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Overcrowded passenger ferry capsized in the Padma River in Munshiganj, Bangladesh

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August 13, 2015

Bangladesh Police Chief Tells Bloggers, "Don't Cross the Line"

Activists march in a torch-light vigil demanding immediate arrest and exemplary punishment to the killers of secular blogger Niloy Neel.  Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image by Khurshed Alam Rinku. Copyright Demotix (8/8/2015)
Activists march in a torch-light vigil demanding immediate arrest and exemplary punishment to the killers of secular blogger Niloy Neel. Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image by Khurshed Alam Rinku. Copyright Demotix (8/8/2015)
It has been five days since the assassination of secular blogger Niloy Neel but Bangladesh police authorities have made no significant progress investigating his murder. Neel was hacked to death by a band of five men who broke into his apartment in Dhaka, the nation's capital, on August 7, 2015.

Left shell-shocked by Niloy's killing -- which was the fourth assassination of a secular blogger in Bangladesh in 2015 -- many bloggers have stopping writing and some have gone into hiding. Some of the country's most active bloggers now fear they may face jail or will die at the hands of the assailants. Others have left the country.

The names of these bloggers and others under threat appeared on a list of 84 people submitted to a special government committee in 2013 by a group of conservative Muslim clerics who accused the bloggers of “atheism” and writing against Islam. Since then, eleven individuals on the list have been murdered.

Following Niloy's death, threats have extended beyond blogging communities. The proprietor of a publishing house that published multiple books by blogger Avijit Roy, who was slain in public in February of 2015, is now in danger as fundamentalist forces have identified him as a promoter of atheist ideology.

The day after Niloy's murder, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called Niloy's killers a "blot on Islam." She said in a meeting on August 8:
Islam is a religion of peace. Those who want to taint it cannot have true faith in it. How dare they call themselves Muslims? [..]

And now they are murdering bloggers for writing against the religion. Who benefits from this gory mayhem? Which religion they claim to have been protecting?
She continued:
We cannot let this happen in Bangladesh. The people of this country are peace-loving.
In response, blogger Haseeb wrote in Sachalayatan wrote that for him, the Prime Minister's words rang hollow:
সরকার ব্লগারদের মতপ্রকাশের স্বাধীনতা বিষয়ে যতোটা না চিন্তিত, তার থেকে চিন্তিত তাদের ধার্মিক ইমেজ যাতে ক্ষতিগ্রস্থ না হয় সেটা নিয়ে। সরকার ধর্মীয় রাজনীতি তো বটেই, সেই ধর্মীয় রাজনীতি যারা করে তাদের আদর আপ‍্যায়নেই আন্তরিকতা দেখিয়েছে। আর ব্লগারদের মুখ বন্ধ করতে চালু করেছে ৫৭ধারার মতো কালো আইন।
The government is more concerned about keeping their pro-religion image, rather than worrying about freedom of expression. The government is endorsing religious politics and are soft on those who use religion for politics. And the bloggers are slapped with Section 57 [of the IT Act]...
Section 57 of Bangladesh's IT Act criminalizes “publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form.”

Haseeb also cited a recent press release from the Awami Ulema League, a conservative Islamic group claiming to support Bangladesh's ruling coalition:
নাস্তিক হত্যাকারীদের বিরুদ্ধে ব্যবস্থা নেয়া মানে এই নয় যে, মিডিয়া ইসলাম বিদ্বেষী নাস্তিকদের হাইলাইট করবে। সুতরাং এসব নাস্তিক ব্লগার কর্তৃক বিভিন্ন ব্লগ, ওয়েবসাইট, স্যোসাল মিডিয়ায় কুরুচিপূর্ণ নাস্তিক্যবাদী লেখা বন্ধে ধর্ম অবমাননার জন্য মৃত্যুদন্ডের আইন প্রণয়ন করতে হবে। [..]

এদেশকে নাস্তিক্যবাদী দেশ বানাতে ইসলাম বিরোধী শিক্ষনীতি তৈরী করা হয়েছে। কুরআন-সুন্নাহ বিরোধী বক্তব্য যুক্ত ও ষড়যন্ত্রমূলক পাঠ্যপুস্তক অবিলম্বে বাজেয়াপ্ত করতে হবে। সাথে সাথে ইসলাম বিরোধী প্রচলিত শিক্ষানীতি বাতিল করতে হবে। ৯৮ ভাগ মুসলমানের এদেশের শিক্ষানীতি সম্পূর্ণ ইসলামিক করতে হবে।
The media should not highlight atheist writings in the name of speaking for the killers of the atheists. There should be the death penalty for those who write nasty and blasphemous things on blogs, websites and in social media.

