Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

Can we create an environmentally habitable Bangladesh?

Since independence, Dhaka’s population had exploded from just about 1.5 million in 1971 to over 21 million in 2020, a 14-fold increase as opposed to 2.5-fold for the entire population of Bangladesh. Hence, for all practical purpose, Dhaka is Bangladesh. As a consequence, Dhaka has undergone rapid unplanned urbanisation that has replaced its natural environment with a new environment. It is now a boom town with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class, and a vibrant gastronomic, cultural and intellectual life. In a nutshell, Dhaka is an incredibly bubbly city, full of energy and pizzazz.

Having said that, amongst the least liveable cities in the world, Dhaka is ranked behind Lagos in Nigeria, and the capitals of war-ravaged Libya and Syria. And in the Human Development Index, Bangladesh stands at 133 out of 189 countries. These statistics, though unflattering, reflect the myriad of problems with which Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh are beset with, thereupon making them surreal places to live, places that are both frenetic and paralysed.

Unbridled expansion of cities in Bangladesh has often meant inept replacement of houses in residential areas of yesteryears with multi-storied luxury apartments, high-rise offices, ritzy shopping malls, cultural centres, sports facilities, private schools and universities. In the process, low-income families have been forced into slum-like neighbourhoods, while the poorest of the poor have been pushed into omnipresent slums, where communicable diseases fester and fires sporadically raze homes to the ground.

Stifling in the summer, often overrun with cockroaches, rats, stray cats and dogs, with trash littered all over the neighbourhood and obnoxious odour emanating from the sewer-less, burlap draped, precariously perched outhouses, a slum is unquestionably a rotten place to stay. In their zeal to gentrify cities so that they become liveable for the upper- and middle-class people, city fathers often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Instead, with a more humane approach, slums can be improved to the point where they become safer and environmentally cleaner places to live. As an example, Harlem in Upper Manhattan in New York City once epitomised poverty, crime and crumbling infrastructure. In the 1980s, urban renewal projects that included community revitalisation and housing rehabilitation programmes radically transformed the ghettos of Harlem into endurable hamlets.

In the race to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of people, cities and suburbs are likely to continue to sprawl across Bangladesh. The sprawl, however, need not be chaotic. In the new cities and suburbs, there should be preservation of some open space through parkland, promenades, scenic easements and cluster zoning that will provide breathing space and a sense of relationship between man-made environment and natural environment. Schools, houses of worship and neighbourhood parks, to name a few, should be within walking distance of the residential areas. This will reduce dependence on cars that are a major cause of global warming, not counting traffic jams. Simply stated, before any amelioration of the grimmer aspects of urban life can be hoped for, long-range green planning is imperative. Otherwise, we will be living in an eco-unfriendly jungle of concrete structures.

As cities grow in size, so does their impact on the environment. Most importantly, they can modify some of the local climatological factors in their immediate vicinity, resulting in a relatively small-scale but tangible variation in the local climate, which is called “urban heat island effect,” or more generally microclimate.

On a hot summer night, when we walk down a city street, we can feel the heat shimmering up from the dark asphalt roads and concrete pavements which absorb copious amount of solar radiation, whereas in wintertime, we can see clouds of steam pouring out of manholes or sewer gratings. With the loss of evaporative cooling normally provided by vegetation and exposed soil, the gain of reradiated heat from these surfaces, sewers and buildings, along with the heat produced by industries, the mean temperature of cities is on the rise. While microclimate does not produce dramatic changes in temperature, over the years the cumulative effects of these heat sources are clearly noticeable in the average temperatures of 1970s Dhaka and present Dhaka.

For the improvement of urban microclimate, it is important to maintain and/or create cold-air areas, open spaces and wooded patches. Trees an effective tool at fighting global warming will help to reduce temperature of the air by a process known as transpiration cooling. Furthermore, connected parks and green zones, preservation of lakes and rivers, creation of artificial water surfaces and large-scale heat retention expanses are essential elements of a habitable city.

