Trashing Bangladesh with partisan exaggerations will do nothing to advance human rights
Rupa Huq, a British MP of Bangladeshi origin, came out strongly against the Bangladesh administration earlier this month, going so far as to call the country a “rogue state.”
Huq’s remarks, made at an event by the Labour Campaign for Human Rights at the House of Commons on February 4, described the human rights situation in Bangladesh as “highly repressive.” She compared conditions here to places like Palestine and Kashmir -- yet there exists no comparable condition in Bangladesh akin to an apartheid state.
It may be noted that in the same month, a US Senator, Charles Grassley, also criticized Bangladesh for its human rights records, lumping it with the likes of Sudan and Somalia. Once again, the inaptness of that grouping makes plain the depth of ignorance on Bangladesh.
Huq’s comments are more astounding, however, because she has described herself as an MP for the “whole wide world Bangladeshi diaspora.” So why then, her special animus towards Bangladesh and the Awami League administration?
This is not the first time Huq has specifically attacked the Awami League. In an article for PoliticsHome on December 17, 2018, she wrote that she grew up with “idealized images” of Bangladesh but later came to discover “a sinister side under its current administration.” But her imagined Bangladesh was no idyll. Bangladeshis know that those were days of bloody coups and military dictatorships.
She goes on to argue that anyone who defends the government by saying that “the last government [BNP] was no better” should know that “two wrongs do not make a right.” There may be some tautological truth to that statement, but it is a slyly rhetorical claim.
Not only was BNP “no better,” it was far worse for human rights. General Zia, the founder of BNP, indemnified the killers of Sheikh Mujib and his family. He restored the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party complicit in the genocide of 1971, to politics. His wife and successor, Khaleda Zia, drew Jamaat ever closer through her two tenures as prime minister in the early 1990s and early 2000s.
Huq ignores how during the BNP’s last term, Islamic extremists flourished. Under the BNP’s political patronage, terrorists like Bangla Bhai ran free and Bangladesh was rocked by waves of bomb attacks. One massive attack at an AL rally on August 21, 2004 killed 24 people and maimed over 300. Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina only narrowly escaped.
Later while in opposition, the BNP also ran rounds of violent campaigns, including petrol-bombing of commuter buses, that left hundreds dead and thousands injured, including women and children, in 2013 and 2015. No political party has ever targeted civilians in such an indiscriminate manner.
Yet Huq seems to have taken a critical view of the AL on every count. She visited Bangladesh as part of the Labour Friends of Bangladesh, but retrospectively criticized the delegation as it, in her view, “lapped up the government side.”
Inexplicably, Huq even questioned the status of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the Father of the Nation. This is no simple matter of opinion: It is accepted by all credible historians and political scientists at home and abroad. To deny it is to stake a very specific political position, one promulgated mainly by the BNP and Islamist parties.
So why would a British MP take up a party line in Bangladesh? One should always be sceptical of any ruling party’s official story, but to embrace another utterly partisan narrative in the process does her little credit.
The degree of Huq’s partisan briefing is laid bare in her lament for the supposed loss of secularism in Bangladesh. She rightly criticizes its removal from the constitution, without acknowledging that this was the work of the BNP. Nor does she clarify that the BNP played the religion card relentlessly to serve its political purposes.
As it happens, secularism -- one of the four founding articles of the country -- was restored to the constitution by the AL after it came back to power in 2009. Moreover, Huq is curiously silent on the AL’s long record of supporting secularism and minority rights.
None of this is to say that Bangladesh cannot do much better when it comes to human rights. AL has been in power long enough to face criticism on its own, rather than pointing to how much worse things were before.
I must state here for the record that my brother is a member of parliament for the ruling party. However, as a free citizen of Bangladesh, I reserve the right to hold my government accountable.
I also do not endorse the view that Western governments have no business commenting on rights situations elsewhere. As long as the world turns to them for rescue, the world must also accept their responsibility to raise questions.
Bangladesh cannot ask Western powers to punish Myanmar for its crimes, but also refuse any criticism of own record on human rights. But trashing the Bangladesh government with partisan exaggerations will do nothing to advance the cause of human rights.
If anything, maligning a good international actor like Bangladesh a “rogue state” will only make us view the speaker as a biased critic who is -- how to put it -- simply “going rogue.”
K Anis Ahmed is the publisher of the Dhaka Tribune and Bangla Tribune.