14/05/2013 09:50 BST | Updated 12/07/2013 06:12 BST

Bangladesh's State System: Cracks Need Healing and Mending


Another deadly fire in a Bangladeshi garments factory, this time in the Mirpur industrial district of the capital Dhaka, has killed at least eight people. This has added to the trauma of the Rana Plaza collapse on 24th April that has already killed 1,021 people and still counting. This is one of the deadliest industrial disasters in history; almost 650 bodies have so far been identified and handed back to their families; one woman was pulled alive after 17 days from the rubble of the eight-storey building, thanks to the resilience of rescuers. The disaster has created world-wide compassion and concern for the poor factory workers who provide the developed world with cheap clothes with their sweat and blood; The Pope has condemned 'slave labour' conditions of the garment workers some of whom live on just £32 a month.

The significantly high death toll has provoked outrage amongst Bangladesh's factory workers; many are however shocked by insensitive and reckless comments from senior government ministers, including the Prime Minister (her interview with the CNN). Some observers compare the Bangladesh ruling class attitude with the proverbial 'Nero sings while Rome burns'.

Bangladesh's garments industry, the life-line of millions of people and one of its major national export industries, is now in tatters. The government recently announced the shutdown of 18 garment factories due to safety concerns. Critics fear that the government does not have the ability or intention to bring back confidence to factory workers by robustly implementing health and safety measures in the industry. Many are asking, is the current Bangladesh government presiding over the collapse of the garments industry, as its predecessors from the same political party did to the successful Jute industry in the early 1970's?

Midnight massacre

However, before all the victims of the factory collapse were buried, another human tragedy visited Bangladesh with the killings of unknown numbers of opposition protestors by the government in the early hours of 6th May. This was after a day of massive anti-government rally organised by Bangladesh's newly formed religious group Hefazat-e-Islam. The exact number of casualties in the darkness of the night is still unknown, but Asian Human Rights Commission calls it a 'massacre of demonstrators' and says, "[on that fateful night] major news channels in Bangladesh have been silenced. Two private television channels that were showing live pictures of the attacks on the demonstrators were immediately closed down."

Odhikar, a reputable human-rights group in Bangladesh, reports that some hundreds of people died during a "killing spree" by a force of 10,000 made up of police, paramilitaries and armed men from the ruling party. Bodies were strewn about the streets of Dhaka's commercial district.

In the absence of any reliable information as the 'cowed local press' has kept largely silent, the Economist says "What happened in Dhaka and beyond in the early hours of May 6th looks like a massacre." Bangladesh Police said 22 people died, but Hefazat claims the figure would be at least 2000; European diplomats say as many as 50 people were killed.

The emergence of Hefazat-e-Islam as a new organised force goes back to only a few months ago, on the back of recent detestable anti-Islamic rhetoric by some bloggers and the government's dubious relationship with them; this apolitical religious group consists of teachers and students from the country's religious schools; they came up with some demands from the government, among them a few debatable.

Political stalemate between the government and the opposition is continuing unabated since 2009 when Bangladeshi people put their trust in the current elected government after two years of military-backed unelected administration. Sadly, instead of a policy of working collaboratively with the opposition the current Awami League government resorted to a politics of retribution from day one. Since then the country has slid into further political violence and social division.

Bangladesh is prone to natural calamities, but in the last few months it has only seen man-made disasters, one after another. Rana Plaza disaster of such epic proportion would have humbled any rulers in any other country. But alas, the current Bangladeshi rulers are different!

The ruling party has a detrimental control over the print and electronic media networks. When it comes to Islamic opposition it has employed the same regurgitated argument that is often used by despots in some Muslim countries, that it is fighting 'Islamists' or fundamentalists - goodies fighting the baddies! Due to the post-9/11narrative, some international news channels including the BBC have failed to rise above lazy journalism in unearthing the truth behind Bangladesh's self-destructive course in recent times.

It is instructive to note, in Bangladesh, politics and religion is mixed up. Even the supposedly secular Awami League is involved with politics of religion; it had dallied with Islamic groups in the past and is doing so even today; in 2006 it struck an electoral deal with another ultra-orthodox religious party. Its close relationship with its now arch-enemy, Jamaat-e-Islami, in the 1980's and 1990's is still in people's memory. Hefazat's 13-point demands needed debate, not bullets; their protestors deserved the right to life, not mid-night massacre by 10,000 armed men!

Bangladesh has been known as a land of religious moderation and the Bangladeshi diaspora abroad are also generally recognised as such. About half a million British Bangladeshis in the UK are perplexed and troubled with the recent events back in Bangladesh. On behalf of many of them, the Muslim Council of Britain has urged the Foreign & Commonwealth Office recently to find the truth behind the 6th May massacre in Dhaka.

Cracks in Bangladesh's state system

The world's micro-finance guru and practitioner, Bangladesh's Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus, recently made an intuitive comment on the state of Bangladesh itself, "The collapse of the building is just a precursor to the imminent collapse of all our state institutions... If we don't face up to the cracks in our state systems, then we as a nation will get lost in the debris of the collapse. ... We will have to find ways to fix the institutions to protect them from complete collapse."

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant ( Follow him on Twitter: