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Tripura CM Biplab Deb skirts a foot-in-the-mouth moment and tells Sonia Sarkar what he is doing to undo all that the Left did

Picture Credit: Suman Choudhury

As I step into Tripura chief minister (CM) Biplab Kumar Deb’s office, I expect to witness a few foot-in-the-mouth moments. I am at the Secretariat in Agartala. Deb, however, disappoints me. He is extraordinarily reticent. His eyes look tired, sleep-deprived. Indeed, there is lot of work ahead for Deb, who has just completed six months in office.

The biggest challenge of all is to “fix” everything that he claims the CPI(M) has destroyed. Deb tells me: “When I say everything, it means everything – economy, agriculture, employment, education and corruption.”

It’s a brand new Tripura Deb wants to build. And, he claims, small changes are already visible. “Earlier, when I’d meet people, they were mostly poker-faced. Now, when I go around, I see only happy faces,” he says with pride.

I get a different picture though during my conversations with various sections of society – drivers, rickshaw-pullers, artistes, government officials, teachers – as I traipse around Agartala. People have already started questioning Deb’s governance. There are murmurs of discontent. Some of the things one gets to hear often are – “We didn’t expect this”, “BJP has changed Tripura in no time, and all for worse” and “It was a mistake to have elected the BJP”.

Breaking the 25-year reign of CPI(M) in March this year, BJP won 35 seats; its partner, the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura, which has a substantial base among the tribals, won eight. Their combined strength is 43 in the 60-seat Assembly. Upon winning the Assam Assembly elections in 2016, Tripura was BJP’s next target in the Northeast. A band of 52 Union ministers was sent to campaign to overthrow the Left. Big BJP men made big promises.

The party promised to change people’s fortunes by giving free education to the girl child right up to graduation, pay parity for 2.15 lakh state government officials courtesy the Seventh Pay Commission, one job for every family, free smartphones for the youth, housing for all, regularisation of services of contractual government employees, doubling of farmers’ incomes in the next five years, enhanced minimum wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), enhancement of social security pension to Rs 2,000, a whole range of things.

The daily wagers under MGNREGA allege that they barely got 10 days of work in the past five months and the wages haven’t gone up either. No new jobs have been created, but there has been another promise to “streamline the recruitment process” for unemployed youth. Those joining government service in Tripura on or after July 1 this year have been told that they will not be entitled to the general provident fund. The Seventh Pay Commission is yet to be implemented, though Deb says, “The P.P. Verma Committee is looking into it.”

Deb also shares his grand plans to promote Tripura. He will be setting up a rubber industry – the annual rubber production in the state is 50,000-plus tonnes; Tripura tea will be branded and sold outside the state; bamboo and green pineapple, the indigenous produce of the state, will get a fresh market impetus.

All of six feet and three inches – at some point he had wanted to join the police force – Deb sits straight in his chair, unperturbed by the list of complaints. I ask him about the three people who were lynched to death in July over a rumour about “child-lifting” and allegations about his education minister Ratan Lal Nath instigating the masses. He replies, “The Communists have coined the word, mob lynching. The biggest insurgency in Tripura was in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s when the Communists were in power.”

That’s Deb’s way of convincing me that Tripura was more violent during the Left rule. Deb, like Mamata Banerjee, tends to blame the Left for everything. When I ask him what the logic is behind blaming the Left always, his answer is prompt and vague: “Manik Sarkar (his predecessor) encouraged people to grow marijuana. We have arrested over 200 people dealing with marijuana, most of them turned out to be CPI(M) men.”

The week before, Tripura police claimed they had seized over 2,100 kilos of marijuana worth Rs 1.5 crore from an oil tanker at Dharamnagar in the northern parts. Over the past six months, the police have seized over 20,000 kilograms of marijuana. Most of these seizures have taken place from the Sepahijala district, the constituency of the former CM. But these arrests over drugs are mostly political, Left leaders allege. The CPI(M) also alleges that government officials have been bulldozing their office-buildings on the outskirts of Agartala. The government, however, maintains that these offices were built on government-owned land and must be taken over.

Deb’s other attack on the Left is through textbooks. Despite having a literacy rate of 94.65 per cent, the quality of education in the state has been poor, he claims. So he doesn’t want children in Tripura to study the Russian revolution, Lenin and Karl Marx anymore. He wants NCERT textbooks to reach state-run schools from next year. “The Communists have highlighted only people they hail as heroes, what about our heroes – Ashoka, Syama Prasad Mookherjee, Mahatma Gandhi. Are they not great enough?” he asks.

We are a good way into the interview, and he is keen to talk some more. The conversation that started in Hindi has long moved to Bengali. But there hasn’t been any foot-in-the-mouth moment as yet. Nothing in the league of what he said about Internet existing during the times of the Mahabharata or that Civil Engineering students should opt for the Civil Services.

I ask him why he courts controversy so often and he shows me his “cultural” and “intellectual” side by invoking Tagore. He says, “When you and I look at dew drops, we would just find them mundane and ordinary, but when Tagore looked at them, he was moved to compose poems. What people make out of what I say is up to them.”

But Deb has tripped on his general knowledge about Tagore in the past. Earlier this year, he spoke about how Tagore rejected the Nobel Prize in protest against the British government and got the Biswasrestho or the world’s best award for Gitanjali. Tagore had renounced his knighthood and got the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali. The CM’s words interrupt my flashback. He is saying, “Every other community knows, Bengalis dimaag ka khata hai. Amader kachhe achhe… Bengalis have great intellect. We Bengalis have it.”

Deb is dressed in a white kurta and pyjama with a red-and-white Manipuri risa or scarf. He tells me he has a huge collection of risas representing the various tribes of the state. “My concern for tribals is not mere posturing, I take everyone along. This is an inclusive government,” he says.

During election rallies, he spoke in Kokborok, the state’s second official language. But after he assumed power he proposed to ban its use on all news channels and introduce Hindi instead. As in most BJP-ruled states, Hindi supremacy continues here too. At the time of this interview, Tripura University, a central varsity, is observing the Hindi Fortnight.

Deb is an obedient foot soldier of the BJP. But his views on implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) is different from his party’s. He says, “There isn’t any need for NRC here, we don’t have the problem of infiltration.”

Could it be that being from Bangladesh himself, Deb has a soft corner for the people of opar Bangla or the other side? His defences are up almost immediately. “But I was born here. Yes, my father came from Chandpur in Chittagong in 1967 and my mother in 1971.”

His detractors, however, are not having any of this. They have already labelled him a Bangladeshi for not implementing the NRC in the state. After the interview, his aide, a former journalist, calls me to say, “Mother wala point thoda downplay kijiyega…” A day before the interview, the same man tells me over phone, “Positive likhiyega.” Clearly, there is worry within the BJP camp that the Bangladeshi tag should not stick or the outsider label for that matter. Deb spent over a decade in Delhi after finishing his graduation from Udaipur College in Tripura; returned only in 2015.

By way of changing perceptions, Deb has now gone and done the ultimate. He has pulled his children out from their Delhi schools and has had them join schools in Agartala. He can’t emphasise this enough: “If the children of the CM don’t study in the state, why would anyone want their children to study here?”

Point. Deb, it seems, wants to lead by example. But one must be careful before taking cue. Remember, he tends to put his foot in his mouth much too often.

This interview appeared in The Telegraph, September 16, 2018

https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/there-is-no-need-for-nrc-in-our-state-no-infiltration-problem-here-259544

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Bangladesh is on a roll; its progress looks unstoppable. Last month, it launched its first ever commercial satellite, Bangabandhu-1, from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States of America. In March, it successfully met the criteria of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy to graduate from a ‘least developed country’ to a ‘developing country’. By 2041, it will become a ‘developed’ country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has promised.

Now, let us do a reality check. To be called ‘developing’, Bangladesh needs to keep this pace of development for the next six years. The UN will give this status finally in 2024, once satisfied. That is not all. Last year, in a report, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization revealed that the number of malnourished people in Bangladesh has increased by 7,00,000 over the last 10 years. The report also stated that, as of 2017, at least 2.5 crore people in Bangladesh are malnourished – among the highest in the world.

The strength of any country’s economy can be fathomed by the performance of its banking sector. Here, too, the picture is not promising enough. The amount of non-performing and default loans are on the rise and both State-owned and private banks in Bangladesh are facing a capital deficit. A section of private banks, which mostly got licences with the help of political lobbying, have been accused of money laundering.

These facts, of course, do not figure in Wajed’s speeches when she flaunts the development card at rallies, ahead of the parliamentary polls in December. She even attributes the development to the ‘people’ of Bangladesh, whom she calls her main ‘strength’. What she has failed to understand is that, besides development, the ‘people’ want democracy in the country. The bitter truth is democracy has been deeply compromised during her rule or, at least, the international markers indicate so. In the Transformation Index released in March, the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung criticized Bangladesh for not meeting minimum standards of democracy.

Enforced disappearances, torture and forced detention of political opponents, former diplomats, rights activists and journalists are the new norm in Bangladesh. Last year, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called upon Bangladesh to act immediately to halt the increasing numbers of enforced disappearances in the country. Random arrests to maintain ‘law and order’ are common. Last month, at least 124 suspected drug peddlers were killed in reported gunfights with law enforcement agencies over a fortnight. The US ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, called on the Awami League-led government to bring the kingpins behind drug peddling to justice without killing. She said that “in a democracy, everyone has the right to due process of law”.

Earlier this year, university students demanding quota reforms in government jobs also faced detention and arrest. In Parliament, the agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, even labelled the protesters as the children of war criminals. In February, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a Hong Kong-based rights organization, noted that custodial “torture has been institutionalised in Bangladesh”.

Curiously, Wajed, who has been called ‘Mother of Humanity’ by the Western press for giving shelter to lakhs of persecuted Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, shies away from answering questions on human rights violations under her rule. A journalist was stopped from asking questions on these issues at a press meet during her visit to London in April. But she answered gladly questions on Bangladesh’s ‘progress and prospects’. The message was clear. Her priority is development, democracy can come later.

