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The Freedom Industry and Student Politics in Bangladesh ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Iftekhar Sayeed, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Axis of Logic exclusive
Wednesday, Nov 15, 2006

Editor’s introduction: During a time when the alternative media is focused on capitalist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, we forget that western imperialism is deeply involved in places largely forgotten or ignored, like Bangladesh. Alternative media writers, publishers and "screen-readers" have learned the lexicons of the hot wars which are familiar to them. It takes effort and a desire to be informed about the "other wars" being carried out by western governments. It takes effort to learn the geography, unfamiliar foreign names, political parties, their acronyms.

This well-researched and definitive treatise by Iftekhar Sayeed is written for the serious reader. Unlike many oversimplified essays and news items we occasionally read about Bangladesh in the corporate media and on internet websites, reading this one takes effort but offers equivalent rewards of learning and insight. This enriching essay turns vague (but popular) notions of “democracy” on their head. It identifies the murderous advance of the global corporate empire and their disinformation campaign in Bangladesh – a country long-neglected in the annals of progressive literature, especially during a time when so much alternative news and commentary are focused on the all-consuming "hot wars". As western governments build their empire under the guise of “regime change”, “spreading democracy”, “nation building” and “exporting freedom”, Sayeed’s surgical analysis comes to us as a breath of fresh air in a smoke-filled room. Iftekhar Sayeed demonstrates how NGO’s are created and used by “foreign donors” to force the expansion of capitalism with its attendent exploitation of natural resources, the working class and indigenous people in other parts of the world. We strongly encourage readers to carefully consider Sayeed’s exemplary work and to use it to put ideas and verbiage about “democracy” and “freedom” to the test. We are deeply grateful to Iftekhar Sayeed for this exclusive contribution to Axis of Logic and its readers. – Les Blough, Editor

The Use of Students to Establish and Enforce “Democracy”

The role of students in establishing and maintaining democracy in Bangladesh has never received careful scrutiny. Student politics has been a deadly, internecine affair. Today, student groups are used by political parties as private armies: they are given guns, told to extort money - ‘taxes’ and ‘tolls’ - and bring down the government through violent hartals. They have become a highly criminalised group.

The number of headlines announcing the murder of a student politician (including members of parties' youth fronts) was 47 in 2001, 44 the following year, 61 in 2003, 56 in 2004, 35 in 2005 and 31 so far this year. The headlines reveal that around 4 student activists are murdered by other student activists every month in gangland wars. *

15 Students Murdered at Tejgaon Polytechnic Institute(Dhaka) in 15 years (1985 – 2000)[i]









Leader, Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL)












 at the age of





Elected general secretary of students’ union in 1997


Near hostel



President, BCL unit





Convener, BCL unit of institute


In front of hostel


Mizanur Rahman

Convener, Jatiyabadi Chatra Dal (JCD)


Within 200 yards of hostel


Shakil Ahmed

General Secretary, JCD unit





JCD leader





JCD leader




Sharif Hossain

General secretary, student union


In front of hostel



Miniruzzaman Munir and 5 other activists

Leader and members of Jatiya Chatra Samaj


The headlines also reveal that the murder of student activists is no secret: it is widespread, publicly available information. In fact, one retired chief justice, Shahabuddin Ahmed, has during his stint as president, publicly made the observation that students were getting guns instead of education. “He reiterated his stand against the ‘political use of students and urged the students to sever connections with the political parties’”[ii]." Another ex-president, Badruddoza Chowdhury, has said: “Students are armed to punish the opposition and we strongly condemn such acts”[iii]

They are perpetrators as well as victims. Activists of Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal, the student wing of the ruling BNP, picked up 15-year old Mahima from her home and gang-raped her on February 13th, 2002. The rapists also took photographs of the scenes and circulated them in public. On February 19 she committed suicide by taking pesticides. She was raped because her father and brother were opposition activists.[iv]

* To read an interview of a student politician, visit

What should have provoked national and international outrage - on a par with the shocking case of Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan - was a mere episode, never noticed and therefore never recalled, for obvious reasons. Indeed, in the Amnesty International report Bangladesh Human rights defenders under attack[v], the word 'rape' occurs only once - and only in regard to the post-electoral violence against the Hindu minority. "Following the elections, hundreds of Hindu families were reportedly subjected to violent attacks, including rape, beatings and the burning of their property." What troubles one is the fact that organizations like Amnesty International tend to respond to certain stimuli - such as communal violence - and to disregard others. And, of course, the human rights defenders they mention move in tandem - excluding cases like that of Mahima or the daily rapes of garments factory girls and rural housewives and young women (for rape figures after the democratic transition, see second chart).

