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Archive for the ‘Conflict and the conflicts within’ 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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Bollywood’s jingoistic hero assures voters that he will stay put and work for the constituency

I must say I am a bit disappointed. I have been hoping to catch a glimpse of the macho man who felled many an enemy — to say nothing of the gruesome Pakistani villain — in Hindi cinema. But here he is, steering clear of all those jingoistic dialogues that made his films such hits.

Sunny Deol is on the road, canvassing for votes in Gurdaspur, a constituency in Punjab once held by Vinod Khanna, his senior in the Hindi film industry and in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, which lost the seat in a by-election after Khanna’s death, hopes to wrest it from the Congress. And Deol is seemingly just the right candidate for a party fighting the Lok Sabha polls on the proud plank of nationalism.

A dialogue from the blockbuster Ghadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is being played at public meetings. In the film, Deol plays a truck driver who fights Pakistanis to bring his wife back to India in the film. Speakers blare out the line: “Hindustan zindabad thahai aur rahega (Hindustan was, is and will remain free)”.

But Deol, who mostly waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his car, may have realised that the voter is more concerned about development than filmi dialogues. He does not speak much about nationalism and the enemy across the border. He no longer dons the saffron turban or the military camouflage cap he was seen wearing earlier in the campaign. He doesn’t repeat the line “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot)” at the rallies.

“I don’t want people to vote for me because of my nationalist roles. I am connecting with people to genuinely serve them,” he tells BLink.

For the BJP, 62-year-old Deol is a potent symbol of the establishment. He has played the role of a soldier, cop and spy — in Border (1997), Indian (2001) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003) respectively. “Nobody else has done patriotic films like Sunny Deol has. He would work for the country just as (Narendra) Modiji does,” says BJP’s Gurdaspur president Bal Krishna Mittal.

The constituency in Gurdaspur, a district that shares a 110-km border with Pakistan, has its own set of problems. Heroin is smuggled in hollow pipes that come floating on the River Ravi from Pakistan’s Narowal, 50km from Gurdaspur. Two militant attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot were believed to have been carried out by terrorists from Pakistan. Speculation is rife about the revival of a movement for Khalistan — a homeland for Sikhs — with alleged support from Pakistan.

“Being a sensitive border constituency, the BJP wants to use the nationalism card in its favour,” political scientist Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University says.

The constituents, however, are watching the electoral play with a fair dose of scepticism. They would rather the BJP addressed issues of unemployment, farmers’ debt and drug trafficking. Sugar cane farmers allege that sugar mills are yet to pay them their dues worth 85 crore for the previous crushing season. There is agrarian debt, and 60 per cent of Batala’s cast iron and foundry production units have shut down in recent years.

“BJP’s nationalism won’t give us jobs, but new factories will,” says Jugraj Singh, a 25-year-old voter who lost his job in a sugar mill in 2017.

But Deol has his supporters, thousands of whom wait to catch a glimpse of him at rallies. His campaign trail, mostly road shows, carries on for 12 hours every day. Men want to shake hands with him and kids run alongside his white Land Rover on the highway. “When I meet people, I see the love and affection they have (for me),” he stresses.

Since the actor and now would-be politician came late into the fray — he joined the BJP last month — he has had very little time to cover his constituency’s nine assembly segments before the May 19 poll. He looks fatigued but despite his hectic schedule, takes out 40 minutes for a workout every morning.

“People become health conscious when they look at me. They want to be family-oriented and obedient the way I am. They are taking the right path of life,” he says. He also believes that his films have influenced the young to join the Army: “I have been unknowingly influencing people.”

Dressed in a denim shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Deol stresses that his focus is on education, jobs, health and farmers.

The actor knows that Gurdaspur, once a Congress bastion, was won four times by Khanna largely on the plank of development. Khanna was known as “pulon ka badshah” (the king of bridges) among the locals for having built a bridge over the Beas, connecting the neighbouring Mukerian with Gurdaspur. After Khanna’s death, the BJP, along with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, fielded a security guard company boss, Swaran Salaria, in the 2017 bypoll. Salaria lost to the Congress’s Sunil Jakhar — son of former speaker Balram Jakhar — by 1,90,000 votes.

“A combination of factors may work for Deol — his patriotism in movies, his Jat identity as Jats are in large numbers here, and the legacy of Vinod Khanna, the man from Deol’s fraternity,” says Kumar. And it helps that Deol’s father, actor and former BJP Bikaner MP Dharmendra, belongs to Ludhiana.

What may also help him is that Jakhar has not kept his poll promises of providing the youth with smartphones or creating jobs. There are also whispers linking him with illegal mining. But Jakhar’s answer to Deol is that once he returns to Mumbai, the actor will do nothing for the people.

Deol is fighting not just Jakhar but the rumours that he will not be seen after the poll. “They say: He is an actor. He won’t come here, he won’t stay here, he won’t do this, he won’t do that,” Deol complains. “I want to make people believe, I will be here, for them.”

