Monday, February 27, 2012

Transit and connectivity

Now someone in the government is talking sense about transit. One could not agree more with the finance minister that with the present condition of our infrastructure Bangladesh is not yet in a position to allow transit of goods overland. 

It is unfortunate that in Bangladesh the matter has turned out to be controversial. There are very little grounds to oppose the plan that rests on the core idea of connecting the region. And for Bangladesh, being where it is, the gift of geography has endowed it with a huge potential to derive strategic benefits as well be the connecting hub of not only between the countries of South Asia but also between the region and South East Asia. It is a pity that the matter has been politicised to such an extent that the ground realities and the economics of the issue are often lost sight of.

For Bangladesh it would be unwise not to exploit the potential benefits. And while talking about transit, the facility, as we understand, should be offered to all the regional countries, particularly the land-locked ones for their access to ports in Bangladesh.

We are dismayed by the way the issue has been dealt with by the successive governments. While we were disappointed to see the matter dismissed out of hand by the BNP led 4-Party alliance during its tenure, we have been quite unable to see the rationale in the undue rush to provide the facility to India, and that too at cost to our existing infrastructure, by the present government. We are also disconcerted at the inability of the government to work out the economics of the issue and fix the charges, because there is no way that Bangladesh can allow the use of its territory, nor can the services it will provide in allowing transit be, free of charge. In fact, anything else would be contrary to international practice. 

Thus we feel that in the true regional spirit the infrastructure should be got ready quickly and first, and if the Indian line of credit regarding this is restrictive, persuade Delhi to relax it or arrange for alternative financing.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Plotters and their motives need to be identified

Since 2009, February 25 marks a sad day in the calendar of all Bangladeshis as on that day the nation witnessed a gruesome carnage at the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) headquarters in Peelkhana as a result of a nationwide mutiny of the erstwhile BDR jawans who took up arms against their officers on deputation from the army. In the violence and holdup that lasted 36 hours, 75 people, including 57 officers of the Bangladesh Army, were killed. Following the tragedy, 3,036 soldiers have been sentenced to varying terms on charges of taking part in the mutiny, while the BDR has been reconstituted under the Border Guard Bangladesh Act 2010 and renamed accordingly. Meanwhile, 847 people are presently under trial under criminal charges, including murder. In virtually a few hours on this day three years ago, two of the most important security forces of the country against external aggression, the army and border guards, were thoroughly weakened, and in the case of the latter, virtually reduced to rubble. Understandably, it will take many years for the army to recover from both the physical and mental scars of the tragedy, while the border guards, in the mess left by the mutiny, the subsequent trial and guilt, had to be eventually disbanded in its original form, which had been around for more than a 100 years and was the oldest uniformed force of the country. Very few wars can inflict the level of damage on the uniformed forces of a country, which BDR Mutiny did.

What is more troublesome is that while 3,000-odd soldiers have been punished, for taking part in the mutiny, motivated by prolonged ‘grievances’ – according to the findings of both the investigation committees set up by the government and the Bangladesh Army – the alleged plotters are yet to be identified and the conspiracy behind it is yet to be cracked. The report of the investigation committees, which were not made public but found its way into various sections of the media, recommended the government conduct a further inquiry to identify the people behind the scenes who had capitalized on the grievances of the soldiers to stoke the violence, as well as to identify their motives. For reasons best known to themselves, the government is yet to initiate any such inquiry. Furthermore, the government did not pay heed to any of the long-standing ‘grievances’ of the border guard soldiers, sans increasing their ration, in the last three years. On the other hand, while investigations and trials were going on, as many as 69 BDR soldiers died while in custody, giving rise to serious allegations of extrajudicial killing and torture, which, despite the government setting up a committee, are yet to be investigated. All these are ominous signs for the nation at large and does not at any length allay the fear and scope for future trouble.

It is important for all countrymen to know who were responsible for inflicting such harm on the entire country and to what ends. After all, a country needs to know who its enemies and friends are. It is also important that both genuine grievances and perceived grievances amongst the uniformed forces of a country are addressed, so that they no longer remain susceptible to conspiracies in the future. Therefore, it is important the government immediately begin an inquiry to identify and bring to justice the real plotters, to avoid any such incidents in the future. Besides, it also needs to complete the criminal trials as well as the inquiries into the deaths of the soldiers under custody, as soon as possible, so that the families, on both sides, can get a certain sense of closure.  

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Mamata Banerjee's sensitivity expected

She should see the broader picture.


During her recent talks with prime minister Manmohan Singh of India in Delhi, chief minister of the country's Pashchimbangla State, Mamata Banerjee, is learnt to have expressed her concern about what she termed excess water flowing to Bangladesh due to leakages in the Farakka Barrage.

