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Archive for the ‘Bangladesh’ Category

India has a more humanitarian approach towards drug offenders than its neighbours Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

By Sonia Sarkar

After a moratorium of 43 years, the gallows were getting ready in Sri Lanka. Two executioners with ‘excellent moral character’ and ‘mental strength’ were appointed. A list of four convicts — involved in drug offences — to be hanged was prepared. On June 26 — the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking — the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, announced that he had signed the requisite documents for the imposition of the death penalty for drug-related offences.

But these executions had to be stalled. The country’s Supreme Court, on July 5, issued a temporary injunction against the execution of the four convicts until October.

It is only an interim relief for the convicts, as Sirisena, who is likely to fight a re-election in December, looks adamant upon imposing the death penalty. A week after the parliamentarian, Bandula Lal Bandarigoda, submitted a private member’s motion seeking to block the return of capital punishment, Sirisena, on July 14, said he will declare a national day of mourning if the Sri Lankan Parliament blocks his proposal to reinstate the death penalty. Sirisena, it seems, wants to rely on the populist rhetoric against the threat of drug use and convince people about his ‘social commitment’ to eradicating the menace before the elections. He wants the hangings to be a ‘powerful’ message to the illegal drug trade.

According to government data, 60 per cent of the 24,000 prisoners in Sri Lanka are drug offenders. Currently, 48 people have been convicted of drug offences. All death penalties for drug convicts in Sri Lanka were commuted to life imprisonment for the past 43 years. The death penalty for drug-related offences is a violation of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party. Ironically, last year, Sri Lanka was among the 121 countries that endorsed a United Nations general assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Human rights bodies argue that punitive drug policy has not acted as a deterrent anywhere. Over 170 countries are said to have either abolished the death penalty or taken a position in favour of ending executions. But Sirisena is in no mood to listen. He even rejected an appeal by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, to reconsider his decision. He has also demanded the death penalty for the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks in April that killed over 258 people by calling the attack the handiwork of “international drug dealers” who wanted to “discourage [his] anti-narcotics drive”.

Besides Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is another south Asian country which imposes the death penalty for drug offences. Last year, its Parliament passed the narcotics control bill, 2018 which, alongside the life sentence, also has a death row provision for producing, trading and using 200 grams or more of yaba, or more than 25 grams of heroin and cocaine. Human rights bodies demanded a revocation of the law but their voices remained unheard. Two death sentences for drug trafficking were pronounced last year. Ahead of the general elections in December 2018, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, adopted a populist anti-drug stance by launching a campaign to toughen punishments for drug crimes. More than 250 people were killed in anti-drug operations between May and December in 2018. The Philippines-style ‘war on drugs’ campaign has targeted the poor and underprivileged. In some cases, human rights activists alleged, the killings may have been ‘politically motivated’.

In contrast, India has a more humanitarian approach towards drug offenders. In 2011, the Bombay High Court declared Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, that imposed a mandatory death sentence for a subsequent conviction for drug trafficking, ‘unconstitutional’. Later, it made the imposition of capital punishment on a person convicted only for a subsequent offence involving possession, production or transportation of specified drugs and quantities optional and not obligatory.

The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2018, published by Harm Reduction International — a London-based NGO working on social and legal impacts of drug use and drug policy — stated that only six of 915 death sentences pronounced in India from 2011 onwards were for drug offences. Last year, the Punjab government called for expanding the death penalty that is currently applicable for child rape convicts to first-time drug offenders. But the Central government rejected it, arguing that the UN office on drugs and crime opposes the imposition of the death penalty for drug offences. Moreover, last year, the Congress parliamentarian, Shashi Tharoor, introduced a private member’s bill in Parliament seeking a total abolition of the death penalty.