I fear that as a line, it is not quite as effective as some of his fiery dialogues.

This story appeared in Hindu Business Line’s BLink on May 17, 2019
  • Sunny DeolThe 62-year-old actor has made a name for himself portraying soldiers, spies and police officers in a series of hypermasculine blockbusters
  • But will his on-screen anti-Pakistan persona prove popular among those who live in neighbouring Punjab state?
Singapore has been organizing a series of events marking the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Stamford Raffles on the island. But not everyone is happy to see a British colonizer being remembered with such fondness.

The white polymarble statue of the British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (main picture) stands tall on the banks of the Singapore river. Raffles landed here on January 28, 1819. 200 years later, Singapore is fondly remembering his arrival with an extravagant bicentennial.

Exhibitions, heritage tours, light art installations and musical shows have been lined up throughout the year to “commemorate” his arrival because he changed Singapore’s destiny “from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” But not everyone in this island city-state is happy to see a British colonizer being remembered with such fondness.

25-year-old Singaporean Mysara Aljaru sees the bicentennial events as a celebration of colonizers and colonialism. “Whether you call it celebration or commemoration, it is all about glorifying the oppressor, and it is highly questionable,” said Aljaru, a first-year postgraduate student of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Raffles stayed in Singapore for only 10 months over three visits between 1819 and 1923. But eventually under the colonial rule, Singapore became key to British trade in Asia.

Mysara Aljaru

‘Whether you call it celebration or commemoration, it is all about glorifying the oppressor, and it is highly questionable,’ said Aljaru

‘Inappropriately salutary’

There wasn’t much reason for the natives to cheer about though. There is historical evidence that colonialism marked poverty for the communities who were living in Singapore before the British arrived.

Various races were segregated in enclaves where they were forced to live in inhumane conditions. Cholera, malnutrition, smallpox and opium addiction took a toll on the working class. Prostitution was common and the life of a prostitute in colonial Singapore was “horrendous,” as per records at Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB).

“The motivation of the colonizers was profit, control and the projection of power, nothing else. There was no fairness or altruism in mind,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor in the department of political science at National University of Singapore. Former British colonies in the region like India and Sri Lanka have always criticized the colonizers for subjugating and exploiting natives, but Singapore never did that.

Since a section of local elites, who were beneficiaries of colonial rule or their descendants, remained at the helm in the post-independence period and the independent Singapore state maintained a cordial relationship with Britain, motivation to criticize colonial rule in public was limited, explained Chong. “As a result, some of the depictions of colonial rule ended up being inappropriately salutary,” Chong pointed out.

Sense of indebtedness

The statue of Raffles, erected in 1972, is an indication of the sense of indebtedness Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has toward the British. PAP has governed the city-state since it gained its independence.

Singapur ASEAN Gipfel Premierminister Lee Hsien Loong

‘Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,’ said PM Loong

The narrative that British rule brought prosperity, peace and stability, is also being promoted in school textbooks. “The history textbooks in schools barely looked into anything else beyond the British. It didn’t mention about life of the Malays, Chinese and Indians, who had immense contribution in the making of the modern Singapore,” says Aljaru.

Indeed, Singapore’s history goes beyond the colonial era and Singaporeans also have ancestors to look back to. Various communities such as Malays, Javanese, Bugis, Indians and the Chinese had been part of the island’s history long before Raffles arrived.

Cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi of the Singapore University of Technology and Design said, “Marking the start of modern Singapore as 1819 downplays indigenous contribution, especially that of the Malays, in modernizing Singapore. For the longest time, Singapore was described as a ‘sleepy Malay village’ before the coming of Raffles, which feeds into the longstanding stereotype of the ‘lazy native.'”

“The pre-colonial Singapore, however, was quite busy and modern. In the 17th century, the island became the site of Johor Sultanate’s naval base and a functional trading port,” the expert added.

Singapur Skyline mit Hafen

Singapore is now one of the world’s most prosperous nations

A deeper understanding?

But Tan Tai Yong, a member of the government’s bicentennial advisory panel, argued that the bicentennial is an opportunity “to generate deeper understandings of how communities, society, the Singapore state and our current orientation as a country have evolved out of that past.”

While inaugurating the bicentennial, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also provoked a sense of national identity by saying, “Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today.”

Historian Pingtjin Thum says that only a select few are allowed to participate in the making of “nationhood” and “national identity,” while the rest of Singapore are only expected to swallow it.

But the current debate, on social media and otherwise, over bicentennial has forced the government to do some course correction, even if it’s cosmetic. The official Facebook page of Singapore bicentennial now has information on the Bugis, Javanese and on Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama, who founded the Kingdom of Singapura (pre-colonial name) in 1299.

Recently, Utama’s statue has been erected along with that of three community leaders from the pages of history, next to where Raffles stands.

