November 2010

So, Zafar Sobhan thinks BNP is mafia.  This made me laugh.  You see, that’s the thing with Bangladeshi politics — you have to laugh at it, because the alternative is to howl in despair.

Let’s be fair to Zafar.  It’s not just him who thinks this way.  I’ve heard it from many AL leaning folks over the years: the last BNP government was like the mafia, Tarique ran Bangladesh like a crime lord, the corruption and violence all pointed to mob rule.  So let’s lay off Zafar.  He is just more articulate than the most.

Instead, let’s look at the message.  So, the BNP government was like the mafia.  What does that mean?

Well, how does the mafia work?  There is a system of patronage, whereby the Don confers favours on those under his protection, and they in turn does the Don’s bidding.  Then there is extortion.  You want to do business in a mob neighbourhood, you pay a protection fee.  And finally, anyone stepping out of line has to be disciplined — made to sleep with the fishes.

BNP was all of these we are told.  Hawa Bhaban cronies ran the country like a private fiefdom.  There were rampant extortion, from the top to bottom.  And there were killings like the 21 August.

The 21 August was a crucial turning point.  After that event, many people said ‘we used to follow Zia’s ideals, not this Khaleda-Falu politic’.   For many who had no love of AL shunned BNP because of its mafia-type transformation.

That was then.  What do we see now?

We see that minister’s brother’s company is given lucrative contracts for electricity generation without any tender process.  And then we see that act being indemnified through legislation.

We see prime ministerial advisors openly declaring that only the ruling party members will be appointed for government job.  We see the public servants humiliated because they wanted to follow the law, and not the party diktat.

We see dissenting voices shut down and thrown into jail by partisan judges.

What was that about patronage, favor, and extortion?

Not as bad as BNP, you say?  Not like AL is killing opposition politicians, like the BNP did on 21 August.

Never mind that no one has actually produced any evidence of BNP being involved with 21 August (as opposed to covering up afterwards).  For the partisan AL mind, it’s a given that BNP did it.  And AL is not as bad.

Except for the inconvenient fact that AL is, of course, as bad if not worse.  In Natore, an upazilla chairman was killed in broad daylight a few weeks ago.  The entire thing is available in youtube.  And Sheikh Hasina personally saved the killers by saying ‘this was BNP’s internal conflict’.

We don’t need Julifikar Ali Manik’s complicated conspiracy theories.  All this happened in public media.  Sheikh Hasina intervened to save killers.

As I said, after 21 August, many BNP supporters abandoned their party.  I don’t know a single AL-er who owns up to Hasina’s action after the Natore killing.  None.

You know why?

Because AL is a cult.  It’s a cult whose members believe that their party can do no wrong.  It’s a cult whose members believe their leader can do no wrong.  It’s a cult whose members simply refuse to face the reality, and would prefer to believe in conspiracy theories where everything is someone else’s fault.  It’s a cult whose members, otherwise perfectly fine people, lock away parts of their reason, compassion, and conscience.

The 21 August assassinations will hang over BNP until it unconditionally apologises for it, and the real killers are convicted and punished.  Until that happens, the charge of ‘BNP is mafia’ will bite.

BNP may be mafia.  But so is AL.  And AL is also a cult.  No matter what happens to BNP, until the AL-ers free themselves from their mental slavery, Bangladesh will remain doomed with a plague on both houses.

Published in opinion Section on November 28th.


Rumi Ahmed

It’s not personal

November 28, 2010

khaleda-cry300pxThe manner in which the leader of the opposition and former prime minister Khaleda Zia was evicted from her cantonment residence was outright shocking to most observers of Bangladesh politics. Not only the physical eviction itself, but the way the opposition leader was literally pushed out of her home of 38 years by an overwhelming government force, speaks volumes of its ‘autocratic’ mentality. The whole chain of events surrounding the eviction process was totally unforeseen in the history of democratic Bangladesh.

Notable in the chain of events were the mind-blowing fast tracking of judiciary, manipulation of hazy legal jargons, and ultimately bypassing of the highest judiciary to push forward with the government’s agenda to remove the opposition leader from her home. The media manipulation of the event was also unprecedented for a democratic government. Advancing on what the previous military-controlled regime did, from the day before the incident, the media was fed with concocted stories of Khaleda Zia leaving her home willingly. And on the day of the event and the day after, the naked dishonesty and partisanship of the defence department’s press wing, ISPR, was simultaneously a painful reminder of the demise of the armed forces as neutral public servants and the last nail in the coffin of an institutional balance of power under present government.


The eviction of Khaleda Zia from her residence of 38 years has forced pro-Awami League media personnel to display a particularly riveting form of bipolar disorder. With exceptions such as Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, most of these reporters/columnists/commentators have had to acknowledge that evicting a former prime minister forcibly from her residence, while her case is pending in the Supreme Court, is just not done. On the other hand, they can’t really come out and condemn Sheikh Hasina for these actions either; that sort of negates the utility of being a pro-Awami League media person. Thus, the bipolar disorder. Condemn eviction, but… bring up the cancellation of the house allotted to Sheikh Rehana by her sister, Sheikh Hasina, or somehow turn this about Sheikh Mujib’s murder, or, if everything else fails, blame Lord Clive.

Zafar Sobhan adds an interesting twist to this approach. His take is – yes, Khaleda Zia has been evicted, but… she’s not dead yet, and BNP is just a “mafia” while Awami League is an actual political party. So, whatever.

Mr. Sobhan is an extremely capable media personality. He is one of the individuals described here whose views about Bangladesh shape how the world media sees us. Such drivel should be beneath him. That it’s not, is a good sign of where our politics stands right now.

How does one deal with the claim that the party that has administered Bangladesh for ten of the last twenty years, and at the nadir of its popularity, still commands the allegiance of one in three Bangladeshis, is a mafia? Not that particular leaders of BNP have indulged in criminal actions in the past. Not that its student or youth wings contain criminal elements. But that the entire outfit is a criminal organization?

In a sense, it’s an extremely simple solution to a pressing problem. A problem that is growing more pressing by the day in Bangladesh. Normally, when the party in power fails, the opposition is given a mandate. But what does one do when there exists a sizable group of individuals who have staked their careers and professional reputations on the premise that the opposition will never, ever come to power again? And when the party in power, which was supposed to govern uninterrupted till 2021, has seen such precipitous drops in its popularity that it doesn’t even dare hold an election to elect the capital’s mayor?

Apparently, one labels the opposition the “mafia.” Because, you know, they’re criminals. And not just any criminals, but a particular group of state-designated criminals. They type of designated criminals who don’t have rights.

Here is the money quote from Mr. Sobhan’s article:

Two senior AL leaders were separately assassinated, and another 24 party members were killed in a grenade attack that came within seconds of wiping out the entire party leadership. For all the troubles it faces, the BNP leadership has not had to fear assassination.

What he leaves out, of course, that both the assassination of senior AL leaders, presumably Ahsanullah Master and SAMS Kibria, were prosecuted during BNP’s tenure and those involved were convicted and sent to jail, again during BNP’s tenure. Convictions that the current government has not revisited or appealed in a higher court.

And what about the 21st August grenade blast? Almost two years after this government’s ascension to power, it is still busy taking time from the courts to prolong its investigation, no doubt to implicate as many BNP leaders in this case as possible.

And finally, when responsible individuals like Mr. Sobhan make absurd accusations about whether BNP is a mafia, it makes us wonder whether journalistic ethics is sleeping with the fishes. His description of the events involving Ziaur Rahman’s home, where his wife slept, where his sons played with their toys, makes us wish that the law enforcement individuals who evicted Khaleda Zia had left their guns and taken the cannolis. Of course, when one’s being evicted facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference? While Mr. Sobhan needs the BNP so that he can point at them and say that’s the bad guy, we all have to ask, is this the end of Rico? We fear that our esteemed friend may end up, like a lot of other AL supporters, sobbing, broken-hearted, in a Havana cafe and saying, “You broke my heart. You broke my heart.”  Perhaps the Appellate Division will make BNP an offer they can’t refuse, but we fear a lot of people are soon going to be saying hello to the Police’s (and RAB’s) little friend.

All jokes (and forced analogies) aside, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think of Khaleda Zia as the broken Don Corleone, while her heir recovers in the Sicilian countryside (London). The problem for Mr. Sobhan is I’m sure he remembers, as we all do, how that one played out.

After the military coup of 1/11/ 2007, the political role that 1/11 military leadership, did irreparable harm to the image of the military in public minds. The latest incident of using ISPR ( MoD’s media wing) to malign the opposition leader acted as the last nail in the coffin of the credibility of the military institution as a nationally respected organization. What the ISPR did regarding the eviction of the opposition leader from her home is reprehensible beyond expression.
In a nutshell what ISPR did is
1. On the day before the eviction, started a campaign of lie that Mrs Zia is vacating her home on her own
2. On the day of eviction, while keeping journalists, family members, political leadership away from her house, kept on lying that Mrs Zia is leaving her house willingly.
3. After Mrs. Zia complained of forceful eviction in a press conference, ISPR kept on their self contradictory lies and gave a tour of the bedroom/ personal items of the opposition leader to the media. Their attempts to hide forceful rentry and breaking of doors did not escape journalists curious eyes. And the most disgraceful thing ISPR did was planting a porn magazine in opposition leader’s bedroom wardrobe,  some alcoholic beverages and inviting journalists to take photos of that. This was so disgusting that even most of Government friendly columnists / news papers bothered not to talk about it.

So when 26 retired army officers belonging to BNP protests the mindless partisan use of ISPR; over 150 retired army officers convenes a press conference and reads a statement supporting the acts of ISPR and repeating all the over-used negative political talking points against the opposition party. In the press conference, the politically divisive and hateful languages of ex Army chief Lt Gen Harun Ur Rashid clearly indicates the partisan agenda of Gen Harun and the sector commander’s forum he now leads. If General Harun sincerely wanted war crimes trials, he could have kept himself out of this dirty petty partisanship and extend his hands to embrace/ motivate BNP supporters to join the war crimes trial campaign of sector commander’s forum.


