Sunday, July 14, 2013


On sub-regional cooperation on Ganges and Brahmaputra
M. Serajul Islam

A news item carried by The Hindu of India in its issue of April 15 is very encouraging for Bangladesh. It mentioned that Nepal, India and Bangladesh (NIB) have recently agreed to cooperate on a sub-regional basis on the mighty Ganges to realize its potentials in “agriculture, hydro-power, fisheries, navigation, and in the environmental sectors and in the economy of the co-basin countries “. The news item has been based on a paper prepared by the Indian Ministries of Power, Water Resources, and External Affairs on NIB sub-regional cooperation on the Ganges. The Hindu news item has also stated that the three countries would form national committees chaired by their respective Minister for Water Resources/Irrigation and co-chaired by Minister for Power for sub-regional cooperation on the Ganges.

Sharing the water of the Ganges fairly and equitably has been a major issue that has soured Bangladesh-India relations in the past. The unilateral construction of the Farrakkah Barrage (FB) through which India diverted the water of Ganges  from its natural flow into Bangladesh to serve its agricultural needs and save the Kolkata port threatened Bangladesh critically because without the natural flow of the Ganges, Bangladesh faced the prospect of its northern part becoming desert. Nevertheless, Bangladesh allowed a trial run of the of the FB during the last AL Government of 1971-75 out of gratitude for India’s assistance to its war of liberation in 1971 believing that India would reach a permanent agreement with Bangladesh to give it, its just share. That did not happen.  India used the changes of August 15, 1975 to deny Bangladesh a just share of the Ganges water for the next 2 decades till the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement was reached in 1996 during the last AL Government.

The 1996 agreement that came belatedly did not help Bangladesh much. The agreement was not negotiated well enough to ensure Bangladesh’s rights. The Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka had said soon after the present Government came to office that due to upstream depletion in India, enough water was not reaching Farrakkah for Bangladesh to receive its share as per terms of the 1996 agreement. He was answering those who were criticizing India for not giving Bangladesh water from Ganges as per the agreement.  The High Commissioner stressed upon the urgent need of augmenting the flow of the Ganges   in dry season for Bangladesh to receive its required quantum of water.  For those aware of Bangladesh-India negotiations on the Ganges would also know that when India spoke of augmentation of the Ganges water, it meant augmenting it by the water of another major river that Bangladesh shares with India, namely the Brahmaputra, by a link canal through Bangladesh, a proposal that it rejected every time it was proposed by India as a case of double jeopardy against its rights as a lower riparian of both these international rivers. (Bangladesh’s consistent rejection led India to consider linking the two rivers on its side but that was eventually dropped recently because of the difficult terrain and objection of Indian environmentalists).

Bangladesh, nevertheless, has been no less concerned than India on augmentation. It has argued that the best way to augment the water of the Ganges is through sub-regional cooperation involving Nepal with Bangladesh and India the countries that jointly share the Ganges. Bangladesh’s argument for sub-regional option for management of the Ganges has been based on a number of undeniable truths about not just the Ganges but also the other common rivers of the region. First, the rivers in this sub-region comprising Bangladesh, Northeast India, Nepal and Bhutan are almost all cross Boundary Rivers.  Second, there can be no permanent solution to water management concerning these rivers bilaterally. Third, these rivers have the potentials as shown by independent studies to turn the sub-region into one of the richest parts of the world in water related resources if managed sub-regionally.

There are also the added benefits of sub-regional approach with the Ganges in addition to augmentation. The approach would help build dams in Nepal and Bhutan that would help produce huge quantities of hydro-electricity in a part of the world where electricity is in very short supply. The dams would also store the waters in the rainy season that are now the major cause of Bangladesh’s regular tryst with devastating and dangerous foods. India did not show any interest in Bangladesh’s proposal for sub-regional cooperation of the Ganges and other commonly shared rivers. It considered any approach other than the bilateral one as one designed against it. As the dominant power, India felt that by keeping the countries from getting together , it would protect its interests better as well as its dominance in the sub-region.

If The Hindu news item is a correct reflection of the official position of India, then this is perhaps the best news for the countries of the sub-region because it means a fundamental change in the India mindset, lack of which has been holding the successful water management of not just the Ganges but of all the other cross boundary rivers of the sub-region.. If India really supports the sub-regional option, it will be a win-win situation for all the countries concerned. For Bangladesh, sub-regional cooperation on Ganges will be an answer to its prayers to save the country from the prospects of desertification, early sign of which are already visible.. In addition, sub-regional cooperation on water management will help Bangladesh tackle its perennial dangers with floods during the rainy season.   For all the countries, sub regional water management will provide enough hydro-power to eventually transform the region into a leading development region of the world. As these dams will be located in Nepal, it will derive the maximum benefits for production of hydro-electricity for which its terrain has been crafted by nature.

For India that has been holding up sub-regional cooperation on Ganges despite its  blatantly obvious advantages , it will also an answer to its own concerns for augmentation because its water is fast depleting for sharing among the provinces through which the Ganges flows  in India before crossing to Bangladesh. Apart from a share of hydro-power that India needs as much as Bangladesh and Nepal and perhaps more, sub-regional water management on the Ganges will enhance India’s position among these countries and replace their sense of apprehension and distrust with a sense of friendship. It will also enhance India’s image as a good neighbor that it needs as an emerging word power where at the moment it has an image quite to the contrary.

The news from The Hindu has been complemented with the news from Bangladesh’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation that talks of sub-regional cooperation are underway among Bangladesh, India and Bhutan for development of hydropower by managing the other major common river in the sub-region, namely the Brahmaputra as part of the same initiative taken by India.  Bangladesh is the common denominator in both the cases of sub-regional cooperation. Water management in case of both these major rivers  are still in the stage of discussions and hence it is still too early to draw any conclusion about what would eventually happen to these proposals of sub-regional cooperation for water management. Nevertheless, the fact that the countries are talking with India leading is a major step forward in the right direction.

In fact, India’s change of mindset is the major cause of optimism. The projects for sub-regional management of water resources would need huge funds. That should not be a major hurdle because for international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), there could not be better projects to assist for their potentials to transform the lives of hundreds of millions of impoverished people forever and for the better. In the sub- region where political instability and security concerns are major hurdles for over-all development, the successful management of its major common would also have a major impact towards dealing with its political instability/security concerns.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

On Pakistan’s national elections and new hopes for the country
M. Serajul Islam

Pakistan’s recently held national elections can truly be described as “historical”.  It was one of the most spontaneous general elections in the country’s history. Daring the violence by the extremists led by the Talibans who had declared the elections as un-Islamic, the voters turned out in large numbers. Over 60% of the 80 million registered voters cast their votes with women voters voting enthusiastically to express themselves against the fundamentalists. As expected, the ruling PPP was thrashed, securing only 30 seats with Imran Khan’s PTI winning 26 seats. The PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif  won handsomely giving the latter the chance to become Prime Minister of Pakistan a record third time. His party won 126 seats   of the 269 seats counted of the 272 seats contested but fell just short of the 137 seats required to form a government on its own. The independents won 25 seats and are expected to give the PML-N the necessary support to form a stable government.