But the Indian Parliament, last week, passed the protection of children from sexual offences (amendment) bill, 2019, seeking to impose the death penalty for aggravated sexual assault against children. This bill has been passed at a time when a girl, allegedly raped by a former leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party when she was a minor in 2017, is battling for life in hospital. Ironically, the BJP, which supports the death penalty and proclaims its love for the ‘betis’ of India, expelled the rape accused from the party only last week, more than a year after his arrest.

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Hasina’s government introduced religious education in state schools, edited out literature that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and recognised Qawmi Madrasa degrees


Dhaka’s historic Suhrawardy Park was quite the set of a spectacle last month. The smiling Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, sat comfortably on the dais, her neatly pinned golden pallu covering half her head. The man seated beside her had his entire head and face covered with a white scarf. Maulana Shah Ahmad Shafi is the leader of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, and talking to women or even looking at them is against Hefajote’s code of conduct. In a first, though, he was sharing stage with a woman. What is more, he even bestowed on her an honorific — Qawmi Janani or mother of the qaum (in this case, the Islamic collective as well as the nation).

Qawmi Madrasas are Islamic seminaries. There are around 14,000 of them in Bangladesh and their teachings are considered orthodox, nudging the country’s youth towards a radical path. Hasina had announced last year that the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest qaumi degree, will now be recognised as a postgraduation degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic. That day in November, the chairman of the Qawmi Madrasah Education Board said: “You are the ‘Mother of Qawmi’. If you were not there… people who are the Jamaat, pro-Moududis would not let it happen.”

In the run-up to the December 30 general elections, Bangladesh has witnessed an ideological flip-flop of sorts. The secular ruling party, Awami League, has been cosying up to the Islamists, while the main Opposition led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has joined hands with the secular alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front.

“Indeed, this election has thrown up big surprises. The two big parties have made a major shift in their political ideologies,” says Jatiya Oikya Front head Kamal Hossain, who is a freedom fighter and former Awami League leader. He asserts it is the Awami League’s changing political ideology that has forced secular parties to form an alliance against Hasina. Hossain adds, “If she were committed to the secular, liberal and socialist ethos of Bangladesh, and not pandering to the Islamists, we would have had no need to form this front.”

Indeed, Hasina’s proximity to the Islamists has increased during her last two terms as prime minister. In 2011, the Bangladeshi Parliament passed a bill seeking retention of Islam as the state religion, as well as the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” in the Constitution, both legacies of the military regime of 1988. In 2017, Hasina’s government introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and, most recently, recognised the Qawmi Madrasa degrees.

Hasina also gave in to the demand of the Hefajote Islam to remove the Statue of Justice outside the Supreme Court building — a blindfolded woman dressed in a sari — on the grounds that it was idolatry and, therefore, un-Islamic. And when Islamist forces threatened and killed atheist bloggers, she said nothing. “The muted reactions to the blogger killings in 2015 and warnings to bloggers to restrain themselves instead of protecting them, indicate how her government tries to appease radical Islamists,” says Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Supriti Dhar.

Typically, it was the BNP that courted the Islamists. To be more specific, the Islamist religious and political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1991, Jamaat had bagged 18 seats and emerged as a power player. It had extended support to the BNP to form government. In the 1996 elections, it nominated 300 candidates but won only three seats. But in 2001 it once again bagged 17 seats.

So how would one explain the BNP’s current altered stance? Former Election Commissioner, Brigadier M. Sakhawat Hossain, puts it all down to poll strategy. Says Maruf Mallick, political analyst and visiting research fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany, “The BNP was never interested in an alliance with the secularists… It was compelled to do so because party chief Khaleda Zia is in jail and there is a leadership crisis.”

Mallick asserts that the Awami League too has used religion in election campaigns before this. During the 1996 elections, the Awami League used a part of the Islamic Kalma, La Ilaha Illallah and rhymed it with Noukar Malik Tui Allah (Allah is the owner of boat) for its election slogan. (The boat is the election symbol of the Awami League.) In that campaign, a portrait of Hasina wearing a headscarf and holding a tasbih — a string of holy beads — was widely used in posters. According to Brigadier Hossain, the Awami League started to woo the anti-Jamaat Islamist groups in right earnest from 2001.

