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From Visionary to Villain: The Complex Legacy of Professor Imtiaz Ahmed and the Rohingya Crisis
Dual citizenship for the Rohingya and other border communities. Joint education and employment in border areas and more!
In Bangladesh, the sudden suspension and subsequent dismissal of a scholar who devised groundbreaking solutions for the Rohingya refugee crisis has left an indelible mark. The academic's innovative ideas, conceived in 2001, eclipsed even the lofty ambitions of the Global Compact on Refugees. His proposed initiatives, though unimplemented, held the potential to revolutionise the status quo for Rohingya refugees: he advocated for revising nationality laws to offer work permits and even dual citizenship for those in border regions; he championed bi-national or joint border development projects led by private entrepreneurs and NGOs to uplift Rohingya communities; he envisioned initiating dialogues between civil groups to establish shared educational facilities using multiple languages - likely Bangla, Burmese, Rohingya, and English - aimed at improving the lives of Rohingya refugees. The execution of any of these initiatives could have brought about sweeping changes, not just in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, but more importantly, in the lives of the stateless Rohingyas themselves. These insights open the door to a thought-provoking conversation about the scholar's remarkable foresight and the potential impact of his proposals.
Sadly, those exceptional insights are not what Professor Imtiaz Ahmed will be known for. Over the years, he has relinquished those ideas, and his recent fortunes at Dhaka University have made headlines for entirely different reasons. DU barred him from all future academic activities after allegations surfaced of him defaming Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and distorting the history of the Liberation War in his book, "Historicising 1971 Genocide: State versus Person." The university's syndicate, upon reviewing the findings of a committee, strongly condemned his actions, requested the author and publisher to retract the book, and asked the government to take legal action against those involved in defamation and distortion.
Although Ahmed's earlier contributions reveal a visionary mind focused on the Rohingya crisis, the trajectory of his career veered in a different direction. Once known as an expert on the refugee crisis, he has become something of an establishment figure. With a robust academic background that includes numerous publications, treatises, and books, he has held esteemed positions such as Professor of International Relations, Dhaka University and Director of Genocide Studies. However, by 2023, he could be seen as a government mouthpiece or a state-sponsored scholar, developing far-fetched ideas such as creating a Safe Zone in Rakhine State with Chinese, Indian, and Japanese forces and turning Bhasan Char into a hub for world scientists to treat COVID-19 patients. His stance on the controversial issue of extrajudicial killings, a grim reality that claimed the lives of scores of Rohingya, was convoluted. He didn't explicitly condone these extrajudicial actions, but seemed to accept the complex conditions that might give rise to them.
The unexpected denouement of Professor Imtiaz Ahmed's dismissal left observers feeling puzzled. One might have thought his establishment status would confer some kind of protection, but there is establishment and then there is core establishment. In this case, the core won. What struck many even more was the resounding silence from civil society, fellow academicians, and human rights groups on the matter. It took about two weeks before any response surfaced.
Finally, a statement emerged from the University Teachers' Network, which condemned Dhaka University's actions against two teachers, including Prof Imtiaz Ahmed. The network, representing 51 teachers from various public and private universities, stated that the decisions violate academic freedom and run counter to the university's liberal tradition and commitment. They also claimed the actions contradicted the university ordinance. In their statement, the network pointed out that historical truths are established through theses and counter-theses, emphasising the importance of upholding academic freedom for both teachers and students.
In writing this piece, the intention is not to present a lament or a hatchet job, but to express hope for a resurgence of Professor Imtiaz Ahmed's earlier ideas and to bring some profound insights he once championed to the forefront of the national consciousness. It is essential to highlight the statements made by Professor Ahmed in a conversation with Zafar Sobhan, where he reminds us that Bangladesh emerged from the shadows of genocide and refugee-hood, instilling within its people an innate sense of responsibility that ensures they will never turn away from helping refugees. Ahmed poignantly stated, “This is what makes the country. This is what makes the idea of Bangladesh, the idea is important.”
Contrary to the popular narrative of financial burden, Professor Imtiaz Ahmed stood out for his unique perspective on the economic aspects of refugee support. In 2001, he underscored that, apart from an initial $2.5 million spent by Bangladesh, the relief operation costs for the Rohingya were largely borne by the UNHCR, donor governments, and NGOs. He even proposed that their presence, coupled with the influx of Rohingya refugees, might have triggered a net financial gain for the Bangladesh government and its citizens by stimulating job creation. Two decades later, his stance remained consistent. In 2020, when asked by Zafar Sobhan about the financial burden posed by the shortfall in the Joint Response Plan finances, Ahmed dismissively waved it off. He expressed confidence in Bangladesh's robust growth rate, asserting it could readily manage the economic challenge of hosting 1.1 million refugees. His words echoed his enduring commitment to Bangladesh as a resilient nation in the face of substantial refugee hosting.
In conclusion, Professor Imtiaz Ahmed was deeply committed to finding a resolution for the Rohingya crisis. His restless spirit led him to question why there weren't photography exhibitions showcasing their plight, or efforts akin to what George Harrison did for Bangladesh. He envisioned a world where every Bangladeshi embassy brought the Rohingya cause to the forefront, and where musicians and poets championed their rights. He welcomed the massive demonstration organised by Mohibullah, even though it was vehemently condemned by many parts of Bangladeshi society. In his eyes, such events showed that the Rohingya could organise and present themselves as credible counterparts to the Myanmar regimes.
Ahmed's earlier propositions can indeed be seen as groundbreaking, particularly when juxtaposed with the current stance of the Bangladesh government towards the Rohingya population. Viewing Rohingyas as a liability and a potential hazard does hinder the implementation of more inclusive policies and the enhancement of their living conditions.
Yet, despite the importance of these early insights, it's notable how few have come forward to defend Ahmed's academic freedom when it was compromised. A similar silence was observed when the academic freedom of a Rohingya student, Rahima Khushi Akter, was violated, with Ahmed himself notably absent in her defence.
In light of this, all advocates for the Rohingya cause should remember Professor Imtiaz Ahmed's initial vision, and persist in posing the very questions he once raised but later seemed to forget. It's essential to keep the pursuit of justice for the Rohingya people at the forefront of our thoughts. By revisiting and embracing Ahmed's pioneering ideas, we can strive for a more inclusive and just future for the Rohingya community.
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