In numbers and spontaneity, the 2013 elections have been compared with the 1971 elections. The comparison ends there. The spontaneity and numbers of 1971 was the reason for the break of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign nation after the Pakistani military establishment of the time refused to accept the results that would have allowed the Awami League to form the Government of Pakistan. This time, the elections have brought the opposite result for Pakistan. Instead of paving the way to breaking the country as the general elections did in 1971; the elections  this time will go a long way in helping Pakistan return from the prospects of becoming a failed state.

In the period leading to the May 11th elections, Pakistan was fighting problems on all fronts. The PPP led government had lost people’s confidence on the issue of upholding Pakistan’s sovereignty vis-à-vis the US. The government’s top brass was mired in allegations of corruption. The judges were up against it getting a Prime Minister out of office on corruption and also having similar charges on the last Prime Minister. The Talibans were in great force in the frontier and Baluchistan while Karachi had its own brand of terrorism where the country’s commercial capital was nothing else but a battle ground. All together, it was a miracle that the army did not intervene to take over power as it had always done in the past. There was fear in the country and abroad that the country’s existence was at skake.

Against such a dangerous political scenario, the elections and the results are both an answer to Pakistan’s prayers and a chance of its deliverance. In this, it was the people of Pakistan who showed the way, disregarding terrorist threats and turning out to vote in large numbers. They have also voted in a matured way. By voting against the PPP, the voters voted against corruption that is a major issue in the minds of the people. By giving the PTI a substantial number of seats, they backed the cricket star’s agenda against corruption and the need of bringing a third force in which the new generations have a formidable stake. In choosing the PML-N, the voters have backed an experienced party and a Prime Minister who they thought would be able to lead the country at perhaps the most critical period in Pakistan’s history. Although Nawaz Sharif’s past is not particularly free of allegations of corruption, the voters took the chance with him hoping that in his third term where he had been in the wilderness for 14 years during which he was also send out on exile, he would have wizened and learnt from his past mistakes.

The fact that the PML-N is not going to power with anything like a massive mandate and with power base mainly in the Punjab, the new Prime Minister will, even if he wishes to, not be able to rule the country without the need of compromise with his political opponents. In Imran Khan, who has already made his intentions known for playing a more than pro-active role in the Opposition, the new Prime Minister will meet a political opponent that he just would not be able to treat lightly. Thus the way the Pakistan’s election results have turned out, the needs of the country could not have been served better. At this stage, it can be said that democracy and democratic elections at long last have given Pakistan the best chance in its history to establish a democratic system in the country.

In that context, Nawaz Sharif with the power and influence he will bring to his position will be the best politician to keep the military from dominating the country’s politics that is the main reason why democracy has stumbled in Pakistan. He will also have the reason to do so having suffered badly in the hands of the military in the past when in  1999, General Pervez had humiliated him and removed him from power after only two years as Prime Minister. He has already spoken on his intentions on the military. Nawaz Sharif will have strong support in the country and abroad in dealing with the military. Already the US President and the Indian Prime Minister have congratulated him that augurs well for the new administration’s tough fight ahead with the military.

The US, ready to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, would be looking forward eagerly towards a government in Islamabad with which it would need to work very closely. The US does not trust Pakistan’s military as it used to in the past. Nawaz Sharif could use this to his advantage. India too is happy with the results as in the period leading to the elections and after the elections, Nawaz Sharif has expressed his interest and intention to carry out with India the agreement he had reached with the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 before he was unceremoniously thrown from power by the military. Nevertheless, the new Prime Minister must tread his grounds carefully for the Pakistan’s military has major say in the country’s foreign policy and security matters. Going into conflict and confrontation with it would encourage its temptation to take the centre stage of politics after allowing the politicians full five years of freedom to do politics on their own. 

For Bangladesh that has had the minimum of contacts with Pakistan since the AL came to power, the changes in Pakistani are particularly interesting.  Pakistan’s elections were held successfully by taking a leaf out of Bangladesh’s tryst with democracy; the system of caretaker government. It could take a lesson from that. More importantly, Nawaz Sharif has softness towards Bangladesh out of his connections with East Pakistan where his father had business interests. In the 1960s he used to visit Dhaka regularly and loved those visits. In 1998, while in Dhaka for the Bangladesh-India-Pakistan Business Summit that was held at the initiative of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in his banquet address at Bangobhavan he came closest among the Pakistani leaders to address the sad events of 1971 for offering a formal apology. It would be in the interest of Bangladesh’s foreign policy to touch base with the new Prime Minster to jump start Bangladesh-Pakistan diplomatic relations.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

RMG sector in grave crisis : No room for complacency
M. Serajul Islam

The New York Times carried a story recently on Bangladesh’s beleaguered RMG sector that the Prime Minister must read if she has not done so already. If she did, she would know that the complacency she showed in her interview with Christiana Amanpur of CNN was misplaced. In that interview, the Prime Minister had emphatically said that she was not worried for the future of the RMG sector in the world-wide uproar against labour conditions in the RMG sector following the Rana Plaza tragedy because the RMG buyers in the developed world have no alternative to Bangladesh for its competitive price to which they have become accustomed. Economics, she was confident, would keep these buyers hooked to Bangladesh.

The headline of the NYT story “After Bangladesh, seeking new sources” had a ring of despair.   The story hinted clearly that the sunshine years of the Bangladesh RMG industry that had seen the country rise to the number two position in the world as a RMG producer after China is under serious threat as major buyers of Bangladesh’s RMG products are now looking at Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and other competitors of Bangladesh to buy their RMG products.  The NYT story has described the western buyers’ search for new location as a “relentless” one that “ has taken on more urgency after the deadliest industrial accident in the global garment industry’s history, a multistory factory collapse in Bangladesh that left 1,127 people dead. “  The tragedy received unimaginably adverse international publicity. The Pope was so deeply moved by the tragedy that he  went to the insensitive extent of accusing the RMG owners of exploiting the labourers in a new form of ”slavery.”

In fact, the Rana Plaza Tragedy, the Prime Minister’s confidence in the stability of the market notwithstanding, is causing Tsunami like impact on buyers in the developed markets, particularly in the United States and Canada, major destination of our RMG products. In the United States, major buyers are already taking steps to end buying or investing in Bangladesh. More importantly, buyers a retail shops in these markets are now getting together to stop buying from Bangladesh on their own. Recently, a well known Canadian chain Tristan “proudly” advertised on the Facebook that in its store” there is nothing made in Bangladesh!” Expatriate Bangladeshis in North America went on a campaign using the same Facebook against Tristan that spread on the internet like a virus resulting in the withdrawal of the Canadian firms’ advertisement with an apology! Nevertheless, a post Rana Plaza tragedy poll taken by Harris Poll in the United States suggests that buyers are now on their own becoming seriously disinclined to buy Bangladesh products. The polls revealed 70% of US RMG buyers have heard of the Rana Plaza tragedy and 39 % of them have said they will now buy fewer products made in Bangladesh.

The admirable campaign by expatriate Bangladeshis with Tristan was a spontaneous one that they took out of their national pride and also from the insensitive reaction in the western markets to the Rana Plaza tragedy. The reaction of the expats notwithstanding, the dark clouds in the RMG sector has been gathering for a long time that the Savar tragedy has only brought to a climax  the  frustrations in the west with the RMG sector in Bangladesh. The Savar Tragedy would not have occurred if those with responsibilities had not been complacent and had responded to the wake up calls that were aplenty to pull up the RMG sector from sliding towards the abyss. The incident at Tazrin in December  last year in which 112 workers were burnt alive was treated by the authorities casually despite concerns abroad and calls from the buyers to the authorities in Bangladesh to put their acts together (After national and international outcry, only last week authorities  arrested the Tazrin owner!). In fact, after that infamous incident, famous buyers such as Disney decided to leave the Bangladesh market. Since Tazreen, the NYT story has counted “33 regional or national strikes … hundreds of deaths in factional street fighting there since February, and the Rana Plaza collapse in late April have left multinational corporations scrambling for other options.”

