12:00 AM, September 14, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 14, 2015


Edited by Imtiaz Ahmed (The University Press Limited, 2014),

Perspectives on a critical human issue

Human Rights in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Futures, edited by Imtiaz Ahmed, comes out with the stated intention of presenting the past, present and future of a key human issue in Bangladesh. In the event, it dwells on the past primarily on the history of the country from the time of Atish Dipankar to the end of the Britsh raj where the issue of human rights is woven into the accounts of its rulers, and occasionally has to be read between the lines; more openly and extensively in the present, beginning with the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign independent nation-state; and prognosticating the future in an uncertain fashion. The book is structured along those three segments, with twelve chapters, written by twelve different authors, and an Introduction making up the whole. The editor has contributed the Introduction and the concluding chapter.

The Introduction is one of the better written pieces, which ends up summarizing and briefly commenting on the rest of the book.  Ahmed contends with supportive explanation that, “Rights and duties, while applicable universally must not be applied uniformly.”  Taken prima facie, this statement is subject to interpretation and debate, but several of the chapters, taken together, support its validity.  The author, however, unnecessarily belabours another maxim that he formulates this way:  “…past, present and futures are all intermingled.  The struggle for human rights otherwise cannot be limited to a particular time or age.”  Ahmed also points out a problem with the English and Bangla versions of Bangladesh's Constitution that has led to the familiar controversy (really a political one) regarding secularism. It has been stipulated by the Jatiyo Sangsad that, should any discrepancy arise over the two versions, then the Bangla version will prevail. While the English version uses the word “secularism”, the Bangla rendering of the term is 'dharma-niropekhhota', which has left the door open for some to characterize it as being 'anti-religious' (read:  anti-Islam).  The author suggests that 'o-shamprodayikota' would have been closer to the meaning and spirit of secularism and, thus, have skirted the vexing and unnecessary controversy surrounding the term.

Syed Anwar Husain (Ch.1, “Human Rights in Bengal:  Atish Dipankar to Sufis”) meticulously explores the period of the study and, both explicitly and through sub-textual indications, ponders on human rights that were “totally dependent on the particular political philosophies of the ruler of the day.” And, attesting to a laudable attribute of the Bengalis, he does not fail to point out that, “The people of Bengal…have preferred syncretic versions of their preferred religions, be it Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam,” and credits the modus operandi of the Sufis for nudging the Muslims towards the syncretic philosophy. M. Akhtaruzzaman (Ch. 2, “Akbar:  Bengal and the Rights of the Subjects”) has written on the overall reign of one of history's great rulers, Akbar, but intersperses with comments on his enviable human rights record. As he remarks, “Bengal then grew as a cosmopolitan secular society where people of different creeds and faiths could exercise their respective religio-philosophical rites and practices. Rights of women in relation to their right to property, justice and security were well protected compared to many societies at the time.”

Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman (Ch.3, “Aurangzeb, Intolerance and other Misunderstandings”), while contesting a popular misconception comparing “Akbar's 'anti-Islamic' tolerance with his great-grandson Aurangzeb's 'pro-Islamic' intolerance,” holds, with justification, that the last Great Mughal's place in history has often been misinterpreted. Part I is rounded off with Iftekhar Iqbal's “Colonial Contribution to Human Rights: Progressive or Regressive?” (Ch.4). As the title indicates, it deals with the British raj and takes a critical view of its human rights record in India, in spite of having introduced some notable edicts and regulations promoting human rights.  Significantly, “the British rule…also influenced many ideas and practices of human rights in postcolonial times.” In this context, he alludes to eighty one arbitrary shooting deaths of Indians at the hands of the Europeans as being reminiscent of “cross fire” incidents of the present day.

