June 2011


Read newspaper columns by our intellectuals, and you’ll see a common refrain: we Bangladeshis don’t learn from history. We forget our past. We don’t honour our heroes. And so on. Yet, the events of the last four years or so seem to show rather the opposite. We do learn from history; we do so greedily.

Consider the coup on 1/11 by Moeen U. Ahmed. Coup? What coup? There was no general issuing proclamations, no military council ruling by fiat: we had a nice elderly gentleman of Princeton pedigree. He spoke good English, quoted the right Tagore phrases, and seemed on the verge of turning Bangladesh into Plato’s Republic, when the philosopher-kings of yore would again hold sway. Where we would not be troubled with partisan, nasty, narrow politics. The nation would unite behind our own Mahathir, Lee Kuan Yew, you name it.

If still not convinced, turn to our current Prime Minister, Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina. Does anyone realize that Hasina is now the senior statesman of SAARC, and probably the most accomplished head of state for at least five or six hundred miles in all direction? Poor Manmohan Singh has never won an election in his life;  he is the Indian equivalent of Bangladesh’s MPs from reserved seats (a comparison apt in many ways). Pakistan’s troubles are only matched by Zardari’s foolishness. Rajapaksa is guilty of genocide. Karzai… no, Hasina towers above them all.

And she, too, has learned her lessons. A lesson from 2001, about how the most trusted individuals can become confused if left without adult supervision. A lesson reinforced in 2007, as boot-lickers turned into back-breakers. Maybe a second lesson from 2001, about history would have been different if she had gone ahead with her gut instincts and called for early elections, before the Four-Party Alliance had coalesced. And, finally, a lesson from 1975: if only H. T. Imam had thought to call BKSAL something else, like Bengali Democracy. Sounds so much nicer. 

Indeed, who will object to the mighty Sheikh Hasina, Leader of the House with a majority of 303 seats out of 345? Indira was India, এক নেতা had his এক দেশ, where is the catchy slogan that does justice to Hasina? Backed by an army that has turned pro-India with a vengeance to stay relevant in this post-9/11 world, a business sector that would love to see some continuity instead of the hassle of having to figure out whom to pay homage to every five years, and a judiciary which is more partisan than many, many leaders of the ruling party, she strides the land like a behemoth.

In the end of the day, only her own inner demons trouble her. She knows she is alone; the weasely cowards who crowd around her and dare speak of the spirit of 1971 did not come to her father’s help in 1975, just as they surely would not come to her own aid if something happened tomorrow. But this time, nothing will happen; the fairy tale will not turn into a blood-soaked nightmare. The ending will be happy. 

How dare those wretched countrymen of hers let her father die like that? There must be collective punishment: she would make her own father everyone’s father; patricide, after all, is more grievous than mere regicide. Hanging the men who physically killed her father was not enough, she will finish his unfinished business. Two thousand years ago, another leader had asked, why so much fuss around the word “king?” After all, it was just a word. If his countrymen did not like it, he could replace it with something innocuous, like his last name, Caesar.

Similarly, BKSAL is just a word. A word that the curs used to darken the image of her saintly father. Why would Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with a majority of his own of 293 out of 300, need of more power? Yet, that did not stop his move for the actual liberation of the people of Bangladesh as being portrayed as dictatorship and tyranny. Well, his daughter will prove the point once and for all. If it is just a word that the people of Bangladesh object to, then she will give it to them, only without that word this time. They’ll take it, and they’ll like it, and they’ll thank her for it. And finally, the inner demons will quiet their howlings. 

And there will be peace, inside and outside. Everywhere.

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Original article here.

Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old’s father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani’s wedding, arranged for a week later in her family’s ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

There was no question of crossing legally — visas and passports from New Delhi could take years — and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands.

Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards’ backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn’t safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it.

Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn’t so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter’s corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. “When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry,” Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident.

Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world’s bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there.

