Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hassan Rouhani heralds thawing of Iran-US relations


September 29, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

President Hassan Rouhani came to the United Nations at New York for his first interaction with world leaders last week since succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new President. Ahead of the visit he had written on September 19 a post editorial in The Washington Post that these days is emerging as a new form of diplomacy at the highest level where world leaders use the media to reach audience in another country directly. His Post article, statement at the UN and media engagements in New York have hinted that for the first time since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, serious efforts are underway for thawing of Iran-US relations.

Iran is a major foreign policy occupation of the Obama administration. To his credit, President Obama has been successful in taking the United States away from a military conflict with Iran by deflecting domestic and international pressure arising from the fact that Iran had provided enough evidence of crossing the Red Line in the process of manufacturing the nuclear bomb. He allowed diplomacy a chance and has used sanctions to tighten the noose around the Iranian government on the nuclear issue. It has not been easy doing that as long as Ahmadinejad was the President. He was too provocative to allow the diplomatic option but President Obama was able to withstand his provocations and domestic and international pressure.

President Hassan Rouhani was elected in Iranian elections in June by a landslide winning in the first round with 50.88 percent of votes beating his nearest rival Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf who polled 16.46 percent of the votes. He brings to his august office a number of positive traits for Iran’s rapprochement with the USA and the West. He is already accepted in Iran and abroad as the second reformist to become Iran’s President after Mohammad Khatami who was elected Iran’s first reformist President in 1999 but failed to leave his imprint because of the system of politics in Iran. In the Iranian system, the leader of the clergy is the Supreme Leader and the head of state and the highest-ranking political and religious leader of the country.

What fate awaits Hassan Rouhani is anybody’s guess. The new President however is well endowed intellectually and politically to see Iran through its present crisis where he would need to interact with the West diplomatically in order to meet and overcome the challenges and problems at home a great deal of which has emerged because of the sanctions. He was born into a religious family and earned a degree in law from the university before fall of the Shah’s regime in 1977. He earned a Ph.D. in Islamic Law from the University of Caledonia, Scotland and returned home after Shah’s downfall while he was contemplating going to Harvard. His stay abroad exposed him to the West in a positive way. In Iran, he worked his way in the clergy and became Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, becoming the first cleric to hold that post when he assumed it in 2003. The same year he successfully suspended his country’s clandestine nuclear programme. In addition to his exposure to the West, Hassan Rouhani has a few other plusses in Iran’s politics. He left the country in 1977 in the company of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He has also known Iran’s present supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei for 40 years. He has also sat for 25 years in the country’s powerful Supreme National Council.

Hassan Rouhani attracted the attention of the US and the West for campaigning on a promise of “constructive engagement with the USA” during Iran’s presidential elections. In his Washington Post article, Hassan Rouhani reiterated Iran’s desire for thawing of Iran-US relations. Of particular interest to the White House were President Rouhani’s offer for “constructive engagement” and the context in which he explained the offer. Hassan Rouhani wrote: “The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.”

President Rouhani touched on the core issue of discord with some refreshing and courageous words. He wrote that on the issue both sides have said in the “10 years of back and forth” what “we don’t want rather than what we want” and the time had come when the need was for both the sides to say what they want. President Rouhani further wrote that it needed courage to come out from the position of the hard rock and the sea that the two sides had hit over negotiations. He expressed Iran’s intention to state what it wanted and urged President Obama to do the same.

The Post article, the President Rouhani’s promising words during his campaign that have become mandate following his landslide victory, and importantly, his statement at the United Nations for “constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interests, and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States” generated a great deal of positive vibes in the United States. Thus there were expectations that President Obama and the Iranian President would meet, albeit informally, at the UN. Unfortunately that did not happen because the Iranian side backed out. No reasons were given officially but uninformed sources indicated that as red wine was on the cards to be served at the venue of the proposed meeting, President Rouhani had to back out for understandable reasons.

A more serous explanation why the Iranian President backed out was he had to be cautious for domestic compulsions. In the Revolutionary Guards, he still has many who are deadly opposed to thawing of relations with the USA and would allow the country to move that way only after they saw that the US was willing to make concrete concessions, perhaps on the issue of sanctions. Nevertheless, there have been enough positives in Iran-USA relations after President Hassan Rouhani assumed office leading to his trip to New York for analysts to expect that a “rare diplomatic opening” is emerging in these relations after serious concerns in the recent past that a US led military intervention in Iran on the nuclear issue was possible.

At the time of writing this article, the Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Zarif is scheduled to sit over the next 3 weeks with his counterparts from USA, Britain, France, China and Russia in New York. President Obama paved the way for the meeting when he said: “We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course. Given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government, in close coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” The outcome of the meeting would determine the roadmap for the positive direction in Iran-USA relations that the Iranian President has charted that President Obama has seconded.

There are detractors to the thawing of US-Iran relations. In the country, the opposition is coming from the Conservatives who want unconditional end to Iran’s pursuit of the nuclear option before the talks for thawing of relations could start. Israel has articulated, expectedly, the case of the opponents most conclusively. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned President Obama and called President Rouhani a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The detractors argue that President Rouhani is making the positive moves because his country is close to economic peril as a consequence of the sanctions. In 2011, Iran earned US 95 billion from oil exports; in 2012, only US$ 65 billion, a 27% fall. They are convinced that he is buying time to come out of the stranglehold of the sanctions and has no intention of giving up the nuclear option.

