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.
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.
But I don’t want to give into escapism. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, evil wins when good people do nothing. I will make two points here:
ours is a very violent society, and tragic as these events were, they were not all that uncommon — it’s time we put our own monsters to sleep; and
beyond the human tragedy, we have a national security crisis that is not being addressed because of the crazy conspiracy theories going around.