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Archive for the ‘Bangladesh’ Category

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

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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 )


 

 

 

 

 

 

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)


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  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
  • Anne J.: Interesting, Sonia! And I live here. I have decided to ignore people's strong views. Malema, for the best part, is rather lacking knowledge and at wor
  • ranginee: Learning cannot be forced or hammered. We only learn what we want to. So such attempts to brain-wash might not give the desired effect or might have a