The education policy of this country was developed to make this a country of atheists. The curriculum which contain words against the Quran and Sunnah should be confiscated. The anti-Islam education policy should be repealed. The education policy of this Muslim-majority country should be Islamic.
Haseeb writes:
যে মুহুর্তে ক্ষমতাসীন আওয়ামী লীগের সহযোগি একটি দল এই সমস্ত অশ্লীল দাবিনামা ঢাকা শহরের রাস্তায় মাইকে উগরাচ্ছে তখন শেখ হাসিনা শীতাতপ নিয়ন্ত্রিত কনফারেন্স রুমে দাবি করছেন ধর্ম নিয়ে রাজনীতি করতে দেয়া হবে না। দুঃখিত মাননীয় প্রধানমন্ত্রী। এভাবে হবে না। ক্ষমতাসীন আওয়ামী লীগ সরকারের এধরণের অবস্থান সাংঘর্ষিক।
While an Islamic front, claiming to be supporters of the ruling Awami League, are talking about these demands using loud speakers in the streets, our Prime Minister is saying indoors that "we will not let religion be used for politics." Sorry, Madame Prime Minister. This is not right. There is a contradiction in the stance of the ruling Awami League.
The Director of News of Ekattor TV Syed Ishtiak Reza asks:
ধর্মান্ধতা আজ আমাদের দেশের শান্তি বিঘ্নিত করছে। সেখানে ক্ষমতাসীন দলের সাথে সম্পর্কযুক্ত কোনও সংগঠন এমন বক্তব্য দিলেতো বলতে হবে, বিপদ দরজায়।
Fundamentalism has disturbed peace in our country. When we hear these kinds of statements coming from a group this close to the ruling party, we have to say, peril is near.
However, in an interview Awami League joint general secretary Mahbub-ul-Alam Hanif stated:
Awami League does not have any wing or associate group by the name of Ulema League. They have no political link with the party.
Hanif urged citizens not to confuse the Alami Ulema League with the Awami League, Bangladesh's current governing political party. According to reports, the people behind Awami Ulema League claim Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as their leader, though their ideology and principles are different from Awami League ruling party. Whether the Awami League has any affiliation with the Awami Ulema League is unknown but no ruling party leaders have condemned their speech.

On Sunday, Police Chief AKM Shahidul Hoque added fuel to the fire, saying:
Free-thinkers and bloggers should not cross the limit of tolerance while expressing their views on religion. If any person is hurt by any writing, s/he may take legal action. They can file a case with the police. Everyone should obey the law.
He added that the maximum punishment for the above crime 14 years' jail time.

Mr. Monirul Islam, another high police official, said:
যারা ব্লগারদের হত্যার সঙ্গে জড়িত এবং যারা হযরত মুহাম্মদ (সা.), ধর্ম ও কোরআন নিয়ে যুক্তিহীনভাবে আঘাত করে ব্লগে লেখে তাদের সকলকে আইনের আওতায় আনা হবে। কারণ যারা যুক্তিহীনভাবে ধর্ম নিয়ে ব্লগে লেখে তারাও উগ্রবাদী।
The killers of the bloggers and those who write on blogs attacking the prophet Muhammad, Islam and Quran all will be brought under law. Those who illogically write against religion in blogs are also extremists.
These comments sparked an uproar among citizens who took to social media to express their outrage. Expat activist Rayhan Rashid tweeted:
Renowned journalist Toufique Khalidi tweeted:
An online petition launched by an unknown group is asking for the police chief's resignation.

Muktangon blog published a statement criticising the police response to the murder and saying that police should not be talking about bloggers hurting religious sentiments in an attempt to distract citizens from their failure to ensure public safety. Muktangon also noted that these bloggers were well aware of speech laws in their country:
এ কথা সঠিক নয় যে, মানুষের ধর্মীয় অনুভূতিতে ব্লগাররা ঢালাওভাবে আঘাত করে যাচ্ছেন। কোনো কোনো ব্লগার তাঁদের মুক্তচিন্তা চর্চার অংশ হিসেবে কখনো কখনো হয়তো ধর্মের (সেটা সব ধর্মের ক্ষেত্রেই প্রযোজ্য) কোনো কোনো বিষয় নিয়ে কথা বলে থাকেন, কিন্তু তা তাঁরা নির্দিষ্ট স্থানে এবং সামগ্রিক আলোচনার ধারাবাহিক অংশ হিসেবেই করে থাকেন। প্রকাশ্যে জনসমক্ষে হট্টগোল তুলে তাঁরা কিছুই করেন না, যার ফলে মানুষ উত্ত্যক্ত বোধ করবে কিংবা আহত ও ক্রুদ্ধ হবে।

মতপ্রকাশের স্বাধীনতার মূল কথাই হল অপ্রিয় মতামত অপ্রিয় ভঙ্গিতে প্রকাশেরও পূর্ণ স্বাধীনতা, যতক্ষণ না তা কোনো সুষ্পষ্টভাবে সংজ্ঞায়িত নিরপেক্ষভাবে বিচারযোগ্য প্রচলিত আইনের কোনো বিধানের নিষেধের মধ্যে না পড়ে। তাই, যারা তাদের রাজনৈতিক বা অন্য কোনো হীন উদ্দেশ্যে ব্লগারদের উম্মুক্ত আলোচনা ও বক্তব্যকে খণ্ডিতভাবে যেখানে-সেখানে উপস্থাপনের মাধ্যমে বিভ্রান্তিকর পরিস্থিতির সৃষ্টি করে, উত্তেজনা সৃষ্টির চেষ্টা করে – সরকার ও আইনশৃঙ্খলা রক্ষাকারী বাহিনীর বরং উচিত তাদের বিরুদ্ধে আইনগত ব্যবস্থা নেয়া।
This is incorrect that bloggers are deliberately and across the board hurting other people's religious sentiments. Some bloggers mentioned and discussed some aspects of religion (many religions, not only Islam) in their online writings as a part of their freedom of expression and part of their discussion and context. But they never did it in public or agitated or hurt people directly.

The main thing of freedom of expression is that one should be free to express adverse opinions in a critical way that may not be liked or endorsed by all. People can do it as long as they are not breaking any existing law of the land. [Author's note: Bangladesh does not have Sharia law.] So those who are creating a disturbance and inciting hatred by terming the bloggers atheist and blasphemous by taking their words out of context should be identified and legal actions should be taken against them.

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

August 09, 2015

Maldivians March to Mark Anniversary of Local Journalist's Disappearance

Image via the Facebook page of Secular Democratic Maldives Movement
Image via the Facebook page of Secular Democratic Maldives Movement


It has been 365 days since Maldivian journalist, blogger and human rights advocate Ahmed Rizwan Abdulla went missing. The 28-year-old, who works for online news site Minivan News, is an advocate of democracy and free speech and a prolific social media user.

There has been no real progress in the investigation and the people behind his abduction have not been identified. The Maldivian Police and the government have remained silent.

Rilwan's friend Yameen Rasheed describes what has happened in the space of a year:
To demand action and accountability from the state, Rilwan’s well-wishers started the #FindMoyameehaa campaign – the first of its kind in the Maldives. The campaign has organized rallies, petitions, public events, awareness programs on the streets, and also engages the public on social media. The #FindMoyameehaa campaign has drawn widespread attention and international press coverage, and also generated responses – including statements from IFJ, SAMSN, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, and various national and international bodies.
On July 8, 2015 Rilwan’s family called for an independent public inquiry into the disappearance and the lapses in the investigation.

On August 6, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged Maldives to launch an independent investigation into Rilwan's case.
To mark one year of his disappearance, the family has requested a public rally on August 8 to remind the state of its duty to protect journalists and enforce the law. The opposition Maldives Democratic party has endorsed the rally.

Maldivians are using hashtags #suvaalumarch and #findmoyameeha to spread word about the rally:
And people still have hope:

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

August 07, 2015

"No Country For Secular Bloggers": Niloy Neel is the Fourth Bangladeshi Blogger To Be Killed in 2015

Murdered blogger Niladri Chakrabarty Neel, Image by Reza Sumon. Copyright Demotix (7/8/2015)
Murdered blogger Niloy Neel, Image by Reza Sumon. Copyright Demotix
On Friday, August 7 at approximately 1:45pm, five assailants armed with machetes entered the flat of blogger Niloy Neel and killed him brutally. When his wife and sister attempted to save him, the attackers threatened to kill them too.

Niloy is the fourth blogger to be killed in Bangladesh over the last six months. All those killed were secular and critical of conservative religious political movements in the country. Many more have been attacked, subjected to death threats and ostracized by religious hardliners for their writing.
The blogger had written under the pen name "Niloy Neel" in Istishon (meaning "station" in Bengali) as a member of a Bengali group blog that covered political and social issues. Expat blogger Arif Rahman noted that he completed a Master's degree in philosophy from Dhaka University in 2013.

Neel was vocal about secularism and wrote for the platform "Ganajagaran Mancha," demanding capital punishment for 1971 war criminals. Dr. Imran H Sarkar, a leader of Ganajagaran Mancha, writes on Facebook:
‪#‎NiloyNeel‬ was writing for women rights, indigenous peoples, even for all other minorities. He was critic of religious extremism that provoked bombing in mosque and killing thousands of civilians.

He was one of the voice for Social Justice, secularism, human rights and loud for ‪#‎AvijitRoy‬ justice. He frequently got threatened by islamic militants those are trying to destroy this country by terrorism.
The names of these bloggers and others under threat appeared on a list of 84 people submitted to a special government committee by a group of conservative Muslim clerics who accused the bloggers of “atheism” and writing against Islam. Government officials responded by blocking critical websites and making arrests, of bloggers and leaders from the religious right, at the height of #shahbag protests in 2013. Some media outlets, including prominent right-wing blogs, have even propagated the ideathat all bloggers are atheists who “hurt the feelings” of religious Bangladeshis. Eleven of the bloggers on the list (including Niloy) have been killed over the past two years.

Niloy also was active in Facebook, where he shared his opinions on political issues, but also described the threats he was facing. On May 15, 2015, he wrote:
আমাকে দুজন মানুষ অনুসরণ করেছে গত পরশু। ‘অনন্ত বিজয় দাশ হত্যার’ প্রতিবাদে আয়োজিত প্রতিবাদ সমাবেশে যোগদান শেষে আমার গন্তব্যে আসার পথে এই অনুসরণটা করা হয়।
I was followed by two people two days ago while returning home after attending a protest programme demanding justice for the murder of blogger Ananta Bijoy Das.
He went to the police station to file a complaint (general diary), and wrote his experience:
First, a police officer told me personally that the police do not usually register such GDs since the officer who registers it will be accountable for ensuring security of the justice seeker. And if the person faces any problem, that police officer may even lose job for negligence in duties.
Niloy soon after removed all his photos from his Facebook profile as a precaution.

Golam Mortaza questions the government for inaction:
ব্লগার বা অনলাইন লেখকদের 'নাস্তিক ' হিসেবে চিহ্নিত করে হত্যা করা হচ্ছে। এই হত্যাকারীদের বিরুদ্ধে ব্যবস্থা নেয়া মানে 'নাস্তিক ' হত্যাকারীদের বিরুদ্ধে ব্যবস্থা নেয়া। নাস্তিকদের যারা হত্যা করছে, তাদের বিরুদ্ধে ব্যাবস্থা নেয়া মানে নাস্তিকদের পক্ষ নেয়া। সরকারের দৃষ্টিভঙ্গি এরকমই। সরকার বক্তব্যে কোনো রাখঢাক নেই। স্পষ্ট বক্তব্য 'আমরা নাস্তিক হিসেবে পরিচিত হতে চাই না। '
Bloggers or online writers are being labeled as atheists. Its like taking actions against the killers is the same as taking action against the killer of atheists. To take action against against the killer of atheists is taking sides with the atheists. The government thinks in this way. They are not hiding it. They are saying by their actions "We dont want to be labeled as atheists".
One powerful group targeting secular bloggers is Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh, an association-based fundamentalist Islamic group in Bangladesh that has sought to ban the right of women to work outside of home and promoted the execution of so-called atheist bloggers.

Shaugat Ali Sagor writes in Facebook:
৮৪ জন কেন ৮৪০০ ব্লগারের জীবনের চেয়েও সরকার যে নাস্তিকদের সমর্থক নয় সেটার প্রমান দেওয়া জরুরী। ৮৪ জন ব্লগারের জীবনের বিনিময়েও যদি হাটহাজারীর হেফাজতওয়ালারা খুশি থাকে, সরকারকে হেফাজতে রাখে- সেটিই বরং দরকার।

আশ্চর্য! হাসপাতালের মর্গে একেকটা লাশ যেমন একেকটা নাম্বার, মানে সংখ্যা মাত্র।একেকজন ব্লগারও যেন কেবল নাস্তিক মাত্র। তারা রাষ্ট্রের নাগরিকক নন- কাজেই রাষ্ট্রের কোনো প্রটেকশন তারা পান না, তারা মানুষ নন- তাদের কোনো মানবাধিকার নেই। আর হ্যাঁ, খুন হয়ে যাওয়া 'ব্লগারটি' নাস্তিক ছিলেন- এই কথাটি একবার মুখ দিয়ে বের করা গেলে, সেটি প্রচারে হেফাজত আর সরকারের সমর্থকরাও একাকার হয়ে যান।'ব্লগার নামধারী নাস্তিকরা দেশের স্থিতিশীলতা নষ্টের চক্রান্তে লিপ্ত, সরকারকে বিব্রত করতে চায়'- নিকট অতীতে কোনো কোনো এমপিকেওতো এমন কথা বলতে শুনেছি।
Why only 84? Even if the number of the dead bloggers is 8400, it is far more important to prove that the government is not aiding the atheists. Even if the lives of 84 bloggers can make the Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh happy, keep the government safe [from political pressure] then that is important.

Amazing! The dead bodies of fallen bloggers in the morgue are just numbers. All the bloggers are only atheists. They are not the citizens of the land - so they do not get any protection. They are not human - they have no human rights. And yes, if you can somehow establish that the murdered blogger was an atheist, everyone including the government keeps preaching it. Some members of parliament have said in the past that "in the name of bloggers, atheists are disturbing the stability of the country, they want to embarrass the government."
Jyotirmoy Barua, a lawyer and activist writes that bloggers need to unite:
রাস্তায় প্রতিবাদ করা ছাড়া আর কোন কাজে ব্লগারদের একাট্টা হওয়ার কোন ঘটনা এপর্যন্ত ঘটেনি। এটাই ব্লগারদের সবচেয়ে বড় দুর্বলতা। একটি সংগঠিত দল বা গোষ্ঠী না হওয়া সত্ত্বেও তারা দল বা গোষ্ঠী হিসেবে টার্গেট।

তাই সংগঠিত হোন- নয়ত বাঁচবেন না। প্ল্যাটফর্ম তৈরি করুন। প্রতিরোধ করতে শিখুন। প্রতিবাদে কাজ হবে না। দেশে আইনের শাসন নেই, তাই চেঁচিয়ে লাভ হবে না।
So far the bloggers have not been able to unite on a platform other than protesting in the streets. This is the weak point of the bloggers [of Bangladesh]. They are not a united or cohesive group. But they are being targeted as a group.

So please unite - or you will not live. Build a platform. Learn to defend. Simply protesting is not going to work. There is no rule of law in the country - so crying aloud won't help.
Statement claiming responsibility for Niloy's killing sent to media houses from the email ansar.al.islam.bd @gmail. com
Statement claiming responsibility for Niloy's killing sent to media houses from the email ansar.al.islam.bd @gmail. com

According to news reports Ansar-Al-Islam, the Bangladesh chapter of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent, has claimed responsibility for the killing of blogger Niloy, terming him an enemy of Allah. Witnesses reported that while retreating from Niloy's apartment, his attackers reportedly chanted slogans like “Allahu Akbar”.

