West Bangladesh and East Peccavistan
A magical realist masterpiece, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has weird and improbable events and people juxtaposed against the history of the 20th century South Asia up to the late 1970s. One such improbable, and yet true, event was that at the time of writing, and thus the story’s culmination, military rulers of the erstwhile two wings of Pakistan had the same first name. This is not the only parallel between the political history of Bangladesh and post-1971 Pakistan (here is a polite and self-censored narrative). And unfortunately, instead of Pakistan becoming more like Bangladesh, it seems to be that Bangladesh is adopting the Pakistani ways that it fought to break free from 36 years ago this month.
When the results of Pakistan’s first general election became known 37 years ago, a western journalist quipped that Pakistan would soon be replaced by Mujibdesh and Bhuttostan. Within one year of that election, the eastern part of the two-headed moth nibbled improbability that was Pakistan became Bangladesh. The western part kept the name Pakistan. In both countries, politics was dominated by towering populists. Then, by the middle of the 1970s, both giants found governance to be much harder than populist rhetoric, both resorted to undemocracy, and both ended up meeting cruel ends at the hand of their trusted guards. Then both countries fell to dictatorships in the 1980s, although the extent and mechanism varied. In both countries democratic opposition developed. In both countries, eventually some form of democratic politics came into practice in the 1990s. Then in 1999, Pakistan reverted to military rule but Bangladesh continued its democratic experience. By 2006, it seemed that the politics of the two countries had decoupled.
It was in late 2006 that I heard a talk by a South Asia expert titled ‘Pakistan as West Bangladesh’ in a seminar on democracy in the Muslim world. The talk started with the similarities between the countries — populist heroes/demagogues, military coups, prolonged dictatorship, return of democracy, bitter political rivalry — before asking how could Bangladesh sustain democracy while it failed in Pakistan?
Four reasons were given: population, political geography, political economy of the army, and the civil society. Firstly, Bangladesh is lot more homogenous than Pakistan. Bitter as the divisions between Awami League and BNP supporters are, they can exist within the same family. In Pakistan, political divisions reflect ethnic diversity, with Punjab being a bastion of the Sharif clan while Sind being the Bhutto stronghold for example. Secondly, Bangladesh doesn’t border war-torn territories like Kashmir or Afghanistan that require the army to be permanently mobilised. The Pakistan army has a vested interest in perpetuating those conflicts as they provide its lifeline. The political economy of the Bangladesh army is different. Various UN missions provide its lifeline, and it is unlikely to risk that by staging coups. Finally, Bangladesh has a much stronger class of intellectuals, a much more robust civil society and a vast network of NGOs who are all instinctively anti-military, making a successful coup unlikely.
This was just after Dr Yunus’s Nobel. Yunus was compared with Imran Khan — someone made the point that it was hard to see a bottom-up man like Yunus lending moral support to an army takeover. The prediction for the upcoming election was that after a bitterly contested and violent campaign, the popular will would be respected.
The events of the past year of course belie that prediction. The army used its UN connection and a controversial letter was produced to cover the coup. Except it wasn’t even called a coup. The Bangladeshi civil society dubbed it the bhodroloke revolution.
In Shame, his novel on Pakistan, Rushdie calls the country Peccavistan. Peccavi in Latin means I have sinned. This is the message Sind’s English conqueror sent back to the John Company after he took the country by deception and ‘rascality’. Governments in Pakistan typically change by deception and rascality, hence the name Peccavistan. Instead of Pakistan becoming a West Bangladesh, it seems that Bangladesh is becoming an East Peccavistan. What else is the conclusion to be drawn from this Amader Shomoy article (translation here) that predicts Gen Moeen U Ahmed will assume Presidency by next March with Supreme Court blessings? In Pakistan, Imran Khan now says he was conned. How long before we can expect Yunus and his friends open their mouth?
In December 1970, Maolana Bhashani told Sheikh Mujib that it would be better to be the founder of a free Bangladesh than the prime minister of a doomed Pakistan. Fellow blogger Rumi Ahmed often says that better the free air of dirty Kolkata than the oppressed smell of a clean Islamabad. Here’s to that sentiment. Down with East Peccavistan. Hail Bangladesh.