A strange camel
We lived in Monipuri Para in December 1990. With schools and colleges closed indefinitely because of the state of emergency, we — neighbourhood boys aged 13-17 — passed our days playing cricket. On the 3rd, there was a break in curfew. We went towards Farmgate. There was an army truck in front of the Janata Bank, and a crowd waiting for buses in front of Ananda cinema. Everything seemed quiet one moment, then someone shouted something, and before I knew it, the crowd was pelting rocks at the truck. We got worried that tear gas might be used, but the soldiers drove away. The crowd cheered — it was a small victory for the people against the dictator.
My father was stuck outside Dhaka when the emergency was declared. He returned on the 4th. In the evening, we were visited by a Dhaka University masters student who was courting one of my fupus. An activist of the All Party Student Unity, this guy was a hero to us with his stories of brave students defying the military. Meanwhile, my father was constantly on the phone, checking up on relatives/friends scattered throughout the city, trying to gather any news/information on what might happen next. We didn’t have blogs or private channels in those days. ‘Everything is peaceful’, said BTV and Radio Bangladesh, but foreign radio such as the BBC relayed a different story. Around 9pm we heard from a relative that tanks were returning to Savar cantonment.
At 10.21pm, I saw the ticker in BTV — the president has agreed to step down. No one believed me at first, but within minutes it was confirmed by the VoA and others that Ershad would soon be gone. By 11pm we could hear the crowd — হই হই রই রই, এরশাদ শালা গেল কই. We walked up to the Airport Road. Then in the morning, the entire extended family, along with half a dozen neighbours, went to Paltan. It was a festive day, much like Pohela Boishakh, except in December.
I was in the city in January 2007, and then during the election last year. I didn’t see anything that even remotely compares.
But I did see that by January 2007, Ershad was completely rehabilitated into political mainstream. I did see that in December 2008, that former university student — now my fupa, a successful businessman — voted for Ershad in Gulshan: এরশাদ খারাপ, কিন্তু BNP আবার আসলে আরো খারাপ হবে. The funny thing is, before the aborted January 2007 election, BNP tried its utmost to cajole and coerce Ershad to its side.
Why did Ershad get rehabilitated? Because he wins elections? If that’s the rationale, then why do we feel offended by Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury? After all, he also wins elections!
Where is the outrage about Ershad?
The regular reader would know that I don’t agree with this, but I accept that one can make a legitimate argument that because of the political gridlock in January 2007, 1/11 was inevitable. One can also make an argument that given Bakshal/15 August/Jail killing, Khaled/Taher/Zia was justified to restore the spirit of the Liberation War / usher in scientific socialism / defend the nation’s sovereignty. I have never read or heard any clear account justifying Ershad’s power grab in March 1982. And then, for the rest of that decade, Ershad used every trick in the book to keep himself in power, in the process severely damaging every facet of life politically, economically, and socially.
I often hear, from supposedly knowledgable people, that Ershad may have been personally bad, but at least there was some development under him. But there is no evidence whatsoever for this in the data. Here is how Mustafa Mujeri and Binayak Sen, two noted economists, describe the ‘decade of stagnation’:
Notwithstanding the progress in achieving recovery and adjustments in the 1970s, the country continued to be plagued by a number of deep-rooted structural problems resulting in slow economic growth with growing fiscal crisis and macroeconomic imbalances during the 1983-1989 period. Economic growth was hampered by inefficiencies in key economic sectors and severe industrial and infrastructure bottlenecks. The situation was aggravated by inappropriate macroeconomic policies pursued by the government like over-expansionary fiscal and monetary policies and their inconsistent applications, poor performance of the public enterprises, inadequate pricing and institutional policies and inefficiency in the development administration and management.
For the past month, we’ve heard about various beneficiaries of the 15 August. Wasn’t Ershad one of the biggest beneficiaries? After all, someone like Zia, barely 40 in 1975 and already a bona fide war hero, could well have had a future in politics even had Mujib lived. It’s hard to see how Ershad — reputed to be a fun-loving playboy — could ever become the president if not for the army’s involvement in politics that begun in 1975. And wasn’t it Ershad who helped Faruq Rahman create the Freedom Party?
We hear a lot about the betrayal of the spirits of the Liberation War. But wasn’t it Ershad who allowed Jamaat-e-Islami to conduct politics under its own name? Wasn’t it Ershad who amended the constitution to make Islam the state religion? Wasn’t it under Ershad that the Bengali culture and values were so undermined that Shamsur Rahman wrote দেশ অদ্ভুত এক উটের পিঠে সওয়ার?
Ershad wins election and therefore we can forgive his crimes seems a rather strange argument to me. At the least, people making that argument really should have nothing to say about any other crimes committed by anyone else who wins elections.
And it’s not like Ershad was rehabilitated through the political process in a transparent manner.
Think about what we achieved in the early 1990s. Ershad was tried, under full due process, with the best legal defence in the country, and found guilty. No special tribunal, no torture, no remand. But conviction.
From this, after the 1996 election, we saw the first naked political interference in the higher judiciary in post-1990 Bangladesh. By 2006-07, the situation became so farcical that the joke went ‘Ershad’s guilt or innocence depends on who he pairs up with’. From the farcical committees investigating various atrocities in 2004-06 to the kangaroo courts under the 1/11 regime to various remand dramas we see today, all these travesties have their root in the way we rehabilitated Ershad.
If the gains of the early 1990s could have been consolidated, Gen Moeen or Gen Masud could never have dared to force their way into politics. If we could make Ershad serve his full sentences, cronies under the last BNP government would never have dared to commit the excesses they did.
The sad reality is, we failed. The sadder reality is, we — the chattering classes — don’t even seem to acknowledge we failed.
I got this picture from Shahidul Alam’s blog. I don’t know who this little girl is. She would be in her 20s now. What would you tell her if she asks: why did I go out on that night?