An email sent to media houses in Bangladesh reportedly read: “Praise be the God! Soldiers of Ansar-Al-Islam [AQIS, Bangladesh Branch] carried out an operation to slaughter an enemy of God and his messenger (peace & blessings be upon him), whose name is Niloy Chowdhury Neel.”

Meanwhile on Friday the police apprehended Hefajat-e-Islam leader Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury over an unrelated incident. Chittagong-based radical group Hefazats Nayeb-e-Amir Izaharul is also the chief of Nezame Islam Party, which opposed Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. One item on Hefazat's agenda is to impose capital punishment on all the atheists in Bangladesh, despite the fact that atheists have the same rights as other citizens in Bangladesh.

In May, Global Voices published a statement issuing a call for safety for all Bangladeshi bloggers and pleading with the Bangladeshi government to bring the killers to justice. Hours after Niloy's killing, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a statement posing a question that many bloggers and human rights advocates today are asking:
How many more bloggers must be murdered before the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina acts decisively to stem the violence and impunity?

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

July 25, 2015

Why Britain Owes India for 200 Years of Brutal Colonialism

Shashi Tharoor speaking at Jaipur literary festival. Image by Jim Ankan Deka. Copyright Demotix (23/1/2015)
Shashi Tharoor speaking at Jaipur literary festival. Image by Jim Ankan Deka. Copyright Demotix (23/1/2015)
Indian Opposition MP, former minister and former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations Shashi Tharoor recently participated in a debate at the Oxford Union society arguing that Britain owes reparations to India for misdeeds committed during two centuries of colonial rule.

The 15 minute clip containing Tharoor's powerful and lucid argument for reparations went viral on social media soon after the Oxford Union debating society posted it online on July 14.

The British East India Company ruled or dominated on the Indian subcontinent from 1757 to 1858. The British directly ruled over the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947 when the region was commonly known as British India or the Indian Empire.

https://youtu.be/f7CW7S0zxv4

Here are some excerpts from Tharoor's speech:
India's share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23 per cent, by the time the British left it was down to below 4 per cent. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain.

Britain's rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact Britain's industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India. [..]

By the end of 19th century, the fact is that India was already Britain's biggest cash cow, the world's biggest purchaser of British goods and exports and the source for highly paid employment for British civil servants. We literally paid for our own oppression. [..]

What is required it seems to me is accepting the principle that reparations are owed. Personally, I will be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next 200 years after the last 200 years of Britain in India.
Tharoor's speech was widely appreciated in India and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Parliament:
Tharoor’s speech reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what an impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place.
Miss Malini wrote in her blog:
Irrespective of our political leanings and beliefs, we can agree to the fact that Dr. Shashi Tharoor is one of the top debators of the country. That’s why it’s not surprising when the diplomat and former minister of state for external affairs took part in a debate at the Oxford Union.
Shashi Tharoor himself said on Twitter:
Writer and film director Radha Bharadwaj writes on Twitter:
Sandip Roy claimed in Firstpost that Tharoor's speech had united a polarised Indian society, adding:
While the reparations he argues for are for the sins from centuries past, there is a bit that might have far more contemporary relevance for our politics today. At the end of the speech making a passionate case for even symbolic reparations Tharoor says “The abilty to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry will go a far far longer way than some percentage of GDP.”

Now if only some of the politicians furiously butting heads in parliament and dredging up each other’s scams to shame each other would pay attention to that bit, we could all get moving with the nation’s business.

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

June 21, 2015

Citizen Media Shows Why India Is Unlikely to Reach Its Millennium Goals Target for Maternal Mortality

In the hamlet of Indkatha , Jharkhand state in eastern India, women of the Ho tribe take lessons to reduce maternal mortality.  Image by Freny Manecksha. Copyright Demotix (11/11/2008)
In the hamlet of Indkatha, Jharkhand state in eastern India, women of the Ho tribe take lessons to reduce maternal mortality. Image by Freny Manecksha. Copyright Demotix (11/11/2008)
According to the UN Millennium Development Goals, India should bring down its maternal mortality rate (MMR) to 109 per 100,000 live births by 2015. This is a tough ask, as from an MMR of 437 per 100,000 live births in 1990-91 India has only achieved a reduction to 190 by 2013-2014.

Experts therefore believe that India is likely to miss its Millennium Development Goals target for MMR.

Safe birthing depends on how informed pregnant mothers are and whether the delivery is carried out by trained personnel and in institutional health facilities.

In many regions of India, a lack of health infrastructure to support institutional deliveries and pre- and post-natal care as well as a lack of awareness regarding existing schemes promoting institutional deliveries serve as major impediments to achieving the goal. Other factors such as early marriage of girls, poor nutrition among women and gender inequality increase maternal risk.

A report drafted by CommonHealth and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, a coalition for maternal-neonatal healthcare and safe abortion, says that the public health system has failed women belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minority religious groups living in geographically remote areas, as well as migrants. The report shows that although the government runs several programmes, there is a great gap in accountability and governance and most of the programmes have been implemented poorly on the ground.

Citizen journalists from Video Volunteers -- an international media and human rights NGO -- have highlighted maternal healthcare problems at grassroots level in a series of videos.

Their stories reveal that while the government is encouraging women to deliver at institutions rather than at home, the public health system is crippled by shortages of health infrastructure, doctors, frontline health workers and medicine.

Corruption plays its part

In 2014, 56,000 women died during childbirth in India. The Indian government’s schemes Janani Suraksha Yojana and Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakram make provisions to reduce out-of-pocket expenditure for women living below the poverty line, providing free antenatal check ups, IFA tablets, medicines, nutrition in health institutions, provisions for blood transfusion, and transport to and from health centres.



However, according to the above video, which comprises footage taken by the hidden camera of citizen journalist Mary Nisha from the Godda district of Jharkhand:
The 24-year-old woman in labour was kept waiting for the doctor for six hours. The doctor on duty did not turn up and she delivered in the presence of a nurse. She was forced to pay INR 400 for her delivery and even to use the toilet. She received neither free medicine nor nutrition.
Lack of functional institutions

This video follows three women in Khatti village, Gariaband district, Chhattisgarh. One lost her baby six days after it was born due to a lack of medical assistance. Another had a stillborn baby resulting from an unassisted home birth while a third, who is nine months pregnant, has no access to healthcare.




This video by Reena Ramteke from Khatti village in Garyaband District of the state of Chattisgarh shows that the state-run health facility in the locality is constantly shut.

Laleshwari, 21, says no health worker has ever contacted her. Purnima, 20, had a stillbirth despite the fact the health centre was close to her home. She says the sub-health centre is open twice a month and the nurse at the facility is not present most of the time it is open. What options did she have?

Not a single delivery has taken place in the past decade in the sub-health centre in Khatti village. Indrani, 22, lost her child within six days of the birth due to an infection following a home delivery. During the delivery she called the duty nurse of the sub-health centre but was told by the nurse that she was at a meeting.

Bharti Kumari reports from Telmocho village, Dhanbad district, Jharkhand, that the main medical facility is unusable for health workers and patients, lacking functioning toilets and featuring a roof that leaks during the monsoon.



The doctors of this facility also visit rarely. Thus, patients that can afford to have to visit a relatively costly private centre for childbirth.

Lack of manpower

Halima Ezaz from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, reports that one Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) from Jharkhand looks after 14 sub-health centres. Ahilya Devi, a septuagenarian, has responsibility for looking after pregnant women and women with new born babies, giving them nutrients, vaccinations, performing deliveries and so on. But she is not supplied with proper tools to work in a region where the power supply is unstable:




Ahilya says:
We used to have rechargeable emergency lights, but those are broken. [If the lights go at night], we have to use candles and torches. How can we make stitches in this light?
Each of these videos highlights the obstacles to reducing the maternal mortality rate in India. Despite the government campaigns in place, India is lagging behind neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal in the fight against maternal mortality. There is also a huge disparity in terms of progress between different states in the vast country. Some states like Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have achieved their millennium development goals. But there are many -- especially those with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as well as minority religious groups -- who are left trailing.

Watch this YouTube playlist on maternal health in India to learn more.

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

May 12, 2015

Ananta Bijoy Das Becomes Third Free-Thinking Blogger Killed This Year in Bangladesh

Ananta Bijoy Das. Image from his Facebook page
Ananta Bijoy Das. Image courtesy his Facebook page
It's a sad day for online activists in Bangladesh. On Tuesday morning, science writer and blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered by a group of three or four masked people wielding machetes in Sylhet, Bangladesh's fifth largest city.

It was the third such killing this year of a writer who advocated secular thought, allegedly at the hands of religious extremists.

Das, 33, was a banker by profession but also edited a quarterly magazine called Jukti (Logic) and headed the Sylhet-based Science and Rationalist Council. He was the author of four books on science and critical thinking, and took an active part in the Ganajagaran Mancha, a forum born out of the Shahbag protests that demands a ban on Islamist parties and the death penalty for convicted war criminals.

Das was also an admin for the Bangla blog Mukto Mona (Free Thinkers), which won Deutsche Welle's prestigious BOBS award for social change in April 2015.

According to the Doha Centre of Internet Freedom:
While most of Das's output for Mukto-Mona focused on science and evolution, he wrote a number of blogs that criticised some aspects of Islam and also of Hinduism.

In comments on Facebook posted early Tuesday, Das slammed the local member of parliament from the ruling Awami League party for criticising one of the country's top secular and science fiction writers.
Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, is officially secular. But people who have challenged religion have repeatedly been targeted by Islamic extremists in the past decade.

The nature of the threats have also escalated from local to international. Just a week ago, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the assassination of Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy (the founder of Mukto Mona blog) on February 26 in which his wife Rafida Ahmed was badly injured. In a recent interview, she slammed Bangladesh's government for inaction and has termed the attack on her husband as "well planned, choreographed – a global act of terrorism."

On March 30, another blogger who opposed irrational religious belief, Washiqur Rahman, was hacked to death in Dhaka. Two madrassa (Islamic religious school) students were apprehended and a third assailant got away. Both Roy and Rahman's cases are under trial.

