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Archive for the ‘Bangladesh’ Category

Returning to Bangladesh is like going away to find myself home

CROSSINGS

DHAKA IS a bit like Calcutta – noisy, chaotic. I connect the Bangladesh capital with traffic jams and those cage-like green auto-rickshaws that give new meaning to claustrophobia. But this time, as I leave the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport behind, on my way to Banani in the north of Dhaka, I cut through an eerie silence.

The city is a ghost town. The autos are missing, and there are no crippling gridlocks. A festival is around the corner, but there is little sign of the joyousness that comes with Eid.

Dhaka is observing a two-day national mourning to pay homage to those killed in a terror attack in an upmarket cafeteria. I land there three days after the attack that killed 20 people, most of them foreigners, in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, Gulshan.

Chaos on the roads is a sign of normal life in Dhaka; calm indicates that not all is well. When I visited Dhaka for the first time in 2011, all was well: the city was loud and messy. I was on my way there from Jessore – and was surprised to see towering buildings, flyovers and glitzy malls in the capital. Jessore, on the other hand, was the archetypal sleepy town.

Jessore is an hour’s drive from Benapole, the Bangladesh border town which is commonly used as a crossover between Dhaka and Calcutta. I was there to chase a story on child carriers who illegally ferried sugar, urea, bicycles, cough syrups and even country-made pistols to Bangladesh from India.

Unlike Dhaka, there was no “rush hour” in Jessore. There were no newly-paved footpaths or highrises either. There was a time when Jessore had the biggest cinema hall of Bangladesh. But Monihar had been overtaken by multiplexes elsewhere. Jessore, however, now boasts of a technology park, multi-cuisine restaurants and malls.

It is also a treasure trove of heritage. The Jessore Institute Public Library, established in 1851, is Bangladesh’s oldest and largest library, with a huge collection of books, manuscripts, journals and newspapers. And you can’t go to Jessore and not see the massive sculpture called Bijoy, at the Michael Madhusudan Memorial College campus, dedicated to the martyrs of the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971.

Going to Jessore was like going home – albeit a home I had never visited. Jessore is the place my ancestors came from. For years, I held up the flag of “Opaar Bangla” and participated in various Bangal vs Ghoti debates, where I left no stone unturned to make the former look superior in every respect (knowledge, food, hospitality and much more) to the latter. So when I reached Jessore, it was like a dream come true – I was in the place that I belonged to. Like a true Bangal, I told myself, ” Aah, amago dash.”

My paternal grandfather, Adhir Kumar Sarkar, a timber merchant, lived in a sprawling two-storey house with long white columns, overlooking a thakur dalan (where the deity was kept for daily worship), in the erstwhile Khashial village in Jessore. Several acres of rice fields surrounded the house, we were told. Middle-aged Nakuruddin Mia used to look after the fields when grandfather shifted his base partially to Calcutta in the late 30s. Even though he visited Khashial at regular intervals, the visits during the Durga Puja were special for the family: gatherings, lunch, new clothes, entertainment, celebrations.

My efforts to locate Khashial were in vain. The village doesn’t exist anymore, I was told. But I traced my roots partially to the ancestral house of the Bengali poet and father of the Bengali sonnet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. At his house-turned-museum in Sagordari, I came across a signboard of the Jessore and Khulna Co-operative Bank, which had an office in the complex. My grandfather was a member of the board. I felt like an achiever to have partially traced the past.

The spiral staircases of the house took me to the room on the first floor, whose walls were plastered with photographs of Dutt, his poems and even some of his answer scripts. At the entrance of his house was his epitaph, a verse of his own. A few days before his death on June 29, 1873, Dutt gave the verse to Debaki, who, some historians say, was romantically interested in him. It read:

“…On the bosom of the earth,

Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep

Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”

These words rang in my ears for days.

As I touch the soil of Bangladesh once again this June, I wonder how life would have been if my grandfather had chosen to stay back, like many other Bengali Hindu families. But the thought doesn’t stay with me for long as I quickly recall the words of a Hindu friend from Dhaka: ” Din kaal bhalo na, bujhla. Amra khub bhoye thaktesi” – these are not good times, we live in fear.

Indeed, attacks on Hindus – bloggers, priests and activists – by Islamic radicals are rampant in Bangladesh these days. The social fabric of Bangladesh is changing. Young men from elite families are joining terror outfits. The other sign of radicalisation is the use of veils by women. Hijab or burqa is not mandatory in Bangladesh, yet more and more women are wearing one these days. An old timer of Dhaka tells me, “Even some years ago, if a woman from the relatively conservative part of old Dhaka stepped out of her house in a burqa, the local urchins would tease her with the words ‘Burqe wali bua, tere burqe mein chuha’ (There is a mouse in your burqa, aunt).”

But I decide that for my grandfather’s sake, I will always celebrate Bangladesh. I leave for India after a special Eid meal at my friend’s place. The taste of the shorshe ilish – mustard hilsa – and maachch chorchori – a mix of various kinds of fish – stays with me long after I return home.


The man who brought the ISIS footprint to Dhaka remains at large and could still be in Bangladesh. Sonia Sarkar has exclusive details from an ongoing probe

He is 30, has an egg-shaped face and a neat French beard. In a photograph that the Bangladesh police have circulated, he is seen wearing retro, rectangular glasses. But he could well be the unkempt rickshaw-puller you see, or perhaps the daily-wager waiting for a job. Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury – who is believed to have masterminded the terror assault in a Dhaka café last month – could well be moving around in disguise.

This Tuesday, the Bangladesh police said they had arrested four women and identified seven others connected with the July 1 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, in which 20 people were killed. But the one who still evades arrest is Chowdhury, a Canadian-citizen of Bangladeshi origin, with a US$ 25,000 (over Rs 16 lakh) bounty on his head.

