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Priya Saha in Washington and worries in Dhaka

  • Published at 01:00 am July 25th, 2019
Was Trump even paying attention? REUTERS

She should have the guarantee to come back without fear

We are somewhat relieved that the prime minister has disapproved of any immediate legal action against Priya Saha over her Bangladesh-related comments to Donald Trump at the White House a few days ago. 

The furor generated by her statement that as many as 37 million people from the religious minority communities have disappeared in Bangladesh is understandable. 

And understandable too is Saha’s grief, for she made it clear to the American president that she and her co-religionists wished to live in Bangladesh. That Bangladesh remains home for her is appreciable, a sign of her love for this country. 

Let there be no question about her loyalty to her country.

So where did Priya Saha go wrong? It was in the abject manner in which she put her case before a man whose racist sentiments have become disturbingly pronounced. 

Her figure of 37 million does not add up, even though she said that she was quoting, sort of, the figures relating to Hindus leaving Bangladesh over the years, arrived at by Prof Abul Barakat. 

The professor has, of course, hit back, informing us that Saha has been misquoting him, that these figures are not his. The dilemma for Saha now is to explain to people, especially to her detractors, how she reached that arithmetic. 

Here is an initial summing-up of Saha’s comments in the White House -- the figure for the decline of the minority communities in Bangladesh was an exaggeration. 

No one is arguing that Bangladesh’s Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian populations have been in a state of decline in the country, but 37 million stretches the imagination quite a bit.

That said, a critical point that has aroused all this fury around Priya Saha has to do with the inadequacy of the English language she employed at the White House. She could have used the phrase “left the country,” but she did not. 

The term she came forth with was “disappeared,” which was liable to be misconstrued. And then there is the fact that Donald Trump, who seemed to be listening to her, was clearly at sea regarding her statement. 

Trump’s attention span too was as good as absent. Within seconds he turned to his aides, asking them if the helicopter was ready. The US president’s meeting with all those representatives from minority communities from outside America thus came to an abrupt end.

A nervous and worried Priya Saha has given her defense of what she said and meant at the White House in a video interview. 

That does not appear to have stemmed the outrage against her, for there are people who are determined to take her to court over her attempt, as they see it, to malign Bangladesh on foreign soil. 

It would be wrong to question Saha’s patriotism, even as we excoriate her for the imprudent remarks she made in Washington. But that brings us to another point. 

Who are these people in the American establishment who decide that people of their choice, belonging to religious minorities or dissident political groups overseas, can be flown to Washington to complain about conditions back home?

When Muslims and Hispanics are at the receiving end of Trump’s prejudice, when four perfectly American congresswomen are advised to go home by a ranting occupant of the White House, it is hypocrisy having people from foreign countries speak of the troubles they go through in their societies. 

Saha would not be in the kind of trouble she is in today had she voiced her feelings on the minority question on home ground in Bangladesh. To be invited by a foreign power to voice grievances before a foreign leader is, and has always been, a depressing affair.

Priya Saha is not the first Bengali to have been caught, by design or by chance, in this conundrum.

There are organizations, NGOs, as well as governments, and of course the media, which are happy to have individuals take their own governments and countries to task in a foreign clime. 

Articles critical of conditions in Bangladesh, penned by Bangladesh’s writers, are all too often lapped up by newspapers abroad. Those who try offering a different point of view receive no acknowledgement of their write-ups. 

Individuals who employ incendiary language on foreign television networks, describing a constitutionally elected government at home as illegal and prophesying, a condition where ruling politicians will be torn apart should the opportunity present itself, are portrayed as defenders of media freedom in the West.

It then stands to reason that those who invited Priya Saha, and all those others from other countries, to Washington, were engaging in a deliberate exercise of undermining nations beyond their own frontiers. 

Of course, problems exist on the religious minority canvas in Bangladesh. Of course, we can exercise the need to correct the situation. 

But when it is men like Trump who imagine they can fix our problems for us, we are left amused. It is naïve people like Priya Saha who pay the price.

But let us abjure this lynch mob psychology, this knee-jerk reaction to everything and anything negative said about us by anyone anywhere. 

Priya Saha, a citizen of this country, should have the guarantee of coming back home without fear and be asked, in a polite and democratic fashion, about her comments abroad. 

She and her family must be provided with the security the situation calls for. The charge against her is that she has been complaining about conditions in the country to the leader of a foreign government. 

Are such complaints new? We have the precedents before us.

Since the return of elected government in 1991, we have had the unedifying experience of the political opposition -- the party or alliance which has lost the election at any given time -- cheerfully, eagerly, and regularly meeting Western ambassadors and high commissioners based in Dhaka to complain about the doings of the ruling party. 

Moreover, there have been important visitors, part of the Western ruling circles, who have flown into Bangladesh and have interacted with individuals critical of the party in power, at any given period, in the last 28 years.

Thus has the ugly tradition of seeking out foreigners, or foreigners seeking us out, for criticism to be voiced about national governance before each other deepened over time. It is a practice that does not have to become a permanent, universal truth.

It is also a message -- that we need to plug our own vulnerabilities through positive action here at home.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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