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Tandoori Chicken, Obeid and South Asian politics

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Monday, 20 May 2013

In March of this year, a Bangladeshi restauranteur, Jamil Hossain, dined out at a Pakistani eatery in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba. Red Chilli restaurant specialised in the slow, baked chicken of the tandoor oven, perfected in the region of North India and Pakistan. Jamil was celebrating the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in the civil war of 1971 and was accompanied by three friends. The night ended badly after Jamil was stabbed in the palm with a skewer by Red Chilli's owner, allegedly for questioning the delay of an hour for the food order, which he recounted to Fairfaxas "Eight naan, two roti, a vegetable dish, a lamb and chicken curry and a beef vindaloo."

A Pakistani restaurant seemed an unusual choice to celebrate the night, a little like the English dining out on sauerkraut and bratwurst sausages to commemorate the end of World War two. Several Bangladeshi sources familiar with the diners have suggested the fracas erupted when some light-hearted baiting of the owner about the independence war was not taken so lightly. The proprietor of the restaurant declined to comment about any other triggers to the suburban skewering.

While the tragi-comic incident appears innocuous, it is a local pointer to the ongoing tensions in the South Asian region, especially amongst and within the two countries that split from India during partition in 1947. This colonial split determined by a mathematician based in London continues to linger like a festering wound.


In spite of being geographically separated by the meandering mass of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh share a turbulent history marred by military coup, bloody turmoil and natural catastrophe.

Pakistanenters into a period of uncertainty post elections, with the power balance being shared among several parties, including that of cricket superstar Imran Khan. Bangladesh has elections due at the end of the year, currently preceded by unceasing opposition protest demanding a caretaker government.

Pakistan has managed to elect a clear leader however, the industrialist turn politician Nawaz Sharif, who has made a comeback after fleeing in the 1990s to Saudi Arabia in exile. The election itself was tarnished by violence, kidnappings and promises of airports to rural villagers who could not afford bicycles.

Sharif is relatively unique in South Asian politics in that he was already rich before he entered politics, although became exponentially richer after his time in power. A running joke among development economists is that a key difference between developing and developed countries can be garnered by the types of people who run for office. Candidates in the developed word tend to get rich first and then seek to enter office, whereas in the developing world, candidates run for politics in order to get rich.

Based on this theory and the antics of Obeid and Macdonald, NSW may qualify as a Third World outpost.

Bangladeshmeanwhile, formerly known as East Pakistan, has undergone one of its most tumultuous years in its forty two year history. Having begun the year


suffering unprecedented protests amid war crime trials of Islamists accused of supporting the Pakistanis during the independence war, the country has since suffered the worst accident in the history of manufacturing and has been peppered by unusual reprisal protests by Islamists from the country's port city of Chittagong, demanding anti-blasphemy laws and the separation of the sexes.

Australia's High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Greg Wilcock, having begun the job late last year, told me that he was exposed to a bit more excitement than he had bargained for. He wrote in an email that "it's truly an overstimulating time to be here." He also noted that it had been fifteen years since an Australian Foreign Minister had visited.

Late last year, I was involved in a television story about shipbreaking in Bangladesh, the visually extraordinary industry that recycles the material of old ships to be used in everything from building construction to electricity wiring. Its slave labour, unsafe practices and light touch regulation bear much resemblance to the country's garments industry so under the global spotlight.

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This article was first published in Crikey.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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