Now the government also wants people to celebrate the 700-year-old history of Singapore and engage in a conversation on the past, but it has to revolve in and around 1819. “1819 is being recognized as a crucial turning point (in a 700-year-old history) that set Singapore on a different trajectory towards modernity. By looking at the developments in Singapore’s history, before and after 1819, the significance of 1819 can be situated in a larger perspective,” said Tan Tai Yong.

Legitimizing policies

British rule in Singapore ended in 1963, and Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya and former British colonies North Borneo and Sarawak to form Malaysia. The union, however, proved unstable and Singapore was expelled two years later, in 1965.

Bicentennial, perhaps, is also an occasion for the PAP government to justify the separation, as PM Lee said, “…this history since 1819 explains why after separation, Singapore not only survived but thrived.”

By saying this, critics point out that Lee wants to legitimize PAP’s policies, institutions, and mechanisms which have reflected those of the colonial period. “The use of colonial-era laws of repression such as the Internal Security Act, projection of Singapore’s status as a capitalist client state, its dependence on foreign investment and reliance on low-wage laborers working and living in quasi-slavery conditions, reflect how its policies are fundamentally a continuation of colonial rule,” Thum argued.

Back on the banks of Singapore river, Raffles stands tall, hands folded, as if signaling a sense of self-pride to see his legacy living on.

Communism and Capitalism co-exist as the country makes a transition


By Sonia Sarkar

The morning sunlight pierces the windows of a glitzy skyscraper and falls on a colourful billboard featuring Uncle Ho — that’s how the people of Vietnam refer to the communist revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Both skyscraper and billboard are in the heart of Saigon city and reflect two contrasting realities of Vietnam today. One depicts the growing consumerism, the other is a reminder of the country’s communist legacy.

Vietnam has a single-party socialist republic framework. The general-secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam is the party leader and head of the politburo and holds the highest position in the one-party system. But here’s what’s happening — the communist regime is embracing corporatisation.

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

 

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Image: Sonia Sarkar 

There’s corporatisation in education, information and communications technology, infrastructure, oil and gas, railways, ports and healthcare. Foreign advertisement and PR firms have joined hands with local companies and entered the local market. Mid-market clothing brands such as H&M and Zara made an entry in 2017. Foreign F&B companies such as PastaMania, Chamichi, and Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart and GS25 are hot favourites with locals now. Singapore realtors Maple Tree and Kepple Land, the Republic of Korea’s confectioners’ Lotte and Walmart equivalent, Emart, and Japan-based retailers Aeon and Takashimaya-VNA are making huge investments.

According to the manager of Pan-Asian financial services firm, Dezan Shira & Associates’ business intelligence department, Maxfield Brown, the Vietnamese government has prioritised divestment of state-owned enterprises and deregulation of restricted business lines across a wide range of industries over the last few years. It continues to simplify investment procedures, open up sectors to foreign investment, provide incentives for investors and integrate itself further into the global economy through a strong network of free trade agreements.

Brown says, “Recent legislative reforms such as Vietnam’s Law on Investment and Law on Enterprise helped to solidify Vietnam’s commitments in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reassured investors in the European Union and the US that Vietnam is fully committed to supporting foreign investment.” Indeed, several US companies such as Intel and Microsoft have invested in Vietnam, though the overall investments are much less compared to the foreign direct investment or FDI from Asian countries.

In 2017, FDI reached $35.6 billion, while disbursed capital reached $17.5 billion, a 10-year high, according to Dezan Shira & Associates. The top three investors were all Asian countries — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Till September 2018, the total cumulative registered FDI in Vietnam reached $334 billion, with disbursement at $184 billion. As of October 2018, 57 per cent of the total FDI focused on the manufacturing industry, catering mainly to the export industry.

It seems a new class of young consumers has sprung up with the inflow of FDI. They work in advertising, PR, IT, education and retail sectors. Consumer spending has nearly doubled since 2010, leading to an explosion of local and foreign businesses targeting Vietnam’s emerging middle class. According to a 2014 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre, almost all Vietnamese people — 95 per cent of them — now support capitalism.

Saigon-based advertising entrepreneur Do Kim Dzung says big economic changes have started changing their lifestyle. “Global giants such as Starbucks, McDonald and Burger King have started ruling our lives. English classes are on offer everywhere in the major cities, where speaking the language has become essential to grow professionally. The lifestyle of the urban Vietnamese today is no way less than anyone living in the West.”

The first time Vietman opened its markets to the outside world was in 1986 — that was the Doi Moi or economic reforms campaign. It joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 1995 and five years later it signed a trade agreement with the US, enabling trade to take off. From 2000 onwards, Vietnam approved the sale of state-owned companies. By 2006, it became member of the WTO, thus reaping its initial crop of foreign investments.

Today, the red flag dots the cityscapes of Saigon and Hanoi as do giant advertisements for luxury goods, commercial banks, real estate companies and telecommunication firms. A kilometre away from the Independence Palace, which became the citadel of the Communist Party after it was overtaken by soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in 1975, stands the swanky Saigon Times Square.

A jewellery shop inside the premises of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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


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