Published in the Forum (August 2007)
It is time for the NRB community to flex its political muscle, argues the writer.
“Dear Asif Bhai, after careful consideration, I am sorry to let you know that I cannot be part of your organisation as my parents think that it is too political. My parents are not comfortable with the fact that your organisation talked about minority rights and other controversial issues. Although, I care deeply about these issues, I have to respect their decisions, and join an organisation which is not too politically controversial.”
This was the letter sent to me from one of my most hard working volunteers in Boston in my organisation. That got me to think and re-evaluate what I was doing with our human rights organisation. I thought long and hard about what was deemed political and what was non-political in Bangladeshi and to the Non-Resident Bangladeshi (NRB) context.
The answer was strikingly depressing. In the past 10-15 years, in the years of dysfunctional politics, one thing our politicians and intellectuals have successfully been able to do is to completely dilute the definition of politics, both home and abroad. Politics are not defined as a medium to discuss policy, inequity or social issues, but rather it has been deemed a dirty mode for individuals to get a share of the loot of national wealth. The issues of human rights which are by nature very political have been confused by people as being partisan issues. Similarly, anything with the slightest political context have been deemed controversial and out of bounds for the “bhodroloks.”
However, along with the spring cleaning back home, times are changing abroad as well. With the advent of internet and a growing willingness among the established Bangladeshi diaspora community to engage in tougher issues, there are signs that expatriates are more and trying harder to be catalyst of changes in Bangladesh. With the increasing economic and lobbying muscles and their soon to gain voting rights, the question remains: how directly should NRBs get involved with Bangladeshi politics? If and how should they influence “deshi” politics or national bread and butter issues with political overtones?
History of diaspora involvement in political issues
When we discuss the Bangladeshi diaspora, without getting into too much statistical breakdown, we can divide them into two main classes that I will define as the must-sends vs the must send-nots. To clarify, the “must-sends” are those who regularly send money to their home base every month to keep their families surviving. They are mostly the migrant workers to Middle east, Malaysia and other developing economies and the biggest contributors to our foreign reserves. The migrants from the must-send community are often too busy struggling their way through the foreign land. Being charitable or being involved in local deshi issues is not really an option for them even if the presence of strong passion is there.
Some from the must-send section struggled their way through to become hugely successful entrepreneurs and they look to expand their influence in the political arena in Bangladesh by spreading their wealth as a natural progression. This is the business community i.e. the political funders of deshi politics among the expatriate community. This is the group of people who get regular visits from the politicians every five years before election time. The “donations” in general have been used by these expatriates to either get nominations from local constituencies or to purchase influence among the political parties.
Just like home, the absence of political ideology or philosophy among these political involvement is striking. The most popular TV show on London’s Bangla TV is a show where the local leaders of AL and BNP duke it out on live TV. The discourse is mostly about how one netri is superior to the other and all the tired, old rhetoric that we hear back home between the two parties.
However, the expatriates do have a rich history in getting involved in key political changes. The role of expatriates in generating funds and mobilising international opinion during 1971 liberation war has been one of tremendous impact. The few that were abroad around that time had impact many times more than their numbers could have justifiably achieved, by organising and agitating in support of the Bangladeshi freedom struggle.
Similarly, the seed funding to mobilise the Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee in 1991 took shape in the cities of New Jersey. However, as things took turn for the worse politically back home, people with genuine passion abroad increasingly tried to shed the political label. Along with the typical don’t stir the pot mentality of the bhodrolok class, the post 9-11 polarisation made some expatriates ultra image conscious and super-sensitive to criticism of the state. The BNP government also to a certain extent successfully was able to convince people that talking against the government policies is synonymous to anti-state activity. But it goes beyond saying that nothing stirs up the Bangladeshis like deshi politics no matter wherever they are. The Bangla TV programs in UK are still abuzz with viewers who call in to give their opinions by paying premium calling charge. But in spite of all these chattering, the migrant community had yet to find the most effective way to influence politics for the better back home — until the internet and mobile phone spread widely home and abroad.
Growing activism of the expatriate community
As communication mediums spread in Bangladesh, over the last few years, Bangladeshis are showing more inclination towards getting more hands-on with grassroots issues. What was previously limited to just non-stop discussions has now moved into the implementation phase. Not only is there an inclination towards affecting the policies of their adopted land, established expatriates are now willing to engage on various politically sensitive issues like that of workers’ rights, religious tolerance, environmental disaster, etc.
With the lack of response from political parties who have so far been unwilling to engage with the NRBs other than for the purpose of collecting donations, the expatriates have formed non-profit organisations abroad that have successfully partnered with local grassroots organisations in raising awareness on key issues.
Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), created mainly by diaspora environmentalists has successfully helped form and fund Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) which has been very effective in creating an environmental movement in Bangladesh. Along with the activist angle of BAPA, BEN has also provided key policy papers on energy and coal reserves and water sharing of our rivers.
The BEN-BAPA model is one of great success where a handful of diaspora Bangladeshis have contributed towards raising awareness among the mass on a difficult issue and at the same time has influenced policy decisions of the government of Bangladesh.
Similarly, organisations like Drishtipat, working in the field of human rights, has been able to raise critical awareness on difficult issues where the local organisations were muted by the fear of government retaliation. The geographical and financial independence has proved effective in terms of not only just raising awareness but also in directly raising monetary aid which otherwise would not have been possible to obtain.
Recent initiatives like Phiriye Ano Bangladesh, which is aiming to engage the Bangladeshi youth to be more politically aware and have them speak from a single platform to have their voices heard in policy making, is seeing active association from NRB and RB community. Similarly, very thought provoking and powerful op-eds aimed towards influencing the policy makers are being written by NRBs .
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the advent of communication technology. With internet and SMS messaging, mobilising a world-wide movement has become a lot simpler than before. Internet not only has opened up the barrier of geographical boundaries, it has made possible for the expatriates to be abreast of local issues in details through the online editions of Bangladeshi newspapers and organise quickly based on that.
The recent deportation trial of convicted killer Mohiuddin saw a full-fledged fight in the international media between two opposing sides. Both sides managed to fight an organised battle in the media quickly and effectively within a short span of time thanks to blogs and online newsgroups.
Having seen the fruits of the success recently of citizen journalism, expatriates are now aggressively using internet and blogs to raise awareness on political issues. While it can certainly be debated how much interference, if any, the foreign countries should have in policy makings, it is certainly beyond question that international lobbying by expatriates has proved effective in recent days in swaying international media and the political leaders.
How to be most effective in the new era?
With the expatriates getting direct voting rights for the next election, the time is ripe for them to exert more direct influence in policy making. Now that they can have a say on who gets to run for office in their own local constituencies, it will be a good chance for people to get involved on more hands on local issues.
The key impediment in this case has been lack of information flow. While we are now getting up to the news on the national scene via internet and the electronic media, it is more or less impossible to get news on the local level for people who want to be more involved. A more fundamental question to ask is whether someone who has decided to migrate from their home constituency would have had enough engagement with the community to run for office to represent them.
As evidenced from Bangladeshis forming their region-oriented Bangladesh organisations in the foreign land, their appetite for getting involved with local issues is limitless. They have been working to help build schools, mosques and hospitals in their villages. However, to change politics as we know it, there is no better way than to get directly involved. Expatriates who have lived under matured democracies and who have followed the democratic practices in the foreign land can lead by example by planting new ideas in Bangladeshi political scene by getting involved in politics. For that, however, a key logistical impediment remains in place as Bangladesh still bars dual passport holders to run for office. In this era of global migration, such discriminatory rules are counter-productive indeed.
For those are who are not ready to get directly involved, the best way still is to get involved with the change makers in the local community and empowering them and partnering with them via the expatriate organisations. At the end of the day, expatriates have the geographical and financial independence which gives them a lot of leverage in pushing through their ideas.
Hopefully, after years of aimless bickering, NRBs will be able to follow the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) example of contributing in key issues by becoming powerful and cohesive stakeholders. Until that happens, the global conversation that is now taking place between Bangladeshis worldwide on national issues through media outlets and internet is bound to open up new doors of opportunities and help shed the negative label that we have been associating with being political in Bangladesh.