The writer is a retired

Friday, September 27, 2013

The wages issues in the RMG sector

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Saturday, 28 September 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam

The RMG sector is the success story of Bangladesh. The sector earned in exports US$ 19.3 billon for 11 months ending in May this year. It employs close to 4 million workers, mostly women that have played a major role in the country’s women empowerment. The RMG sector has placed Bangladesh on the world map as a leading producer of ready-made garments. Thus the recent disturbances over unbelievably low wages does not augur at all well for Bangladesh because it shows the potentials of destroying the sector. If that happens, the domino effect on the economy would be just too difficult for any government to handle. The result would be a major slide for the country towards becoming a failed state. 

The wages issue is the major reason of regular disturbances and unrest in the RMG sector that past governments, including the present one, and RMG owners have never treated seriously. The government and RMG owners preferred to go into denial about the reason for the unrests. They also preferred to see conspiracies and foreign hands behind these disturbances. Another favourite ploy of the government has been to put the blame on the opposition. The government and garment owners have avoided acknowledging what to the outsider is as clear as daylight that with such poor wages, the sector should have already fallen flat on its face. 

The BNP government while in power saw foreign conspiracies more than the present one when the disturbances occurred leaving no one in doubt where the finger was pointed. This government has avoided blaming foreign hands for the disturbances. It however made up for that by shifting the responsibility for the disturbances entirely upon the opposition and thought that the real problem that is over wages would wither away. Thus all previous governments, this one included, avoided treating the disease and dealt with the symptoms.  They talk about the poor wages but only as a lip service without doing what is needed. In fact the governments and RMG workers never made any attempt to relate the minimum wage in the RMG sector with the price line in the market. 

In a recent talk show the issue was brought to the surface in an ugly manner. A well-known and well-respected labour leader explained to viewers that the minimum pay of the RMG worker receives is not even the absurdly and unbelievably low Taka 3000 a month. He said it is Taka 2000 and the additional Taka 1000 is for house rent and medical allowance! He also said that most RMG factories flout with contempt the labour law that allow employers to employ workers for maximum of 8 hours a day and an additional 2 hours subject to strict conditions. He added that employers are making workers work for much longer hours and a BBC documentary documented a video showing RMG workers at work for 19 hours a day!

A RMG owner called in on the phone to take the labour leader apart. He called him a liar and abused him in a manner that was offensive to say the least. He said that as RMG workers are only 35% productive, RMG owners have to make them work for longer hours! He added that for the longer hours, his company arranges food and gives incentives. The RMG owner in fact left viewers without any doubt that the main problem in the RMG rests squarely on the owners with the governments a willing ally. 

The RMG owner by his rude intervention made the following points abundantly clear. First, the owners do not follow the labour law on limitation of hours of daily work. Second, they decide on the productivity of workers. If they consider their productivity is less than expected, they decided to make them work as long as they want to make up for their lack of productivity! The person conducting the programme failed to stop this person’s rudeness. Instead he allowed him airtime to humiliate the guest. It appeared as if he allowed this RMG owner phone access to the programme as part of a pre-arranged deal.

If it was otherwise, he should have asked or encouraged his guest to ask a few pertinent questions that the garment owner exposed by his intervention. The owner did not contest the fact that the RMG sector is paying Taka 3000 as minimum pay out of which Taka 1000 is for house rent and medical expenses. It is unbelievable that in this age and in present economic conditions in Bangladesh someone would publicly defend Taka 3000 as enough for workers in a sector that is earning close to US$ 20 billion a year! 

One of the participants on the programme, a very soft-spoken intellectual, more out of frustration and disgust over the ugly incident caused by the rude intervention said something that is the hard truth about the novae riche of Bangladesh; that they have failed to become the bourgeoisie represented in Marx’s interpretation of the capitalist society. The novae riche of Bangladesh enjoy all the facilities to become rich in the name of free market economy, but unlike their counterparts in free market economies, do not take responsibilities for the welfare of the workers!

The hard truth about the RMG sector is that it simply cannot carry on with the present wage structure and hope that the workers will accept it anymore. With politics becoming fragile in the days ahead, the RMG owners can expect things to get worse. The Centre for Policy Dialogue has recommended a minimum pay of Taka 8200, which is almost 3 times the present minimum pay. Even a three times recommended increase might not make the workers happy because of the hard economic realities of current times that exposes explicitly the hardship that workers of the RMG sector have borne so far and still helped turn it into the main foundation of Bangladesh’s economic prosperity. Literally, the sector has grown over the sweat of their brow for which the benefits have all gone to the owners many of whom have become fabulously rich. That situation must change for it cannot be tenable any longer. The owners would need to accept the minimum wage recommended by the CPD if they want to save the RMG sector from destruction and the government must put its weight behind it. Incredibly, the garment owners have “agreed” to increase minimum pay by Taka 600 to taka 3,600!

Unfortunately, the action of a Minister not connected either with the RMG sector or with labourers suggests that the Government is not serious. He brought the owners and representatives of the workers into a meeting and declared that he had succeeded in reaching a happy ending to the danger over the wages issue. Only, the “agreement” faded as soon as the groups left the meeting. It later transpired that he had coerced the workers’ leaders to attend the meeting to show the Prime Minister his “magic” powers over labourers. He also arranged a workers’ rally to prove his worth. He thought that if the RMG workers were happy, they would become a big vote bank for the ruling party in the elections. He neither bothered that a promise to almost triple wages could be announced only through serious negotiations nor the fact he had no authority to do any of the things he did. He simply assumed the authority of his colleagues to conjure political magic!

