I argued in the last post that Bangladesh is back to politics-as-usual. Whereas I was surprised by the Shahbag Awakening*, needing a reassessment of a lot of my priors, nothing like that is needed to analyse politics-as-usual. I can use my mental model of politics — including the key players and their objectives, incentives and strategies — to analyse the situation. That doesn’t, of course, mean the analysis will be necessarily correct. But even when I get things wrong, I can update my views with the latest infromation as long as the basic framework of my analysis is intact.
An analysis of unfolding events since Friday makes for some rather uncomfortable conclusions for me. And yet, there are times when one ought to make a stand, even if it means taking a side. I believe now is such a time. Over the fold is why this blog rejects tomorrow’s hartal.
Fellow blogger Dhaka Shohor was the first person to inform me about it — bhai, what’s happening in Pilkhana (or something to that effect). It was slightly before the midday on 25 February 2009. Within the next hour I had received phone calls, texts and facebook messages. By 2pm Dhaka time, I was in front of a computer. Unheard Voice was live almost incessantly for the next couple of days, with bloggers from three continents continuously updating information as they came in from Dhaka. In nearly a decade of blogging, I have never experienced something more stressfull or taxing on the emotions.
Whether it is two children fighting, or there is a communal riot, or armed men are holding a plane full of passengers hostage, or two countries are amassing tanks on the border, the first thing to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension — that’s what I said in the last post about today’s Bangladesh. This was even more true four years ago. Whoever was at fault on 25 February, whatever was the grievances or failures, whether there was a conspiracy or not, the first and foremost task facing the government was to diffuse the situation.
As I understood the facts about who could reasonably have known what in the real time, I believed the government did a good job in diffusing the situation. Let me explain that in some detail.
We’re talking about a South Asian country where the government is under pressure from several corruption scandals and not-so-good economic news. The ruling party led the country’s independence, and supposedly stands for secularism and pluralist democracy. In reality, the party is a dynastic fiefdom of the country’s founding leader, and once the current matriarch passes, the future looks uncertain for the dynasty. The opposition is no better. It supposedly reflects a more authentic nationalism than the one espoused by the ruling party, but in reality it has often fueled communal bigotry and violence. It used to attract professionals and businessmen a generation ago, but not any more. The country has a strong tradition of community and grass root activism and media tradition. Dissatisfied with both the main parties, these civil society groups are clamouring for a third force. Meanwhile, violent extremism that was once thought effectively suppressed may be biding time in remote rural areas.
I could be talking about either Bangladesh or India. Everything in the above paragraph describes both countries. But there is one crucial difference. When people talk about the third force in India, they mean a coalition of parties that will reject both Congress and the BJP. Any potential third force in India will be based on electoral politics. In Bangladesh, the most plausible third force, on the other hand, is a military coup.
As I argued here, our history has made us vulnerable to military interventions in politics, right from the beginning of the country. As we get close the next general election, there will be a lot of talk of yet another coup of some form. Is there no end to this cycle?
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.
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.