Das had been on extremists' hit list for some time and was first named in a list of 84 bloggers deemed atheist or blasphemous by Islamic hardliners submitted to the government in 2013.

AQIS claimed responsibility for Das’s murder, according to tweets by extremist group Ansar Bangla Team. "Another file closed! Stay tuned for next target," the statement read.

Screenshot of the AQIS statement
Screenshot of the AQIS statement
Outrage over Das' death spread quickly. Prominent blogger Arif Jebtik wrote on Facebook:
লিখতে, বলতে, ভাবতে কোনো কিছুতেই আগ্রহ পাই না। ৮৪ জনের একটি তালিকা স্বরাষ্ট্র মন্ত্রণালয়ে জমা পড়েছিল দুইবছর আগে, তালিকা থেকে নবম হত্যা হয়েছে আজকে সিলেটে। তালিকা নিশ্চয়ই চূড়ান্ত নয়, গত ২ বছরে আরো নাম সেই তালিকায় নির্ঘাত যুক্ত হয়েছে। কিন্তু অন্তত এই ৮৪ জনের ব্যাপারে গত ২ বছরে কোনো খোঁজখবর হয়নি, তাঁরা নিয়মিত বিরতিতে খুন হওয়া শুরু করেছেন।
মাসিক কোটায় হত্যা শুরু হয়েছে হয়তো এটি সপ্তাহান্তের কোটায় উন্নীত হবে। ৮৪ জন যাবে, আরো হাজার চুরাশির নাম তালিকায় আসবে। খানিক আহাজারি হবে, সবখানেই একটা ফিসফিস-চুপচুপ ভাব, কিছু বিকৃত মানুষের উল্লাস-তারপর পরের হত্যার জন্য অপেক্ষা।
এই দেশে আইনবহির্ভূত সব হত্যাই জায়েজ হিসেবে মেনে নিয়েছে বৃহত্তর জনগোষ্ঠি, এখানে সবগুলো খুনই 'বিচ্ছিন্ন ঘটনা'।
I don't have the impetus to write, say or think anything. Two years ago a list of 84 bloggers was submitted to the Ministry of Home, 9th from the list was murdered today in Sylhet. This list is not exhaustive, surely more names have been added in the past two years. But nobody bothered to think about the safety of these 84 individuals. They are ending up dead one by one, in regular intervals. Now they are killing one every month, maybe they will speed up to do the same weekly. This list will be done, thousands more will be added. People will regret the death a bit, hush, silence everywhere, demonic joy from some perverts, then everybody waits for the next kill. In this country all these illegal killings have been taken for granted, every death is an isolated incident.
Blogger and activist Rayhan Rashid remembered the fallen who were attacked or killed for their free thinking in Bangladesh:
Ananta Bijoy Das's last posts were translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha:
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) wrote in a blog that Ananta Bijoy Das's application for a visa to travel to Sweden, under invitation from Swedish PEN to speak in a conference, was rejected recently by the Swedish embassy in Dhaka, on the basis that he might seek to remain in Sweden.

Exiled writer and columnist Taslima Nasrin blamed the government:
Bangladesh government is not taking any action against the Islamist-killers for being afraid to be labelled as anti-Islam. Islamists are allowed to do whatever they like in Bangladesh. It seems killing free-thinker atheists who criticize Islam is their main agenda.

Rajib Haider
A.K.M Shafiur Rahman
Avijit Roy
Washikur Rahman Babu
Ananta Bijoy Das.
Who is next?

Tomorrow maybe you. Or maybe me.
Blogger Haseeb Mahmud wrote:
পুলিশের দায়িত্ব কি সেটা এই মুহুর্তে একটা প্রশ্ন। অভিজিৎ হত্যার কোন সুরাহা হয়নি। ব্লগার রাজিব হত্যার মামলায় গ্রেফতার ও সেটার বিচার শুরু হলেও সেই হত্যাকান্ডের নাটের গুরু এখনো ধরা ছোঁয়ার বাইরে। অনন্ত বিজয়ের হত্যাকারিদের গ্রেফতার ও তাদের রাতারাতি বিচার শুরু হবে এটাও আশা করা কঠিন। আমাদের করণীয় চাপাতির মুখে লেখা না থামানো। লেখা থামালে জিতে যাবে আনসারুল্লাহ।
What the responsibility of the police is at this point is a question mark. They could not find the killers of Avijit Roy. They have arrested the killers of blogger Rajib, but the mastermind is on the loose. It is a tough to hope that the killers of Ananta Bijoy will be nabbed anytime soon or a trial will start. Our prerogative is to not to stop writing even if confronted by wielding machetes. If we stop writing they will win.
The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

May 11, 2015

Why Arabic Script on the Walls Might Not Stop Public Urination in Dhaka

The photo shows  Arabic sign on the sidewall of Panthakunja Park at the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka. Image by Sk. Hasan Ali. Copyright Demotix (7/5/2015)
The photo shows Arabic sign on the sidewall of Panthakunja Park at the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka. Image by Sk. Hasan Ali. Copyright Demotix (7/5/2015)
Public urination is a problem in Bangladesh due largely to a lack of public toilets. Municipal officials in the capital Dhaka have battled in vain to stop men urinating in public, with signs in the local Bengali language and warnings of punishment and fines yielding no notable results.

