Under the influence of the “Left-Shoulder Djinni”

[This is a modified version of the original, “The Yunus Affair: A Post-Mortem” by the author published in www.bangladeshchronicle.net on March 25, 2011 ]

The inevitable has happened. May 12, 2011 will be remembered by some as a day of great victory, but by many others, perhaps millions, as a moment of national disgrace. On this day, after months of speculation, uncertainties, negotiations and a couple of court cases. Prof. Mohammed Yunus, Bangladesh’s Nobel Laureate, was forced to resign from his position of the Managing Director of the Grameen Bank, an institution that he conceptualized and established forty years ago.

Thanks to the recent government interference, the Bank, an institution renowned the world over for its creativity and honest intentions, faces a real risk of destabilization, and potentially, disintegration.

That Grameen Bank has achieved the level that it has can be attributed to the singular dedication of Muhammed Yunus. He pioneered the development and implementation of micro-credit, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. His innovations have given succor to hundreds of thousands of poor people across the globe.

Following Heinemann’s showing of a TV documentary in Norway in December of last year, the Government of Bangladesh, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, made every attempt to humiliate and demonize Yunus and rid the Grameen Bank of him. This has now happened.

All appeals by the international community for a “respectful solution” facilitating a peaceful transition into a post-Yunus era were ignored. Yunus had to depart under the most disrespectful conditions. To add salt to the wound, Bangladesh’s Finance Minister Mr. Muhit has categorically rejected the Grameen Bank Employee Association’s suggestion of appointing Prof. Yunus as the chairman of the board of the Bank. The Association made this request to ensure that after leaving the position of Managing Director the Professor would continue to guide the Bank intellectually and morally. The government decided not to entertain this very minimum demand. Furthermore, Mr. Muhit also hinted that the Grameen board, which predominantly comprises the representatives of the borrowers, i.e. poor women, will now be re-organized with more “technical” people and that its businesses will soon be restructured. These statements signal an ominous future – an imminent dominance of the Bank by the government. At the same time this action also signals that the long hand of the government may go beyond Yunus and the Grameen Bank, and temper with anything and everything to ensure that everyone in the country tows the party line, or else.

In recent times the Yunus affair witnessed another dangerous side show. The leader of the Grameen Bank Employees Association, Mr. Sagir Ur Rashid Chowdhury, sensing that Yunus’ removal as managing director was but a fait accompli, demanded that Prof. Yunus’ services be retained by appointing him as the chairman of the board. The role of chairman, though less hands on, would ensure that in one form or another the Bank continued to benefit from the Professor’s guidance. Predictably this request fell upon deaf ears, so in order to press the demand more forcefully the Association, under the leadership of Mr. Chowdhury, gave a strike call. This was met with ugly consequences. Following the strike call a group of unidentified assailants abducted, blind folded, and mercilessly beat Mr. Chowdhury, causing him bodily injury. He then had a gun pointed to his head, and was threatened with dire consequences should he and the employees of the Bank persist with the proposed strike action.

The identity of the assailants was not immediately ascertained, but it was not difficult to fathom who these people were and who might have sent them. Through this act of targeted violence and torture, the Yunus’ detractors sent one simple message – they are willing to go any length to assure that the project of demolishing Muhammad Yunus’ reputation goes unimpeded.

People are shocked – has Bangladesh now become a ‘Continent of Circe’? What on earth has happened to us? Have we lost all sense of decency and proportion? Although PM Hasina is known to have a vindictive streak, and her animus towards Yunus is a matter of public record, a recent article in the Sunday Guardian rightly asked, “Who has been whispering in her ear and providing the intellectual and legal ballast for the anti-Yunus witch-hunt?”

Many now believe that the entire Yunus episode has been a stage managed affair – it has combined an ugly manifestation of an insecure politician with the poor advice of a bunch of self-seeking pseudo professionals. The latter have turned things from bad to worse. Also, as nothing in Bangladesh happens these days without the active “cooperation” of a third party, many suspect that the invisible hands of mutually supportive geo-political opportunism may have had a role in the Yunus bashing project.

Thus when pieced together, it becomes somewhat apparent that the Yunus affair that begun in December last year had gone through various phases, revealing facets that ranged from the overt to the not-so-overt, and that the former might have drawn its strength (modot) from the latter.