“We are trying but we have not been able to arrest him yet,” says Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism unit.

Researchers studying Chowdhury’s movements believe that he may be hiding in a densely populated city such as Dhaka. “It is easier to hide in a busy suburb, where you can move freely without people getting suspicious of you,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian scholar currently a fellow in the extremism programme at the George Washington University in the US capital.

As Chowdhury’s story is pieced together by researchers and security experts, little-known facts are being unearthed about the man who is on Bangladesh’s most wanted list. His grandfather, Abdul Majid, belonged to Sadimapur in Sylhet and was a member of the infamous East Pakistan Central Peace Committee, formed by the Pakistan Army to crush rebels of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

But Chowdhury’s life unfolded thousands of miles from Sylhet. He grew up in Canada, where his father, Shafiq Ahmed, who worked for a shipping company, had migrated in the early Seventies. Young Tamim is remembered as a shy and skinny boy when he was studying at the J.L. Forster Secondary School in Ontario.

He was seemingly fond of track and field activities – but always lagged behind other participants. He represented his school in an inter-school meet in 2004. He was last among 45 entrants in the 100 metre dash, last of 30 in javelin throw, and last among 28 in shot put throw, says Devin Gray, communications co-ordinator, Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations.

After finishing school, Chowdhury joined the University of Windsor to major in chemistry. University authorities refused to speak about their ex- student, but his acquaintances told Amarasingam that he was a “regular guy” in college.

That he had changed became apparent after 2011, when he finished college. That was when he moved to Calgary, the ski resort town in Canada’s Alberta Province, where, local newspaper reports say, there has been a rise in the number of Islamic groups in recent times.

Chowdhury is believed to have joined a small prayer group in Calgary and come in contact with two locals – a white Canadian called Damian Clairmont who converted to Islam and a Pakistani-Canadian called Salman Ashrafi. Clairmont joined the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and was killed by the Free Syrian Army in 2014; Ashrafi joined the ISIS and was killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2013.

People around him started noticing the changes in the boy from Ontario. Amarasingam was told that he had become “domineering” and “arrogant”. Some who met him in 2012 said he was “full of himself” and “unbearable” because of his extreme views.

“This is part and parcel of the radicalisation process. He believed that he had discovered the truth whereas everyone else was living a falsehood,” says Amarasingam, who also co-directs a study of western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Initial investigations by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reveal that Chowdhury believed in the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, a pro-al-Qaida propagandist killed in 2011. He followed his online speeches and videos, which urged Muslims in the West to either go abroad or conduct terrorist attacks at home. Investigators say Chowdhury had started uploading posts as Abu Dujana al-Muhajir in a blog called Beneath which Rivers Flow. The blog had been started by a man called Ahmad Waseem, who is believed to have joined the ISIS and was killed by Kurdish forces in 2015.

In his blog posts, he wrote that he and others had taken up arms against a “global system of oppression” in which “innocent men, women and children are pleading for our help”. He described the Canadian government as “evil” and “despotic”. Jihad, he wrote, was going to be as Canadian as maple syrup.

Chowdhury’s radicalisation worried the community. In 2013, religious leaders in Windsor urged him not to talk to local Muslim youths. “There was a sense that he was radicalising fellow youth and goading them into something,” Amarasingam says. A year later, in his blog posts, he denounced the local imams as “deviant” and said they had been outnumbered by militants.

Details about his life in Canada are still sketchy. It is believed that he is married and has three children. What is not clear is when he left Canada. Some believe it was when the police started questioning him after Waseem joined the ISIS in 2013. But some reports state that he may have gone to Syria in 2012.

“People I interviewed had told me that he had almost certainly gone to Syria, either directly from Calgary or from Windsor, probably in late 2012. But another source claims he saw him hanging around the University of Calgary in 2013,” Amarasingam says.

There are conflicting reports about when Chowdhury entered Bangladesh but as per immigration records, he landed in Dhaka in October 2013.After arriving, he worked in populated areas such as Mirpur, Gazipur and Savar, police officials believe. They also claim that he started recruiting members to the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, the students’ outfit of the Bangladesh radical group, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh.

Chowdhury, Amarasingam says, worked as a “project manager”, drawing young men into the ISIS fold, organising attacks and establishing links with the central leadership of the ISIS. “If you have the stamp of having visited Syria, then you can have many followers,” he adds.

According to intelligence officials in India, who have also been following the Dhaka attack, Chowdhury stayed in touch with the ISIS leadership regarding the café attack. They also claim that the ISIS in Syria established initial links with five attackers – all in the age group of 18-24 years – through fake Facebook accounts. Once they came into the ISIS fold, the interactions took place through encrypted messaging applications such as Pidgin and Threema.

Chowdhury was kept in the loop but he did not meet the boys to begin with, the officials add. Some of his team members in Bangladesh established links with them to see how committed they were to their cause. It is likely that a meeting with Chowdhury took place in one of his Dhaka hideouts after the boys had left home.

Intelligence officials in Dhaka have revealed that on the day of the attack, Chowdhury, along with the five assailants, came out of an apartment in the Bashundhara residential area. They were spotted near the café at around 8.45pm. Later, the five men stormed in with their weapons, but Chowdhury was not with them. They also believe that nine militants, who were killed by the Dhaka police three weeks ago, had had a meeting with Chowdhury earlier.

In some circles, Chowdhury is also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the “amir (chief) of the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal”, the Bangladesh intelligence officials claim. In an eight-page interview to the ISIS mouthpieceDabiq in April this year, Chowdhury, alias al-Hanif, warned Bangladesh of terror attacks.

“Soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the prophet and every other apostate in the region,” he was quoted as saying. In the interview, he also vowed to “slaughter” non-believers throughout Bangladesh. Police officials claim that Chowdhury’s team killed a Hindu priest in June this year.

In the same interview, he said a group based in Bangladesh would facilitate “guerilla” attacks in India.

On Tuesday, the police said that Chowdhury had been tracked down in Dhaka. Unconfirmed reports earlier said he might have crossed over to Meghalaya in India while running for cover.

The man is still running; and for once, he has taken the lead in a race.

Tracking Terror Next Door

• Bangladesh government denies the presence of the ISIS in the country. But investigations have revealed that Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, is the so-called ‘amir (chief) of
the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal’.

• A video clip was released in July by the ISIS which featured three Bangla-speaking youths. They were believed to be Bangladeshi ISIS fighters in Raqqah, Syria. They said there would be more attacks in Bangladesh.

• Over 261 men, mostly in the age group of 18-24 years, have gone missing in Bangladesh this year. Dhaka police officials believe that some of them have joined terrorist organisations.

• Besides Tamim, Dhaka Metropolitan Police is looking for Nurul Hasan Marzan, who too is believed to have been involved in recent terror attacks.

• The terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, is believed to be affiliated with the ISIS.

• Other terrorist organisations active in Bangladesh are the al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) and Ansarulla Bangla Team


He’s the one parents of young boys in Bangladesh should be wary of. His job is to draw students into the terror fold, and to ensure that an attacker’s background is not very different from that of his targets, finds Sonia Sarkar

  • Thinkstock

He is in a tee and a pair of blue jeans. The goatee is well trimmed. He is a teacher in a private university in Dhaka, and a member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical organisation in Bangladesh. When he is not teaching young students, he seeks to “radicalise” them. He is a recruiter who identifies youngsters who feel that Islam is under attack, and urges them to do their bit to defend their faith.

“We identify men who are meritorious but could be motivated to work… across the world. We are showing them the right path,” says the professor.

Across Bangladesh, young men from well-to-do families are being drawn into the terror fold, as the July 1 attack on a cafeteria in Dhaka demonstrated. And leading them into the path are men who are not very different – articulate, well dressed and from similar backgrounds.

The old-fashioned image of the fundamentalist recruiter has taken a beating. The new recruiters are tech-savvy men who look for potential recruits on social networking forums, coaching institutes, neighbourhood cafés and private colleges. And they are men who had been similarly recruited.

The idea behind recruiting men from upper middle-class families is to ensure that when an attack is planned, the assailants look no different from their targets, security analysts say.

“Striking at an upmarket café would be far easier for someone who frequents the café or knows the area well. When the attacker is from the same class as the targets, nobody will suspect him,” points out Dhaka-based security and defence analyst Brigadier-General (retd) M. Sakhawat Hussain.

Last week, when a group of terrorists raided Holey Artisan Bakery, a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, Gulshan, and killed 20 people, mostly foreigners, the police discovered that three of the young terrorists belonged to influential families of Bangladesh. The father of one of the attackers is a leader of the ruling Awami League.

The three gunmen, identified by the police as Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz and Meer Saameh Mubasher, had studied in elite institutes in Dhaka. Islam had also studied in Malaysia.

Preliminary evidence shows that these men belonged to the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS released photographs of the attackers on their website a few hours after the massacre.

Last week, a video featuring three Bangladeshi boys, again from influential families, who were believed to have gone to Syria, surfaced. They spoke of more attacks.

According to the police, the two terrorist groups active in Bangladesh at present are the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Both give arms training to their recruits.

There are also radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hefajote Islam, but their focus is on influencing the youth with radical views. Some of their recruits, however, are sent for training to ABT and JMB. Police officials reveal that the banned ABT and JMB have close links with terrorist groups al Qaida and the ISIS.

There is acute consternation in Bangladesh about young men joining the ranks of terror groups. According to unofficial police estimates, 70 young men have been missing this year – and many of them, are suspected to have join- ed such groups.

Five of the July 1 attackers had been missing from home. Abir Rahman, one of the young men killed by the police at the Sholakia Idgah on Thursday, too, had been missing from home since March.

“We are trying to compile data to know what happened to each of the missing children, especially from these (upmarket) areas,” says Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the counter-terrorism unit, Rapid Action Battalion.

Of course, recruitment of young men into terrorist organisations is not new. The security officials state that for decades, the students’ outfit, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, has been recruiting young impoverished madrasa students for the JMB.

The officials hold that a large number of engineering students were enrolled into the JMB by the Chhatrashibir, which offered them scholarships, free coaching and books when they were in college. But now, simultaneously, recruiters are zeroing in on students of private colleges and reputable schools.

The recruiters are also young men, many in the age group of 18-24 years, like their recruits. “They too belong to the same strata of society,” says Zia Rahman, founding chairman of the department of criminology in Dhaka University.

The modus operandi of recruitment is simple. First, the recruiters identify young men studying in reputed private institutes on Facebook (FB) or other social media sites. Many FB pages such as Ansarullah Bangla Team, Basher Kella and Islami Online Activist are used to connect with possible recruits. Some of these pages have been banned by the government, but new ones crop up from time to time.

One of the common ways of starting a conversation with a potential recruit is by posting “religious” images in open groups where discussion on politics and religion often takes place. Then the recruiter follows every person who hits the “like” button by visiting their individual profiles.

Next, he sends a personal message, with a greeting. If the young man replies, discussions follow, mostly on religion. After some days, the recruiter invites the FB account holder out for a cup of coffee in a café. The conversation usually touches upon a host of subjects.