A classical response of the authorities to the gathering storm in the RMG sector has been to blame the opposition and to various conspiracy theories that only helped enhance frustration among the buyers.  As far as the US market is concerned, the authorities made no serious attempts to deal with the case of murder of RMG labour leader Aminul Islam, whose association has links to the powerful labour organization in the United States, the AFL-CIO. In fact, the way the Bangladesh authorities responded to the AFL-CIO concerns, it did not appear that they had even heard of this very powerful group that had threatened to use its power of lobby against the export of RMG products to the United States. The US has been pressing hard for introduction of Trade Unions in the RMG sector. The pressure has increased in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy. In the current political situation, with the RMG sector caught in the quicksand, trade unions in the sector is sure to add fuel to the fire and further push the sector towards insurmountable crisis.

The grave crisis facing the RMG sector, the country has no alternative but to do everything necessary  so that it can come out of its current predicament successfully. The reasons are too obvious. The sector “makes up a fifth of the economy in Bangladesh and four-fifths of its exports, which means that one of the world’s poorest, most densely populated countries is desperately dependent on continued export orders to stave off soaring unemployment and possibly further political unrest.  The NYT story however is not all despair. It has stated that despite the major buyers now looking intensely for new destinations, most of the buyers would like to “continue buying from Bangladesh” although some “want to move completely away from Bangladesh”.

To encourage the major buyers to stick to Bangladesh is a national responsibility. There is no scope for complacency. Political unrest is at the heart of the threat facing the RMG sector. Hence the political actors must resolve their differences and see that the country has a peaceful transition of political power. The Pope’s concern of “slavery” in the sector must be considered in the light of pay being given to the RMG workers and the need for enhancement. In this context, Dr. Mohammad Yunus has perhaps provided the best suggestion. He has said recently that the foreign companies operating in Bangladesh should be asked to jointly suggest a fair minimum wage for the RMG workers. So long, these companies have been taking the maximum share of the profit package for which the RMG workers in Bangladesh literally give their lives without sharing the responsibility of the welfare of the Bangladesh workers. The Noble Laureate has asked why these companies cannot help Bangladesh and its workers by asking retail buyers in the developed world whose hearts otherwise bleed so profusely for our workers  to buy Bangladeshi RMG products by a paying a meager 50 cents or so for per item that would be enough to “ resolve most of the problems workers face – their physical safety, social safety, work environment, pensions, healthcare, housing, their children’s health, education, childcare, retirement etc.”

Like his concept of the Grameen Bank towards women empowerment and alleviation of poverty, the solution given by the Noble Laureate to the current predicament in the RMG sector in Bangladesh with which 4 million lives and future of the impoverished nation of Bangladesh are inextricably linked, is a simple one but  easily achievable. Unfortunately, its success would depend on a bipartisan national approach. One hopes that for the sake of the country, we would see such an approach to the idea of Dr. Mohammad Yunus. Why can’t the BGMEA that has contributed its share to the current disaster in the sector take the lead with the idea of Dr. Yunus and get all the stakeholders on board?

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.


On two-nation theory and Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam

In the first week and a little more of the Shahabag movement, when the youth led uprising was promising to take the country to a new and better level of well being, there was enthusiasm in some quarters in Bangladesh and in interested circles in next door India that Bangladesh was finally putting its act together towards becoming a truly secular country. Those active in these discussions in Bangladesh are the leaders of the country’s secular movement who believe and want the rest of the country to believe that the main reason why so many lives were sacrificed in 1971 was to establish Bangladesh as a secular country where religion (meaning Islam, the religion of the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis) will have no role in public affairs and politics.

The activists of the secular movement in Bangladesh argue that the two-nation theory that used religion to create  in 1947 a Hindu majority India and a Muslim majority Pakistan (of which Bangladesh was a part)  has been rejected in 1971 when Bangladesh emerged as an independent country based on secularism. The leaders of the secular movement in Bangladesh, who were unhappy that even after the 15th amendment the country still had both the provisions of Islam as a state religion and “Bismillah” in the Constitution, were excited about Shahabag. The saw an opportunity in the Shahabag movement for their secular agenda, particularly in forcing the government to delete the Islamic provisions from the Constitution. They described Shahabag as the beginning of the new liberation war to finish the unfinished 1971 war of liberation whose objective is to reject the two-nation theory and establish Bangladesh as a sovereign country where religion would have no significance in the lives of its people except in private. 

This view that 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh rejected the two nation theory has been supported whole heartedly in India because it never accepted the 1947 partition of India.  It was therefore no surprise that India was the only country to give the Shahabag Movement its blessings. Breaking protocol and diplomatic niceties, the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid personally visited Shahabag while on an official visit to Bangladesh and gave it  his Government’s blessings at a time when the movement had started to become  overtly pro-ruling party and equally overtly anti-BNP. The Indian President on his state visit to Dhaka early in March said his heart was with the Shahabag youth and he felt sad he was unable to be there personally.

The move from Shahabag to fight and win the second liberation war to complete the unfinished task of 1971 for establishing secularism so that it is not tarnished by Islam faltered when the anti-Islamic blogs became public knowledge resulting in widespread public anger. The result was the Hefazat phenomenon where many times more people than the Shahabag youth could muster gathered in Shapla Chattar, condemning and demanding hanging of the anti-Islam bloggers. The way the authorities tackled the Hefazat phenomenon is still not clear with the government’s claim that it fizzled without serious bloodshed contested by the opposition that claimed hundreds of Hefazat men were massacred to drive them away from Dhaka. Nevertheless, the Hefazat reaction to the Shahabag underscored the fact that those who had thought that Islam could be contained in the four walls of people’s homes did not understand the extent and depth of people’ attachment to the religion in Bangladesh.

The government was the first to fear the Hefazat uprising after it had seen the huge gathering of Hefazat followers in Dhaka on April 4th.. Government Ministers held meetings with Hefazat and assured them that the government would consider their 13 point demands although there were elements in the demands that the ruling party with its secular stance on politics should have rejected outright. Although there was widespread concern and fear in the minds of the majority of the people of the country to see so many Islamic fundamentalist gather in Dhaka, there was nevertheless also a feeling among them that the youth in Shahabag had gone too far with their attitude towards Islam. The people in general did not believe that the youth in Shahabag were either atheist or against Islam but nevertheless they felt that the Shahabag youth did not show Islam the respect that they expected. They suspected that behind the youth leaders in Shahabag, there were a few well know “secularists” who tried to use the movement that otherwise had so much potential to serve their agenda of secularism against Islam. 