The Minister’s blatant political stunts aimed at luring workers for votes with false promises have boomeranged.  He has now accused the opposition parties for the continuing disturbances and unrest. At the time of filing this article, the right of the workers on wage, unfortunately, seems to be sliding into the black hole of politics with ominous prospect for the country. 
The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Elections: To be “inclusive” or not is the question

Friday, 27th September, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

The thought uppermost in the mind of almost all Bangladeshis at present is whether or not they would be able to cast their votes to choose the party of their choice to form the next government. They are swinging between hope and frustration. When they see and hear the Prime Minister in her usual mood, the thought that they would have an “inclusive” general election vanishes from their hope with a lot of apprehension. The vision of the Prime Minister raising her finger and unequivocally stating she would not “budge an inch” from holding elections under an Interim Government that she would head leaves them deeply concerned and equally deeply worried.
However, when they watch and hear the Prime Minister meeting her party supporters and activists at the PMO or addressing public meetings in the big cities of the country, they see hope that she would ultimately give the country what it wants; a national election where all the political parties would be able to participate. In these party and public meetings, she speaks of the achievements of her government over the past five years to seek votes in the next general elections so that the work that her government has undertaken for the people in this term would be completed in the next term. In these meetings she warns the people not to vote for the BNP because that would take the country back to days of terror, corruption and lawlessness.

These meetings make people hopeful that the Prime Minister has not ruled out “inclusive” elections for is she had she would not be seeking votes the way she is. More explicitly, she would not be asking people not to vote for the BNP. In fact, in the recent public meetings, the Prime Minister has left no one in doubt that she sees the BNP as her party’s adversary for the next general elections in the country. Otherwise, why would she be talking about the BNP, albeit negatively, when the later has said clearly that it would not be participating in elections under Interim Government and has given no other hint to the contrary?

Rizvi’s positive spin

Thus the people who are praying on their knees to the Almighty for better sense to prevail upon the politicians are finding hope in the Prime Minister’s recent public meetings. The Prime Minister’s International Affairs Adviser Dr. Gowhar Rizvi has also given a positive spin to the Prime Minister’s stance in her recent public meetings. He said very firmly that the national elections would be held and all political parties would participate. He of course also said that the “inclusive” elections would be held according to the Constitution. That is not a serious obstacle to the “inclusive” elections because all the Prime Minister would need to do is to hold “inclusive” national elections under the Constitution would be to amend the Constitution once again to let the BNP participate by making the playing field level. 

The matter of constitutional amendment is as simple as the Prime Minister just wanting it. In fact it is so absurdly simple that someone not aware of the realities of Bangladesh’s politics, a foreigner for instance, would never be able to contemplate how simple it is. It is as simple as the Prime Minister asking for a cup of tea because the much revered 1972 Constitution gives the Prime Minister that power if her party had a 2/3rd majority in parliament! In 1974, the fundamental character of the “democratic” constitution of 1972 was turned on its head into a one-party dictatorship in a matter of minutes. The same happened with the 15th amendment that has caused the present controversy over elections. In both instances, the simplicity was derived from the unbelievable powers given to the Prime Minister in the 1972 Constitution. The Prime Minister could therefore make the next elections “inclusive” and yet do so within the constitution simply by asking for another amendment.

Thus the constitutional argument against holding an “inclusive” election is not at all a serious one. The other argument made by the ruling party that unelected people cannot hold democratic elections to reject the BNP’s demand to make elections “inclusive” by holding it under non-party government is likewise not a serious one. If it were so, it would straightaway render the past 3 governments “undemocratic”, a question that no one in the country or abroad has raised of those governments. In the literature of the science of government, it is not written anywhere that only elected people could hold democratic elections. In most developed countries that do not have to waste time on such an argument, elections are the function of unelected election commissions or similar institution/s. Laws and conventions make it impossible for any other institution, even the elected individuals holding power during elections, to even think, except in a fit of insanity that they could interfere with elections. 

Polls conducted by UN

The UN conducted the referendum through which East Timor attained its independence from Indonesia in 1999. The United Nations has supervised and observed plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide. Its efforts these days are mainly in “providing technical assistance to help Member States build credible and sustainable national electoral systems.” However, since 1991, the UN has assisted over 100 member states in other efforts to hold credible national elections. No one has questioned these elections as undemocratic although the UN is not an elected body. Whether an election is democratic or not depends not on who conducts it but whether it has been free and fair. If elections are free and fair, the question under what authority it is held is redundant. Conversely, there is no guarantee that elected individuals always deliver democratic elections!

In fact, there is a great irony in the stand of the AL on this issue. All elections held in Bangladesh under elected governments have been far from free and fair, some outright fraudulent, while those held under unelected caretaker governments have been free and fair, attested to be so by national and international observers. History of elections in the developing countries is replete with instances where ruling parties have openly and blatantly interfered in elections to turn results in their favour. In fact, the AL had this argument to force the BNP Government in 1996 to amend the Constitution to ensure elections under the non-party caretaker government in place of the Interim Government under the ruling party! In South Asia, Pakistan and Nepal have used the caretaker concept for their national elections and even in Greece, the cradle of democracy; this model was recently used to hold its national elections.