Again: "A number of remote villages in Fatikchari have made screaming headlines. Enraged by crimes ranging from dacoity to rape by a gang, simple villagers were bold enough to ignore bullets and other lethal weapons and beat 10 members of the gang to death. For years, a notorious gang of 20-30, allegedly with links to the Chatra Shibir and  Chatra Dal [ruling coalition student and youth wings respectively], has unleashed a reign of terror in the area. On the day of the incident the criminals raped three women, collected illegal tolls from about 50 traders and also tortured some."[vi]

On 28th November, 2005, a packed courthouse heard the judge hand down the death sentence on nine murderers - and only one was in the dock, the others absconding. On March 26, 2004 the Jubo Dal[vii] leader Rafiqul Islam Kajol and his gang killed a businessman and his son for cash and property. They chopped up the bodies into 119 pieces, put the pieces in polythene bags and deposited the bags in several places in the city. The wife of the businessman said that she was afraid because the criminals had warned her by telephone of 'dire consequences' for not withdrawing the case.[viii]

In September 1998, a committee investigated allegations of sexual abuse at Jahangirnagar University against boys from the Chatra League, the student front of the then ruling Awami League. It revealed that “more than 20 female students were raped and over 300 others were sexually harassed on the campus by the "armed cadres of a particular political party."[ix]

No charges were pressed. To quote The Daily Star: “Over the years mainstream political parties have primed the student organisations with criminal elements in the belief that laying control on (sic) the campuses means half the electoral battle won.”[x]

Student-enforced Hartals

Students are used to enforce hartals. The word cannot be translated into English – it is usually rendered ‘general strike’, which is absurd. A hartal is organised by the opposition to keep traffic off the roads using the threat of violence. The term can only be defined by enumeration. A description of a series of hartals during April-May 2001 – that is, before the elections of that year – has been compiled from newspapers: 

Salahuddin (33), a fisherman, was killed in a skirmish between the two student wings of the political parties in the latest hartal. Two rickshawpullers – one of them unidentified, the other Badaruddin (32) - were bombed while they were pulling their rickshaws during hartal hours. It took them 24 to 48 hours to die. An auto-rickshaw was burned to ashes, and when the driver, Saidul Islam Shahid (35), tried to put out the flames, he was sprinkled with petrol, and burned to death. It took him more than two days to die. Truck driver, Fayez Ahmed (50), died when a bomb was thrown on his truck. And Ripon Sikder, a sixteen-year-old injured by a bomb, died on 4th May at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital after struggling for his life for eleven days. 

All this is in keeping with Stanley J. Tambiah’s observation regarding violence in South Asia: ‘...participatory democracy, competitive elections, mass militancy, and crowd violence are not disconnected.” He adds: “They were not disconnected in Europe: in Britain, for instance, the latter part of the nineteenth century saw the parallel rise of democracy and industrial militancy....And before that the French Revolution had ushered in the crowd as an enduring political force....”[xi] As we shall see below, his statement is confirmed by S.E.Finer.

But the most important question must surely be: why has there been no outcry from civil society against student politics?

