April 8, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
In her speech at the UN after becoming the Prime Minister the second time in 2009, Sheikh Hasina made a strong case about Bangla as an official language of the UN. She reasoned that Bangla is spoken by over a quarter billion people of whom 160 million live in Bangladesh. Of course, the fact that Bangla is one of the leading languages of the world on its own strength has also been used to make the case.
As Bangladeshis, we all support this move of the Prime Minister whole heartedly. But how serious is the case? A language’s strength to be accepted internationally depends to large extent on the strength of the nation or nations that speak that language. In this context, Bangladesh’s standing in the international context is not one that would give our case an immediate acceptability. On a serious note, there is a great deal more to be done to develop our country before our case would receive serious attention in the UN circles.
In fact, the need to do something for our language in more limited circles is much more of an immediate need than to make our case at the UN. On a recent flight on an airline of the Middle East, the importance that Bangla is accorded or the lack of it was driven home to me. An announcement over the airline’s PA system said proudly that its flight attendants are proficient in a number of languages some of which are spoken by people far fewer in numbers than Bangla and the nations where these languages are spoken are not developed nations either. Bangla was not in the list of these languages.
Yet this flight was carrying almost all Bangla speaking passengers. This airline and other airlines like this one do extensive business carrying Bangla speaking passengers. In fact this particular airline flies more flights to and out of Bangladesh than all other foreign airlines doing business in our country. Leaving aside the shortcomings that there may be to make our case a strong one for the UN, there is no reason why this airline with a plane load of Bangla speaking passengers should be announcing “proudly” the proficiency of its attendants in a variety of languages and Bangla would not be one of them. It is an insult to the country.
It is not just with the language that this airline shows disrespect to us as a nation. We have over 5 million people assisting these countries in their development efforts. Yet, they do not accord to them even the respect which they show other expatriates helping them in similar ways in their development. On board these airlines, we get a sampling of what Bangladesh means in the region. Open any of the newspapers of these countries. Inside, the Indians and the Pakistanis are given separate pages for news of their respective countries. With number of expatriates as close to theirs, news about Bangladesh is not given even a fraction of news from our neighbouring countries.
The flight attendants/staff of these airlines clearly show how little they care for Bangladeshi passengers. At the Dhaka airport of my recent fight out of Dhaka, we were kept waiting for an hour inside the boarding lounge, seriously overcrowded, with most of us worried about catch our connecting flights from Dubai. The airlines did not have the minimum courtesy to explain any reason for the delay! It was therefore no surprise that these airlines recently decided not to pay our travel agents commission for selling tickets. The travel agents took the airlines to court where the matter is pending. These airlines’ have not dared any such action in any countries in our neighborhood.
Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country in the world. Article 25 (2) of our Constitution says that “The State shall endevour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity.” With such over flowing of our Islamic commitments, we don’t seem to receive the reciprocity that we deserve from those whom we try to please by overstating our Islamic credentials. It is common knowledge that we are perceived as the miskins or the poorest of the poor just because most of our people who work in the region serve in sectors that are unskilled.
Yet all these countries were economically poor not that long ago. Saudi Arabia for instance was surviving from the money the pilgrims were spending there and Dubai was little more than a fishing outpost till oil was discovered. Hence these countries have no good reason to treat our people the way they do. Equally poor people from equally poor countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lankan and Nepal are treated better than our people in the Middle East.
The discrimination against our people is largely due to the fact that while our leaders talk big about us as a nation, they do little when it comes to protecting its good name and the interests of its people abroad. We send our people literally at the mercy of the manpower agents and their counterparts in the destination country who between them fleece our expatriates. Our Government comes in the picture only to claim credit for the huge remittance they send that is a major reason why Bangladesh today has become quite a success story in economic terms.
The Embassies of other manpower exporting countries under direct instructions of their respective governments work with their host governments so that their expatriates are dealt fairly in terms of pay, privileges and their other interests. In contrast, in our case in the Embassies the officials are constantly fighting amongst themselves as many Ministries of the Government are represented there without any real line of authority and little coordination. The expatriates make it even more difficult for themselves by infighting as they are organized on political lines unlike expatriates of other countries where there is no such division.
It is high time for sake of Bangladesh where our Prime Minister is making such an important move for Bangla and Bangladesh to help her in her cause. The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Civil Aviation should get together and resolve the small matter of indifference to Bangla by the airlines. The two should also get together and ensure that our passengers get the same respect as any other passenger for there is no concession given to a Bangla speaking passenger for travelling in these airlines.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a major task in talking to the Governments of the Middle East to ensure that our people are not discriminated against for surely ours are as any Bangladeshi serving there would attest. The Embassies should talk with the newspapers and ensure better coverage for Bangladeshi expatriates for surely it is a failure on their part that they have not been able to do anything in this regard so far.
The initiative for a concerted effort in this regard must come from the top. The Prime Minister must set the ball rolling and take diplomacy to the highest level of the ME leaders and impress upon them the importance that Bangladesh attaches to its Islamic credentials and that its constitutional guarantee to Islam is not just lip service. The rest of her foreign policy team should make concerted and well coordinated efforts to turn the Prime Minister’s initiatives into results. The task here is humungous and would need deeds not speeches to achieve.
In this context, we are not even at the starting line compared to where our neighbours are. Our expatriates in the developed nations are much better off than their less fortunate expatriates in the ME. They should also be brought into the loop on basis of bipartisanship for giving Bangla the international acceptance and Bangladesh the right image. The efforts would take decades to achieve if we are serious about giving Bangla the importance that our Prime Minister is seeking at the UN. Towards that objective, let us focus on the issues at hand such as getting for Bangla the respect of the airlines and our people dignity in the ME.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.