The debate between secularism versus Islam has been played out between the Shahabag Movement and the Hefazat phenomenon in a manner that should give the nation its sense of direction for the future. The people have cast their support unequivocally in favour of Islam by the way the Shahabag movement withered away. Nevertheless, it is not fundamentalist Islam that the people have supported. They have supported the Islam that has been tampered by many liberal influences including Sufism, language, culture and tradition. In fact, while the debate raged in the country between secularism and Islam, the majority of the Muslims of the country did not for a moment lend  their support for those who tried to use the opportunities offered to them by the anti-islam bloggers  for the fundamentalist brand of Islam. They clearly rejected Jamat and Hefazat for the politics they represented although they had their moral support for the Hefazat’s demand for punishment for those who humiliated Islam.

The people did in no way reject secularism either but not the secularism preached by those who do not see any place for Islam in public life of a secular Bangladesh. The people supported the secularism envisioned by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who had many times, both before emergence of Bangladesh and afterwards, said publicly that our national identity is in being both a “Mussalman” and a “Bangali.” He saw no conflict   between the two entities common in the lives of 90% of the people of Bangladesh for a secular Bangladesh where all religions would have equal rights.  The secular movement leaders unfortunately saw a fundamental conflict between the two and tried to use the Shahabag Movement to fight a new liberation war for a secular Bangladesh to subordinate the “Mussalman” entity from all public and political matters. Ironically, it is the failure of the Shahabag Movement that has established the “Mussalman” element of the national identity of a Bangladeshi in full strength.

The developments in Bangladesh’s  politics since February have unmistakably and indisputably established the “Mussalman” element of the national identity of its people that has forcefully destroyed  the notion that  the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 has rejected  the two-nation theory.  Pakistan gave the people of Bangladesh space for fulfillment of the religious element of their national identity but none for fulfillment of their linguistic, cultural and liberal identities that Bangabandhu had aptly described as the “Bangali” identities. In 1971, the people of Bangladesh achieved these elements to complete the process of achieving their national identity of being both a “Mussalman” (1947) and “Bangali” (1971). It is time the secularists take lessons so that Bangladesh can return from the abyss to which they had pushed the country by their attempt to undermine the Islamic basis of the country’s national identity.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

On Bangladeshis and Muslims in the United States
M. Serajul Islam

I have been travelling inside the United States for the last couple of weeks. I was in Houston, Texas for a few days and then travelled to Nashville, Tennessee, by road that took 14 hours. There is a large concentration of Muslims and Bangladeshis in Houston where I had a chance to interact with quite few Bangladeshis as it was a wedding for which I traveled there. When I first visited Nashville in 1976, the number of Bangladeshis could be counted on the fingertips. The few residents of the city then would compete with one another to host any Bangladeshi who would visit the city for the first time. Now there are so many Bangladeshis in Nashville that when a Bangladeshi meets another outside home in public, they don’t even have the inclination to exchange greetings.

One can easily see the success achieved by the first generation migrants to the United States have from the houses they stay in, the cars they drive and their life style.  Yet the second generation of Bangladeshi immigrants has exceeded the high marks the first generation. Talking to many of these successful first generation migrants, one will find how well their children have done. If one of then told you that his son/daughter graduated from Harvard, another would tell you his children have come out from MIT or Yale or some other of the great Universities of the United States. Many first generation Bangladeshi immigrants have sent their children to medical schools where it is extremely tough to enter such schools. Once out of medical school, material prosperity that is the dream of most Americans falls on their feet.

The first generation talks about politics in the country about our culture and our future as passionately as those of their compatriots who live in Bangladesh. Yet they have adapted to the ways of their new country as passionately and talk of USA politics like any American born in the country. Their second generation more so and are actively contributing towards the country they have adopted. 9/11 has come in the lives of the Bangladesh as very bad news as together with the rest of the Muslims in USA, they too have had to bear the brunt of Islamophobia  to which the followers of Islam have been subjected for the sins of a few amongst them. Lest it be mistaken, the number of people in USA suffering from Islamophobia is few but the views they represent are unfortunately often backed and supported by the country’s conservative media. As a consequence Muslims, including those of Bangladeshi origin suffer because of the negative image to which they are subjected by a conservative media that has only foggy ideas of Islam.

In Nashville, in my current trip, I was encouraged to witness that the new generation of Bangladeshis are fighting this Islamophobia as  Americans born in the country would if his/her religion was so irrationally attacked.  Barry West, an elected official Commissioner in Coffee County not far from Nashville posted on his Facebook a picture of an individual with one eye closed aiming with his rifle with the caption stating “this is the way to aim at a Muslim.”The hate posting was picked by a reporter of a local newspaper that interviewed local Muslim residents for their reactions. Among those interviewed were a nephew and niece of mine, both second generation American professionals quite capable of fighting for their rights like any other American. The expressed their indignation that went viral on the internet and touched base nationwide amongst Muslims and abroad, particularly in the United Kingdom. 

My nephew and niece who live in Coffee County did something in genuine. Through help of the journalist who publicized the Facebook posting, they contacted the Commissioner and invited him to tea in their house. He came with his son and had a good conversation with his hosts and regretted his Facebook posting, stating that he did it “out of fun”. He apologized for unwittingly hurting Muslim sentiments and retracted the posting.  The Muslims in greater Nashville area where more than 25,000 Muslims live decided to make use of the Facebook posting and its retraction as an opportunity to reach out towards their Christian neighbours to help them understand Islam better. They networked through the American Muslim Advisory Council  (AMAC)of Tennessee that works with the State’s elected officials and law enforcing agencies for better community relations between Muslims and their neighbours and arranged an event in the city of Manchester in Coffee County that they named “Discourse in a Diverse Society” with focus on understanding Islam.

Hoping that they would be able to make a strong case for Islam, they invited Bill Killian, the US Attorney for East Tennessee and Kenneth Moore, FBI Special Agent who work with AMAC for better relations between Muslims and the rest of the community, to the event. Unfortunately, two un-related events proved that AMAC’s timing and choice of venue was wrong. Just last week, a Federal Circuit Judge upturned a judgment by a local court for building a mosque/Islamic cultural centre in Murfreesboro that angered the local people whose notion of Muslims are none too good.  Second, Manchester is located deep in what is called the deeply conservative Bible Belt where people’s perceptions about Islam have been nurtured by a more deeply conservative US national media unfriendly towards Islam.

As a result where the organizers of the Manchester event were hoping for a turnout of 100 -200 people, the turnout was nearly a thousand. The overflow comprised those who wanted to turn the event into  a hate campaign against Islam angered no doubt by the media coverage on Boston Bombings and the decision of the Federal Judge on the Murfreesboro mosque. The opponents of Islam brought people from as far away as Virginia. They had a great day in abusing Islam and Muslims. The US Attorney and the FBI Special Agent were heckled and booed. The abusers accused the Obama Administration of being “soft on Islam”. They did not even spare the President and disparagingly called him a Muslim like it was a curse word! The other speakers for the event were heckled and insulted in an ugly public demonstration of “Islamophobia” .  When a speaker showed the picture of a burnt mosque, the result of anti-Muslim hate act, the protesters cheered! They told local media that covered the event, albeit distortedly,  that the Muslims were out to establish Sharia law in the USA!