The Role of Foreign Donors and NGOs 

The role of foreign donors, such as USAID and DFID, in promoting such a state of affairs deserves careful scrutiny. These organisations fund local NGOs. In fact, the role of donors in promoting NGOs has been studied by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their book Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument[xii]. The writers speak of an "aid market" that local NGOs know how to exploit.[xiii]  

“The political significance of such a massive proliferation of NGOs in Africa deserves closer attention. Our research suggests that this expansion is less the outcome of the increasing political weight of civil society than the consequence of the very pragmatic realisation that resources are now largely channelled through NGOs.”[xiv] 

The authors also - like myself - attribute the spread of democracy since 1990 to foreign donor pressure, and reject outright the notion of an emerging civil society: “It cannot simply be a coincidence that, now that the West ties aid to democratisation under the guise of multi-party elections, multi-party elections are taking place in Africa.”[xv]. The Economist [xvi]says: “...the cold war’s end prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start insisting on democratic reforms”.  

Besides, it has been estimated that only 25% of donor money reach the poor in Bangladesh.[xvii] According to The Economist: “There are about 20,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, probably more than in any other country.”[xviii]  

The total silence of the NGOs on the subject of student politicians killing each other over turf can be explained in terms of their eagerness to please donors: the students are an integral part of the democratic process. If these boys did not take to the streets (hartal), the parties would not rotate in power.  

The disturbing picture of a "freedom industry" emerges, with crime (on the part of the local parties) as the base of the pyramid and the donors as the apex.  

The existence of a freedom industry is further corroborated by the findings of a British organisation, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. They have been described as “nosily defending a grim lot of east European politicians against the imperialism of western do-gooders”[xix].  They claim that dubious methods used by pro-western politicians are routinely overlooked; yet when pro-Russian parties use the same methods, there are screams of protest. The group dislikes both liberal internationalism, of the European Union’s sort, as well as the more violent Anglo-American kind. However, from my investigations it would appear that European liberal internationalism can be just as violent, and, since it is hidden, more pernicious. 

We have already seen how indifferent Amnesty International has been to the fate of student politicians - notwithstanding the fact that its current secretary general, Irene, Z. Khan, is from Bangladesh. Multilateral organizations have behaved no differently. UNICEF has never raised a voice of protest against student politics, although their web site says:

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. The leaders also wanted to make sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too.  

The Convention sets out these rights in 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life[xx].  

The reader will notice that all the highlighted rights have been violated in the case of the student politicians of Bangladesh. For student activists begin their violent careers well before they are eighteen[xxi].  

Similarly, UNESCO[xxii] has failed to live up to its commitment  "to the long-term and continuing process of developing a culture of non-violence and cooperative learning in schools and other educational institutions as an important contribution to a global movement for a culture of peace.[xxiii]"  

“Civil Society”, the Freedom Industry and the Violent Nature of “Democracy” 

Again, evidence for the existence of the freedom industry comes from the civil society guru, John Keane. In his book, Civil Society, he observes: "A highly developed civil society can and normally does contain within itself violent tendencies."[xxiv] Again: "Those who work for a (more) civil society must recognize not only that violence is often the antithesis of civil society, but also that every known form of civil society tends to produce the same violent antithesis"[xxv]. However, he adds – and this is crucial here: “This inner contradiction within the workings of civil society – that it tends to be a peaceful haven of incivility – has been obscured by the originally eighteenth-century theory of the upward spiral towards civilization, and, more recently, by the strange silence about violence within the renaissance of the theory of state and civil society. (italics added)[xxvi]”

His views on violence are echoed by Robin Blackburn in his book on the Atlantic slave trade: "Then again, the history of New World slavery, as I will try to demonstrate, shows that civil society, in a modern sense of the term, can itself powerfully - and, as it were, 'spontaneously' - contribute to highly destructive patterns of human conduct."[xxvii] Thus, in all the propaganda issued by donor agencies, their respective governments and their hired anthropologists and sociologists, no mention has ever been made in Bangladesh, and, according to John Keane, elsewhere, of this violent facet of civil society.  