In India, the 25-year-old border fence — finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion — is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture — and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

India did not always view its eastern neighbor in such hostile terms. When Bengali-speaking nationalists in what was then East Pakistan won Bangladesh’s independence in a bloody 1971 civil war, they did it armed with Indian weapons. But the war destroyed Bangladesh’s already anemic infrastructure and left more than a million dead, presaging the new country’s famously unlucky future. Bangladesh is now home to 160 million people crammed into an area smaller than Iowa; 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the country bottoms out the list on most major international health indicators.

As bad as things are, they can get plenty worse. Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a “threat multiplier,” sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

India has a long history of accepting refugees, from the Tibetan government in exile to Sri Lankans fleeing a drawn-out civil war. Faced with the threat of mass migration from the east, however, New Delhi has drawn a line in the sand. Rather than prepare expensive and possibly permanent resettlement zones, India began erecting a fence, complete with well-armed guards, in 1986. After the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in 1998, the program was ramped up to placate anti-Muslim sentiment among the party faithful. The fence grew longer and the killings more frequent. After years of complaints from Bangladeshi politicians, India made promises on several occasions to switch to nonlethal weaponry, but has rarely followed through on them.

By next year, every available crossing point between India and Bangladesh will have been blocked off by the fence. But while tightened security has made the border more dangerous, it hasn’t actually made it much more secure. More than 100 border villages operate as illicit transit points through which thousands of migrants pass daily. Each of these villages has a “lineman” — what would be called a coyote on the U.S.-Mexican border — who facilitates the smuggling, paying border guards from both notoriously corrupt countries to look the other way when people pass through.

“Entire villages can cross the border with the right payoffs,” says Kirity Roy, head of the Indian human rights organization Masum, which together with Human Rights Watch released a bleak report on the border situation in December. No one is likely to manage the crossing without a lineman’s help, Roy explains. “If someone tries to sneak past the linemen without paying, they will find them out and tell the border guards to shoot them.” An inefficient bribe system, he says, explains how border guards could kill 1,000 unarmed people in the last decade.

The ugly immigration politics on the western side of the fence, where popular sentiment runs decisively in favor of walling off Bangladesh, have made a bad situation worse. The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.)

The rise of global Islamist militancy in recent years has worsened the xenophobic streak in India’s already dicey relations with its Muslim neighbors, and Indian politicians have been quick to capitalize on it. By 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was declaring that Bangladeshis have “no business to come to India.” The opposition BJP isn’t rolling out the welcome mat either: Tathagata Roy, the party’s leader in the Bangladesh-bordering state of West Bengal, has called for lining the border with antipersonnel mines. If the predictions come true for immigration from Bangladesh, Roy says, India’s population of 900 million Hindus will have no choice but “to convert or jump into the sea.”

The border itself has hardened into a grim killing field. Although border shootings are officially recorded by Indian officials as “shot in self-defense,” the Masum and Human Rights Watch report found that none of the victims was armed with anything more dangerous than a sickle, and it accused the Indian Border Security Force of “indiscriminate killing and torture.”

Most of the dead are farmers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In January, Bangladeshi soldiers told us, six Indian soldiers lured a Bangladeshi farmer named Shahjahan Ali into a swath of no man’s land along the border. They stripped him naked, beat him, broke his legs, and mutilated his genitals before throwing him back into Bangladesh, where he bled to death from his injuries. “It’s like they are drunk,” says the Bangladeshi soldier who found Ali. “Like they are on drugs.” Powerless to fire back without creating an international incident with their vastly stronger neighbor, the Bangladeshi border guards can do little more than pick up the bodies.

Felani’s death, however, galvanized Bangladesh. Graphic photos of her dead body made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and political parties posted her picture with the caption “Stop Border Killing!” on seemingly every available wall in the capital city of Dhaka. Shamsher Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary and current vice chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, says, “The fence is our Berlin Wall.” The shooting seemed to have given India pause as well. In March, New Delhi once again agreed to strip its border guards of live ammunition, and for once actually did it. For the first month in almost a decade, Indian troops didn’t kill anyone on the border.

But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable.

Responding to the strike that a tiresome group of people called for no reason, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asks: who is better patriot and protector of the country’s interests than me?

Who indeed? Surely none. Yet, we offer up a few answers.

