Three years ago, Lopa Tasneem, an electrical engineer, writer and activist, formed an online discussion group in the US. This group, Utturshuri, as it is called, has become a major platform for non-resident Bangladeshis to discuss issues that they find closer to their hearts.
How has Uttorshuri come about and evolved itself?
Uttorshuri is an internet based group. In 2002, I created Uttorshuri with the intention of increasing awareness of important issues in Bangladesh amongst younger people and discussing the various social and political problems within the country. For instance, in the course of time, I have found out that very few among those born after our independence actually know what transpired during our struggle against Pakistan and what actually happened in 1971. Even some of the older people appear to be confused on many issues regarding 1971. Our governments never really attempted to teach the real history of Bangladesh in schools. In fact, they have mostly tried to gloss over the important chapters of our history, diverting the attention of our students instead towards trivial issues such as who made the first “declaration of independence”. My idea was to make people aware of our history as well as our socio-political problems through informal discussions and debates. Among the other topics frequently brought up for discussion are women's issues; communal disharmony; repression of our aboriginal people; corruption in the government as well as among the political leadership; labor conditions in the garments industries, etc.
I started my little journey on February 21, 2003, with about 200 members. Today, there are over 2100 members, mostly Bangladeshis, from all over the world. The almost daily task of going through emails from our members, making the decision about which ones to publish, and finally a little bit of editing before publishing them on the net, can become quite challenging at times. However, I enjoy communicating with our members, especially those who are always open minded and eager to exchange interesting ideas. I also get a lot of help from our co-moderator, Dr. Ikram Ahmed, a fellow BUET alumnus.
What do you think NRBs can do to help the political and social conditions of Bangladesh?
We are beginning to doubt if Non-resident Bangladeshis can help with the political conditions prevailing in Bangladesh today in any serious manner. In terms of making a difference in the arena of social development, NRBs have the definite advantage of working outside the sphere of influence of local petty politics and economic restraints. On the other hand, they have the more serious disadvantage of not having direct and immediate control over how their resources are utilised. The best model may be to combine forces with responsible NGOs as well as foreign foundations dedicated to development in the lesser developed countries. The NRBs can act as liaison between their own constituencies and the foreign donors. With many of our own generation now in a position to provide significant financial as well as strategic and logistical help, they should start putting their own resources together and building their own foundations and think tanks. After all, it will not take a lot to make a big difference in many areas of socio-economic development in especially the poverty-stricken rural areas of Bangladesh.
Here in the USA, I know a number of doctors that are actively helping the community of their original homestead. They send medical equipment periodically and visit Bangladesh for treating the poor people at no cost. I know a few NRB organisations that are very active in their endeavour to improve the human rights condition in Bangladesh, providing basic education in rural areas, helping the poor people with funds, etc. I sincerely hope that the affluent and talented section of the expatriates will find out innovative ways to improve the present situation of Bangladesh. I also hope Bangladeshis living abroad will be able to vote in near future.
In the last five years the country has witnessed a rise in Islamic extremism. How can Bangladesh, with a majority Muslim population, reign in on this menace?
Lopa Tasneem, Founder, Coordinator of Uttorshuri.
I blame the government and the political parties for not being able to prevent the rise in Islamic extremism. The rivalries between the parties and their ambitions for holding onto power have created a fertile ground for the growth of such extremism. Most religion based political parties wish to establish regressive Islamic laws in Bangladesh and this should be prevented for the sake of our socio-economic development. The religious extremists that opposed our independence are back again with full vengeance. They not only opposed our independence from Pakistan, they committed war crimes by actively participating in murdering and raping of our people. They have very little support from common people, but they have been resourceful enough to make inroads by attaching themselves with other parties.
The reigning in of this menace may need a multi-pronged approach: Provide a mandatory and uniform secular education in primary through secondary levels; arrange for vocational training as well as jobs and/or create entrepreneurial opportunities for our youth, the most vulnerable to be recruited by Islamic extremists; and put a stop to chauvinistic preachings by semi-literate demagogues, if necessary, by enacting appropriate laws against derogatory and hateful speech, be it against women or other minority groups. Most importantly, our educators and moral guardians need to be proactive in spreading the values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence of different faiths as well as traditions: after all, these are really the fundamental core of Bengalee tradition and heritage.
Have the conditions of the ordinary masses especially women improved since democracy has been established in 1990?
Even if we agree that democracy was established after the fall of Ershad, we find very few of its positive consequences, especially when we consider those in the lowest economic stratum. So many people are begging on the streets while the most expensive cars whiz past them. Obviously, some people have done very well. But the majority is still struggling to survive including the educated middle class, who are under an additional pressure to keep up their appearances. The gap between the rich and the poor is more widespread today than before.
The conditions of women have definitely improved to some extent, however. Women have become more confident than ever. The garments industry and the NGOs have empowered our women significantly. However, it is not as widespread as I would like it to be. We still have a long way to go. The social awareness that I would love to see among everyone has been rather slow. For example, the female domestic workers in Dhaka tell me their own stories of dowry. They come to Dhaka to work and save money so that they can go back to their village, pay a handsome amount to their future husbands, and get settled. If they cannot pay well, they will have to get married to older, married men. Obviously, we are failing to create the necessary awareness against the social injustices. Women are still being discouraged from getting an education, or gaining financial independence. By and large, they are still encouraged and sometimes even forced to depend on men throughout their lives.
How do you see Internet activism in the country in five years time?
I am very optimistic about it. As more and more people are getting access to computers, we are able to reach out to them through the internet. Here in the USA, Americans organised demonstrations against Iraq war through internet. We were able to raise money in the United States to buy winter clothes for people in North Bengal in just one week by using our websites and email. We helped a number of women freedom fighters of our liberation war from around the world by raising funds through the web. We can take small steps at a time and make a little difference. The internet has provided the global community with an enormous opportunity to connect. We are able to organise, reach out to others, and motivate them to do something.
Therefore, I see internet activism growing further and benefiting Bangladesh significantly. The cell-phone revolution has already provided us with a glimpse of how communication can lead to economic emancipation. As information systems improve beyond the urban areas, democratic principles as well as practices will automatically spread their roots. This is one positive aspect of Globalisation that even its staunchest opponents cannot denyin fact, even this latter crowd organise themselves and exchange their ideas and opinions using the very same internet.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006