Political scientist Ali Riaz points out that the Awami League is indulging Hefajote Islam because it wants to bring the Islamist forces into its fold and deprive the Opposition of their support. Also, the party doesn’t want to look un-Islamic in a bid to be secular. “Hasina wants to bank on these Islamists who have the capacity to mobilise people especially Qawmi Madrasa students and teachers in large numbers,” says Riaz, who is also distinguished professor of Political Science at the United States’ Illinois State University.

There have been rumours that some members of Hefajote Islam wanted to contest elections but it didn’t happen because of a conflict between two factions of the group. Hefajote’s secretary-general Junaid Babunagri tells The Telegraph, “We are an apolitical organisation. We have no role to play in the elections.”

An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka.
An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka. (AP)

No matter what the official line, there can be no denying that Hefajote has benefited from having a sympathetic ruling party. To begin with, the government stopped pursuing cases against Qawmi Madrasa leaders — many of them had been accused of organising religious clashes, giving hate speeches against bloggers, threatening bloggers and molesting minors. Liberal thinkers, political opponents and human rights activists were targeted instead. Lawyer Sara Hossain stresses how even after a landslide victory in 2009 and initial pledges of zero tolerance for rights violations, the government didn’t live up to the principles of the Constitution. There were several cases of abuse of human rights; Hasina also resorted to regressive laws such as the Digital Security Act to attack free speech. Says Sara, “The government tried to segregate the country into two parts — people who are for the government and those against it. People who are against Hasina were labelled enemies of the state.” According to her, even now, the official narrative is — if you don’t support the Awami League, you don’t love your country and you are anti-Liberation.”

It must be understood that in Bangladesh, politics is always being played on the basis of who supported the Liberation movement of 1971 and who didn’t. Jamaat being an anti-Liberation force was always kept at an arm’s length by Hasina.

Jamaat had won two out of the 300 parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections. But its registration as a political party was cancelled in 2013. This time, some Jamaat members are fighting on the BNP symbol — the paddy sheaf — but by and large the BNP seems to be distancing itself from Islamists.

Nagorik Oikya is part of the 20-party alliance that includes the BNP. Says convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna, “In the past years, the BNP has been banking on its alliance with Jamaat to bring its Islamist supporters to the polls, but in doing so, it ignored the votes of non-Islamist constituents. This time, it was its strategy to join hands with our secular front to gain maximum advantage because nobody can ignore that there is an anti-incumbency factor against the Awami League and the next big political party is the BNP.”

“If you are talking about the BNP-Jamaat alliance, you are holding the wrong end of the stick,” says BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. “There is a strong anti-Awami League sentiment among the people and we are only giving them a democratic alternative,” he tells The Telegraph over phone.

Both the Jamaat and Hefajote are problematic for Bangladesh, according to political scientist Riaz. “Hefajote Islam is more fanatic than Jamaat, even though there is no denial of the latter’s role in heinous war crimes,” he says. Then adds, “Jamaat is an opportunist Islamist party. It wants a political fight by staying within the secular democracy, unlike Hefajote, which is a regressive party and does not believe in the Constitution.”

Senior Awami League leader Amir Hossain Amu, says, “Hefajote Islam had no role to play in the Liberation War unlike Jamaat, which is internationally known for its role in war crimes.” He asks, “Also, one party [BNP] practiced communal politics for more than 21 years while in power, why don’t you talk about that?” He emphasises that none of the Islamic parties are part of “our grand alliance”. An Islamic Democratic Alliance, however, has been formed to support the Awami League .

No matter how Amu would like to explain away his party’s affiliations, it is evident that, on the one hand, Hasina waged a war against home-grown terror outfits, while on the other, she curried favour with the radicals. “One doesn’t need to organise terrorist attacks if one can radicalise society and Hefajote is doing it by interfering in policy-making,” says Manna of Nagorik Oikya.

