Monday, December 22, 2014

Women’s micro-credit caught in culture of violence, repression


The silent revolution of women’s empowerment through micro-finance is caught in the culture of violence and repression in a patriarchal society.

Despite 90 per cent of the total 30 million loan borrowers are rural women, they have experienced social conflicts, which hinders them from decision-making process within the family and society, said Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, Chairman, Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), at a seminar. The seminar was organised jointly by National Caucus for Women’s Economic Empowerment in the capital Dhaka.

He said that there are incidents that women have delayed in repayment of their regular instalments due to social conflicts, but supervision and monitoring have stopped them short of becoming a defaulter, he said.

The microfinance which was experimented in Bangladesh have mesmerised the world, the responsibility also lies with Bangladesh amend the problems of micro-finance which immensely empowered women and the society globally.

He insisted that the NGOs and private organisations should increase the limit of credit to women borrowers from Taka few thousand to Tk three to Tk five lakh. PKSF has provided loans from Tk five to Tk 10 lakh and have yielded positive result on employment generation, he said.

Dr Ahmad urged all to shun the word ‘micro’ as it seriously shrinks the mindset of the NGO engaged in microfinance to approve small loans, especially to women.

He however, agrees with others that microfinance has definitely helped rural people to cross the threshold of poverty line and graduate to lower and middle-class society. Crossing the thick line of poverty is obviously slow, but according to international study of 2007-2008, empowerment of underprivileged has enabled 10 per cent of the landless, hard crore poor and vulnerable population to shed poverty and blessed by quality of life, he remarked.

Hosne Ara Khan, Member Secretary of the caucus, in her keynote paper said the women do not have control over the loan, not to speak of income from the microfinance. Bereft of cash, it cast shadows over her power, dignity and prestige, a vision which was brief.

A woman endures double burden compared to their male partners. Women have no way to refuse responsibility of household chores, take care of the family and work for the project for which she took modest loan, she said.

If a woman in a family compromise with her responsibilities, the society takes a toll on her. She is subjected to repression, cruelty, and suffer mental and physical torture, Hosne Ara remarked.

Nevertheless, a visible women population who are beneficiaries of microfinance were elected to local government position against male contestants, many of them have been included as members of the social organisations committees, which provide hopes that women are able to establish their rights by availing offers of the community services agencies, she said.

Hosne Ara also chief of USHA claimed that the Microcredit Regulatory Authority (MRA) has accepted seven recommendations out of 22, which she claims would be beneficial in ensuring harmony, coordination and supervision of the microfinance agencies.

Shaheen Anam, chief of Manusher Jonno Foundation, said that studies show women’s ‘unaccounted income’ was three times higher from the women workers in regular jobs.
She lamented that 10 per cent of the women beneficiaries of microfinance have control over their income and have a say in the family and society.

Dr Sadika Halim, chair of the caucus said her network and PKSF are jointly engaged in developing microfinance policy and home rules for loan recipient.

She said male-headed households or male counterpart who is responsible for repression on women is not eligible for microfinance. So are those males who have wedded a child bride, or a polygamist, or have received dowry through coercion are barred from loans, the former Right to Information Commissioner said.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is an awarding winning reporter and writes on conflicts, ethnicity and media rights

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Gen Zia betrayed Col Taher?

JSD was not ready for Nov 7 Sepoy Mutiny


The Biplobi Sainik Sangstha (Revolutionary Sepoy’s Organisation) was never heard of in early 1970s. The clandestine organisation’s hard-core members were mostly Junior and Non-Commissioned Officers of Bangladesh Army. The recruits of the secret group were loyal to dismissed Maj Mohammad Abdul Jalil, Commander of Sector 9 of Mukti Bahini.

The secret group began its journey on January 1, 1973 at the staff quarters of Havildar Bari of Armoured Corps. The members were drawn from serving Junior and Non-Commissioned Officers. On the founding day of the ‘Bangladesh Revolutionary and Suicide Commando Force’ they took solemn oath by touching the Holy Qur’an.

The underground Biplobi Sainik Sangstha’s members held secret meetings at Ahsanullah Hall of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The political wisdom, mission and visions of the revolution were tutored by Sirajul Alam Khan, political theorist and founder of the Jatiya Samjtantrik Dal (JSD) and Dr Akhlaqur Rahman, an economist.