The overt side of the story

The attack on Yunus began with Heinemann’s Norwegian TV news piece that made, among other things, allegations of financial malfeasance by Yunus of money given by the Norwegian government to the Grameen Bank. What followed was an instant tirade by sections of the media in Bangladesh (those that are known to be aligned with the ruling party) and India, underlying a trend that is equal parts intriguing and malicious.

Heinemann’s program also showed interviews with a few “failed cases” of Grameen Bank micro-lending, highlighting examples of people whose poverty only deepened after taking loans. A follow up TV documentary done by another TV journalist has since revealed that Heinemann interviewed several women who were misidentified, and were not in fact Grameen bank borrowers.

The allegations of financial misdemeanor have since been summarily and promptly rejected by the Norwegian government, while a recent Bangladeshi government probe has exonerated Yunus of any wrong-doing. The same report, however, raised several other issues, ones that instead of burying the hatchet, added a new dimension to the controversy. As a result, by raising these new, but unwarranted and unsubstantiated issues, the government probe seemed to have kept the mission of marginalizing the microcredit champion alive, precipitating the final act – the Nobel Laureate’s involuntary resignation from the position of Managing Director of the Bank

The supposition that microcredit, and more specifically Grameen Bank’s microloans, have impacted negatively on the poor has been a subject of debate for quite some time. Over the last forty years numerous researchers and a body of solid research have confirmed overwhelmingly the initiative’s positive impacts, not only on “poverty alleviation” but of benefits that are linked to the social empowerment of rural poor women in Bangladesh. These are no lean achievements. In fact, one of my own students, who finished his PhD in April 2011 on Grameen Bank and BRAC (another leading microcredit NGO in Bangladesh) came to the conclusion that overall, the initiative is a success, though there are case—approximately 5%-7%—that indulged in reckless borrowing and unsound investment of microloans, and met with failures and worsened poverty.

No one doubts that microcredit as a concept is not without its challenges. Notwithstanding, the difficulties of microcredit are not owing to its conceptual demerits, but due to the way the initiative interacts and manages itself in a society. For the initiative to remain relevant and effective it needs to ensure that its operations make adjustments with the changing socio-economic dynamics of a society over time.

Since the concept’s inception in the mid seventies, the world has changed drastically (so has Bangladesh) and has become more complex. Thus these days, new challenges confront microcredit operations. It is apparent that in the changing environment the operating modalities of microcredit have undergone little or no change and its emerging challenges have been somewhat poorly managed. This is a problem. Also thanks to donor patronage and the participation of profit-seeking private corporations in the “microcredit business”, there has been a rapid proliferation of microcredit operations with little or no commitment to the poor. These often corporate operations have distorted the original intent of poverty alleviation and replaced them with pure and simple profit motive. This seems to have compromised both the direction as well as the operational effectiveness of these ventures, and has resulted in the failure of the initiative in some countries, most noticeably in India.

These negative impacts of microcredit remain a source of great concern and quite rightfully warrant continuous debate, discussion, and correction. But that is not what surrounds the current controversies. What surrounds the current controversies around microcredit, especially the ranting of some sections of the media, has little or nothing to do with the substantive aspect of the initiative. On the contrary, as one recent report points out, discussions conducted by a “motley assortment of mediocrities and attention-seekers” do precious little to advance analytic understanding of the concept. They only help to make confusions more deeply confounded.

Distressed by the lack of objectivity in some of the discourses on microcredit, especially in Bangladesh, the highly acclaimed Bangladeshi economist, Prof. Rehman Sobhan stressed in an article that, “…. this is not the time or place to once again open up the discussion on the impact of micro-credit on poverty and the lives of its borrowers in Bangladesh. This debate should continue but it should be conducted through a civilized and professional discourse. The livelihoods of millions of mostly resource poor households are involved. To trivialize this discussion through uninformed rhetoric would do little to help improve the lives of these vulnerable people”. On an initiative that yielded much benefit to the poor and continues to do so what is needed is appreciative enquiry and not wild innuendos.

The debate took a real ugly turn when the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina shifted the bar from intellectual to personal – from conceptual to guttural. In a verbal assault aimed at the inventor of the initiative, the Prime Minister referred to Professor Yunus as a “blood sucker”! This is uncouth and unbecoming of someone who happens t

o be the Prime Minister of a country.

