20th anniversary of Ain O Salish Kendra and National Museum auditorium, Dhaka. Bangladesh
Fazle Hasan Abed (left), Muhammad Yunus (centre) and George Soros (right)
Muhammad Yunus, Amartya Sen, Fazle Hasan Abed, George Soros Sultana Kamal. I could hardly have asked for a better photo op. Well it is Christmas! If ever a nation was in need of a pick me up, this was it. The twentieth anniversary of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) had a special significance. This was an organization that has been relentlessly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. Despite the central bank predicting a 7 percent growth in the coming year, with both parties poised to contest the upcoming election choosing to woo the autocratic general the people had fought to overthrow, and the traditionally secular Awami League (AL) selling out to the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM) for supposed electoral gains, the people needed the assurance that at least some still believed in a secular state and the interests of common people.
Muhammad Yunus reminded the audience of ASK’s role in preserving the legal rights of the poor. Both Nobel laureates stayed clear of commenting on the decision that had been made by the major opposition party, which had just buried all of these ideas for political convenience.
His witty anecdotes about Salma Sobhan, the diminutive but feisty human rights activist who had founded ASK, and his frank accounts of the attempts by him and his friend, our own celebrated economist Rehman Sobhan, in winning over Salma Banu, before she became Salma Sobhan, was a warm and sincere tribute to one of Bangladesh’s finest citizens. But despite the joy of celebration, the mood in the audience was less than ebullient. The high court ban on fatwas had been a hard won battle and the gloom caused by AL’s entente with the other side of the fundamentalist coin, had left everyone shattered. My activist friends were surprisingly unperturbed. “Well, they have unmasked themselves” said Khushi Kabir, “it is time we woke up to what the parties really represent.”
Sultana Kamal was similarly defiant but also brought up her concerns. “It has always been our fight, and now we know what alliances to avoid. But they have effectively robbed me of my voting rights. If I now want someone in parliament to stand up for the rights of women, or the Ahmadiyyas, or for free speech, whom do I turn to? The candidates too have no choice. The few who might have wanted to enter the fray because they wanted to change things, now have no party to turn to.”
Politicians are not known for honesty and candour. AL’s win at any cost deal was defended by Abdul Jalil, the general secretary of AL who signed the document, as he tried to wriggle his way out of the hole he had dug himself into. “It is an understanding based on an election strategy” and “any decision is a fatwa” he rambled.Show