Anarchy in Bangladesh
Three years ago yesterday, from a rather trivial incidence in the Dhaka University, student protests spread like a wildfire across Bangladesh. Foreign media ran articles with titles like ‘Emergency unravels’ and ‘Bangladesh on the brink’. For anyone needing a quick reminder of those few days:
Trivial as the initial incidence was, it could have toppled the 1/11 regime — the one that had already broken Tarique Rahman’s back and had Sheikh Hasina in jail with no one uttering a peep — had there been anyone waiting in the wings.
What lessons should we draw from it?
Studying the history of revolutions around the world, a remarkable pattern emerges. Typically what happens is this: there is discontent among the urban poor and middle classes; there is little mechanism for or likelihood of a peaceful change of power that resolves the problem; some random, trivial, unpredictable event sets of a chain reaction and there is a sudden collapse in the public order; there is a scramble for power, which is captured by the most organised or ruthless (but not necessarily the most popular) group; once secure in power, the new order retrospectively dubs the whole thing a revolution.
Study the events of St petersburg, 1917 or Tehran, 1978 dispassionately — you will see this is exactly what happened.
Now let’s see what can happen in Bangladesh.
First point, checked. Nothing upsets citydwellers with fixed income more than inflation and worsening law and order. Add to that electricity and water shortage, and there is recipe for wide discontent. Look up the archives of newspapers — events like this are not too uncommon.
Second point, question mark. The reason why August 2007, or before that Shonir Akhra or Kansat riots, didn’t lead to widespread collapse of the state was because there was the possibility, and desirability, of an Awami League government. If people become tired of the AL but there is no desirable alternative, or worse little possibility of peaceful transition of power, then some random event in 2011 or 2012 or 2013 could easily lead to a nightmarish scenario.
And in that situation, who are the most organised and ruthless guys in town? Who are there to fish in the muddied water? Who stands to benefit most?
In the past month, there was violence — demanding electricity, allegedly committed by garments workers, and by students protesting VAT on their fees. Leaflets were distributed among the police, calling for an uprising.
The government says every dissent, every incidence, is about saving the war criminals, just like the BNP used to say everything was bideshi chokranto against our bhabmurti and sovereignty.
Well, there are genuine grievances. But at the same time, when a spark is lit somewhere, there are also people who are more than happy to flame the fan. As a fellow Drishtipat writer told me:
One of the things I have seen repeatedly in last four years is that it does not take much to destabilize the situation here. It does not even take much planning, shujog er shod byabohar korar jonno boshe ache not just Nizami’s mobile, or SaQa’s posshyo, but also many individuals, who can channel their frustration into that moment. If a group of people decide that ‘we will push this country into chaos, because we can, or because we need to for survival’, they can succeed.
So, where does this leave us?
One motherhood statement is ‘government should focus on resolving the grievances’. But in Bangladesh, even a sincere government will have more grievances to solve than there are stars in the sky.
The next motherhood statement is ‘violence is not the only way to be heard’.
Well, with all due respect to the morality of non-violence, I’d have to say, get real.
Non-violent protest? Sit in? Hunger strike? These happen. A lot. Every day there is some cause or other for which people are present in Shaheed Minar.
Who cares about them? Break a few cars in a major street, and you will be heard. In Bangladesh, violence may not be the only way to get heard. But it sure is the most effective way.
But then what comes after violence?
Three years ago, this was said in UV:
Is it revolutionary violence if it ends up empowering the state?
One an instinctive level, when I see the footage of police chasing students, with my inherent Bangali suspicion of state/police (and our history), I cheer. Students heros, Police villains. Students heros, Army villain. Army hotao, Police Bhag.
But when I talk to the businessman who says if things continue like this, “all industries will collapse”, I shiver with fear. Jute, our golden jute, which was our biggest example of how Pakistan was sucking our revenue dry, that Jute has collapsed. It is so easy to destroy things.
I don’t know which side to cheer. I can find no heroes. Only losers, and the biggest one is our country.
Three years on, I feel little better.
(Cross-posted at UV)