Apart from microclimate, buildings contribute substantially to global warming because they use lots of energy usually generated by fossil fuels for cooking, lighting, heating and cooling. The reduction of heat loss in the winter and cool air in the summer through poorly insulated old windows is the key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Additionally, within the context of local environmental and socioeconomic factors, several studies have been conducted to find innovative green solutions to the many climate-related problems caused by buildings. One of them is white roof which, according to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, reflects three times the sunshine than a green rooftop garden that is used in many residential buildings in Dhaka.

In terms of air quality, Dhaka ranks as one of the worst cities in the world. Because the city is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, it is often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” Indeed, the entire population of Bangladesh is regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air.

Most of the pollutants in Dhaka’s air and elsewhere are anthropogenic, such as effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. Other sources are roadside waste dump facilities, methane-emitting agricultural waste, contaminants from foundries, not to mention dust and smoke from the thousands of slender, cylindrical chimneys attached to the wood- and coal-fired kilns of brick fields. The large quantities of pernicious pollutants emitted by these sources are precursors to the formation of smog, the worst form of air pollution with dangerous health consequences, especially for children and the elderly.

While Millennium Development Goals have helped many countries combat the issue of unsafe drinking water, majority of Bangladeshis still do not have access to clean water. Tap water supplied by local municipalities is dirty and therefore undrinkable, while people in the countryside are drinking water contaminated with arsenic and other life-threatening heavy metals.

A possible solution to the freshwater problem is rain and the roof a la Bermuda. Made of limestone blocks and sliced into individual slates, the roofs of houses in Bermuda are fashioned in step-like sloped surfaces with gutter ridges to collect rainwater, the most precious liquid in the tiny island nation. The ridges direct the water through a long concrete trough to a pipe that filters and funnels it into a tank buried alongside the house so that it can be pumped and used throughout the household.

All the cities in Bangladesh are dirty beyond description. Garbage can be found everywhere—by roads, on the roads; around parks, in the parks; by rivers, in the rivers; inside trash cans, outside trash cans. Garbage disposal is not a recent problem, though it certainly has been made more difficult by the sharp rise in population in the past few decades. Despite some progress, the overwhelming mass of household garbage is thrown into landfills in the outlying areas of the cities and left untreated. These unsightly and smelly midden heaps not only emit poisonous gases that are harmful to human health, but also provide a cosy home for the disease carrying vermin, mosquitoes and flies.

The problem is exacerbated during the monsoon season, when cities become submerged for days in a row. Consequently, the storm drains, albeit few and far between, clog up and the cities resemble a huge pond filled with filth and scum.

Finding a clean public toilet anywhere in Bangladesh is next to impossible. Decency dictates that women must suffer, yet allows men to indulge in the malpractice of emptying their bladder by the roadside. The offensive smell of urine, together with malodorous roadside trash, not only makes walking on the sidewalks a horrific experience, it also contributes markedly to odour pollution which, in turn, worsens the already poor quality of air.

As much as the government is battling to tackle this civic problem with signs at strategic points warning of prosecution for infractions, the seemingly endless number of offenders ignore the warning and happily continue to relieve themselves in public. That being so, we have no choice but shame the perpetrators.

Humans are not the only waste producers in Bangladesh. Industries are not far behind. Of the many industries which add hazardous wastes to the load already present from domestic wastes, two stands out conspicuously. They are garment factories and tanneries.

The canals and wetlands of Savar and Ashulia, located near Dhaka and home to hundreds of garment factories, are now effectively retention ponds of untreated waste and effluents produced by these factories. Nearby rivers are so polluted with toxic materials that they run purple, blue and black. Aside from making agricultural land barren and useless, the pollutants are loading the local air with noxious fumes.

Hazaribagh in the heart of Dhaka was once home to a slew of tanneries. Before their relocation to Savar, the tanneries discharged unprocessed liquid waste containing deadly chemicals into the nearby ponds, rivers and canals. These wastes eventually ended up in the Buriganga River whose once pristine blue water now looks like turbid sewage water. Needless to say, the river has suffered irreversible biodiversity loss.

Another plague from which there is virtually no escape, irrespective of where we are—in our homes and gardens, on our streets, inside our cars, parks and in other public places, is noise. Like second-hand smoke, noise has become an unwanted pollutant produced by others and imposed on us without our consent, often against our will. Without question, noise can damage hearing and there is no threshold for ear damage. But more subtly, noise increases tensions already heightened by other stresses of urban life.

