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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 28 New Delhi July 4, 2015

An Out-of-Touch Indian Journalist

Monday 6 July 2015

by Syed Badrul Ahsan

The first time I heard of Kuldip Nayar was in the early 1970s. His slim work, Distant Neighbours: A Tale of the Subcontinent, had just been published in India. It was the theme of the book, Nayar’s interviews of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on their meeting soon after Pakistan’s military defeat in Bangladesh and the Bengali leader’s release from solitary confinement in Mianwali to house arrest near Islamabad, which aroused my interest in the Indian journalist. I was not to get hold of the work until nearly a decade later, though, when Zakia Badrudduja, the young woman I was in love with and whom I was happily destined to marry, located the book for me at College Street in Calcutta. And, yes, Calcutta was her hometown.

Since that time, my respect for Kuldip Nayar has been abiding. I have read his articles and truly enjoyed going through his memoirs. There have been the many occasions when he and I have met as participants at various seminars in Delhi, Lahore, Islamabad and Kathmandu. Not long ago, he was present at a memorial meeting on the hugely respected Nikhil Chakravartty in New Delhi. I was proud to be there, for I was in the good company of Medha Patkar, Dr. Kamal Hossain and S. Nihal Singh.

I have always found Kuldip Nayar to be a dispassionate observer of politics in South Asia. It is a quality not many in the profession, be it in Dhaka, Delhi and Islamabad, are able to bring into their assessment of conditions in the subcontinent. It was, therefore, with disbelief that I went through Nayar’s write-up, “A shot in the arm for Hasina”, in the issue of The Statesman of June 11, 2015.

My surprise comes related to the viciousness which appears to underline the entire write-up, given especially the fact that Kuldip Nayar’s reputation as a journalist of integrity has always impressed people in South Asia. In The Statesman article, though, Nayar obviously fails the test of integrity. Observe what he has to say about Bangladesh’s Prime Minister and right at the beginning too. Sheikh Hasina, he informs his readers, needed the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dhaka to “shore up (her) sagging image”. That is quite a bolt out of the blue. You tend to ask where exactly Nayar has found the Bangladesh leader’s image sagging. Could he have been listening too intently to the Right-wing Opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of former Premier Khaleda Zia arrayed against her, indeed against secular forces in the country? Nayar comes forth with no evidence to demonstrate that Sheikh Hasina’s image is on a nosedive. Besides, by suggesting that the Bangladesh leader needs an Indian leader’s support to enhance her image in her country, Kuldip Nayar is calling into question the patriotism and integrity of a political leader who has, in office, been engaged in rolling back the many manifest wrongs that in the past were committed by regimes benefiting from the collapse of secular forces in 1975. Nayar has lost sight of the fact that Sheikh Hasina heads a government which holds office under proper constitutional provisions. His article gives you the bad impression that Bangladesh’s government is in office on the strength of extra-constitutional action.
Kuldip Nayar notes that Sheikh Hasina has no right to “flout the Constitution and accepted norms”. Of course she hasn’t. But the problem—for Nayar—is that he cites no instance of any violation of the Constitution by Bangladesh’s Prime Minister. If he has been listening to certain quarters in Dhaka who have never been comfortable with the maintenance of a constitutional government through the general election of January 2014, he is doing grievous wrong to his sense of journalistic propriety and to his readers. Let the record be set straight. In the months prior to the January 2014 election, the BNP-led Opposition engaged in a long series of violence, layered by repeated general strikes and blockades, to force the government elected in December 2008 to resign and hand over power to an unconstitutional caretaker administration.

It is a matter of satisfaction for Bangladesh’s people that the Awami League-led government refused to genuflect before such unreasonable agitation and went ahead with holding a fresh election in January last year. That was a constitutional act. Yes, the fact that a hundred and fiftythree lawmakers were elected without contest did not make us happy. But what do you do if no rivals step up to give such ‘elected unopposed’ politicians a fight? How is a government supposed to act when in the midst of voting, for reasons that are really no reasons, a political party instructs its candidates to take themselves out of the voting? Had the January 2014 election been deferred, democratic politics would come into question and—who knows?—yet once again a third force, unelected and therefore unrepresentative, would be foisted on the country. Why didn’t Kuldip Nayar consider these realities before putting his pen to paper?

