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Bangladesh

June 17, 2015

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): For the past six years, I have had the great privilege of serving as vice-chairman of the all-party group on Bangladesh under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). There are a lot of ethnic and national groups in my central London constituency, including a significant Bengali population. Some are in the City of London, but a significant number are in south Westminster and Pimlico. I am therefore very much aware of the issues raised in the debate.

I have twice visited Bangladesh—specifically, I have visited Dhaka, the capital, and the Sylhet region in the north-east of the country, from where many British Bengalis come originally. We were promoting grassroots football, and in 2010 we met Sheikh Hasina and the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia.

Half of Britain’s estimated 500,000 Bangladeshis live in London. That may account for the growing success of that community’s young people, who benefit from the education and job opportunities on their doorstep. Some 61% of Bangladeshis got five good GCSEs in 2014, compared with 51% of the Pakistani population and 56% of the indigenous white British population. I am incredibly struck by the fact that the great majority of Bengalis whom I represent in Parliament live in social housing. Many came here speaking little English and with few conventional skills, but they have a passion for education, and we should be proud of that. That applies to many immigrant populations in this country. It is unique to Britain; the experience in places such as France and Germany is very different. Many of our immigrant populations recognise that the way out of the economic difficulties that they face, and will probably face for the rest of their lives, is educating their children to give them a better life. That is something we should all work hard to encourage.

Bordering my constituency is Tower Hamlets, the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Great Britain. We are all familiar with the sometimes negative press coverage of elements of that borough in recent years, but that is only a very small part of the story of Tower Hamlets—I say that as I look into the eyes of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He knows as well as I do that it is an incredibly vibrant borough, which produces aspirational, motivated young people who go into the tech and banking jobs in Canary Wharf, which is in his constituency and, to the west, crosses the border with the City of London. It is also great to see the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) leading the charge on parliamentary representation from that community. We should be proud that there are now three female Bangladeshis in the Commons representing London seats.

However, major tensions and political problems remain in Bangladesh. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans rightly pointed out, they sadly spill over, to an extent, into this country. We see close at hand some of the factionalism within the main political parties and a group of smaller parties. We particularly have to watch for the creeping influence of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is thought to have founded the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has been promoted in London mosques, in particular the East London mosque down the Whitechapel Road.

Hon. Members will be aware that I have recently been vocal in the House about the persecution of religious minorities in the middle east, particularly the ancient Christian communities such as the 8.5 million Copts in Egypt, and the 2 million Christians who until recently resided in Syria. Many go back to communities that were proselytised by St Paul in the immediate aftermath of the birth of Christianity.

Precious little is said about the situation of religious minorities in Bangladesh. I am afraid that has deteriorated in tandem with the rapid rise of militant Islam and its influence on Bangladeshi politics. I take this opportunity to raise the plight of the 20 million Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and indigenous minorities living in Bangladesh. Since the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal in February 2013, which handed a life sentence to the leading Jamaat-e-Islami figure for war crimes in 1971, members of Jamaat have responded by destroying many places of worship, and murdering and attacking innocent people for their religious views, as has been pointed out.

That is incredibly depressing, particularly because, with a young and vibrant population getting a much stronger education both in Bangladesh and in our diaspora here, it is a country that should be looking to the future, not constantly harping on the past. Terrible and dreadful things did happen 44 years ago on all sides of the divide. It ill behoves any Government to utilise their position in power and manoeuvres with the judiciary to give a one-sided approach, as has happened. Clearly, justice has to be done, and I accept that an element of reconciliation has to take place. The worry is that this episode will continue in a downward spiral in years to come, with different sets of politicians taking the opportunity to make narrow, partisan points, without looking to the future of the country.

As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the current ruling Awami League is nominally secular and has promised to bring the ageing leaders of Jamaat to justice for their role in the 1971 genocide. However, in the face of violence and the broader band of Islamists, that is no easy task. Attacks on those minority communities in Bangladesh are, I fear, frequent and continuous and may well continue.

I reiterate the message of my hon. Friend about the importance of maintaining that secular society. We are lucky that our relationship with Bangladesh has, to a large extent, kept terrorism at bay, but we cannot be complacent about that, particularly with large numbers of Bengalis in this country potentially being influenced by events in their homeland.

Mrs Main: I have been told, although I have no proof, that Jamaat is actively funded by Islamists in Pakistan, to help fund their destruction of Bangladesh. These things are interlinked.

Mark Field: They are. One difficulty, of course, is that we are fighting the battles pre-1971. Because of the upsurge in religious cases, it becomes a downward spiral with an eye on the past, rather than the future.

As everyone knows, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. It is estimated that by 2025 that substantial population will have reached 190 million, of which 43% will be under 30. There is little doubt that many of Bangladesh’s problems relate to poverty and a lack of education for some of its young people, although there are significant improvements. The question of how Bangladesh retains educated professionals and builds a future for them in Bangladesh will be one of the biggest challenges going forward. I hope that this country can play our part, given the passion clearly shown by the large Bengali diaspora here. No doubt we will have many more of these debates, with a sense of friendship. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we must be critical friends at times. Equally, there is so much good to be said about that country, and we want to play our part in ensuring that the world gets to see that.