Caught between the call of jihad and the politics of poverty, Sheikh Hasina is battling alone for Bangladesh. India and the West had better take notice
For a celebrated artist whose photographic works border on the melancholy and the macabre, Dhaka-based Shumon Ahmed is a happiness habitué, guffawing at the slightest hint of a joke. The burly 39-year-old has had an unpleasant if not traumatic childhood, born to a differently- abled mother and a strict, laconic father, but betrays not a whiff of lament about those years, about how he overcame taunts and provocations in a joint family that was extremely judgmental. The grimness of contemporary Bangladesh, however, is never too far from the mind. “To be honest,” he pauses mid-conversation to say, “we are all shaken. I wouldn’t do things I would have otherwise done.” Ahmed, seated in the VIP Lounge of the Dhaka Art Summit, sipping coffee, is referring to the fatal attacks on atheists and bloggers over the past few years in a country that has prided itself on its hyped secular credentials.
The zealous public display of Bengali identity over the Muslim one, a cause championed by the ruling Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is under fire. And lately, with the shadow of IS designs on the country looming large, artists and writers are too overwrought to listen to the all-is-well counsel offered by caviar liberals, who it seems are unabashedly aligned with the federal government. It is run with an iron hand by Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader whose death in 1975 at the hands of renegade military officers threw the country into political turmoil and frequent bouts of military dictatorship.
At a ‘Shonir Adda’, a Saturday night get together of journalists, PR professionals, corporate executives and others held at Spitfire, a high-end restaurant in the tony diplomat enclave of Gulshan, Mozammel Haque, aka Babu, its host and organiser, declares heartily that Bangladesh is on the fast track to rapid growth. A few guests at the next table dwell at length on how the Hasina government is spearheading ‘the nation’s drive towards the future’. Several of them are content that the Awami League has brought normalcy back in the country, thanks to its tough measures to clamp down on Islamists and rivals bent upon disrupting good governance. “As someone from India, you might say there is no democracy in this country because the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP, which is led by the wife of the slain president and army general Ziaur Rahman], is not present in Parliament. See, it was their choice not to contest polls in the 2014 election,” points out an official with the UK High Commission in Dhaka.
Many of the city’s bold and beautiful offer similar logic: Hasina can’t be blamed for the Khaleda Zia-led BNP’s ‘blunder’ to boycott elections in 2014. If one is to attribute this assertion to the nature of the crowd that drops in at a party thrown by a pro-Awami League media personality like Babu, also the managing director of Ekattor TV, chats at a few other night outings with pro-BNP businessmen are not too different: BNP made a bad political decision, they concede. They hasten to allege that Hasina runs her government ‘ruthlessly’ through bureaucrats and law enforcement agencies that helped her crush protests following her victory in a poll uncontested by the rival party.
A senior academic I met at a coffee shop in Baridhara argues that under Hasina, politicians have long lost their sting, and that she and bureaucrats alone call the shots in the government. Asking not to be named (in fear of state persecution), he agrees that it is the common man who is often caught in the crossfire between the two main political formations, the Awami League and the BNP. A University of Dhaka professor of Political Science concurs, “[Hasina] runs a totalitarian dispensation. No other politician has any say in the government.” He emphasises that this massive consolidation of power bodes ill for a democracy. “This could lead to unforeseen and grave consequences, as modern politics has shown,” he warns, wolfing down beef cutlets with gusto before relishing some red wine.
According to a pharmaceuticals businessman, whose immaculately furnished, jasmine-scented office is not far from the national capital’s middle-class Segunbagicha area, the “unbridled power” that bureaucrats enjoy means they are also corrupt. This foreign-educated 45-year-old falls back on political philosophy to explain how bureaucracy gets transformed into a “class of touts and looters” when left unchecked. As he makes Darjeeling tea for me and cuts a walnut cake with a surgeon’s skill, he invokes Machiavelli as well as Antonio Gramsci to say that bureaucracy that can’t seek “consent” opts for corruption because the other option, “coercion”, is not always viable and perhaps too drastic “even for bureaucrats”. True, the stakes are high. Bangladesh is fast becoming a hot destination for manufacturers of life-saving drugs and medical equipment as people spend more and more on diagnosis, prevention and medical care.
