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DAWN - Opinion; December 19, 2005

December 19, 2005

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Militancy in Bangladesh

By Tanvir Ahmad Khan


FULL 34 years ago, the month of December witnessed the bloody death of a state that was to provide a shared homeland at least to the Muslim majority areas of a vast subcontinent. The implications of this traumatic parting of ways were of fundamental import and neither of the two sovereign states that replaced a single, if two-part, dreamland can be considered to have fully come to terms with them.

In each case, there was the challenge of creating afresh the raison d’etre of a new nation state. It was a painful process as it superseded the dominant narrative of religion-based nationhood (‘millat’) worked out in hundreds of years. What was one to make of the reasons that had brought the two wings together in the first place?

In Pakistan, the pain of this severance has largely been mitigated through collective amnesia. When reminded of it, the elite takes shelter in the over-simplification provided by the Indian military intervention of 1971. Alternatively, there is the facile assertion that the sovereignty of Bangladesh reaffirms the two-nation theory. If the fact that Muslims in India add up to the same numbers as in Pakistan or Bangladesh tortures such claims, it is best to leave it out of the discourse. From time to time, some individuals still burdened with the memory of the 24 years of united Pakistan speak of the lessons not learnt, of past mistakes being repeated and of the relevance of history to the situation today. Once again, the best way is to airbrush such pessimists out of the picture.

In Bangladesh, the task of defining the new state was no less difficult, no less complex. At one level, it needed nothing more than repudiating Pakistan. There was abundant evidence that East Pakistan had been discriminated against politically, economically and culturally from the very beginning. What happened in it after Yahya Khan unleashed his army on it could be documented in volume after volume of the history of the liberation struggle. A shared myth of suffering doubtless helped the task of nation-building.

I took up the post of Pakistan’s third ambassador to independent Bangladesh in early 1982 and then lived through the unforgettable ethos of the months of March and December four times. A poet would perhaps say that these were the cruellest months that mixed memory with regret. In these four years I talked with empathy and humility to hundreds of men and women about why and how they took up arms against a state in the creation of which they had played a major role. Like all accounts of national liberation, there were variants depending upon how the narrator arranged his light and shade. Projection into future would also highlight different visions. A tragic sequence of post-independence events had already created uncertainties of self-definition. United Pakistan had lasted a mere 24 years but there was a history that began with Bakhtiar Khilji in 1301, was heavily underscored by 1757 and then reinforced in 1906. The linkage with Pakistan was cut but the one with Islam was independent of it. Political conflict with Islamabad had given nationalism a violent, secular temper but the soul also yearned for a great heritage of quietist, contemplative Islam. Inevitably, there was the quest for a new synthesis.

Recent acts of terror, particularly the arrival on the scene of the suicide bomber — something that is utterly incompatible with my understanding of Islam in Bengal — fills me with the fear that this quest stands in danger of going awry. Somewhere along the line, there has been a breach of communication, a grave disconnect in the perception of the national mission. Innocent lives were lost in suicide attacks on December 8 and earlier in November. Bangladeshi judges feel that there is a planned attempt to intimidate the judiciary as they were the special targets.

The outrageous grenade attack on an Awami League rally in Dhaka on August 21, 2004, fuels suspicion of a connection between militants and some rightwing partners of Begum Khaleda Zia. Then some hidden hand demonstrated its potential for disruption by exploding low-calibre explosives in all but one districts of Bangladesh. It is being debated if the real target is democracy itself as the next general election is not all that far away. Meanwhile, the air is thick with allegations and counter allegations by mainstream parties. It simply does not stand to reason that any of them could be complicit in this wanton terrorism.

The advent and progress of Islam in Bengal is no less fascinating than in Malaysia and Indonesia. Long before Bakhtiar Khilji and also Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, the first ruler to create a kingdom with the name ‘Bongala’ — the land of Bengalees—- half a century later in 1350, there were Arab and convert settlements on the coast in the 9th century. There were trade links with the caliphate of Harun-ur-Rashid. The Muslim population swelled in Bongala with rapid conversions to Islam as, indeed, with the influx of Muslim settlers drawn to a prosperous land.

