Railway Gate, the Prime Minister firmly showed him the door. The media felt not the slightest doubt that he was out of the cabinet. 

His resurrection thus surprised everybody; a section openly mentioned that he owed his resurrection to the influence exercised upon the Prime Minister by a foreign power.  In addition, leading lawyers injected further controversy into the issue. They said that SSG would need to take a fresh oath as a Minister without portfolio to be in the cabinet that he has not done. Hence they concluded that his appointment as Minister with portfolio was unconstitutional.  

That incensed the Prime Minister. She stated that a Minister remained a Minister till she recommended to the President to accept the resignation. As she had not accepted SSG’s resignation as Minister of Railways, he did not cease to be a Minister and hence when he was made the Minister without portfolio, there was no need for a fresh oath. The same interpretation was used to maintain that Sohel Taj who had resigned as Minister for Home nearly 3 years ago was still a Minister although in this period he never attended his office! 

In using the constitution to answer the critics, the Prime Minister   stated that our Constitution does not give a minister the right to resign from the Cabinet!! Without going to the constitutional debate over the issue, the Prime Minister’s interpretation would make sense only under a dictatorship. A simple reading of Article 58 (1) nevertheless makes it unmistakably clear that SSG’s resignation was constitutionally in order; the Prime Minister had no right to deny him the right to resign and his appointment as Minister without portfolio was a new appointment. The critics were right that SSG’s appointment as a minister without portfolio was a fresh appointment and he was holding the post illegally with a fresh oath.  

The debate over the resignations and the constitution is nevertheless a waste of time. The constitution has always been interpreted in our history by those in power mainly to justify their actions.  In the case of SSG and Sohel Taj, the constitution has been used to deny the ministers their fundamental right to decide whether or not to remain in the government. The Prime Minister interpreted the constitutional provision incorrectly by assuming  a power that the constitution does not give her. Those advising the Prime Minister have acted in the same manner as the Law Secretary who never disappointed President HM Ershad in finding constitutional answers to his actions, a lot of which were debatable. 

Therefore those debating the issue would be using their time better if they tried to find out the real reason for resurrection of SSG as a Minister without portfolio. It does not make sense why the ruling party would waste the advantages it had regained when SSG resigned, by resurrecting him. Therefore there must be a mysterious reason to make him a minister again. It would be worth finding that reason.  

Meanwhile, Sohel Taj highlighted the futility of fighting the Prime Minister’s mindset and her interpretation of the constitution. He thus resigned from the Parliament to get beyond the reach of the Prime Minister to force him to remain a minister. Like Kadambini 36in Tagore’s famous short story who plunged into the well and died to prove she was dead, Sohel Taj resigned from Parliament to prove that he ceased to be a minister! 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

The SSG drama: Victory for democracy or corruption?


April 26, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

In the case concerning the Minister for Railways, many miscalculated the outcome. Analysts of political events had spoken and written that Suranjit Sen Gupta would retain his post and the hue and cry over the taka 7 million found in the car of his APS when he was coming to his residence close to midnight would die down like similar incidents in the past. They based their prediction on the assumption that the Prime Minister would not sack the Minister, the allegations against him notwithstanding, because that would give political victory to the Opposition. 

When the Minister resigned, everybody thought that he was not just out of the Ministry of Railways but out of the Cabinet as well. There was of course no reason to believe to the contrary. The fact that the Minister was later retained in the Cabinet was a mystery yet to be answered. The members of the civil society were the first to be fooled into the belief that the Minister was out of the Cabinet and ended embarrassing themselves. They went ahead and congratulated the Prime Minister for forcing the Minister out and felicitated the Minister for his courage and his commitment for democracy for deciding to resign. 

The Chairman of the Human Rights Commission also did not waste time to welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to encourage the Minister to resign and the Minister for listening to the Prime Minister as a victory for democracy. One just wonders what human rights issue was involved in the resignation to have encouraged him to come to the media and give the statement he gave. The Ministers of the Government warmly felicitated their leader for her courage, her wisdom and political vision in the service of democracy and called the Minister’s resignation a “historical” event! 

The decision of the Prime Minister to keep the Minister in the Cabinet after raising the optimism that he was in fact sacked showed in bad light those in the civil society who had hurriedly gone ahead to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Minister. In fact, the Prime Minister did nothing unpredictable for she was not prepared to let it appear that she had given to the demand of the Opposition. She just removed the Minister from his post as she had done with the former Minister for Communications, only this time she reacted quickly to give the sense that she was sacking the Minister. 