Now the government is hoping that an innovative idea can put a stop to the habit. Recently the Ministry of Religious Affairs released a video highlighting their campaign "Language Matters" wherein Bengali signs warning against urination are now being replaced by Arabic signs, a holy language for Bangladeshis.

Perhaps they have taken a cue from neighbouring India -- battling with the same problem -- where pictures of Hindu gods and godesses on the walls are intended to have the same effect.



Although some are lauding the state's effort to solve a perennial problem, others are skeptical, claiming the campaign supports blind faith and promotes misconceptions.

Sufi Faruq comments on YouTube:
ধর্ম মন্ত্রণালয়ের দারুণ একটা ক্যাম্পেইন !!! (..)

বাংলাদেশের বেশিরভাগ মুসলিম আরবি ভাষা না বুঝলেও এই ধরনের অক্ষরকে পবিত্র মনে করে। তাই ওই স্ক্রিপ্টে লেখা যে কোনকিছু অপবিত্র করতে ভয় পায়। এই ভয়টার বেশিরভাগ সময় ধর্ম ব্যবসায়ীরা অপব্যবহার করতো। এবার একটা দারুণ কাজে ব্যাবহার হল।
A great campaign by the Ministry of Religious Affairs!!!

Most of the Muslim majority Bangladeshis cannot understand Arabic but they deem it as a holy language. So they fear to desecrate anything written in that language. Most of the time it was used by religious opportunists as it is the language of the Koran and the prayers. Now it has been used for a good cause.
Despite the Ministry of Religious Affairs' claim in the video about toilets being present in most of Dhaka's 10,000 mosques, the general lack of public toilets in the city of approximately 15 million is a genuine challenge. The city's large homeless population is particularly affected by the shortage.

Adnan R. Amin at Alal O Dulal Blog thinks that the video does not get to the root of the problem and instead aims to create false impressions:
The using of a religious misconception (“Arabic is a holy language”), to prevent a social evil, is clever. But it also reinforces and lends credence to that misconception, instead of dispelling it. One would think that for a ministry for religious affairs, dispelling religious misconceptions would outweigh protecting city-walls. If there were funds available to the government, Dhaka’s City Corporations could’ve used them to create better facilities for women. While it is difficult to discern from boardrooms, the 36 public toilets with facilities for women are now being used by men. Judging from the tactic and tone of  this video, a reexamining of both government bodies’ priorities seems to be in order.
Moreover, Fariduddin Masud, an influential cleric criticised the Ministry for Religious Affairs.

While most mosques do have sanitary facilities, mosques themselves are "not public toilets", he said, adding that "nobody has the right to use the language of the Koran for such a campaign."

Blogger Irene Sultana doubted the campaign via a blog post on Women Chapter titled 'Not Arabic, but Public Toilets, Matter":
ঢাকা শহরের প্রতি দেড় লাখ নাগরিকের জন্য শৌচাগার রয়েছে মাত্র একটি। [..] অধিকাংশ পাবলিক টয়লেটই ব্যবহার অনুপযোগী। [..] পাবলিক টয়লেটহীন নগরীতে পথচারীদের অধিকাংশই তাই ফুটপাতকেই বেছে নিচ্ছেন ’হালকা’ হতে।

না বুঝে কেবল আরবি লেখা থাকলে সালাম করা হলো এ দেশের মানুষের ধর্মীয় অন্ধত্ব। ধর্ম মন্ত্রণালয়ের দায়িত্ব ছিল মানুষকে এসব অশিক্ষা থেকে বের করে শিক্ষিত, সচেতন করা, তার বদলে মানুষের সেই অজ্ঞতাকে ব্যবহার করে ’সমাধানের’ নামে মূলত একটি মশকরা করলো!
There is only one toilet in the capital Dhaka for every 150,000 people, out of which many are not usable. So in the absence of enough public toilets the pedestrians use walls to relieve themselves.

Many Bangladeshis respect the Arabic language because they don't know the language. The duty of the Ministry of Religious Affairs was to educate them and make them aware that this is a language only, not everything in its writing is sacred. But instead they used this ignorance to eke out a "solution" which is actually a farce.
Sultana also cites the recent efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who built toilets in front of temples and achieved 5.2 million lavatories in the first 100 days of his tenure.

Bangladesh lags far behind on this issue.

While state religious officials are already trumpeting its successes, the campaign does not appear to have been well thought-through. If implemented to the fullest extent, Dhaka's walls will be covered by Arabic but people will still have nowhere to urinate.

Moreover, in India, before Modi went on his toilet-building spree, the gods on walls campaign unravelled: people simply began urinating on the faces of the deities. Innovative campaigns incorporating public shaming such as "The Pissing Tanker" also lacked impact.

For this reason Adnan R Amin's comment that the money spent on the campaign -- "a proxy solution that treats the Symptom and not the Cause" -- would be better spent on new public toilets in Dhaka seems to be well-founded.

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.