July 11, 2007

The Sound of Me Pulling Out My Hair One at a Time Because People Partisan Hacks Live Down to My Expectations


As requested by my loyal(?), patient readers, a critique/list in no order whatsoever. (For the handful of readers who have visited since this post was up, there's an update on #7):

1. From his writings, it seems to me that SBA is an intelligent man and therefore it pains me to see him involved in what is essentially the politics of whose-picture-is-on-the-wall, which I thought would be beneath him. What's worse, he's simply indulging in politics by crying out "history": a false position. If he seriously thinks that "history" is dictated from the top by governments, debates about history are settled by picture-hanging or that hanging a picture is NOT about today's politics but rather about consensus on past history, he is seriously mistaken. Since I don't believe him to be a fool, I must believe him to be a partisan.

2. Let me first state that I agree with him wholeheartedly: there is no equal to Mujib in Bangladesh's history. The man is unique. I don't think I need to prove my genuine respect for Mujib after writing generally favourably about him on this blog for the past few months. But let me say this: as long as Mujib remains the most potent AL symbol rather than the most important historical figure AND as long as AL remains a viable party within the system, there is no separating him from current politics. We blame Khaleda Zia for desecrating his memory (someone from BNP should seriously have rebuked her for her birthday shenanigans), but we should also blame the AL (if not in equal measure) for trying to capitalise on it instead of leaving him for the historians.

3. Having said all that, let me begin dissecting. I am all for accurate history, but my historical understanding is more in terms of systemic movements rather than important individuals. Making over-reaching statements about Mujib's greatness does not exactly serve the goal of accuracy. Case in point:

When you think back on the long, concerted story of the growth of Bengali nationalism, you realise only too well that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the man behind it all.


To argue again and again that Mujib is the single most important individual in the growth and sustenance of the Bengali nationalist movement would be to state, repeatedly, the obvious. To suggest, however, that there are other men who must be permitted to share that glory with him runs counter to political morality.

Now what if I were to say that he rode the wave of that nationalism rather than instigate it and that is why we call him (rightly) Bongobondhu? If you were to tell me that a single man was behind the "growth and sustenance" of what was essentially a new mass consciousness for the Bangalis east of Benapole, I'd have to say that he must have been a mind-controlling wizard of some sort. Since he was clearly human and not a wizard, I'll have to say that he was simply a great leader when the time came, but giving him credit for the GROWTH of "Bengali nationalism" is too much.

4. "Bengali nationalism" - I had no idea that the "Bengalis" of West Bengal were also part of this new-found consciousess. Did Mujib want them to achieve independence/autonomy from Delhi too? As soon as you hear him say this, you know he's a partisan hack. And if you look through the archives (too lazy to link right now), you will find me using him as an example of why Bengali nationalism is simply a partisan term with no real-world meaning for anyone except hallucinating dinosaurs like him. (I also advocate that we save "Bangladeshi nationalism" from the partisan/chauvinistic/bigoted hands of the BNP).

5. He uses different measuring sticks to measure Suhrawardy and Bhashani. Suhrawary was not pro-Bangali and his loyalties were more to what SBA calls "Pakistan", but what I'd call the Punjabi-Urdu-speakers' alliance. Bhashani on the other hand, he concludes, was too pro-Bangali-autonomy:

A good deal has been made of Bhashani's role in the making of Bangladesh. There certainly were fireworks in his personality. When he told us, three days before the general elections of December 1970, that East Pakistan should declare itself an independent country, quite a few people felt exuberance re-igniting their spirits.

But sit back and reflect on whether or not Bhashani's precipitate move was a dangerous form of adventurism.

Basically, damn you if you do, damn you if you don't. The only way not to be damned is if you've declared your goal for autonomy on the 7th (or 25th night in written form: take your pick, I'm least interested). Surprise surprise, guess who's done that? Now I can say that Sheikh Shaheb made a mistake not announcing it sooner before the Pakistani military build-up. If he had, maybe we could have had less loss of life. But he did what he did, and I have no criticisms based on what didn't happen rather than what did. Unlike SBA who criticises Bhashani because he may have precipitated a crisis but didn't! Real historians deal with what happened, rather than judge people on counterfactuals.

6. Nothing is more ridiculous, more deceptive than his ramblings about Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq:

Huq moved the Pakistan Resolution in 1940; and when he took charge as chief minister of East Bengal in 1954, at the head of a Jugto Front administration, he did so not as a Bengali nationalist but as part of a team engaged in the noble, necessary job of sending the communal Muslim League dispensation packing.

Huq later became Pakistan's interior minister, before taking charge as governor of East Pakistan. Nothing in his entire career suggests that he dreamed of a sovereign Bangladesh supplanting East Pakistan someday. Must it be our job to give him a place he did not work for, and would surely not have wanted? To convince ourselves that Huq was a forerunner of Bengali political freedom would be launching a grave assault on his political beliefs.

If guilt by association is a problem, then let it be remembered that Sheikh Shaheb was a Muslim Leaguer too at one point (check out Wiki or simply ask the next hardcore AL-er you meet). That does not "implicate" him, but shows that he had his hand on the people's pulse as he did almost to the end of his life. If it doesn't implicate him, it doesn't implicate Fazlul Huq. Moreover, the Lahore Resolution he moved called for two autonomous states on two sides of the subcontinent, not the state of Pakistan as it was born in 1947. For that little piece of deception - in which he tries to prove the greatness of Mujib by misleading his audience about the nature of the Resolution - SBA has pretty much earned my eternal disdain. Surely Mujib deserves more honest defenders than this!

And yeah, Sheikh Shaheb too once served as a minister in an East Pakistan government. Oh the horrors!

7. Take this particular gem about Bhashani:

Reflect, too, on the political position he began to adopt soon after liberation, when the leftist in him suddenly began to spot the beauty of rightwing politics.

His advocacy of a Muslim Bangla was a clear assault on the secular statehood of Bangladesh. His criticism of the Mujib government followed by his acceptance of Baksal, followed by his obvious relief at the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are quirky as well as disturbing episodes in Bangladesh's history.

Ummm... was BAKSAL not a u-turn for Mujib? Rather than hold the creation of BAKSAL against Mujib, he holds Bhashani culpable for supporting it! SBA's categories of left and right are laughably based on the binary of religion/secularism (which I don't think he understands at all), rather than on the binaries of inclusive/exclusive or on private property/state-control. I'm yet to be convinced that the religion binary is the most important. Fact: no one on the political spectrum trumpeted about "democracy" at that point, simply misguided notions of "left-right-Islamic". *Shakes head at the Decade of Dinosaurs*

Update: Take a look at the circular logic he uses: it was Mujib/Tajuddin/AL's vision of a secular Bangladesh that Bhashani contested. In SBA's argument, this opposition to Mujib makes Bhashani less than Mujib. So we when we ask, "Why is Sheikh Shaheb the greatest?" SBA's answer is, "Because the ones who opposed him were not as great as he is". "How do we know that the others are lesser?" SBA's answer is, "Because they opposed him". "How does that make them lesser than he was?", SBA's implication, "Well, you have to be to oppose the greatest. After all, Sheikh Shaheb never opposed himself."

Wonderful logic. Stephen Colbert's gut rests easy with SBA's balmy words. Remember, you've got more nerve endings in your gut than anywhere else!

8. I'm not even going to say anything about his complete lack of review of Zia's legacy (arguably more pervasive to post-Independence Bangladesh than Bhashani's or Huq's). It speaks volumes about the audience he is writing for, one that sees Bhashani/Huq as having more of an impact (positive/negative) than Zia. For all his flaws, Zia remains the Deng Xiaopeng to Mujib's Mao in our (Generation 71) consciousness *. Good luck fighting that battle Mr. Ahsan! And no I don't think that Zia's picture should be put up in any government building either, simply because it's another political symbol rather than a historical tribute.

9. The only place I agree with him comes too late and offers too little:

If you have no place for Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansur Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman in your assessment of national history, everything else you do is rendered meaningless

The enormous gaps in his narrative are ok, but the enormous gaps in others' narratives are not. Even when I agree with him, I can't stand it.

Lastly, let me just say this. His is as biased a view of history as those of the new party or Qureshi. What's worse is that his is biased in favour of an existing political party. If there's one thing about him that does not indicate that he has been stuck in Awami League circles for too long, let me know. If he's a bit more honest and admits that he is simply pushing that version of history that aligns with a certain power centre, then I'll have a bit more respect for him. However, I find it hard to respect anyone whose views of history (an academic matter) is shaped by power. It's a hard struggle for many people to separate history from power. SBA isn't even trying.


Anonymous said...

Can you critique the piece?

Purple said...

^ Same here.

asif said...

As soon as I have time I'll do so.

Anonymous said...

Thank you on behalf of your loyal readers.

So you are a no-photo's man?

Saif said...

Good job, Asif bhai. Needed to be said.

A slight quibble: This comparison between Sh. Mujib and Mao - is it apt? Are we insulting our own? For all of his faults (and he had many), noone has ever made the claim that Sh. Mujib was a mass murderer...

asif said...


I do put up photos to accompany my articles sometime. But since a reader of mine informed me that I might be violating copyright I've been a bit more wary. I tend to think that my words paint a thousand pictures:). Now and then, I am haunted by the ghost of the prince of Denmark screaming, "Words, words, words!".

Saif bhai,

Yes, no one would/should call Mujib a mass murderer. No one would call Zia a committed leftist like Deng either. My point was about the kinds of effect they've had on modern China (on which admittedly I'm not as big an expert as some on your blog;)). Mao for me was the charismatic leader who nonetheless was an appalling policy-maker. Deng on the other hand could never compete with Mao in the charisma department, but nevertheless is the man behind the scenes of modern China. In very bad symbol language, Mao:Deng = Mujib:Zia.

That's about all I was saying, IMHO, nothing more. And yes, I admit that I was merely guessing at Zia's legacy. It needs to be clearly, neutrally analysed without partisanship, pre-conceived notions about the universality of "Chetona '71" and without a commitment to a pro-Pakistani mindset which argues for the restoration of "Muslim Bangla/Bengal". Zia's legacy goes further/deeper than that.

Such an analysis has not been done and is the need of the day for REAL historians. On Zia's death anniversary, Rumi bhai put up an amazing post about him on DP which would be an ideal starting point for anyone wishing to investigate his legacy.

rumi said...

I am familiar with the name SBA for ages. For some unknown reason I never read any of his columns. It simply did not interest me. I even didn't know of his party affiliation until a couple of months ago. It was new 1/11 government. GMUA was saying all the good words like, " Nation wants trial of Mujib's killers. " etc. One of those days Shiraj Shikder's daughter demanded justice for her father's death in a press conference. And most amazingly in the daily Star of the following day, exactly he following day, i.e. 12 hours after the newspaper was delivered, SBA came out with a big article on this issue. The account of Siraj's killing he tried to depict was totally unheard of to me and at the end of his history telling it sounded like we rather nab and try that daughter for Shiraj Shikder's killing.

Anthony said...

Perhaps a closer to home analogy would be Mujib is to us what Gandhi is to India. Gandhi, for all his odd other-worldly views, turned Congress into a mass organisation, led the nationalist movement, and convinced the British to the necessities of the Indian independence. Mujib, likewise, turned Awami League into the dominant voice of the people, led the nationalist uprising, and forced Pakistani military regime to election. But then Gandhi lost control of the situation when it came to actual handover of power, and had little role in shaping Free India. Likewise, Mujib was absent during the armed phase of our freedom struggle, and this contributed to many political mishaps of the early 1970s, and the Bangladeshi state that emerged post 1975 had little to do with Mujib.

And Zia is to us what Nehru is to India. Free India, with its positives like democracy in all its glories and pitfalls and its commitment to secularism at least in theory if not always in practice, as well as its negatives like a distrust, until recently, of market economy and its bizarre foreign policy, are all by and large a legacy of Pundit Nehru. And similarly, Bangladesh as we know it, with the positives like the improvement in standard of living or negatives like abuse of religion in politics, is because of Ziaur Rahman.

So Gandhi:Nehru = Mujib:Zia. Whereas Nehru is seen as Gandhi's heir, Zia is not seen as Mujib's, and people like Mr Ahsan is responsible for that.

asif said...

(inside joke warning)


You goddamned Indian and your Indian analogies!:D Don't you know that "my" Mao "the guerrilla" ZeDong can beat "your" Mohandas "the anemic" Gandhi anyday? It's about time "you" guys stopped dreaming about being all cool like China. "That ship has sailed and God knows if there's another one coming". Personally I'd have more respect for you if you had used Jinnah:Liaquat or even Lone Ranger: Tonto.

(end of inside joke warning)

More seriously, good point. But can you really lay the entire blame at SBA's door or others of his ilk? BNP has done more than enough to ensure this separation. Besides, the coup and the indemnity aren't exactly things that showed Zia to be a successor to Mujib. Nehru at least tried Gandhi's killers instead of sighing with relief at the critical "Mahatma" (sorry for the quotes, you know I stick to names not titles!).

Rumi bhai,

I tried looking for the link to this article you mention but couldn't find it. If you come across it again, do send it to me. Spot on with not reading him. My interest in him started as a teenager when I was a fan of T.S. Eliot and he would frequently quote him in his Star Weekend Mag column. Frankly, the guy should stick to English literary criticism rather than try his hand at "history".

To all,

I'm thinking of collecting all SBA posts under one funny tag/label. Any ideas for a name for such a tag?

asif said...

"the coup and the indemnity" = "the indemnity to the coup-plotters"

Saif said...

Hahah. Good to be in on the inside of the inside jook. But if you're going to call the Mahatma anemic, I'm going to bring up the Chairman's bad personal hygiene habits. Apparently, Mao never used to brush his teeth. His doctors tried to get him to do so, but he would growl at them, "Tigers don't brush their teeth." So Mao had a slimy greenish patina grow on his teeth, and bad breath that would turn anyone crazy. Which is what I guess is what happened.

The Mahatma, with his daily enemas, no doubt took the cleanliness to an unusual level. But, I can guarantee you this - even if he ate goat curd, he didn't have bad breath.

Which brings to mind a Dhaka memory from the early 90's: The Pepsodent ad that changed the world.

Anthony said...

Yes, it's perhaps unfair to lay all the blame to SBA's door for the continuation of the Mujib-Zia debate. The other camp also deserves the blame.

Specifically about the Indemnity Ordinance, that ordinance was issued by Moshtaque under Osmani's advise because there was no appetite for trying the killers and their political backers. According to Maj Gen Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, Zia kept it because he didn't want to fight the 'killer majors' and their sympathisers in the army - he was already involved in a brutal struggle with the Taherites. In the event, Zia's fall was orchestrated by Ershad, so the Indemnity Ordinance didn't save him.

In the subsequent quarter century, BNP-supporting intellectuals tried to elevate Zia's role in the freedom struggle to a level higher than Mujib's. This I believe has backfired. To the post-1970s generation, Mujib is the towering figure of the freedom struggle, and Zia is one among a crowd of many others that we should remember.

A much better political strategy - as you know, history is as much about 'what happened then' as 'what happened then can affect what happens now -as well as more accurate history would have been to accept Mujib's rightful place in history and establish Zia as the architect of modern Bangladesh.

asif said...

Saif bhai,

Quite amazed that you know the Chairman's dental hygience habits so intimately. Refresh my memory please on the Pepsodent ad that changed the world.


Thanks for the info on the Indemnity Ordinance. I know the period between August-November 1975 are some of the murkiest. In fact, I had to check back with Wiki numerous times. I'm not even sure of its authententicity for this!

Zia's appointment as CAS by Moshtaque, his keeping of the Indemnity, rehabilitation of Jamaat etc. are all things that the AL hold against him. I personally hold the last against him, because by his own ideals he is a Bangladeshi nationalist and letting Jamaat get back into the scene was as un-Bangladeshi as possible in my opinion.

Not to get back to the politics of whose picture is on the wall, SBA in that first article I attacked says that the Zia years were essentially the time when Mujib was airburshed out of history. http://thedailystar.net/2007/04/18/d70418020329.htm How true is this?

Lastly, history isn't always about how what happened yesterday affects today. It is only if people choose it to be. People tend to forget that at one time the Democrats used to be the strong state in the South and that Lincoln was a Republican. How does that affect America's current politics?

It's time, HIGH TIME, we initaited a conscious effort to look forward instead of backwards. Yeah, people like SBA and others of his ilk in my generation will no doubt say "Ha, tomra itihash bhuley jachcho!!" with stern looks of disapproval. But that's not it at all. People like him aren't remembering history, they are living in a fake historical reality! The needs of the hour and the needs for the future are passing them by.

That is why I really liked Prof. Alamgir's article that analysed AL-BNP based on the last 15 years, and which I critiqued. "Chetona-71" is not being stuck in 1971. Which reminds me, has anyone checked out the blog of that same name? Since when is Chetona-71 about bashing Jamaat instead of putting a positive Bangali/Bangladeshi ideology forward??? Talk about negative ideologies!

Sorry for the huge comment. Felt like ranting a bit more about SBA first thing in the morning.

Hussain said...

loll.. almost embarassed to admit it here, and now... but im actually a pretty big fan of SBA. I too started reading him from his TS days.

Then began the foreign policy pieces (which I always thought were thorough analyses).

Initially, I was little impressed because he always has written so much better than Mahfuz Anam (which sorta tanked my expectations you could say).

nonetheless, this piece was pretty partisan...general partisan rhetoric that plagues deshi politics I guess....

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