Many local observers believe that Hasina’s survival tactics pose a threat to Bangladesh’s secular values and to freedom of religion and belief. Says journalist Dhar, “There is no space left for critical comments about religion. It is the radical Islamists who are shaping public discourse.”

Dhar and many others are afraid the country will be made to pay for this.

 

Far away from home in the United States, the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Surendra Kumar Sinha, stays abreast of all news related to the home elections scheduled for December 30. He reads Bangla dailies online, meets Bangladeshis from the neighbourhood and holds political discussions fearlessly. In a tiny apartment in New Jersey’s Paterson, Sinha has found his lost freedom.

In October 2017, the 67-year-old was ousted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed for not toeing the government line. Over phone from Paterson, he says, “Here, I am able to speak freely. Nobody is recording my conversation with you.” Indeed, in the US, there is no Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence agency of Bangladesh, tapping phone calls or sniffing around one’s inbox.

In his autobiography, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, Sinha has written in detail about the intimidation and threats he faced in Bangladesh from the Awami League government led by Hasina. In the book, which he self-published this year, he shares how he was forced to go on leave first and then resign at the Singapore airport en route Canada.

After staying with his daughter in Canada for a while, he sought political asylum in the US and shifted to his brother’s house in Paterson.

Sinha’s political persecution intensified in 2017, after he upheld a high court verdict that declared the 16th Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh “illegal”. The amendment, introduced in 2014, had granted the Parliament sweeping powers to remove Supreme Court judges for misbehaviour and incapacity. The high court verdict came in May 2016. In January 2017, the government challenged the verdict by filing an appeal with the appellate division, and in July a Supreme Court bench headed by Sinha unanimously rejected the appeal.

Sinha had allegedly been pressurised by Hasina to pass the order in her government’s favour. Recalling the meeting organised at Bangabhaban, the official residence of the President of Bangladesh, a day before the judgment, he tells The Telegraph, “On July 1, 2017, I got a call from a person who identified himself as the military secretary to the President. He requested me to attend a meeting with the President on the same day at 7.30 pm. When I reached there, I was stunned to see the Prime Minister, law minister Anisul Huque and attorney-general Mahbubey Alam, alongside President Abdul Hamid.”

Sinha told Hasina that the amended Article 116 — it allows the President control over postings and promotions of district magistrates and judges in the lower courts — had already led to political interference in the judiciary. He made the point that the Supreme Court should be spared. He also urged her to restore Article 116 to its original form, wherein the control of the lower judiciary rested with the Supreme Court.

Says Sinha, “But she told me Article 116 cannot be touched because her father changed it through the Fourth Amendment. And she requested me to give the verdict on the 16th Amendment in favour of her government.”

That, of course, did not happen. Sinha scrapped the 16th Amendment, but even that was not the only reason why Hasina was irked. It seems Sinha made a reference to the contribution of the “founding fathers” while delivering his 16th Amendment judgment. And this, Hasina considered unpardonable. Why? Because she apparently doesn’t encourage talk of the sacrifices of other leaders during the 1971 War (referred to in Bangladesh as the Liberation War), other than her own father, the first President of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman. Points out Sinha, “Mujibur Rahman is known as the Father of the Nation. But there are many founding fathers — Kamal Hossain, Barrister M. Amir-ul Islam…”

Sinha is not a great fan of Mujibur Rahman, who is commonly referred to as Bangabandu or Mujib. According to him, the seeds of autocracy in Bangladesh were sown by him in the form of the Fourth Amendment. He also tells me how Mujib, besides diluting Article 116, also altered Article 11. “In its original form, it stated that Bangladesh as a republic would ensure democratic values, freedom and dignity of human person, and elections at all state affairs. But the Fourth Amendment removed the election system from this guideline, thus abolishing democratic philosophy from the Constitution.”