Days after Maj Jalil was imprisoned on March 17, 1974, he send secret message to the underground organisation’s leader Corporal Altaf Hossain to contact Col Abu Taher (Bir Uttam) and seek directives from the former commander of Sector 11.

Corporal Hossain was the key person to organise the soldiers in various cantonments and motivate them to join the revolution.

On June 20, 1974, a secret meeting presided by Col Taher was organised at Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan’s residence at Elephant Road. The retired Sector Commander told the dedicated group that his friend Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, who was Deputy Chief of Army Staff has expressed solidarity with the group and will support their revolution.

The statement has raised the morale of the junior officers. Since then the activities of the Revolutionary Commando Force were held openly.

On the other side, most soldiers of Sector 11 and loyal to Taher joined ‘Biplobi Sainik Sangstha’ also many soldiers in Comilla Cantonment where he (Taher) once served as Commanding Officer also joined the group. He advocated for ‘People’s Army’ and through ‘class struggle’ drew political support of the soldiers.

Soon the Revolutionary Commando Force and other smaller groups among the soldiers merged into Biplobi Sainik Sangstha, after the crisis created following the assassination of the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a military putsch.

Taher knew his limitation and was not a protagonist of the revolution. He decided to use Zia’s image among the soldiers to expedite the revolution. In a bid to garner more support of the soldiers he included in the Sainik Sangstha a 12-point demands for the realisation of 18 months of unpaid wages of repatriated soldiers from Pakistan. This was debated by former Mukti Bahini soldiers and was not discussed at the high command of the JSD.

Taher also formed strategic alliance with the pro-Peking (now Beijing) left groups and parties who participated in the Liberation War to form liberated areas in rural regions, so that the radical groups can create pressure on the capital Dhaka.

JSD radical political philosophy was similar to the Sainik Sangstha revolution to overthrow the autocratic regime to establish a pro-people, farmers, soldiers, workers and students national government.

On November 6, JSD party forum held an emergency standing committee meeting at a residence in Kalabagan. The meeting was attended by Sirajul Alam Khan, Aklaqur Rahman, Monirul Islam, Hasanul Haque Inu and Khair Ejaz Masud and others, writes Mohiuddin Ahmed in his recent book “Jashoder Utthan Poton: Osthir Somoyer Rajniti, Protoma Prokashon.

The agenda for discussion was to organise an indefinite shut down (hartal). A show down of strength was planned at Paltan Maidan on November 9. JSD leaders expected that thousands of industrial workers from Adamjee, Tejgaon and Tongi would participate and block the capital Dhaka for days, until the government collapse and form a national government with all parties, minus the BAKSAL leadership. Unfortunately the plan was abandoned, due to abrupt Sepoy Mutiny.

While the meeting was in progress, Taher walked in and sat to listen to the discussion. Surprisingly the Sepoy Mutiny was not in the agenda. Possibly the key leaders had no knowledge that a mutiny was brewing.

After a while, a young military officer in civilian dress barged into the meeting room, without causing any alarm among the key leaders sitting there. He whispered in the ears of Taher and handed over to him two small pieces of papers.

Once the officer departed, Taher drew the attention of the meeting and read out one message which came from Gen Zia. Which reads: “I am interned, I can’t take the lead. My men are there. If you take the lead, my men will join you.”

Those present at the meeting have never met Zia and does not know him. The first reaction came from Akhlaqur Rahman, who refused to accept Gen Zia as their leader. All the leaders had one question, whether Zia should be trusted? Taher promptly responded and confidently said, “If you trust me, then you can also trust Zia. He will be under my feet.”

He also informed the meeting that he has instructed the Sainik Sangstha to begin the revolution. Immediately all the members in the room were baffled by the announcement. The meeting tried to influence Taher to withdraw the call for mutiny. He said it was impossible to reach the decision as the communication is a one-way traffic.

The second message was from the command centre of the soldiers planning the mutiny at midnight following November 6. It reads: “Khaled Mussaraf men are moving fast. The iron is too hot. It is time to hit.”

Taher took the floor and said like what happened in the Bolshevik Revolution – Tonight or never. Sirajul Alam Khan did not say yes or no to the plan. The leaders continued to pursue Taher and frustrated the meeting abruptly ended without any plan, Mohiuddin writes.