“If we sense that the person is disappointed with the government, we discuss religion. We talk about the condition of Muslims across the world, the attack on Islam by the West and also about jihad elsewhere in the world,” a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir says.

A few meetings later, videos and literature on jihad are sent to the young man. Some of the literature deals with suicide bombings.

The videos highlight attacks on Muslims. Then there are videos of youngsters in the ISIS being trained in Syria and of armed children dressed in military fatigues marching on the streets of Syria. Pictures of young boys holding assault rifles, with messages such as “What’s your excuse?” or “What’s stopping you?”, have been found in the cell phones of Bangladeshi youth.

“The idea is to keep showing him such videos till he yearns for more,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir member says.

Once he is in the fold, the next step is to train him in the use of arms. The ABT – which was said to have been behind the killing of bloggers and liberal thinkers in Bangladesh in the last two years – tutors potential recruits on the use of machetes through videos sent on WhatsApp, security forces say.

Some of the recruitment is conducted through fellow students in colleges or coaching institutes, or through teachers in private educational institutes. A senior leader of Hefajote Islam says that some 1,000 teachers in various private institutions are affiliated to the group.

Hasnat Karim, one of the suspects held by the police for the July 1 attack, was dismissed from his job as a professor in the North South University in Dhaka in 2012 for his alleged links with the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two students from the university were sentenced to death for killing blogger Rajib Haider last year. Abir Rahman too was a student of this university.

“These days, parents are not aware of the whereabouts of their children, how do we keep track of all 22,000 students? Also, because many of our teachers are part-timers, it is difficult to know who is affiliated to which organisation. But, of late, we have installed CCTV cameras on campus to keep an eye on the activities of students and teachers,” says Yasmin Kamal, member, board of trustees, North South University.

The government, too, is keeping a close watch on colleges now. “Our detective department is trying to find out why so many boys from these institutes have joined terrorism,” Bangladesh home affairs minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told The Telegraph .

There are other reasons why students are being drawn into terror activities. For one, students in private universities can easily get influenced by what their teachers have to say in a climate where there are no other outlets – such as students’ unions – for channelling their energies, Rahman of Dhaka University points out.

Another reason, cited by cultural experts, is the fact that students, unlike those in previous generations, have little involvement with cultural and literary activities. Their main preoccupation is the Internet. The number of Internet users in Bangladesh increased from 35 lakh in 2008 to 6.1 crore in March 2016.

“Recruiters have identified the huge cultural void in society today. They are tapping a generation that has little knowledge about the history of Bangladesh. These young men have an identity crisis,” says journalist-filmmaker Shahriar Kabir.

The identity of many youngsters, he rues, is primarily religious. “It is unfortunate that the children of this generation can relate more to 1947, when lines were drawn between India and Pakistan on the basis of religion, and not 1971, when Bangladesh was born of linguistic demands,” Kabir says.

It is this religious identity that the recruiters are zeroing in on. Security experts point out that they look out for overly religious youngsters.

“We also look for introverts, people who are capable of keeping secrets,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir-affiliated teacher says. “Also, we don’t meet them in groups; the meetings have to be one-on-one.”

Rahman believes that what the recruiters seek to hone is the rebellious streak in young men. “They look for people whom they can convince that it is romantic to be a rebel. Also, young college students are full of zeal and vigour, which is tapped by the recruiters.”

In the aftermath of the Gulshan killings, as images of people weeping and paying homage to the dead with tuberoses flood the media, another image is going to stay etched in the memories of the people of Bangladesh – and others. It is that of five smiling boys, holding an assault rifle.

(http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160710/jsp/7days/story_95762.jsp)

The gay community in Bangladesh is in despair. Brutal attacks on the editor of Bangladesh’s sole gay magazine and an activist have prompted gay people to go into hiding or leave the country, finds Sonia Sarkar
True colourS: A rainbow rally in Bangladesh; Pic:Roopbaan; (below) Dhee, the nation’s first gay comic strip character

Dhee, the curly-haired small-town girl, is in love – with a girl in her class. As she grows older, her parents urge her to marry a suitable boy. She doesn’t know what to do – should she get married to a man or take her life? Should she leave her country or stay back to speak for gay rights?

Dhee is the protagonist of Bangladesh’s eponymous first gay comic strip.

Like her, the 24-year-old gay activist Sharif Hasan Bappy of Sylhet, some 240km from Dhaka, is unsure about his future. Islamist radicals have threatened to kill him for his sexual orientation.

“The caller asked me to have my last meal and say my last prayers because they would kill me soon,” Bappy says. “If I have to be safe, I have to leave Bangladesh.”

The threat is real, as most gay people in Bangladesh know. Last month, 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, who edited Bangladesh’s only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) magazine, Roopbaan, and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy, 25, were killed in Dhaka. A member of the banned Islamist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team, was arrested for the murders.

Homosexuality is a crime in Bangladesh, as it is in India. But what worries the community is the attack by radicals, who see homosexuality as un-Islamic. After Mannan’s death, most gay rights activists have gone into hiding. Some have left Bangladesh or are preparing to leave.

International human rights groups say they have been getting requests from activists in Bangladesh seeking help to flee the country. “Over the past year, we have been helping a range of activists in Bangladesh, including from the LGBT community, who are in need of protection – some of them have been forced to flee the country. It is a sad indication of how dire the situation is that these requests for help are becoming more frequent,” says Amnesty International’s South Asia director, Champa Patel.