Among the many sources of outdoor noise pollution, cacophony produced by the horns of automobiles, trucks and buses are the worst offenders, followed closely by construction equipment. The sound intensity level from these sources often exceeds 120 decibels, which is the threshold of pain.

Noise is a controllable pollution, but sadly the government has done very little to alleviate the suffering of its citizens from this scourge. Nevertheless, there is something we can do to stop noise from invading the interior of our house. Within the buildings, we can dampen sound significantly by constructing walls with dead air spaces.

Forests are the lungs of a nation, purifying the air we breathe. However, the increasing demand for land for agriculture, homes and industries caused by population explosion is taking a heavy toll on the forests in Bangladesh. To meet the demands, close to half the forests have been destroyed in the last 20 years or so by indiscriminately cutting down trees. Moreover, once the coal-fired Rampal Power Plant goes into operation, one of the most ecologically sensitive rainforests in the world – the Sundarbans – will be in its firing line.

Lest we forget, nature not only abhors vacuum, it abhors human interference, too. A true wilderness should be viewed bio-centrically. The forests should be free to burn, free to be blown away by storms, free to be washed away by floods and free to be attacked by insects. These are natural events to which forests are adapted to respond. The new forests that will emerge may be different from the old ones, but that is the way things change in a natural ecosystem.

The present problems of Bangladesh, alarming no doubt, are not unsolvable. There is every reason to expect that the country can be made habitable. To that end, policymakers need to know how transportation system can be designed to meet the needs of the people; what makes one neighbourhood exciting to live in and another boring; what human needs are not met in present housing; what environmental steps should be taken to improve the quality of air and water, and so on and so forth? The answers to these questions can then be incorporated in any future plans for redesigning old cities or building new ones, so that they not only become liveable but enjoyable as well.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s transformation into a liveable country cannot be achieved overnight. It will perhaps take decades, but before that climate change will leave an indelible mark on the country, thereby making the task of restoring liveability conditions even more arduous, mainly in the low-lying coastal areas.

Bangladesh is Mother Nature’s punching bag. The country is experiencing extreme weather phenomena that are growing only more dramatic, more devastating and more lethal by the year. Of the many threats from climate change, sea level rise will certainly be amongst the most impactful, making the entire coastline of Bangladesh uninhabitable and potentially displacing tens of millions of people in the coming years.

Preparing for climate change is much more than a technological challenge. It is primarily a problem of mindset and collective action. The way to outsmart breakdown due to climate change is to build climate resilience. We can surely do this by adopting environmentally sound lifestyles, not by reverting to antiquated ways, but by creating a new synthesis, a new way of life that utilises modern technology and knowledge to protect the Earth’s environment from destruction and foster its renewal.

Finally, grappling with the problems of Bangladesh and keeping the country liveable is a daunting task. Even so, with clear vision and open mind, it can be done. Success will hinge on the courage of the government to make bold moves and resist the temptation of easy fixes. Once we adapt ourselves to the vagaries of climate change, as well as achieve the balance of a liveable environment, life will be worth living for our children and grandchildren.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Enemies of Bangladesh striking from within

More than fifty years ago, Bangladeshi people fought a bloody war against Pakistani brutal oppression. In suppressing the legitimate demands of the people of then East Pakistan, Pakistani military authority had the ready and willing support of armed gang of the 5th columnists – the so-called Islamist thugs trying to save the country for religion.

Bangladesh won the independence after shedding tremendous amount of bloodshed, sacrificing the dignity of tens of thousands of Bengali women, millions of people had to flee their homeland by crossing the borders in all directions to India. After nine months of war, the country achieved independence by beating the Pakistani force.

Now the 5th columnists are attacking the very foundation of Bangladesh from within and to add insults to injury on the day of independence, on the day when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inspired the Bengali people to rise up and fight for our national dignity, for our national identity. How dare these Hefazat-e-Islam thugs attack Bangladesh’s national emblem as well as national properties when the country was primed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its independence.

These Hefazati people are not only the enemy of the State, they are also the vicious people and criminals. They cannot tolerate the celebration of independence of Bangladesh, which broke away from their stark racist religious state of Pakistan. Even after 50 years, they are hankering after their fanatic country Pakistan and scheming to end the secular state of Bangladesh.