Neither have any caveats ever been presented by the freedom industry regarding the violent nature of democracy. According to S.E. Finer: “The Forum polity is comparatively rare in the history of government, where the Palace polity and its variants are overwhelmingly the most common type. Only in the last two centuries has the Forum polity become widespread. Before then its appearance is, on the whole, limited to the Greek poleis, the Roman Republic, and the mediaeval European city-states. Furthermore, most of them for most of the time exhibited the worst pathological features of this kind of polity. For rhetoric read demagogy, for persuasion read corruption, pressure, intimidation, and falsification of the vote. For meetings and assemblies, read tumult and riot. For mature deliberation through a set of revising institutions, read instead self-division, inconstancy, slowness, and legislative and administrative stultification. And for elections read factional plots and intrigues. These features were the ones characteristically associated with the Forum polity in Europe down to very recent times. They were what gave the term ‘Republic’ a bad name, but made ‘Democracy’ an object of sheer horror.”[xxviii] 

“Democracy” as a Gift from God 

Foreign Donors and their clients – both here and abroad – have presented democracy as a divine blessing, almost repeating George Bush’s revealing mission statement, “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world. It is God’s gift to humanity.[xxix]” Judging by Finer’s and Tambiah’s remarks, the gift appears to be one from the other party rather than from divinity.  

One writer who has located the provenance of both democracy and civil society in western Europe, and still maintained its divine – in this case, Christian – origins, is Larry Siedentop. Nevertheless, his insights are useful, for his major contribution to the discourse is that civil society and democracy cannot be ‘exported’, and indeed is incompatible with other religions (that is, pace George Bush, he recognizes that other people have other faiths). “For the Christian God survives in the assumption that we have access to the nature of things as individuals. That assumption is, in turn, the final justification for a democratic society, for a society organized to respect the equal underlying moral status of all its members, by guaranteeing each ‘equal liberty’. That assumption reveals how the notion of ‘Christian liberty’ came to underpin a radically new ‘democratic’ model of human association’” (italics original). “Thus, the defining characteristic of Christianity was its universalism. It aimed to create a single human society, a society composed, that is, of individuals rather than tribes, clans or castes.”[xxx] Of course, such a view can lead to universal proselytism on the part of Europe and America – as, in fact, it has – and therefore spread violence far and wide – as, in fact, it has; but, at least, it has the merit of localizing civil society and democracy.

Siedentop is uncomfortable with multiculturalism: "If - and of course this is a crucial assumption - Islamic schools teach the radical subordination of women, if they teach that daughters must obey their fathers at whatever age, and that sisters are subordinate to brothers, do we really want public funding for such schools? For such funding amounts to a kind of endorsement of views which most of us find abhorrent, views which run directly contrary to our intuitions of justice." This caricature[xxxi] of Muslim society serves a useful purpose: it reveals that values of subordination are totally at odds with western values of equality, precluding the emergence of a genuine civil society, a view we heard from Chabal  and Daloz (minus, thank God, the theology!).  We will see how central the family is to Bangladeshi society: the family has, as a matter of fact, been used by donors to influence public opinion. One of the maneuvers has been to select the spouse of a newspaper editor as NGO boss to get the pro-donor agenda across to the reading public (see the case of Mahfuz Anam, Shaheen Anam, The Daily Star and the mega-NGO Manusher Jonno below).  

The freedom industry is careful to conceal Siedentop’s views, as those of Chabal and Daloz, Tambiah and Finer, Keane and Blackburn. 

The Acid Attacks

The disinformation spread by NGOs regarding the nature of acid attacks shows that these organizations are more interested in endorsing the donors’ agenda of labeling Bangladesh a misogynistic male-chauvinist Muslim society than in helping victims.  Elora Halim Chowdhury, a former member of ActionAid Bangladesh, in an article in the Star Weekend Magazine, observed: “The 1997 Acid Workshop organized by Naripokkho [literally, “Woman’s Side”, an NGO] made public the specifics of this systematic and gendered violence against women”. In fact, in 1999, the proportion of men who were victims of acid attacks was 17%, a figure that rose to 35% by January 2003[xxxii]; of the 315 victims of acid attacks between May and November 2000, 246 were female[xxxiii]. And yet, in 2006, Elora Halim Chowdhury could still maintain that acid attack victims were only women; her article never once mentions men as victims.  