There were a few rational voices among the majority non-Muslims though. One such attendee Elaine Smith said to reporters: “I am here because I want to learn something…but I did not because the audience was so disrespectful…It makes me really sad especially because these people say they are Christian. The God I worship does not teach hate.” The event at Manchester reminded me of an op-ed that Farid Zakaria had written after the Boston Bombings in the Washington Post. He had stated” Since 9/11, foreign inspired terrorism has claimed about 2 dozen lives. (Meanwhile more than 100,000 have been killed in gun related homicide).” He further stated that “Polls repeatedly have shown that Muslim immigrants to the US embrace core American values.” In both Houston and Nashville and also in the greater Washington area, I have seen how deeply Muslims have embraced America as their country.
 I would like to believe that the Manchester incident was an aberration and that the conservative US media would take note of it to help American Muslims integrate better and faster in the US society. The ball is in the court of Christian America and its conservative news media.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

On spot/match fixing in cricket and Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam

Spot fixing and match fixing in cricket are no longer “breaking news” these days. Too much of such evil is happening on a regular basis in present day international cricket. Yet when Mohammad Ashraful admitted to the ACSU, the ICC’s watchdog for anti-corruption and security issues of his involvement in spot fixing (and match fixing in the BPL)  and then broke down in tears before the media, the media coverage tried to give the impression that the news was a national tragedy and the cricketer was a victim of some conspiracy!

Unfortunately, the public in Bangladesh and the country’s media are quite unaware about how seriously the guardians of international cricket treat spot- fixing.  After watching the Bangladeshi cricketer cry in public, they are all heart for him. Instead of being indignant about his evil actions, they are praising him for his “courage” to admit his guilt.  They are unaware that he had to admit his guilt because ACSU confronted him with evidence of his crime. A human chain was formed to demand that he be given consideration for is “courage” in admitting his guilt. The police had to intervene to breakdown the human chain formed as a show of public support for him. Leading singers of the country visited Mohammad Ashraful in his house and gave TV interviews demanding that he deserved reprieve.   

The public “support” for Mohammad Ashraful reflects a Bangladeshi mindset of letting emotion take precedence over reason and logic. In such a mindset, they believe that if they get together in the streets, form human chains, they can get people charged of wrong doing off the hook just because they favour them as “stars” or worthy of their love and support. Thus the singers who went to Mohammad Ashraful’s residence did not seem to be bothered by the seriousness of Mohammad Ashraful’s guilt because they believed that the law can be sidelined if they show public emotion. Thus also his fans networked on the Facebook to create support for his reprieve believing no doubt that they could do a “Shahabag” over the cricketer’s predicament.

It is just not the public mindset shown over Mohammad Ashraful that should be of concern; it is in choosing him as the object of their emotion that is equally perplexing and should worry us more. Mohammad Ashraful has been called the cricketing “star” of the country to make the case for his reprieve. It would be worth our while to spare a moment and look at the star qualities of Mohammad Ashraful.  He is no doubt a naturally talented cricketer. He is the youngest cricketer to have scored a Test century. His century against Australia in Cardiff in 2005 helped Bangladesh defeat Australia in a limited over game that Wisden described as “the biggest upset in one-day international history.” His 158 against India in a Test in Chittagong in 2007 and 191 against Sri Lanka last year were memorable innings.

But then besides these few innings, he has little else to show to deserve the “star” status that his fans  and the Bangladeshi media have showered upon him. He has played 61 Tests, scored 2767 runs and scored six centuries. Importantly, his average for these Test runs is only 24. In Test cricket, to put it bluntly, this is a very poor average that should raise questions on how he managed to play 61 Tests. Just to set records straight, a Test batsman who averages  40 is considered an ordinary Test batsmen these days and even Test all rounders who bowl better than they bat have much  higher batting averages than Mohammad Ashraful . In one day cricket, Mohammad Ashraful’s record is as disappointing. He averages 23.4 with 3 centuries to his name in one-day cricket. It is not just that he has depressing batting averages that should raise many eyebrows as to why he should be rated as a “star”; it is the manner in which has played his cricket that should put many more questions on his so-called star status. More often than not he has got himself out by playing the most atrocious of shots.

The public support for Mohammad Ashraful or the “star” status showered upon him by the cricketing public and sports scribes of Bangladesh reflect in an indirect way on the poor cricketing credentials of the country. To be honest, in any Test team other than ours and perhaps the present Zimbabwean Test team, there just cannot be any question of retaining a “star” batsman over 61 Tests with the sort of average Mohammad Ashraful has.  Yet he has played 61 of the 79 Tests Bangladesh has played so far because the standard of Test cricket is so abysmally poor in the country.

There is thus little space to show Mohammad Ashraful the consideration that his fans want. He fell for greed for money as early as 2004. Cricket is a gentleman’s game and there is no room for complacency over such serious charges to which he has admitted. His fans thus should brace themselves and prepare for the worst and in doing so, refer to those who have been punished for similar ethical and moral breeches of the laws of cricket. In looking at the case of Mohammad Ashraful, they would do themselves and the cause of cricket in the country and perhaps the country itself that has a poor image on the corruption index a lot of good if they think about Shakib al Hasan and Masharafe Murtaza who were both approached by bookies and both referred the advances made to them to the authorities.

Bangladesh national cricketers are paid handsomely these days. Hence there cannot be an excuse for them to fall for the lures of quick money through match fixing. However, there are national cricketers who live beyond their means that exposes them to the temptations of gaining money by illegal means. Former Bangladesh coach Jimmy Siddons said somewhere that Mohammad Ashraful looks after 15 people who live with him in his house, no doubt members of his immediate and extended family, on his earnings alone. He said he had brought this to the notice of the BCB that allowed the coach’s concern to be ignored. Many of our national cricketers come from humble economic background and thus easily susceptible to the traps of the bookmakers for family related reasons.

This is where the Board has failed in its responsibility.. Our cricketers are talented but as a team, they have so far failed themselves and the nation miserably. Jimmy Siddons no doubt was able to see the problem. It is not good enough to have talents. It is dedication that is missing in our national cricket team. It is time to subject our national cricketers to the hardships that go with playing for one’s national team including being under surveillance to keep track whether they earnings and their living standards are compatible. As for Mohammad Ashraful, it was good to hear that BCB Chairman state in public that if he is found guilty by ACSU, he would not find any reprieve and the laws would be applied in his case without an consideration for his so-called “star” status or the fact that he admitted to his guilt.

As for the public and the sports scribes who have shed tears for the cricketer for his predicament, they should consider the fact that they stood by him through his disappointing Test and one day careers where his records were not good enough  for him to have  found a regular place in national Test and one-day sides   and yet he betrayed them by cheating that he has been doing since 2004!

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Towards “inclusive” national elections
M. Serajul Islam

The city corporation elections have brought a sense of relief to the people who were fearful that the country was fast sliding towards a major crisis. That crisis still hangs because the issue that created it, namely how to hold the next general elections, has not been unresolved, the successful holding of the city corporation elections notwithstanding.  The BNP celebrated the victories and the wide margins of these victories as unequivocal signals that the people have rejected the ruling party and backed its demand for the general elections to be held under a caretaker government.  The AL ignored the humiliating nature of the defeats and welcomed the peaceful, fair and free way the elections were held as signs that such elections can also be held at the national level under a party government and therefore a rejection of the BNP’s demand for the caretaker government.

The constitution prohibits party based elections at the local level. Yet the city corporation elections were a straight fight between the ruling party and the BNP where national issues dominated and local issues were hardly significant.  That explained why the AL and the BNP drew their own conclusions. The defeated candidates were all sitting mayors; “heavyweights” in the AL at the local level.  They all performed well as Mayors and under them, their respective cities have seen a great deal of development works that should have easily encouraged the voters to return them for another term.  Yet they lost in humiliating manners because the voters ignored local issues and voted on national issues such as Hallmark, Destiny, share market scam, Padma Bridge and alleged injustices against Hefazat.  That encouraged the BNP to state that through the city corporation elections, the voters have rejected the ruling party in national politics and backed its demand for national elections under a caretaker government.