The state stayed out of proselytizing the local people but the Sufis and dervishes created a veritable social revolution by liberating the converts from the shackles of a rigid caste system. The Sufis offered a tolerant, inclusive and syncretic blend of old traditions and a new faith. Occasionally, the envelope of syncretism was pushed too far, as in the Yoga-Qalandar cult precipitating a backlash of the Shariat. For most of the time, folk literature and music celebrated different faiths but drew upon mixed symbols.

The Islamic challenge was a catalyst in the emergence of major reform movements in Hinduism. The defeat of Sirajuddowla in 1757 dramatically changed the balance of forces. The failed struggle of 1857 tilted it heavily against the Muslims. Eventually it led to competitive revivalism and an increasing differentiation between the two communities. By 1870, the reawakened Bengali Hindu was beginning to speak of Hindu Raj.

On their part, the Bengali Muslims had intensified their identification with their co-religionists elsewhere in the subcontinent. A cultural body called the Pakistan Renaissance Society emerged in Kolkata in 1942 followed by the Purba Pakistan Sahitya Sangsad in Dhaka. When short-sighted West Pakistanis, often members of the civil or military bureaucracy, jeered at Bengali Muslims being manipulated by the Hindu minority, they were betraying a colossal and, perhaps, a wilful ignorance of the history of the region.

The opportunistic use of Islam to suppress the legitimate aspirations of East Pakistan caused a major dilemma for Muslim Bengal. Khondokar Mushtaque once talked to me at great length about the difficulties faced in cobbling an extraordinary anti-Pakistan coalition with India. The gruesome circumstances in which this struggle reached its conclusion further disturbed the internal balance in the Awami League, an umbrella organization, between extreme secularists and more moderate elements sensitive to Muslim longings. The secular excesses of the first few months after secession from Pakistan also widened the gap between the Awami League and Muslim forces which were now regrouping everywhere.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not get enough time to create a new synthesis. As his retreat into the one party state and the conceptual framework of BAKSAL showed, he found it hard even to practise democratic pluralism. After his assassination, General Ziaur Rahman tried bravely to complete the task of defining the identity of the new nation by reconciling such polarities as secularism vs Islam, freedom fighters vs the rest, socialism vs free enterprise but he, too, was murdered in 1981.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the political party he created is still committed to the same agenda. President General Hussain Mohammad Ershad perhaps slightly readjusted the internal emphasis on the contending polarities but brought no radical new vision to bear on the tangled politics of the country. A deep distrust of India and the suspicion that the indigenous secularist is somehow acquiescent in Indian hegemony vitiates the task.

Paradoxically, the break with Pakistan had re-energized Islam. Pakistan’s loss has been Islam’s gain. It could now return to its native tradition nurtured over centuries. It was also a self-conscious reassertion of Muslim identity which was briefly under siege after December 1971. As Bangladesh sought links with the Arab-Islamic world, substantial assistance flowed in for Islamic activities, particularly the rehabilitation and expansion of the madressahs. A long time ago, Maulana Hamid Danishmand had carried out the instructions of the much-loved saint of Islam, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhandi (1564-1624) and founded a famous madressah at Burdawan to preserve the essence of the message in the midst of its inevitable assimilation in the local traditions of centuries. In the mid-1980, the madressahs felt called upon to perform the same purpose.

As I write these words on December 16, 2005, I am perplexed by the dynamic behind the Bangladesh bombings. Is it that the madressah education has somehow got perverted? There are militant Islamist groups such as the outlawed JMB, the Jagrato Muslim Janata (JMJB) and the Harkat al Jihad (HuJ). Alternatively, is it a deep disillusionment with the mainstream political parties which try to paralyse one another through prolonged boycotts of the Jatyia Sangsad, the national parliament that is driving some groups to try to scuttle the entire democratic process? Could it be an ill-conceived protest against an inequitable distribution of wealth created during the resurgence of the economy? Is it a canker produced only by an internal malaise or is there any external hand at work?

There is a proliferation of small arms and Bangladesh faces the challenge of protecting itself from intrusions by more than a dozen militias battling the union government of New Delhi in the neighbouring Indian states.

Be it as it may, the problem of violence will have to be resolved through good governance anchored in national democratic institutions. Spells of authoritarian centralization in Bangladesh were failures in the past and have little chance of success in the future.

The genius of the people favours pluralism and diversity. It is in a cacophony of strident voices that the roots of the mindless rage behind the recent attacks will have to be identified and dealt with.

The chaos of democracy is best disciplined if the contenders for power can arrive at a shared set of rules. The new threat of violence should concentrate the minds of the mainstream parties, including Jamaat-i-Islami, on the simple fact that they can purge this threat from the body politic only through a joint, consensual approach.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

State of human rights

By Anwer Mooraj


THE Karachi chapter of the English Speaking Union of Pakistan was inaugurated over 40 years ago, presumably to further the spread of English. But for some inexplicable reason it ended up as the outdoor relief department of the foreign diplomatic corps.

Members of this elite union watched with weary resignation, as a succession of ambassadors, consuls general and other visiting firemen were invited over the years to use the ESUP platform to do a bit of political marketing.

Listening to these speakers one got the distinct impression that Pakistan was not only highly rated in the comity of nations, but that Ian Botham’s quip about Pakistan being the sort of place to which a man should send his mother-in-law was in very bad taste. Diplomats are trained not to offend host countries, and so issues like child labour, tribal justice and killing in the name of honour are given a wide berth.

Ambassadors won’t touch them with a barge pole. Instead they praise the Pakistani sense of hospitality, focus on the high industrial growth rate by tossing glowing statistics into the air and commend Pakistan for becoming America’s front line state in the war on terror. It is all very civilized, friendly and...boring.

Occasionally, the ESUP president invites a speaker who manages to jolt the audience out of its stupor. One such person who performed this rare feat recently was Asma Jehangir, lawyer and activist, who heads the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. This is a courageous and determined woman in whose office a mother shot her own daughter to uphold what is commonly referred to as the family honour. In 60 minutes she chronicled man’s inhumanity to man and demolished many of the hallowed myths that the government is propagating about the virtues of enlightened moderation.

Each offence and official transgression was loaded with moment and simmering undertones. It was in many ways a distillation of the numerous injustices that have collectively contributed to the harsh image foreigners have of this country. While many of these stem from the male attitude towards members of the opposite sex, there are other issues that are not necessarily associated with crimes against women, like the unspecified number of students that have recently disappeared from Balochistan, the unspecified number of people who have simply vanished from the tiny hamlets of Gilgit, and the number of women and children who have been killed in north and south Waziristan in the counter-terrorism measures adopted by the government.

The latest episode, which has all the ingredients of an Earle Stanley Gardner thriller, and could be entitled ‘The case of the missing female suicide bombers’ has certainly pricked the imaginative curiosity of human rights watchers. Two Pakistani sisters from Islamabad just vanished into thin air. A habeas corpus petition was filed on behalf of the father of the alleged bombers, as has been done in numerous other cases where victims were in the custody of intelligence agencies. The spokesmen of the government at first maintained a stony silence and then stated they had absolutely no knowledge of the whereabouts of the two girls. For all practical purposes the girls never existed.

A number of vignettes and wry observations followed. The government has no proper records of the number of women who get raped in this country because many cases are filed under the heading ‘Abduction.’ Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto didn’t exactly bend over backwards to defend the rights of their citizens and end gender bias. But when there was a civilian president in harness the courts were freer to act than now. One has to only look at the composition of the cabinet to realize what the culture of immunity means. Muslim women in India have fewer rights than Muslim women in Pakistan.

The Mukhtaran Mai case is, if one can borrow a phrase from Alice in Wonderland, becoming curiouser and curiouser. Though the prime minister, the governor of the Punjab and Nilofer Bakhtiar had trekked to the poor woman’s modest hovel and placed a hand on her head and said that the government would see to it that justice would be done, Mukhtaran Mai has now been told that she will get justice if she behaves herself. What is that supposed to mean?

