Ask for a piece on Pakistan and Bangladesh during December and you’re likely to get something about the 1971 wars — note the plural, because the eastern part of the subcontinent simultaneously experienced an inter-ethnic civil war and ethno-communal cleansing, genocide, inter-state conventional war and a war of national liberation, all climaxing in the crisp Bengali winter of 1971. Naeem Mohaiemen’s seven part series is an example, covering many aspects of that fateful year.
Let me skip 1971 in this post. Instead, I’ll begin by marking the other December anniversary, one that will have a particular relevance for Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2013. And I’ll note the parallels between the post-1971 developments in the two wings of former United Pakistan.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, an Islamic preacher and a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest Islam-pasand party, was sentenced to death on 28 February for war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. Within hours, Jamaat cadres and activists clashed violently with police and law enforcement agencies. Scores have been killed in some of the worst political violence the country has experienced in recent years.
Five other senior Jamaat leaders, including its current and former chiefs, are being prosecuted for war crimes committed in 1971. Another leader was sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 February. That sentence triggered what has come to be called the Shahbag Awakening—a month of largely peaceful gathering of tens of thousands of people in the middle of Dhaka. A key demand of the largely government-supported Awakening is to ban Jamaat.
Will the Jamaat be banned? The ruling Awami League has a three-fourths majority in parliament, while the Jamaat is a key ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A general election is expected before the year is over. So there are complex political calculations involved. Meanwhile, even if the party survives, how will it perform if its top leaders are convicted (and possibly executed) for war crimes?
There is a tendency in Bangladesh to compare local politics with the latest development overseas. Thus the comparisons in 2008 between the Awami League and Obama election victories, or the calls for ‘OWS by the Buriganga’, or both AL-ers and BNP-wallahs claiming to be ‘Bangla’r Thaksin’. Such comparisons are likely to miss important nuances. I find it more useful to think about Bangladeshi conditions — something I am likely to know more about than, say, Thailand — and suggest factors that may matter elsewhere.
That’s how I started a post on the lessons our history could provide to emerging Arab democracies. That was a year ago. In the year since, democratisation process in Egypt — the most important country in the region — has been much more messy than anything we saw in Bangladesh. As Bangladesh walks into the next political crisis, it may be a good idea to revisit our own transition from military rule to electoral democracy, and ponder where we went wrong.
While commenting on an early draft of my post on the chronology of coups and mutinies, a friend suggested I turn it into a long form magazine, or even semi-academic article. Now, I am not in a position to write anything long form — or short, op ed, form either; dear reader, this blog is the only thing I write in these days. If I were writing a long article, I would pose two questions:
1. Did history pre-dispose Bangladesh to military interventions?
2. How do we end the cycle of interventions?
This post tackles the first question. There maybe a separate post on the second one.
As noted in my last post on Bangladesh politics, five and a half years after BNP was booted out of power, and three and half years after its electoral drubbing, the ‘facebook class’ still blames the party for much of what ails Bangladesh. Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP’s de facto number two-and-half (depending on one’s views on Tarique Rahman’s active involvement in BNP politics), seems to be well aware of the problem. In a rather well written piece last year, he makes the case for BNP to that part of the ‘young generation’ who indulge in ‘ফেসবুক, বাংলা ব্লগ ও অনলাইন পত্র-পত্রিকার পাঠক প্রতিক্রিয়া’ (Facebook, Bangla blogs, and readers’ reactions in online magazines).
He runs two lines of arguments. First, BNP has better (or not-as-bad) record than AL in office. Second, it chooses to not dwell on the past. Here is a key sentence:
আমাদের রাজনীতি এই বর্তমানকে ঘিরে এবং আমি নিঃসন্দেহে দাবী করতে পারি যে আমরা আওয়ামী লীগের চেয়ে বেটার ম্যানেজারস। (Our politics is about the present and I can unequivocally claim that we are better managers than the Awami League).
That BNP’s record is at least as good as AL’s, if not better, when it comes to the economy is something reflected in the data. And one could make a similar case for non-economic matters too. Curiously, the author doesn’t actually spend much time with these facts and figures. Perhaps he thinks it’s self evident. But if that were so, his target audience would not be blaming BNP at the fag end of AL’s term. I guess recognising this, BNP has of late started to use numbers to support its case — its alternate Budget outline is a good example of that.
If the piece isn’t stuffed with data, then perhaps there was some ‘grand historical narrative’? Disappointingly, no. Mr Mirza is a good writer, and an erudite person. He could have launched a strong salvo for his party in the history wars. Instead, he dodged the fighting.
The country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising – so said the Mughal court chronicler Abul Fazl in the 16th century. Four hundred years later, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been a country where the dust of dissension has repeatedly risen among the men armed to guard the republic. The allegedly thwarted coup in January is but the latest in a long list of coups / mutinies / revolutions / military interventions going all the way back to the country’s very foundation in 1971.
The country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed with most of his family in a brutal coup in 1975. Within a decade of the country’s 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan, much of the political and military leadership of the war were either killed or politically delegitimized by successive coups. And the coups of the 1970s reverberate even today, as Humayun Ahmed (a popular novelist) found out recently — Mr Ahmed’s latest novel, set in 1975, has been effectively banned because his depiction of history doesn’t suit the version favoured by Bangladesh’s current political dispensation. The politicised quest for what Naeem Mohaiemen calls shothik itihash (correct history) stifles the freedom of speech and thought, and sets back academia and creativity.
Of course, what actually happened in the 1970s, and beyond, should be subject to serious debate. History isn’t, after all, mere recount of dates and facts. History should be about understanding what happened and why they happened. Needless to say, one’s understanding depends on one’s own political biases.
Over the folder, I summarise major mutinies/coups/rebellions of the past four decades, and the narrative reflects my own biases and ideological prisms – just as one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so is one’s mutiny someone else’s revolution. For the interested reader, a reading list is provided at the end.