Help has been sought from gay rights activists in India, too. “Gay people from Bangladesh have been contacting me to understand if India can be a safe haven for them,” says Harish Iyer, equal rights activist and advisor for the think tank, Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment. “I have been telling them that if people are unsafe in a small town in India, they can go and live in any big city. Nobody is running after gays with a machete in their hand,” he adds.

But threats to life stalk members of groups such as Roopbaan, Bandhu and Boys of Bangladesh. The warnings, they say, come from Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, Bangladesh Awami Olama League, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Hefajote Islam. Most threats are on the phone or conveyed through anonymous letters or the social media.

After Roopbaan came out with its first edition in 2014, Mannan received a death threat. The printer of the magazine was also warned.

A close watch is being kept on the work of academics dealing with gender rights, too. Sources in Dhaka University and Rangpur’s Begum Rokeya University say students affiliated with radical organisations record lectures on gender rights in classrooms and threaten their teachers later if they feel that the lessons are “un-Islamic”.

The situation has worsened with the killing of atheist bloggers, teachers and Sufi leaders in the last one year. “A fear psychosis has been created to ensure nobody dares to think out of the box,” says Saikh Imtiaz, chair, department of women and gender studies, Dhaka University.

It is this climate of fear that prompted Riamoni Chisty, 22, to move to Munster in Germany in January. He claims that he received threats from various Islamic groups for working for gay rights in Comilla. He says that he was sexually assaulted by a group of radicals in 2010. In 2012, the youth wing of a fundamental group said he would be paraded naked if he continued with his activism.

“Either you choose to leave the country or you remain confined to your house,” Chisty says.

Visual artist Xecon Uddin, 29, moved to Paris five years ago. Uddin’s paintings depicting male nudity angered the fundamentalists, he says. “Bangladesh is a country for those who remain silent about sexuality; not for those who choose to talk about it,” he says.

But Islamist organisations stress that they will continue to oppose anything un-Islamic. “In a Muslim-majority country like ours, how can we allow a handful of homosexuals to damage our culture and society,” asks Hefajote Islam secretary-general Junaid Babu Nogori.

Police, however, say gay rights activists have nothing to worry. “We are prepared to give full security to anybody from that community,” assures Muhammad Abdul Batin, joint commissioner (detective branch), Dhaka Metropolitan Police.

Gay rights groups have been active in Bangladesh for the past 17 years. In 1999, a Bangladeshi known just as Rengyu started an e-group called GayBangladesh. Later, other closed online groups – Teen_Gay_Bangladesh and Boys of Bangladesh – came up.

In 2012, a film on homosexuality in Bangladesh, titled Amra Ki Etoi Bhinno (Are we so different?), received the award for best documentary film in the Mumbai International Queer festival. The same year, Boys of Bangladesh participated in an LGBT festival organised by the Goethe-Institut in Dhaka.

There is encouragement coming from within Bangladesh, too. When transgenders were officially recognised as the third gender in Bangladesh in 2013, gay rights activists gathered strength. In 2014, the first gay parade was organised. “The parade was the first sign of defiance and also a public appeal to decriminalise gay sex,” a gay rights activist says.

Online dating sites such as gaydatingbangladesh.com and somoprem and blogs on gay relationships such as somopremkahani.blogspot.com and somoprem.wordpress.com have become popular, too. Light humour on gay relationships is a hit on social media. A video by a Dhaka-based comedy collective ShowoffsDhk, titled “If Gay marriage is legalised in Bangladesh”, went viral on YouTube last year.

Some gay rights groups have been discussing issues at meetings, or bringing them up through poetry, storytelling, photography and paintings. In 2014, Roopbaan was launched and in the same year, Bangladeshi photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed held a photo exhibition “Inner Face” on gay relationships. A year later, Dhee came out as a comic strip, circulated among gay groups.

” Dhee gave voice to many lesbians in Bangladesh, who were under-represented,” says Rizwana Rahman (name changed), who was part of the team that conceptualised the character.

Dhee’s fate remains undecided – just like that of thousands of homosexual people in Bangladesh. “The first part of the comic ends with Dhee’s dilemma. In the second part, we will sketch out her journey but that will be decided by the people of the community through workshops. Workshops are now stalled because of these threats,” Rahman says.

For many activists, the future lies in continuing the battle at home. “Once you leave the country, you close all doors of return,” Chisty says.

(This story was originally published in The Telegraph on May 29,2016.Link:  http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160529/jsp/7days/story_88193.jsp)

Fear stalks Bangladesh. It’s not just bloggers who are being threatened. Rock band members, Baul singers, photographers, sculptors and painters have all been repeatedly attacked by radical extremists, says Sonia Sarkar

 

These days, blogger Supriti Dhar takes a circuitous route – changing three rickshaws – to her office in Dhaka, barely five kilometres from her home. She doesn’t talk to strangers. She doesn’t reveal her whereabouts to her friends, either. Dhar, who once fearlessly returned home even at midnight, now rarely steps out after 8pm.

“I cannot trust anyone anymore. I feel as if everyone is keeping an eye on me,” says Dhar, who runs a pro-woman and anti-extremist blog called womenchapter.com.

Dhar, 47, received a spate of threats from extremist groups in June. “I was threatened for five days in a row. The threatening calls came from 52 different numbers. I was abused on Facebook and told that I would be their next target,” she says.

Last week, blogger Niladri Chattopadhyay or Niloy Neel was hacked to death. “Niloy too had received threats around the same time,” she says. His death was the fourth killing of a blogger in Bangladesh in six months, allegedly by the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a regional chapter of al Qaeda.

  • Blogger Avijit Roy, who was killed in February

Blogger Ananya Azad is on the hit list, too – with fresh threats issued this week by a radical group, Ittehad-Ul-Mujahideen. Azad, who is a fierce critic of extremists, has often been threatened. In June, he decided to leave Bangladesh and go to Germany on a fellowship.