Now the question is, who are these Hefazati people and how did they get such a strong foothold in the country which they opposed so violently? To answer this question, one has to look back to the political history of Bangladesh. The killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, on 15th August 1975 was the turning point when the country had been wrenched out from secularism towards Islamisation. Ziaur Rahman who took control of the country after the turmoil of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death started to change Bangladesh Constitution from secularity to Islamic Constitution, putting Bismillaher Rahmanir Rahim in the Preamble of the Constitution and stating Islam as the State religion. He then allowed Rajakars, al-Badr and other blatant religious groups who were violently involved in killing innocent people during the liberation war to come back to Bangladesh.  

At the same time, Saudi money started pouring in to open madrasas – Qawmi type which is of the fundamentalist variety – throughout the whole country. In addition, mosques were established in almost every street corner of the capital city and all major cities of the country with Saudi money. Ziaur Rahman surreptitiously encouraged these religious activities and with the explicit and implicit support of these religious bigots, he started a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). After Ziaur Rahman, Mohammad Ershad continued in the same vane allowing and encouraging clandestine foreign supply of funds for political-religious purposes.

At the moment, there are at least 64,000 Qawmi madrasas in the country and the number of students is assumed to be nearly 10 million (as par Institute of Commonwealth Studies). The exact number of madrasas or madrasa students is not known as these madrasas are not registered and regulated by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, as these madrasas are financed privately. That is where the problem lies and the dark side of madrasa education starts to emerge. It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia as the main sponsor of the Salafist / Wahhabi ideology is the financier of these Qawmi madrasas and mosques, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia also financed the setting up of Ibn Sina banks, Ibn Sina hospitals, universities, primary schools and even bus services and hotels in Bangladesh. The tentacles of Islamic financial activities go far and wide and are deeply rooted. Obviously, with such financial muscle comes the political muscle and any democratic government of a relatively poor country would be hard pressed to confront them.  

Hefazat-e-Islam as a political organisation emerged in 2010 when millions Qawmi madrassah people were readily available to populate this blatantly communal organisation. In fact, Hefazat has become the political forum for these Madrasa-trained people who have no vocation or skill to offer, other than simply reciting some verses from Quran without even understanding anything about it. These madrasas only produced millions of morons and enemies of the State. These people are total dead weight to the country.

Over the years, these madrasa-trained people had been piling up and they would now demand employment. That they are not suitable for any productive work is beyond their comprehension. However, the government should have warned them before they were allowed to go down the blind alley and now it falls on the government to train them and move them towards the constructive sector of the economy. These people, as they stand now, are now primed to be radicalised and can very easily be turned into Islamic terrorists.    

Demonstrating against foreign leaders or foreign powers, vandalising private and public properties, attacking minorities and their properties etc would seem to be the pastimes for these people. The government must stop them firmly. The whole sector of madrasa education should be closed down without any delay. The problem that the military-people-turned-politician had created in the past to get a foothold in the political field has to be tackled now. The country has to bear the brunt of the thuggery of Hefazati people by deploying the Border Guards to protect foreign leaders and saving government and minority properties, but can this extra vigil continue indefinitely? The root cause, the source of the problem needs to be tackled head on; otherwise, the mayhem caused by these illiterate madrasa-trained people may continue.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Economic, International, Political

Smallholder farmers in Bangladesh at risk from country’s growing prosperity

Today, Bangladesh has almost everything going for it; pre covid-19 growth rate had been one of the highest in the developing world, social sector achievements have been exemplary during the covid-19 period (2020 and early part of 2021), the country is faring much better than many other countries. Columnists, commentators of development experiences have been hailing the country for proudly shrugging off the infamous label of ‘international basket case’ at its independence in 1971, and rightly claiming a middle income spot now.

Unfortunately, however, the benefits of growth do not seem to be shared by all. The most deprived people seem to be the country’s 9 million or so smallholder farmers (SHFs). The SHFs (defined by landholding size of 2.5 acres (1.0 hectare) or less) constitute 84 percent of all farmers. One in every four in Bangladesh depend directly on small farming for their livelihoods, more if ancillary activities like food processing, marketing and transportation of agricultural products are included.