F Rahman Hall at Dhaka University was converted into a clandestine command centre for the November 7 Sepoy Mutiny led by Col Abu Taher, commander of Gono Bahni (People’s Army).

A nervous mutineer Subedar Mehboob rang the shot an hour early than determined at 1 O’clock. The single shot at midnight from a rifle, triggered the revolution of soldiers. Thousands of soldiers joined the mutiny broke the military armoury to loot weapons and boarded trucks and jeeps and took control of strategic points.

A contingent rushed to Gen Zia’s residence to free him from house-arrest in Dhaka Cantonment hours after Maj Khaled Musharraf's coup d'etat on November 3. Taher drove in a military jeep with few JSD leaders and met Zia. “You have saved the nation,” he admired Taher amidst cheering soldiers.

Zia asked Taher of the whereabouts of Sirajul Alam Khan. It was presumed that Zia wanted to meet the top leaders of JSD, which never happened.

Since the meeting held on the eve of November 7, Sirajul Alam Khan, Akhlaqur Rahman and many senior leaders opted to maintain low profile. Possibly they believed that the mutiny would fail, and it failed.

Mohiuddin in his book writes that despite request by Taher, Zia refused to go to the radio station on an excuse that his statement could be recorded and broadcast. At the radio station Shamsuddin Ahmed, a young Turk of the Gana Bahini read out a statement which announced the Sepoy Mutiny. Unfortunately, the announcer did not mention the name of Taher or other JSD leaders or even his name.

On November 23, 1975, Zia also ordered the arrest of JSD leaders. A large police contingent surrounded the house of Col Taher's brother Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan and took him to the police control room.

When Col Taher heard about his brother’s arrest, he rang Gen Zia but was told that he was not available. Instead Maj Gen HM Ershad, the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator, spoke with him. Ershad said it was a police matter and they knew nothing about it, writes Talukder Maniruzzaman in “Bangladesh in 1976: Struggle for Survival as an Independent State,” published in Asian Survey in February 1977.

The following day Taher was arrested 16 days after freeing Ziaur Rahman and was taken to Dhaka Central Jail. He was accused of 'instigating indiscipline' in the army and attempting to expand the original mutiny of November 7, 1975 towards a goal of "socialist revolution" and to kill some of the army officers.

Abu Taher's Last Testament: Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution by Lawrence Lifschultz published in Economic and Political Weekly, India in August 1977: “It became very clear to me that a new conspiracy had taken control of those we had brought to power on November 7 in 1975.”

“On November 24, 1975, I was surrounded by a large contingent of police. The police officer asked me to accompany him for discussion with Zia. I said I was surprised and I asked him why there was need of a police guard for me to go to Zia. Anyway they put me in a jeep and drove me straight to this jail. This is how I was put inside this jail by those traitors who I saved and brought to power.”

“In our history, there is only one example of such treachery. It was the treachery of Mir Zafar who betrayed the people of Bangladesh and the subcontinent and led us into slavery for a period of 200 years. Fortunately for us it is not 1757. It is 1976 and we have revolutionary soldiers and a revolutionary people who will destroy the conspiracy of traitors like Ziaur Rahman,” the statement concluded.

The Supreme Court has recently described the execution of Taher through an order of a military tribunal in 1976 as ‘outright murder’. It says the hanging of Taher was ‘illegal’ and a case of ‘cold blooded assassination’.

Saleem Samnad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. Email <>

Saturday, August 09, 2014

New broadcasting policy neither “restrictive” nor “protective”


Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), an umbrella of countrywide journalist’s union on Saturday observed that the new policy was neither “restrictive” nor “protective”, but did not hesitate to express their discontentment over the new broadcasting policy announced last week.

The media professional leaders urged the government to institute an independent broadcasting commission at the soonest.

Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, president of BFUJ told a crowded press conference at Jatiya Press Club yesterday demanded of the government to announce a deadline for establishment of broadcasting commission and which will develop a proactive broadcasting policy with the stakeholders.

The BFUJ president flanked by Abdul Jalil Bhuiyan, secretary general, Khairuzzaman Kamal, treasurer and others described that the broadcasting policy which was gazetted last Wednesday was an outcome of the demand of the BFUJ.

He told a journalist that the policy will bring discipline within the vibrant electronic media. Bulbul understands that further discussion will reduce the crucial issues missing in the policy.