“When I was in Bangladesh, the one thing I had on my mind was this: maybe today is my last day,” says Azad, whose father, the liberal writer Humayun Azad, was killed by extremists in 2004. “If you want to live in Bangladesh just shut your mouth, break your pen and throw your brain into the dustbin,” Azad adds.

The space for liberal thinking in Bangladesh is shrinking. It’s not just bloggers who are being threatened. Rock band members, Baul singers, photographers, sculptors and painters have all been repeatedly attacked by radical extremists who object to their secular positions.

Most of these threats are sent online, on social networking sites, Facebook or Twitter, or through text messages and calls over the phone. The identities are mostly false, which is why they cannot be traced.

“We live in constant fear of who’s next,” Maqsoodul Haque, popularly known as Mac, the lead vocalist of the band Maqsood O’ Dhaka, says. His songs (such as Parwardigar on war crimes) have been critical of both the government and extremist groups. “They don’t want any free speech in the country,” Haque says.

The attacks have come in the wake of a burgeoning movement in recent months against war crimes in Bangladesh, which centred on a campaign seeking the death sentence for a war criminal, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Qauder Mollah.

The movement called Shahbagh, a public centre where the protestors used to gather, gave birth to a forum called Ganojagoron Mancha, which has been a fierce critic of attacks on freedom of speech and expression. Avijit Roy, killed in February this year, was a part of the movement, protesting against growing radicalism in the country and championing atheism and human rights, including homosexuality.

  • If you want to live in Bangladesh just shut your mouth, break your pen and throw your brain into the dustbin
    Ananya Azad 
    Blogger

The radicals are training their guns on anybody who questions their religious beliefs. The Bauls, whose music celebrates plurality, have been at the receiving end of their wrath. “They want us to stop singing,” Baul exponent Abdel Mannan says. “In the past few years, extremists have harassed many Baul singers. They would shave off heads and beat them up,” adds Mannan, whose popular song, Orey Maulana, Masjid ghore Allah thaake na…‘ (Maulana, Allah is not confined to the mosque), has often irked the fundamentalists.

Liberal intellectuals fear that it is not just extremists who are after them but the government, too. In 2013, the government formed a nine-member committee to track bloggers and Facebook users who made derogatory remarks about Islam and the Prophet. Somewhereinblog.net, the largest blogging platform in Bangladesh, was asked to take down “anti-Islamic” posts from their website. Four bloggers were also charged with Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act for hurting religious sentiments.

“In 2009, the Awami League government closed our gallery and office after we displayed works on Tibetans and later the police asked us to take down the show,” says photographer and curator Shahidul Alam, who runs a photography school, Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, and a multimedia organisation, Drik Picture Library, in Dhaka. “In 2010, riot police were sent to close down Drik after we had an exhibition on extra-judicial killings,” Alam adds.

In 2007, a satirical magazine, Alpin, was forced to close after it published a cartoon extremists found offensive. In 2008, statues of five local folk singers, created by artist Mrinal Haque, in front of the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, were removed after Islamist leaders threatened to damage them.

But the recent murders of bloggers have added to the terror. “Earlier, these attacks were random and nobody took them seriously. But now we are scared,” says sculptor Vaskor Rasha. “These threats can translate into murder any time.”

The problem, the intellectuals add, is that the threats are leading to self-censorship. “We have been urging people to come to Shahbagh and protest after the killings of the bloggers. But unfortunately we could not assemble more than 100 people,” says Nasiruddin Yousuff, the director of a film on war criminals called Guerrilla.

Historians say that a nation born out of cultural resistance is facing the biggest threat to its cultural and secular ethos. Ironically, three out of four bloggers killed this year were Hindus. “The recent incidents clearly have set a question mark on our secularism. It is shameful. Things have never been this bad before,” Muntassir Mamoon, professor of history, Dhaka University, says.

Little has been done to contain the violence, many complain. This week, the inspector-general of police, A.K.M Shahidul Hoque, asked free thinkers and writers not to “cross the line”. The Bangladesh home minister, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, warned that action would be taken against those writing anything that would “hurt” religious sentiments.

“Aren’t people staying in Bangladesh? Not everyone is getting killed. We are only asking some people, who lampoon religion in the name of liberalism, to be a bit restrained,” Kamal says.

Not that the government’s attitude has helped ease the tension. The radicals have their own complaints. “If the government had punished the bloggers for writing such blasphemous pieces, nobody would have killed them,” Maulana Zaffarullah Khan, joint secretary of the group Hefajote Islam says.

Dhar, the daughter of a 1971 Liberation War martyr, feels that the only solution is to leave the country. “I had never thought that one day I would be so desperate as to want to leave my country,” she says.

Many liberals fear that Bangladesh – which fought a war for independence from Pakistan in 1971 – is treading backwards, going back to the bloody days when nationalist intellectuals were killed.

“Are we going back to where we started,” asks an agitated Dhar. Imran Sarker, head of Bangladesh Bloggers Association, adds: “This is not the Bangladesh that our fathers fought for.”


(Published in The Telegraph. April 16, 2015)

With India and Bangladesh signing a land boundary agreement, the focus now is on people who live on the border, straddling both countries. This is an attempt to catch a glimpse of life in nowhere land.

Eleven-year-old Abhijit Majumdar plans to spend most of his summer holidays in Bangladesh. Not with a passport and a visa, but by just stepping out into his backyard. The front of his house is in India, the back in Bangladesh.

“My friends from Bangladesh come to play football with me,” says Majumdar, who lives in Dakshin Para in the South Dinajpur district of West Bengal.