In the British Council Quarterly[xxxiv] of 2000, we come across the following: “Approximately 200 women and girls were horribly disfigured last year in acid attacks in Bangladesh. The Acid Survivor’s Foundation is working to help the survivors of this particularly brutal form of violence against women.” And yet we saw that in 1999, 17% of the victims were men, a curious omission on the part of the British Council. 

The Donor-Driven Nature of “Civil Society”

To remove any doubts regarding the foreign donor-driven nature of civil society, consider another point. Until 1990, ‘civil society’ was silent on the issue of the militarization of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In 1980, General Zia had forcibly re-settled Bengali people from the plains in order to render the indigenous people of the hills a minority in their area, and so quash their nationalist aspirations, as they were perceived to be. Both sides committed appalling atrocities. Regarding the role of civil society in the matter, Jenneke Arens and Kirti Nishan Chakma comment[xxxv]: “this important component of the Bangladeshi society remained mostly silent or ignored the events of militarization and military atrocities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A possible explanation might be its ethnocentric origins (these civil-society organizations are mostly composed of and led by Bengalis and have little or no participation from their indigenous counterparts) and also its preoccupation with the struggle for restoring democracy in the country following the tragic events of 1975, which was considered more important.”

This is disingenuous. As we have seen, civil society played no part in the struggle for democracy: foreign donors brought about democracy in Bangladesh, as in so many other parts of the world. NGOs were perfectly happy to work under General Zia and General Ershad. Indeed, General Zia, who began the militarization of the Hill Tracts, had America’s solid support: he re-introduced capitalism after the socialist interlude ushered in by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the country’s first prime minister. He also re-oriented foreign policy away from New Delhi and Moscow towards Washington and the west in general. The process of de-nationalization of industries nationalized by Sheikh Mujib that General Zia had started was continued by his successor, General Ershad – and so was the process of militarization of the Hill Tracts.           

The authors continue: “From the late 1980s and during the 1990s, civil-rights organizations and activists started to become more and more vocal and raised their concerns on the prevailing situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the violation of human rights of its indigenous inhabitants.” That is to say, since the advent of perestroika and glasnost, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union – absolutely keeping in line with donor requirements.           

In 1997, a 'peace treaty' was signed between the Awami League government and the insurgents, the Parbata Chottogram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS). However, a faction of the latter broke away to form the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) in rejection of the accord. They are a major presence in the hill tracts, and I spent three hours talking to Ujjal Smriti Chakma, Coordinator, UPDF, Khagrachari District, and Mithun Chakma, General Secretary, Democratic Youth Forum, in September, 2005 at Khagrachari. They deplored the fact that there was now an internecine armed struggle among the hill people themselves. Newspapers regularly report murders of members of one group by those of the other: 2 UPDF men gunned down in Khagrachari[xxxvi] is a typical headline. Things are so bad that the Chakma people I spoke to are terrified of going into new territory in their own hills. 

There is, therefore, a low-scale civil war going on at the moment in the hill districts.  

One Disinformation Campaign: Peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Donors, however, are chuffed. Jenneke Arens and Kirti Nishan Chakma observe: "The accord, by and large, has been accepted by the peoples of the region and by the donor community as well—though one section of the indigenous people has explicitly rejected the accord and has formed the United Peoples' Democratic Front" (italics supplied). They go on to say: " Accordingly, a good number of representatives from donor country/agencies and multilateral development agencies have visited the region, and some of these agencies have started to disburse funds for different development projects. Alongside these initiatives, a number of NGOs—both local and national—are also undertaking development programs. Prospects for peace in the CHT have at least become brighter." 

Nothing could be further from the facts on the ground. The hill people are aware that a gigantic hoax has been played on them by the PCJSS, the Awami League and the international community. When I questioned him about the role of NGOs, Mithun commented that they "supply chickens and hens to families" instead of addressing their real issues. Their contempt for NGOs can be easily understood.  

Nevertheless, the official, donor line is that there is peace in the hill tracts - and Bangladeshi civil society goes along with that piece of fiction.  

Consider two examples:

Banglapedia[xxxvii] - the national encyclopaedia of Bangladesh - was published in 2004  by the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The most eminent intellectuals of the country contributed. I consulted the CD-ROM for information on the hill tracts. The article on  "Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord" did not have a single word to say about the UPDF! Then I tried the article under "Parbatya Chattagram Jana-Samhati Samiti" - again, there was no word on the UPDF. In the index, I typed in "United People's..." and that's as far as I got.

The UPDF, and therefore dissent regarding the peace treaty, does not exist. 

The next shock came when I bought a copy of Tanvir Mokammel's documentary on the hill districts and the political situation there, called Kornophulir Kanna (Teardrops of the Karnaphuli, 2004). There were many interviews in the film - but not a single UPDF member appeared before the camera, and the acronym never came up!          

When the Daily Star magazine[xxxviii] interviewed Tanvir Mokammel, he was never asked why he had excluded the UPDF in his documentary. Instead, we find exchanges of the following kind: 

DS: What are the issues you strove to highlight in the film?

TM: The intention of the film was not to blame anyone in particular but to find a solution to the problem. My assessment is, the greatest hindrance to have [sic] a healthy relationship between indigenous people and Bengalees is non-communication. The two parties hardly know each other. From this gulf of unknowing of each other emerges the serpent's egg. 

But surely, the hill people know each other - why then are they killing each other, holding each other for ransom, extorting money from each other....? No question, no reply.  

The film, unfortunately, has been banned by the government; however, it would appear that the director was perfectly capable of considerable self-censorship himself.  

Since the UPDF does not exist per donor policy, civil society has denied their existence.  

Media Complicity with The Donors

And the Daily Star has actively connived at this distortion and spread of disinformation. "Over 250,000 people in the Chittagong hill tracts speak Chakma", observed the Daily Star in its coverage of minority languages[xxxix]. Yet the newspaper knows very well that the Chakma people speak a dialect of Bengali, the language of the majority. "The Chakma have discarded their original Burmese language and today speak a variant Bengali dialect" observes the Encyclopaedia Britannica[xl]. Mithun Chakma admitted the same when I asked him about his language. This piece of disinformation is necessary to prop up the “Peace Treaty”; if the donors admit that the Chakmas speak Bengali, then [the premise of] their original grievance not only evaporates, but actually proves embarrassing. The Daily Star is involved in the process because of the close ties between the newspaper and donors - for instance, the editor's wife, Shaheen Anam, has been selected by donors to be the team leader for the mega-NGO, Manusher Jonno! Civil society in Bangladesh is a close-knit, family concern (just like Bangladeshi culture).[xli]  

The Powerful NGO Alliance Against the UPDF
If one visits the Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) web site (, one comes across an article on the democratization of the Chittagong Hill Tracts[xlii]: as one would expect from an organization funded by DFID (The UK Department for International Development), NORAD (the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation), DANIDA (the Danish International Development Agency) Sida (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), USAID, Royal Netherlands Embassy, ActionAid Bangladesh and Transparency International, Berlin, Germany, the UPDF has been completely airbrushed out of the picture. This curious omission appears to be totally at odds with the Code of Ethics of the organisation, which states in section 1.3 that "TIB is committed to values of democracy, justice, rule of law, transparency, accountability, integrity and impartiality (italics original)." Perhaps the trustees felt that the UPDF did not merit impartial treatment. (Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of the Daily Star, is also a trustee of TIB.)  

During my last trip to Khagrachari in July, 2006, I spoke with members of the UPDF in their pukka, new premises (the first had been burnt down in 2003 by their archrival, the PCJSS, and the last office where I’d met with them in 2005 had been a mere bamboo shack). Mithun Chakma and others were peeved that the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a self-styled “civil society think tank”, had held a conference in nearby Rangamati on the situation in the hill tracts without inviting the UPDF to participate. They said they learnt about the shindig from newspapers and TV only after it was over (as expected, ‘regional dialogues’ of the CPD are publicized by Channel-i, The Daily Star and its sister vernacular paper Prothom Alo. At the 26th meeting of the Board of Trustees of the CPD, the two newspapers agreed to provide matching funds for the CPD’s activities, including the regional ‘dialogues’.[xliii]) This is tantamount to asking the ruling party of a nation to a dialogue on the politics of the country while keeping out the opposition! 

