Centre for Bangladesh Studies (CBS) and the Bangladesh chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) are the two organisations from this country that are part of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the organisation that won the Nobel peace prize 2017. ICAN describes itself as “a coalition of non-governmental organizations in one hundred countries promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty.”
The fact that two Bangladeshi organisations are part of the grand coalition that won the Nobel peace prize this year has not created much of a stir, or even raised any noticeable interest in the country. It has, perhaps, been seen as a lesser recognition; a prize won not through work that can be substantiated, but by mere association. However, CBS would have anyone challenge that assumption, as we learn from our interview with Arup Rahee, the general secretary of CBS.
By citizens, for citizens
CBS's office is a one kitchen, two-room, one washroom establishment on the roof top of a three storey building in Dhanmondi. Its unassuming appearance betrays the mechanic consistency of the organisation. Since its inception, CBS has been relentless in organising discussion circles, campaigning for important causes, holding seminars, releasing methodically researched reports and meticulously documenting its activities. “And it's all done by volunteers,” says Arup Rahee.
Formed as a not-for-profit trust, the organisation identifies itself as a “think tank”. CBS evolved from an organisation called 'Lokoj' that Arup Rahee had founded with a group of like minded friends in 1999. The group morphed into CBS when Rahee and others felt the need for a more systematic approach to their activism. “We wanted our work to continue through an institution and not have it confined to particular individuals,” Rahee said. Thus, in 2012 CBS was formed.
CBS didn't have an office when it started. It eventually gathered enough fund to get its office space one year later. But relying solely on public contributions for its funding has proven difficult. “People relate to a cause more easily when their contributions are used to treat cancer patients and tangible outcomes like that. Our work is academic and it is not apparent to a normal person how that helps society at large,” says Rahee.
While CBS operates within that reality, Rahee is far from disheartened. “We often have more people attending our events than we can provide room for,” he says. Their seminars and lecture series on hefty subjects – Bangladesh-India relations, feminism in Bangladesh, destruction of rivers, nuclear disarmament - have attracted young people who have an acute interest in engaging with these issues.
Even though that encourages Rahee and keeps CBS going, the lack of fund has continued to be a struggle. “We dread reaching the fateful time at the end of a month when rent is due,” Rahee says, smiling. Yet, he feels that running CBS with donations from private citizens forms the DNA of the organisation. “Being funded by individual contributors is part of who we are,” Rahee said.
Focusing on an immediate threat
When you look at the issues CBS engages with and researches on, it becomes apparent that the organisation is astutely aware of the social, cultural and political paradigm that exists in our globalised world. It is therefore no accident that it chose to work on nuclear disarmament and the threat of building a nuclear power plant in this country. Two booklets published by CBS - “The Problem with a Nuclear Power-plant: The Rooppur Project and Bangladesh” and “Why Nuclear Weapons Should be Banned Right Now,” - testify that the organisation understands the gravity of one of the most pertinent global crises. And that is also why it became a member of ICAN in 2014.
Climate change and the threat of a nuclear Armageddon are widely considered the two most cataclysmic disasters that can wipe the human race out. But do people feel the immediacy of a nuclear threat, specially in countries like Bangladesh? “That is indeed a problem,” says Arup Rahee. “But as we are against wars and oppression, and two of our neighbouring countries are armed with nuclear weapons, we have to talk about the threat of nuclear weapons, in addition to addressing the risks of a nuclear power-plant,” says Rahee.
“A nuclear power-plant is a nuclear weapon as well. If a disaster happens somehow, that is the same as dropping a nuke,” Rahee says. He also thinks that Bangladesh as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons should also take a leadership role in the region for sustainable peace. “Most importantly, we can't afford to have a Fukushima,” he grimly concludes.
As for being part of the Nobel winning organisation, CBS is quite calculative in its evaluation of the tremendous acknowledgment. “We have said in our immediate official reaction that we don't see the Nobel prize as something we can embrace without reservation. But we appreciate the attention it will deservedly bring to the most important issue of nuclear disarmament,” Rahee said.