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Key Economic Data 
  2004 2003 2002 Ranking(2004)
Millions of US $ 56,844 51,900 45,500 54
GNI per capita
 US $ 440 400 390 175
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Bangladesh

Update No: 066 - (26/05/13)

Summary: For Bangladesh May was a very costly month both politically and in terms of human lives. Whereas on one hand a massive cyclone, named Mahasen, took more than a dozen lives and destroyed more than 1,00,000 thatched houses, on the other hand a collapse of a garment factory few kilometers outside Dhaka took the lives of 1,127 workers and maimed another 2,000 for life. While the government of PM Sheikh Hasina was quick to express sympathy with the workers – who have received support from across the globe – it was equally quick in ordering a police crackdown on the garment workers under pressure from owners of these factories. As for the cyclone, it was used as a pretext to put a month long ban on political rallies and gatherings of any shape and kind. This was accompanied by amending the anti-terrorism laws that would treat any political rally and demonstration as an act of terror that deems a tough response from the police. In addition to being imaginatively bankrupt in dealing with such humanitarian crises, the Hasina government faces a new challenge with the rise of Hifazat-e-Islam, a Taliban style radical Islamist group. Having shocked many with its sudden rise to prominence, its rise is being comprehended as a backlash to the campaign launched youth activists and bloggers demanding capital punishment for alleged war criminals involved in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Hifazat’s emergence has further bloodied the political violence on the streets of Bangladesh.

The rise of Hifazat
Having shocked many with its sudden rise to prominence, Hifazat-e-Islam (Protector of Islam), a Taliban-style radical Islamist group, has recently been thrust onto the centre-stage of Bangladeshi national politics by an extraordinary set of circumstances. Unlike other political and religious who operate from Dhaka, the headquarters of Hifazat are in Chittagong, a port city where hundreds of madrassas attract thousands of young Muslims for schooling. Even more, the medium of instruction in the madrassas is Arabic, not Bengali. All of Hifazat’s leaders come from this network of madrassas and hold very strict views on religion. The supreme leader of this movement, Ahmad Shafi, is a 93-year old man who also runs the Bangladesh Qaumi Madrassa Education Board, that supervises all madrassas across the country. Born in Chittagong district itself, Shafi was educated in two madrassas before he went to Deoband in India for higher Islamic studies. He returned to teach at the Hat-hazari madrassa, where he had once studied, and later became its rector. Though the presence of madrassas and radical Islamist groups in Bangladesh is not a new phenomenon, the rise of Hifazat at a juncture when Bangladesh is undergoing a serious political crisis might completely alter the already weak democratic landscape of Bangladesh.

Describing Hifazat as a religious movement than a political one, Shafi seeks to convert Bangladesh into an Islamic country not unlike Afghanistan during the Taliban years. The similarities are glaring. Taliban emerged during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, the Hifazat is emerging at a time when political violence has reached an all-time high and the government seriously lacks credibility and legitimacy among the population. Even the opposition parties are in a state of disarray. The top leadership of both these groups avoids politics (for it is considered dirty), thus giving them the moral high ground over corrupt politicians in the eyes of a genuinely frustrated population. The supreme leaders avoid public speeches, statements or any sort of conversational mechanism. While the world has just seen a couple of pictures of Mullah Omar (leader of the Afghan Taliban), Ahmad Shafi refuses to even give speeches. He was present at a party rally in Dhaka April that drew nearly 200,000 people, but did not speak himself. He skipped the big rally that Hifazat undertook in May completely. While this may attributed to his old age, the resonance of such a leader is binding enough to keep dissent at bay. Finally, both groups treat women as subhuman beings.

As mentioned in our reports last month, Shafi's goal is clear: he wants a Bangladesh run totally on Islamist precepts, and an end to the secularism that has long been one of the declared principles of the country. Not surprisingly, the birth of Hifazat was triggered by the 2009 Women Development Policy draft, which gave women equal rights by inheritance. In the face of fierce protests by groups such as Hifazat, the Bangladeshi Parliament later passed a watered-down draft just giving greater rights to women on acquired property. Among the 13 demands put forth by the Hifazat is a ban on the public mixing of the sexes. Though there has been a concerted effort to challenge this rise not only by the Sheikh Hasina government but also by women’s rights groups, its emergence has increased polarisation and violence. Considered as a backlash to the campaign launched youth activists and bloggers demanding capital punishment for alleged war criminals involved in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. The rise of Hifazat has further bloodied the political violence on the streets of Bangladesh. At least 20 Bangladeshis were killed in clashes between police and hardline Islamists demanding religious reforms, as violence spread beyond the capital Dhaka to other parts of the country.

Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest religious-political outfit, which has been in a tight spot since the war crimes trials began, had sided with Pakistan during Bangladesh's liberation struggle and many of its leaders now find themselves in the dock. With only two seats in Bangladesh's 300-member Parliament and a ban on the party a real possibility, some suspect Hifazat's rise came about because Jamaat needed another outlet to do its bidding.

Interestingly, however, Shafi belongs to a group of Islamists that did not side with the Jamaat during Bangladesh's liberation war. Clerics coming from the Deobandi school of thought backed a united India and rejected the partition that created Pakistan in 1947. The most confounding fact of all is PM Sheikha Hasina’s entertainment of demands put forth by Hifazat. Even if Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia’s effort to cultivate Hifazat is expected, the government’s bowing down has disillusioned many.

Having already met their representatives twice – and many more times unofficially – the Hasina government imprisoned four bloggers whom Hifazat claimed to be “atheists”. Whether or not it comes to power, with the current political and religious dynamics it is clear that the Hifazat is set to play a crucial role in the polity of Bangladesh in the coming years.

Month-long ban on political rallies, anti-terrorism act gets stricter
Bangladeshi authorities have announced a one-month ban on political rallies to facilitate relief operations after Cyclone Mahasen. Claiming that it is not possible to protect fundamental rights like holding meetings and rallies when the country was hit by a natural disaster, the government has imposed a strict ban on political mobilisation, akin to martial law. The category-one cyclone hit Bangladesh, killed more than a dozen people and destroyed about 100,000 thatched houses. The main opposition party, the BNP, said the decision to ban rallies was undemocratic, and called the government autocratic. The other aspect to control continued political violence and protests, however, is the government’s decision to amend the anti-terrorism act and make it harsher. According to this amendment, any form of terrorism “including demonstrations, protests, and violence” will be treated as terrorism.

US vows help to Bangladesh
In a gesture of political commitment at times of crisis, the US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that the US wanted to work with Bangladesh on workers' rights and safety in the wake of the deadly factory collapse, and offered help after a massive cyclone. Welcoming Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni to Washington for talks, the top US diplomat conferred with him over the death of the 1,127 people killed when a garment factory complex crumbled in April-end. Bangladesh is the world's second-biggest apparel maker and the US$ 20 billion industry accounts for up to 80 per cent of annual exports. The factory collapse highlighted the dangerous conditions and low wages most workers endure, amid a voracious appetite in the West for cheap clothes. Bangladesh's top garment factories make clothing for a string of major US retailers including the giant Walmart, as well as many other high street fashion stores such as Sweden's H&M.

Kerry promised that the United States had "a number of initiatives" it wanted to share with Bangladesh. Inviting Kerry to Bangladesh soon, Moni stated that the US-Bangladesh relationship is at its best now and that Dhaka is looking forward to even greater cooperation in the future.

Police cracks down on garment workers’ protest
Adding on to the woes and desperation of the Hasina government was the protest by workers after the collapse of a garment factory in April. The response was as expected: police crackdown. Firing rubber bullets on tens of thousands of protesting Bangladeshi garment workers in the Ashulia industrial belt near Dhaka, the crackdown left more than fifty people injured. The demands of the workers included the death penalty for the owner of the Rana Plaza clothing factory that collapsed killing over 1,127 people, and higher wages plus safe working conditions. According to official estimates more than 20,000 workers joined the protest, blocking the main highway in Ashulia – the hub of Bangladesh’s garment industry, where 300 factories are located, producing thirty per cent of the country’s garment exports. Workers are demanding a basic wage of US$ 100 as opposed to the meager wage of US$ 37 per month – the world’s lowest pay for factory workers.

Though permission had only been granted to build a five-storey building, the Rana Plaza owner illegally added three more floors and located five factories in the building! The owner of the building insisted that it was safe and compelled workers to go to the production lines even after noticing serious cracks just a day before the accident took place. Apart from the huge death toll, over 2,000 workers have been maimed for life from this disaster. Furthermore, after a four-day shutdown when the garment factories reopened, the factory management told workers that they would not be paid for those days on the basis of “no work no pay’. Even though the Hasina government expressed sympathy for the workers initially, all was lost when it decided to deploy strong-handed techniques to quell the protests, under pressure from these garment manufacturers.

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