The folks at AoD have thrown the gauntlet — they want a conversation. Well, I don’t have anything terribly original to say about ministers or MPs or ex-MPs or their drivers, whether they are with or without jobs. Nor do I have anything to say about the return of hartal. But I think I can say something semi-intelligent about Purboposhchim’s take on foreign policy.
The blogger observes:
Consider that two of our neighbours are China and India – high growth countries with large populations. Over the next century these two countries will grow more powerful and their ambitions will grow with them. There will be opportunities for cooperation and for conflict.
What should the Bangladeshi foreign policy be in response to this ‘new Great Game’?
Purboposhchim says there are two options: one, ”play one against the other” (the Afghanistan option); or two, “make ourselves indispensable to both” (the Switzerland option).
Of course the blogger is pumping for the Swiss route. And I suppose if there is a choice between those two options, I would also choose the Swiss – who wants to be Afghanistan?
It’s just that I don’t think the premise of that choice is particularly sensible.
That’s a shot of Farmgate during today’s hartal (from the Daily Star). Bangladesh seems to be heading towards another spate of political violence. For over a year now, I’ve heard speculations of 2/11. Now I am beginning to believe this might be a real threat.
Is there no way out of this cycle of election-andolon-coup?
Five years and five days ago, I posted my first piece on Bangladeshi politics. Over the fold is that UV piece reposted.
2002, about a year after 9/11, October 2002,Alex Perry wrote an article in the Time magazine called ‘The cargo of death’‘Deadly Cargo‘. The article alleged that in the aftermath of the ouster of Taliban, a group of hardcore Al Qaeda operatives (including Al Qaeda number 2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri) landed in Cox’s Bazaar coastChittagong, basing themselves in the Bangladeshi territory to wage jihad in South and Southeast Asia. Within weeks of the publication, Bali was rocked by suicide bombing around the same time.
A few months later, Bertil Lintner wrote a coverstory for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review titled ‘Bangladesh: a cocoon of terror’. With a blatantly orientalist image of Tungi’s Bishwa Ijtema as a visual aid, the piece argued that Bangladesh was on the verge of being taken over by the radical Islamists, and the government was either turning a blind eye, or worse, elements within the government were promoting the jihadis. Within months of this article, Bangla Bhai and JMB appeared on the scene, followed by assassinations of Awami League leaders, and serial bomb explosions around the country.
Whether the stories written by Perry and Lintner were correct or not, by 2006, ‘Bangladesh had a jihadi problem and the BNP government was incapable of dealing with it’ became the conventional wisdom. Even when Bangla bhai and co were captured, this image didn’t change. It’s not that the government didn’t try. Perry was invited back in the country, given access to RAB commanders, the then prime minister gave an interview, and lent her helicopter — Perry in fact wrote a cover story in Time in mid-2006 praising the Khaleda Zia government for turning Bangladesh around.
But reputations, once made, are hard to change. BNP was considered incapable of dealing with the jihadi menace, and that was that. And even if they were not 100% accurate, the Perry-Lintner articles, by describing what were about to hit Bangladesh, contributed to the reputation that BNP failed to shake.
Four recent articles in the Economist – India and Bangladesh: Embraceable You (a news report), Bangladesh looks back: misusing the past (an online blog post), The poisonous politics of Bangladesh: reversion to type (editorial), and In the name of the father (opinion essay) — are likely to similarly cement the reputation of the Awami League government, and particularly the prime minister.
These articles — very likely written by Simon Long, Tom Joehnk and Adam Roberts
and/or James Astill – allege that Sheikh Hasina is becoming increasingly autocratic, settling personal scores against real and perceived opponents, using the war crimes trial as a political weapon, rewriting the constitution to rig the next election, and building a cult of personality around Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I have been following Bangladesh for over a decade now. Never have I seen any Bangladeshi leader receive such sharp personal criticism. Whatever factual accuracies of each specific point, collectively, the extremely unflattering image the prime minister acquires will be hard, if not impossible, to shake off.
Meanwhile, the articles have definitely led to a shake up among the Dhaka chateratti. From usually sensible Afsan Chowdhury to reliably nonsensical Syed Badrul Ahsan have taken shots at the Economist. But so far, most of them either seem to miss the big picture, or are written on the basis of fantastical conspiracy theories.
This is an attempt to cover some points that I haven’t seen made elsewhere.
And why are Dr Singh and so many other senior Indian leaders visiting anyway? Yes, yes, I know — long live, or victory to, Indo-Bangla friendship and so on. But seriously, why take the trouble to come to Dhaka? I mean, Dr Singh doesn’t need to sign anything as far as transit is concerned. Ditto for geting ULFA leaders. Surely no one goes to Dhaka for the sight seeing (my Delhiwallah readers, Dhaka is every bit as ugly as your newer suburbs, and has little of the charm of Lutyens and Shah Jahan’s cities).
So, what’s going on?
Over the fold are four wild, unsubstantiated, contradictory speculations. The reader should take the previous sentence very seriously. I have no inside knowledge, nor any reference. But hey, what else is a blog for except to write one’s crazy ideas?
(Guest post by Tacit. Cross-posted at Rumi Ahmed’s blog.)
