For a man who still faces a serious threat to his life, Bangladeshi journalist, poet and former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, Shahriar Kabir, is remarkably unemotional while narrating woes people like him encounter in his country. Arrested and detained by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government of Begum Khaleda Zia in December 2001, 56-year-old Kabir is out on bail, but has to mark his presence in court every month. No charge sheet has been filed against him though he was charged with sedition and treason and thrown into jail. Seriously injured in a “staged” accident in 2004, in which his leg was badly broken, Kabir is in New Delhi for its treatment. In an exclusive interview to the Hindustan Times, he sought greater idealism and proactive initiatives from India in supporting the return of Bangladesh to the secular democratic fold.
HT: What would you like India to do? What can it do without appearing to interfere in the internal affairs of a close neighbour?
Kabir: We expect India to play a role and take the initiative to create a forum, maybe, to jointly tackle the menace of increasing fundamentalism and jihadi politics. Within or outside the SAARC framework, we think there should be much greater networking among affected countries. There should be exchange of information and intelligence about the widespread network of the various jihadi organisations, particularly between Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. More than 100 jihadi organisations in Bangladesh make no secret of their affiliations across the region. Until we can identify the full scope of the enemy, how can we tackle it? Also, India’s silence on the nature of the government to be formed in Bangladesh sends the wrong signal.
HT: What is the current situation like in Bangladesh? Has the new caretaker government restored some order?
Kabir: We have welcomed the new government’s decision to postpone elections and the imposition of emergency. This is preferable to the kind of situation that prevailed previously, the kind of election engineering that was going on. Elections in such a situation would have led to open civil war. It was the pressure of civil society and the western countries, particularly the European Union, the United Nations and the United States that finally prevailed. We also appreciate the positive role of the army, particularly junior officers, who refused to get drawn into the political battle.
HT: What motivated the army’s pro-democracy stance, to steer clear of the bitter political battle?
Kabir: The army is not necessarily pro-democracy, but realised that involvement in politics would damage its international image. The army realised it would lose out on its privileged position in international peacekeeping if it got involved in partisan politics. The dream of every young officer joining the army is to go on UN peacekeeping assignments and make some money. Bangladesh has the largest contingent of army men under the UN’s blue flag.