Bangabandhu, Bangladeshi Expatriates and a Foreign Minister

:: Najrul Khasru ::

Bangladeshi expats love affairs with their motherland began from their historical base, England, on the night of 25th March 1971, when the Pakistani occupying forces unleashed their military might on Bangladeshis with the evil aim of total subjugation. The expats spontaneously galvanised into action against the atrocities, and in determination to free their motherland. While many Bangladeshis crossed borders and took up arms, the expats were instrumental in creating international awareness and raising vitally needed financial resources for the freedom fighters.

Many expats simply handed in their unopened pay packets to the Bangladesh fund week after week (I learned this from Justice Imman Ali, who as a teenager in England at the time, was participating in collecting funds). Justice Abu SayeedChowdhury in his book, Probashey MuktijudderDinguli, recorded that soon after the independence, on behalf of the expats, a sum of £378,871 was sent to the finance ministry which formed the very first foreign currency of the Government of Bangladesh.

The expats love for the Father of the Nation began even earlier. In 1968  Ayub Khan, determined to politically and physically eliminate Bangabandhu, instituted the infamous Agartala Conspiracy Case. The expats played their part by hiring a British lawyer, Tom Williams QC, to ensure justice for Bangabandhu. As Peter Hazelhurst of The Times reported, Tom Williams’ participation in the case, although brief due to government intimidation and harassment, served the purpose of drawing international attention to the case.

The love affair of the expats with the Father of the Nation was well reciprocated. It is no coincidence that in January 1972, after being freed from Pakistani prison, Bangabandhu had no hesitation in choosing London as his first destination before returning to the newly independent Bangladesh. According to Dr Kamal Hossain, Bangabandhuwas fully aware that “London had been an active centre from which support for the liberation war had been pursued”. Zafar Chowdhury, who piloted the plane carrying Bangabandhu to London, revealed that on arriving at Heathrow his first request was to contact a number of his “friends”, who were small restaurant owners.

That the Father of the Nation was a visionary leader is an unequivocal truth. He understood the sacrifices that expats made for their motherland,and foresaw that one day they will play a pivotal role in turning the country into Sonar Bangla. He granted dual citizenship status to expats at a time when only a handful of countries in the world allowed such status to their expats. That was the time when the number of Bangladeshi expats were approximately 300,000 worldwide. That number has now grown to over 10 million in more than 85 countries injecting 15 billion dollars annually into Bangladesh‘ economy. Even at a time when expats are facing enormous difficulties living in coronavirus hotspots around the world, the remittance flow to Bangladesh has remainedrobust. This would not have surprised the father ofthe nation‘s visionary sense, and would have made him proud.

The relationship between Bangladeshis living at home and the expats, as underpinned by Bangabandhu, has been rock-solid for 50 years. This relationship has been crucial in driving forward the country’s economy and its standing in the global community. However, more recently it has been widely recognised that evident prejudicial attitude of the current foreign minister of Bangladesh Dr Abdul Momen towards expats, manifested in a series of ill-judged remarks made by him over the last 12 months or so, has harmed that precious relationship, as well as the image of Bangladesh abroad.

In early 2019 Dr Momen, following the British government‘s decision to strip of Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, declaration  that she is not a citizen of Bangladesh and therefore the British government or any government for that matter, could not deport her there. Many legal experts, both in Dhaka and London, felt that Bangladesh’s position, as announced by the foreign minister, was authoritative and legally sound. But then, bizarrely, in May 2019 he stated, as reported by the Times of India, that “ShamimaBegum will be hanged for supporting terrorism if she visits Bangladesh”.

This was an unnecessary and unfortunate statement. Firstly, if she is not a citizen of Bangladesh then the country, in any case, would not have legal jurisdiction to try her for an alleged offence committed in a third country. Secondly, and more crucially, in a country with rule of law only a court may determine how an offender would be punished. When a member of the executive branch of a country declares with certainty how an offender would be punished, the independence of the judiciary of that country becomes doubtful. His remarks were widely publicised in the media world over and caused raised eye brows in many capitals. It is to be noted that there are a large number of criminals convicted in Bangladesh, including a number of killers of the father of the nation, living in various countries. These countries would only agree to extradite them back to Bangladesh if they are satisfied that Bangladesh has a fair criminal justice system and that itjudiciary is independent. Dr Momen’s remark is not going to help Bangladesh in this regard.

In November 2019 Dr Momen dismissed widespread reports of Bangladeshi women being tortured and abused in Saudi Arabia by saying that a very small number of women workers were victims of abuse, and that the death of 53 female workers was an insignificant number. He also remarked condescendingly that these workers do not complain at the shelter home with Bangladesh embassy but then speak out after coming back home. He clearly does not appreciate the fear factor and the overwhelming distress that these unfortunate workers go through. His remarks were widely condemned and a women’s organisation in Bangladesh, Naripokho, demanded an apology but none was forthcoming.

In March 2020 Mr Momen told the media that his government needed to protect 160 million Bangladeshis from the expatriates importing coronavirus to Bangladesh. This was without any solid evidence to back up. It was an extraordinary statement when the borders of Bangladesh werestill wide open and thousands of foreign nationals, business people, government officials, sailors and travellers were entering Bangladesh through land, air and sea from various countries. His reason for singling out expats for his unfounded criticism is best known to himself. Dr Momen also mocked expats by suggesting that they behave like nababzadas whenever they are in Bangladesh. This was not only deeply offensive to all expats but, as it later transpired, was designed to provoke hatred. He then went further. On 21 March 2020 he announced that the dead bodies of expats should not be sent to Bangladesh for burial, knowing full well that in the midst of coronavirus pandemic the chances of such repatriation would be negligible. This public announcement was unnecessary, callous, insensitive and in bad taste.

These remarks had an effect of demonising expats. Within days there were reports ofnumerous incidents of threats and physical aggression on expats all over Bangladesh. They were publicly ridiculed, abused and their properties vandalised. Thankfully this disgraceful episode came to an end, when the realisation of complexity of spread of coronavirus pandemic donned on people.  

While Dr Momen’s reference to nababzadas was aimed at the expats living in the western world, he, it appears, also decided express his true feelings about the hardworking unskilled Bangladeshi expats in various Middle Eastern countries. In a recent interview with a female journalist, he stated that if these expats returned to Bangladesh en masse there would be an increase in churi-chamari in Bangladesh. This was a breathtakingly patronising statement, devoid of any factual basis.

Many have criticised Dr Momen for associating expats with theft crime. But this goes further than that. The word chamar denotes low caste people in the Indian subcontinent, and their perceived misdemeanours in the past used to be referred to as churi-chamari by those consider themselves as superior by birth. This phrase is deeply offensive in modern times and must not be used in a country where the Constitution guarantees all citizens as equal.

A famous saying of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declares: “It will not be fair to look at the migrants only as economic actors. They have to be treated as human beings.” It is suggested that a foreign minister with such evident disdain for expats would not have lasted long in Bangabandhu’s Cabinet. How long he lasts in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Cabinet remains to be seen!

Najrul Khasru is a British-Bangladeshi barrister.