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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)

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia fears India is distancing itself from its neighbour by supporting the government of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. In an exclusive email interview, the Opposition leader, however, stresses that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) believes in working closely with New Delhi. Would the BNP’s ties with India be affected if Narendra Modi came to power? “It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country,” she replies. Extracts from the interview:

Q: Why did you boycott parliamentary polls in January 2014?A:Our decision not to participate in the election was a principled one. It arose in response to the Awami League’s calculated move to annul the 13th Amendment, in May 2011, to the Constitution which provided for a neutral, non-party caretaker government to oversee general elections and replace it with the 15th Amendment one month later, which provided for elections to be held under a political government while members of Parliament were still in place.The BNP along with the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh opposed the Constitution’s 15th Amendment because of their firm belief that is was susceptible to widespread electoral manipulation. Suffice it to say that our stance was fully vindicated by the people of Bangladesh, who outright rejected the fraudulent election of January 5, 2014… More than half the total parliamentary seats was declared by the Election Commission to have been won “uncontested”, including those of the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition. Election for the remaining seats was a conspicuous sham with an abysmally low voter turnout, around 5 per cent according to reliable estimates.Q:But after boycotting the parliamentary elections, why is the BNP participating in the upazila council elections?

A:The reasons are simple. First, our demand for elections under a non-party caretaker government is for the parliamentary elections, not for elections to the local bodies. Second, elections to local bodies are non-party though the individuals concerned seek a measure of support from political parties. Third, because local body elections are smaller in dimension, scrutiny is easier. Importantly, local elections are not game changing.

Q: What’s your next challenge? Are you in favour of a dialogue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?

A:The next big challenge, indeed, the paramount objective of the BNP and its future political programme, is to realise the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to exercise their right to vote and to freely choose their own representatives. How long can Sheikh Hasina continue to ignore such a deeply rooted public demand and still claim to speak for democracy? She must respond to the people’s demand or take refuge in mounting autocracy.

Q: It seems unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will go for a re-poll before her five-year term ends. Have you lost your chance of ruling Bangladesh?

A:The BNP has consistently and positively responded to all domestic and international calls for dialogue in the face of continuous stalling and intransigence by the Awami League. BNP, like the people of Bangladesh, believes it is imperative to hold meaningful dialogues between the major political parties for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.

I may point out that neither my party nor I believe in “ruling” Bangladesh. We believe in serving our country and people.

Q: In India many believe that you are not a “friend”. Why is your image so anti-India?

A:Our party and I personally believe in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially with our neighbours. We also believe that such relations should be based on the universally recognised principles of mutual benefit and respect.

As our closest neighbour, our relation with India is of added significance and relevance. I had reiterated this to the political leadership of India at every level during my visit to New Delhi in November 2012 at the invitation of the Indian government, when I was warmly received. My impression is that my assurances of friendship and mutually beneficial co-operation were deeply appreciated.

Q: Yet the UPA government has supported Sheikh Hasina…

A:India, which has a long and proud history of democracy, should stand on the side of the people of Bangladesh, as it did during our glorious war of liberation in 1971. By extending support to a government that is in office through a fraudulent election and one which has seen the disenfranchisement of the public… India may distance itself from the people of Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see India-Bangladesh ties if BJP’s Narendra Modi comes to power?

A:Relations between Bangladesh and India should not be contingent on an individual or any particular political party. It should be based on the need to address the interests of the people of the two countries and be responsive to their perceptions of each other. It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country. We believe in working closely with the elected government for furthering our relations.

Q: The Hasina government alleges that your government has been harbouring Indian militants from the Northeast.

A:Sheikh Hasina’s remarks are baseless, false and clearly motivated. During my meeting with the Indian leadership in 2012, I had assured them that the territory of Bangladesh shall never be allowed to be used by anyone against the interests of India or for anything that could threaten India’s security. Bangladesh has never been nor will it ever be a safe haven for militants.

Q: But the Awami League party holds that the BNP and its key ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, are friends of al Qaida, which has threatened to wage an intifada in Bangladesh.

A:No terrorist threat should be taken lightly, nor should these be used for narrow political gains. The blame game is self-defeating. Global terrorism has to be taken seriously and there should be concerted efforts and preparedness to combat this threat. Terrorism or militancy can have no place in our pluralist societies.

The BNP has been consistent in condemning and acting resolutely against terrorism in any form and manifestation. This is evident from the manner in which the BNP government in the past has acted against terrorists. Between 2005 and 2006, the BNP government arrested 1,177 terrorists and extremists.

During the time of the Awami League government between 1996 and 2001 Bangladesh witnessed the presence of new terrorist groups and attacks on cultural events.

There are differences between the political philosophies of the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Our relation with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance. There is, however, a history of political alliances between the Jamaat and other major political parties. The Awami League, for example, maintained very close alliance with the Jamaat going back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was also the Awami League that signed a memorandum of understanding with the fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khelafate Majlish, in 2006. That MoU was aimed at legalising religious fatwa.

