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Bangladesh: Swift Justice

The murders happened 45 years ago, and what remains of the family has been seeking vengeance ever since. One of the killers was caught a week ago – and he was hanged at one minute past midnight on Sunday morning. Justice long delayed, but swift enough when it came.

Abdul Majed, then a young officer in the Bengal Lancers, an elite unit in the Bangladesh Army, was a member of the military team that assassinated the ‘Father of the Nation’, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975.

They slaughtered almost all of his family, too: his wife, three sons (the youngest was 10), two daughters-in-law, and all the servants in the presidential mansion – twenty persons in all. Mujibur Rahman, who led the struggle for independence from Pakistan, had turned out to be a poor choice as president, but it still seemed excessive to murder almost everybody he loved too.

The only survivors of Mujib’s family were his two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, who were in Europe and missed the massacre. But the murderers had done what the army wanted, whether or not its senior officers knew about the coup in advance, and they were not punished. On the contrary, they were rewarded.

Mujib’s assassination inaugurated a long period of military rule in Bangladesh, with further coups and assassinations, but officially the men who killed Mujibur Rahman’s family were heroes. Embarrassing heroes, so they were mostly given posts as military attaches in Bangladeshi embassies overseas, but a special law was passed granting them immunity from prosecution for the crime.

Indeed, for twenty years they were looked after very well. Abdul Majed, whose personal best was the cold-blooded murder of four leaders of Mujib’s Awami League party in prison three full months after the massacre, was given a series of senior jobs in the civil service after he retired from the army, ending up as director of the National Savings Directorate.

And then the roof fell in. Democracy returned, and in the 1996 election the Awami League won the election. Not only that, but its leader was Mujibur Rahman’s elder daughter, Sheik Hasina, who promptly became prime minister. Half the conspirators, including Abdul Majed, had the wit to flee the country at once; five others were arrested and held for trial.

It was a long wait. First parliament had to cancel the immunity law (1996) and then there was a trial (1998) in which all the murderers were found guilty. The six who had fled abroad were tried in absentia, but there was no doubt about their guilt since they had all proclaimed it themselves. So they were all sentenced to death.

First there was a series of appeals, and then Sheikh Hasina lost the next election and everything stalled for a while, and then she won again in 2009. The Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences, and the five men in prison in Bangladesh were hanged in January 2010, thirty-five years after the crime.

But the six who were abroad, including Abdul Majed, were still safe – until a week ago, when Abdul Majed left Calcutta in India, where he had been hiding for 22 years, and returned to Bangladesh. Secretly, he may have thought, but he immediately visited his family, and there was undoubtedly somebody watching them.

He was arrested in a rickshaw in Dhaka last Tuesday (7 April). One quick appeal for presidential clemency, instantly rejected, and he was at the end of a rope by early on Sunday morning. Case closed.

The other fugitives, now living in Canada, the United States or Pakistan, will probably never be caught, but it doesn’t really matter. They are all in their 60s now, and they have already spent a quarter-century in exile and in hiding. Punishment enough, perhaps. Besides, in a weird way they may have done Bangladesh a favour.

Mujibur Rahman was already a dictator and well on the way to becoming a monster when they killed him. With the enormous prestige he had as the ‘Father of the Country’, he would have been very hard to get rid of any other way.

Nothing can justify what the murderers did, and their decision to slaughter his entire family is incomprehensible. They were ruthless young men on the make, not far-sighted patriots, and the immediate aftermath of their crime was just a string of military dictators who did the country no favours at all. But it all ended pretty well.

The politics of Bangladesh remains turbulent and sometimes ugly, but as a country it is a success story. It is very crowded and poor in resources – Henry Kissinger once called it a ‘basket case’ – but its population is under control and it has the fastest-growing economy in Asia. Its GDP per capita has already overtaken Pakistan’s and it’s about to overtake India’s.

