Foreign minister’s statement to diplomats, 10 April 2013

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Statement by the Foreign Minister at the Diplomatic Briefing on Wednesday, 10 April 2013 at Ruposhi Bangla Hotel at 1900 hrs

I will comment on this latter, but for those who want a read of the whole speech, here it is

“Excellencies,
Heads of International Organisations,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,

I thank you for being here with us. During my last briefing, I said that I would continue to keep you apprised of the Government’s position on some of the ongoing developments around the ICT-BD trials. I have invited you today to brief you about the Government’s stance on some of the recent incidents that had grabbed the newspaper headlines during the past few days.

The whole nation must have felt a sense of relief that the tense environment that was prevailing over the possible fall-out of the Long March programme of the Hefazat-e-Islam (HI) on 06 April, and some of the counter programmes that were announced to resist the programme, had passed off without any major incident taking place. The Government had given permission to the HI to stage their programme on the condition that it would be held in a peaceful manner without restoring to any of the violence and atrocities that we had seen being committed by the Jamaat-Shibir in recent times. Following the rally in Motijheel area, the Government indeed thanked the HI for being able to refrain from any such violence on the most part. It was however a sad affair that a large number of their activists proceeded towards the Shahbagh Gono Jagaran Manch with an intention to launch an attack against the organisers and youth involved in that Movement. It was again a matter of relief that the law enforcing agencies deployed there could resist the militant HI supporters and prevent any untoward incident on the occasion. We deplore and remain concerned over such unwarranted provocative actions, especially targeting the Shahbagh Movement that has been able to maintain its non-violent character so far to the kudos of the nation. Similarly, there have been targeted attacks against media personnel, particularly female journalists, and a procession of the Nirmul Committee as well as attacks against Awami League supporters leading to the death of one AL activist in Faridpur. The motive behind these particular groups of people being subject to the wrath of these violent mobs may tell us something about the true nature and intention of certain sections of the HI supporters and activists. On behalf of the Government, we condemn these mostly pre-planned attacks. We also remain particularly concerned over the growing incidents of violence against journalists by certain vested groups.

There has been a lot of debate and speculation on whether it was the right move for the Government to have allowed the Hefazat-e-Islam to proceed with its programmes. Our Government made it clear that it would respect the Constitutional rights of all individuals and organisations to express their views and hold peaceful assemblies, obviously within certain legal and reasonable limits for the sake of maintaining public order and security. The additional pre-cautionary measures that were taken, including the heavy deployment of the law enforcing agencies, were only intended at serving that objective and removing any threat to public life and property. Our Government is handling the overall ongoing situation with patience, determination and pragmatism.

You may have noted that the HI placed a 13-point demand to the Government, including their key rallying point to bring to justice those bloggers and online activists accused of blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon him). The Government has been appreciative of their sentiments and has categorically reiterated its uncompromising stance on any attempt to demean or insult any religious beliefs and tenets in the public and virtual sphere. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister has made it clear on every occasion possible that her Government would not countenance any form of derogatory comments or calumny against Islam or its Prophet (PBUH), or against any religion or religious figures for that matter. In response to public sentiments, the Government had formed a high-level committee headed by an Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs to investigate into any such material being circulated through blogs, online forum or social media networks, and recommend appropriate legal actions. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) had also initiated its own monitoring of the cyberspace to detect any such objectionable material and take necessary pre-emptive or prevention actions within its jurisdiction. Accordingly, the BTRC had shut down certain blogs that were found to have been engaged in propagating hurtful and malicious contents against Islam and its Prophet (PBUH). Many of these blogs had actually forged contents to ascribe such hate campaigns to some of the online activists involved with the Shahbagh Movement. Moreover, the law enforcing agencies have so far arrested four bloggers and online activists based on allegations of their involvement in blasphemous acts online. Their cases remain under investigation to ascertain whether the allegations against them are true or not, and accordingly necessary legal actions would be taken. While we respect the rights to people’s freedom of speech and thoughts, we must ensure that the bounds of freedom are respected in the public realm to avoid hurting the religious beliefs and sentiments of any group or groups of people.

I must hasten to add here that anyone accused of hurting the religious beliefs or sentiments of any community should be brought to justice under the laws of the land. As far as the Government is concerned, we do not support any individual or group taking law unto their own hands to seek retribution for any alleged wrongdoing on this account. We shall not tolerate any orchestrated and extremist form of violence and killing that we have seen in recent times against individuals alleged to have committed such offence. Our Government would continue to maintain its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to any form of extra-judicial killing, either by the law enforcing agencies or members of the public. As a nation, we must come out of this vicious circle to allow the rule of law to prevail in all spheres of our society.

At the same time, we need to remain cautious so that no individual is falsely implicated for a wrongdoing that he or she may not have committed personally or have been framed with through forged technological means. We have been witness to a number of such incidents in recent times where falsified attributions to individuals on blogs or social networking sites had been deliberately used as a pretext to unleash large scale violence and atrocities. The local media has also revealed some glaring instances of prevarication where even international dignitaries had been falsely implicated of certain actions or pronouncements to fuel the hostile and misleading campaigns being run against the Government or the ICT-BD trials in particular. On behalf of the Government, we convey our deep regrets to the concerned dignitaries and entities for the embarrassment and inconvenience caused to them, and at the same time would plead for their understanding of how such vile and irresponsible campaigns on the cyberspace often remain outside the control and oversight of the Government.

On our part, the Government continues to urge upon the print, electronic, social and online media to act as per prescribed rules and regulations and in a responsible manner so as not to incite hatred, intolerance and violence in any form or manifestation. We have noticed to our sheer dismay that the Government’s repeated pleas have fallen on deaf ears with certain identified sections of our media, and our restraint and patience with them has been misconstrued as a sign of our weakness or policy oscillation. As a Government that firmly believes in the freedom of media, we would find it most unfortunate if a section of our media continued to stretch the limit of the freedom entitled to them to the point of being perceived as real threats to public order and safety. We hope that the right sense would prevail among these media establishments, and those involved in hate campaigns and communal propaganda would rectify their actions to uphold the established principles of journalism. In order to create the right policy environment in the broader context, our Government is also currently working on further updating the National Broadcasting Policy and the Bangladesh Press Council Act to make them more adaptive to the evolving media scene in the country.

It may be pertinent to revert to the HI’s 13-point demands since many of you may have some questions about the Government’s response to those demands. As I have already said, our Government has already made efforts to respond to the main grievances of the HI which we felt were quite justified from the perspective of religious freedom and sanctity. Our Government would stand by any legitimate demand for action against those alleged of committing blasphemy as long as such demands are made through peaceful and democratic means. The HI maintains that their demands are essentially non-political in nature and that they are not being swayed by any political pressure to take a stand to oppose the ongoing ICT-BD trials.

We have, however, noticed that the HI platform on 06 April has been used by the representatives of certain political parties affiliated with the Opposition coalition. It is perhaps evident that certain vested political groups are trying to take advantage of the so-called non-political banner of the HI to advance some of their political agenda in an undercover manner. It has been widely reported in the media how the HI leadership and other outsiders among them delivered hate speeches against the Government, including terming the Government as a “Government of Atheists” or a “Government against Islam”. There have also been repeated political calls to institute Sharia-based laws and governance in the country, which takes the discourse directly into the realm of politics. On the other hand, there has been general silence or a muted response to the ongoing violence and atrocities being committed by the Jamaat-Shibir, including their unabated cowardly attacks against the religious minorities. If the HI had decided to dissociate itself from the Jamaat-Shibir, it would have been expected that they would have made their position clear against the un-democratic, anti-State and systematic political violence perpetrated by the Jamaat-Shibir, which have nothing to do with the basic norms and precepts of Islam.

Moreover, what is particularly disturbing is the controversial nature of some of the demands in the HI’s 13-point agenda. It must be made clear that as a Government working towards building a democratic, pluralist, secular and inclusive society, we shall not allow the clocks to be turned back on the fundamental tenets of our statecraft and harbour demands that stand in clear contravention with our Constitutional principles and obligations. The fundamental principles and rights enshrined in our Constitution have emerged through an organic process of a broad-based political struggle and inclusive dialogue under colonial oppression and occupation. It amounts to the outright denial of the values and ethos that defined that long drawn struggle if we are to reopen or reinterpret the Fundamental State Principles that we had espoused during the early days of our journey as an independent nation. The Shahbagh Movement has demonstrated how the youth of this country remains attached to these principles and how they continue to draw inspiration from the values that form the bedrock of our Constitution.

From the legacy of a war-ravaged country, we have marked out our territory in the comity of nations for our singular achievements over the years in our inclusive and participatory women’s empowerment, our progressive and liberal education policy, our cultural vibrancy and diversity, our secular outlook and tolerance-based approach to piety and religion, our resilience in the face of natural adversities, and overall our democratic aspirations that continue to expand the room for accommodation for different groups and communities, irrespective of their beliefs or practices. We cannot afford to bow down to pressure to undermine those achievements and narrow down the space for accommodation and tolerance for the sake of political expediency. We remain confident that the youth of this country would continue to reject all forms of bigotry, hatred and obscurantism that tend to pull us backward as a nation. I believe that our friends in the international community would also not expect Bangladesh to move in the reverse direction from the Vision 2021 that we have charted for ourselves.

The recent incidents of violence and intolerance have been a clear signal that we need to scale up our work as a Government to see to it that a certain section of our society, including youth, does not remain susceptible to such bigotry and gets radicalized in turn. We need to continue to understand and address the root causes that may be responsible for such propensity amongst them. It is going to be a long haul, but persevere we must. We have already started some tangible and constructive action in that direction; there is no way we can slow down the gathering momentum.

At the same time, we would need to be firm with the political or politicized elements that continue to disrupt our socio-political fabric with their hate campaigns and instigation to violence against the state machinery, public property and vulnerable segments of the populations. We would continue to do so within a democratic framework, with due respect to the rule of law and human rights, and where necessary, with the minimum use of force to save public life and property. We would expect the international community to remain sensitized to the exigencies faced by the Government that may require us to take such legal actions against different quarters responsible for such ongoing confrontations. It is rather unfortunate that we often hear international outcry over issues or incidents without really having an appreciation for the undercurrents, difficulties or challenges faced on the ground. It is, therefore, all the more expected of you, for staying closer to the ground, to develop a real understanding of the sensitivities and nuances to help your respective audiences and constituencies acknowledge the gravity of the situation and refrain from making a sweeping or knee-jerk reaction to the events. You must be acutely aware by now how any words or omissions from our friends in the international community can be used or twisted by certain vested groups to serve their narrow political gains. I would also invite your suggestions on which part of your respective constituencies that you would think we should engage further, and how, to explain the ongoing realities in Bangladesh.

Excellencies, friends,

The next general elections will be a critical threshold for Bangladesh’s journey onwards. It is often said that the nation is divided along some ideological fault lines that remain difficult to bridge. While there may be some truth in it, I believe that the nation is now faced with two clear options ahead of it: one is to build on the conclusions that we had reached as a nation at our birth in 1971 and forge ahead on the course of progress and prosperity that is our destiny, and the other is to dig deeper the battle lines around the fundamental questions of our statehood and plunge the nation into a state of chaos and polarization for narrow political gains. If we choose the latter, I do not think history will forgive us ever. Let our people decide which option they prefer.

I thank you once again and open the floor for your comments and questions.”