Sheikh Hasina is no ordinary politician. She comes from an illustrious family in which she has grown with politics in her blood. Her father, the Father of the Nation, led the country’s independence movement by uniting people like few leaders in history and pursued the movement for independence, the democratic way. Therefore it is difficult to believe that she would want to lead her party to power again through elections where the BNP would be unable to participate, the reasons for it notwithstanding. This is why she is reaching out to the people to elect her party to power for a second successive term through “inclusive” national election and not a one party election.

Hasina’s dilemma

Unfortunately, Sheikh Hasina finds herself in a difficult political predicament with elections at the door. She is facing an electorate unhappy with her party over the a whole range of issues, from misdeeds of the Chatra League the Jubo League and her party activists to charges of corruption related to the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny; and the share market scam and humiliating, for no good reason, Dr. Mohammad Yunus. As a result, the ruling party’s prospects of returning to power through national elections participated by all political parties are not at all bright. The point has been driven home too obviously by the city corporation elections. But then, no election can be said to be lost unless fought. That is what Sheikh Hasina is trying to prove by the public meetings that she has been addressing. She is rejuvenating her party to fight an “inclusive” and not preparing her party for an election where it would have no competition.

The options before Sheikh Hasina are clear. Deep in her heart, she knows it like she is seeing the future with a crystal ball. If she went for elections without the BNP, two things would certainly happen. First, there would be widespread disturbances where law and order would simply become non-existent making it impossible for her to govern the country. Second, when elections would be held eventually as it must, after an intervention of extra-constitutional forces, the AL as the party and she as its leader would be held responsible for the sufferings of the people and the country and for pushing the country into the hands of the extra-constitutional forces. That would tarnish the memory of the person that she holds to be and rightly so, the only thing in her life worth living for, the memory of her father. It would also make the chances of her party returning to power in the next elections when it is held, even more difficult.

Therefore, Sheikh Hasina will eventually opt for the democratic way out. She will hold “inclusive” national elections. Her public meetings allude towards that. As the quintessential politician, she will opt for that but only after deriving maximum political benefit. For instance, she will not go outside the Constitution. She will make the necessary amendments for “inclusive” national elections so that she can claim that she has held elections in accordance with the Constitution. She will try to get a few more concessions like choosing who will head the next head of the Interim Government. Perhaps she is playing in Bangladesh’s current politics the role of Hamlet. She knows that either way, she will have to make the choice between the hard rock and the sea. She will opt for “inclusive” elections because in it her party will have a chance of winning. She will reject the other option, a one-party election, because she knows that has no chance of succeeding and will malign her party and the memory of her father. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On faith in the Constitution

Published : Saturday, 21 September 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League's insistence that the elections must be held as laid down in the Constitution should have been music to the ears of the people of Bangladesh. In fact, all Bangladeshis should have stood up and acclaimed the Prime Minister for her faith in the Constitution and her determination not to budge an inch from holding elections according to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister's faith in the Constitution has divided the nation in a manner never before in its history.

The division in itself may not have been bad enough; what is worse is that there is widespread apprehension in the country and abroad that Bangladesh would face civil strife unless the division created by the AL's (Awami League) insistence to hold elections according to the Constitution and the BNP's opposition to it, is resolved. The reason is a very simple one if one is prepared to call a spade a spade. For the first time in Bangladesh's political history, the ruling party cannot think of losing power because of fear of retribution. The BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) cannot allow the elections to be held under an AL-led Interim Government because it cannot think even in a nightmare of another five years of AL rule. 

In a recent talk show, former Prime Minister Kazi Zafar Ahmed stated this in unequivocal terms. Thus the AL wants elections where it would have control of the government. Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr. Shamsul Huda in a recent interview has, however, allayed the fears that in such an election, the ruling party would influence the outcome, as realistic. Nevertheless, these fears have strengthened the demand of the opposition for elections under non-party government. The fears of the opposition notwithstanding, the Constitution as the supreme law of the land cannot be changed or suited to allay such fears. Thus on the face of it, the fears of the opposition should be dismissed because the Constitution's supremacy must be upheld. But, the issue is not as simple as one that would suggest that the ruling party is trying to uphold the Constitution while the opposition is trying to violate it.

The controversy is not really on faith or lack of it in the Constitution. It is over an amendment to the Constitution. The Awami League is in fact trying to uphold the supremacy of the 15th amendment and in that context too, only that part of the Constitution which is related to the way to hold the national elections. Explicitly, the AL is going ahead to hold national elections under Interim Government that would be headed by Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister and her elected party colleagues as Ministers. The Awami League placed the Interim Government system in the 15th Amendment that replaced elections under caretaker government (CTG) that it had forced the BNP-led government in 1996 to include in the Constitution through the 13th amendment on the plea that elections under Interim Government headed by Khaleda Zia would not be free and fair!

The 15th Amendment has a history that raises a few more questions in people's minds about the intention of the Awami League concerning it. The amendment resulted from a High Court ruling that declared the 13th Amendment on the CTG as unconstitutional because it held that only elected individuals could elect democratic governments. The ruling party took a short version of that ruling and hastily used it to replace the CTG with the Interim Government. It however ignored the Court's recommendation that at least two more elections could be held under the CTG because of the nature of country's politics. The 15th Amendment was the result of deliberations in which the opposition parties were not involved. It took merely a few hours for the 15th Amendment to be passed in parliament.