His house is among the 70 houses in his village on or near the zero line or Radcliffe Line, the international boundary (IB) drawn between India and what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. A large part of the house falls in India, while a portion lies in Bangladesh.

As India and Bangladesh sealed a Land Boundary Agreement recently to exchange enclaves on the border where thousands of people from the two countries live without proper citizenship and legal rights, the focus is now on people who are placed near the zero line of the India-Bangladesh border.
A 2216km-long stretch of the 4,096km border falls in West Bengal, covering North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Murshidabad, Nadia, Malda, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.

Around 70,000 people live on or near the zero line across the border, more than 11,000 in South Dinajpur alone, where the border is the most porous.

There should be no settlements within 150 yards of the IB. But this no man’s land is dotted with houses, with large agricultural fields and ponds surrounding the habitat.

One can easily cross the border by stretching one’s leg. The distance between the two countries is less than a foot in most areas. A series of white pillars – some submerged in ponds or half buried in the ground – indicate that this is the border area.

For the residents, there is nothing new about living in two countries. But when Hamida Bibi came to Shrikrishnapur village after getting married 10 years ago, she felt strange when she looked out of her window into Bangladesh.

“Now it is so normal,” Bibi says, standing next to a bamboo tree which was planted in India and branches out into Bangladesh.

For people across the two sides, the border is no barrier. “I often cross the border. I go to the Katla market in Bangladesh, two kilometres away, to buy clothes or grocery,” Bibi says.

It is difficult to tell which house is in India for the undulating by-lanes with packed mud houses snake across the two countries seamlessly. From one house, you can hear the sounds of two women quarrelling – one is in India, the other in Bangladesh. The bone of contention is the quality of saris that a Bangladeshi woman has sold to Indian villagers.

Stories of harassment are common. To go to another village a few kilometres away, the local people have to take permission from the jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF). The huge black gates that stand next to the IB fence, around 150 yards away from these villages, open only from 6am to 6pm. To cross the gates, the villagers have to submit their identity cards at the checkpost.

Other villagers who live beyond the gates are not allowed into this area – this correspondent entered covertly with the help of a local villager.

“They have cut us off from our own country. They refuse to open the gates for us even if there is an emergency at night,” says 24-year-old Tahmina Bibi of Shrikrishnapur village. “We have to wait till a senior officer gives us permission.”

The BSF claims that security in these villages has been tightened because this is the hub of illegal trade. The villagers, mostly women and children, smuggle into Bangladesh goods such as cough syrups, rice, spices, cooking oil, saris and cycles. The goods are mostly transported by trains to and from Bangladesh which pass through Hili Block close to the zero line. Trafficking of cows and trading of illegal currency are the two biggest problems that security forces face on this porous border.

“Having a house on the zero line is not a problem. The problem is that these houses are used for illegal activities,” says Veena Sikri, former Indian envoy to Bangladesh.

Villagers accuse the BSF of raiding their houses in search of illegal goods. “The jawans beat us up. They treat us worse than animals,” complains Minhajul Islam, who runs a grocery shop in Purba Gobindapur.

The BSF denies the allegations. “We do our job for security issues but they think we are harassing them. If we don’t keep a check, we would be accused of colluding with them on illegal trade,” says Sandeep Salunke, inspector-general, BSF, South Bengal Frontier, who is also in charge of the North Bengal border.
Some of the villagers claim that they possess identity cards issued by both Bangladesh and India.

“Living on zero line is like living on the edge. There is always an air of suspicion around us. Dual identity cards help because when we are not allowed to cross the gate we can always go to the other side in case of any emergency,” says Monirul Islam (name changed).

The BSF says that the identity cards are issued by district administrations, and they have no way to control this. But to check crime, it has proposed to the ministry of home affairs to facilitate the relocation of these villages to an area outside the IB fence. The ministry of home affairs has asked for a response from the states bordering Bangladesh.

“It would be appropriate if the issue of people living ahead of the fence near the zero line receive the same kind of attention that the areas under Land Boundary Agreement received,” says Salunke. “The onus is on state governments to provide land and ensure that the villages ahead of the fence are relocated and that no Indian is staying close to the zero line.”

The villagers are worried about being relocated, and not being adequately compensated.
“Most of these people have been living in their ancestral houses. Some of them have agricultural land, too.

If they don’t get good compensation, why should they move out of their homes,” asks Anil Roy, a member of the Dhalpara Gram Panchayat in Hili block.

And would it affect their schooling, ask the children of Purba Gobindapur village. Ever since their primary school shut down two years ago, many of them have been walking to Daudpur in Bangladesh to study in a madrasa.

“We want to study. It doesn’t matter if it is an Indian or a Bangladeshi school,” says Jahana Khatoon (name changed).

Clearly, for the villagers, straddling two countries is part of life. Cross-border love stories are common. Tamina Bibi of Islambagh in Bangladesh and Rashid of Jamalpur in South Dinajpur met when Bibi crossed the border to fetch water from Rashid’s village seven years ago.

“We fell in love and got married. The borders didn’t matter,” she says.

In the Haripukur mosque, next to a boundary pillar, Indians and Bangladeshis pray together every Friday. “The mosque belongs to Bangladesh but we pray here because it is right next to our village,” Haripukur resident Mohammed Amjad Ali points out. “When the leaders of the two countries are promoting goodwill, where is the problem when we do so?”

The story has been published in The Telegraph, June 14, 2015

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia fears India is distancing itself from its neighbour by supporting the government of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. In an exclusive email interview, the Opposition leader, however, stresses that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) believes in working closely with New Delhi. Would the BNP’s ties with India be affected if Narendra Modi came to power? “It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country,” she replies. Extracts from the interview:

Q: Why did you boycott parliamentary polls in January 2014?A:Our decision not to participate in the election was a principled one. It arose in response to the Awami League’s calculated move to annul the 13th Amendment, in May 2011, to the Constitution which provided for a neutral, non-party caretaker government to oversee general elections and replace it with the 15th Amendment one month later, which provided for elections to be held under a political government while members of Parliament were still in place.The BNP along with the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh opposed the Constitution’s 15th Amendment because of their firm belief that is was susceptible to widespread electoral manipulation. Suffice it to say that our stance was fully vindicated by the people of Bangladesh, who outright rejected the fraudulent election of January 5, 2014… More than half the total parliamentary seats was declared by the Election Commission to have been won “uncontested”, including those of the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition. Election for the remaining seats was a conspicuous sham with an abysmally low voter turnout, around 5 per cent according to reliable estimates.Q:But after boycotting the parliamentary elections, why is the BNP participating in the upazila council elections?

A:The reasons are simple. First, our demand for elections under a non-party caretaker government is for the parliamentary elections, not for elections to the local bodies. Second, elections to local bodies are non-party though the individuals concerned seek a measure of support from political parties. Third, because local body elections are smaller in dimension, scrutiny is easier. Importantly, local elections are not game changing.

Q: What’s your next challenge? Are you in favour of a dialogue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?

A:The next big challenge, indeed, the paramount objective of the BNP and its future political programme, is to realise the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to exercise their right to vote and to freely choose their own representatives. How long can Sheikh Hasina continue to ignore such a deeply rooted public demand and still claim to speak for democracy? She must respond to the people’s demand or take refuge in mounting autocracy.

Q: It seems unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will go for a re-poll before her five-year term ends. Have you lost your chance of ruling Bangladesh?

A:The BNP has consistently and positively responded to all domestic and international calls for dialogue in the face of continuous stalling and intransigence by the Awami League. BNP, like the people of Bangladesh, believes it is imperative to hold meaningful dialogues between the major political parties for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.

I may point out that neither my party nor I believe in “ruling” Bangladesh. We believe in serving our country and people.

Q: In India many believe that you are not a “friend”. Why is your image so anti-India?

A:Our party and I personally believe in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially with our neighbours. We also believe that such relations should be based on the universally recognised principles of mutual benefit and respect.

As our closest neighbour, our relation with India is of added significance and relevance. I had reiterated this to the political leadership of India at every level during my visit to New Delhi in November 2012 at the invitation of the Indian government, when I was warmly received. My impression is that my assurances of friendship and mutually beneficial co-operation were deeply appreciated.

Q: Yet the UPA government has supported Sheikh Hasina…

A:India, which has a long and proud history of democracy, should stand on the side of the people of Bangladesh, as it did during our glorious war of liberation in 1971. By extending support to a government that is in office through a fraudulent election and one which has seen the disenfranchisement of the public… India may distance itself from the people of Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see India-Bangladesh ties if BJP’s Narendra Modi comes to power?

A:Relations between Bangladesh and India should not be contingent on an individual or any particular political party. It should be based on the need to address the interests of the people of the two countries and be responsive to their perceptions of each other. It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country. We believe in working closely with the elected government for furthering our relations.

Q: The Hasina government alleges that your government has been harbouring Indian militants from the Northeast.

A:Sheikh Hasina’s remarks are baseless, false and clearly motivated. During my meeting with the Indian leadership in 2012, I had assured them that the territory of Bangladesh shall never be allowed to be used by anyone against the interests of India or for anything that could threaten India’s security. Bangladesh has never been nor will it ever be a safe haven for militants.

Q: But the Awami League party holds that the BNP and its key ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, are friends of al Qaida, which has threatened to wage an intifada in Bangladesh.

A:No terrorist threat should be taken lightly, nor should these be used for narrow political gains. The blame game is self-defeating. Global terrorism has to be taken seriously and there should be concerted efforts and preparedness to combat this threat. Terrorism or militancy can have no place in our pluralist societies.

The BNP has been consistent in condemning and acting resolutely against terrorism in any form and manifestation. This is evident from the manner in which the BNP government in the past has acted against terrorists. Between 2005 and 2006, the BNP government arrested 1,177 terrorists and extremists.

During the time of the Awami League government between 1996 and 2001 Bangladesh witnessed the presence of new terrorist groups and attacks on cultural events.

There are differences between the political philosophies of the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Our relation with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance. There is, however, a history of political alliances between the Jamaat and other major political parties. The Awami League, for example, maintained very close alliance with the Jamaat going back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was also the Awami League that signed a memorandum of understanding with the fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khelafate Majlish, in 2006. That MoU was aimed at legalising religious fatwa.

Q: There is a popular movement for punishing war criminals. How true is the general perception that those undergoing life sentences will be released and rehabilitated by the BNP if it comes to power?

A:We believe that anyone who has committed crimes against humanity should be held accountable and brought before the realm of law. The BNP will try all those who have committed crimes against humanity in Bangladesh through a process that is transparent and one that meets international standards.

Q: Recently, a “telephonic” conversation between you and Sheikh Hasina went viral. Didn’t it highlight the ego clash between Bangladesh’s two top leaders?

A:The telephone conversation was a privileged communication between the leaders of the country’s top political parties. It should have been treated as such. The act of making it public by the government was inappropriate, motivated as well as a breach of trust.

Q: What will the BNP focus on now?

A:Let me end by saying that for Bangladesh democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are vital if we are to avoid chaos and political instability. A democratic, peaceful and a politically stable Bangladesh is not just in our interest — it is also in the interest of our region.




  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...