The AL has braced itself and explained the defeats in various ways not complementary with one another. Some of its leaders have said that the defeats have been due to the fact that the defeated mayors were out of touch with the people and thus themselves to blame and not the party. Other leaders have said that the AL should take lessons from the defeats to prepare for the national elections. There is no doubt that there is an environment of despondency in the ruling party surrounding the defeats, particularly in the manner the candidates lost. The margin of defeats was too big   for the ruling party to put the blame of any other factor other than a vote on the lack of its popularity.  These notwithstanding,  the ruling party has taken credit from the fact that as the city corporation elections have been held successfully, freely and fairly, the voters have given their verdict for holding the next general elections under party government and not the caretaker government. The Prime Minister has made this point strongly  although her statement that she will not give general elections at all  if the BNP kept on demanding for the caretaker government suggested that she too has been  un-nerved by the humiliating defeats.

Thus, although the BNP and the AL have used the city corporation elections to argue their respective cases, the issue of the caretaker government has largely been unresolved. Therefore the concern in the public mind over the future of the country has not totally dissipated although it has encouraged them to hope against the worst. The city corporation elections have underscored unequivocally by the large turnout and enthusiasm   that the people were eager for exercising their voting rights and given the opportunity quite capable of resolving and reaching consensus democratically through free, fair and democratic elections. However, the city corporation elections have been held in a free, fair and festive environment because of the BNP’s participation together with the ruling party, albeit indirectly as required under the law, and the AL as the ruling party did not interfere in the election process. Nevertheless, the elections have also left few in any doubt that had the BNP boycotted the elections, the outcome would have been totally different. Thus it was the BNP’s involvement that has made the elections turn out the positive way it did.  

Therefore   the city corporation elections have given the country a very important message for its future as the country prepares for a democratic change of government at the national level. To achieve the same sort of result of the city corporation elections that has pleasantly surprised the nation, next general elections must be participated by all the major parties and of course be free, fair and without interference of the party in power.  It is now up to the ruling party to ensure that the next general elections are held with the participation of the BNP. Whether it will be under a caretaker government or otherwise must be decided by the AL and the BNP through negotiations as required under a democratic system. This point was made unequivocally by the Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden when she spoke at the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh in Dhaka after the city corporation elections were over. She welcomed the peaceful, free and fair way the city corporation elections have been held but did not go into the claims of the BNP or the ruling party over the outcome of these elections.

The Canadian High Commissioner said that the next general elections must be held “within the framework of the Constitution” as stated by the ruling party. She however added that in order to be free, fair, transparent and free of violence, the elections must also be “inclusive.”  She thus considered the participation of the BNP as essential and indispensible for Bangladesh to hold such a general election. She called upon the ruling party to show the political will to make the necessary amendments in the Constitution to ensure the participation of the BNP in the forthcoming elections. The quintessential diplomat she is, the High Commissioner recommended a “small negotiating team” to negotiate with “political will to determine the best mechanism to hold the election.” She concluded her remarks on the elections by stating that success in holding an “inclusive” general election would help Bangladesh achieve sustainable democracy while failure would bring violence and disaster.

The Canadian High Commissioner’s emphasis on “inclusive” general elections resonated in the suggestions  made earlier by the US Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and the British Minister Alan Duncan who have both on their recent visits to Bangladesh recommended “inclusive” general elections in Bangladesh. All western friends of Bangladesh have suggested the same.  In fact, an opinion poll in the country not too long ago conducted by the country’s most widely circulated newspaper showed that 90% of the people also supported “inclusive” general elections. According to some political analysts, if voters in the city corporation elections had been asked to vote on the caretaker government, they would have cast their votes in its favour.  One therefore hopes that the ruling party would see the same message that the city corporations have given; that Bangladesh must have “inclusive” general elections in which all political parties must participate and that the ruling party and the opposition must together find the way to do it. Anything to the contrary would bring violence and hence be disastrous for the country.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

 New British Visa regime places Bangladesh on “high risk” list
M.  Serajul Islam

The British Government is considering a pilot visa regime that would isolate 7 countries for special treatment. Citizens of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya would be required to deposit 3000 British pounds with their visa application fees to enter Great Britain. As explained by British authorities, this would be  a security deposit that would be imposed upon the citizens of these 7 countries because they are considered “high risks” , meaning that many of them stay back as illegal immigrants causing the British Government a host of complications that are undesirable for the country. Under the proposed visa regime, the security deposit of those who stay back illegally would be confiscated.

Last year, 14,000 Bangladeshis have been granted British visa. In the same period, 2, 96, 00 Indians, 14,000 Sri Lankans and 53,000 Pakistanis were granted British visas. The British Home Office while making public its intent of introducing the new regime has not mentioned about how many of these have stayed back in the country illegally.  The visa regime is the mechanism under which nationals of one country travel to another country. Visa is not a right but merely a permission given by a country to a foreign national to travel to its country. In fact, the receiving country in many cases reserves the right to refuse entry to an individual even after it has granted that individual the visa. Visa is a privilege can be provoked anytime by the granting country, even at the airport at the time of entry.

Visa is regulated and conducted through bilateral agreements between countries or multilateral agreements among nations. Reciprocity is a key element in any visa agreement between or among nations.  Nevertheless, generally, visa is not as complicated as it seems and in relations among most nations, its apparently complicated framework notwithstanding, works hassle free. Thus most nations are increasingly moving towards an era where they are making travel to their countries visa-free. Citizens from the developed world who travel within their “world” do not have to bother themselves in filing applications, going to foreign embassies or paying fees for visas to travel.

It is only for people of “our world” that visa becomes not only complicated but also humiliating as an issue. This is what the pilot British visa regulations mean to Bangladesh. Even before the new impediments upon Bangladeshi citizens seeking British visa are imposed, getting a British visa is a major hassle and the majority of those who apply for British visa in British High Commission in Dhaka are rejected without causes assigned. Bangladesh passport holders on transit to even the US/Canada or any European destination with no intention of entering Great Britain are required to get a “transit visa” and pay money for it!  Bangladesh passport holders have to pay hefty sums for a regular British visa of various types and not that small a sum for a transit visa just to travel through British airports!

If the sums Bangladeshis are paying for British visa are hefty, under the new regime being proposed, our citizens would now have to put in an additional 3000 British pounds as security deposit! The British Home Office has explained  that the 7 countries have been earmarked for the special treatment  because their citizens stay back illegally that costs the country huge sums in the services these illegal immigrants use/abuse. The British Home Secretary Theresa May  said that the objective of the new regime would be to bring migration down from “hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands while still welcoming the brightest and the best.”  She said further that the British Government is considering introducing bonds at a later stage so that it could “recover costs if a foreign national has used our public services.” The pilot regime has support among both the Conservatives and the Labour.

