Article: Bangladesh: 40 years on

As with the previous post, this was posted on The Vibe the day after the 40th anniversary of Victory Day.  But, unlike The Times piece, looks at the issue of Bangladeshi identity as I saw it.  This proved to be a contentious piece which, frankly, I was pleased about.

The original article can be found by clicking here.

16 December 2011 is a very important day for my family.  Not only does it mark 23 years since my grandfather’s death but also 40 years since “Victory Day” for the country that came to be known as Bangladesh.  It marks the day Pakistani Armed Forces surrendered to the Allied Forces of East Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini and Indian forces.  With a patriotic Bangladeshi mother and a similarly patriotic Pakistani father, I have witnessed the most fascinating dynamics around this time of year throughout my life.

August 14, 1947 saw the controversial creation of Pakistan from the Muslim-majority eastern and north-western regions of British India – something Gandhi vehemently opposed but eventually acquiesced – with East Bengal (and later East Pakistan) some 1,300 miles away forming part of the new Pakistan.  Problems were apparent early on with most government administration taking place in the West despite the East being home to over half the Pakistani population.  Emerging calls for greater integration of East Pakistanis in government and military affairs through the official recognition of Bangla as a state language were thwarted.

Urdu was viewed the embodiment of a Muslim nation being based on Arabic script – Bangla was based on the Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism. On 7 December 1947 a key resolution passed that Urdu be the sole language in all media and education in all of Pakistan.  This was a seen as a mechanism to discount the overwhelming majority of Bangla-speaking East Pakistanis from claiming prominent roles in public life.  Protests, not too dissimilar from what we have seen this year in the Middle East, began the very next day.

Years of political wrangling and civil unrest eventually lead to Bangla being recognised as an official state language of Pakistan in 1956.  But ill-feeling remained and East Pakistanis still found themselves disproportionately under-represented in Pakistani government and public life.  In 1966, the Six Point Movement of Bengali nationalism called for the creation of Bangladesh that would lead to the War of Liberation in 1971.

Rising cultural tensions would see the brutal launch of Operation Searchlight by the Pakistani military, attempting to diffuse calls for Bangladeshi independence, with targeted operations against intelligentsia, military and civilian populations.   A senior US official described the operation in Time Magazine at the time as “the most incredible, calculated thing since the Nazis in Poland”.

The brutality and human cost and personal stories were harrowing – some have been captured by a BBC Asian Network report today.  Some 10 million people fled East Pakistan to India and 3 million people were reported to have died (though the exact figure is now being disputed).  My uncle, a Chief Superintendent of Police, was taken away from his family of wife and four young children and was never seen again.  His wallet, shawl and walking stick are on display in the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka.

On 14 December, the Day of the Martyred Intellectuals, my mother narrowly escaped her death after my grandfather was tipped off by the Indian General J. S. Aurora to leave the house.  Women, like Ferdousi Priobhashini, were regularly raped en masse and large scale killings were the norm.  The scale of atrocities moved Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist based in Dhaka, to flee to London and expose the atrocities in the Sunday Times, generating international attention.

Henry Kissinger, the then US National Security Adviser, famously said Bangladesh “is and always will be a basket case”, offering US support to West Pakistani forces in the war effort, at one point removing his own Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, for criticising the failure of the US government for “failing to denounce the suppression of democracy” – as highlighted by none other than Christopher Hitchens.  Independence was a bitter-sweet experience in my family – we lost many people but revelled in our newfound freedom; my great uncle’s signature still adorns the 1 Taka note to this day.

Forty years on, Bangladesh has been marred by political controversy, corruption, natural disasters and large swathes of poverty.  But one of the great tragedies of modern-day Bangladesh is the demise of the language amongst a sizeable and influential section of its population.

I was raised in Britain to read, write and speak Bangla fluently and can speak Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi fluently (dancing Bollywood aided this process).  But I know an increasingly sizeable number of Bangladesh-born Bangladeshis who are simply unable to read or write Bangla – their “English-medium” schools with distinctly American cultures have seen to that.  Their spoken Bangla makes Brett Lee’s Hindi seem native.  Sadly, it even seems to be viewed as a great source of pride for their families.

A burgeoning class is emerging that is being educated abroad at institutions like Oxbridge and Harvard and call South Kensington, Hampstead and Upper Manhattan home.  Increased trade with the UK and US, particularly garments, which enjoy duty free access under the EU EBA (Everything But Arms) Agreement, accounts for 80% of Bangladeshi trade with the UK, has considerably improved the wealth in this section of the population.  It is a source of great pride for me that Bangladeshis are making their mark abroad and generating wealth but it saddens me that this is at the cost of their sense and appreciation of their identity – the very thing that makes them so different from everyone else.

As a non-religious Brit with Muslim parents from Bangladesh and Pakistan, it can sometimes be difficult to have a clear sense of identity.  Siding with any one part requires an apology for another.  But I envy those who can call upon a single identity, especially one with as rich and recent a history as a Bangladeshi.

Perhaps Bangladeshi cricket isn’t a source of pride.  Perhaps the widespread corruption and poverty isn’t either.  But you are and will forever be a Bangladeshi.  The political classes in Bangladesh have much to answer for and tend to find it difficult to retain or attract the best Bangladeshi talent back to improve the country – indeed, Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus was driven out of the country as he attempted to leverage political capital following recognition of his work.

But closer to home, the perverse cultural affliction of this new class of Bangladeshi to be “Everything But Bangladeshi” is a source of great disappointment to me and many others.  They seem to have embraced everything from alcohol to promiscuity (stories from some of the elite schools in Bangladesh will put today’s alarm at underage sex in the UK in some perspective).  Bangladeshi-run restaurants in the UK will sell alcohol – Pakistani-run restaurants simply will not.

My uncle was just one of many that died just for standing up for what they believed in – today’s Syrians and Bahrainis will sympathise.  That my generation of native and foreign-born Bangladeshis distance themselves from their country and, ultimately, the sacrifices their ancestors made is sad.  I am just as proud of my Bangladeshi roots as I am of my Pakistani ones.  They should be too.

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Article: Remembering the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War

My last day at The Times was also the 40th anniversary of Victory Day for Bangladesh.  I wrote two pieces – one for The Times and one for The Vibe.  The one below was written for The Times – you’ll see plenty of similarities with the one I wrote for The Vibe…!

You can find the original article by clicking here.

Today is a very important day for my family. Not only does it mark 23 years since my grandfather’s death but also 40 years since Victory Day for the country that came to be known as Bangladesh.

Pakistani Armed Forces surrendered to the Allied Forces of East Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters) and Indian forces (who joined the war effort on December 3, 1971) on December 16, 1971. With a patriotic Bangladeshi mother and a similarly patriotic Pakistani father, I always witness the most fascinating family dynamic around this time of year.

The war was bloody. The scale of atrocities moved Anthony Mascarenhas, a (West) Pakistani journalist based in Dhaka, to flee to London to expose the atrocities in The Sunday Times and his book,Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood. He got the world’s attention. A senior US official at the time described Operation Searchlight, the initial offensive by West Pakistan, as “the most incredible, calculated thing since the Nazis in Poland”.

There was harrowing brutality and a great human cost. This has been captured in part by a BBC Asian Network report today. Some 10 million people fled East Pakistan to India and three million people were reported to have died (though the exact figure is now being disputed). Women like Ferdousi Priobhashini were repeatedly raped and large scale killings were the norm.

My uncle, a Chief Superintendent of Police, was taken away from his wife and four young children and was never seen again. His wallet, shawl and walking stick are on display in the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka.

On December 14, 1971, the Day of the Martyred Intellectuals, my mother narrowly escaped death after my grandfather was tipped off by the Indian General J. S. Aurora and told to leave the house.

Henry Kissinger, the then US National Security Adviser, famously said that Bangladesh “is and always will be a basket case”, offering US support to West Pakistani forces during the war and at one point removing his own Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, for criticising the failure of the US government for “failing to denounce the suppression of democracy” – as highlighted by none other thanChristopher Hitchens.

The surrender of the Pakistani army made the front page of The Times.

As I remember those who passed, I leave you with Bob Dylan as he performs in The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.

Article: Protect the City, neglect the regions

The unemployment debate raged on but very little was being said about investment away from London – with the focus being on the Olympics and reinvigorating our service industries.  This was perhaps my first properly “journalistic” article as opposed to comment – it was the first time I had used and analysed data as opposed to rhetoric.  I really enjoyed writing this piece and hope to to write more of a similar ilk.

You can find the original article by clicking here.

Unemployment has hit a 17-year high and the figures are, as usual, being masked by political mud-slinging.

“Unemployment doesn’t just happen overnight – it’s the mess you’ve left behind that has caused this,” say the Conservatives. “Our mess is part of a wider mess but if you’d used a broom instead of a pneumatic drill to deal with it, we wouldn’t have consecutive bouts of unemployment!” say Labour.

Both arguments have merit but amid all this, young people are being left behind: the number of young unemployed has reached its highest level since the mid-1980s.

History shows us that migration, particularly internal migration, has a very important role to play in generating economic growth. This graph is based on ONS data on regional migration:

The data, from March 2010 to March 2011, shows that people are generally leaving London, apart from those aged 15 to 24, who are moving in.

Of those who left London, where did they go? Some 84,600 moved to the South East; 53,660 moved to the East; and 19,480 moved to the South West. Unsurprisingly, house prices had a large part to play: the South East experienced the second highest annual fall in house prices nationally.

As for young people migrating to London, the overwhelming majority came from the South East, then the East. This suggests that London is being seen as the place to find work.  But data shows that the largest numbers of job vacancies are in the North West – 48,700 as at November 2011 with London second (31,000 jobs in banking, finance and insurance). Interestingly, 220,000 vacancies nationally are in banking, finance and insurance, after distribution, hotels and restaurants with 46,000.

London is second only to the North East in terms of unemployment rates. Youth unemployment in London has jumped by 26,000 in three years. But with 77,000 young people aged 15 to 24 migrating to London in the last year alone, it is hardly surprising that a sizeable number have been unable to secure employment.

This has to change: jobs have to be created away from London and the South East. Concentrating wealth and opportunities in one part of the country leads to pressure on housing stock and public services, and results in over-population.

Young people are highly mobile, so they should see other parts of the country as feasible places to work and live. House prices are be cheaper the further North you go and, with Londoners already spending £489 more on travel than those in the West Midlands and North of England combined, cheaper travel should be a more appealing prospect.

The Prime Minister has been criticised for protecting the “one square mile of the 86,000 in the UK” with his unprecedented EU veto. He must create hubs in other parts of the country for our financial industry and other services industries to grow.

Article: Perhaps it’s Europe left out in the cold

I’ve never really been interested in European politics.  I never got into it.  But when David Cameron made the unprecedented decision to veto the European Treaty Deal in December, it became one of my most memorable political moments.  Not because it mattered to me but I got to witness how a newsroom takes news like this.  Everyone was wading into the debate about its merits and, honestly, I wasn’t moved either way.  But I felt like I had to say something and the only way I could understand it was by using a football analogy.

You can find the original article by clicking here.

Britain, I know how you feel. In the playground, I never got picked to play football.

But you chose not to play. It’s cold out there. Standing knee-deep in European bailout mud is not your idea of fun. The two team captains, France and Germany, have run off to play. But they are playing with a square football.

That square football is the debt the eurozone countries are trying to repay. And to make matters worse, they want to repay it at the pace of Cristiano Ronaldo: EU leaders have agreed to penalise countries that overshoot a deficit limit of 3 per cent of GDP.

Unfortunately, the burden of their debt means they will end up looking like Neil Shipperley. The latest figures from the OECD database show that eight eurozone countries have deficits 1 to 9 points above the 3 per cent limit.

Is it really in every participating country’s interest to reduce their deficit so quickly? And given that each will have a different approach to deficit reduction, is it realistic to expect they’ll all be able to do it?

I don’t think it is. There can never be a truly united Europe when each country has such distinct economic and social characteristics. What works in Italy might not work in Greece.

The UK currently runs a deficit of 9.4 per cent – a heavy leather ball. But now, there’s no overbearing French or German coach screaming instructions about how to kick it. That’s liberating.

Britain can focus on reinvigorating its services industries. It can catch the attention of the Chinese and Indian kids to support its attacks. And in time, the Neil Shipperley nations will come to Britain, asking us to help spare them a ticking off from the Franco-German managerial team.

Article: Ilford

I went to primary school in Ilford, Essex and, whilst I have a lot of affection for the place, it ain’t the prettiest.  So imagine my surprise when Ilford was the “fastest growing European tourist destination” for 2011.  Being the only guy who had actually heard of the place on the Times Opinion desk, naturally, I wrote a quick post!

What do Nigel Benn, Paul Ince and Noel Edmonds have in common?

They all hail from Ilford in Essex, the fastest growing European tourist destination in 2011. No, really.

I spent my primary school years in Ilford, did my first job there and then worked for Redbridge Council. There is a nice park, a small shopping centre and a bustling high street.

I love Ilford. But a tourist destination it is not.

As it’s less than 10 minutes from Stratford by train, I’m guessing that people are looking for places to stay within reach of the Olympic Stadium.

Article: Payday loans

My second article on Comment Central was about a topic close to my heart: payday loans.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a “difficult” relationship with money and have had some very close shaves with payday loans.  I’ve never taken one out and, hopefully, will never have to because these things are, quite frankly, abhorrent.

You can find the original article by clicking here.

If living beyond our means is the root of today’s economic woes, then news that 3 million people will resort to payday loans this month requires some attention.

These short-term unsecured loans, usually of around £300, can carry interest rates in excess of 4,000 per cent. The payday loans table on moneysupermarket.com gives some stark examples: a 15-day, £300 loan from wonga.com costs £345 to repay.

Despite their high cost, payday loans are particularly appealing to those with poor credit ratings, and for those who can’t extend their overdraft or credit card limit. Unfortunately, they often find later that a short-term cash fix brings long-term repayment problems (as leaders attending Friday’s euro summit know).

Lenders apply higher interest rates to customers at a higher risk of defaulting. This is a basic economic function. But they should be expected to lend responsibly. If we have truly learnt our lesson about the dangers of irresponsible lending at a national and international level, then we should change our attitude to lending at an individual level.

On November 21, an early day motion was tabled by David Morris MP:

That this House notes that wonga.com is currently advertising a typical interest rate of 4214 per cent. and that this is not the only institution offering a similar service; further notes that these high interest rates are often paid by the poorest in society; believes that all financial institutions have a right to make a profit but that these companies are adding to poor families’ financial problems; and further believes that the time is right to restrict the level of interest that can be charged on loans.

Unfortunately, to date, only 28 MPs have signed the motion.

Elsewhere, Martin Lewis, founder of moneysavingexpert.com, generated 100,000 signatures on an e-petition for compulsory financial education in schools – something that would surely be more useful than education on the risks of gambling.

It is important that future generations are better educated on financial matters, but the problems we face with debt require action today. Schoolchildren aren’t borrowing money – adults are.

Limited financial advice is available from the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, and from some credit score websites. There are also some good tips available on direct.gov.uk, the Government’s advice website. But there needs to be more.

Payday loan companies need to better inform their customers about risks and costs. The Government too should make people more aware of the risks, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

Extortionate borrowing costs are harmful to the financial health of the country. We have learnt from the financial crisis that failure to repay loans means someone else picks up the pieces further down the line.

But the fact that companies are still able to offer short-term loans at such extortionate rates suggests that we haven’t taken this lesson to heart. The Government must examine the costs of payday loans. Our attitude to debt has to change.

Article: The Olympics feel-good factor

I landed a two-week internship at The Times (thanks to the UpRising programme) on their Leaders and OpEd desk in December 2011 and was delighted to be working alongside some of the biggest names in journalism – Daniel Finkelstein, Phil Collins, Oliver Kamm, Hugo Rifkind et al.  I had a wonderful time there, not least because they let me write articles for Comment Central, their blog, but that everybody was so incredibly warm and generous with their time.  I hope to repay their support one day.

My first article was intended to get me into the groove of writing for The Times.  The language and style is very different to what I’m used to with The Guardian and considering I was working directly with them, I was naturally nervous.  I found an interesting news story abou the Olympics and felt a mini-rant coming on!

You can find the original article by clicking here (£).

Among Londoners, mere mention of the word “Olympics” often prompts moaning about the prospect of too many people clogging up our commute to work, and of inappropriate largesse in these tough economic times.

So the news today that a further £40 million is being thrown at the Games’ opening ceremony to “better exploit ‘a great national moment’” is likely to generate mixed reactions.

On the one hand, it suggests current plans are underwhelming; indeed, Hugh Robertson, the Sports Minister, “[declined] to criticise the early efforts of some of the best creative talent in the entertainment business”. On the other, it suggests that the Government wants to generate some good feeling amid the doom and gloom.

But surely our spirits would be lifted higher with a big haul of gold, silver and bronze medals for Team GB.

So the news that a British sprinter is auctioning himself on eBay to raise £30,000 to compete at the Olympics, while creative on his part, is worrying. It suggests that some athletes have come up against serious sponsorship barriers.

It also suggests that some of the £40 million could have been better spent. It’s a bit like having a wedding without a bride and groom.