Part II deals with the present.  Hameeda Hossain (Ch.5, “Human Rights in the Nation State”) is a deeply reflective article exploring a whole gamut of issues on human rights in the context of the nation-state.  On a broad philosophical level she states: “Narrow interpretations of notions of democracy, secularism and nationalism…have led to deviations from the original concept of the state.” One of the consequences, according to her, as applied to Bangladesh, has been the government's refusal to recognize the indigenous peoples inhabiting the country as being so. She believes that the practice on the ground of the advocates of human rights and access to justice “has often been constrained by powerful interest groups both within the state hierarchy and in the community.” Ali Riaz (Ch. 6, “Electoral Democracy and Human Rights in Bangladesh”) purports to “examine the causes of the poor human rights records of elected civilian regimes in Bangladesh.” He attributes what he calls the “rampant human rights violation” to “a deep-seated political problem: the crisis of hegemony of the political elites in Bangladesh.” He argues, citing data and other supportive materials, that “in the absence of hegemony, the political elite have resorted to coercion and seek to remain unaccountable.”

A.S.M. Ali Ashraf (Ch.7, “Extrajudicial Killings and Human Rights”) takes up a contentious issue of the present day, extrajudicial killings. It is being hotly debated by jurists, human rights advocates and activists, and political figures from both Bangladesh and other countries. This is a theory and practice that, I am afraid, will not be resolved so easily or anytime soon. One piece of Ashraf's observation, nonetheless, deserves pondering over, even though the country has been enjoying a twenty four-year near unbroken stretch of parliamentary democracy, and should not be burdened with another bout of military/quasi-military rule.  It really draws attention to the abysmal state of political culture in the country: “It is an irony that the deployment of armed forces is often desired by the mass people, when the civilian government fails to control petty and organized crime, terrorism and political violence, and natural disasters. The presence of the military is also welcomed in holding free and fair elections.” M.M. Akash (Ch.8, “Rights Based Approach to Development and Right to Land”) argues for establishing different types of land rights as basic human rights.  He is particularly concerned about protecting the rights of the land poor in this country.  His chapter rounds off the present.     

Syed Jamil Ahmed (Ch.9, “Refusing the Doctrine of Human Rights:  Retrieving Signs of “Plurality of Resistance””) starts off Part III (Futures). He uses the allegory of the play Manik Pirer Geet to illustrate aspects of human rights.  That might be stretching the exercise a bit much to make a point, but it is an interesting way to make it.  However, as in a few other articles in the anthology, the author resorts unnecessarily to some post-modern writers to (presumably) provide an intellectual oomph to his piece.  For example, the “three actors (in Manik Pirer Geet) struggle against each other in, as Foucault would say, 'a war continued by other means'” really does not give any additional weightage to the sentence.  And, by the way, for long diplomacy has been characterized as being a war conducted by other means. Amena Mohsin (Ch. 10, “Rooting Women's Rights as Humane Rights”) wonders “where do women stand…in the entire matrix of human rights”, and proceeds to try answer her own mental query.

Saima Ahmed (Ch.11, “Rethinking Human Rights Education”), in an otherwise sketchy piece, pertinently draws on the observations of Makau Mutua regarding the bias of Western countries vis-à-vis the non-Western ones regarding perspectives on, and practice of, human rights.  “The construction of the human rights discourse and its key documents including those of the United Nations' are written by the Western states, international non-governmental organizations, and senior Western academics. The non-Western countries are absolutely invisible or marginalized in the drafting which…has made the nobility and majesty of the human rights values a contradiction in itself.”  Imtiaz Ahmed (Ch.12, “Managing Diversity in a Dystopian World:  Can Post-national Politics Make a Difference?”) concludes with some thoughts on the rise of intolerance in the name of Islam in Bangladesh. He notices that, “Never in the history of Islamic civilization did we find the Salafi or Wahhabi creed making an impact to the level it has done in recent times.” He believes that the windfall from the skyrocketing of crude oil price in the 1970s and beyond (although it has come down in 2015) has allowed the Saudi Arabians to proselytize the Saudi strain of Wahhabi Islam. “Bangladesh, being a non-Wahhabi area and at the same time immensely impoverished, both materially and intellectually, became an easy target of the creed.”  Establishing even the human rights generally agreed upon by all societies certainly faces formidable challenges. 

The reviewer is an actor and educationist.

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