Read newspaper columns by our intellectuals, and you’ll see a common refrain: we Bangladeshis don’t learn from history. We forget our past. We don’t honour our heroes. And so on. Yet, the events of the last four years or so seem to show rather the opposite. We do learn from history; we do so greedily.
Consider the coup on 1/11 by Moeen U. Ahmed. Coup? What coup? There was no general issuing proclamations, no military council ruling by fiat: we had a nice elderly gentleman of Princeton pedigree. He spoke good English, quoted the right Tagore phrases, and seemed on the verge of turning Bangladesh into Plato’s Republic, when the philosopher-kings of yore would again hold sway. Where we would not be troubled with partisan, nasty, narrow politics. The nation would unite behind our own Mahathir, Lee Kuan Yew, you name it.
If still not convinced, turn to our current Prime Minister, Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina. Does anyone realize that Hasina is now the senior statesman of SAARC, and probably the most accomplished head of state for at least five or six hundred miles in all direction? Poor Manmohan Singh has never won an election in his life; he is the Indian equivalent of Bangladesh’s MPs from reserved seats (a comparison apt in many ways). Pakistan’s troubles are only matched by Zardari’s foolishness. Rajapaksa is guilty of genocide. Karzai… no, Hasina towers above them all.
And she, too, has learned her lessons. A lesson from 2001, about how the most trusted individuals can become confused if left without adult supervision. A lesson reinforced in 2007, as boot-lickers turned into back-breakers. Maybe a second lesson from 2001, about history would have been different if she had gone ahead with her gut instincts and called for early elections, before the Four-Party Alliance had coalesced. And, finally, a lesson from 1975: if only H. T. Imam had thought to call BKSAL something else, like Bengali Democracy. Sounds so much nicer.
Well, it’s winter where I live, but it’s summer for most of my readers. So summer it is as far as this post is concerned. And Bangladesh’s politics is definitely feeling the summer heat, not cool winter breeze.
This email from a respected friend had got me thinking:
Bhai we all are pawn at the hand of big players.
When the country is heading towards a one party rule, when the government is most intolerant to any opposing views, when there is hardly any dissenting voice around, when even people like Anu Muhmmad, Rahnuma Ahmed get hit by police, when Moshrefa Mishu is thrown in jail and tortured for months, when the prospect of CHT people’s rights seems most grim in ages (with India managed, they don’t have any bargaiing chip left), if progressive minds keep focused on Rumana and Sharmila, our players are very very very happy.
But history will never forgive one Jyoti Rahman if he fails to take note of above series of events.
Well, I’ve taken note. I am not sure whether this, and follow up posts, will win me history’s forgiveness. But this is what I’ve got.
There are multiple ways we can think of the situation. We is to list what is happening. We can explain why what is happening. More difficult is to predict what is going to happen. And the really challenging one is to prescribe what should be done.
I am not in a good place to do the first — this is not a newspaper, and I have no unique source of information about the latest Awami transgression that you can’t get from Amar Desh. And I am pretty bad at predicting. I am also not going to prescribe anything because I think its rather gratuitous to sit in the comfort of the west and pontificate about what should be done back home.
But I can still
analyse ramble on analyse what is happening, and paint a possible scenario or two of what might come. This particular post is about the Awami side of politics. BNP-related post(s) may follow.
The idea was to do a post on 13 January, marking the first anniversary of the Hasina-Manmohan summit. But January 2011 had been a very eventful month, with the dramatic re-emergence of BNP as a force to be reckoned in Bangla politics, the bursting of the DSE bubble, unabated border killings, and the furor over the movie Meherjaan consuming a lot of energy. So the anniversary post never happened.
But I still want to write about the Indo-Bangla relations — the idea is to do a number of smaller blogs covering different angles. The one today echoes what I said in January 2010: don’t believe the hype.
I think the past year amply supports my contention. Nothing really of substance has happened, in one direction or other, since the summit. A year on, still don’t believe the hype.
‘It’s a fascist regime’ is a common refrain in Bangladesh. Every opposition party in our history has accused the government of being fascist. And every opposition in the past has been wrong. And I hope that the current opposition is wrong too.
But I fear the current government is much more likely to become fascist than any in our history. And the reasons are not what most people think.
Fascism doesn’t mean any odd dictatorship or undemocratic regime. Mere intolerance of the opposition is not enough to be fascist. To be a fascist regime, a government needs a large enough popular base, a cult of personality, and a dogma/ideology which is going to invoked by academics and intellegentsia to support the regime.
The 1/11 or Ershad regimes were not fascist — they had none of these ingredients.
Bakshal had the cult of personality, ideology and intellectual cheerleaders. Had Sheikh Mujib instituted Bakshal in 1972, he would also have had massive popular support. But by 1975, it was too late.
BNP in 2001 had the popular support to become fascist, but for all its thuggery and brute force, it wasn’t fascist because there was no ideology or intellectual support.
The current AL government is popular enough, has a sufficiently coherent ideology and a cult of personality, and a very strong intellectual support base.
When Ershad or BNP stepped over the line in terms of censorship or rigged election or sheer decency (think about Mrs Zia’s bogus birthday), there were massive outcries.
Nothing like that happens now because those who are supposed to protest are all on the same side as establishment.
And that’s why, for the first time in our history, fascism is a genuine threat.