January 11, 2008

Ramblings on 1/11 anniversary

An entire generation has been lost thanks to the meaningless arguments they have had to witness in that most sacred of our political places, Jatiyo Shongshod Bhobon.

Those arguments were petty, but dangerous.

Petty because, when your country's highest decision-makers debate most passionately over "Who's the father of the nation/declarer of independence", you know there is something rotten in the state of Bangladesh.

Dangerous because they effectively tainted the meaning of the word "politics" for an entire generation. Much needed discussions on a variety of issues from hereonin will be stopped by using a simple formula: "Bangali shobhaab hochchey shob kichu niye politics kora" or a variation thereof. Which is a pity, because politics is the norm, such as being right-handed. Lack of politics is the exception - sometimes enforced abnormally - or being left-handed. Dirty politics is a disease afflicting the right-hand for which being left-handed is not the answer.

Then came 1/11. I too had hopes during those heady days of January when a disgraceful scholar-president was being neutralised and the overnight millionaires were getting locked up. The rumours were shadowy, so one did not know what to believe. For the sake of one's sanity, one believed the best. The lists were long, so one did not quite notice that a few odd-ones-out had slipped in. Yet, one believed the best.

I too had hopes on 1/11. As part of the generation fed up with Mujib VERSUS Zia, crooks versus thiefs and brothers versus brothers, I had hopes that day. Naive? Perhaps, but no regrets as always.

Bit by bit over the summer, I have lost those hopes. I have become gradually disillusioned with the military-backed-and/or-led-and-maybe-civilian-controlled-caretaker-no!-national-unity-ok-maybe-not government, often fondly, wistfully, almost nostalgically abbreviated to "CTG".

Any criticism of this government is usually countered with the question (or accusation), "Would you rather there be corruption in your country?" or some variation of it. My answer is a humble no. I'm however yet to see any sound reason as to why people think that the CTG's actions will reduce corruption.

Criticism more strident might lead to censorship, perhaps even jail. Thankfully I write online and the majority of Bangladeshis do not read this language anyway. Even more importantly, I do not reside in Dhaka. There used to be a time when I would inevitably add "unfortunately" to that last statement. Nowadays I'm not so sure.

Without further ceremony let me walk you through the milestones I've constructed marking out my journey from hope to disillusionment over the course of 4 months of summer. Please remember, these are entirely my personal reactions. Yours will be different. The time frame represents the free time I had to concentrate on Bangladeshi politics on a day-to-day basis. No doubt the warning signs were already there before summer (that call to Mahfuz Anam, MK Alamgir's arrest, the unequal application of the law, Choles Ritchil's death at the hands of army personnel), but I was either too dumb, too naive or too busy to pay attention.

Milestone 1: The arrest of journalist Tasneem Khalil - May 10th in the Western Hemisphere.

My first inkling that the "revolution" had lived up to the Shavian view of revolutions. It was becoming business as usual for this government as it had become of every other "revolutionary" government. On that evening, as the sun was starting its habit of setting late in the western sky, I could have written the entire script for the farce to follow the arrest of a journalist critical of the regime made by plain clothes men without warrants: follow it up with an unproven, unprovable, reputation-damaging, we-have-evidence-you-cannot-see sort of accusation of "anti-state activities", then either keep him/her in custody indefinitely or hound the accused into exile. If you know your Kafka or recent (2001-present) American history, then you know this script. Who says we don't embrace American ideas enough?

Oh and before the usual doubters start formulating their conspiracy theories about how all of us bloggers simply echo each others' views (or are in the pay of political parties or whatever), let me be very clear in saying once again: in defending him, I stood up for one of my core principles: "I might disagree with what you say but I will defend till death your right to say it". Sadly, no government of Bangladesh has embraced that principle till this day.

In conclusion, though Mr. Khalil was thankfully released within 24 hours (though not without some "forget-me-nots" from his detainers), the incident had laid bare how similar this regime was to the ones it had followed. That he was later hounded into exile like many a dissident before him simply confirmed it.

Milestone 2: The Jute Mills Fiasco at Khalishpur - July-August.

Once again, the indications were there from the start. Poor people getting beaten up for asking their due wages.

But what unfolded in Khalishpur went far beyond the shutting down of factories, that tragic end of the miguided ethos of state capitalism. What happened in Khalishpur signalled that the old ways were definitely not gone. I speak of the constant suspicion in which every organ of this and all previous governments regard the citizen. This is Dr. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal on his experiences there as part of a citizens' initiative to help the jute workers:

"When we arrived in Khalishpur, we started noticing something odd. Police, NSI, DGFI - all of them were acting harshly. It seemed that they had started smelling some whiffs of conspiracy in what was a completely humanitarian effort. This plan had been made after everyone had been informed and all sorts of permissions had been sought and granted. One cannot know a catastrophe by reading a newspaper but rather by observing through humane eyes. We had gone only to do that humane deed.

...... After returning from Khalishpur, an odd thing began to happen. Some of the local workers at the gruel-kitchen had ropes tied around their waists and were paraded through the workers colony by the police, who also tried to scare them by making noises about "crossfire". They were evicted from the place where they were supposed to be cooking. After a lot of thought I could only find one plausible explanation: the government must think that this gruel-kitchen is damaging their image. (Do you remember "image"? How the 4-party government also worried about their image? If one word was said about JMB-Jamaat, they were quick to proclaim that their "image" was being spoiled!) Now I see the same dymanic. If feeding unemployed workers khichuri for one day destroys the government's image, then why doesn't the government take up the responsibility?..."

(Section 3 on Page 3. Translation and emphasis mine.)

And this from Dr. Hameeda Hossain:

"The distribution took place outside three of the mills. The manager in one of the mills had told the Committee that there was no crisis, and workers were doing well! Yet it was from this mill that workers brought their vessels for food. Before the distribution started, personnel claiming to represent intelligence agencies did the rounds of the Committee in Dhaka and Khulna to find out the purpose of the distribution.

Justice Rabbani, too, was telephoned by the BJMC chief. The Committee had collected sufficient funds to keep the distribution going for about 5 days, but at the end of the first day, the local organisers were told to remove their cooking vessels and stop distribution. Four workers were roughly handled, allegedly by the police, and told to stop their voluntary work.

When the police commissioner was asked, he claimed he had given no such orders. So who had, and why was it necessary to stop this support?

(Emphasis mine)

Why indeed? Nothing, except that the traditional bureaucratic (and I count security agencies among the bureaucracy) stance has been to look down upon the very people they ruled over with suspicion, an attitude inherited I suspect from the ex-colonial power. Can a small ethnic minority dominating a much larger ethnic majority look at them with anything other than constant suspicion? South Asia with its high population density has thus inherited a tradition of intense bureaucratic suspicion and hostility towards their very people. An intensity without too any counterparts in the rest of the post-colonial world. (And yes, the link is deliberately to Mr. Khalil's superb op-ed on Kansat, to show that even when I disagree with someone on one particular issue, I do not start discounting the good things they have said!)

1/11 did not change that. And class really has little to do with it: everyone's a suspect. A farmer or a blue-collar worker is as much a suspect as elites such as Drs. Iqbal and Hossain. The only difference is in the way they are treated. And sometimes, as in the case of Tasneem Khalil, even class privilege cannot save you.

Which brings us to....

Milestone 3: The Dhaka University Riots and Curfew. Also called "that week in August". Also known as the straw that broke the camels back. Known aliases include "THAT week". August 20th-August 27th.

This is such a hard topic to write about that I have been stuck at this point for the last two days. I will not recount the events for the regular readers of this blog know it only too intimately. The irregular ones can find out from other sources. Just one request: please look at a source that presents facts, not baseless opinions.

I will not even attempt to present a chronological list of how events unfolded. That is left for another time far from August, and perhaps for another person. Instead let me guide you through a very subjective recollection of matters. (Once again, my own impressions, so please don't come back and tell me that I'm "editorialising" the facts. That is exactly what an opinion piece is for!)

What I remember vividly was well-educated NRBs calling for the blood of Dhaka University students in the name of law and order. If you don't believe me, go and read Unheard Voices' August archives for a sampling. Trust me, it only gets worse in other forums. I refuse to link to any of the comments on UV, except one I found particularly telling.

I understand the need to maintain law and order. I understand the sanctity of public and private property. And I condemn, utterly and unequivocally, the destruction of public and private property that was carried out in the name of "protests" by the students, despite the fact that the avenues for protest are rapidly shrinking nowadays.

However, the key is the maintaining of LAW and order, not simply order. A godfather keeps as much order within his gang as a judge does within his court's jurisdiction. I don't need to tell the reader which one is more lawful. By the same token therefore, the LAW-enforcement agencies have to work within the stipulations of the very law they seek to uphold. (Some other time as to why the "law" component of law and order leads to prosperity - I refuse to use the word "development".)

The evidence suggests they didn't. This BBC interview with an eye-witness is the most damning evidence I know.

The August riots of Dhaka University had an amazingly polarising effect on the Bangladeshi blogosphere, and I'd venture to say, on Bangladeshis everywhere. As an example, I present this one comment left by a cheerleader for the CTG's repressive actions that August, a commenter named Boishakhi who said the following:

"We have two choices either we want things to be cleaned up or maintain the status quo. It’s time we take a side."

And here I was thinking that all Bangladeshis were on the same side! It is highly ironic that the same people who draw these arbitrary lines dividing "us" from "them" were/are also the ones worried most about "civil war" and "failed state" status. Clearly George Bush's Manichean view of the world has conquered further and wider than his armies. An embarrassingly childish statement at a critical time. Yet, who else would egg on the government to baton-charge and tear-gas its own (admittedly rowdy) citizens except children who didn't have to face the consequences themselves?

There really is nothing more I want to say about those ten awful days of August. I believe that nothing more needs be said.

Milestone 4: The arrest of cartoonist Arifur Rahman.

No other single event (this was written before the Rangs Bhobon collapse) has shows the moral bankruptcy of this government than the imprisonment of one of our young citizens for the politicking of the decrepit, elite oldies. I have written enough on this topic, I cannot write anymore. I want to thank bloggers - Addafication and Shadakalo come to mind - for not letting this issue die just yet.

We were supposed to create a state where the strong would take care of the weak, the destitute, the young and others who cannot (yet) take care of themselves. Instead, we have come to this: the weak subsidising the strong, the destitute being made more so by the bulldozers of the strong, and the young being sacrificed to please the old and cynical.