Nevertheless, if it was just the fact that she was retaining SSG in the Cabinet so as not to give in to the demand of the Opposition, she ended giving the impression  that her claim of zero tolerance on corruption was a mere lip service to the issue. The tall claims made by her Ministers and members of the civil society that the resignation was a victory for democracy was made laughable when the Minister was retained in the cabinet as a Minister without portfolio. In particular, those Ministers who had hailed SSG’s resignation as “historical” should now know what historical stupidity they made by their hurried claim. 

In retrospect, SSG committed more blunders than other Ministers against whom charges of corruption were brought in the past.   He intervened with the Border Guards and the Police on behalf of his APS and senior officials of his Ministry after they were apprehended with Taka 7 million in their car. The fact that they were coming with it to his residence at close to midnight after picking the money from a suburb in the city made the case look more suspicious. If he knew that there was that amount of money in the car when he intervened with the authorities, he made a serious error of judgment. For a politician who took such immense pleasure to rub his self-acclaimed expertise in legal and constitutional issues on the opposition, that act, even unintentional, was unpardonable. 

Unfortunately for the Minister, other facts suggested that he was not really unaware of what he was doing. If indeed there was any need to intervene with the authorities on behalf of the Ministry’s officials on questions of identity, a Minister would normally leave such a matter to his Private Secretary or someone else in his Ministry‘. By intervening himself, the Minister showed a personal interest in the case. Further, in a Ministry’s staff, an APS of the Minister is one who is closest to the Minister. A Minister has the right and all Ministers use it to appoint someone who looks after his personal affairs to such a post. In fact, one appointed to the post of an APS need not even be a serving civil servant at the point of being named to the post. 

The Minister’s first acts proved his knowledge of what those apprehended were up to. The driver of the car as the whistle blower gave the public the reason to doubt the Minister’s innocence. The presence of Yusuf Ali Mridha in the car was another very serious incriminating evidence of corruption. He has since been accused by the employees’ association of the Railway Ministry as being the leader of money for job  racket in the Ministry that has so far netted huge amounts of money from the 7000 posts on offer in the Ministry.

Additional facts emerged from family sources that did not help the Minister in fighting the quicksand to which he fell. His son, just couple of days before the incident later named in the media as Railway Gate, had paid Taka 5 crores up front as  fee for a telecommunications license he was granted by the Bangladesh Telecommunications Board. The Minister’s son was working in an internet provider for a monthly salary of Taka 50,000 till only recently. At the same time, the Minister was scheduled to open his own mall, the Sen Mall in Sunamgang that was built at costs running into huge sums of money. The circumstantial evidence both connected and unconnected to Railway Gate  all piled up to leave the people convinced that the Minister was far from being the epitome of honesty and integrity that he tried to project about himself and his politics.  

The Minister’s 50 years of politics did not prepare him for dealing with the situation that confronted him. He made a series of other silly mistakes to complicate his predicament. He formed two committees, one under his Private Secretary and another under a Joint Secretary in his Ministry for clearing the allegations. He then suspended his APS and then sacked him not knowing what was correct or what would be acceptable to the public. He sent the Ministry’s officials on leave at first and then suspended them. Later he formed a committee to investigate into the whole incident at a senior level.

In the midst of these series of confused behaviour, he ridiculed a BNP lady MP who had asked for a judicial inquiry, calling her a novice who was unaware about the serious business of governance. In hindsight he ended being the novice himself for if he had accepted her demand and asked for a judicial inquiry instead of trying to clear himself by forming committees under officials controlled by him, he would have given an impression of honest intent to the public.

At the height of crisis, he once hinted that if the allegations against him were proven he would resign. He then somersaulted and declined to do so, loudly claiming that none of the charges were against him and therefore he was under no compulsions, under issues of democracy or ministerial responsibility or otherwise, to resign. During the crisis, the opposition made him nervous by loudly demanding his resignation and for probe in to the allegations of corruption.

He could perhaps have faced those demands of the opposition if he had any support forthcoming from his own party. Senior members of his party led by former Home Minister Mohammad Nasim joined voice with the Opposition and asked him to take responsibility for his actions, in other words asked him to resign. In fact Mohammad Nasim’s comment that the Railway Bhavan would not be allowed to become the Hawa Bhavan hurled at the Minister much more serious accusation of corruption than what the opposition could articulate.