Like 2014, this time again, Wajed and her party, the Awami League, want to win unopposed. Such is the desperation to come back to power that the party general secretary, Obaidul Quader, recently went ahead to say, “Victory in the upcoming general elections for Awami League is merely a formality.”

Interestingly, foreign diplomats in Dhaka have taken note of the desperation; they have been repeatedly urging the Awami League government to conduct free and fair elections. They have also asked the election commission to take measures to avoid the boycotts and violence that marred the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the independence of the commission has been questioned too, and there are reasons for it. During the presidential elections in February, the law minister, Anisul Huq, announced the poll date two days before the EC could formally do it. Soon after, the election commissioner, K.M. Nurul Huda, had to admit the commission is working to regain the trust of the people.

December shall clearly be a testing time for the election commission. But the people of Bangladesh are in a fix too. They do not know if their vote can restore democracy or if they shall have to make do with Wajed’s idea of development for the third time in a row.

 It appeared in The Telegraph, June 27, 2018

Little did the Bangladeshi journalist, Abdul Latif Morol, know that writing about a dead goat on Facebook would land him in jail. Last year, Morol, a local journalist from Khulna, over 200 kilometres south of Dhaka, posted, “Goat given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening.” Morol was put behind bars for a day under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.

But things can go worse for journalists in this country, which ranks 146 out of 180 countries in the press freedom barometer, Reporters Sans Frontières’ ‘2017 World Press Freedom Index’. If the Digital Security Act, recently approved by the country’s cabinet to tackle cybercrime and protect national security, gets a nod in Parliament, journalists could also be convicted of espionage.

Various sections of this law impinge upon the right to freedom of speech and expression, thereby preventing journalists from gathering information against the government. For example, Section 32 of this proposed law says that secret recording of any information at any government, semi-government or autonomous institution would be considered spying, leading to 14 years in jail or a fine of 25 lakh taka (Rs 19,24,395) or both. These days, reporters collect information in various ways digitally – they take pictures, make videos and record interviews – all on their smartphones. A law like this will create hurdles for objective reporting, local journalists allege.

After journalists came out in large numbers on the streets of Dhaka to protest against this assault on press freedom, ministers of the ruling Awami League government reassured them that Section 32, a non-bailable offence, would not interfere with their work and all stakeholders would be consulted before the law is passed. But journalists are not convinced because they have witnessed the high-handedness of the State earlier. At least, 25 journalists including Morol were booked under Section 57 of the ICT Act last year alone. After a huge uproar by the media, the government proposed to revoke Section 57 but ironically, provisions of this section have now been included in the newly proposed law.

For example, hurting religious sentiments and tarnishing the image of the State are punishable in this proposed law, just as they were considered to be offences in Section 57 of the ICT Act. As per Section 28 of the proposed law, one would face the maximum punishment of 10 years in jail or a fine up to 20 lakh taka (Rs 15,46,936) or both for hurting religious sentiments; and Section 25 of the law prescribes a maximum punishment of five years in jail or a fine of up to 10 lakh taka (Rs 7,70,220) or both for tarnishing the image of the State.

 

The irony is, such penalties are likely to be imposed on the press, which is already pro-Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister. The mainstream Bangladeshi media give wide coverage to her press conferences bashing the Khaleda Zia-led Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but it seldom asks tough questions on the increasing number of random enforced disappearances of journalists, activists and former diplomats who are critical of the government, and the arbitrary arrests and detention of political opponents.

In spite of enjoying such a pro-government approach of the press, Wajed, the self-proclaimed saviour of Bangladesh’s democracy, has made several attempts to curb its freedom in the past few years. Last year, The Jessore-based journalist and rights activist, Binoy Krishna Mallik, was arrested for holding a press conference to expose the alleged corruption of the local superintendent of police. In 2016, the senior journalist, Shafik Rehman, was arrested for allegedly plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the prime minister’s son. In 2014, the cabinet approved the national broadcasting policy, which prohibits electronic media from disseminating news, photographs, or videos that could tarnish the image of law enforcement agencies and armed forces or counter the government or impede national security.

Besides national security, Wajed is also trying to control freedom of speech in the name of nationalism. For example, Section 21 of the proposed Digital Security Act carries a life sentence or fine of up to three crore taka (Rs 23,568,607) or both for anyone spreading negative propaganda against the 1971 Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, digitally, for a second time. Criticizing this provision, the United Nations treaty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, stated that the laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are “incompatible” with the country’s obligations to respect the “freedom of opinion and expression”.

With the parliamentary elections scheduled in December this year, Wajed is leaving no stone unturned to remain in power for the third consecutive term. Her main Opposition, the BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, has been sentenced to five years in jail for graft. There are additional charges of arson and violence against her, which could mean more years in jail and no elections for her. Scores of BNP workers have been arbitrarily arrested by the police for demanding Zia’s release. If Wajed manages to bully the press too, it is certainly a clear victory for her. But this year’s elections could be a repeat of 2014 polls, which were widely condemned by the international community for not being “free and fair”.

A question which many liberal thinkers are asking now is, in this desperation to remain in power, has Wajed forgotten, Bangladesh was built upon the ‘liberal ethos’ by none other than her own father?

Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Swedish author and Sino-India specialist, Bertil Lintner, chats with Sonia Sarkar about hawks and doves

Last week, at the New Delhi launch of Bertil Lintner’s book, China’s India War, one of the panelists joked that India feels gratified whenever the West takes a pro-India stance in the ongoing India-China rift, because international opinion is still shaped by writers from that part of the world. Sitting on the dais, the Swedish journalist and author laughed.

Lintner’s narrative on the Sino-Indian war of 1962 is the antithesis of British journalist Neville Maxwell’s 1970 book, India’s China War. Maxwell had argued that it was India that provoked China in 1962 and China had fallen prey to Jawaharlal Nehru’s hostile policies.

Later that week, when Lintner and I meet in a noisy café at the India International Centre, he tells me, “I think, he [Nehru] had too much faith in China; he didn’t realise that the Chinese were not of the same wavelength.”

Dressed in a deep brown pullover and a pair of jeans, Lintner speaks softly. He tends to explain things in great detail too. The pair of thick, square-shaped glasses he has on adds to the general impression of gravitas. But what is most startling perhaps, off-dais, is the impassive expression on his face.

Inevitably, Doklam comes up. Recent media reports claim that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still present in this region of Bhutan. Most other years, they leave by November. Says the 64-year-old, “Doklam was not about a road. It was the Chinese attempt to create a wedge between Bhutan and India. Bhutan also wanted to show that they are independent of India; they thought India should not get involved as it is about Bhutan and China.”

But there is a view among a section of Indian security experts that New Delhi has irked China several times ever since Narendra Modi assumed power. The invitation extended to the “Prime Minister” of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 did not go down well. Then again, this year, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory China claims.

Lintner starts to say something and then stops midway. The words that finally emanate from his mouth, “That’s not my subject.” I find it strangely cautious, if not surprising, coming from one who is known to be vocal about issues such as human rights violations by the Myanmar Army, has questioned disappearances and imprisonment of politicians and civilians alike in Myanmar and has written extensively on organised crime in the Asia Pacific. He is known to be a champion of Press freedom, too.

And while Lintner makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in antagonising the Modi government, he does remember to warn India about China’s intrusion into the Indian Ocean. He says, “Most of China’s oil supplies come through the Indian Ocean, most of its minerals sourced from Africa pass through it and most of its exports, which go through Europe, to Africa pass through this ocean, which India considers as its own lake. When China enters this area in a big way, there is concern – what is China up to?”

Lintner also talks about how China’s presence in South Asia – it is building ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – is a cause for concern. “It’s part of China’s global strategy and India happens to be in the way,” he adds.

China’s influence on the Northeast is also huge. In his book, Lintner writes that China has not ceased to support the rebels. “These groups buy weapons on what is euphemistically called ‘the black market’ in China.”

He even claims that The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) chief Paresh Barua, who still evades arrest, stays in Chinese towns and travels freely across the country.  Lintner has met Barua thrice – Myanmar (1985), Bangkok (1992) and Dhaka (2010).

In his book, Linter writes,  China is providing Barua a safe haven because it argues that it is only “reciprocating India’s act of providing sanctuary for the Dalai Lama, allowing the enemy of one country to stay in the other.” India’s decision to give shelter to Dalai Lama in 1959 certainly did establish that “India is China’s enemy,” Lintner, who met Dalai Lama twice, stresses.

Lintner first met Dalai Lama at McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh  in 1984 when he was touring India as a correspondent for a Danish daily.

Lintner’s India ties date back to 1975. That is also the year he visited Calcutta for the first time. Lintner’s mother is Swedish, his father an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany. He was a political prisoner before he managed to escape to Sweden and, thereafter, left for Brazil. Lintner was six months old at the time.

“When I was 19, I managed to track him [his father] to a New Zealand address, where he had moved with his new family. It was to meet him that I left Sweden for the first time, in 1975, to travel to New Zealand, overland,” he says.

Lintner explored India by train and bus. He recalls how he stayed in a dormitory at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House on Calcutta’s Sudder Street for Rs 8 per night. He also suffered three bouts of dysentery and lost more than 20 kilos.

During that trip he caught another bug. Lintner claims it was Calcutta that inspired his 22-year-old self to become a writer.

“My favourite part of Calcutta is College Street with all its bookstores and the Indian Coffee House,” says the veteran journalist who has travelled the world before choosing for his home, Chiang Mai in Thailand, three decades ago. He is married to Hseng Noung, a Shan or ethnic person from Myanmar.

And that is not the only Myanmar connection he is known for. Globally, Lintner is known for his relentless reporting from Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). The military junta blacklisted him for 23 years, beginning 1989. He started visiting Myanmar again only recently, since 2013.

While it is easy to understand Lintner’s take on the Sino-India face-off, his views on Myanmar and the ousted Rohingyas are more layered, somewhat difficult to grasp and to process, thereafter.

For one, he does not seem outraged at the recent killings and exodus of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. He does not even blame the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who runs the Myanmar government, for failing to contain the sectarian violence unleashed against the Muslims by the Buddhists.