Regrettably, in spite of the fact that Asma Jahangir has faced numerous death threats, and been physically beaten, there is a lobby consisting of misguided middle class women that is accusing this brave woman of deliberately projecting an unfavourable image of this country abroad. Before they spread their venom they should read a report entitled ‘Pakistan’s moderates are beaten in public’ published in The International Herald Tribune on June 15 and carries a Lahore date line. A few excerpts follow.

‘Strip her in public.’ As one of the police officers said, these were the orders issued by their bosses. The police beat the woman with batons in the full glare of the news media... The ritual public humiliation over, she and others - some bloodied - were dragged screaming and protesting to police vans and taken away to police stations.

‘This didn’t happen to some unknown student or impoverished villager. This happened to Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country’s largest such nongovernmental group. The setting: a glitzy thoroughfare in Lahore’s up market Gulberg neighbourhood. The crime: attempting to organize a symbolic mixed-gender mini-marathon on May 14.

“The stated aim of the marathon was to highlight violence against women and to promote ‘enlightened moderation’ — a reference to President Pervez Musharraf’s constant refrain describing the Pakistani military’s ostensible shift from state-sponsored Islamist militancy and religious orthodoxy to something else (just what is not entirely clear).

“Others arrested included Hina Jilani, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and 40 others, this writer included (an observer, not a runner — too many cigarettes). The police, faced with embarrassing media coverage, released us a few hours later.

“The marathon was organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and affiliated nongovernmental organizations in the light of recent “marathon politics” in Pakistan. Until early April, it was government policy to encourage sporting events for women, so Punjab province organized a series of marathons in which men and women could compete. The brief experiment ended abruptly on April 3, when 900 activists of the Islamist alliance, the Muttaheda Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA — which was effectively created as a serious political force by Musharraf and is backed by the military - attacked the participants of a race in the town of Gujranwala.

“According to a government statement at the time, the MMA activists were armed with firearms, batons and Molotov cocktails. Yet within days the activists were released without charge and Musharraf’s government had reversed its policy of allowing mixed-gender sporting activities in public.

“The public beating of Pakistan’s most high-profile human rights defenders highlights what most Pakistanis have known all along: ‘Enlightened moderation’ is a hoax perpetrated by Musharraf for international consumption. What is known in Pakistan as the ‘mullah-military alliance’ remains deeply rooted, and the Pakistani military and Musharraf continue to view ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ forces in politics and society as their principal adversaries.

“The reason is simple: Democracy, human rights and meaningful civil liberties are anathema to a hyper militarized state. Pakistan’s voters consistently vote overwhelmingly for moderate, secular-oriented parties and reject religious extremists, so the military must rely on the most retrogressive elements in society to preserve its hold on power. Jahangir and others were beaten because they tried — in a symbolic but crucial way — to challenge the mullah-military alliance on the streets of Lahore.

“In Washington and London, Musharraf presents himself as the face of enlightenment; in Pakistan there is another face. The Bush administration, Musharraf’s chief backer, should realize that its friend in the war on terror came to power in a coup, continues to hold office without facing Pakistani voters, refuses to schedule a vote, and bans women from running in mixed-gender races. Those who stand for the values of human rights and democracy that the Bush administration calls universal are seen as the enemy within and are beaten on the streets.”

A costly intervention By Martin Woollacott

When the US stumbled out of Vietnam 30 years ago, a void seemed to open up for a world which, for good or ill, had become used to a controlling American hand.

The US had suffered a great defeat, in part self-inflicted, in the process betraying an ally, and American will and rationality had been drawn down to the lowest levels. Yet the consequences for the region where the war had been waged were surprisingly limited. The dominoes did not fall, or rather, when they eventually did, they fell the other way as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were to some degree absorbed back into the global system of which America is still the capstone.

In the Middle East, the consequences of almost any imaginable outcome in Iraq — from a similar defeat all along the spectrum to some kind of qualified success — are likely to be much more radical. As Iraq passes another so-called “milestone” this week, in the shape of parliamentary elections, certain similarities with the last years in Vietnam are evident.