The ruling party introduced this fundamental change in the Constitution without any mandate and that, too, to change the system of elections from one that it had forced the BNP-led government to put in the Constitution. The AL had argued in 1996 that it needed the CTG because it did not trust the BNP-led government. That trust factor has deteriorated manifold today; yet the AL went ahead and abolished the very system it created for free and fair elections. Further, the ruling party has, in the mean time, politicised the civil bureaucracy and police administration in a manner no government has done in the past. Therefore, if the AL's argument in 1996 for the CTG was a correct one, the BNP's demand for its restoration today is a stronger one.

The demand for restoration of the CTG is today no longer the demand of the BNP alone. Independent opinion polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of the people, many of whom are not supporters of the opposition parties, want elections to be held in a manner where both the AL and the BNP would be able to participate to save the country from sliding towards the precipice. Foreign friends of Bangladesh have likewise expressed a similar view. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the EU have unequivocally called for free, fair, transparent and "inclusive" general elections to save Bangladesh from disaster. In fact, other than the AL and that too, the circle close to the Prime Minister, the rest of Bangladesh and the country's well-wishers abroad want elections to be held in a manner closer to what the BNP wants and unequivocally not the way the AL wants.

Constitution is for the people. The people of Bangladesh do not want elections without the opposition. Therefore, the AL would be going against their wishes if it held elections under the 15th Amendment. Its claim that the Constitution must be upheld at any cost is also paper-thin because it is adamant to uphold not really the Constitution but a part of it that it put in the Constitution, unilaterally, designed to give it advantage to return to power. It has unwittingly or by a show of arrogance left enough evidence to reach such a conclusion as an obvious one. 

The spirit of 1971 is to empower the people. Although the ruling party claims that all it is doing is to uphold that spirit, the 15th Amendment has done something unbelievable. At a time when the people feel that they need to tell the political parties clearly, in a referendum, their opinion on how to hold the national elections, they find that the 15th Amendment has taken away that right from them. The 15th Amendment has abolished referendum! That has confirmed apprehension in the public mind that the faith of the ruling party in the Constitution has been tailored to suit its own political ends and objectives. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

New Delhi’s role frustrating Indo-Bangla relations

September 20, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Congress-led government’s efforts to deliver the land boundary agreement (LBA) to Bangladesh failed when it gave up its attempt to raise the ratification bill on the last day of its monsoon session of the Indian parliament amidst opposition from two members of Trinamool and Asom Gana Parishad. The next session of Indian parliament will be in December when Bangladesh would be going for elections. Thus India’s chances of delivering the LBA to the AL-led government during its present term are over. The Teesta deal had earlier met the same fate over Mamata Banarjee’s unrelenting intransigence. Although New Delhi has ordered retrial of the Felani murder after outrage in Bangladesh over the first trial, the damage over it in the context of Bangladesh-India relations has already been done when the special tribunal had handed the not guilty verdict.

New Delhi’s failures for which the AL led government had taken great political risks would undoubtedly be a major factor in Bangladesh’s elections. In fact, New Delhi has been fully aware of this in recent times as the AL-led government became stuck with major issues of governance. It did not want to add to the AL’s burden by embarrassing Shekih Hasina for being too overtly pro-Indian with India betraying her. New Delhi thus went out of the way to convince the BJP/ Trinamool/Asom Gana Parishad to back its efforts to ratify the LBA and Trinamool by withdrawing its objection on the Teesta deal. New Delhi decided in favour of trial for the Felani murder after remaining silent for nearly 3 years because it realized in recent months that it needed to help the AL to come out of the political corner.

Incompetent negotiators

Unfortunately, New Delhi’s realization came too late. A lot has been written and said about how Bangladesh’s negotiators played away Bangladesh’s invaluable security and land transit cards to India without seeking reciprocity from them on its concerns on issues of water sharing, land boundary demarcation, trade, killing of innocent Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border by the BSF, etc. All said and written on the naïve way the Bangladesh team negotiated were true. They behaved as if they were representing New Delhi, not Dhaka. Many wonder why AL leaders should lose their temper when critics cautioned them about New Delhi’s intentions.

The composition of the negotiating team to deal with India was also wrong. In dealing with India, Bangladesh needed a team with the best professional competence the country could offer under well-defined leadership. Many felt that the PM herself should have provided that leadership, having proved her leadership qualities in dealing with India in her first term when she had achieved the Ganges Water Sharing and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Agreements. Instead, the team was disorganized nobody knowing who was leading. To compound the confusion, at times every minister thought it was his/her responsibility to deal with India. 

Lost opportunity

It was therefore no surprise that Sheikh Hasina’s vision for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which she unilaterally took courageous steps of providing India with total security assurance and grant of land transit on trial basis was squandered. Also squandered was the benefit that Bangladesh should have received from New Delhi for handing 7 top ULFA insurgents that helped New Delhi break the back of the many decades old ULFA insurgency. After literally gifting away the 7 ULFA leaders, Bangladesh is now holding on to Anup Chetia hoping to force New Delhi for concessions that only underlines the humungous mess that Dhaka made. Anup Chetia is a mid level ULFA leader while the 7 Bangladesh gifted were top ULFA leaders.