The final nail in the coffin of Yunus’ integrity came from none other than Mr. Sajib Wajed, Bangladesh Prime Minister’s US based son (reportedly, an unofficial, though trusted advisor to the PM). Mr. Wajed called Prof. Mohammed Yunus a “fraud”. Mr. Wajed also alleges that in the name of microcredit Prof. Yunus indulges in acts of “theft”.

If the current vilification campaign against Yunus and the assault on the Bank continue the future of microcredit, and more specifically that of the Grameen Bank, will not be good. For microcredit to survive in any society let alone in Bangladesh, what is needed above all else is an enabling environment where mutual trust between the borrowers and the service providers and strict discipline in credit administration is key. These must be preserved at all cost. The predatory tendencies and the vilification tirade of the current government seem to be doing just the opposite – their anti-Yunus and anti-Bank campaigns are eroding the core foundations of microcredit operations.

These harmful actions by the government have alarmed Prof. Yunus so much that in a recent press conference he surmised that if Grameen Bank loses its autonomy through greater government control – and most signs are that it would- it is inevitable that like many institutions before it, such as the civil administration, or the nationalized banks, the resulting loss of sovereignty would lead to incremental politicization, and eventually ineptitude. The Bank could become a banal, incompetent, and self-seeking government institution: a den of nepotism, political favoritism and corruption. This would mean the demise of a world class institution which Prof. Yunus had built over the last forty years brick by brick with care and imagination.

Taken as a whole: the foreign TV reporting of questionable validity, the unceremonious sacking of Prof. Yunus from his position of Managing Director, the well organized media tirades against him, one could argue that a blueprint for coordinated character assassination was being executed. Before his marginalization, the Nobel winning microcredit champion not only outshone Bangladesh’s multiple ‘doctorate’ Prime Minister in fame, but was also manifesting as a potential threat to the two-person duopoly that has dominated Bangladesh’s electoral politics. Hasina may have feared this.

Shah Waliullah’s epic novel Lal Shalu narrates an incident where one day the young son of a Pir (religious sage) produces a miracle that outshines that of his ‘Pir’ father’s. This immensely upsets the father (the ‘Pir’). The Pir could not accept the fact that someone other than him could or should have had the audacity to produce a miracle that is better than his, especially not by his own young son. The Pir roars, “Keya? Ek ghar me do Pir? (What? There are two sages in the same household?); he orders his son, “Jao bachcha so raho (Go my child, go off to sleep)”. The child goes off to sleep never to wake up again.

The conspiracy theorists argue that the entire episode is nothing but a well designed campaign to diminish all possibilities of a future political alternative in a country where it is not so much the party ideology but the cultist character of a leader that draws followings. Yunus is not a cult leader, but a leader who commands the genuine respect of millions, at home as well as abroad. To some, he may have appeared as an ominous second “Pir”. Thus the curse has been cast. Yunus’s detractors now expect the good Professor to go into “sleep” (from public life), never to wake up again. Sadly, this seems to be working.

The not-so-overt side of the story

In the middle of it all, what is quite puzzling is that despite numerous international condemnations and direct interventions from the highest level of the US administration, nothing seems to have deterred the government from pushing Yunus further and further into oblivion. What is also interesting is that the reaction of the international community, especially that of the US, which had been quite scathing in the beginning has since gone somewhat mute.

Right from the beginning Bangladesh’s government has remained unfazed in its anti-Yunus proceedings, and has treated international responses with calculated disdain. For the leadership of an aid-dependent third world country this seems like a callous behavior. Maybe not – maybe what the Prime Minister and her government are doing is part of a well designed plan that depends not only on its internal counseling, but may even be deriving its modot (support) from a patron or a group of patrons who are powerful and have a mutually beneficial stake in the current political equation in Bangladesh. A deeper probe may reveal these dynamics better.

In its regional hegemonic aspirations, India certainly has interest in establishing in South Asia as many client states as it can. If it happens to be a Muslim state, all the better, as it would take out at least one protesting Muslim state against the former’s ever increasing expansionist designs, such as the brutal subjugation of Kashmiri Muslims, destabilization of Pakistan (Pakistan however needs no external help its own leaders are good enough to cause its own woes) and the marginalization of its own Muslims.

In order to give shape to this hegemonic scheme, the maintenance and bolstering of a docile political leadership in a neighboring Muslim country such as Bangladesh is key to its success. The current Awami League government, under the leadership of Sk. Hasina, seems to fit this bill quite well. It is in India’s interest that she is kept in power at all cost including help in elimination of political rivals, known and potential.

Prof. Mohammed Yunus, perceived by Hasina as a potential rival, would be a less pliant leader for India, and would be potentially disruptive to their broader hegemonic scheme. No doubt he would have been a thorn in the side of India’s plan for a command-compliant political equation in the sub-continent.

In this regard it is equally important to note that at the present time India’s regional hegemonic intents are directly in sync with the West’s global imperialist project. In the evolving geo-politics of the day, India is a first cousin of the world’s hegemonic fraternity – it is an active member of the West’s mutually beneficial twin goals of “fight against terror” (read this as brutal subjugation of all forms of Muslim nationalist struggles) and establishment of a counter force against China’s growth as a regional power.

In the context of today’s geo-politics even though the US had expressed strong reservations on the Yunus affair initially, India’s dictations regarding how to manage the imperialist project in its own backyard has since prevailed, and this may explain why US has gone so mute on this issue lately.

In a situation where the USA is the global warlord and India is its regional satrap, it is the latter’s choice that is likely to be given greater consideration over all others. In order to understand why Yunus’ Bangladeshi detractors treated his case with such great impunity and arrogance one has to understand this intertwining tangle of global politics that links local with regional geopolitics.

There is an old saying that “if you wish to do, go to China.” These days some of us go to India instead, for good reasons or otherwise. Some are rewarded, some feel cheated. Whether one likes it or not, all of them tend to agree

that in the current state of geo-politics in all matters relating to the sub-continent, be that Yunus or something else, “Ram Dada”— brother Ram spiritually reigning from the temple on demolished Babri mosque and physically from Delhi—is likely to reign supreme, pushing over Uncle Sam.

So long as Hasina remains in power, buttressed by her Godfather regime in Delhi, Yunus can look to a life of virtual oblivion and obsolescence in Bangladesh.

‘From the rising of his falling’

After what he has gone through, and the way he has been bruised and battered by his own people, it is unlikely that the good professor will ever emerge from this assault unscathed. But as much as the rest of the world needs him the nation also needs him, now more than ever. The country needs someone that it can look up to, both intellectually as well as morally. Only Yunus combines in his person these rare qualities. It may do Prof. Yunus some good to take heart from Mr. Nelson Mandela once had to say of the fallen heroes. Mr. Mandela said, “Greatness of a person is not measured as much by his rising as by the rising from his falling!”

I dearly hope that one day Prof Yunus does rise from his current falling, to help guide the nation out of the deepening moral morass of its current political culture. Despite the hatchet job performed upon him by the Hasina government, admiration of Yunus’s work,

The left shoulder ‘Djinnie’

In the end one has to ask what twist of bad luck the people of Bangladesh must have had to hit to experience a situation where its elected leader chooses to dishonor its most revered citizen, a man who had brought so much honor and fame to his people. What is equally alarming is the malicious intensity and abject hypocrisy with which Yunus’ detractors have joined the vilification campaign, the same very people who stood shoulder to shoulder with Prof Yunus and Hillary Clinton and extolled the virtues of microcredit and Prof. Yunus at the 1996 Microcredit Summit in New York. Why this change of mind? This can only happen for one of the two reasons – either our memories are short or the vileness of our character too deep.

In my youth I used to visit a Sufi in the outskirts of Dhaka. His name was Shanal Baba. One day when I visited him in his house I saw him talking first to his right shoulder, then to his left shoulder. I asked him what he was doing. He claimed that on his two shoulders sat two Djinnie, dangling their feet, and that he was talking to them. Apparently, the right shoulder Djinnie is the good Djinnie and does good things to people and, the left Djinnie is the bad one that harms people. I asked him if he thought that the left shoulder Djinnie was bad, why would he not throw it away and talk to the right Djinnie and get him to do only good things to all people. The Sufi replied, “Because there are times when we all need the company of the bad, if only to strengthen our resolve and appreciation for the good!”■

M. Adil Khan is a professor at the School of Social Sciences, the University of Queensland, Australia and a retired senior United Nations official.