Q: There is a popular movement for punishing war criminals. How true is the general perception that those undergoing life sentences will be released and rehabilitated by the BNP if it comes to power?

A:We believe that anyone who has committed crimes against humanity should be held accountable and brought before the realm of law. The BNP will try all those who have committed crimes against humanity in Bangladesh through a process that is transparent and one that meets international standards.

Q: Recently, a “telephonic” conversation between you and Sheikh Hasina went viral. Didn’t it highlight the ego clash between Bangladesh’s two top leaders?

A:The telephone conversation was a privileged communication between the leaders of the country’s top political parties. It should have been treated as such. The act of making it public by the government was inappropriate, motivated as well as a breach of trust.

Q: What will the BNP focus on now?

A:Let me end by saying that for Bangladesh democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are vital if we are to avoid chaos and political instability. A democratic, peaceful and a politically stable Bangladesh is not just in our interest — it is also in the interest of our region.


The recent violence between Bodos and Muslims in Assam that claimed more than 70 lives and left around four lakh people homeless has once again thrown the spotlight on the contentious issue of illegal migration.

The Bodos have alleged that illegal migrants have been occupying “their” land for decades and this is what led to the conflict. The settlers, on the other hand, insist that they are bona fide Indian citizens and that the Bodos have no right to try and oust them from there.

In this context, questions are now being raised on the effectiveness of the laws that are meant to detect and deport illegal migrants.

Indeed, right from the time of Partition, the country has had a whole spectrum of laws to deal with illegal migration. Unfortunately, each has been fraught with loopholes. The Foreigners Act, 1946, and Foreigners Order, 1948, were introduced to check the entry of aliens into India. But experts say that these could not be properly implemented because there was a huge — and inevitable — influx of people from Pakistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan after Partition.

A few years later, yet another law — Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 — was passed to stem the tide of foreigners into the northeastern state of Assam from neighbouring East Pakistan. But this too proved to be ineffectual as it came with a rider.

“The proviso to Section 2 of the act allowed minority communities of Bangladesh to migrate to Assam on account of ‘civil disturbances’. But there was no effective mechanism to ascertain the actual beneficiaries of the law. So many Muslims from Bangladesh came in even though they were not protected under this clause,” says Supreme Court advocate Shuvodeep Roy.

The chequered history of illegal migration into India took yet another turn after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. A year later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed a pact with Bangladesh’s first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, wherein it was decided that Bangladeshi nationals who came to India on and after March 25, 1971, would be sent back. In other words, the status of those who had migrated illegally before this date was legalised. As former director general of Border Security Force (BSF) E.N. Rammohan explains, “All those who were detected as foreigners under the 1950 Act were absorbed.”

Though Bangladesh denies that its citizens come into India illegally, experts say that economic migration from Bangladesh to the whole of India, especially to Assam and West Bengal, is rampant. “There are three types of illegal migrants. First, those who came with valid visa and documents but overstayed. Second, those who came with forged visa and documents. And third, those who entered surreptitiously,” says former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, Veena Sikri.

Assam, which has received wave after wave of illegal migrants, has always been deeply resentful of the settlers. In 1979 the issue sparked a violent statewide agitation. But in the Assam Accord of 1985 — a pact between the All Assam Students’ Union, All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad and the Centre to deal with illegal migration — the same cut off date of 1971 was taken into account. Furthermore, under the terms of the accord, all those who came to Assam before January 1, 1966, had the right to vote. It also said that those who came on or after March 25, 1971, would be expelled from the country.

Two years before the Assam Accord was drafted, a new law called the Illegal Migrant Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act was enacted in 1983 exclusively for Assam. (The Foreigners Act was applied in the case of the rest of the country.)

Critics say that the IMDT Act didn’t serve any purpose because the onus of proving citizenship rested on the accuser and the police, and not on the accused. Says former home secretary G.K. Pillai, “In most cases, it was impossible for the police to produce documents against the accused, thus making it difficult to prove that the suspect was a foreign national.”

In the end, the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act in 2005 while hearing the case ofSarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India. Petitioner Sonowal had submitted that 1,494 illegal migrants were deported from Assam till June 2001 under the IMDT Act while 4,89,046 Bangladeshi nationals were deported from West Bengal between 1983 and 1998 under the Foreigners Act — thus underlining the ineffectiveness of the IMDT Act.

After the apex court struck down this law, cases of illegal migration to Assam came under the purview of the Foreigners Act. All pending cases were transferred to the tribunals under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.

However, experts point out that these tribunals have been quite ineffective in dealing with cases of illegal migration. Often, hearings can go on for as long as 10 years because they are overburdened with cases. Says retired judge B.K. Sarma, the sole member of the Foreigners Tribunal in Assam’s Baksa district, “We have no basic infrastructure to run the tribunal. There are 4,698 pending cases in our tribunal since 2006.” This tribunal has declared 35 people foreigners in the past six years.