ছি ছি হাসিনা, এই রকম করে না.  আমরা জানি খালেদা কত্ত খারাপ.  ইন্ডিয়াও জানে. ওর  ছেলেদের কে আচ্ছা সে পিট্টি দিসি না সবাই মিলে.  লাগলে আবার পিটাব. আর দুষ্টুমি কোর না, কেমন?

That’s how someone described the Economist article (over the fold) on recent political events in Bangladesh.  The article says: BNP, particularly Tarique, represents kleptocracy and Islamist extremism and his return has to be prevented at any cost, so AL can feel safe in its project to trash Zia, so long as nothing too egregious is done.  If this is any guide to the thinking in the Embassy Row, then BNP is in lot more trouble than appears.

Now, how does the Economist write its articles on Bangladesh?  There is no Economist correspondent in Dhaka.  There is one in New Delhi.  James Astill, the guy in Delhi, is well versed in the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  He is reputed to prefer Lahore over Delhi.  He is not really a pro-Indian kinda guy.

So how does he write a piece like this?  Well, he doesn’t really know all that much about Bangladesh.  He gets his views from a few dozen English speaking, Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara living folks.  He visits Dhaka once a while, sips cold beer at Sonargaon, and talks to men and women in their 30s and 40s working in the corporate and NGO sectors.  And he writes what they think.

It’s that class of Bangladeshis — confession, the current blogger is from that class, as is the owner of this blog — who overwhelmingly think this way.  This class of Bangladeshis, who read the Daily Star, and dine at Le Saigon, influence not just what James Astill, Nicolas Haque (Al Jazeera) or Amy Kazmin (Financial Times) thinks, but also what the Embassy Row thinks.

And there are hardly any BNP voice in this crowd.  There is no BNP equivalent of Zafar Sobhan to write regularly in the Guardian, no Asif Saleh with a social network across corporate, bureaucratic and civil society elites.

The most desparing thing is, I don’t see any appreciation from anyone connected with BNP leadership that this is a problem.


Upon becoming the president after three years of post-liberation chaos, the 1974 famine, 8 months of Bakshal fascism, and the 15 August massacre, Khondoker Mushtaq Ahmed promised a lot of things: prompt return to democracy with a free and fair election, economic stability, end to corruption, you know, all the stuff every politician and their qurbani cow promises.  Mushtaq was in Bangabhaban for some 83 days.  In that time, he made one change of national import.  He gave us a national dress.

Yes, it was discussed in the Cabinet that the then national dress of penguin Mujib Coat didn’t represent our national character, and we needed something that involved a Sherwani and a cap as our national dress.

Thirty five years later, Awami League is once again in office.  There is high inflation, electricity shortage, poor law and order, you know, all the stuff every politician and their qurbani cow promises to fix before the election, but somehow never deliver.  On top of that, questionable treaties are being signed with India.  And oh, just to add a bit of 1970s retro, the opposition is being cracked down on.  While all this goes on, what does the cabinet of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina do?

Why, in true Mushtaqian fashion, it decides we need a national tree.

Dear reader, now that we have a national tree, rest assured all the problems will be solved, and we will have a digital shonar Bangla before long.  Any reader who disagrees with this assessment is clearly a sympathiser of war criminals and belongs to the anti-liberation forces.

It’s hard to know what the Awami League government was thinking when they decided to evict Khaleda Zia from her home. However, it did not go completely as Sheikh Hasina had planned. Khaleda Zia’s televised press conference affected almost everyone. As Syed Abul Maqsud put it in a column aptly titled “The Government’s Truth:

স্বেচ্ছায় বাড়ি ছাড়ার দৃশ্যটি দেখে অন্তত কিছু মানুষ তাদের জীবনের সর্বোচ্চ সুখ উপভোগ করেছে। কয়েক কোটি মানুষ হয়তো মনে মনে বলছে, বেশ হয়েছে। তবে আট-দশ কোটি মানুষের মনের অবস্থা আমাদের মতো অ-মনোবিজ্ঞানীর পক্ষে জানা সম্ভব নয়। তাদের মনোভাব জানা যাবে ২০১৩-র ডিসেম্বরে। (“The way in which the home was ‘voluntarily left’ has probably given some people the greatest happiness of their lives. Perhaps a few crores of our people thought to themselves: this isn’t too bad. What the rest eight or ten crores thought is unknown to non-psychologists like us. However, we shall find out in December 2013.”)

Syed Abul Maqsud’s political orientation is not unknown. When columnists of his stripe start talking about December 2013, one must realize that this is the most serious message they can deliver to the Awami League Government. They are politely reminding Sheikh Hasina: “এই দিন দিন না আরো দিন আছে

As Maqsud noted, the full extent of the reaction to this event shall not be known until well into the future. But the fact that there was a reaction was evident to everyone. Awami League had not expected this; they thought they what happened inside Jahangir Gate would, so to speak, stay inside Jahangir Gate. They even issued a press statement “thanking” Khaleda Zia forleaving voluntarily. However, once it became apparent that explaining away this action was going to be a bit more complicated than that, Awami League quickly set out to bring this reaction in their favor through a two-prong strategy.


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