When the Prime Minister returned from Turkey and consulted her close aides on the incident, the Minister’s goose was more than well cooked. The Minister was given the post only recently after he was by-passed three years ago because he had annoyed the Prime Minister as a reformist during the period of the last caretaker government. He was included eventually after he had become an embarrassment for the Prime Minister and the ruling party with his criticisms aimed at just not the government but also at the Prime Minister and her family. The Minister, by what he did or failed to do with Railway Gate, gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to snub a colleague for whom she had no reason for compassion. 

Therefore there was no service done  to democracy nor was it intended as the members of the ruling party projected initially.  The Minister, by his actions gave the Prime Minister the opportunity for which she was waiting and she did not miss that opportunity. She did not go to the full extent of humiliating the Minister because she did not want to give the opposition any opportunity to feel that she had acted under pressure from them.   

The whole nation heaved a sigh of relief that the Prime Minister had held a colleague responsible for corruption and moved him from his post quicker than she did with the former Minister of Communications. However, they welcomed it more because they felt that the Minister more than deserved it.   Their only pleasure was that the Prime Minister  sealed the mouth of a politician who irked not just the opposition but many right thinking people by his self-righteousness and the manner in which he ridiculed his opponents on issues of corruption by placing himself on a pedestal of honesty and integrity. 

The Prime Minister would richly deserve the nation’s congratulations only when she completed the process of allegations against the Minister, his Ministry, his wealth and his son’s Taka 5 million, not forgetting from where the Taka 7 million came from and why were the culprits headed for the Minister’s house. Otherwise, her action to force the Minister to resign from his post would be a victory not for democracy but for corruption. Her decision to keep him in the Cabinet as a Minister without portfolio hinted that corruption still had a head start over democracy in winning the Railway Gate case. 

Post script: The Railway Gate had pulled down the ruling party to a new low politically given the fact that it was its promise to fight corruption with zero tolerance that had helped it win a thumping majority in the last elections. When the Prime Minister had appeared to have sacked SSG on that zero tolerance, the ruling party managed to undo a lot of the potential damage that Railway gate had done to it. With SSG now resurrected as a Minister where there was no support for him even from his party and the Prime Minister not entirely unhappy with his predicament, India is being mentioned as the power that intervened on his behalf.  

The emergence of the India factor has created more serious liabilities for the ruling party. By keeping the Minister in the cabinet, it failed to convince the people on its zero tolerance on corruption. Now with the India factor to deal with; the ruling party has a very dangerous combination at hand looking ahead into the next general elections. India’s standing in Bangladesh’s politics because of its failure to deliver on many promises it made to it is now at an all time low. 

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

Sunday, April 22, 2012

India:Provincial power on rise

Daily Sun
April 22, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

We were told by our professors in the Department of Political Science in Dhaka University back in the 1960s that India was not the perfect example of federation as the United States. India they taught us was a quasi-federation where the centre was the dominant authority and the provinces had to depend on most major issues for favour of the centre. The other difference that made the Indian centre strong at the time of independence was the fact that the centre gave powers to the provinces; in fact since independence, the centre also created some of the Indian provinces. Conversely, in US, the states came together and formed the federation and voluntarily gave it the powers they thought were necessary for the federal government.  

Things had not changed much in centre-province relations even into the 1980s. In fact, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, the centre was still powerful and dominant. Then Chief Minister of West Bengal now Paschim Bangla Jyoti Basu had called Rajiv Gandhi a second rate commercial pilot when he was yet to be the Prime Minister of India. Rajiv Gandhi did not forget that compliment. Upon becoming the Prime Minister, he made West Bengal pay for their Chief Minister’s indiscretion. 

The present Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohon Singh must be regretting every day these days that the good days of being an Indian Prime Minister vis-a-vis the provinces are over as the Chief Ministers of the once weak provinces flex their muscles to make him dance to their tunes. Not too long ago, the Paschim Bangla’s mercurial Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee not only showed her power to the Prime Minister, she embarrassed New Delhi when the agreement of the water sharing of the Teesta l with Bangladesh had to be taken off the table at literally the eleventh hour. In fact, that act of Mamata Banarjee has sent Bangladesh-India relations off track right when the two countries appeared to be headed for coming together on issues of common interests after 4 decades of conflict ridden and mutually damaging bilateral relations.  