The Bangladesh negotiators realized their mistake in blindly believing New Delhi while committing Bangladesh’s only playing cards without ensuring reciprocity during Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011. The Indians withdrew the Teesta deal when Dhaka was ready to celebrate it as a major victory of its foreign policy initiatives with India. Although the additional protocol to the 1974 LBA was signed on that visit and was publicized by the two sides as a major achievement, it got stuck in the ratification process soon afterwards as the BJP and Trinamool refused to lend the numbers in Parliament for he 2/3rd majority needed. The twin failures thereafter stranded what promised to be the best times in Bangladesh-India relations.

New Delhi, nevertheless continued to lighten Bangladesh’s concerns by repeated promises that the deals would be delivered anytime no doubt to keep Bangladesh happy for continued security support that it needed very badly. It will remain a mystery why the Bangladesh negotiators continued to believe these empty promises when it became obvious that New Delhi was not making them seriously. Nevertheless, while the Bangladesh negotiators could be faulted for lack of their professional competence but they failed more because India did not negotiate in good faith. Take for instance the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. New Delhi was aware of three things regarding the Teesta deal during the negotiations. First, the agreement would need West Bengal’s concurrence as per the Indian Constitution. Second, New Delhi was having serious problems with Mamata Banarjee. Finally, Mamata was facing election from the constituency through which the Teesta flows to Bangladesh where the constituents were not favourably disposed towards Bangladesh. 

Delhi misguided Dhaka

The position on ratification of the LBA was also similar. New Delhi knew when it signed the additional protocol that the BJP and Trinamool would not back it with the numbers for ratification. The BJP’s position against the LBA was well articulated and was available on its website clearly and unequivocally. Yet Prime Minister Manmohon Singh said categorically in Dhaka that he would be able to deliver the LBA to Bangladesh upon his return to India from his official visit to Bangladesh. The way the Bangladesh side was taken off guard when the Teesta deal was withdrawn from the table during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit left no one in doubt that Dhaka did not have even the faintest idea of what was happening and that New Delhi had alerted it in any way.

In fact such was Dhaka’s blind faith in New Delhi that while the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai had told reporters that the Teesta Deal off the table in the afternoon of the day before the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni insisted few hours after Mathai’s statement that the Teesta Deal would be signed the next day. Dhaka exposed its disappointment by an unusual undiplomatic gesture. While the Indian Prime Minister had landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary called the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry and informed him that Dhaka was withdrawing the exchange letters from the table that would have given India land transit on a permanent basis.

The Indians showed bad faith also on the issue of the border killings. While Bangladeshis continued to be killed regularly by the BSF that was causing bipartisan anti-Indian feelings to rise, New Delhi went into denial over it. The Felani case was the ultimate example of the Indian denial where it failed to react to Bangladesh’s concerns while knowing that the BSF was caught committing a crime that had barbarity written all over it. New Delhi took the inexplicable and unreasonable stand that the Bangladeshis killed were not their responsibility because they were killed in a place where they were not supposed to be. They refused to take note of the fact that most of these Bangladeshis killed were shot from the back while running away and could have easily been arrested.

Bad faith, bad taste

New Delhi’s promises to Dhaka since Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka were made when it knew that the chances of delivering those promises were becoming less and less. The marriage and photo session description to the LBA by the Indian Foreign Minister was the ultimate proof of bad faith by New Delhi one that also had a spattering of bad taste. It was therefore unbelievable that the Prime Minister’s Adviser would give a spin to that weird description to legitimize New Delhi’s sincerity! When two members representing Trinamool Congress and Asom Gana Parishad raised their voices against the LBA on the final day of the Indian Parliament’s monsoon session, the Foreign Minister did not even make a feeble attempt to speak out for the ratification bill! He had conveniently forgotten that Dhaka was desperately waiting for the photo session of the LBA marriage deal to happen!

Thus while it would be undoubtedly correct to assume that Sheikh Hasina’s vision for a paradigm shift failed because of lack of diplomatic/professional skills of the team to which she had entrusted responsibility, New Delhi’s lack of sincerity in the negotiating process was equally, if not more, the reason for what happened in Bangladesh-India relations in the last five years. The Bangladesh negotiators may not have said so for reasons they alone can explain but prominent Indians have. Editor of Indian Express Sekhar Gupta; and four former Indian High Commissioners – Muchkund Dubey, Dev Mukherjee, Veena Sikri and Rajeen Mitter – and many others in India have blamed New Delhi for frustrating Sheikh Hasina’s vision for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which they have sympathized with her for her current political troubles over it.

In fact, a recent IBM/CNN/The Hindu poll has named Bangladesh, as the nation Indians trusted most. Analysts said that Bangladesh was placed there because Indians were unhappy with New Delhi for letting Dhaka down when the latter had provided India what it needed most from Bangladesh, namely security assurance and land transit.


The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Russia’s intervention gives diplomacy a chance in Syria

M. Serajul Islam

President Barak Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday, September the 10th on Syria a day before the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. In his 15 minutes long speech, he conveyed to Americans that his administration would give diplomacy a chance. The President said that his administration would wait to see the outcome of a Russian proposal to talk Syria to hand over its chemical weapons arsenal to international observers. He also mentioned in his speech that he would ask Congress to postpone considering and voting his request for a green signal for limited air strikes on Syria.