“There is a democratically elected government in Myanmar but three most important ministries – defence, home and border affairs – are controlled by the military. Suu Kyi has a very limited role to play,” says Lintner, who is the author of Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.

But yes, he concedes, she could have visited the victims of violence, along with other elected representatives, to show the military there is also a civilian space in the country. So far, so good.

But prod him further and you learn that Lintner is not willing to dub the Rohingya situation a “religious” conflict at all.

The real problem is, he says, is that the Rohingyas live close to Bangladesh and they have many similarities with the natives of Chittagong there. “Rohingyas comprise only five per cent of the Muslim population in Myanmar. Most Muslims are in the cities; they are merchants, shopkeepers, professionals- they have Burmese names, they speak Burmese and they are Burmese citizens. Rohingyas are a rural community and they live in an area next to an overpopulated country, (where they have) exactly the same people on the other side of the border. They speak Bengali in Chittagong dialect, they don’t speak Burmese. Other Muslims (in Myanmar) see it like this — we have a small Rakhine state with 3.5 million people whereas next door, there is a country with 180 million people. It is a completely different story,” he explains.

And what, in his opinion, triggered the recent violence that led to the exodus of an estimated seven lakh people from Myanmar to Bangladesh?

Lintner now launches into an elaborate explanation of how on the night the Kofi Annan Commission Report came out this August – the same that asked Myanmar to scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship of the Rohingyas – the armed radical group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked 30 police stations and one army base at Rakhine. “This triggered enormous backlash. Thousands of people have suffered because of this, but nobody is questioning the Arsa,” he says.

The insinuation is obvious – the Rohingyas are responsible for their own situation. And if there is any doubt about his stance in this debate, the next statement makes things clear as daylight. To a question about whether there will be a guaranteed safe passage for the Rohingyas to Rakhine state following the pact between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Lintner says, “First of all, they don’t want to come back. Plus, in order to return, they have to prove they are residents of Myanmar and not Bangladeshis. And they cannot prove that.” This last is a reference to the fact that in 2015, in Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, Rohingyas were not considered an ethnic group of the country.

I have heard him the first time and the second, and both arguments seem at variance with his professional persona. I keep talking to hide any apparent disappointment on my part.

Some Rohingyas have also come to India for shelter, but the Indian government doesn’t want them. India regards Rohingya Muslims a national security threat. I am yet to frame the question, but he is already dodging it, laughing. “Well, ask the Indian security agencies…”

This time, I cannot help but say it out aloud – so he is hell-bent on being politically correct when it comes to India? Is that it? “No, no… I am not here to talk about contemporary Indian politics. It is beyond the scope of my coverage… maybe, I will write about it in a book in future…”

Getting answers from journalists isn’t easy at all, but books are fair game.

tétevitae

1953: Lintner is born in Sweden and then in 1975 leaves for Asia

1980: Starts working as a journalist; is the Burma correspondent for the Hong Kong-based weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review

1984: Visits India as a correspondent for a Danish daily; covers the stand-off at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and also interviews Dalai Lama in McLeodganj

1985: Undertakes an 18-month, 2,275-kilometre trek from northeastern India across Burma’s northern rebel-held areas to China. Codifies this expe-rience in the 1996 book, Land of Jade: A journey from India through Northern Burma to China

Has written 17 books to date, including Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia and Aung San Suu Syi and Burma’s struggle for Democracy

A shorter version of the story has appeared in The Telegraph. December 17, 2017.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/world/doklam-was-not-about-a-road-it-was-the-chinese-attempt-to-create-a-wedg-194070

 ENDS

The young trinket sellers of Cox’s Bazar have learnt to better negotiate life’s troughs and crests; it’s surf-boarding, they tell Sonia Sarkar

  • Pics: Allison Joyce

  • TERRA FIRMA: Rashed Alam (top) teaches these girls to become professional surfers and lifeguards

The waves are choppy as they usually are during the rains, but Rifa Akhtar knows how to ride them. She walks into the water wearing a swimsuit, her surfing board in hand, paddles out into the water for a bit and then slowly clambers onto the board. Within a few seconds, she is surfing atop the waters with élan.

“I love the rhythm of the waves,” says the 13-year-old, a surfer at Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in Bangladesh. The fishing port is famed for its sandy stretch of over 100 kilometres, said to be the longest natural beach in world.

Until a few years ago, Rifa and her sister, Aisha, used to sell artificial jewellery and crisps on the beach. They made around 800 BDT (Rs 650) a day, while their father worked as a cook at a local shack. Life took a dramatic turn in 2013 when Rashed Alam – a surfer and lifeguard at Bangladesh Surf Girls and Boys, the sole surfing club for girls at Cox’s Bazar – offered to teach them the sport.

“Rifa would look at us in awe,” says Alam. “So one day, I asked her if she would like to learn to surf. Initially, she was shy, also intimidated by the waves. And she refused.”

But Alam persisted, fanning the fire in her and helping build her confidence. In due time, their journey took off.