The country’s food security largely depends on the SHFs, and the government can ill afford to neglect them.  Yet, the SHFs belong to the poorest segment of the country’s population, and they are facing a slow process of decline.

Two factors are primarily responsible for this outcome.

The first is the rising income inequality which is marginalising the large majority of the smallholders.

The country’s income inequality has kept on increasing, and the SHFs, mostly at the bottom end of the income scale, have experienced a decline in their relative share of the country’s income.

The second and the more menacing threat facing the SHFs is loss of their agricultural land over time.

Available data, though rather fragmented and often not very consistent, indicate a worrisome trend of loss of land by agriculture, the large burden of which is borne by the SHFs.

Information emerging from rather infrequent land censuses as well as surveys by researchers indicate a decline of agricultural land area from 20.2 million acres (8.2 million hectares) in 1984 to 17.8 million acres (7.2 million hectares) in 1996 i.e., by 2.4 million acres (1.0 million hectare). This is about 12.0 per cent over the 12-year period.

Over the longer term, 1984-2008, there has been a decline in agricultural land. Bangladesh seems to have lost about one per cent of cultivated land per annum (about 80,000 hectares) over this period due to non-agricultural uses such as urban expansion, expansion of rural habitation, construction of roads and highways, economic zones, and other infrastructure facilities.

There is evidence of land loss brought out by other studies too. The Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI) shows that over the 44-year period of 1976 and 2010, a total of 43 thousand hectares of land per year seems to have been lost to agriculture. A private survey of 6 divisions in Bangladesh shows that land loss is very high in Dhaka (a Division with very high development activities) than in Khulna. Given the growth momentum in recent years, it can be hypothesised that land loss has increased in recent years.

The loss of land however is not due to coercive tactics of the rich and the powerful, nor of the state.  

The coercive tactics by the private sector are not ruled out, but much more is lost through operation of market forces, though purchases by both rural and urban entrepreneurs, tax evaders, money launderers and speculators. Small farmers (needing cash to meet their various economic, social and health related exigencies) succumb to the offer of cash by the rich purchasers. Encroaching salinity, river erosion, floods and droughts increase the magnitude of land loss. These natural disasters ‘force them’ to sell a part or whole of their holding ‘voluntarily’.

But it is not only the private sector interests that gobble up agricultural land. The same is done by the public sector too, but for the ‘noble purpose’ of rapid economic growth. Big public projects like power plants, roads and highways, economic zones, airports, cantonments, parks etc., require acquisition of large swathes of land. Land holders are now compensated handsomely at about 2-3 times of the market price of land. The poor and cash starved SHFs even wish that their land is ‘marked’ for acquisition by government.

The government policy of handsome compensation unwittingly becomes an instrument for land loss by poor SHFs.

Growth pushing back the frontiers of agriculture is not unique for Bangladesh only. China, for example, is losing about 1 million hectares of land every year, and the USA about 400,000 hectares every year. But the difference is that while those countries can afford to lose, given their large land mass; Bangladesh, with high population and low land/man ratio, can ill afford to do that.

This dilemma between unhindered growth and protecting the landholding of SHFs raises the critical question: should Bangladesh sacrifice growth to protect smallholder interests?

This is an enduring dilemma, and this is certainly not what is suggested. Policies can be crafted without sacrificing either. Bangladesh badly needs infrastructure projects, economic zones and investments to continue its upwards trend of prosperity. But that does not mean that it will have to be at the cost of SHFs. It is possible to craft policies to accommodate both.

What is required is a much stricter land utilisation policy, not only by making construction ‘going vertical’, but also limiting the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. The government could impose hefty penalties for land purchased for speculative and money laundering purchases. Further, the government could create a national digital ledger, which will contain information on land codified as agricultural (including fishery, livestock) and non-agricultural.  Conversion could be allowed only after careful review and only on national interests, and even that after public hearing of the views of land right groups/environmentalists and public representatives.

In addition, there should be increase in investments (i) on research to increase productivity of SHFs, by developing new and more productive varieties of plants, (ii) to improve transparency of land sales by Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), also called Blockchain, (iii) to reduce distress sales of land by farmers by providing loans on easy terms, and (iv) further increasing taxes on non-agricultural land. These policies if carefully developed and implemented could go a long way to stop the rot of our agriculture.

Dr Atiqur Rahman is an economist and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD,

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Mind-boggling Saudi mendacity

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia portrays itself as the holiest place in the whole of Muslim world of 54 sovereign states and claims to be the custodian of two most sacred mosques in Islam. But the reality cannot be furthest from such exulted claims. The country is bereft with corruption, misogyny, brutality, inhumanity, deception and downright criminality. No country in the whole world can match or even come close to Saudi Arabia’s egregious claim of virtuosity and the reality of unfettered criminality.

Let us scrutinise Saudi Arabia’s activities in modern times and the havoc these activities are creating worldwide. To do so, we have to start from the roots of Saudi Arabia, its barbaric activities, its total absence of humanity and its criminal use of religion for political purposes. Overall, this country wants to gain prominence and supremacy at the back of religion and to do so, nothing is off the table.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia came into being in 1932 when Abdulaziz ibn Saud managed to beat his rival, Ikhwan in the battle of Sabilla in 1930 with the covert support of Britain and named the country after his family name, Saud. In other words, the country became the possession of the Saud dynasty. The country and the people were extremely impoverished at that time. But as luck would have it, in 1938 vast reserve of oil was discovered in areas close to the Persian Gulf by a British oil company. As petrodollars started pouring in, the country prospered, despite blatant corruption. The oil revenue in 2019 was $202 billion, despite oil price being less than half of what it was a year ago.

Saudi Arabia’s objectives with its vast oil wealth rests on two main planks: (i) legitimising and securing the rule of ibn Saud over the country and (ii) gaining undisputed supremacy in the Islamic world by eliminating any vestiges of dissent to their Sunni sect from other religious sects in Islam. Needless to say that Islam, being the political religion, readily lends itself to use overtly and covertly to achieve the above mentioned objectives of the Saudi Sunni dynasty.

When Abdulaziz ibn Saud conquered Riyadh in 1902 by sheer brutality, he realised that the fractious regions of desert lands of Arabia could only be brought together under his control if the overarching umbrella of religion was established – an uncanny resemblance of what Prophet Mohammed felt some 1400 years earlier. He revived an alliance drawn between Mohammad ibn Saud (the founder of 1st Saud dynasty) and the preacher Abd-al Wahhab in 1744 whereby ibn Saud and his heirs pledged to protect the Wahhabi dynasty from the prevailing animosity towards it in exchange of retaining the proprietary right over this Wahhabi ideology by the Saudis. This Wahhabi ideology mirrored the original teachings of Islam as encoded in Salafism, but with more vitriol and viciousness.  It suited Abdulaziz ibn-Saud and his band of warrior Islamicists very well to use Wahhabism/Salafism as a tool to impose autocracy in the name of Islam. Thus, Islam became truly a political-military religion.

What ISIL/IS did in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere reflect in totality the Wahhabi ideology which Saudi Arabia propagated and promoted. Few beheadings by IS in camera of ‘infidels’ might have shocked the world; but in Saudi Arabia beheadings of human beings on offences like adultery, apostasy, heresy, insult to prophet Muhammad etc. are almost every day affair. These are all done in Saudi Arabia legitimately under the Sharia Law. That the brutality of Sharia Law conflicts with the Human Rights Provisions to which Saudi Arabia had signed up to does not bother them an iota. Law is what suits the interests of the ruling class in Saudi Arabia; not something that conflicts with their interests.

It may be mentioned that the political Islam, reflecting the Bedouin culture of 7th century in the deserts of Arabia, lends very good helping hand to those bigoted men. As per religion, women are not to be treated equal to men. In fact, in matters of inheritance, a daughter is exactly half of a son. A woman cannot divorce her husband at all in Islam, but a man can divorce his wife by pronouncing ‘divorce’ words three times. If a woman is raped, it is always the fault of the woman – on the grounds that she might have aroused sexuality in the man and hence she is the one to be punished. Many hundreds of migrant women workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Countries are punished every year by long term imprisonment, severe lashing or even beheading when their masters happen to rape them. For fear of their lives, these women workers remain silent. But if they become pregnant, they have to face brutal punishment as prescribed by the Wahhabi ideology.