Several others Open spoke to also hold a grudge against the Awami League—a party which, like most other parties in the country, lacks any kind of internal democracy— for getting rid of a provision under which general elections were held by a caretaker government of various parties. In 2011, the Bangladesh Parliament under Hasina amended the Constitution, scrapping the caretaker system that was introduced in 1996 to ensure that the electoral process would be overseen by non-partisan authorities and thus be free and fair. Dr Borhan Uddin Khan, professor, department of law, University of Dhaka, feels that it was a capitulation of democratic values. The Constitution (15th Amendment) Bill, 2011, passed by division vote with a majority of 291-1, made several parts of the country’s supreme organic law not amendable, says Khan, who worries that such measures would give “excuses” to a rival government to alter it for the worse.
A trip in an autorickshaw, called a ‘CNG’ in Dhaka, offers a glimpse of the country away from intellectual preoccupations and talk of business friendliness. This is where one gets to see the poor, the pencil-thin men of the streets and slums, the people who form the country’s global image, at least as portrayed in movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Munich, in which a character tells a drunk colleague to stop drinking and eating, with the line, “There is enough food on this table to feed Bangladesh.” This was about Bangladesh of the 1970s, back when it had just come out of a series of famines. Times have changed and things have improved, but not to a very large extent.
The ‘CNG’ is almost like a small armoured vehicle with grilled doors for passengers and the driver. Petty crime has fallen, the police say, but nobody wants to take chances, and certainly not the cops. An ‘open’ CNG attracts snatchers, pickpockets and knife-brandishing thugs who rob passengers in broad daylight. My driver Ciaz regales me with sordid stories and revels in my wary expression as we trundle through slow traffic near Tejgaon. He is a Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh supporter who saw no reason for the execution of the likes of Abdul Kader Mullah, a JIB leader who was described as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ for his crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. What is now Bangladesh was called East Pakistan before that, since East Bengal had become the eastern part of Pakistan after the 1947 Partition of India. “Jamaat will not go away. It still has 10-20 per cent votes in the country as our leaders often say,” says Ciaz, who doubles up as a guide, “Jamaat cadres are routinely rounded up and tried. There is a major repression by the government.”
Hasina evokes extreme reactions of admiration and hate. Intelligence officers in various parts of the world, including a serving US veteran, tell me that cuss words against Hasina uttered by Jamaat men mean that she is on the right track in battling Islamist forces. “I am completely in defence of her. She is doing the right thing. The critics are those who would slam her if she were soft towards radical groups. When she comes down heavily on them, then she becomes a violator of human rights. It’s strange logic,” states Vikram Sood, former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing.
The prime minister’s forceful ways have made her a nightmare for religious extremists. Yet, she is not liked across the spectrum by those keen on containing Islamism. Unlike intelligence officers, military historian Edward Luttwak, who has travelled extensively in the region during the Cold War, doesn’t look up to Hasina. She is an egotist, Luttwak alleges. He admits that authoritarian centralism—the model adopted in Malaysia by Mahathir Mohamad and in Singapore by Lee Kuan Yew— can be effective. In such situations, Luttwak argues, political participation is repressed but it can be replaced, up to a point, by a highly skilled and sensitive civil service if it is hard-working and free of corruption. But the bureaucrats of Bangladesh, he regrets, “are not of that standard”.
A foreign policy expert in his late sixties who lives in Gulshan-2, next to Gulshan-1, both upscale areas of Dhaka, offers me a cigar as I walk in, but the odour in the room makes me decline. “Young man, Hasina doesn’t actually believe that the West thinks nothing about Bangladesh. You tell me that it is becoming a major problem area for the West and the Subcontinent due to the machinations of the Arab organisation called IS. I can agree with it, but the West is still preoccupied with Syria and to some extent, Pakistan. They tend to discover real threats very late, believe me. Maybe that is by design,” he thunders in a quasi-British accent. He wishes not to be identified because he occasionally advises the federal government and is not authorised to speak to the media. He, however, agrees that Hasina is doing a good job in “throwing Islamic radicals” out of the country. The problem, he insists, lies with what the West and especially India think about what she does.