Not bad for a basket case.
To shorten to700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“The other…way”)

Kashmir: The ‘Wounded Civilisation’ Strikes Back

God knows what novelist V.S. Naipaul really meant half a century ago when he called India ‘the wounded civilisation’ in his travelogue-cum-psychoanalysis book about the home of his ancestors. But it is a handy phrase, because it encapsulates the vision that drove Prime Minister Narendra Modi to destroy the deal that bound Kashmir to India on Monday.

There is going to be a war over this. Certainly another war in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people were killed in the last uprising against Indian rule (1989-2007). Maybe also another war between India and Pakistan. There have been three already, of course, so maybe that’s not such a big deal – but this would be their first war since they both got nuclear weapons.

When Britain gave up its Indian empire in 1947 the general rule was that Muslim-majority areas went to Pakistan, Hindu-majority areas to India. Kashmir was tricky, however, because it was a ‘princely state’ with a Muslim majority but a Hindu ruler – and in the princely states, which were never under direct British rule, it was the prince who decided.

The Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir (to give the state its full name) hesitated for a while, hoping to turn it into his own independent country. When the new government of Pakistan lost patience and sent ‘tribesmen’ into Kashmir to overthrow him, he quickly opted for India instead – and set in motion a conflict that is still going 72 years later.

India should probably have cut a deal with Pakistan that divided the state, giving Kashmir (current population 7 million, almost all Muslims) to Pakistan and keeping Jammu (current pop. 5 million, two-thirds Hindu) for itself. Instead, it tried to keep it all – and wound up in a war with Pakistan.

At the end of that war, India still held the densely populated Vale of Kashmir and Jammu, but Pakistan controlled the northern and western parts of the former princely state. The ‘Line of Control’ has not shifted since, despite two further Indo-Pakistani wars, and there is no mutually agreed border. Bill Clinton once called the cease-fire line “the most dangerous place in the world.”

The Congress Party that led India to independence was militantly secular, but it realised that the country’s only Muslim-majority state must have a special status. Jammu and Kashmir accepted India’s control over foreign affairs, defence and communications, but the J&K legislature kept its authority over everything else.

That included laws forbidding people not born in Jammu and Kashmir to settle in the state or own property there. Fair enough, as the relatively poor Muslim majority in the state feared being bought out or overwhelmed by Hindu incomers from the rest of India, which is 80% Hindu and now one-and-a-third billion strong.

Various Indian central governments nibbled away at Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy over the years, and there were periods of armed protest against the erosion of its status. But the state remained legally autonomous, its rights entrenched in the Indian constitution – until last Monday. Then Narendra Modi’s sectarian Hindu government, fresh from its landslide May election victory, swept them all away.

Modi obviously knows he’s asking for trouble. Ten thousand more Indian troops were moved into Kashmir (where there is already a huge military presence) in the past week. On Monday phone lines in Kashmir were cut, the internet was shut down, and elected Kashmiri leaders were arrested. New Delhi expects at least another uprising in Kashmir, and maybe another war with Pakistan. Why is Modi doing this?

Because the notion of the ‘wounded civilisation’ is at the heart of the Hindu nationalism that has brought Modi to power. According to this simplistic narrative, all of India’s past misfortunes and current problems are due to the fact that the Indian subcontinent (‘South Asia’) was conquered and ruled by foreigners for most of the past thousand years.

For the most recent couple of centuries it was the British empire, but at least the British went home again. For many centuries before that it was Muslims – foreign invaders at first, and then their Indian-born Muslim descendants and converts – who ruled most of the subcontinent. And they never went home: one-third of South Asia’s population, including 15% of India’s, is Muslim today.

Every nationalist movement lays claim to victimhood, and for aggrieved Hindu nationalists a Muslim-majority Indian state with special rights is a permanent insult. Abolishing those rights was one of Modi’s main election promises, and he is now delivering on it. Even if the heavens fall.

They probably won’t. The Kashmiri insurgency will certainly reignite, and Pakistan will feel obliged to help the uprising in some way. Some thousands, or more likely some tens of thousands, will die, and Kashmir will be an occupied war zone for a long time to come, but India and Pakistan will probably manage to veer away from all-out war once again.