Saudi Arabia’s other objective is the global domination of Sunni Wahhabism. As the King of Saudi Arabia is the custodian of two holiest mosques in Islam, Sunni domination is effectively his domination. The war in Yemen that is going on from 2014 is due to Saudi Arabia’s attack on Houthi rebels who are mainly Shias. Saudi Arabia had been bombing various parts of the country to kill Houthi rebels and any fatality of innocent civilians were regarded as collateral damage. More than 233,000 civilians have died until the end of 2020 due to the Saudi-led coalition attacks on Yemen, according to UN Humanitarian Office. Millions of children are now facing serious malnutrition and death due to diseases.

Saudi Arabia and its cohorts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) had been funding and fuelling the discontent among the Syrian people against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Alawite belongs to the Shiite sect of Islam, which Saudi Arabia regards as the enemy of Sunni. Other Shiite denominations such as Ismaili, Zaidi, Baha’is and Ahmadiyya are Wahhabis/Salafist enemies. Sufi had been declared non-Muslim. ISIL/IS had been killing these apostates under their occupation, unless they accept Sunni ideology straightaway.

Saudi Arabia is the root of most of the evils, if not all, of the world today. Most of the attackers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 were Saudi fundamentalists. The untold misery of millions of people in Syria, Iraq and other places were due to Saudi inspired rebellion against established regimes. Despite that, the country did not feel any compassion to offer refuge to the dispossessed war victims, although the country has hundreds of billions of dollars and vast unused tracts of land. Saudi and other Wahhabi regimes in the Middle East gave the Fatwah that women (and even girls over 10 or 11) would be required to wear face veil (hijab) and all body veil (burqa) as part of the religious requirement. And now hundreds of millions of women round the world wear these attires, although there is nowhere in the religious books that they are mandatory.

In 2018, a Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who worked for the Washington Post had been killed in Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He advocated liberalisation of strict Wahhabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia and in the process became an enemy of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. When Khashoggi went to Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect his marriage certificate on 2nd October 2018, the death squad was waiting for him. He was murdered, his body was chopped up into pieces and then dumped into the well of the Consul General’s home just across the road. They also enacted an elaborate ploy as one look-alike Khashoggi leaving the consulate through the back door. When Khashoggi did not come out of the consulate hours later, his fiancée (a Turkish national) started enquiring, the Saudi Consulate said at first that they knew nothing about Khashoggi’s whereabout and when she contacted high level Turkish officials, then they said he had left through the back door and produced the video clip to support it. That was a complete fake as reporters found that the imposter was wearing different shoes and different tie. The Turkish government investigated the case and found that Khashoggi had been brutally murdered inside the consulate. Two weeks later, the Saudi government said that he was killed in a fight. Yesterday, the American Intelligence report produced in 2018, which was stopped by Donald Trump’s orders, had been made public and that showed that he was murdered inside the consulate by the direct orders of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. For over two years, the Saudi government had been lying and deceiving the world and Donald Trump was complicit with it.      

There is a humourous saying which asks, when do you know that an Arab is lying? The answer came, when he opens his mouth.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist
Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Literary, Religious

International Mother Language Day

Language is the most important and principal method of communication between humans and only language sets us apart from other animals. Yes, animals do communicate by making noises, by the sign language or by body language. But we, the Homo sapiens, had taken the method of communication to a higher level by inventing language comprising letters, words, punctuation etc in structured forms to convey our feelings by oral and written methods.

Thus, language confers us our mode of expression, our identity, our existential experience. We inherit it from our mothers, almost through umbilical cord – like blood, like nutrition. We develop our tongue like our mothers’ and that is why it is called the mother tongue and the language is called the mother language.

So, when language is challenged, the very identity is challenged. That is what happened immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Two Nation Theory (TNT) propounded by Allama Iqbal in 1930 and supported by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to fork out a separate Muslim State called Pakistan in India was the beginning of Political Islam in India. The low-level sectarianism that had existed in India for centuries had been uplifted to communalism and patriotism by the support of the opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians.