But the other reason for the delay in the disposal of cases is that suspects often go absconding. Last year the Gauhati High Court observed that those absconding are often not traced by the police.

Even if the illegal migrant has been declared as such and apprehended, the process of deportation is complicated. After being declared an alien, he or she has the right to challenge the order in the high court and later, in the Supreme Court.

If the apex court upholds the tribunal’s order, the person has to be deported. But this is a tricky process as India and Bangladesh do not have a bilateral agreement on repatriation.

As Supreme Court lawyer Arthi Rajan says, “Often, these suspects stay in detention camps for many years since the Foreigners Act mentions no specific time frame for deportation. The law should specify a time limit for deportation of foreign nationals.”

The Foreigners Act also doesn’t lay down a mechanism for deportation. So the Indian government follows a “push back” policy where foreign nationals are taken to the border and handed over to the Border Guards Bangladesh by the BSF. Around 134 declared illegal migrants were deported to Bangladesh from Assam in 2011-2012.

But Pillai feels that those deported will soon make their way back into India — as has been the trend all these years. “Unless the Centre shows the political will to implement laws to deal with illegal migration and also adopt an effective mechanism for their deportation, a deported Bangladeshi will keep coming back through different border points,” he says.

And Assam, at least, will continue to seethe over the issue.

Seminars and roundtables are expected to give us a bird’s- eye view on any issue.We attend these discussions for a deeper understanding of current affairs as “experts” invited in these symposiums are supposed to apprise us of a broader view that we journalists ( who usually suffer from myopic vision) may not be aware of.

Two weeks back, I walked into Mir Anis Hall at Jamia Millia Islamia, where the varsity’s NE centre had organised a roundtable on “Assam situation,” with a view to get different perspectives on the recent conflict. Given the spectrum of speakers –  researchers, a Planning Commission member, a Supreme Court lawyer and a journalist- my expectations were high.But much of it transformed into disappointment as we inched closer to the evening.

Curiously, none of the speakers gave any cursory rundown on the recent violence in Bodoland. Instead, some unautheticated facts floated in the three-hour long discussion. Most speakers appeared to be misinformed.

 For example, one of the speakers vociferously pointed out that the development in the Bodoland has gone down since the formation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. I agree with the statement because I have visited Bodoland. But a mere statement is not enough to convince a room of 200 listeners (mostly students and researchers). The speaker had nothing more to substantiate her observation.

She made a careless mention on Bodoland’s high dropout rate without stating what the actual dropout rate is. (Btw, the dropout rate in Bodoland is 28 per cent and the literacy rate is 56.5%).

Further on, she mentioned that Bodo boys and girls are very good in sports but they don’t get right opportunities to exhibit their talent. I agree with her first part of the sentence but  beg to differ with the second.

 Here is why. For your information, there is a residential coaching centre run by Sports Authority of India (SAI) for honing the skills of the budding talents in Kokrajhar, one of the four Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD).

Archers and boxers hailing from this SAI centre have won gold and silver medals in the international tournaments in the past few years.(For more on this, refer to my story http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120805/jsp/7days/story_15815346.jsp)

One interesting point that came out in the discussion was how militant groups operational in the Bodoland have, in a way, aggravated the recent violence. But strangely enough, the issue of illegal immigration –  which is believed to be the genesis of the conflict was deliberately skirted by the speakers.

Nobody pondered over the fact there are several estimates of illegal migration and the courts have repeatedly pointed out that the ineffective mechanism by the state government to detect and deport illegal migrants.

In a bid to convince the audience that the recent rupture is not a fallout of illegal migration, one of the speakers even eagerly stated that the Kokrajhar Foreigners Tribunal has detected just one foreigner. Later, I discovered that number of foreigners declared by the Tribunal is 35 since 2006.No person has been declared a foreigner in the past three months, additional superintendent of police of Kokrajhar told me.

A Jamia friend later pointed out that illegal immigration was deliberately not discussed keeping the sentiments of minority community at Jamia in mind. This argument sounded very puerile because the issue is not about Muslims but about illegal migration from Bangladesh.  Jamia has students from all communities and I believe, a student is a seeker and is always open to hear all sides of a debate.

Needless to mention that  the Assam situation is a veritable tinderbox and one should always be careful while discussing it because political leaders and a faction of “intellectuals” tend to give it a communal colour but then why should we have seminars if the speakers don’t stick their neck out? Why should we abstain from discussing the real issues on public forums?

Another shocking statement by one of the speakers, that too a lawyer, was that Manipur was a part of undivided Assam (FYI, Manipur and Tripura never were part of undivided Assam).  At this juncture, I thought to leave the room but  stayed back  till the Q&A session.

But again, the  other disappointment was that none of my questions on Indo-Bangladesh dialogue on illegal migration and deportation of migrants were satisfactorily answered.

It is true that it is not possible to keep every  data handy but the minimum that a listener expects from speakers of a convention is the correct presentation of facts.

At the end of the three long hour long debate and discussion, I asked myself -Do we really need such roundtables?