Hasina watchers offer diverse views, which would appear to confirm what a local bureaucrat had forewarned me: that the prime minister is mysterious and unpredictable. “She wants to keep her officers on their toes,” he had said, “No other way works here.”
Stereotyping Bangladesh as a nation held back by inefficiency of those in power is perhaps a tad unfair. Michael Kugelman, a Southeast Asia expert at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, knows this only too well. He is also aware that Hasina is compared to Lee Kuan Yew by her adoring supporters. “But she is no Lee Kuan Yew. Bangladesh has certainly enjoyed some economic success, but not on the level of Malaysia and Singapore, and not without major assists from Bangladesh’s civil society and private sector.” He adds, “If anything, Hasina’s model of politics, which is as polarising as she is, will add to the existing volatilities of the broader region, [where] on a superficial level we’re seeing some calming actions, such as recent efforts by Narendra Modi to engage her.”
Kugelman continues “But let’s face it—Bangladesh is a powder keg, and its volatility can be attributed in great part to the by-products of her rule—deep levels of political polarisation, political violence, and now, Islamist extremist violence. This is already spilling over borders; we know that Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has had a presence in West Bengal and that it has linked up with the Lashkar-e-Taiba. We also know about Pakistan’s tendency to side with elements of the Bangladeshi opposition, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. In effect, Bangladesh exacerbates regional rivalries that play out in a neighbourhood that is already very dangerous.” He also warns that Bangladesh has to distinguish between Islamists in the political opposition, like Jamaat-e-Islami, and more radical Islamists like the terror groups that operate in the country. “Hasina has acted robustly against the former, and much less so against the latter. The risk here is that by acting in a draconian fashion against the Islamists in the political opposition, she could send some of them into the more radical camp of Islamist terrorists.”
Whatever these American scholars and diplomats may say, Hasina is doing well in handling extremists, says the Dhaka-based foreign policy expert. “It is easier to say ‘distinguish them’ than to actually distinguish them,” he laughs. For his part, Sood also vouches for how well Hasina is on top of the game.
In a restaurant not far from Link Road, which has the showrooms of some of the world’s most expensive cars, a Bangladesh government official joins me 20 minutes late to announce even before shaking hands that our interview “is off the record, switch off your mobile phone”. Once that is done, he launches into what could actually have been an on-record conversation—about the Hasina government’s achievements and the virtues of free universal education and health care. And then he ignores a question on “enforced disappearances of BNP members and fake encounters” and shifts to the challenges of tackling illegal migration to India, a phenomenon allegedly abetted by politicians on the Indian side of the border. He lights a cigarette without asking me if it’s okay and states, “That West Bengal has become a sanctuary for highly radical outfits from Bangladesh is not our problem. It is India’s problem.”
Unfortunately, he is right. Political expediency has meant that successive governments in West Bengal and Assam allowed easy access to anyone ready to fork out bribes for border officials. The extent to which terror outfits banned in Bangladesh had moved to West Bengal was exposed in October 2014 when an improvised explosive device (IED) went off accidentally in a two-storey building in the Khagragarh locality of Burdwan town, West Bengal. Around the same time, 40 km away, in Simulia, a village in the same district, some 30-40 students of a madrassa disappeared—it emerged later that this ‘educational centre’ was actually a jihadist training centre, and its organisers had within a few years set up bomb-making units across several districts of West Bengal, including Murshidabad, Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda besides Burdwan, reportedly with the connivance of political parties in power. Says a Home Ministry official in India: “Vote-bank politics was placed above national security by some of our party leaders who are good at lip service.” He is alluding to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had come under sharp attack for being soft towards Bangladeshi migrants so as not to alienate Muslim voters. Marxists, who were in power before, had “done the same thing”, says this official. The CPM government had packed off renowned Bangladesh-origin author Taslima Nasreen—who, under threats from Islamists, has been living in exile since 1994—from Kolkata in 2007, claiming her presence would stir unrest and violence.