“A lot of time was spent paddling around and falling into the water. We were also asked to watch other surfers. There were days when I simply wanted to give up and leave,” says Rifa, who won two surfing competitions at Cox’s Bazar, in 2015 and 2016.

Rifa was among eight girls who joined Alam’s club in 2013; now the number has risen to 14. Most of them hail from families of daily wage earners and hawkers in nearby villages, and were contributors to the family income.

Naturally, their path hasn’t been an easy one. When they began surfing, Alam stopped them from working. Moreover, they did not tell their parents about their new activity, and when they came to know about it, all hell broke loose.

“The day Rifa’s mother discovered her daughter had taken to surfing instead of selling trinkets, she beat her up with an umbrella in front of us all and dragged her away,” Alam recalls. “Later, I went to her parents and explained that surfing is a popular sport and that there’s no harm doing it.”

Their question was – who will pay for the household expenses if she doesn’t work?

Alam had no answer. For over a year, he paid a small amount of money to Rifa and the other girls for tea and snacks out of his own pocket. A year later, he started crowd-funding for them on the club’s website. In this he was helped by his American wife, Venessa Rude, and a photojournalist friend, Allison Joyce. From the money that comes in, the club spends 5,000 BDT (Rs 3,950) on each girl.

“We provide the monthly grocery to each one’s family. We’ve also enrolled them in school, while we help them with their English and communication skills privately. The girls are trained in rescue operations and first aid too. We hope this will help them become professional surfers and lifeguards,” Alam says.

There were problems of another kind also. Many of Alam’s close friends turned against him as they felt that by teaching the girls to surf, he was going against Islam. Also, when the male surfers in Cox’s Bazar saw that the girls were doing very well, they began to threaten them and make their day difficult. Rifa and her friends were called “indecent” for moving around in swimsuits and taking up a sport which was hitherto an all-male domain.

“Initially, we took to the water in a salwar-kameez and orna (scarf). Later, Rashed bhai brought us swimsuits. The local people, however, objected to it,” says Mayesha, 13, the daughter of a fish seller. Neighbours also taunted her parents for allowing her to surf along with the men. This forced them to start looking for a groom for her. “But I told them that I don’t want to get married,” says the determined girl.

Surfing has, in fact, helped Mayesha deal with difficult life situations. “Waves come in clusters or sets. Sometimes, the sea is still for a while and then suddenly a series of waves appears, rolling out one after the other. This has taught me to negotiate uncertainties,” she smiles.

Mayesha’s friend, Nargis Akhtar, too, refuses to be tied down with marriage right now. For this 14-year-old, the sea is her escape from all woes. “All my worries seem to get absorbed by this vast expanse. It also made me strong enough to take the tide in my stride; I can now fight against all odds,” Nargis says happily.

Rifa, Mayesha, Nargis and the others have been taming the waves for about four years. Now they want to participate in an international surfing competition. A few months ago, they were ready to take on the Indian Open of Surfing at Sasihithlu Beach in Mangalore, but couldn’t as their passports hadn’t come in.

The chorus is clear – the girls want to see the world and surf the oceans. “I want to go to ‘Caliponia’ [California],” says Rifa, who now trains kid surfers at Cox’s Bazar.

And Mayesha, who once dreamt that she was surfing in Indonesia, says, “I want to win global surfing competitions and make my country famous. And then everyone who created hurdles for us would shout out in cheer.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170820/jsp/7days/story_168126.jsp


Since the chief actors of last July’s terror attack in a posh Dhaka precinct were discovered to be radicalised upper-class kids, university students have come under stern glare. Often, some fear, with counterproductive consequences. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • FACE OF TERROR: (From top) A woman displays a photo of her son who worked at the Holey Artisan Bakery, Dhaka; the site of the attack; a protest rally in a nearby village

Shoriful is barely out of his teens. He likes to wear Pathan suits and skullcaps, sports a well-trimmed goatee, prays five times a day and knows the Islamic sermons by heart. That and the fact that he is currently a student of a reputed private university in Dhaka make him a “person of interest” in the eyes of law enforcement agencies. This is Bangladesh, a year after the terror attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery.

“It’s difficult to convince people that not everyone studying in a private university joins the extremists, and my religious inclination doesn’t make me a radical either,” says Shoriful, who goes to one of the universities at Dhanmondi in Dhaka.

Private universities in Bangladesh are a 1990s phenomenon. The first one was North South University (NSU), which came up in 1992. Today, there are 96 of them, boasting a three lakh-plus student community.

Investigations following last July’s carnage – 22 people were shot dead in a café in an upscale neighbourhood of the Bangladeshi capital – revealed that three of the five terrorists were English-medium schooled, religious-minded, beard-toting rich kids. One of them was from NSU. Police said the university’s former pro vice-chancellor, Gias Uddin Ahsan, had sheltered the attackers in a flat owned by him. Soon after, police arrested many teachers and students of various such universities who had links with the radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Recruitment of young men by terrorist and Islamic radical organisations is not new. For decades, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir – the student wing of the country’s biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh – has been wooing and winning over young impoverished madrasa students. Many students of the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) also signed up for the Chhatrashibir. They had been offered scholarships, free coaching and books in exchange.