Colored legal immigrants who have now become British citizens have a different view about this new British visa regime. They believe that the new policy will be discriminatory and intended to prevent the “blacks” and the “browns” from growing in numbers so that the country’s “white” character is not tarnished. In explaining the regime, the British Government has not given any number on how many citizens from these so-called “high risk” countries stayed back or how much they cost the British Government in “public services”.   The British Government, like any government, will be within its sovereign rights totally to issue a new visa regime.  Nevertheless, there are unwritten laws by which nations behave, particularly in the conduct of matters which affect or impact those who are not under its sovereignty in adverse ways. One of these unwritten laws is that government must conduct international relations in a manner that is not discriminatory.

In that context, the new regime to be issued by the British Government will be discriminatory as it will exempt the citizens of other countries except the seven “high risk” ones from its purview. In the case of Bangladesh that sent only 14,000 people to Great Britain, there are reasons to believe that the discriminatory new visa regime of the British Government , if implemented, will be imposed on its citizens unfairly. The British High Commission in Dhaka is extremely tough in processing visa applications. Therefore, if there is any responsibility of Bangladeshis overstaying in Great Britain, it should also fall upon those who process the applications. In any case, our Foreign Ministry should tell the country how many of the 14,000 Bangladeshis that entered Britain stayed back. There is reason to believe not many have; not the number that would explain such a discriminatory action against Bangladeshi visa applicants.

There are more reasons for our Foreign Ministry to inform our people about the reasons for the discriminatory rule against Bangladesh. Our country unfortunately suffers from an image problem where it depends on creating a good image overseas for its socio-economic development. Certainly this news that Bangladesh will be placed as a “high risk” country by Great Britain will adversely impact upon its image abroad. Even if the number of Bangladeshis overstaying in Britain is significant, the 3000 British pounds “security deposit” will be unfair on two grounds. First, this amount is exorbitantly high for most Bangladeshis. Second, it humiliates those Bangladeshis who enter and leave the country as required under the law. The deposit rule harasses and humiliates these honest Bangladeshis for no acceptable reasons unless they are informed that the majority of their compatriots who are given British visas, abuse it.

Unfortunately, this is the way the developed world looks at us, the developing world, and their commitment for globalization notwithstanding. They look at us with a neocolonial mindset that they sit on a high pedestal from where they can humiliate and harass the developing world without having to explain their conduct. Thus for 18 Al Qaeda terrorists who are accused for 9/11, 1.2 billion Muslims are still suffering as they live in or travel to the developed world. In case of Great Britain, the discriminatory visa regime placing these 7 countries as “high risk” would be unacceptable and unfair from a historical perspective. The British invaded, plundered, looted these countries and in case of Bangladesh, cut off the fingers of the Muslin artisans to sell the textile of Liverpool during the period they colonized South Asia. Those who framed this new visa regime would do their conscience some good if they just compared the cost from “social services” that illegal immigrants avail today with what   Great Britain took from these countries in the colonial days, by force and illegally.

The British High Commission in Dhaka has tried to allay public concerns over the proposed visa regime stating that it is not yet final. Therefore there may still be scope for our Foreign Ministry to discuss with the British Government the predicament that will befall Bangladesh  if the regime is implemented and the sufferings it would cause to British visa seekers.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

GSP cancellation could be a blessing for Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam

The cancellation of the GSP by the United States seems to have taken the country by surprise. The AL and the BNP have traded salvos against each other over it. The BNP emphasized that the GSP has been cancelled because of the failure of the Bangladesh government to meet the demands of the US Government and its trade bodies over security of workers and work places. In scrapping the privileges to Bangladesh under GSP, the Obama administration has cited “serious shortcomings” in safety and labour standards. The AL stated that the US Government took the decision because the BNP pleaded for the cancellation. Others in the country drew their own conclusions.

 In the war of words, it was not explained properly by any of the parties that the US decision will not affect the RMG export to USA worth US$ 4.5 billion a year where Bangladesh exporters are paying tariff anyway and affect only US$ 35 million a year in exports in a variety of other items. It was also not explained why the US withdrew GSP facilities for faults in the sector where it was providing no such facilities. Many in the country feared that the US decision could put on line Bangladesh’s exports to the EU by influencing it to withdraw Bangladesh’s GSP facilities. Last year, Bangladesh exported US 12 billion worth of goods to EU and EU had also been contemplating “whether to suspend trade facilities to Bangladesh”. That fear has momentarily dissipated as the EU office in Dhaka in a statement said that it is not thinking of withdrawing GSP because it believes that the withdrawal would affect the workers and it is against EU policies to punish workers for the faults of governments or the owners of industries.

As for the AL’s accusation against the BNP, it is a farfetched one. Everyone knows that the BNP has no such influence in Washington and that the accusation is political made to hide its share of the blame. AL’s contention that the article of the BNP leader in Washington Times (that the BNP leader has denied writing) was instrumental for the GSP cancellation is also equally farfetched. The article was published in the Washington Times (not Washington Post), a newspaper of such insignificance that to assert that it influenced the White House to take a major decision like cancellation of GSP for Bangladesh is incredible. The BNP has dismissed the AL accusation by also stating that while on a visit to New York in May 2011, the BNP leader had urged the US Government to extend GSP facilities to the RMG sector while speaking at the New Jersey Senate.

Likewise the BNP’s accusation that the Government alone is responsible for the cancellation is also not entirely correct.  The problems in the country’s highly successful RMG industry that have been used for the cancellation have been developing over many years and a lot of them were there even when the BNP was in power. The military backed caretaker government that was in power for two years (2007-2008) must also take a fair share of the blame for the GSP cancellation decision. In fact, the application by the powerful labour union, the AFL-CIO, to the USTR for cancellation of GSP for Bangladesh on labour related issues was made while the Caretaker Government was in power in 2007. Therefore, the US decision has been one influenced by the failure of the Bangladesh Government over the last one decade during which the BNP, the military backed CG and the AL have all been in  government.   .

Nevertheless, the present government must take a major part of responsibilities for the GSP cancellation because of three major reasons. First it was already aware of the AFL-CIO complaint upon assuming power and had nearly five good years to discuss and negotiate with the US authorities to meet their concerns. During this time, the US side never relented in expressing its concerns that the Bangladesh Government was not moving in the right direction. In contrast, the Bangladesh Government led by the Foreign Ministry did not seem to take the concerns seriously and instead kept on assuring the people that the GSP would not be cancelled.

Second, the way the Bangladesh Government dealt with the US concerns over the murder of Aminul Islam, the President of Ashulia and Savar chapters of Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation did not convince US authorities that the Bangladesh Government was serious about US concerns. The case is still unresolved. In dealing with the case of Aminul Islam, the Bangladesh authorities also failed to consider that the late labour leader’s organization had links to the powerful AFL-CIO that had lodged the complaint against Bangladesh in 2007 and was deeply interested in the Aminul Islam case. The Bangladesh government behaved like it was holding the stronger hand while negotiating on US concerns over Aminul Islam. It did not seem to have any idea of the power and influence of the AFL-CIO in US’ politics.

Finally, of course the straw that broke the camel’s back was the accidents in Tazrin and Rana Plaza. Although these were accidents in the first place, now with the evidence at hand, it would be difficult to give the Bangladesh Government any reprieve by calling these as merely accidents. Both tragedies, the Rana Plaza in particular, were the result of gross indifference to the needs of the workers and safety conditions in the work places for which the government and the garment owners must be held equally responsible. The Rana Plaza was serious enough to shake the RMG’s foundations, drawing adverse response worldwide.  The tragedy allowed the world to look at the pitiful labour conditions in the RMG sector. The Pope referred to these conditions as those fit for slaves!