A bureaucrat who offered to come down to the Dhaka Art Summit venue at Shilpakala Academy to meet me proclaims himself confident of the West’s support for Dhaka in taking on “any kind of extremist violence”. We talk over lunch at the food court by the lawns of the campus—his pick being the Chittagong ‘package’ that consists of beef fry, beef curry and beef rice (similar to biryani). “The West and Bangladesh are best of friends,” he says, but does not bother to answer why the Dhaka Art Summit organisers had to bow to pressure from the Chinese ambassador to ‘cover up’ an art work that was in sympathy with Tibetans alienated by China. “Our relationship with China is on the rise, too,” he says. As soon as the meal is over, he makes a call to his driver in Bangla, and is gone.
In the posh home of an enormously well-read theatre personality, where I am met at the door by her and her equally photogenic cat, hangs a picture of Rabindranath Tagore. She tells me that the film industry in the country is under-developed because it is yet to assert itself as an ‘industry’. She elaborates, drawing a zero in the air with a finger, “It is just a handful of people and we need to have in place a system that is more professional.” She digresses a bit and suggests that it is the lack of democracy that is responsible for the fruits of development not being enjoyed by a vast majority. She has a problem with political parties not focusing enough on internal transparency, though she commends them for having mobilised people, raising their political awareness. She quotes from a book by Bangladeshi scholar Rounaq Jahan, titled Political Parties in Bangladesh: “Parties are increasingly becoming clientalist, using the patronage system to build support.” Then she pauses meditatively. “You know, people with disposable incomes have to grow. As of now, they are confined to a small section, like in any developing country… For a country rich in culture, we have an impoverished movie industry perhaps for such reasons.”
An American diplomat tells Open on the phone from Washington that so far, Bangladesh is not “in the scheme of things urgent” for the US. He doesn’t believe “several reports” that suggest that IS is actively pursuing “boys” in Bangladesh. He says that Bangladeshis are not a martial race like Pathans and therefore that country cannot be compared with either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Luttwak and Kugelman, too, seem to agree with that view.
But the Dhaka-based foreign policy expert raps “American types” for not addressing problems on time. He accuses them of merely essentialising a complex issue. “Bangladesh is going through a serious crisis which could have a far-reaching impact on not just the Indian Subcontinent but also across the world,” he avers. Its very “geography”, which sets it up for emigration, could come to pose a major “problem for India, much more than it has seen so far”. In an interview to The New York Times, Rafael Reuveny, a professor in the School of Public and Environ- mental Affairs, Indiana University in Bloomington, US, has said that among the places at risk from rising sea levels, Bangladesh is on top. As a result of global warming, according to one forecast, by 2050 about 17 per cent of the country’s land would have been devoured by the sea, displacing 18 million people. “Migration could complicate the Islamism issue, that is my feeling,” says a senior Dhaka-based government official.
Principal Secretary at the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office, Mohammed Abul Kalam Azad, didn’t reply to a list of questions concerning opportunities and challenges for his country. Instead, he asked an official at the Bangladesh High Commission in Delhi to summon this reporter to his office to warn against getting in touch with Azad in the future. The official offered no explanation whatsoever for this attitude.
Meanwhile, Mozammel Haque’s claims on Bangladesh’s economy and social growth are not exactly hyperbole at a party where a little bragging is par for the course.
Over the past 40 years since independence, notwithstanding many external and internal shocks, Bangladesh has increased its per capita income four-fold and cut poverty by more than half, points out Dr Selim Raihan, an Economics professor at the University of Dhaka. According to him, some of the factors aiding this progress are social cohesion, religious liberalism and a relatively stable political environment over the past two-and-a-half decades. All this has boosted the readymade garment sector, remittances and micro-credit. Raihan is also proud that the country’s economy has displayed robust growth over the past decade. The World Bank recently reclassified Bangladesh, upgrading it from a Low Income Country (LIC) to Lower-Middle Income Country (LMIC). Nobel laureate Amartya Sen himself has often talked about what India could learn from Bangladesh about social development. On an aggregate scale, the eastern neighbour has performed better than India in terms of economic and social development of women. According to reports, Sen, who has always had great affinity for Bangladesh, had famously said the following: in 1990, the per capita GDP of India was 50 per cent higher than that of Bangladesh, and now it is 100 per cent; yet, Bangladesh’s social indicators such as gender equity, women’s empowerment, mortality rate, life expectancy, immunisation and so on are remarkably better than India’s.
However, many feel that sustaining such a rate of social development may not be easy, given that corruption over long periods of time usually worsens inequality. Policy muddles could take their own toll. Raihan says that strategies specified in the country’s different policies for economic and export diversification lack clear guidelines on implementation, which proves counterproductive.
Ayub Rahman, a security guard outside a luxury car showroom on Dhaka’s Link Road, says that he gets paid a meagre 7,000 taka per month. He feels that the ostentatious display of wealth by the affluent—this reporter saw a young man emerge from a BMW and beat up a cycle rickskhaw rider near Kawran Bazor for no fault of his— is deeply resented by most. Puffing at a beedi, he says, “I am not an educated person, but I must tell you that Jamaat-e- Islami has a strong following among young people from poor households. We don’t discriminate against others (non-Muslims), but hardship can force you to become a terrorist,” he says. Ameer Khan, who introduced himself as a shopkeeper as he emerged from the city’s Baitul Mukarram mosque, doesn’t think that all the rich people of the country are exploiting the poor, but feels that some of them are cheating them. He is unhappy that the Awami League regime has not “answered” questions about disappearances (claims that Open could not independently verify). Khan believes policies that favour the rich are likely to give rise to what he calls “dangerous” groups. He also justifies the killings of atheists such as online activist Avijit Roy and a few others last year.
“Islamic fundamentalism,” Dr Raihan argues, “ is not in the nature of Bangladesh.” But then ‘nature’ could change. Sample this: when Prime Minister Hasina visited the relatives of slain blogger Ahmed Rajib Haidar at his home in Dhaka’s Pallabi in early 2013, pro-Islamic parties let out a storm of protests, saying Islam was in danger from atheists and infidels. And when the loathsome Ansarullah Bangla Team, a much-feared extremist outfit, carried out several other brutal killings of secular writers over the next two years, she opted to stay home—in an apparent bid to not invite the wrath of Islamists and not be seen as being sympathetic with people branded ‘anti-Islam’. “That the PM herself could be swayed by such a sentiment means the situation is implosive,” says another Dhaka- based bureaucrat whom this correspondent met outside the sprawling Jatiyo Shangshad Bhaban (Parliament) designed by the famed architect Louis Kahn.
The Dhaka-based painter Farzana Ahmed Urmi says she won’t bow to threats by extremists whose aim is to spread fear. She wouldn’t paint a nude for the sake of painting a nude or stirring up a controversy, but if the character she chooses to paint happens to be a man or woman on the street without much clothing on, nothing can stop her from expressing herself. The otherwise self-effacing Urmi’s courage is infectious. “I am ready to fight on for protecting my right to express myself,” she says.
The irony of Bangladesh’s leadership is that Hasina’s fight for what she believes is right is what wins her admiration, her undemocratic tendencies notwithstanding. But without India’s support and the West’s recognition, she may well be staring at a disaster, analysts say. Kugelman explains the gravity of the problem at hand: ISIS has already claimed responsibility for some recent terror attacks on foreigners in Bangladesh. It also has an attractive potential partner in the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a once-fearsome militant group that had fallen quiet in the past few years but has in recent months claimed responsibility for some attacks. JMB embraces the same Salafist ideology that ISIS does, and unlike Ansarullah Bangla Team, JMB does not have close connections to ISIS’s rival Al-Qaeda.
The Washington-based foreign policy analyst is spot on when it comes to the games being played in Allah’s name, especially after the restoration of electoral democracy in 1991. “Is it the ISI (Pakistan’s covert operations agency) or the ISIS that is behind vitiating the atmosphere in Bangladesh? That is also a question to ponder,” suggests another US diplomat, who accuses the Bangladeshi media and judiciary of having been co-opted by the government of the day.
But the bigger question is: is the West, which is committed to the war on terror, listening? No. Neither is India, it appears. Both are ignoring Bangladesh at their own peril. As of now, it looks like Sheikh Hasina Wazed is distressingly lonely at the top.