Sinha believes Mujib, who served as both President and Prime Minister, was power hungry. “He never tried to strengthen democracy or minimise racial differences and establish peace in the country as stalwarts elsewhere in the world such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did.”

In 1974, Mujib allowed only a select few national dailies to operate. Arrest warrants were issued against journalists of newspapers critical of him. Sinha says Hasina’s way of functioning is not entirely dissimilar to her father’s. He talks about how she too tries to control the press and enumerates the cases of enforced disappearances of journalists, arbitrary arrests and so on.

The most recent case is that of photographer and artist Shahidul Alam. Alam, who openly opposes Hasina’s autocratic ways, was arrested this August. He got bail only last month. Says Sinha, “Hasina is a megalomaniac. She doesn’t want anyone to criticise her. Her idea is, praise (me) or perish.”

Sinha enjoyed Hasina’s confidence so long as his judgments made her happy. For instance, his judgment on the assassination of Mujib. In 2015, she appointed him the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — in fact, he is the first Hindu to hold this post. But after the verdict on the 16th Amendment, the benefactor turned chief detractor. Sinha accuses Hasina of using military intelligence to harass him and finally forcing him to leave the country.

Many allege that Hasina is using the judiciary to settle scores with Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There are two graft cases against Zia. The BNP-led 20-party alliance has demanded their leader be released before the polls — she has been charged with corruption and has been in prison since February this year — but that hasn’t happened yet.

There are allegations that the Election Commission (EC) is also under Hasina’s control. Despite repeated appeals by opposition political parties to delay polls for another three months, the EC set the December 30 date. Many say this will be a farcical election just like the one in 2014. Sinha agrees: “Elections can never be free and fair in the current circumstances.”

During our conversation, Sinha often refers to constitutions of different countries, especially of the US, and famous judgments — to explain how a democracy should function. He also tells me how he wrote his autobiography after being inspired by the Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru, My Life: Law and Other Things by M.C. Setalvad and The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen.

Pirated copies of his self-published book are available in Bangladesh but nobody can sell his book openly there. The government has levelled against him 11 allegations related to money laundering and financial irregularities. “Corruption is the tool she [Hasina] is using to harass me,” Sinha says. He talks about the rampant corruption in the Bangladeshi government. And adds, “But anyone who questions her government is an anti-national.”

I tell him that we in India are familiar with such things, but Sinha says that Indian public offices are not as compromised as their Bangladeshi counterparts. “I feel Bangladesh is the mirror image of Pakistan. No matter how much Hasina hates Pakistan, she is actually turning Bangladesh into a Pakistan in every possible way — by stifling free speech, giving unnecessary powers to the army and making it a police state.”

According to him, the Prime Minister’s recent appeasement of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, is another indication of how Bangladesh is slowly transforming into a “fundamentalist” state like Pakistan.

Hasina loyalists, however, allege that it is Sinha who has strong links with Jamaat-e-Islami, the other radical group. “This is cooked up by Hasina’s sycophants to erode my image,” retorts Sinha.

We are far from done but it’s 1pm in Paterson, time for Sinha’s lunch — his favourite dish is shorshey ilish or hilsa cooked in mustard. Finding ilish in the US is not a problem, he tells me, what is elusive is the Bangaliana or Bengaliness typical to Dhaka and Calcutta.

Going back to Dhaka seems impossible for now, but Sinha wants to get political asylum in Calcutta. He had intimated the Indian ambassador to Bangladesh, Harsh V. Shringla, expressing his wish, but hasn’t heard from him yet.

Sinha says, “Calcutta is my dream city. I enjoy everything there — the shingara, the long walks on the grounds of the Victoria Memorial, shopping for books in College Street.” Then adds, “It’s a liberal space.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/why-bangladesh-is-the-mirror-image-of-pakistan/cid/1679626?fbclid=IwAR1yqiMhsBcf8e9Q7gXSF7kk8i-LvwVNC6RyuAdkQljQOK6wOSH9MW3IMzc

Pic — Kamalasagar

His dark skinny fingers clutch the barbed wires. The tips of his fingers move up and down, as if to some inaudible melody. His body swings left, and then right, and left again, but his eyes remain fixed on me. In his accented Bengali, Mohammed Joy tries to convince me that he has mastered some lessons in astrology from his kabiraj (ayurvedic practitioner) father.