Mamata Banarjee achieved a first in the history of centre-state relationship or federalism in India by that act. She rendered the Indian Prime Minister powerless to act on a major foreign policy issue on the plea that water is a provincial subject. Such a division of powers never stopped the centre from acting unilaterally in foreign affairs in the past. The question that a province would have the audacity of challenging the centre on a foreign policy matter was something that was totally inconceivable when the constitution was drafted and decades thereafter. 

The ability of a provincial Chief Minister like Mamata Banarjee to make the centre powerless is now visible more explicitly in India’s domestic politics where it is New Delhi that is more at the receiving end. Provincial power galore was in evidence in the recent Annual Conference of the Chief Ministers on Internal Security in New Delhi.  Chief Ministers of provinces ruled by parties in opposition at the centre and one ruled by a party that is a coalition partner of the Congress led UPA came together on the issue of the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), a  federal anti-terror organization  modeled after the US Centre of the same. They bombarded the Prime Minister and the Home Minister. Both were present at the inaugural session of the Annual Conference for designing to use the NCTC to destroy the careful balance of power in India’s federal structure that they said had been achieved painstakingly over the years.  

The Chief Ministers considered the NCTC as “federally intrusive”. They also expressed strong opposition over the Railways Protection Force and the Border Security Force Acts. They considered these Acts as instruments with which the Centre was interfering with contempt into the powers of the provinces. Narendra Modi of Gujarat articulated the mood of the provinces by stating that New Delhi was using/would use the central intelligence agencies under powers derived from these Acts and the proposed NCTC to “browbeat” the law enforcing agencies of the provinces into submission. Tamil Nadu’s J. Jayalalitha stated unequivocally that as police is a provincial subject, the powers of these establishments in the provinces “is not acceptable.”    

Biju Patnaki of Orissa joined Narendra Modi and J. Jayalalitha in the attack on the Centre. The trio in fact left the Annual Conference soon after the inaugural to meet at the Tamil Nadu Bhavan in New Delhi where they tried to further the cause of regional power over the centre. The meeting at the Tamil Nadu Bhavan was nothing short of a rebellion against the centre’s power for at the Tamil Nadu Bhavan, the trio also discussed their dislike for the centre’s way of dealing with the provinces with “utter disrespect.” 

Till end of the 1960s, when India was ruled by the Congress where the provincial interests and conflicts were represented and resolved, there was no question of any province daring the centre. Despite the problems that Indira Gandhi faced in the 1970s, the forces opposing the Congress dissipated and it again emerged as a dominant all-India party in the 1980s. It receded again in the 1990s but when the BJP emerged nationally, India showed the signs of emerging into a stable two-party democratic system in a federal structure with a strong centre. At the turn of the century and into the new millennium, that prospect also dissipated. Both Congress and BJP as national parties have today become weak and no longer capable to form a government at the centre on their own strength. That weakness in turn made the centre weak s well. 

Both parties have become dependent on the regional parties to form a central government. Before either realized, these small regional parties soon demonstrated that they also had the power to make a government fall in the centre as well. It is this power to help form a government and to make it fall that is the real reason that has changed India from a quasi federation of the past where the provinces received what they were given by the centre to a  federal system where the provinces demand and receive what they want from New Delhi. 

Nevertheless, the transformation of the Indian federation leading to a weak centre and powerful provinces is still in transition. In New Delhi, the “trio” tried to send a loud message that the days of a powerful centre is over by heralding the emergence of a “Third-Fourth Front.”. They succeeded in so far as diverting media attention from the main event that was the Annual Conference to the Tamil Nadu Bhavan from where they delivered the message of provincial power. The absence of the Chief Ministers of Paschim Bangla, UP and Bihar,  the last two leading provinces from the Hindi heartland,  whose parties together have 60 Lok Sabha seats, took a lot of sting away from the message that the trio had wanted to give India  and ensured that the “Third-Fourth Front” would be still born. Nevertheless, the powerful CMs who abstained are also advocates of provincial power with the redoubtable Mamata Banarjee one of them and stayed from the New Delhi meeting on different reasons. 

