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.

Article: Protests against cuts unlikely to affect government policy

One of my pet hates is protests and marches.  Of course I’m not blinkered enough to disregard its history or its usefulness in enacting change, particularly given recent events in the Middle East (8 March 2012 at the time of writing this).  But I am not convinced by its value in countries with established democracies and..well…Establishments.  I’ll probably have to write a separate blog post on this particular point but below is an article I wrote around the time hordes took to the streets to protest against government cuts.  Unsurprisingly, very little has changed since.

On Saturday as hundreds of thousands of people descended on the streets of London to protest against government cuts, I decided to stay at home because I realised that protesting or marching will achieve one thing and one thing only: nothing.

As a British Bangladeshi-Pakistani (parents from both countries can confuse matters during cricket), I am proud of our right to be able to protest without fear of getting shot down by government militia (think Neda Agha-Soltan).  But does anyone stop to think that our right to protest is as far as it will ever go?

It’s not just for this issue.  Famously, hundreds and thousands of people descended onto the streets of London in 2003 condemning the decision to go to war in Iraq.  We now mourn the dead – both civilian and military.

People have protested vocally against the visit of the Pope, sit-in protests against war and Tamil London wreaked havoc on the streets of Westminster in 2009 and, most recently, student protests against rises in tuition fees.  Aside from vocal protests, a series of letters from top economists in February last year to the Chancellor were another form of protest, this time against proposed economic policies.

In each case, the end result was the same.  Nothing changed.  No protest, certainly in my lifetime, has changed the course of events or decisions that have already been made.  Whilst much is made of the British democracy as the beacon of involving citizens, I often find myself thinking that government and decision-makers look upon the electorate with the same kind of affection a father may look upon his pre-teenage son who he allows to win the race so as to make him feel good about himself.  You’ve had your little protest; we’ll get on and do what we wanted to anyway.

For me, our form of protest is too tame and too pleasant to achieve any kind of difference.  Whislt its nice to be able to walk along the Embankment with children, the importance of the message is easily lost.  Even those who marred the otherwise peaceful marches on Saturday with inane violence ended up hindering the general message the protest march aimed to achieve.

The people of the Middle East are taking massive risks with their lives to make a stand.  We will not have to face the same kind of dangers but I do feel that a march on a sunny Saturday afternoon will do little to change the mindset of the government set in its ways.

Is there a pattern emerging where democratically-elected governments are less receptive to their people (other than at election times) than those we are seeing in the Middle East? I’d argue that we are.  It may have taken decades for people in the Middle East to muster up the courage to stand up to their autocratic leaders but it is precisely this lack of formality in the ruling classes that allows the people to genuinely take a lead in changing and shaping their countries for the better.  The intimately dictatorial foundations are the key to their downfall.

But more importantly, the numbers – some 500,000 in a country of 60 million is less than 1% of the population – will suggest to those in power that those who are most aggrieved at government cuts are a miniscule minority.

It is absolutely right that the message against government cuts be delivered.  But unless drastic changes take place within and across communities, no one will sit up and take notice.  I am not for a minute suggesting that people should set themselves alight or something equally horrific.

But this leaderless approach to making a stand against government cuts will achieve nothing.  The Suffragettes stoked the fire by interrupting public meetings and going to prison.  Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu-Kyi all made stands that captured the national interest and mobilised millions – hundreds of thousands will not cut it.

Most importantly, however, the debate will only be won if there is a viable alternative presented and, quite simply, there hasn’t been.  Simply focussing the arguments on taxing the rich and making bankers pay reads tabloid-esque to those in power.  The debate will not be won by ordinary folk alone.  Neither will it be won by political opponents who will be seen to be points-scoring rather than anything else.

Do I know what the alternative is? No I don’t.  But I certainly want to help someone with the economic and financial clout to find out what it might be and present a water-tight argument against it.  Some cuts are, seemingly, unavoidable but the debate needs the support of non-political independent minds, particularly economists and financiers (Richard Wolff and Paul Krugman have weighed in in the US) to develop and alternative case.

