August hopes, and fears
August is a violent month in our history. In August 1946, Hindu-Muslim antagonism turned violent in Calcutta, then in Noakhali, then in Bihar, and then elsewhere in South Asia, making partition inevitable by August 1947. In August 1975 the country’s president and his family was assassinated in a bloody putsch, and we are still suffering from the miliary’s withdrawal symptoms. More recently, in 2004, a possible civil war was narrowly avoided when the opposition leader survived an assassination attempt. And only last year, we stood at the precipice of a collapse of the state. I hope to never see another bloody August, I fear my hope will be in vein.
Last year this week, a spontaneous uprising against the military occupation of Dhaka University shook the country. This was the first serious challenge to the de facto military rule that Bangladesh has been under since Jan 2007. Here ia a real time discussion while the crisis unfolded. Here is a collection of images of the uprising.
The regular reader would be aware about this blog’s unequivocal opposition to any military meddling in politics. I will support any political faction or coalition that opposes any attempt to institutionalise the army’s role in power without any qualification. So my gut instinct was to applaud the spontaneous uprising.
And yet, I had mixed feelings. I was worried. I was worried for my parents and family. But much more importantly, I was worried because it seemed to me that Bangladesh was on the verge of collapse. You see, I have a generally dim view of revolutions. When the existing order collapses, the most ruthless or the most organised (but not necessarily the most popular, or the one with justice in its side, or the one with the best ideas) faction captures power, and then after the tempest is past, the coup is romanticised as revolution. I worried that this time last year, we were facing anarchy that predates revolutions.
In the event, this uprising was quashed, with far less violence than one might have feared. But my unease lingers.
Fellow blogger Dhaka Shohor asked in a different context: did anybody really focus on the Tragedy of young, 20-something Bangladeshi students fighting young, 20-something Bangladeshis in uniform, simply because all their elders are obstinate old men who didn’t get along in the heat of the 70’s?
Dear reader, in that question I see hope that at least one type of violence we probably won’t see in Bangladesh come what may. I don’t have any hard data, but anecdotal evidence suggests that our army is drawn from the same socio-economic, cultural, ethnic and geographic background as that whence our university students, political party workers, and industrial workers come from. Bangladesh is a very homogenous country. An average army captain has an in-law in a university. An average jawan has a cousin in a factory.
Our army is not a foreign occupation force. It really is composed of our fathers and uncles, brothers and cousins. This gives me hope that in this August, or in any other month in the coming years, we shall not see the repeat of March 1971, the most violent month in our history.
And yet in that very homogeneity I see reasons for fear. You see, this was not the first spontaneous uprising in Bangladesh during recent years. Google Kansat or Phulbari and you will know what I mean. This August, we have seen violence breaking out in factory after factory. While the businessmen fail to explain the labourers’ grievance, it’s easy to understand their anger when food price inflation is in double digits. And more generally, take any two Bangladeshis randomly, and go back a few generations, and we’re likely to find incredible similarity. So when today’s have nots see the obscene inequality, why would they not want a revolution?
August is a very hot month in Bangladesh. To rephrase a well known passage from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children:
What grows best in the heat: cane-sugar; the coconut palm; certain millets such as bajra, ragi and jowar; linseed, and (given water) tea and rice. Heat, gnawing at the mind’s divisions between fantasy and reality, make anything seem possible. What grows best in the heat: fantasy; unreason; violence.
We avoided anarchy last August. With the way things are, I fear there will soon be an August where we wont’t be so lucky.