New Delhi however must have heaved a sigh of relief because the divisions among the Provinces kept them apart from delivering a united message for a weak Centre despite the recent surge of provincial power in India. This notwithstanding, the golden days of a powerful centre that could take the provinces for granted is now a matter of the past that should raise worries about India’s political future.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

On Suranjit Sen Gupta’s resurrection

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

In Bangladesh’s politics, nothing is impossible. The saga of the former Minister for Railways and now the Minister without portfolio is a case in point. When his APS with a couple of his Ministry’s senior officials were driving from a suburb in Dhaka to his residence, it was only a matter of coincidence that their car was passing the gate of the Border Guards, had Taka 7 million in the car and it was close to midnight.  

If only the car had avoided the BG post, then there would have been no Railway Gate and Suranjit Sen Gupta would still be the Minister for Railways lecturing the nation on the virtues of honesty and integrity and his self-explained expertise on issues of the law and the constitution. Unfortunately for him, the coincidences may not have been just coincidences for the ways of the Lord are beyond the mortals to understand. The way the Minister was going about giving people the impression that he was perhaps the only man around with the sort of virtues he claimed for himself must have upset the Lord. He could take it no more. He had to do something for the Minister was competing with Him and thus those coincidences just happened. 

On a more serious note, the SSG saga proved that in our governance, corruption is so deeply embedded that no one involved with it is really above it. The difference among those in government is not on the substance of corruption but on the extent. On this issue, SSG has deeply disappointed the people because the evidence that has come to light has established on a prima facae basis that the extent of his involvement with corruption in his Ministry and those related to his family were on the deeper side. 

The Taka 7 million that was apprehended in the car was just the tip of the ice berg. It is common knowledge in the Government and the media that huge amounts of money were being illegally collected by senior officials as “money for job” racket for the 7000 jobs offered in his Ministry. One of the officials apprehended in the APS’ car, Yusuf Ali Mridha, was the key senior official in the racket. That he was going with the Taka 7 million to the Minister’s residence was serious incriminating evidence. 

Equally damaging for the Minister was the fact that the car with the money belonged to his APS. It is common knowledge in the Government that the APS is the closest to the Minister in any Ministry; one with whom the Minister confides on issues such as the ones related with Railway Gate. The initial actions of the Minister were also serious mistakes that created suspicion about his complicity. First, he interfered with the authorities for release of the APS and others. Second, he formed make believe committees to clear them.  Third, he sent them on leave at first and then dismissed the APS and suspended the others, hinting that he was utterly confused. Finally, he formed a committee in his own Ministry for inquiry at a higher level. 

These actions prove that the Minister erred in judgment but does not prove his implicit guilt. However, personal facts about him came to light that were questionable. He was scheduled to open the Sen Mall in Sunamgang when Railway Gate was unfolding that he had built at huge costs. His son had paid Taka 5 crores up front a fee for a telecommunications license just days before Railway Gate happened. Till recently, he was employed by an internet service provider for Taka 50,000 a month.  These facts together with those that happened in his Ministry created doubts about the Minister’s lifestyle in reality and what he created for himself in the media. 

The result of the doubts was the call for his resignation was a bipartisan one, the first time it has happened in Bangladesh. Some of his own party colleagues deserted him and went after him like the opposition BNP while none came to his rescue. Former Home Minister Mohammad Nasim stated unequivocally that the Minister must not be allowed to turn the Railway Bhavan into Hawa Bhavan, a statement that just not called him corrupt but also his Ministry and one that even the opposition could not have articulated. 

By the time the Prime Minister returned for her trip to Turkey, it appeared that nothing would be able to save the Minister. When the Minister met the Prime Minister at her residence and came out to tell the media briefly that he would be holding a press conference the next day, no one was in doubt that he had been asked to resign. Indeed the following day, the Minister did what was expected. He resigned and left the Railways Bhavan in a car that did not fly the flag. The indication was clear; that he had been pushed out of the Cabinet. No one cared to ask whether he had sent his resignation letter to the Prime Minister and if she had accepted it. It was taken for granted that SSG’s ministerial career had ended for the time being at least.  

Instead the ruling party Ministers and leaders used his resignation for some serious damage control because railways gate had indeed pushed it politically to a new low. They hailed the Prime Minister’s decision as “historic”, unprecedented and a victory for democracy. Some members of the civil society loyal to the ruling party joined the chorus and not just praised the Prime Minister; they called the Minister’s decision to resign as a courageous one that underscored his commitment to democracy.  