But what the Dhaka attack showed up was different. This was a class shift. The Hizb ut-Tahrir was tapping into a different demographic altogether. Naturally, the “phenomenon” attracted a lot of media attention.

The Tahrir’s changed tactics led to a reflexive change in attitudes. An administrative crackdown followed. Profiling of students of private universities, previously unheard of, became a routine affair. And life was never the same for the likes of Shoriful.

“One of my students shunned the Pathan suit and started wearing trousers. Earlier, he used to keep a beard but now he is clean-shaven. He did so because he realised that people regard him with suspicion,” says Janina Islam Abir, a lecturer in the Media and Communication department at Independent University. “Also, some of our students have been distancing themselves from their overtly religious friends.”

The general opinion among private university students is that life in Dhaka has suddenly become claustrophobic – it’s the state’s surveillance being streamed upon them.

Police have instructed landlords, particularly those in Dhaka’s posh Uttara, Mirpur and Banani areas, to avoid renting out rooms to bachelors, especially students of private universities. Should they do that, tenant details must be shared with the local police station. That’s not all, random questioning by police has become the new normal.

“Whenever we pass the diplomatic zone in Dhaka, we are stopped by the police. The first thing we are asked is, ‘Where do you study?’,” says Ridoan AGM, a third-year student of Independent University. He adds, “Earlier, we carried our ID cards when we went to university, now we carry it whenever we step out of our homes to ensure we are not harassed by the police.”

The state’s probe has penetrated the campuses too. Once again, one must fall back on the 2016 revelations. According to police investigations, universities were used by a section of radical teachers to indoctrinate students. They would apparently use the prayer rooms to talk to students on conflict and religion, share books on liberating the land of the Muslims, global jihad and Islamic rulings on democracy. One recruiter had told The Telegraph shortly after last year’s attacks that rich college students usually lacked a purpose in life and, therefore, were more prone to buying into the “martyr” dream.

Experts – social as well as behavioural – had also remarked how these youngsters did not have very strong family ties and lacked knowledge about the secular and cultural ethos of the country. Also, in the absence of students’ unions and active clubs and committees in these universities, they spent the larger part of their student life online with no “real” outlet for their youthful fervour. In fact, there has been enough evidence to support the view that the young men involved in the café attack were radicalised online.

After the attack, many universities installed closed-circuit television cameras in prayer rooms. Students were asked not to mingle with pupils they “are not sure of”. In NSU, which had earned a reputation for being “a den of extremists”, vigilance was more aggressive. It has since formed an anti-terror committee and asked students to remain alert. Insiders say, it recently suspended a group of students for allegedly forcing women classmates to wear the hijab.

As it happens, many innocent students have been caught in the crosshairs. Take the case of the student who approached a counsellor for a bothersome obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The university administration suspected him of being a radical because he wore kurta-pyjama and sported a beard. “They asked me to question him rigorously about his background and try and find out if he had any connection with radical groups. I refused because I am not trained to deal with issues related to radicalisation. But another colleague grilled him so hard that he did not return for counselling,” says a counsellor of NSU, on condition of anonymity. She still believes the student really had suffered an OCD affliction, no more. Police too, apparently, “randomly” pick up young men and label them radicals. Going by news reports, in the past one year, a dozen “masterminds” have been hunted down.

If we have not heard the liberal thinkers speak up against this and for the rights of the student community at these universities, it is because they haven’t spoken up at all.

In fact, writer and historian Muntasir Mamun told The Telegraph over phone from Dhaka: “There is no such profiling.” So, was he denying all this is going on? Mamun admitted that students might feel “societal pressure” because names of one or two private universities had come up again and again for their involvement in terrorist activities, but added that it was a “temporary phase”. He said, “This will end soon, as the government is making a concerted effort to root out terrorism.”

Rooting out extremism from Bangladesh will, if anything, be a long haul. Radical forces seem to be only expanding their base in the country. But stereotyping is possibly not the best of solutions. “Some of them [students] feel intimidated by this constant vigil and are hiding their real selves in public. They are becoming introverts,” says Shami Suhrid, psycho-social counsellor and lecturer at BRAC University.

Counsellor Tamanna Chowdhury of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) seconds that. She also throws in a warning. “Youth between 18 and 23 are vulnerable. Eventually, this alienation may push them to join radical forces.” But who’s listening?

In the meantime, in the absence of any kind of support, private university students have decided to take things into their own hands. They have started doing their bit to change the societal notion that they are “rich kids with extremist views”.

In the past one year, they have organised conferences, Sufi concerts and photo shoots to spread the message of peace and tolerance. On March 26, which is the Bangladesh Independence Day, students of the Eastern University painted their palms red and green – the colours of the Bangladeshi national flag – took selfies and posted them on Facebook.

In February, a Belgian mother, whose son went to Syria to join ranks with the terrorists, was invited to address students and parents at ULAB. She spoke on how to read the early signs of radicalisation among young men. Recently, students of five private universities organised a film festival under a project titled, “Film-making and television journalism for peace and tolerance in Bangladesh”. It showcased 12 films shot by students on radicalisation in Bangladesh and ways of containing it. Some universities are trying to engage ” muktijoddhas” or freedom fighters of the 1971 Liberation War to interact with students and talk to them about the history of Bangladesh.