You are quite at sea when you have Kuldip Nayar wondering “why and for how long” Sheikh Hasina’s government can be supported by India. Really? Now, that is not acceptable, for it shows Nayar speaking from on high. The tone is condescending. Besides, he suddenly appears to have lost touch with the dynamics of Bangladesh politics. Whatever makes him think that Bangladesh’s government is in power today because of Indian support? By making such insinuations, Nayar clearly insults the people of Bangladesh and only reinforces the thought that elements like him are people who create the bad image of India being Big Brother in the region. He should have done his homework properly before flailing away at Bangladesh’s democratically elected government. He thinks the ballot boxes at the recent elections to the city corporations in Dhaka and Chittagong were stuffed by ruling party supporters. Yes, they were, in a fairly small number of cases, ninety seven in all. That was a wrong act, indeed a criminal act. But, again, Nayar should have pointed out the hundreds upon hundreds of other polling booths where voting went on undisturbed. It is obvious he did not do his arithmetic very well. And those who gave him the wrong figures did not serve him well.

Kuldip Nayar has always been of the opinion that Indira Gandhi was an authoritarian leader, principally because of her imposition of the Emergency in 1975. And now he has attempted to tar Sheikh Hasina with the same ‘author-itarian’ brush, something which certainly does not become him. He is disturbed that Narendra Modi made what he calls a mistimed visit to Dhaka. You are curious: does Nayar believe that Modi’s visit should have taken place after Sheikh Hasina had abdicated her democratic responsibi-lities and those who have been agitating against the constitutional government had been allowed to take charge of Bangladesh?

Nayar speaks of the “cavalier manner in which (Hasina) has suppressed dissen”. He cites no instance to substantiate his statement. Does he not read all that is being written in Bangladesh’s newspapers? Does he not see the commentaries regularly castigating the govern-ment and especially Sheikh Hasina written by Bangladeshi newspaper editors for whom he remains a hero? None of his friends—and they all wrote commentary after commentary in the pre-January 2014 period asking for the election to be shifted, without considering the bad constitutional ramifications such postponement would lead to—has had his voice stifled. Has he never watched a talk show on the nearly thirty privately-owned Bangladeshi television channels, where panelists regularly excoriate the government over its policies?

Nayar disseminates a patent untruth when he accuses the Bangladesh leader of “herself extinguishing the flame of democracy”. He has conveniently skirted around the fact that in the twentyone years before she led the Awami League back to power in June 1996, it was restoration of democracy and everything it symbolised that Sheikh Hasina and her party struggled for. For Kuldip Nayar, there seem to be some inconvenient truths he would rather look away from. He does not tell his readers that General Ziaur Rahman, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad and Khaleda Zia went out on a limb to destroy Bangladesh’s history through upholding the notorious Indemnity Act preventing a trial of the killers of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Many of those killers were sent abroad as diplomats. Some others formed political parties and contested elections engineered by unelected regimes. The elected government of Khaleda Zia, in office from 1991 to 1996 and then from 2001 to 2006, maintained the ugly tradition of denial of history instituted by the military regimes.

All of that despicable manifestation of power was done away with under Sheikh Hasina. Her government repealed the Indemnity Act and brought the killers to trial. The collaborators of Pakistan’s occupation army, rehabilitated by Zia, Ershad and Khaleda, have had their comeuppance, to the relief of Bangladesh’s people, under Sheikh Hasina. Is all that an extinguishing of democracy? Is upholding anti-history a sign of democratic behaviour?

Kuldip Nayar makes no mention of the street violence generated by Khaleda Zia’s BNP in tandem with the notorious Jamaat-e-Islami. He has no time to reflect on the more than 150 innocent citizens pushed to their deaths in petrol-bombing by Opposition activists. He deliberately ignores the fact that under this government a number of elections and by-elections have been held, acts which have clearly reinforced the nation’s faith in democratic politics.

It was a badly written article. It ignores reality. It lacked in moral integrity. Worse, it has made a serious dent in Kuldip Nayar’s standing as a journalist. When a journalist of repute slips in judgement, you who have been his admirer feel the pain. You begin to think of tragic flaws, those which ruin otherwise perfectly good men.

(Courtesy: The Daily Observer, Dhaka)

Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor, The Daily Observer, Dhaka. He can be contacted at e-mail: ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com