I have some questions regarding Subir Bhaumik’s piece (“Conspirator’s Cauldron”) in the May issue of Himal. I am not entirely certain that there are answers to them, but I suppose they ought to be asked. Normally I feel enormously upbeat about what gets printed on Himal’s pages, and that is precisely why I am not sure about Bhaumik’s piece, and not sure what your editorial policy is.
The reasons for this question are obvious. Bhaumik’s explanation of a military incident between India and Bangladesh is based exclusively on the compulsions of the latter’s domestic politics, one that seems to be dominated by conspiracies in the correspondent’s reading of it. We all know that Bhaumik has been reporting on militancy in India’s Northeast, so could it be that this has coloured his world view? He quotes intelligence agencies as sources. This is highly unusual because ‘agency quoting’ died many years ago due to its sheer unreliability. When you grab a phone to get information you will never be able to tell whether you are being fed or not. One can continue with this practice only at the risk of eroding the distinction between the media and intelligence outfits in the legitimate dissemination of news. Conspiracy theories have no space in the media unless proved beyond doubt, which is when they cease to be conspiracy theories. But when Himal prints them, what does that make you? Or is it that Himal is not uncomfortable with intelligence feeds?
Let me say what the danger was in this case. Bhaumik concluded that the “assassination attempts” on Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the bomb explosions at the public meetings and the border incidents, were all part of a single conspiracy to dethrone Hasina. Also part of this conspiracy was the 76 kg of explosives that the police discovered 300 metres from the podium where she was to address a rally at Kotalipara in her Gopalganj constituency. Add to this the meeting at Breda, near Amsterdam, to plot the assassination of Hasina, spearheaded by one of the accused in the Sheikh Mujibur Rehman murder case, and you have great copy, too tempting to be checked even though Himal has a man in Dhaka (whose article actually accompanies Bhaumik’s).
My contention is that reading all of one country’s internal problems in the light of its larger neighbour’s military policy, will always be risky, simply because this is where the agencies come in and fill the information gap. Bhaumik quotes people to say that there is a conspiracy to undermine and destabilise the Awami League government, because it is seen as being pro-India and hence the recipient of New Delhi’s patronage. But the pitfalls that follow these arguments are:
- The bomb that was found in Kotalipara was so big that it had military origins beyond any doubt. Foreign experts who assessed the situation refused to endorse the Government of Bangladesh’s view that it was planted by Islamic terrorists. The main accused were arrested only recently, and seem to have no connections with any of the political parties. any case, the planting of bombs has no political value left even in the pro- Awami League camps. Otherwise, it would have been discussed constantly and used against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Even
pro-Awami League media people do not put out such arguments. Just as Begum Khaleda Zia’s claim that Hasina had planned her murder and paid a number of people to kill her, was not reported by the BBC. Only the party paper gave the claim publicity for a couple of days before toning it down because it sounded so vacuous in the absence of any evidence. Those who live in Bangladesh, know that allegations of assassination attempts are dime a dozen in a country where so many ordinary people have died unaccompanied by rumours and conspiracy theories.
It is true that Hasina’s family was wiped out by military conspirators, and they have been tried and sentenced to death, and there certainly must be some people who might want to kill her but no conclusive evidence exists to link such possible attempts to the border incidents. The threat to her life and the border events can only meet at a conspiratorial point because they are two different media stories.
- The Breda conspiracy has also disappeared from the papers. In fact, check with the Dutch papers and you will see no such rumours. Notice also that the source quoted was the Indian mainstream media, and not the Dutch media. News of such incidents have a short lifespan.
- There was one instance of a bullet actually being fired at the prime minister’s house and led to a scare. But although investigated, no results were made public and the matter was left there. Names were named in the circulating rumours including that of the prime minister’s cousin, and Member of Parliament, Sheikh Halal, who is considered to be close to her. He is the son of Sheikh Mujib’s brother who was killed along with him back in 1975. His name even appeared in the newspapers. A bullet entered the room in which Hasina’a political advisor Dr. Malek sits. Malek was given the responsibility of sorting out the ‘energy mess’ in the country and fingers were being pointed at Sheikh Halal as he is the biggest wheeler-dealer in this sector. After the incident, an investigation committee was set up and duly forgotten. In a place, where bullets fired at the prime minister’s official residence do not get investigated, you do not buy into anything that comes to you on the first ask, even if it is the prime minister’s office saying that the opposition wants to kill her. Or vice versa. You have to be a careful buyer of facts. You check twice. If the fact is too dangerous to report, you do not report it. But you definitely stay away from what you are told by your intelligence sources whose job is to plant information.
- As for the bombs, there have been three major bombings at public meetings in the last three years. One was at a cultural meeting held by the Udichi Shilpi Goshthi in Jessore on 7 March 1999. The second was at the meeting of (a faction of) Transport Workers in Paltan Maidan, Dhaka on 21 January, this year. The third was at the Pahela Baishakh Ramna Mela (Bangla New Year) on 14 April this year. The odd common thread here is that all the three gatherings were under the umbrella of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), a moth-eaten, tattered residue of the old Soviet variety. They have no clout, no influence on Bangla politics. Hitting CPB is really safe. But who would want to do it?
The members of Chhayanat, the cultural organisation that has supported the New Year mela for the last 40 years, are going on a hunger strike early next month because not one arrest has been made after the blast. The chargesheets for the bombings at the wokers’ meeting have just been finalised though the trial is yet to commence, while in the Udichi case, none has so far been made. If you make inquiries as a reporter, the fingers will point in all directions. In the case of these bombings, there are a great many rumours about the identity of the perpetrators, but these are only rumours and they cannot be reported as facts, even if the source is an intelligence agency. A surmise is only a surmise, particularly when it involves a conspiracy. It must be proved before it can be reported or made the basis of analysis? It is best not to pass off a conspiracy theory as the conspiracy itself. Either report it as a rumour or not at all.
Now look at Bhaumik’s conclusion: an Islamist- rightist anti-Indian alliance is involved in the border raids. He refers to the Padua raid and the “retaliatory” incursion at Boraibari, in which 16 Indians were killed. What does it prove? And how does one reconcile the intent of the so-called conspiracy with its actual outcome? We will have to concoct yet another conspiracy theory to account for the wide gap between the intent and the outcome.
Examine the facts of the case. The conspiracy was meant to destabilise the “pro-India” prime minister. Instead the Indian raid actually helped Hasina look like a brave anti-Indian. Now how did that happen? Is it that the Indian defence establishment, acting on intelligence reports of the plot to undermine the Awami League government, actually sent these soldiers, in the full knowledge that they would get killed, in order to strengthen Hasina’s hand politically? And what about the events that followed—the bad blood and the acrimony—was all that just posturing and so much shadow boxing for the gallery? It would seem then that the main objective of the counter-conspiracy—stealing the thunder from BNP’s anti-Indian rhetoric has been accomplished, for it is a fact that the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has lost rather than gained from the incident. In fact, Awami League leaders have gleefully gone on record to say that the Indian attack demonstrates just how strong the Bangladesh defence policy is and that Hasina is now seen as being more tough with India than Khaleda Zia. This event has even ignited anti-Indian feeling within the Awami League, and there are speeches to prove that. But then what is the sense of a counter-conspiracy that strengthens the ally by weakening the alliance. Good sense militates against accepting this kind of a conspiracy theory. On the other hand, nothing else will explain why the original Islamic-right wing conspiracy achieved precisely the opposite of what it intended. Perhaps the best way out is not to accept such theories in the first place.
There is another point to be made about quoting intelligence sources, i.e. that it is not a restricted privilege. It is an option open to anyone who has access to intelligence contacts. Situations become murky when different versions of the same thing are passed out as classified intelligence information. And all the conflicting versions are certified as true merely because they have come from the same intelligence source. For instance, there are rumours of a secret report on the Indo- Bangla border incident prepared for the Bangladesh prime minister. Rumour also has it that another one is being prepared for public consumption. Clearly, the two reports are bound to make two completely different constructions of the same event. What then will a journalist report? Either that there are two such reports, if it has indeed been verified that there are two such reports. Or that there are rumours of two such reports which are not verified. Or just say nothing at all about the two unconfirmed reports. But most certainly not the content of any one of them. That is naivete.
Now, Dhaka rumour has it that the secret report (the first one) claims that the whole thing was a bloody mess and everything we see has been spin doctored; that the Padua takeover was a local decision which did not even have the sanction of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) chief, not to speak of the prime minister; that Padua is back with India and the road that the Indians were building close to this no man’s land is no longer there; that Padua is best given away to India at some later point; that the Boraibari attack by the Indians was a local decision taken by the BSF deputy commandant BR Mondal and that the BSF top brass did not know about it either; that if the BSF men had come in broad daylight there would have been no exchange of fire, but because it was dark the BDR fired; and that the Indian forces that amassed at the border subsequently had nothing to do with the incident, but were there in connection with the elections in Assam and West Bengal. Now, all this is a far cry from both the Indian intelligence version of events at the official Bangla version. So which is the right version.
Subir Bhaumik is excellent when he reports the Assam situation. But by hinging his analysis of the border event on the Indian intelligence understanding of Bangladeshi politics he has turned in a speculative piece that will not meet the standards of credible journalism. These are standards that Bhaumik meets when he is not quoting intelligence people. And these are standards which Himal should follow all the time.