In their enthusiasm, they all forgot that before the Prime Minister had returned from Turkey, the Minister had said in a BBC interview that he had no reason to resign because the accusations were not against him. The Minister of course had conveniently forgotten the democratic principles of ministerial responsibility not to speak of the incriminating evidences of corruption that hinted a serious accusing figure at him. While refusing to resign, he had  failed to show even a hint of the courage to which he was later accredited by the ruling party and the civil society. 

The Prime Minister’s decision to ask the Minister to resign was also hardly a matter of vision or wisdom or any love of democracy. She never liked the Minister and was forced to make him a Minister to please a section in the party who had tried to bring reforms in the party when she was incarcerated during the last caretaker government. Therefore she must have not have been unhappy in showing the Minister the door because the Minister had given her the cause to do so.  

There is little to doubt that when she forced the Minister to resign, she did so not just from the Railways Ministry but from the cabinet as well. She did not like him. No member of her party came forward to back him; in fact some senior members wanted him out. The BNP of course demanded his resignation and the people on a bipartisan basis wanted the same. The Prime Minister, in fact, had managed to contain a lot of political damage that railway gate could have done to the party by forcing the Minister to resign in a manner that the people though had ended his Ministerial career. 

Hence something must have happened in between that helped the Minister’s resurrection. India is being widely credited for the re-entry of the Minister to the cabinet.  The India factor and the failure to live up to zero tolerance to corruption could place on the ruling party’s lap a dangerous political handicap. There is bipartisan disgust among the people on corruption. Disappointment with India is also almost a bipartisan issue with the people because of its failure to deliver to Bangladesh the promises it made. The SSG saga may have thus pushed the ruling party further into political mess and uncertainty. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What’s wrong with Pakistan?

M. Serajul Islam
Daily Sun
April 18, 2012

I read two interesting items in an issue of The Washington Post recently. One was a post-editorial written by a Congressman who has tabled a resolution in Congress advocating the right of self determination for Baluchistan. Another was a commentary on a recent book written by Ahmed Rashid named “Pakistan on the Brink” on the country’s  current predicament and its future in the context of its relations with the United States and Afghanistan. Both the pieces reflect on what is wrong with Pakistan at present. Apparently there is a whole deal that is wrong with Pakistan.  

Take for example the op-ed of  Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. He titled his piece most provocatively as “Why I won’t apologize to Pakistan. “  In the article he explained why he tabled in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Sub Committee on Oversight and Investigations resolution no 104 for giving Baluchistan the right of self determination. He detailed horrific human rights violations by the Pakistani military against the people of Baluchistan that included “extra judicial killings, kidnappings, disappearances, illegal detentions and tortures”.  He wrote that he has championed the right of self determination also in Kashmir and he had to be consistent in Baluchistan. He also detailed instances to show how successive regimes of Pakistan have forcibly subdued the genuine aspirations of Baluchis to be independent since 1947. 

The review of Ahmed Rashid’s book by Bruce Reidel is even more damming to the future of Pakistan as an independent country. The book reviews the strength of the terrorists/jihadists in Pakistan where the Al Qaeda is but a small group of a “syndicate” of such terror groups with the Lashkar-e-Taiba that was created by ISI for independence of Kashmir and responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks popularly called the 24/11,  the much larger group. The author reveals that these terror groups, though created by direct encouragement of the ISI, have now grown into “Franksteins”. The way the US’s killed Osama Ben Laden and their drone attacks  have helped to make the terror groups  a power unto themselves that Pakistan’s military is not willing to control and the Government of Zardari too weak to handle. The book’s conclusion is too dangerous for Pakistan and raises serious questions about its future as an independent country. 

As I read these two pieces, I remembered a meeting I and a few friends who had with a senior Pakistani bureaucrat in Kabul in September 1972. The bureaucrat was then the Director of the Pakistan Rural Academy in Peshawar where we had spent a couple of weeks during our training at Civil Service Academy, Lahore. We met him while escaping from Pakistan. The Pakistani bureaucrat was a Pathan and very sympathetic to the cause of our liberation. On seeing us, he embraced us enthusiastically and expressed genuine happiness that we had made it to freedom.  

He regretted to us that the struggle of his people for freedom would not be easy because of their geographical contiguity to Islamabad from where Pakistan was carrying out its oppression against his province, the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. The senior Pakistani bureaucrat underscored Pakistan’s weakness as a nation. In fact, except Sind, the provinces that now make up Pakistan did not even support the cause for Pakistan till it became a reality in the final couple of years of the British rule due to a number of historical mistakes made by the British colonial Government and the Indian National Congress.  

The emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 brought to the surface the fundamental weakness in Pakistan as a nation. Religion was the most important factor that had brought the Muslims of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh together in the years before 1947 to create an independent country for the Muslims of British India. The only chance that Pakistan had to transform the hopes and aspirations of the Muslims in an independent country created on just the factor of religion was to establish democracy and gel the diverse cultures that came together under the flag of Pakistan into a strong and successful nation. That never happened. Instead, Pakistan turned into a chaotic and un-democratic country where the military-civil bureaucracy emerged to keep the country together by force rather than by consensus of its citizens. 

Pakistan became a historical necessity in 1947 because of the major differences that was created between the Hindus and the Muslims as a consequence of the British policy of divide and rule. The visionaries of Pakistan envisaged that in a Hindu dominated India, the Muslims would be at a permanent disadvantage. The emerging Muslim bourgeoisie in British India saw this clearly and created Pakistan to protect their interests. In Pakistan, the Muslims of East Pakistan who had played a dominant role in creating Pakistan found themselves at the receiving end of the Punjabi/Karachi bourgeoisie who used the military to sustain their dominance. 

The people of East Pakistan like the Baluchis resented the Punjabi dominance. They tried the democratic path and even won a national election in 1970 to form a government in Islamabad. The military government of Pakistan dominated by the Punjabis rejected their democratic choice and tried to end it by genocide. The attempt failed and Pakistan broke up and Bangladesh was created. Pakistan’s ruling elite in Punjab refused to acknowledge their faults in breaking Pakistan and the genocide in Bangladesh. The military returned to power in Pakistan after a brief interlude of civilian rule under ZA Bhutto. Instead of taking lessons from Bangladesh, the military that should have been made to answer for what they did in Bangladesh was glorified by raising the India phobia at whose lap the reason for  breakaway of Pakistan was laid. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and President George Bush’s war on terror after 9/11 brought the US and Pakistan into a relationship that helped to strengthen the military further and turn it more arrogant. 

 That US-Pakistan relationship is coming to an end as abruptly as after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Only this time, Pakistan is in a worse predicament, where the US has become totally discredited in Pakistan, with 3 out of 4 Pakistani hating the US, and the US itself no longer seeking the same type of involvement with Pakistan as it did while pursuing the end of Al Qaeda. The move of Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is a clear hint that in US, Pakistan’s importance is ebbing.  In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, the majority of the Republicans have for the first time said that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. If Afghanistan becomes less important to the US; so does Pakistan. 

The Lashkar-e-Taiba is no threat to the US except in an imaginary way. Yet the US has offered a US$ 10 million for the capture of its chief to please the Indians for LeT master minded and carried out the Mumbai terrorist attacks, India’s 24/11. Clearly, the US is drifting distinctly towards Pakistan’s arch enemy, India with whom it is fast building an important strategic partnership, an axis if you like, against China. 

Pakistan’s hour of reckoning for crimes committed against its own people is coming. The only way it can save impending bad news  as a nation is to accept responsibility for its past crimes, do what is necessary like offer Bangladesh a belated apology for crimes against humanity it committed in 1971 and make genuine strides towards democracy. The tasks are extremely difficult; so is the task for Pakistan to survive as a nation. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan


ESCAP Report on our expatriates: A wakeup call

M. Serajul Islam
As I see it Column
The Independent
April 14, 2012 

The report recently released by ESCAP on recruiting system for overseas employment of a number of countries including Bangladesh reveals a saga of suffering for our expatriates that is pretty well known but has never been addressed. Those responsible for affairs related to our expatriates spare no efforts to loudly acclaim the billions of US dollars that our expatriates send every year as remittance as if the much needed money comes to the country because of their initiatives. The fact that these fellow citizens of ours literally place their lives on line for sending the remittance home is never even acknowledged let alone  be addressed. 

Among the countries named in the ESCAP Report, we are the only one that has a separate Ministry to look after our expatriates. The Ministry in fact has been “affectionately” named as Ministry for Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment. Yet if an objective survey is made on how much welfare our expatriates receive from this Ministry, the answer would not be a very surprising one. These days, all the private TV channels run regular programs on our expatriates where they speak of their lives. They say that they receive little to no help or assistance from this Ministry. 