We could go on and on. Hasina also revealed that her party lost the 2001 election despite getting more votes because of their strident guardianship of our national intersts. And not because they only got 62 out of 300 seats.

A leader and an educator. Much like Marcus Aurelius.

I never saw real Azam Khan in action. I listened to his songs hundreds to thousands of times, but never live in his trademark style performance. It was mid 80s when I started hitting concert venues in Dhaka and Chittagong and began following Bangla pop scene. Although his songs were the most demanded songs in all concerts, Azam Khan the person was a matter of past by that time.

Until Azam Khan was rediscovered by our content thirsty media and icon thirsty merchants a few years ago, he was a man in oblivion — lost from the music scenario. We all know of his performances in early 70s, but no one really tell us when and how Azam Khan went AWOL from Dhaka rock scene.

Thanks to corporate TV, the Azam Khan we saw was the skeleton of the Azam we knew of. This Azam Khan no longer could sing. His bohemian image with long beard and hair smoking hasish was not there anymore.

This Azam Khan was a middle aged man struggling to make ends meet in a low middle class neighborhood in Kamalapur area of Dhaka. It was a broken health lungi clad man going to local kacha bazaar with a gunny sack. It was the home his father built, single story. There was never any good furniture at home to give TV interview or pose for photojournalists . Every time any TV crew, photo journalist would go to see him, he would take them to his roof top.

Azam Khan was very unprepared to deal with sudden media attention on him. He did not have prepared fake answers to fake questions of journalists.

Journalist: ” How did you find the inspiration to compose the legendary song ” Ore Saleka Ore maleka? ”

Azam Khan: “পাড়ার বন্ধু রা ছাদের মধ্যে বইসা ফাইজলামি করতাছিলাম — এমনে এমনেই গানটা চইলা আইল আর কি…”

Journalist: ” How do you feel when people call you Guru”.

Azam Khan: “মেজাজ খারাপ হইত. এই গুরু গুরু এইটা আবার কি. আরে আজাম ভাই ক. এখন গা সইয়া গ্যাছে”

When he tried to answer the way journalists wanted, it was very clear he was out of words, he was very uncomfortable.

Journalist: “You fought our war of liberation. Now again you are also fighting another war. What and how is your new war?”

Azam Khan: ” হ যুদ্ধ — আমার এইটা হইতাছে নুতন একটা যুদ্ধ , এই যুদ্ধ টা হইতাছে গিয়ে আমার নুতন যুদ্ধ. হ এইটা আমার … এই যে বুজছেন না… এইটা আমার .. হইতাছে নুতন যুদ্ধ. এই যে সব কিছু … এইটাই নুতন যুদ্ধ”

His stage performances in recent years were more painful to watch. He lost his voice long ago. Corporate TV would make fun of him by forcing him to do dance moves those would at best be caricature of his old self of 70s. He unsuccessfully would try to go back to 1972 again. But that was never to happen.

To sell their products, big corporations needed Azam Khan craze that runs from generation to generation. They made the best merchant like use of Azam Khan’s ever green songs, ever green ever living popularity.

Our corporate culture could have support him financially. They did not have to abuse him for their commercials.

And why I blame the corporates. What the state did to him? While all the sycophants bite each other to grab swadhinota podok, Ekushey Podok, Bangla Academy podok— Azam Khan gets no national recognition in his lifetime.

Azam Khan’s songs will outlive all of our generations and next hundreds of generations to come. The legends of Azam Khan the father of Bangladesh rock scene will never die. The singer Azam Khan died many years ago, some times in late 70s. The man who was very uncomfortable carrying the body so long just gave away.

I am not too sad at the departure of the legend. I am sad at his sufferings of last decades. And I am happy that the new generations, even a 12 year old kid embraced Azam Khan song exactly the way his/ her dad- grand dad did.

Long Live Azam Khan.

Guest Post By Khaled Gazi

BMW = Black money whitening
DNA = Dur niti agomon
OPP = One party parliament
TIB = Thank you India for B’desh (& corruption)
ACC = Awami corruption commission
IJK = Independent-judiciary killing
CHT = Chittagong hoi-choi treaty
RAB = Remand All BNP supporters