The Indian subcontinent had been divided into India and Muslim Pakistan in August 1947. The province of East Pakistan comprising 55% of the whole country’s population was totally Bengali speaking, whereas West Pakistan having 45% population had Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi as well as Urdu speaking people; with Urdu spoken by about 7% population.

The fault line between the two provinces appeared in less than a year after partition when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in a speech on 21st March 1948 at the Race Course in Dhaka that Urdu would be the only national language of this nation. It was an injustice of monumental scale. It was an attempt to rob the mother language of 55% of the people and impose Urdu in the name of Islam.

The students from university level downwards felt betrayed and humiliated. Only a few months ago they spearheaded the creation of the Muslim State on the assumption that two provinces would be self-governing with their own culture, own language. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Guwahati, Assam in 1946 with more than 500 students from Calcutta to campaign in the plebiscite in Assam for Pakistan. Now they were at the brink of losing their language, their identity!

The students’ movement started to grow; low level local protests merged into sub-district and district levels. From 1948 to 1952 students’ grievances and anger were palpable and at the boiling point. They felt that they had been made to jump, at the urging of the politicians, religious leaders and above all their parents, from frying pan to fire!

The students took a decision to observe the Language Movement Day on 21 February, 1952 throughout the whole province and Dhaka University students took the lead. The government declared Section 144 of the Penal Code in Dhaka and banned all assemblies of more than five people. But schools, colleges and universities were left open and so assemblies of five or more people were inevitable. The government of Pakistan wanted to teach a brutal lesson to the arrogant and disobedient students and thereby to the people of the province!

The students started gathering at the Dhaka University Arts Faculty campus in the morning of 21st February. They wanted to express their demand that Bengali should be one of the national languages of the country. Slowly and cautiously, they emerged through the main gate of the campus and turned left towards the Dhaka Medical College. They had no weapon of any sort and had only placards. Hardly the front the demonstration moved 100 meters or so, the waiting police at the edge of the campus opened fire on the students. Five students died almost instantly with blood spilling over the street and more than 17 students were seriously injured. In less than five years of creation of Pakistan, the students had to pay with their own blood for the sins of their forefathers (and their sins too) for opting for a Muslim State!

First Shaheed Minar in Dhaka in 1952

A day later the university students along with medical college students started building a monument in memory of their fallen students at the side of the road, which was only a stone’s throw away from the campus, and it was completed on 23rd Feb. The police came and with all their brutality desecrated the memory and demolished the monument. It was an insult to the memory of martyred students and an all-out onslaught on the people of East Pakistan. However, a few days later, on 26 February, 1952 the editor of local Bengali newspaper, Daily Azad, inaugurated a new monument within the compound of the Medical College and it had been named as the Shaheed Minar – the Martyrs’ Monument.

The government of Pakistan eventually accepted Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan, when the National Assembly adopted it on 7th May 1954. In Pakistan’s first Constitution in 1956, Bengali and Urdu were given the status of national languages under Article 214.

But what led to the bloodshed of students on the street of Dhaka could not be swept away any more. The constant denigration of Bengali culture and language by the Pakistani government, economic subjugation, employment disparity etc added fuel to the fire of language movement. On 26th March 1971, Pakistani military junta launched an unprovoked attack with full military force on civilians and the Dhaka university students and teachers to teach another lesson. The hitherto tenuous link of Muslim fraternity between the East and West had then broken down completely and after nine months of brutal war, Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh achieved liberation on the 16th of December 1971.

Thus, Bangladesh became the first and only country in the world that fought for and gained freedom to preserve the mother language. In recognition of the unique sacrifice that the Bangladeshis made to establish Bengali as the national language, UNESCO had assigned 21st February as the International Mother Language Day. This day is celebrated throughout the whole world, wherever Bengalis are. The Bengali language is the 5th largest language in the world and is spoken by nearly 275 million people – Bangladesh (162 million), West Bengal (100 million) in India and the diaspora of Bengalis in the world (13 million). The top five languages are: 1. Mandarin Chinese (1051 million); 2. English (510 million); 3. Hindi (490 million); 4. Spanish (420 million) and 5. Bengali 275 million. Bengali is also one the culturally richest languages in the world, enriched by Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1912), Nazrul Islam, DL Roy, Atul Prasad, Bankim Chandra and many more.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist