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Posts Tagged ‘Bangladesh

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.

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

Picture Credit: Suman Choudhury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview appeared in The Telegraph, September 16, 2018

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

It was meant to celebrate diversity, create a blueprint for a more unified South Asia. Instead, Delhi’s South Asian University has turned into a miniature Saarc summit with Indo-Pak rivalry occupying centrestage and every other country jostling for attention. Sonia Sarkar has the story

  • INTERNATIONAL DIS-COURSE: A bulletin of events at SAU. Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar

Bharat Kumar Kolhi was looking forward to his two-year stay in Delhi when he signed up for the Sociology programme at the South Asian University (SAU). The resident of Pakistan’s Umarkot imagined that in India, he would finally get to be Bharat – the name given to him at birth – instead of Bhrat, the tweaked moniker he had had to acquire to suit the political climate of his birthplace.

It was not very long before Bharat realised his mistake.

Just as the mere whiff of India in his name would set the Pakistanis bristling, here too everyone kept thrusting his Pakistani nationality in his face. Nothing else seemed to matter – neither his name nor his Hindu identity.

“The first thing some Indian students at SAU asked me was – ‘Pakistani ho, haath mein bomb leke aaye ho?’ (You are a Pakistani; have you brought along a bomb?) I realised I would have to live with this kind of stereotyping the next two years,” says Bharat, now in the final year of his postgraduate programme.

SAU was set up in 2010 with the aim to bring together students from the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and, of course, India. While the physical bringing together has happened, it will take some doing before one gets to the “unity in diversity” part, at least going by what students have to say.

In recent times, the SAU campus, like many others across the country, has come under the grip of ultra-nationalism. Pakistani students claim they find themselves at the receiving end of slurs such as “terrorists” and “ISI agents” here, whenever there is tension brewing along the Line of Control.

Hira Hashmi, who is from Karachi, is studying International Relations at SAU. She talks about how last year, when 18 Indian soldiers were killed by militants allegedly “harboured” by Pakistan, a group of Indian students abused the Pakistanis on campus openly. “They put up posters saying ‘dushmano ki buzdili‘ and ‘Pakistanis are cowards’. When we protested, they removed them,” says Hira. “The campus was divided into two groups. It became an Us vs Them debate. We thought we may have to go back to our country halfway through the course.”

Students claim a warning was issued to the mischief-makers after a complaint was lodged with the university disciplinary committee. University officials, however, deny this. “These things happen between students and get resolved by them. We don’t get involved,” says SAU president Kavita A. Sharma.

While the Pakistani students claim they could do with less attention of a certain kind, students of other Saarc countries say they feel left out and their ethnic sensibilities ignored. Sounds familiar? Think Saarc meetings.

Even celebrations are centred around India and Pakistan, students of other nationalities complain. For instance, initially, Indian and Pakistani students celebrated their Independence Day on the midnight of August 14-15. Mahamadul Hasan Rana, a Bangladeshi PhD student at SAU says, “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed on August 15. No one bothered to understand our sentiments.” He adds, “The event has been mellowed down the past two years after we complained.”

 

 


SAU Facts

Established in 2010
Programmes offered: PG, MPhil and PhD
Number of students by country*
♦ India: 350**  ♦ Pakistan: 19
♦ Bangladesh: 67  ♦ Sri Lanka: 8
♦ Nepal: 52  ♦ Afghanistan: 55
♦ Bhutan: 9  ♦ Maldives: 1

US $300 million (Rs 1,996 crore)
is the estimated capital cost
The operational budget for 2016 is
US $10.71 million (Rs 71 crore)
Capital budget for 2016 is
US $36.37 million (Rs 242 crore)

*Number currently enrolled at SAU
**50 per cent seats reserved for Indians


Some others allege that India’s “big brother” attitude in the Saarc region is reflected in the conduct of the Indian students. “Indians try to emphasise that Bangladesh exists only because Indians helped us in our Liberation War,” says Sariful Islam, a Bangladeshi student, who is doing his postgraduate in International Relations.

The imbalance, apparently, is also reflected in the curriculum. Afghanistan is under-represented in courses such as International Relations and Sociology, points out Omar Sadr, a PhD student from Afghanistan. “The multi-cultural and multi-national theme of the university is defeated because there is an overdose of India and Pakistan in the curriculum.” And yet, the SAU is overflowing with applications from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Nepal.

In fact, it is the number of Pakistani students that has been dwindling – their 10 per cent quota remains underutilised in most courses. And while the ongoing political tension has most definitely contributed to the reduced numbers, there are quite a few niggling issues that they face.

Hira talks about how Pakistanis have to literally go to lengths just to be able to pay the fee for the aptitude test. Payment via debit card, credit card and netbanking from Pakistan is not possible. “One of my cousins who lives in India made the payment on my behalf,” she says.

It is the same story when Pakistani students have to block seats by making an advance payment after they have cleared the test. A senior university official who does not want to be identified confirms that Pakistani students have indeed been complaining about payment-related problems.

The other stumbling block is visa. According to SAU rules, students along with faculty members and university staffers from other countries were supposed to get the SAU visa. It is valid for the course duration and allows visa holders to move freely across India. But the reality is different for some, especially if they are from Pakistan. “We need to renew our visa every year. Besides, only six entries are allowed and the movement is restricted to four places – Delhi, Agra, Gurgaon and Amritsar,” Hira complains.

But a lot hinges on the political dynamics between the two countries. Last year, an additional visa granted to Hira for travelling to Patna was withdrawn, and apparently no valid reason was cited.

Then again, every time Pakistani students re-enter India, they have to report to the foreigners regional registration officer within 24 hours of arrival. Students of other Saarc countries have to do so within 14 days of arrival.

  •    The first thing that some Indian students at the university asked me was — ‘Pakistani ho, haath mein bomb leke aaye ho?’
    Bharat Kumar Kolhi
    Sociology

  •     We need to renew our visa every year… Only six entries are allowed and movement is restricted to Delhi, Agra, Gurgaon and Amritsar
    Hira Hashmi
    International Relations
    Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar

University officials are inundated with complaints. “We have written to the ministry of external affairs (MEA) several times about these issues,” says president Sharma. “That’s all we can do.” The Telegraph tried to contact the MEA spokesperson to understand the visa issues but did not get any response.

All said and done, two years is a decent period. Despite irritants, one picks up survival tips, makes friends, learns to laugh at the situation. Hira points out that a lot of the campus humour also revolves around Indo-Pakistan relations. “One of my Indian friends taught me this dialogue from a Sunny Deol blockbuster where he apparently tells Pakistanis – ‘Doodh mangoge toh kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge toh cheer denge (If you want milk, we’ll give you kheer. But if you seek Kashmir, we will rip you apart),” she says with a laugh.

Hira has learnt to cope with the biases too. Tips from her Indian cousins have helped. “They told me that whenever someone asks where I am from, I should say Ranchi since it sounds like Karachi.” She also takes care not to speak in Urdu in public places.

Both Hira and Bharat are scheduled to leave India next month after the convocation. They leave with bittersweet memories. “Perhaps, I will come back when the ties between the two countries are better,” says Bharat.

But with ultra-nationalism taking centrestage here, this might take a while.


Returning to Bangladesh is like going away to find myself home

CROSSINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…On the bosom of the earth,

Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep

Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”

These words rang in my ears for days.

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

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

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


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

  • Thinkstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

  • Blogger Avijit Roy, who was killed in February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Published in The Telegraph. April 16, 2015)


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