Sunday, October 10, 2004

Bangladesh: 8/21 Report - Don’t add fuel to the fire

[ The cross-border dimension of mercenary and political crimes afflicting Bangladesh has of late been detected in greater detail by our government agencies. A list of 353 dangerous criminals, freely residing in and conducting their criminal activities from India, were handed over by Bangladesh to the Indian side at the recently concluded BDR-BSF conference held at the Director-General level in India. Separate lists of tribal separatists of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and locations of their thirty camps in the Tripura state of India, as well as names of trainers and locations of some nine insurgency training and motivation camps in the state of West Bengal in India, were also provided. ]

Don’t add fuel to the fire
Sadeq Khan

The Home Ministry of the government has now three major judicial enquiry reports relating to bomb finds and bomb attacks meant for mass murder at public places of assembly. The first one, the Bari Commission, dealt with bomb finds at Gopalganj and other places where the then Prime Minister was scheduled to make public appearances.

The second, the Sultan Commission, dealt with the carnage of the simultaneous bombing of three cinema halls in Mymensingh during Eid holidays, months after the general elections that returned Khaleda Zia to power. The third and the latest, the Joynul Abedin Commission, enquired into the circumstances of the murderous grenade attack on August 21 at an Awami League street rally addressed by Sheikh Hasina. None of the reports have been published. But the government appears to have acted on some findings and recommendations of each of them.

Judicial commissions are not detective agencies. They do not have the expertise or the wherewithal to pursue the trails of criminals and unravel mysteries. But they do summon forensic evidences and hold public hearings to get to the bottom of the case, by much the same adversarial method of cross-questioning and recording evidences as in our law courts, albeit suo moto.

The Bari Commission’s report is believed to have provided the raison d’etre for withdrawal of S.S. army units deployed for the special protection of Sheikh Hasina. Both the Bari Commission and the Sultan Commission drew attention to ammunition supply links and easy escape routes of culprits to India across the border. The Joynul Abedin Commission’s report, according to press leaks, has specifically asked for greater surveillance to ensure border security and proper coordination amongst the detective and intelligence agencies of the government to prevent influx of small arms, ammunition and explosives and to apprehend fugitive felons.

The cross-border dimension of mercenary and political crimes afflicting Bangladesh has of late been detected in greater detail by our government agencies. A list of 353 dangerous criminals, freely residing in and conducting their criminal activities from India, were handed over by Bangladesh to the Indian side at the recently concluded BDR-BSF conference held at the Director-General level in India. Separate lists of tribal separatists of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and locations of their thirty camps in the Tripura state of India, as well as names of trainers and locations of some nine insurgency training and motivation camps in the state of West Bengal in India, were also provided. Against that BSF provided 126 names of separatists and their suspected training camps within Bangladesh territory. Most of the alleged malefactors named were already arrested and punished or are undergoing penal process under the laws of Bangladesh.

The somewhat enhanced cooperation in tracking down malefactors between Bangladesh and India leading to the death of extremist political godfather Mrinal in West Bengal and successful RAB operations in breaking up Mrinal’s gang and arms dumps in south-west Bangladesh is welcome news, notwithstanding differences in approach and gaps in information. Parallel and coordinated mode of patrolling of the borders by BDR and BSF is also being worked out for consideration by both countries. The last-named operation proposed is being wrongly reported in the Indian media (and also quoted as such by a section of Bangladesh media) as a joint patrolling operation. Bangladesh does not agree to joint patrolling operations, since joint patrols might create complications by intrusion on the sovereign rights of the smaller neighbour. Increased surveillance by simultaneous BDR-BSF patrolling of the border region in their respective jurisdictions would certainly be a very positive step.

Justice Joynul Abedin held a press conference before sending his commission’s 162-page report to the Home Secretary. He refused, however, to divulge any details of the report or its 32 recommendations, beyond expressing his gratitude to the Almighty for being able to complete the onerous task that involved a national crisis. “My responsibility was to probe into the incident and report my findings to the government. It is now for the government to decide if the report should be published or not,” he told newsmen.

He, however, described the attack as a “national calamity” and said that one of the recommendations was that the two main parties (without naming BNP and Awami League) should narrow down political differences and work together so that “external foes and their local agents” cannot create chaos and anarchy in the country by taking advantage of their polarisation.

He also made a fervent call to the civil society to take steps for promoting cooperation between the two major political parties, saying it is the need of the hour to secure stability and ensure socio-political and economic development.

He said the Commission visited the place of occurrence and cross-examined as many as 123 people, including those injured, explosives experts, police and intelligence officials, doctors and retired army officials. Of the senior AL leaders present at the scene of the blast, only Zillur Rahman, a presidium member of the party, made a deposition to the Commission.

A number of his recommendations were leaked to the press from “Commission sources”, as claimed by reporters, and got headlines in newspapers, in particular the suggestion that a foreign intelligence agency masterminded the August 21 grenade attack on the Awami League rally with the help of trained local agents. This has led to an outcry from the opposition camp, with the Awami League specifically demanding that the name of the foreign power found involved in the attack be disclosed by the government. Others are questioning the wisdom of the suggestion being made public, regardless of whether there is substantial evidence pointing to such a surmise. Considering the vulnerability of our country as a developing Muslim nation at this particular juncture of civilisation contradictions, often getting mixed up with the global war on terrorism declared by the US and endorsed by the UN, and considering the volatile situation of insurgency-ridden tensions of the eastern sub-Himalayan parts of South Asia around us, any suspicion of foreign power involvement in sabotage amounting to an act of war would have been better dealt with by necessary internal precaution and external diplomacy, possibly involving other friendly powers to counsel restraint and cooling of nerves.

We are a peace-loving, extremely poor nation averse to war, but of course we shall defend ourselves if a war, covert or overt, is thrust upon us. But first of all we must reason with the suspect adversary and do our best to find a peaceful answer to meet the casus belli without compromising our national dignity and sovereignty. It would be wrong for the government to add fuel to the fire of flayed nerves by unnecessary public airing of suspicions. (Covert acts of war would be well nigh impossible to prove and public indignation almost impossible to erase quickly.) It is wrong of the Awami League to go on harping publicly on the issue and add insult to the sense of injury of the suspect adversary. The right thing to do, as has been reportedly suggested by the Joynul Abedin Commission itself, is for the government and the opposition politicians to sit together in camera to decide on the merits of the report, and decide on respective duties and courses of action. The government has already acted on recommendations like videotaping the Awami League meeting on October 3.

‘Rule of muscle’

Meanwhile the countrymen are hearing a lot from foreign diplomats, UN officials and executives of development partners about the “fragile”, if not a “dysfunctional”, state of our democratic order and style of governance. Indeed there is much to be desired for improvement of governance under the alliance government. Many promises of the ruling alliance including the appointment of an Ombudsman, the formation of a Human Rights Commission, the separation of the Judiciary from the Executive and so on are being inordinately delayed on account of personal reservations, personality clashes and divergence of interests amongst ministers and political leaders within the BNP itself. The disarray and the bad blood within the ruling big shots can be seen from the latest incident of the ‘hijacking’ of the office of the Dhaka Transport Coordination Board by the Dhaka City Corporation.

The government formed the Board in 2001 by an Act with responsibilities for formulation of a transport policy, according to a set of guidelines, for improving transport services in the public and private sector.

The guidelines include policies for transport management, pedestrian safety, parking, improvement of human resources in the transport sector, and preparation of traffic engineering and transport schemes.

It was also given the responsibility for advising the agencies concerned, such as the Dhaka City Corporation and Roads and Highways Department, on an integrated and safe traffic and transport system and on necessary arrangements to achieve the goals.

The Mayor of Dhaka city is the ex officio Chairman of the Board, which is otherwise responsible to the Ministry of Communications which controls road transport as well as road infrastructure. The Board had its office in Shetu Bhaban, but the Mayor, for the sake of his own “control” over the Board, reportedly wanted the office shifted to Nagar Bhaban. Board members, according to reports, wanted to remain where they were to avoid pressures from DCC commissioners and vested interest lobbies in the Nagar Bhaban “forcing us to approve irrational planning”. On orders from the Mayor, Corporation workers on October 6 simply invaded the DTCB office and removed all the office contents and furniture to the Nagar Bhaban, causing in the process damage to the data processing system and “huge losses”.

Such kind of “rule of muscle” is certainly not acceptable under a functional government. Such conduct sharpens the teeth of the adverse propaganda war that the alliance government and the nation state has for quite some time been facing from persistent adversaries. It is high time that the alliance government puts its act together and improves its style of governance.

HOLIDAY 10/10/2004