Thus, everyone with some sense knew what was coming. It is therefore a mystery why the Foreign Ministry was so surprised and why it was giving wrong signals to the people that GSP would not be revoked. Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government is right to feel that the decision was politically motivated. Again, this too should not have surprised the Bangladesh Government if it had looked dispassionately at the way it dealt with requests from the White House, Congress and the State Department on Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. In fact, it does not have to look back that far. It should just look at very recent angry reaction from some US Congressmen over the recommendation of the Commission on GB to break it into parts and place it under government control. With the GSP case so close to a decision by the White House; one can only say that the timing to release the recommendation of the Commission was inexplicable. It was like the government was provoking the White House to cancel the GSP!

The US Ambassador Dan Mozena was perhaps right when he said that cancellation of GSP would help the Bangladesh RMG sector attain number one position in the world by forcing it to take the long awaited and urgently needed reforms related to workers’ rights and working conditions. Therefore the US may have done Bangladesh a favour by cancelling the GSP facilities, albeit for no faults of the sectors over which it has been imposed! There may also be a historical parallel with China and Bangladesh’ current predicament. Decades ago, Washington would threaten a developing China time and again that it would withdraw the most favoured nation (MFN) status to force the country on issues of human rights and other matters. The threat helped China organize its trade with US, particularly its highly successful RMG sector. Perhaps the same would happen in Bangladesh’s case if of course Bangladesh could prove it is as smart as China.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador


A smile for a Muslim at the US airport
M. Serajul Islam

A niece recently placed a post on her Facebook that gladdened my heart. She was travelling through Nashville Airport in Tennessee, United States. While crossing the security line, a security agent surprised her. He smiled at her and in his deep southern accent said to her “Salam Walaikum”.  My niece, born and brought up in Nashville, is a graduate of Yale and now doing her PhD in Vanderbilt. She wears the traditional hijab. Very surprised, she managed to respond with a smile and said “Walaikum asalam.” But there was more. The agent asked her thereafter “Kaifa halag?”  My niece replied “Alhamdulillah, how are you?” and the agent responded “Alhamdulillah.”

My niece wrote of her Facebook that it was the first time she actually felt welcome at an US airport after 9/11 and closed her post in excitement with a bold “Thank you, Nashville.”  Reading her posting, I recollected my own travel in US airports over the years since 9/11. My own experience has not been as pleasant as my niece’s; it has not been that bad either. But there are just too many of us followers of Islam who have had harrowing experiences at US airport simply because those who have been alleged to have carried out the 9/11 acts were Muslims. For years after 9/11, having a surname common with the accused 19 Arabs who are alleged to have been involved in 9/11 was an instant red card. A brother-in-law married to a white American was a victim for many years till the US authorities were able to straighten out their data base. His wife would see her husband regularly taken off the line and grilled for hours, sometimes even missing flights.

This brother-in-law is law abiding to a fault. His only “fault” apart from being a Muslim has been his surname. It is one common with a few of the accused in the 9/11 attacks.   Another nephew who is a doctor who was born and educated in USA used to have similar harrowing experiences in US airports for the same reason; he too had the same surname “problem” as my brother-in-law. No one in charge of US security and intelligence was bothered or seemed to know that these Muslim surnames are like the surnames “Kim”, “Lee” and “Park” to the Koreans; hundreds of millions of Muslims and millions of Koreans share common surnames!. Those days when our relatives or other Muslims we knew related their experiences to us, we felt sad and upset but utterly helpless. We could do nothing except seek comfort in divine power. We wanted to feel the same way Jesus Christ felt when he had said “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Unfortunately, we were ordinary mortals.

There are a large number of Bangladeshis who have relatives in the States. Many have their sons and daughters who go there with legitimate visas. After 9/11, they have dreaded traveling to the States and once there, inside the country, because of the security officials at US airport. Many travelled, once in the States, large distances by road simply because they were afraid to travel by air for fear of the security officials at the US airports.  To be fair again, like my own experiences at US airports, many Bangladeshi Muslims have travelled through US airports without any ill experiences. Nevertheless, many were always ill at ease, in fact fearful while travelling through US airports and they had good reasons for that.

Standing in line for security check up, we could not help feeling from the body language of the security and sometimes immigration officials a clear change when it came to checking or interviewing us and those who were not Muslims.  We could feel clearly that we were being treated differently in a negative way. There is no question that after 9/11, the US Government and its agencies were within their rights to do whatever was necessary to ensure that there was no threat on the country from individuals/groups overseas who  intended to enter the country for terrorist and subversive activities. However, to stop these individuals/groups, the United States and its agencies have ill treated millions whose intentions have been farthest from what they feared and suspected.  Unfortunately, while subjecting millions for ill treatment, the US Government and its intelligence and security agencies did not care to take this into consideration.

Thus when the Boston marathon terror attacks took place; the Muslims in the United States were worried, concerned and angry like all citizens of the country. But there was one qualitative difference between the way the Muslim Americans were worried and the rest of America. Till it was revealed that the bombers were Chechnian Muslims, Muslims American were praying that they would not turn out to be Muslims because they knew if they were  Muslims, the rest of America would turn to them with accusing fingers like they were accessories to the crime. In fact, after the Boston attacks, many Muslims stayed away from travelling through US airports to save themselves from the possible harassment that they feared after it was revealed that the bombers were indeed Muslims.

Nevertheless, things have changed a lot in USA as far as the unfortunate predicament of Muslims in America is concerned. Travelling in US airports with a Muslim tag is not a bad experience these days. The data base of those the authorities suspect have been streamlined and organized. Just having a surname common with the 9/11 terrorists is no longer a hassle. It is no longer a hassle travelling through US airports as a Muslim because of the improvements of technology and better and more trained security officials. One can sense this as a Muslim travelling in US airports these days; in fact we can feel this change . It is no longer a humiliating experience being at a US airport these days as a Muslim.

Unfortunately, it is not just the authorities that have unfairly subjected the Muslims as guilty for the acts of the few terrorists and ill treated them. The media in the United States have done worse and helped in developing Islamophobia and spreading it across the country. The action of the security official in Nashville may not be an isolated one; increasingly there are instances where it has become clear that the US authorities are trying to extend a hand to the Muslim community to undo the mistakes they made by holding it responsible for 9/11 crimes. A few weeks ago, I had written a piece in my column here about the US Attorney and the FBI official trying to work with the local Muslim community in Tennessee to deal with  Islamophobia. Unfortunately, that effort failed as Islam-haters outnumbered the organizers and literally hooted the US officials out of the hall.

It is time for the US media to assist the authorities to handle the Islamophobia that they have helped to spread. A look at the growing Muslim community in US and North America will encourage them to do so as increasingly, the community is showing its yearnings to be recognized as law abiding US citizens who have no support or sympathy for the causes of the Islamic extremists. In Canada, the community helped law enforcing agencies stop a serious terror act in the making. In USA too, the community is likewise cooperating with law enforcing agencies against terrorism.

USA should revisit history and take lessons to correct its handling of the Muslims. After Pearl Harbor attack, USA had treated the Japanese community in the country as pariah, humiliating them publicly. In that case, there may have been some justification as Japan had declared war on the United States. In the Muslim case, the crimes for which they are on dock in USA have been committed by individuals and small groups with which the Muslims have no connection except they are believers of the same religion!

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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