As it stands, unless someone takes the lead and presents an intellectual non-political arguments, cuts will run deep and hard and no amount of walking and paintballing will change that.

Article: Andy Gray should not have been sacked

I get the impression that British society expects footballers to display exemplary behaviour because there’s so much money flying around and they’re in the public eye.  Newsflash: it’s full of young hot-blooded males who, generally, leave school very early because of their sporting prowess and socialise in environments where the more money there is, the “better quality” vices become.  It’s easy to judge them from afar when few of us can honestly take the moral high ground without being in that situation ourselves.

But the uproar over Andy Gray, the Sky television pundit and former footballer who, for 30 years until Cristiano Ronaldo, was the only player to be named PFA Young Player of the Year and PFA Player of the Year in the same season, was over the top.

Published on The Vibe, I’ve posted the article below.  Do let me know what you think.

No matter what the mood, a Will Ferrell film will make me happy and none more so than the oscar-deserving ‘Anchorman, The Legend of Ron Burgundy’.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a comedy that takes a look at 1970s attitudes to women working in the newsroom.  Famous quotes include: “Don’t get me wrong.  I love the ladies.  I mean, they rev my engines, but they don’t belong in the newsroom!” and “It is anchor man, not anchor lady.  And that is a scientific fact”.

In light of Andy Gray’s sacking yesterday, I was reminded of a panel discussion, ‘Reconsidering Anchorman’, that took place last year and explored (in part) the overtly sexist attitudes the film explores.  Overkill? Most definitely and Sky’s response in deciding to sack him on the grounds of sexist behaviour also smacks of overkill, knee-jerking and pointlessness.

The Wikileaks-esque release of videos incriminating a whole host of men at Sky displaying sexist attitudes, in private, should not surprise anyone.  Primarily, not least because it is the male-dominated world of professional football (and Sky TV) but more so because it is men, in private, displaying behaviour that more often than not forms the basis of conversation between men.

Andy Gray’s ‘lewd’ comments to Charlotte Walker inviting her to tuck a microphone into his trousers is most definitely boorish and, rightly, met with indifference by Miss Walker.  But it’s no different to the kind of exchanges that take place in workplaces across the country.  This doesn’t make it right at all but a similar kind of misandry takes place all the time.

At a place like Sky TV, whose female presenters would not look out of place at modelling agencies (and are most likely selected from some) and whose ‘Soccerettes’ are an ever-present feature of their flagship programme ‘Soccer AM’, the sacking smacks of hypocrisy and an attempt to be seen to be doing the right thing.

Andy Gray should not have been sacked and neither should Sky consider sacking the others.  At the time of writing, Richard Keys has made another apology, this time publicly on talkSPORT radio, following his ‘banterous apology’ on Sunday directly to Sian Massey, the assistant referee at the centre of the storm.  Andy Gray, for his part, has issued a statement indicating his desire to apologise on the Monday broadcast following the incident.  A public apology from both would have prevented this blowing completely out of proportion whilst a statement from Massey highlighting her view on the issue would not have gone amiss.  As is the case with most controversies of this nature (race, sex), the actualy ‘offendee’ never seems to say anything until the storm has passed.  Why let the storm pass in the first place?

Sian Massey would have passed the same rigorous testing as any other
referee to officiate at the highest level and has every right to be
there.  Much has been made of the offside call she made right.  But I guarantee, had she made the wrong call, she would have been vilified and dismissed as incompetent based on her gender in pubs all over the land and this would be no different to the assumptions some (male and female) drivers make when someone takes an age to parallel park or hesitates at a roundabout.

Most importantly, the conversations were held in private.  The fallout and general uproar seems to suggest we’re all upstanding citizens with no prejudices or stereotypes and, even if we did have them, we would not be vocal about it unless we’d written it down in our diaries.  Which would have one of those pathetic padlocks that a teething newborn could break.

Numerous stories have come out about an inherently ‘sexist’ culture at Sky, with a great deal of bullying, whilst new theories have emerged that Gray’s sacking is part of a bigger conspiracy against him following his charge the the News Of The World had tapped his phones.  Both are perfectly plausible and the incident itself may well have offered the opportunity for those who’ve been wanting to speak up to do just that.

But regardless of more stories coming out, men the world over, particularly in a sport media environment, will continue to have private conversations about women, both in and out of the workplace, that exhibit sexism.  They will even overtly flirt and display boorishness.  This sacking will not change anything – other than men sitting in complete silence in front of recording equipment until they are due to record.

Article: Why graduates face big challenges in a modern economy

Alongside increases in tuition fees, there was a lot of moaning and grumbling about the lack of jobs available for graduates.  Having seen my parents and their peers work incredibly hard to pave the way for our generation, I was growing frustrated at the sense of entitlement that graduates felt – especially given the rise in the number of graduates since 1997.  I felt I had to share my story but also put forth some home truths about graduate employment.

Published on The Vibe.

In my short five and a bit year career, which has taken me from banking and wealth management through to local government and some freelance writing work, I’ve met a qualified orthopaedic surgeon who earns money by cleaning up people’s litter and regurgitated beer at the O2 arena; I’ve met a qualified International Corporate Law graduate who doubles up as a security guard and a qualified pharmacist who unloads lorry-loads of clothes for brands such as Abercrombie, GAP and H&M.

 

I even know someone who, throughout university, worked 3 days a week and transferred to full-time during the holidays, studying mainly in the evenings and weekends.  Despite not holding a requisite 2.1, was on a graduate programme at a big FTSE-100 company mainly because of his previous experience and, after being made redundant aged 24, found a job again within 3 months in a completely unrelated field earning a salary higher than his previous job, signing up to do a Masters degree while working full-time and commuting almost 2 hours a day to his new place of work.

 

Throughout my life, I’ve seen what panic is.  My father, for example, came back to Britain in 1992 after a failed move abroad, found his house was repossessed and a wife and kid to look after, with another one popping up 2 years later.  I recall the Fridays where he’d work from 7am to 7pm, before heading out for his 9pm to 9am shift, getting his sleep and starting the next shift from 7pm to 7am from Saturday.  He worked like this for 15 years until he and I were able to buy a property together and I requested him to stop working his fingers to the bone for the sake of his family as we no longer needed to rent anymore.

 

The orthopaedic surgeon, my brother-in-law, arrived here a year ago with a view to completing a Masters in Surgical Sciences and lives with his wife and four year old son in a room behind a dry cleaners as his course alone is costing him upwards of £27,000 – and he’s been saving money in Bangladesh.

 

Graduates, like Reni Eddo-Lodge, in the UK can feel aggrieved for apparently having been sold a lie – get a degree, get a job, you’ll be fine.  But it astounds me to know that so many graduates seem to be oblivious to the world around them despite their apparent higher level of intellect and ability.  Why did they believe that this would be the case in the first place? If there are more and more graduates coming out every year, did nobody step out and think that the value of them as graduates alone will never be enough?livepage.apple.com

 

With reports coming out of the number of students that didn’t get a place at university, it concerns me that university is still seen as an indicator of our future success.  Of course graduates are important but surely some attention needs to be given to those who will be entrepreneurial as our economy stagnates? What about those who will build on the slow progress being made by the manufacturing sectors here?

 

Graduates abroad, like China and India, are part of a journey of tremendous economic and social progress.  Graduates in the UK find themselves in an environment where a lot needs to be done but no one seems to have the initiative to lead from the front as they expected an easy ride.  But more than anything, with successive governments having very little idea of the social and economic direction of the country, new graduates have the opportunity to shape so much.

 

The protests are just the beginning.  Instead of panicking and looking bitterly at the lack of leadership around them, graduates can come together and be a force of tremendous change, instigating a new wave of economic growth and social stability.  Much of what you learn at university is quickly forgotten unless you go directly into a career that exercises that degree in the first place (such as medicine or law) but, even then, you need to pass numerous professional qualifications to reach industry standards.

 

Viewing the graduate population as the ‘lost generation’ is scaremongering and a lazy view of how society and the world works.  This is not the first time the graduate population will suffer as the economy goes through a critical juncture and it certainly will not be the last.

Article: Multiculturalism breeds intolerance

I came across The Vibe online magazine by chance when I was mindlessly browsing the w4mp.com website to see what kinds of jobs are out there.  It’s a great little blog, one of the “Top 10 non-aligned political blogs of 2010” in fact, and I was delighted to be able to write for them.  I’ve written more here than anywhere else.

My first article was about multiculturalism and how this idea, to my mind, has done more harm than good.  I’ve pasted it below – for the moment, I can’t link to the original piece as The Vibe website is down after being hacked but, once it’s up and running properly, I’ll post it here.

Tell me what you think

In reading Anushka Asthana’s piece in The Observer on Sunday, I was glad to see that ‘multiculturalism’ and the decorations that surround it are finally being recognised for the tokenism it is.  I was disappointed to read, however, that Asthana fails to recognise some very fundamental things.

Let me set the scene.  I was born and raised in London to Muslim parents, one from Pakistan and the other from Bangladesh.  I was educated in a public school in Essex, which had a sizeable Asian population (though the majority where white) and worked for a private bank where, at one point, I was the only Asian male in a building of about 300 staff.

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to speak English in the house and eventually learned to read, speak and write in Bangla and Urdu.  A bit of Punjabi was mixed in whenever I visited my Nan.  Both my parents speak English – my father a paramedic and trade unionist and my mother being educated in one of the few English-language schools in Dhaka in the 60s and 70s.  I’ve been a choirboy at school, continue to act in plays (musicals and non-English language too), recited poems in Bangla, presented shows in Urdu and, of course, written articles in English.

Did or do I feel multicultural? Well, no.  None of the activities I do are supposed to be multicultural.  When someone tells me they are, I start thinking ‘is this something I’m not supposed to be doing?’  When clients would be surprised that I was fully Asian after speaking to me on the phone, I’d be entirely confused as to why my accent is the subject of such attention just because it comes out of a brown mouth.  It’s only then that I realise that I’m in some way ‘different’.

My issue with the term ‘multicultural’ is that by formally defining what should be an inherent existence within a liberal, democratic society, the lines of demarcation are made clear and, actually, those who are behaving ‘multiculturally’ are being viewed as entirely ‘different’.  Whilst it is clear that people are more aware these days of what happens in different cultures, this has only given rise to political correctness which, in turn, has driven communities even further apart.

Take the simple matter of handing out Christmas cards.  It seems people have to make the painstaking decision of whether or not we should hand out Christmas cards to certain people lest we offend ‘them’.  Once it’s established that it might be okay to hand out the cards, the greeting on the card becomes the next bone of contention – ‘Season’s Greetings’ or ‘Merry Christmas’?  I can’t think of a single Muslim person who would threaten jihad upon receipt of a Christmas card.  And it’s because you’re ‘seen to be doing the right thing’ that we end up exacerbating already frayed relations between communities.

A lot was made of the community cohesion agenda during the last government.  Another misleading idea.  It is impossible to make people get on with each other (targets included: % people from different backgrounds who get on with each other).  By all means, build greater understanding of different communities and build tolerance, but you certainly can’t make people get on with each other.  Having ‘The Hallows’ living next door to you is no more or less cohesive than ‘The Khans’ living next to ‘The Patels’ and sharing potato curry.

Fundamentally, the problem lies in the basic premise of the idea of ‘multiculturalism’.  The word seemed to enter common usage in the early noughties and was synonymous with the seeming ‘rise’ of Muslim extremism.  Even Asthana’s piece highlights that the discussion around multiculturalism was framed within the debate surrounding tackling violent extremism and specfically, though no one will say it, Muslim violent extremism in the UK.

These are two entirely different things.  Multiculturalism has nothing to do with preventing violent extremism – in fact, it’s partly because of it that we have extremists in the first place.

We now have a problem with shaking off this idea of multiculturalism that seemed to be met with such approval by a society too keen to show its willingness to embrace other cultures.  Liberty and freedom is about being allowed to express your own individual self and being tolerant of others who are different to you.  Multiculturalism fails to do any of those things, breeding intolerance and discouraging people from expressing themselves as they wish as they are restricted by the confines of the word.