The President’s speech thus ended speculations that was rife in Washington that the United States was on the verge of attacking Syria after undeniable proof emerged that the Syrian regime had killed over 1400 Syrians including over 400 children in 11 residential districts where the anti-regime residents lived on August 21st using chemical weapons. That speculation was based on the promise that President Obama had made earlier that with proof of use of chemical weapons, the regime would be considered to have crossed the Red Line when the USA would have no alternative but to attack.

The prospect of imminent US attack on Syria was paused when the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to join the United States led international coalition was defeated in the British House of Commons. The failure of David Cameron’s move affected France that distanced itself from joining the USA for action against Syria. President Obama then decided to take the Congress on board for military action against Syria. The House Foreign Affairs Committee backed the President and passed a resolution 10-7 for consideration of the House that recommended limited air strike.

Immediately after that resolution, the President went on a bilateral visit to Sweden and then joined the G20 Summit in St Petersburg. In the G20 Summit, the President’s urged the European leaders for an international coalition but received only lukewarm response. The President argued that the Red Line was not set by him but by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that demanded action by signatories against countries caught using those weapons. Therefore, the President further argued that failing to take action against the Syrian regime would damage not just his credibility but of all the signatories of the CWC. The Russian President also upstaged the US President in St. Petersburg. He argued against the international coalition for attacking Syria. Instead he proposed that Russia would convince the Syrian regime to put its arsenal of chemical weapons under international control. Russia also held out the possibility of Syria not just giving up its chemical weapons but also becoming a signatory of the CWC. That proposal won the support of the members of the G20 countries.

Meanwhile, upon returning home, the US President found that the prospect of the Congress backing him for a limited strike on Syria was not bright. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had enhanced the President’s hopes, the House was not in the mood to toe the line of the Senate. In fact, opinion polls that create great pressure for the members of the Congress of such vital issues were consistently against any military action in Syria, even limited ones. The President also made his case for attacking Syria to the nation by interviews to major TV stations upon returning from St Petersburg. These efforts did not change the nation’s mood in any major way.

The President’s speech to the nation therefore underscored the reality he was facing with Syria, that he did not have the nation or the Congress behind him to intervene. Thus he made the best use of airtime with his address to the nation to place before the Americans undeniable proof that the Syrian regime had killed 1421 fellow Syrians in the most abhorrent manner by using chemical weapons. He compared the despicable act of the Bashar Regime to those committed by Adolf Hitler in the genocide against the Jews and by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. He used the comparisons to convey to his fellow Americans about the necessity of holding the Syrian regime responsible for its ghastly crimes.

The President spent major part of his speech making the case for military strike. He thus allayed the concern of putting lives of American soldiers on line by stating unequivocally that not one US soldier would put foot on Syrian soil. On concerns that limited strikes would be “pinpricks”, the President said, “The United States military does not do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Asaad that no other nation can.” On concerns of retaliation, he also dismissed it as unfounded. On concerns that the forces opposing unknown elements and perhaps even al-Qaeda operatives, the President argued that “al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”

The President Obama touched on the Russian proposal near the end of his speech but only after making his case that Syria had crossed the Red Line and international obligations make it obligatory on USA and signatories to the CWC to take military action against Syria. He said that it was his administration’s efforts that led, first, to encourage Russia to make its move with Syria, and second, the acknowledgement by Syria that it had an arsenal of chemical weapons that it had previously denied and Russia had adamantly supported. Thus the president took credit for the way the Syrian issue has been handled by the international community where the Syria has admitted to be in possession of an arsenal of chemical weapons, showed willingness to give up that arsenal and even sign the CWC.

US Secretary of State John Kerry left Washington for Geneva a day after the president’s speech for talks with his Russian counterpart to implement the Russian plan. There are many doubters both in USA and abroad whether the Russian plan would succeed. Nevertheless, from the US perspective and that of President Obama, the developments are positive. The developments have shown that he has led the US as leader of the world; that he has succeeded in establishing the fact that the Syrian regime has crossed the Red Line and assured action by the international community against the regime where diplomacy has been preferred ahead of military action.

The president’s decision to seek Congressional approval was received favourably by most Americans. Americans have bad memories on this issue left from the administration of President Bush. Nevertheless, in USA’s highly partisan domestic politics, there are his detractors who criticised the president for letting the Russian President upstage him after he had created world opinion against the regime of Bashar Al Asaad. The diplomatic solution is being worked out at the time of filing this article. On the first day of negotiations in Geneva, significant differences arose between the US and Russians on a framework for documenting the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal and on a time frame for destroying them. Also, the Russians still maintain that the Syrians did not use chemical weapons on August 21st. At this stage, it looks like Bashar Al Assad has received temporary reprieve for missiles falling on Damascus. He should consider himself lucky, at least for the time being, because fellow dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi became history for similar crimes perhaps less.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

On the Felani Verdict


Saturday, 14 September 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam 

It looks like little is working in favour of the AL led government these days. When it needs New Delhi very badly to come forward and deliver its commitments to establish that the government did not waste the leverage it had over India with the security and land transit cards, two disappointing news have come from India in the last one week. The Congress led Government’s efforts to ratify the LBA deal ended unsuccessfully in Parliament. More importantly, a special court in Cooch Bihar acquitted Havildar Amiya Ghosh on charges of killing Felani. 

