David Bergman’s latest pearl of wisdom in NetraNews , where he argues both narratives about Bangladesh, the positive and the negative, are right, provoked me to respond with a column of my own.
For those who dont know, Bergman started his activism in Bhopal after the 1984 has tragedy and then moved to Bangladesh to marry former minister Kamal Hossain’s daughter Sara and emerged as a bitter critic of Sheikh Hasina’s government.
Some may think Bergman is trying to position himself on both the North and South Pole to look the ‘unbiased independence analyst’ that he is not . His true identity is that of a Western freebooter in Bangladesh , a paid lobbyist of the BNP-Jamaat combine, an important player in the ‘regime change architecture’ in the topple Hasina bid and an aspiring Jared Kushner in the making. Bergman may also be trying to make a tactical climbdown from his hitherto-absolutist positioning that the Hasina regime is the worst Bangladesh has experienced and must be brought down soonest.
But Bergman and few others like NYT’s Nikolas Kristoff bowl a googly when they credit Bangladesh’s phenomenal economic and human development to NGOs like BRAC and GRAMEEN. Their narrative falls flat on the face when development economists credit the Hasina government for Bangladesh’s Golden Decade of Development. Anyone with rudimentary idea of economics would agree that NGOs , however much they may play a supportive or catalytic role in development through micro-finance or sectoral push, are incapable of huge budgetary outlays in health, education and gender development infrastructure, without which meaningful and durable advances are not possible. So the Kristofian logic that Bangladesh has achieved what it has despite poor political leadership has found no takers and top economic-business writers like Mike Bird and Grace Li or South Asia specialists like Subir Bhaumik or Bangladesh editors like Mahfiz Anam have credited Hasina for instilling an infectious confidence that has led to substantial growth and a hope for more in future.
That confidence and single minded zeal to develop at any cost , be it the ‘burn all, destroy all’ Islamist violence or endless ‘regime change ‘ conspiracies, cuts out Sheikh Hasina . I covered the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 and have covered the country ever since. I have known Bangabandhu and his daughters , as well as Indian leaders like Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Jyoti Basu intimately. I know the country through my blood , my roots in Barisal and my raising in a distinctively East Bengali origins even after Partition prepared me for an understanding of Bangladesh which the likes of Bergman or Kristoff have been deprived off. Parachuted experts only understand a little , despite pretensions . Hasina’s commitment to her country’s growth , her patriotism and fearlessness to even confront her friends like India in pursuit of her national interest and and her love for the poor and the vulnerable cuts her out as the South Asian leader with the best human face,. It is her motherly-sisterly touch to economic growth and human development that has made Bangladesh’s phenomenal economic rise so inclusive. I often hear complaints from my many ‘ sisters’ in Bangladesh that they don’t her enough ‘kamer bua'(maid servants) these days ? Wjy is that , Messers Bergman and Kristoff ? It is not just for microfinance wizardry — and experts say microfinance can be quite a burden on the poor — but for the huge and focussed budgetary allocations in education, health and gender empowerment and in areas like developing ICT infrastructure. Bangladesh has broken global record for being the country with the highest distribution of text books that along with midday meals attract and hold poor children to school. True, the country direly needs a huge reform in madrassa education and here it could follow the Left Front developed madrassa education model ( where science and technology, computer education and English have been introduced) , as a result of 20 percent or more of madrassa students in West Bengal are Hindus.
But for a leader who has averted more than a dozen assassination attempt, such single minded determination for development is exceptional and the dozens of international awards recognising her contribution to the fight against poverty to climate change is recognition of something the likes of Bergman and Kristoff are trying to deny her. I am also amazed by Bergman’s latest spin that India’s backing of Hasina is responsible for the huge violence during PM Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in March. Let me counter this off-spin with a googly. Is India expected to back any other leader and party other than Hasina and Awami league ! The answer is no. As a Bengali and Indian , I furiously protested when Vajpayee’s BJP government was involved in a brief honeymoon with Khaleda Zia’s government in 2001-2003. I am privy to the video evidence received from an agent by Indian intelligence of Khaleda’s son Tareque meeting an ISI top boss and Bombay underworld don Dawood Ibrahim not long after he visited India and was welcomed in Delhi and Mumbai ( by Reliance boss). That 45 minute long video footage buried the thesis put forth by the likes for India’s first National Security Adviser (NSA) Brajesh Mishra that India should not put all its eggs in one basket in Bangladesh. The truth is India has only basket in Bangladesh — the rest are bottomless where your eggs risk falling below and crack.
I have three questions for Bergman — (a) is Hifazat violence on Modi visit a reflection of popular unrest or is it targetted , regime change driven Islamist radical violence resembling ISIS’ drive to bring down the Assad regime in Syria (b) is it not true the Hifazat has been on violent street protest to bring down Hasina for two years on issues as diverse as Mujib statues, developments in France , Indian vaccines and the Modi visit was just another excuse to create mayhem and chaos (c) when US bombs ISIS or Al Qaida bases in Middle East or Afghanistan and cause huge collateral damage , these Western lobbyists or do-gooders don’t find any human rights violations , so why do they fume and fret when police opens fire to stop rampaging Hifazatis who want to stop women education (beyond Class 8) and for whom minorities have no place in a future Bangladesh. Yes Mr Bergman, our roots in Bangladesh and our sense of Bengali pride at its achievements leads to our appreciation of Hasina’s zero tolerance of terrorism . Her police did not fire on peaceful protestors like the Burmese army in Myanmar — they fired on hardline fundamentalists who set fire to the Music Academy at Allaudin Khan’s ancestral house in Brahmanbaria or a central public library . In pursuit of peace , Mr Bergman may argue. Some joke , I would imagine.
These fundamentalists are beyond political dialogue or reason and if force is what they use to achieve political ends , they must be met with force. 636 cases of infant rape in Hifazat dominated madrassas and pictures of child sexual abuse by these clergymen gives a lie to their claim to create a kingdom for Allah in Bangladesh. We are talking of criminals in a messanaic garb. Bangladesh is a Bengali land and will stay one . It will be Sonar-Bangla and not Dar-ul-Islam that Hifazat or other fundamentalists want. And India will have to keep backing those who uphold the spirit of 1971 and prioritise friendship with India. A World Bank report has said India and Bangladesh’s national economic income will grow between 8 to 10 percent with greater seamless connectivity. It is a ‘Made for Each Other’ syndrome despite the occasional hiccup. Here the rise of Hindutva in India does create a problem for Hasina and Awami league but what can they do about it . They have to deal with the government in Delhi anyway. But any government in Delhi knows who is their friend in Bangladesh , regardless of all the spin by lobbyists like Bergman. And yes, regardless of the Hifazat violence, India will back Hasina and her government. It has no choice .
( Sukhoranjan Dasgupta is a veteran AnandaBazar Patrika journalist , recepient of Muktijuddho Padak for contribution during Bangladesh Liberation War and author of ‘Midnight Massacre’ on 1975 Dhaka coup)