Yet it is very sad because the misfortunes our expatriates suffer are very much within the competence of the Government to resolve. The fact that instead the Government makes such loud claims for the remittance is like adding insult to the injury. The ESCAP Report has identified some of the reasons for the misfortunes of expatriates suffer in their saga to a job overseas; a job that they dream would open their doors from abject poverty to prosperity. The most serious of these situations is the role that manpower agents and middlemen play in their efforts to go abroad.  

The Report has revealed that our expatriates who go for the ordinary jobs in the Middle East and Malaysia usually end up paying to the middlemen and manpower agents twice the Taka 84,000 fixed by the Government. The loan sharks add to their misery by charging 10% monthly interest on their loans! Thus when these unfortunate people land in their “dream” jobs, they are usually up to their necks in loans   to the middlemen, unscrupulous manpower agents and loan sharks. 

The Report has stated that a majority of our expatriates in these countries end up paying all they earn for the first two years of their employment overseas repay their debts. In desperation, many of them try to land a second job that is not just illegal but one these unfortunate people are forced to take literally by putting their lives on the line. Many also abandon their jobs for hope of a better paying job that is also illegal. When many complete their contracts, they turn into illegal immigrants in the hope of a better paying job. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are over 200,000 Bangladeshis who have fallen on the wrong side of the law and are running from authorities. Our Prime Minister tried to resolve this issue, that of the Ikama, on her first visit to Saudi Arabia in early 2009. The Foreign Minister has since stated a few times that the Saudis have given assurance that this grave problem would be resolved. So far nothing has happened. 

While we hear the good stories of remittance, we do not even bother to look into the unfortunate predicament of these expatriates many of whom die premature as a result of the predicament into which they are forced because at home our authorities turn a blind eye to the great burden of loan with which they leave the country. The ESCAP Report has named the manpower agents as the main source of the sufferings of the prospective expatriates. These manpower agents offer the jobs, prepare the travel documentations and in this process, subject the job seekers to exploitation and deceit. There is no protection for them when they fall prey to the manpower agents except what the legal system offers that does nothing for the victim. 

The ESCAP Report should make the Government think seriously the fate of these expatriates whose remittance is one reason for Bangladesh’s substantial economic strength with potential to contribute more. The US$ 12 billion that our expatriates sent last year is half of the amount they actually remitted where the other half was lost to the illegal Hundi system. Of the huge sum that comes as official remittance, less than 10% remains in the banks as deposits or comes to the economy as investments.  

At a time when the banks are running from pillar to post for deposits, it is a matter of utmost failure of the banking system that they have not been able to take advantage of such a humungous sum of money that should have been the cheapest source of their much needed and sought after deposits. Instead the remittance money enters the market directly in a way that causes negative impact on the economy such as increasing inflation. If part of the remittance could be invested with the Government’s help, the results could be an economic miracle for the country and the poor people who send the money with such inhuman efforts, the beneficiaries. 

The economics of manpower export is literally a gold mine for Bangladesh that has been treated by the concerned authorities most insensitively and casually perhaps because majority of our expatriates are poor and under privileged. They have been left literally at the mercy of manpower agents and loan sharks with the government leaning on the side of the exploiters. It is time to bring justice to the sector to allow it to realize its full potentials to assist the economy much more than what it is doing now. 

The starting point should be to give legal strength to this sector. Existing laws are not even remotely adequate. New laws should be legislated so that those who cheat and exploit the overseas job seekers are punished in an exemplary way.  While it is common knowledge that the manpower agents are the  common cause of a great deal of misfortune for the overseas job seekers, so far one has not heard such agency/agencies being blacklisted or brought to face the law.

The Banks should be brought into the loop to take out the loan sharks out of business by advancing loans to the job seekers. The Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare should work with the Foreign Ministry and the Embassies to ensure that our workers are not subjected to discrimination at their place of work as all other manpower exporting countries do.  

The ESCAP Report has mentioned that Kuwait and Malaysia have stopped recruiting Bangladeshis as they have found forged documents in their papers prepared by the manpower agents. This is a wakeup call for the Government. The future of this critical sector is at cross roads. Unless the Government wakes to the serious faults facing the sector, some highlighted in the Report, the lucrative manpower export business of Bangladesh could be facing serious setbacks due to the receiving countries shutting their doors on our expatriates because our government is blind to the serious faults in the system.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan nd Egypt