Is it helping? Not all of these efforts can bear fruit overnight, but some are. Students claim that the interactive sessions give them a sense of context, help them engage in debates on politics and Islam. “Earlier, we used to listen to radical views in college canteens or clubs but never reacted because we didn’t know what to say. Now, we can confront them with valid arguments,” says Ridoan. Shoriful adds, “The onus is on us to change the perception about our tribe.”

Listen closely. Or recall Wilfred Owen. Bangladesh is ringing with the Anthem for doomed youth.


Employer-employee relations in Indian homes have seldom not been troubled and troublesome. Sometimes, they’ve turned volatile. In the second week of July, Zohra Bibi, a domestic help, went missing. The 26-year-old was employed in one of the posh housing societies in the National Capital Region’s Noida area. The next day, a mob – from the neighbouring slum where Zohra lived – stormed the residential complex. The agitators’ allegation: Zohra was being held captive by her employers. Eventually, police confirmed that Zohra had been found in the basement of one of the buildings. Her employers had accused her of theft, and taken it upon themselves to punish her. Zohra’s version: they beat her and locked her up in their apartment when she demanded her dues. In time, 13 men were arrested on charges of rioting and vandalising property. The BJP MP from Noida and Union minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma, voiced his support for Zohra’s employers and promised that the offenders would not get bail for “years to come”. The incident itself developed communal overtones – “Bangladeshi” domestics versus Hindu house owners.Zohra is not from Bangladesh. She belongs to Bengal’s Cooch Behar, as do most of her neighbours in the slum she inhabits. Among them, Ruksana Bibi and her husband, Afsar Ali. The couple arrived in Noida two years ago hoping to earn enough to pay off their debts. Zohra has gone underground since the incident but Ruksana agreed to show around The Telegraph what it is like to be a Muslim domestic help in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, these days.

  • It is barely dawn but Ruksana has been up for a while now. Some rice is on the boil in a pressure cooker. That would be her daughter, eight-year-old Bijli’s breakfast — rice with a slice of lime and salt. Ruksana and Afsar’s 50 sqft tin shack is in a slum less than a kilometre from the housing society where Zohra worked. The couple paid Rs 8,000 for it. Slumdwellers have contributed Rs 500 each to set up a hand pump. Sixty or so families use two makeshift community bathrooms; one of them has not functioned for some time now.

  • Ruksana catches up with Zohra’s mother-in-law, Mohsina, and her grandchildren. Zohra and her husband, Abdul Sattar’s house is locked. Mohsina alleges that Zohra’s teenage son, Rahul (not in picture), was picked up by police. He has been released since, but not the others. Mohsina, who worked as a domestic help in another housing complex, has also lost her job. Ruksana and others in the slum have been helping them with food and other necessities.

  • It is 6.10am. Ruksana enters a gated housing complex in Noida. She and other women from her slum work here. Each has an identity card issued by the management of the housing society after routine police verification. Other than this, Ruksana has a voter identity card and an Aadhaar card. After working in the brick kilns for 15 years, first in Cooch Behar and then in Ghaziabad, Ruksana and Afsar moved to Noida. Afsar was hired by the promoters of this very housing society to clean the windows and doors of apartments before they were handed over to the owners.

  • 9pm. After a long day, Ruksana returns home, as do the other women. They check on each other. Mother and daughter hungrily tuck into some rice, lentils and mashed potatoes. By 11pm, they are in bed. “I have not been able to sleep. I keep thinking, what if the police come back to harass me again? What if there are no jobs for us? What if we get thrown out of our homes? I don’t know how long this uncertainty will continue.” The thoughts jostle in her head and keep her awake. But her Bijli — Ruksana pats her gently. The little one must get her sound sleep.

  • Ruksana makes Rs 9,000 a month — she works in seven apartments, where she sweeps and swabs. Afsar’s monthly income is Rs 7,000. After the Zohra episode, there have been WhatsApp campaigns urging flat owners of the neighbourhood to blacklist “Bangladeshi” workers. “One flat owner called me a Bangladeshi and dismissed me,” says Ruksana. She adds,“I remember, it was my husband who cleaned their house and made it ready for them to move in. But now they consider us untouchables.”

  • Ruksana has taken a loan of Rs 15,000 from her employers to pay for the tuition and living expenses of the other two children. But after the allegations levelled at Zohra, she is scared. What if one of her employers slaps a false charge on her? She has stopped accepting gifts or food items from them. “All this while people knew we are Bengalis. Now, they look at us as Muslims and that has changed the whole equation. We are suddenly not trustworthy,” she says. This campaign against Muslims of the area is not new. In March, when there was a crackdown on meat-sellers in Uttar Pradesh, three Muslim boys selling poultry products at a makeshift market nearby were picked up by the police. They are still in jail. “That was the first we realised that things were slowly changing for us,” says Ruksana.

    (https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170730/jsp/7days/story_164519.jsp )


 

 

 

 

 

 


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