But maybe they won’t, in which case we will all find out how well mutual nuclear deterrence works between two countries that are actually fighting a war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“India…world”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Xinjiang – The Silence of the Muslims

Muslim governments were not silent when Burma murdered thousands of Rohingya, its Muslim minority, and expelled 700,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh. They were unanimous in their anger when the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But they are almost silent on China’s attempt to suppress Islam in its far western province, Xinjiang.

It is the most brazen frontal assault on Muslims in modern history. Up to a million Chinese citizens have been sent to concentration camps in Xinjiang for the non-crime of being Muslim. They are also guilty of the non-crime of being a ten-million-strong ethnic minority, mostly Uighurs but including a million and a half Kazakhs, who do not feel sufficiently ‘Chinese’, but Islam is the focus of the state’s anger.

And in the face of this repression, the 49 Muslim-majority countries of the world have said almost nothing. Malaysia refused to send a dozen Uighur refugees back to China last year, four members of Kuwait’s parliament made a public protest in January, and Turkey loudly condemned China’s behaviour last month, but the other 46 governments have assiduously avoided the issue. It is very strange.

When Turkey finally did cut loose, foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “It is no longer a secret that more than a million Uighur Turks exposed to arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing” in Chinese prisons….“The reintroduction of concentration camps in the 21st century and the systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities against the Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity.”

But even then, other Muslim countries remained silent. With the honourable exception of Al-Jazeera, the issue is rarely even mentioned in the Arab media, and popular awareness of what is happening is minimal in big Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Why?

It’s true that the mass repression of the Uighurs and other Muslims in China only became known abroad in the past year, although it was already state policy at least two years ago.

It’s true, too, that a lot of the evidence is circumstantial. While there are plenty of first-person reports of the brutal treatment of the Uighurs, for example, the estimates of how many are actually imprisoned – “up to a million”, which would be one-tenth of all the Muslims in Xinjiang – are really estimates of how many the camps could hold, based on satellite observations of their size.

China denies both the scale and the purpose of the repression. These camps, it says, are ‘vocational training centres’ that tackle ‘extremism’ through ‘thought transformation’ (what used to be called ‘brainwashing’, an old political tradition in Communist China).

The detainees are held indefinitely – there are no formal charges or sentences, but hardly anybody has been released in the past couple of years – and are allegedly volunteers. They are ‘trainees’, said the top Chinese official in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, last October, who are grateful for the opportunity to “reflect on their mistakes.”

Shohrat Zakir is obviously a Muslim name: as always, there are collaborators and careerists among the oppressed. But it is a classic late colonial situation, with a Communist twist.

The population of Xinjiang was over 90% Muslim and Turkic-speaking when the new Communist regime in China reconquered the region in 1949. Beijing’s original solution, as in Tibet to the south, was to drown the native population in Han Chinese immigrants: Muslims are now only 45% of the population.

When the inevitable push-back came – anti-Chinese race riots and some terrorist attacks – the Chinese regime responded with intense surveillance and repression of the native population. Part of the package was an attempt to curb Islamic observance and the use of the local Turkic language. And when that wasn’t producing the desired result, Beijing began expanding the ‘re-education centres’ that now hold up to a tenth of the Muslim population.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Assimilation to the Han Chinese norm was the policy of all Chinese governments even before the Communist takeover. What is surprising is the response – or rather, the lack of response – of Muslim governments elsewhere.

Why are they silent? Mainly because China is lavishing loans and grants on them: $20 billion in loans to Arab countries, a rumoured $6 billion to Pakistan, even more to the nearby Muslim countries of Central Asia ($27 billion in joint industrial projects in Kazakhstan alone). They need the money, so they shut up. So do their tame media.

When the de facto dictator of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited
China recently, he endorsed China’s right to take “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures in Xinjiang. Of course, he needs China’s support in fighting off the accusations that he ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi even more than he needs the money.