Donor Silence on Oppression of the Palestinians

To add another example: in a Muslim country, one would expect a modicum of interest in the Palestinian issue and an iota of expression. Given the loquacity of our civil society on all subjects under the sun, the universal silence on this one subject is deafening. What interest one finds is purely bureaucratic. When Yasser Arafat passed away, the government declared three days of mourning: there was hardly a susurrus from civil society. According to Saik Hamza, the second secretary of the Palestinian Embassy in Bangladesh, there are no discussions or seminars on Palestine. Asked how many television programs there have been on the issue, he laughs and says, “Maybe one or two in the last ten or twenty years”, despite the fact that there are several private channels in Bangladesh which regularly feature corroborees such as the one organized by the local British Council and Democracy Watch between February 20 – 22, 2005. 

When, a year after Yasser Arafat's death, I asked Saik Hamza what remembrances were held on the first anniversary, he replied, "None". And why not? "I comments."  

And yet on 10th November, 2005 - the day before Arafat passed away a year ago - civil society was commemorating the death of Noor Hossain. Noor Hossain was a Jubo League activist[xliv] who had been shot during pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. Eighteen organizations placed wreaths at Noor Hossain Square in the morning. This was clearly a commemoration of which the donors would approve (for instance, in its report cited above, Amnesty International trots out the usual fiction about students playing "a crucial role in ousting the military president, General Ershad, in 1990 and the resumption of the democratic process in the country"). 

Thus the actions of ‘civil society’ must be seen in the context of international power struggles and the priorities of international players, especially western governments.  

In Bangladesh, civil society acts only when it pays – and is paid - to act.

The donor community has achieved the legitimization of violence, and the anaesthetisation of conscience.[xlv]

The figures for lynching – a phenomenon unseen before our democratic transition* - testify both to our sense of helplessness and loss of humanity, as does the account below.  

On November 8, 2005, ruling party activists gang-raped six-month pregnant Tahura Begum because her husband, Babar Ali, refused to quit the opposition: she had an abortion. After being kidnapped several times from hospital, she finally died on November 16th [xlvi].  

Nobody noticed. 

© Copyright 2006 by

*This fact is easily established: there is no word for ‘lynching’ in Bengali. Before democracy came along with its attendant lawlessness, people would beat up a thief or robber and hand him over to the police; hence, the words “gonoprohar” or “gonopituni”, mass beating. In Farsi – Persian – too, there is no word for lynching.


[i] Table compiled from The Daily Star, April 3rd 2000 

[ii] The Daily Star, July 11, 2000

[iii] The Bangladesh Observer, March 30 2005 

[iv] The Bangladesh Observer, 7th March, 2002 


[vi] The Bangladesh Observer, February 19, 2004

[vii] The ruling party - the Bangladesh Nationalist Party - youth wing.

[viii] For more on student politics in Bangladesh, visit  

[ix] The Daily Star, October 1st 1998

[x] The Daily Star, July 31st 2001

[xi] Stanley J. Tambiah ,Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, (New Delhi: Vistaar Publications, 1996), p. 260

[xii] Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument  (Oxford: James Currey, 1999)

[xiii] Africa Works, p. 23

[xiv] Africa Works, p. 22

[xv] Africa Works, p. 118

[xvi] The Economist, December 18th 2004, p. 69

[xvii] New Nation, September 26, 2003

[xviii] The Economist, March 15th 2003, p. 29

[xix] The Economist, December 4th 2004, p. 52


[xxi] See the first table. Today's Bangladesh Observer (20 April 2006) tells me that a fifteen-year-old student, Redwan Ahmed, was killed by members of his own student wing, the Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD) in Sylhet on April 19th.

[xxii] UNESCO has got itself into a double bind. The two important dates in the mythology of Bangladeshi nationalism and politics are 21 February, 1952 and 6 December, 1990; the latter has already been discussed. On the former occasion, some students rose up in revolt against what they perceived as a downgrading of the mother tongue; a few of them died, and became 'language martyrs'. In 1999, UNESCO transformed the day into "International Mother Language Day", thereby sanctioning the actions of the students in 1952. Since the next glorious episode in the history of student politics is the supposed overthrow of the 'tyrant', General Ershad, in 1990, the latter constitutes a continuum with the former. Now, UNESCO cannot consistently cast a harsh light on student politics today without derogating from its earlier grandeur!

[xxiii] Sintra Plan of Action

[xxiv] John Keane, Civil Society, (London: Polity Press, 1998), p. 136

[xv] John Keane, Civil Society, p. 141

[xvi] John Keane, Civil Society, p. 141

[xxvii] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, (London: Verso, 1997), p. 6

[xxviii] S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 46-47

[xxix] The Economist, December 18th 2004, p. 50

[xxx] Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe, (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2000), pp 194 - 208

[xxxi] Let me illustrate: my brother-in-law knows that he is subordinate to his four sisters because they are older than him; the siblings - male and female alike - categorically know that they are subordinate to their mother; the sons-in-law are similarly subordinate to their mother-in-law; and every brother-in-law is subordinate to both the sister-in-law and  brother-in-law directly above him!  And, of course, when my father-in-law was alive, we were all subordinate to him.  So much for Siedentop's distorted nightmare of uniform female subordination! (However, the word 'stroino' in Bengali reveals that many men are, in fact, subordinate to their wives! The corresponding expression in Farsi – Persian – is ‘zan zalil’).

[xxxii] The Daily Star, January 19th 2003

[xxxiii] The Bangladesh Observer, 9th November 2000

[xxxiv] bcquarterly, No.16 April to June 2000, p. 11

[xxxv] Jenneke Arens and Kirti Nishan Chakma, “Bangladesh: Indigenous Struggle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts”, Searching for Peace in Central and South Asia, 2002,

[xxxvi] The Bangladesh Observer, 16th December, 2005

[xxxvii] Banglapedia, National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh, Multimedia CD (English Version), (Asiatic Society of Bangladesh: 1st Edition February 2004)

[xxxvii] Eyes Wide Open, 16th December, 2005

[xxxix] Star Weekend Magazine, 24 February 2006, p.11

[xl] "Chakma", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Vol. 3, p.58

For instance, the editor of the popular weekly JaiJai Din is Shefiq Rehman; his wife, Taleya Rahman, is the Executive editor of the NGO Democracy Watch; as we saw above, she was presented Takas 405,000 by the Australian High Commissioner for a ‘democracy festival’; in addition,  Nasreen Huq, wife of the managing editor, was Country Director of ActionAid Bangladesh until her death in May, 2006.

[xlii] Transparency International Bangladesh

[xliii] The Daily Star, July 14, 2006, p. 2

[xliv] That is, he was a member of the Awami League’s youth wing.

[xlv] One sample should suffice: "The real problem in Bangladesh politics," observes Rehman Sobhan, one of our leading intellectuals and chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, ' a civil society think tank', and of the Board of Grameen Bank, a world-renowned NGO and this years’ co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with its founder, Mohammed Yunus, "lies in the fact that every party harbours mastaans [Bengali for thugs, goons] because they play an integral part in the election system and in securing a support base in particular areas." Does Mr. Sobhan express outrage with this state of affairs? Far from it. "Thus each party," he goes on, "feels a need for their mastaans and will be reluctant to abandon them for potential but indeterminate gains in public esteem unless their opponents are willing to do likewise. Thus, invocations to political leaders to abandon such proven political resources are an unreal expectation, however important this be (sic) in the agenda of governance reform. (Rehman Sobhan, Structural Dimensions of Malgovernance in Bangladesh, emphasis added)." Notice how calmly the gentleman accepts the criminal - murder, rape and arson - as inevitable, labeling it 'proven political resource'. Only a society that has eschewed conscience in toto and all claims to civilized norms can tolerate such wholesale endorsement of - for want of a better word - evil.

[xlvi] The Bangladesh Observer, 20th November 2005

[Subtitles and emphases added by editor unless otherwise indicated.]

Iftekhar Sayeed
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