The arguments over the real strength of the insurgency echo the claims and counterclaims over the Tet offensive, and the build-up of Iraqi forces stands in for Vietnamization. Which way these similarities point is unclear. An unmitigated defeat — withdrawal followed by immediate chaos — would sweep the chessboard, tilting America into a period of perplexity and angry isolationism, and endangering the regimes it has supported, from Israel to Egypt. An outcome somewhere between success and failure would lead to a long endgame, something like the period between the withdrawal of US troops in Vietnam in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975 but not necessarily with the same kind of result.

But what can be hazarded even in a best case is that the US is likely to be less engaged in the region in the future than in the past. That runs against the logic of the war on terror, and against the logic of the western world’s interest in the critical energy-producing countries, as well as being the opposite of the Bush administration’s idea of America as the conductor of a grand democratic Middle Eastern orchestra.

But the normal results of a traumatic and costly intervention almost certainly will still apply, in a more cautious approach and in disillusion both with the supposed beneficiaries of American policy and with the reluctant European allies who either helped only a little or not at all.

At a deeper level, the social and political limits to America’s raising, maintaining and employment of its military power have been well demonstrated in the past two years. The US will not be throwing its armies around again in the Middle East any time soon. Its reputation has suffered and its diplomacy has been damaged not only by Iraq but by its failure to do much more than trail after Ariel Sharon on Israel and Palestine.

Its inability to influence Israel can be seen as a special case of its inability to shape events more generally in the region. So the country that has been the most important outside force in the Middle East for the past 50 years and that has been unchallenged there by any other outside power since the fall of the Soviet Union could well be less interested and almost certainly will be less effective in the region in the future.

Iraq, however the war ends, could turn out to be just part of the story of how the long era of Middle Eastern dependency may finally be drawing to a close. This is a region which has notoriously lagged behind in the emancipation from western power that in India and China, in particular, is so well advanced. Indeed the growing influence of those two nations is shaping the Middle East as they move to strike long-term bargains with countries including Iran, which can supply their energy needs. A partially revived Russia also has some revived reach.

None of these outsiders of course can aspire even in the longer run to anything like an “American” position in the Middle East. Instead, their needs are strengthening the position of energy-rich countries in the region as well as affecting the position of those without such resources. The way in which Iran, for example, has been able simultaneously to work to extend its influence in Iraq, to do business with India and China, and to keep open its nuclear option shows how its room for manoeuvre has been widened.

Europe, setting its Middle East compass by Washington, is also going to find its policies in disarray. Some European countries are in Iraq without having the right to be consulted on the way that that effort has been conducted, either militarily or politically. Much of the European strategy for dealing with its own internal Muslim problems and for dealing with the region rests on the Turkish candidacy for the EU. Yet not much thought seems to have been given to the critical policy decisions, about Iraq in particular, that will have to be made by Turkey during the long waiting period for membership.

Europe’s policy on Palestine is running into the sand as Sharon seeks to bury in that same material any chance of a viable two-state solution. Finally, the European effort to engage Iran and steer it away from nuclear weapons development has been unsuccessful so far, possibly because we cannot demonstrate enough distance from the Americans or possibly because the object is unachievable. The European assumption that its successes in the Middle East will come from glossing and nuancing American policies is almost bound to be upset in coming years.

If the Middle East is in the process of shaking off outside control, the prospects are both daunting and hopeful. The local powers — Turkey, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq itself, not to mention Israel — have little experience of working together as truly independent actors. Their alliances and feuds have in the past all been shaped by western and Soviet power, by European wealth, by structures imposed on the Middle East by outsiders.

They clearly have a common interest in containing Sunni extremism. But in the past outside support has, paradoxically, allowed them to pursue their differences rather than to consult those common interests except rhetorically. If the Middle East has a good future, it rests with the forces that can capture the caliphate. That is not the fantastical reconstruction of a single politically and religiously uniform entity embracing all Muslim lands which entrances extremists, but the metaphor representing the emancipation of diverse but cooperating states which America’s relaxing grasp on the region may now make possible. —Dawn/Guardian Service



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005