Xinjiang’s Muslims have been abandoned by the ‘umma’, the world community of Muslims. They are on their own, and they are suffering.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“The detainees…twist”; and “When…money”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

India-Pakistan: Maybe War, But Not a Water War

After the terrorist attack on Indian troops in Kashmir two weeks ago that killed 40 Indian soldiers, but before Tuesday’s retaliatory air strikes across the border into Pakistan by the Indian Air Force, the Indian government did something unprecedented. It threatened to cut off Pakistan’s water. Or at least, it sounded like that.

On 21 February, Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister, tweeted: “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” Dangerous talk: that way lies nuclear war.

In December 2001, after a Pakistan-backed terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, there was a seminar in Karachi designed to calm everybody down. It was going quite well until somebody alleged that India had plans to use the ‘water weapon’. At that point a Pakistani participant stated flatly that any conflict over water would lead to a nuclear first strike against India by Pakistan.

So Nitin Gadkari’s threat had everybody scared – for about five minutes. Then it became clear that it was only hot air. He was just referring to an existing plan to build a dam on the Ravi River, one of six that feed the giant Indus river system.

It would stop some of that river’s water from flowing on into Pakistan, but all the water in the Ravi belongs to India according to a 1960 treaty between the two countries. India has been letting some of it flow through, but it doesn’t have to.

India could do a great deal of harm to Pakistan if it chose to. Five of the Indus’s six tributaries flow across Indian territory before they reach Pakistan, and 85% of Pakistan’s food is grown on land irrigated by the waters of the Indus system.

Ignorant Indian nationalists often think threats about water are a good way to control Pakistan. In fact, they are a good way to get nuked. But there’s an election in India this spring, and Gadkari is not the sharpest tool in the box.

As soon as the grown-ups intervened, the ‘water weapon’ was off the table, which is a good thing. But there is now a ‘limited war’ underway between India and Pakistan, and it is getting less limited by the hour.

The suicide attack on Indian troops in Kashmir two weeks ago was the deadliest in three decades, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, a militant Islamist group based in Pakistan, took credit for it. The retaliatory air strikes ordered by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi were the first to cross the border into Pakistan proper since the 1971 war.

Now Pakistani planes have bombed Indian territory, and another Indian fighter that crossed into Pakistan has been shot down and its pilot captured. There is shell-fire both ways along the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Why does this sort of thing go on happening? The short answer, alas, is because the Pakistani army needs it to continue.

When the Indian and Pakistani leaders signed the Lahore Declaration of 1999, committing the two countries to a peaceful resolution of the conflict over Kashmir, the Pakistani army and its accompanying militants almost immediately invaded the Kashmiri district of Kargil, on the Indian side of the LoC.

It took quite a serious little war for the Indian army to push them out again – but then, the whole object of the operation, from the Pakistani army’s point of view, was to have a little war. They didn’t need to win. They just had to kill the peace process.

In 2008 Pakistan’s president said that the country was willing to adopt a ‘no first use’ policy for its nuclear weapons. Shortly afterwards, while Pakistan’s foreign minister was in Delhi, Pakistan-based militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba slaughtered 166 people in a terrorist attack in Mumbai (Bombay). Like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba has close links with the Pakistani armed forces.

And when India’s Prime Minister Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan in 2016, talking peace and friendship, Jaish-e-Mohammad militants attacked the Indian airbase at Pathankot one week later. Is there a pattern here?

Other countries have armies, but Pakistan’s army has a country. The army dominates not only politics but the economy. It sells insurance, clothes, meat, and concrete. It owns huge chunks of the country’s real estate. It provides very well for its officers while they are on active service, and also in retirement.

It will continue to control the lion’s share of the economy only so long as it has the threat of the Indian ‘enemy’ as an excuse, so it works hard to keep that threat alive. The Indians are no angels in this relationship – maybe they should ask themselves why they even want Kashmir – but it is Pakistan’s army that keeps the game alive.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“India…box”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.