He tells me, “You are an Aquarian. You are very close to getting a new opportunity but there are hurdles. To clear the hurdles, stop eating eggs. To know more, you must call up my father.” He insists I take his father’s phone number, accept his visiting card. But our man in uniform stops me. “Nahin, Madam, yeh allowed nahin hai… This is not allowed, Madam.”

We are on the zero line in Kamalasagar, 28 kilometres from Agartala town. The BSF jawan with the prominent Adam’s apple keeps a firm gaze on me to ensure I don’t walk up to Joy. But Joy, who is from Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, is not ready to give up. “My father solves problems of many Indians. He can help you too,” he boasts. Joy’s words make me laugh out loud. In India, the government would have us believe that Bangladeshis are the real problem today.

Here, in Kamalasagar, Indians and Bangladeshis meet every Sunday “officially” to buy and sell sarees, cosmetics, vegetables, fruits and more. (For some, this border haat or bazaar is also a place for reunion with relatives from across the border.)

The small restaurants on the Sonamura border serve ilish from Bangladesh Image: Sonia Sarkar

A common grievance of the locals is that the much-raved-about ilish, or hilsa, of Bangladesh is not available in this weekend bazaar. That, however, doesn’t mean you cannot savour the delicately flavoured ilish of Bangladesh elsewhere and anywhere in Tripura. The small restaurants on the Sonamura border claim they get their ilish from Comilla in Bangladesh, only seven kilometers away. The waiter at Hotel Shankar in Agartala, in his accented Bengali reminiscent of Joy’s, says the restaurant sources its ilish from river Padma, the pride of Bangladesh.

The ilish has made me digress. The moot point I am making is this — Tripura’s connect with Bangladesh goes beyond fish.

Apparently, the idol of Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the state, has come from Chittagong, also in Bangladesh. During the 2018 Tripura Assembly elections, local BJP leaders appropriated Tripura Sundari to garner Hindu votes. After winning the elections, they attributed their victory to the goddess. (Mind you, Bangladeshi migrants were dubbed termites by party president Amit Shah.) And this Diwali, the state government organised a two-day religious extravaganza at the Tripura Sundari temple, apparently to “restore” the cultural identity of the state.

The new chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, too has a Bangladesh connect — his parents belonged to Chandpur in Chittagong, though he was born in Tripura. The newly-built museum at Ujjyanta Palace, one of the former abodes of Tripura’s Manikya kings, has a separate section on the 1971 Liberation War with special emphasis on the contribution of the people of Tripura to the movement.

Food and culture, people and gods, history and heritage, there is more than one thing enforcing the India-Bangladesh connect in general and the Tripura-Bangladesh connect in particular. In fact, so closely connected are we that at the Agartala-Akhaura border, barely six kilometers away from the palace, the filth of our swachh Bharat flows into Bangladesh through a canal.

Agartala–Akhaur border

After a three-day tour of this northeastern state, I am sitting at the departure lounge of the Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport, waiting for my flight. At this point, India’s fastest mobile network has given up and my phone picks up signals of Robi Axiata — the cellular network of Bangladesh. It reminds me how the moment I stepped on the zero line at Kamlasagar, my smartphone had flashed: “Welcome to Bangladesh!”

Once again, I remember Joy’s words — opportunity, obstacles, no eggs. And that’s when it occurs to me that he was bluffing all along. How do I know? Because to begin with I am no Aquarian. The realisation and the subsequent relief sweeps over me. I won’t have to deprive myself of my routine fix of sunny side up, after all.

 

Link — https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/on-the-zero-line-between-tripura-and-bangladesh/cid/1675620

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

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?


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