In an unusual intervention, the Bangladeshi origin British Labour MP strongly criticised the Awami League’s human rights record and the party’s hagiography towards its leaders.
Rupa Huq, one of the four Labour MPs of Bangladeshi origin, has criticised Bangladesh’s human rights record under the Awami League, calling it a “rogue state”. She also invoked the conflicts in Kashmir and Palestine, while comparing the situation in Bangladesh to other political crises.
At an event organised by the Labour Campaign for Human Rights at the House of Commons on February 4th, the MP for Ealing Central and Acton also expressed amazement for the reverence that the government required people to show towards the prime minister’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and criticised its narratives around him.
In the past, Huq has been critical of the Bangladesh government’s human rights record, most notably over the detention in 2018 of the internationally renowned photographer Shahidul Alam, but it is highly unusual for MPs of Bangladesh heritage to be so forthright in their criticism.
“It is just not a normal country […] at the moment,” Huq said. “I think it is just some kind of rogue state or something.” “In all these indexes for civil rights for human rights, it is a highly repressive country. It is sad because in the original constitution, I think, it had secularism and even the word socialism in there. And it has just turned into a very draconian, authoritarian regime,” she added, citing the reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Huq said that she most recently visited Bangladesh in 2017 as part of a trip organised by the Labour Friends of Bangladesh saying that this group “traditionally […] had gone and just lapped up the government side.”
The British MP said at the meeting, which was open to both the public and journalists, that the two main parties the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party used to alternate in power “but now it just got stuck on one side because everyone has been put in prison on the other side.”
She said that the human rights situation in Bangladesh should not be ignored. “I am hopeful [that things can improve] because in my childhood when I was growing up, things like Northern Ireland, things like South Africa looked like intractable struggles that would never [get] sort[ed], and other ones may be better known, Kashmir or Palestine, but this is a human rights tragedy that we ignore at our peril.”
Another criticism Huq made in her introductory talk about Bangladesh at the event was the idolisation by the Awami League of its leaders. Huq said that on her 2017 trip to Bangladesh she had visited Dhaka University and that, “Even in the staff [room], there was a big portrait of the current PM and her dad, and I just thought you would not have that in Kingston University’s […] staff room, [a picture of] Winston Churchill or at the time Theresa May. It seemed very sinister.”
Referring in particular to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s independence leader and the father of the current prime minister, who is referred to by many as the “father of the nation”, she said, “This father of the nation thing slightly freaked me out.”
2020 is the 100th birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Bangladesh government is organising a year of events to celebrate this. It is a criminal offence in Bangladesh to spread “propaganda” and to “campaign” against the “father of the nation” with a sentence of upto 14 years of imprisonment
In relation to the anniversary year, Huq said, “I have just been invited to a thing in March for the birthday of the father of nation here in the House of Commons in one of the dining halls downstairs and I just want to say that ‘I don’t accept your narrative of events that this man is the father of nation.’”
“They have renamed the airport, all these really sinister things like they are erasing out their previous history,” she added, appearing to refer to the change of Zia International Airport to Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in 2010 by the Awami League. It was originally named after Ziaur Rahman, a former military ruler and the founder of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the arch-rival of the Awami League.
The Labour Campaign for Human Rights was launching its publication on “Britain and Bangladesh” seeking to inform the party’s policy on Bangladesh. The event was chaired by Matthew Turner, chair and executive director of the campaign. Other invited guests who spoke at the event included Murad Qureshi, board member of BRAC UK and former Labour member of the Greater London Assembly; Halima Begum, a social policy and aid expert; Quazi Najma Karim, sister of photojournalist Shahidul Alam; Rumana Hashem of the Department of Politics at the University of Warwick; and, David Bergman, the journalist (Editor, English of Netra News).
Rupa Huq started her speech by explaining why she chose to speak up regarding human rights situations in Bangladesh, “I am the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, but if you come from Bangladeshi heritage like me, then you are an MP for wider than just your geographic constituency that you represent. You are an MP for [the] whole wide world Bangladeshi diaspora.”
Netra News asked the Bangladesh High Commission in London for its comment but did not receive any response.●