Though it is an internal problem of India, we cannot help discern her diversionary emphasis away from the Teesta water sharing issue, which is a matter of prime concern for us. For lack of agreement on Teesta water sharing, Bangladesh continues to suffer from the sharp decline in water flow due to diversion of water by India. 

She couldn't have been oblivious of the Indian press reports that due to her last minute stance on the Teesta water sharing formula, which Indian prime minister had given shape to, that it fell through. The incident caused avoidable embarrassment to both the governments of India and Bangladesh. 

We wonder by deflecting from an issue of fundamental importance to Bangladesh's ecology and economy, what gain she is supposed to be deriving from impeding resolution of an important water sharing issue? 

By throwing a spanner in the works of the efforts to clinch the Teesta water deal, she is actually denying Paschimbangla, the Indian state closest to Bangladesh, the benefits she could draw from a higher level of Indo-Bangladesh relationship. We urge her to look at the broader picture of a greater and enduring cooperation between the two countries. 

The sooner Pashchimbangla chief minister Mamata Banerjee is able to see reason, the better for Indo-Bangla relations and also for the ties between Pashchimbangla and Bangladesh.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Home minister needs to assert border killing concern

ON FEBRUARY 23, the home minister, Sahara Khatun is scheduled to leave Dhaka to take part in bilateral talks with her Indian counterpart, P Chidambaram, on issues relating to border management, security cooperation, etc, scheduled for February 24-25 in New Delhi. The last time she had a similar meeting, in July 29-30, 2011, in Dhaka, her counterpart emphatically told a press conference: ‘We have issued strict instructions to our Border Security Force that under no circumstances, they should fire on anyone trying to cross either from Bangladesh to India or from India to Bangladesh. The message has gone down to the jawans.’ Since then, from August, 2011 to January, 2012, according to rights-based organisation Odhikar, 13 Bangladeshis have either been gunned down or tortured to death by the BSF, while 20 Bangladeshis have been injured. Add to that the recent brutal torture of Habibur Rahman, a Bangladeshi young man from Chapainawabganj, by the BSF, caught on camera and shown on Indian television, which caused uproar in Bangladesh, in conscious sections of Indian society, as well as amongst the international human rights watchdogs. Further adding insult to injury came the words of BSF director general, UK Bansal, ‘Firing in the border can never be stopped totally… So long criminal activities would continue to take place along the India-Bangladesh border’ during an interview with BBC Bangla on February 7. Given that much water has flown under the bridge since the last time she met him, the home minister should indeed have a number of serious questions to ask her Indian counterpart, which she owes as an answer to the Bangladeshi people on her return.

The Indian border guards have so far killed 935 Bangladeshis since January 2000, and 220 since the Awami League-led government assumed office in January 2009. From the joint communiqué issued during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi in 2010, to Manmohan Singh’s visit in September 2011, to an agreement on the use of non-lethal weapons signed between the two border guard chiefs of two countries in March 2011, it would be fair to say that the Bangladeshi government has tried to lay their concern about border killings at the highest level of the Indian government and received assurances at equal measure. However, the Indian authorities appear almost defiant in ignoring all the pledges made to Bangladesh and in recent months the situation has gotten much worse, with Indian authorities seeming to indicate they have undergone a clear change in stance.

While Bangladeshis have always felt aggrieved at the killing of unarmed Bangladeshis along the border, the events in recent months, following the assurances of the highest level of Indian government, have forced public opinion to such a low, that if it is not addressed immediately it may cause prolonged damage to future relations with India, at least in the perception of ordinary people. Bangladeshi people feel dismayed and betrayed at the state of affairs and that is the message the home minister must convey to her counterpart in her upcoming visit. The home ministry has so far promised that she will ‘strongly protest’ the killing and torture and we hope she manages to also convey the gravity and seriousness of the issue at hand, and what is at stake.   

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Delhi Owes An Explanation

It is finally out in the open. On Wednesday, the Border Security Force director general said it aloud: ‘Firing in border can never be stopped totally’ because ‘criminal activities continue to take place along the Indo-Bangladesh border and the BSF will have to prevent those offences.’ Of course, the ‘criminal activities’ he refers to largely involves illegal cattle trade carried out by unarmed villagers or Bangladeshis — men, women and children anywhere between the ages of four to 70 — illegally immigrating to India, judging by the identity of the 935 Bangladeshis killed by the Indian border guards since 2000. It appears to escape the BSF chief that there are various forms of law enforcement such as arrest, detention, trial in a court of law to contain such ‘criminal activities’, that both the BSF and the Border Guards Bangladesh can avail, if and when necessary. In fact, shooting at unarmed civilians, criminals or otherwise, by law enforcement officials, essentially translates to ‘extrajudicial killings.’ And then of course, over the last few months they have been doing a lot less shooting and a lot more stoning, beating and torture, which translate into heinous forms of human rights violation, something which has left even the conscious-sections of the Indian citizenry enraged. With one instance of the torture recently caught on video, it seems the BSF chief has made an official announcement to revert back to old ways of ‘target practice’ on cattle traders ahead of the more cumbersome and potentially embarrassing ‘torture to death’.

What is more dangerous is that the words of an Indian bureaucrat seems to have virtually negated the assurances made by the Indian home minister, no more than eight months back, ‘that BSF would no longer shoot at civilians under any circumstances.’ It also pours cold water on the words, penned down by the Indian premier and Bangladeshi prime minister, to ‘exercise restraint’, in the joint communiqué issued during the latter’s visit to New Delhi in 2010. Finally, it contradicts an agreement on the use of ‘non-lethal weapons’ along the border of the two countries, signed by none other than the BSF chief himself, with his Bangladeshi counterpart. The Indian political establishment indeed owes an explanation to their ‘friendly neighbours’ as to who exactly calls the shots in India.

Why we say it is out in the open is simply because border killings of unarmed Bangladeshi civilians have never rally stopped irrespective of whichever level of the Indian government the assurances came from. 

Bangladeshis were killed by the BSF on the same day the joint communiqué between Hasina and Manmohan was made public, on the day Sonia Gandhi arrived in Dhaka and on the day Manmohan arrived in Dhaka. Ever since the signing of the agreement on the use of non-lethal weapons, Bangladeshis have been killed by stoning, by beating and by running speedboats over them. What the BSF chief’s words do is make it clear that it is indeed a veritable policy decision of the Indian government to intimidate Bangladeshis along the border by rampantly shooting at them, and that there are clearly no plans to honour the words, agreements, or assurances provided by the highest level of Indian government.

In recent times, various sections of the international media and human rights groups have woken up to the horrors committed by the BSF on unarmed Bangladeshis and the Bangladesh-India border has been described as the ‘wall of death’, ‘Berlin Wall of Asia etc. To that, one may add, that the Indian government has decided to adopt the policies reminiscent of Zionist Israel towards their Arab neighbours — towards their apparently ‘friendly neighbours’ from whom they so urgently seek ‘transit’ facilities. It is time the Bangladesh government woke up from their stand of ‘not very worried’ about border killings, as the LGRD and cooperatives minister said only recently, and got very, very worried.     

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

5 killed: Police excesses galore

During the past three-year rule of the Awami League (AL) regime the number of the people killed — because they were supporters of the main opposition BNP or its political partners — is mind-boggling; and the figure of those arrested as well as were sued by police has possibly exceeded twenty thousand, many among whom were bystanders or simply pedestrians. In this period the police have shot dead a shocking number of completely unarmed people who joined the public meetings or rallies of the main opposition.  After all such killings of citizens without arms by police the incumbent AL Government in general and its home ministry in particular blatantly palm off as ‘justifiable’, ignoring the fact that unarmed men cannot be so serious a threat that police personnel would have to resort to shoot in ‘self-defence’.

Four BNP men were killed in Luxmipur and Chandpur towns and one Jamaat activist in Rajshahi when police fired on demonstrating BNP activists and supporters on January 29 and 30. More than 450 people were injured when the policemen attempted to foil prescheduled marches of opposition activists in different districts.

Condemning the police atrocities, BNP held the government responsible for the killings.

In this country trampling young men under police boots in Dhaka a la grotesque incidents under the fascist jackboot often traumatise people. Similar scenes of brutality were familiar in Saigon or Hanoi during the Vietnam War 38 years ago. The maltreated Yusuf Ali, hailing from Nilphamari, belongs to a family of have-nots with his father earning Taka 600 per month and his elder brother working as a street hawker. They family supports Jamaat. They live in a thatched hut. Ali has a menial job at a hospital. Policemen who tortured him were not punished, but the victim was — a sad litany of another brazen violation of human rights.

A parliamentary standing committee member said the panel sought the police chief’s explanation on such ‘unrestrained behaviour’ of lawmen during the hartal, but Awami League leader Hanif said “opposition might have influenced such behaviour of police”. A startling revelation indeed! The ruling Awami League government constituted a court in 2009 on the model of a Martial Law court. Ali was prosecuted in that court which is worse than a Kangaroo court. The victim has been sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment.

Exactly on the Bangladesh model, in Pakistan a similar court was formed by Asif Ali Zardari to harass and repress the opposition parties. However, good sense prevailed upon Zardari; and in the face of criticism he repealed it —- but Bangladesh has not.

Having seen the grossly erroneous attitude of the incumbents and crass performance of the ministry of home headed by Shahara Khatun, it is now obvious that the ruling AL Government’s policymakers are miles away from the time honoured dictum of pro bono publico; in every sphere and sector of governance from bashing the opposition to law and order to economic management they have made it evident that public good is not their goal whatsoever.

It is axiomatic that the parliamentary opposition in a Westminster form of government must function as per the Constitution.

The framers of our Constitution made it sure to outline the fundamental rights of citizens even before describing the government’s structure. Consistent with the section on fundamental rights, the Constitution guarantees the right to assemble, hold public meetings, and form unions. Freedom of speech and the press are ensured. Persons who have been arrested must be informed of the charges made against them, and they must be brought before a magistrate within twenty-four hours. These words under the incumbents sound hollow.

Deplorably enough, the incumbents are not only denying the main opposition BNP and its political partners to agitate and assemble; they are also allowing the police to open fire at opposition rallies and processions.

Presumably the first most brutal case in this country was that of teenager Limon in which the adolescent blameless college student sustained gun shot injury caused by RAB.  The country is devoid of the rule of law, so said the NHRC chief on August 12, 2010. So what can the people, who do not support the AL, expect from the AL Government? We do not have any answer.
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Saturday, February 4, 2012

BSF’s killings: The Hindu’s worthy remark, Dhaka’s subservience

The disgustingly blasé public statement of the incumbent LGRD minister-cum-Awami League (AL) general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam has demonstrated his brazenly unfeeling insensitivity to the killings of hundreds of innocent Bangladesh citizens over the years by the Indian BSF personnel on the border which has been described by The Economist, the prestigious British newspaper, as one of the world’s bloodiest on Earth.

Ashraful’s utterance was unquestionably the most weird ever uttered anywhere in the world. People wonder aghast if it is time to call his allegiance into question. Other ministers — with special reference to the AL Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and Home Minister Shahara Khatun — in the Government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in general lackadaisically shrug off these unprovoked murders.

An inhabitant of Chapainawabganj, Habibur Rahman was stripped and tortured by BSF men in uniform on December 9 last year as he refused to pay them a bribe. The video clip, which was aired on some Indian TV channels, including NDTV, earned strong criticism of the BSF personnel from people in both countries.

Ashraful Islam said on 21 January that the State was not worried about the killing and torture of Bangladeshi nationals by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is simply shocking, to say the least. And hence it has sparked a flurry of criticism across the country and beyond. Islam said the “the State cannot put aside everything and only think about what is going on along the border” because such killing and torture “are nothing new, these were there in the past, these are happening now, and these will be in the future.”

By the way, on the same day, the people saw an astonishing synchronisation of wording of phrases of the Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, during a programme at the Petrapol land port in West Bengal, where his Bangladesh counterpart, AMA Muhith, was present. Mukherjee said there was no point in blowing the torture of a Bangladeshi national by BSF members out of proportion. The noticeable resemblance between the views of Syed Ashraf and Pranab Mukherjee could provide credibility to the oft-uttered allegations about the AL-led government that it is pursuing a weak-kneed, spineless, subservient India policy.

Mohammed Nur Islam’s 15-year-old daughter Felani’s death will remain a lasting scar on the people’s mind. The Economist reported on January 7, 2011 how India’s BSF —- also called “Border Smuggling Force”—- shot her dead; and Felani’s body hung from the barbed-wired fence for five hours. The BNP leaders gathered on 9 Feb 2011 at Kurigram town in protest against the killing of Felani and demanding trial in the international tribunal. But police obstructed the BNP leaders-activists when they tried to go to Felani’s home village.

India’s force has killed above 1,000 Bangladeshis over the past 10 years, meaning a shooting every four days. “The death toll between two democracies dwarfs the number killed attempting to cross the inner German border during the cold war,” wrote the Economist.

True, during our Liberation War India was our friend in need which we always acknowledge, but after independence she could not keep it up in so far as bilateral relations with Bangladesh are concerned. The developments that unfolded since the early seventies regarding the big neighbour’s attitude were most unpleasant, often antagonistic and intimidating. The issues are many: depriving co-riparian Bangladesh of her legitimate share of the Ganges water; greater plan to divert waters of the 54 common rives; the highly dangerous Tipaimukh dam; and refusal to sign the Teesta water sharing. Since time immemorial the then East Bengal, now Bangladesh, has been exercising its sovereign authority over the legitimate area of the Bay of Bengal, but  conflict between Bangladesh and India over maritime boundaries lingers.

Dhaka’s disgraceful policy of keeping subserviently mum is most reprehensible when a significant section of Indian society has criticised and condemned Delhi government for failing to stop the border killings by trigger happy BSF. India’s National Human Rights Commission served notice on Indian Home Ministry, seeking a report on the BSF jawans who had recently assaulted a Bangladeshi youth near the Indo-Bangla border. Also on the same day, a leading Indian newspaper, The Hindu, asked New Delhi to “make an unreserved apology to Dhaka for the border troops’ brutal torture on the youth”. 

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