Bulbul, CEO of Boishaki Television remarked that the government is taking a dangerous path and unacceptable which is likely to be deemed as interference of independence of editorial policy of individual television channels.

BFUJ is critical of a section of the policy which says that all TV channels will have to develop Charter of Duties and Editorial Policy individually. The president warned that such advise will jeopardise the harmony in the electronic media, instead he urged that the such activity should be made by the commission.

BFUJ concern is with formation of enquiry committees. The leaders said the policy does not state the criteria of the members of the committee. The policy also does not state in how many days the probe body would be formed. Also no deadline has been mentioned for the probe committee to submit their report.

Regarding the blanket ban on broadcast of news/views critical of officers of the armed forces and law enforcing agencies, BFUJ said it is contradiction to the Right to Information Act. The information act allows media to report/publish issues of officers indulged in crime against humanity and corruption.

Bulbul, who is also a member of the drafting committee of the policy categorically said that the policy does not restricts nor says to control the most popular prime time talk shows.

He alleged that certain quarters to reap political mileage is misinterpreting that talks-shows would be controlled and TV channels would be punished for broadcast.

He regretted that the policy does not mention the hundreds of journalists, production team and technical staffs who give effort to keep the broadcast lively.

BFUJ expected that the policy provide transparency on issuance of licenses to broadcast media, but the policy does have any reflection on the multi-million taka investment in the electronic media industry, Bulbul lamented.

However, the journalist’s body expects that the relevant authority will address the concerns of BFUJ on their reservations regarding the weakness of the policy.

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA) and a journalist with the Daily Observer.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Begum on the Backfoot: Controversial parliamentary election plunges Bangladesh into fresh political uncertainty


There was something amiss about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina celebrating the Awami League's landslide victory-it took 232 of 300 seats-in the January 5 elections to Parliament. For starters, it was a one-sided contest; the opposition alliance of 18 parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the polls. In Dhaka a day after the results, Hasina was both jubilant and defiant. She dismissed critics who questioned the legitimacy of the polls held amid boycott and bloodshed-24 people were killed on polling day. The next day, she asked her main political rival Begum Khaleda Zia to "shut up and negotiate" an end to the country's political paralysis.

Hasina will find it harder to deal with international opinion. The US said the elections lacked credibility and called for fresh polls. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticised the Awami League and BNP and urged them to resume meaningful dialogue. Britain and Canada expressed dismay that candidates were elected unopposed on more than half of the 300 seats. The estimated 40 per cent voter turnout was the lowest in the country's ten elections. Even Hasina's longtime regional supporter, India, issued a guarded statement, terming the polls a "constitutional requirement" and an "internal process of Bangladesh".

Imtiaz Ahmed, a political scientist at the University of Dhaka, believes fresh polls are critical to satisfy the international donors. "Resource-starved Bangladesh needs annual aid of nearly $3 billion for poverty reduction and development projects," he says.

The loss of international credibility is just one of the worries for Hasina. The crisis caused by the political impasse is expected to intensify after her government's five-year term expires on January 24. Violence that has been unleashed by BNP since the elections were called in November threatens to engulf the entire economy. Sporadic incidents of violence continue. A blockade has crippled highway and railway transport, work and education. Economic activity has ground to a halt and Bangladesh's main export earner, the garment sector which employs nearly six million people, has been severely affected. Factories are running under capacity as 75 days of strikes have disrupted raw material supplies and delivery of finished goods.

Inflation rose by about 0.2 percentage point to touch 7.35 per cent in December last year as a direct result of the violence. "I am eagerly waiting for the deadlock to end. If it doesn't happen, I will be forced to cut costs for my survival," says Nasiruddin Biswas, chairman of Nasir Group of Industries, one of Bangladesh's largest industrial conglomerates valued at $256 million.

Hasina's government has blamed the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), which has long been an ally of Khaleda Zia's BNP, for the terror campaign and militancy in Bangladesh. In 2010, her government began trials of jei leaders who were accused of participating in a genocide that left more than a million Bangladeshis dead during the 1971 war of liberation. On December 13, senior jei leader Abdul Quader Molla was hanged after being sentenced by a war crimes court. In August, the Supreme Court declared jei illegal and banned it from contesting elections.

Political analysts believe Hasina is unlikely to call fresh polls before the war crime trials are completed next year. Election boycotts have been an important tool in Bangladesh's Battle of the Begums. Khaleda Zia boycotted the 1988 general elections held under the autocratic rule of General Husain Muhammad Ershad. Sheikh Hasina boycotted the 1996 elections when Khaleda Zia was prime minister. Khaleda announced a boycott of the 2014 elections in November after the Hasina government rejected her proposal for a neutral caretaker government to supervise the polls. Since then, more than 120 people have been killed and over 900 buses torched. A disturbing trend has been attacks by suspected jei extremists on the minority Hindu community, which makes up about 10 per cent of the country's 180 million population. Attacks, and looting, have been reported from Satkhira, Dinajpur and Jessore districts, forcing thousands of Hindus to flee their homes for temporary shelters.

At her January 6 press conference, Hasina left the door open for dialogue. And Khaleda Zia agreed. "There is no solution other than talks," she told BBC. But Khaleda insists that the dialogue should be held before the government's current term ends. She has also laid other preconditions, including that she be freed from unofficial house arrest. It is now Hasina's move to make. The world is watching. 

First published in India Today magazine, January 10, 2014

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA) for trendsetting journalism, he contributes for India Today, The Week, Outlook magazines in India and Karachi, Pakistan based Southasia magazine. You can follow her on Twitter - @saleemsamad

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Bangladesh: Politics of fury

Elections may not put an end to the political upheaval in Dhaka


On January 5, Bangladesh will hold elections to 300 seats in Jatiyo Sangshad, its parliament. But, unlike in the past, there is no excitement in the air. With the opposition staying away from the polls, as many as 153 candidates have been elected unopposed. The ruling Awami League is sure to bag majority, as 127 of the candidates belong to the party. Fear of political violence is likely to deter voters from casting their ballots.

Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of Sujon, an NGO that advocates good governance, calls the election a farce. In December, the opposition, which consists of 18 parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), decided to boycott the polls, after its demands for a non-party caretaker government to supervise “a free, fair and credible election” were rejected by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The opposition and Hasina had been at loggerheads over the election for several months. The rift deepened on December 13, when Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of BNP's ally Jamaat-e-Islami, was executed for atrocities committed during the country's liberation struggle in 1971. Claiming that Hasina was bent on eliminating opponents, the JeI unleashed a violent campaign against the government.

The JeI's opponents say its fundamentalist ideology has no place in a secular country like Bangladesh. The country's supreme court, too, echoed the view on August 1, when it ruled that the JeI's registration as a political party was illegal. Following the verdict, the election commission banned the party from contesting the January 5 polls. Party leaders, however, have vowed to carry on their campaign, saying Mollah's trial was politically motivated.

But experts say the JeI is a spent force. According to Prof. Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah of Dhaka University, the party's struggle is meaningless, as it cannot hope to hold any public office in the near future. He also said that, unlike what Hasina had been saying, the election would be “exclusive, not inclusive”. “The silent majority will lose confidence in the polls and refrain from participating,” said Kalimullah.

Fears of violence, he insisted, were misplaced. “I do not see any reason for violence. Not on poll day, because of the deployment of military troops and para-military forces,” he said.

But, even if the government manages to avoid bloodshed during the polls, the future seems rather grim. The JeI has said if Hasina plans to push ahead with her repressive tactics, the consequences would be dreadful. Also, experts point out that attempts by the government to neutralise the JeI could result in the party becoming more radicalised.

Though the JeI remains belligerent, the BNP has been reportedly participating in secret parleys with the Awami League to put an end to the political clashes that have plagued Dhaka in recent times. Apparently, the eagerness of the BNP to solve the impasse could be one reason it deliberately ignored the ban on the JeI.

The efforts to broker a deal, however, are yet to succeed. The violence in Dhaka has left people's lives and public utilities in ruins. Nearly 500 people have been killed and thousands injured in clashes since March last year. Nearly 900 vehicles, mostly public transport buses, have been torched. State-run medical facilities are overrun by the injured, most of whom are from low-income groups who dared to venture out of their homes in search of work. With education and tourism on the verge of collapse, and intermittent blockades affecting the business climate, experts point out that the next casualty could well be the ailing economy.

First appeared in The Week magazine, January 3, 2014

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Bangladesh based award winning journalist