The disappointing news on the LBA was expected. Recent developments in India’s domestic politics had more or less assured that although sources in the Congress led government and in the AL Government were sending signals to create false hopes. The expectations were different on the Felani case; that perhaps New Delhi would do the right thing with the Felani murder trial. The killing of Felani Begum on 7th January 2011 on Bangladesh-India border at the hands of the Indian Border Force (BSF) had abhorred the nation as well as human rights organizations in India and the world by the manner in which the 15-year-old Felani was killed.

Unarmed Felani was shot dead and her body was left hanging for five hours on the barbed wire fence that India has raised on the 4,100 km long Bangladesh-India border.  The body was later taken down by the BSF and handed to her relatives the next day. Pictures of Felani hanging on the barbed wire fence and later being carried by BSF personnel like dead cattle was shown in the media all over the world over and caused outcry everywhere. There was an air of barbarism surrounding the entire sordid episode.

The Felani murder also brought to focus a chapter of Bangladesh-India relations that has emerged as a major obstacle towards the development of beneficial bilateral relations. The issue is the rampant and senseless killing of Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border by the BSF. The Economist in a report after international outcry over the Felani murder wrote: “The BSF kills with such impunity along India's 4,100-kilometre (2,550-mile) border with Bangladesh that one local journalist wonders what the story is about. According to Human Rights Watch, India's force has killed almost 1,000 Bangladeshis over the past ten years. That implies a shooting every four days. The death toll between two democracies dwarfs the number killed attempting to cross the inner German border during the cold war.”

New Delhi did not take up the anger in Bangladesh and international concern over the border killings seriously. The official line New Delhi has taken has been that those killed should not have been where they were killed. After the uproar over the Felani murder, all the Indians could muster was a “feeble” apology. New Delhi later committed a zero tolerance to such killings in response to pressure from Bangladesh but on the ground, it never established that it intended to keep such a commitment. In fact, even during important bilateral meetings in which the Indians gave the commitment or re-iterated it, there was news of border killings that neither embarrassed nor concerned them.

New Delhi must take the major responsibility for allowing the border killings to become such a huge obstacle in development of Bangladesh-India relations. It did not take into account a number of obvious facts. First, the Bangladeshis killed were mostly all shot at the back while running away from the BSF. Second, the border was fenced by India and BSF controlled both legal and illegal border crossings. Third, an organized racket based in Indian side of the border controlled smuggling business worth in billions of US dollars where the BSF was involved. Finally, the killings were almost all the outcome of smuggling deals that went sour. In the Felani case, her father had paid 3000 rupees for the illegal crossing to organized racket. Her murder too was another case of a human trafficking deal that went sour.

The reasons were plenty for India’s indifference to go into denial over these obvious facts. Acknowledging that the BSF was merrily shooting down Bangladeshis on the border would have given the country a bad name. It would also have caused problems in a well embedded smuggling racket worth billions of US dollars in which with the BSF, many other Indian government agencies working in the border and individuals with political links were involved. Thus when sentiments in Bangladesh were aroused as was when Felani was killed, all New Delhi did was make promises such as zero tolerance, use of rubber bullets, etc. that it never intended to keep and hoped that emotions and tensions would die down.

New Delhi was also never put under serious pressure by the present AL led government on the issue. Those who negotiated with New Delhi were concerned that pressure on the border killings issue would take focus away from bigger issues to implement the vision of paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations of Sheikh Hasina. That such a policy has proved fatal for the vision of Sheikh Hasina has become clear as daylight as the AL led government’s tenure enters its final days. It is interesting to see that it is now not Bangladesh side that is alone in complaining that New Delhi did not act fairly to the great political risks that Sheikh Haisna had taken for her vision of paradigm shift. Prominent Indians are speaking out forcefully for Bangladesh.

New Delhi too has shown awareness that it had let down Sheikh Hasina very badly. In recent times, it has been trying its best to deliver the LBA and Teesta deals but with elections in India now not very far away, those who hold the key to let New Delhi deliver these deals to Bangladesh, namely the BJP and the Trinamool, are not willing to give the Congress anything that would benefit it in the elections. Thus, the last ditch attempt by the Congress led government to ratify the deal was frustrated last week.  New Delhi’s efforts with the Felani trial were however not sincere.

It decided to bring the Havildar who killed Felani to trial more than two and half years after the death had caused absolute abhorrence in Bangladesh. After taking the line that Felani was in the wrong place at the wrong time, New Delhi decided to hold a trial for the murder. However, it allowed that trial to be held under the BSF Act by a special tribunal chaired by BSF official where even the charge was diluted. Havildar Amiyo Ghosh was allowed to go scot-free after standing trial for “unintentional killing.” If New Delhi were serious it would have decided to hold the trial in a civilian court with the more serious charge of murder against him.

Again Bangladesh was caught on the wrong feet in dealing with the Felani case. The Law Minister said that the government would take steps to ask New Delhi to try the case in a civilian court.  That the case would be tried under BSF Act by BSF personel was known to Dhaka before the trial started. Why then did Bangladesh wait for the verdict to do what the Law Minister now would want Bangladesh to do? It was ironically the Indian High Commission that showed more concern than Bangladesh where its Foreign Ministry is still silent about such an important issue in Bangladesh-India relations. The Spokesman of the Indian High Commission asked Bangladesh to wait, as the judgment pronounced by the BSF Tribunal was “the first step” and would go to “competent authorities” for a final decision.  Was there some hint in that statement about what Bangladesh should do?

The writer is a retired career Ambassador