BNP and the history wars

Posted in Bangladesh, BNP, history, politics by jrahman on June 11, 2012

As noted in my last post on Bangladesh politics, five and a half years after BNP was booted out of power, and three and half years after its electoral drubbing, the ‘facebook class’ still blames the party for much of what ails Bangladesh.  Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP’s de facto number two-and-half (depending on one’s views on Tarique Rahman’s active involvement in BNP politics), seems to be well aware of the problem.  In a rather well written piece last year, he makes the case for BNP to that part of the ‘young generation’ who indulge in ‘ফেসবুক, বাংলা ব্লগ ও অনলাইন পত্র-পত্রিকার পাঠক প্রতিক্রিয়া’ (Facebook, Bangla blogs, and readers’ reactions in online magazines).

He runs two lines of arguments.  First, BNP has better (or not-as-bad) record than AL in office.  Second, it chooses to not dwell on the past.  Here is a key sentence:

আমাদের রাজনীতি এই বর্তমানকে ঘিরে এবং আমি নিঃসন্দেহে দাবী করতে পারি যে আমরা আওয়ামী লীগের চেয়ে বেটার ম্যানেজারস। (Our politics is about the present and I can unequivocally claim that we are better managers than the Awami League).

That BNP’s record is at least as good as AL’s, if not better, when it comes to the economy is something reflected in the data.  And one could make a similar case for non-economic matters too.  Curiously, the author doesn’t actually spend much time with these facts and figures.  Perhaps he thinks it’s self evident.  But if that were so, his target audience would not be blaming BNP at the fag end of AL’s term.  I guess recognising this, BNP has of late started to use numbers to support its case — its alternate Budget outline is a good example of that.

If the piece isn’t stuffed with data, then perhaps there was some ‘grand historical narrative’?  Disappointingly, no.  Mr Mirza is a good writer, and an erudite person.  He could have launched a strong salvo for his party in the history wars.  Instead, he dodged the fighting.

Here is the key message about the history wars:

পৃথিবীতে এমন কোনও জাতি নেই যার অতীত রক্ত-রঞ্জিত নয় কিংবা পাপবর্জিত ।….  আমরা এগিয়ে যেতে চাই, এগিয়ে যেতে চাই আমাদের অন্ধকার অতীতকে ভুলে গিয়ে নয়, ভুলে থেকে।  (There is no nation in the world whose past isn’t blood-soaked or without sins….  We want move forward, not forgetting the dark past, but rather, choosing not to remember it).*

This is less-than-satisfactory, for two reasons.

First, consider the examples he gives:

নাৎজি উত্থান-পর্ব (যেটা সম্পূর্ণ গণতান্ত্রিক ছিলো!) নিয়ে জার্মানরা রাজনীতি করে না, অস্ট্রেলীয় আদিবাসীরা তাদের উপর সংঘটিত অবিচার নিয়ে প্রতিনিয়ত আলোচনা করে নিজেদের মধ্যে বিভেদ ও হীনম্মন্যতা সৃষ্টি করে না। (Germans don’t do politics about the rise of the Nazis (which happened to be completely democratic!), nor do the Australian Aborigines create division and inferiority complex among themselves by regular discussions on the injustices perpetrated on them).

Frankly, he is flat out wrong on both counts.  Australian Aborigines discourse is actually very much centred on past grievances.  And (West) Germans, after the second world war, had one of the most rigorous national soul searching of history.  Its a profound mistake to use these as examples of ‘whatever has happened, let’s unite and rebuild’.

‘Whatever has happened, let’s unite and rebuild’ — that’s not a random quote.  This is what Ziaur Rahman apparently told Shafayat Jamil in November 1975 as the latter laid injured in a hospital bed after the so-called revolution of 7 November.  And that was essentially Zia’s message throughout the period he ruled as a military man.  Even after he chose mufti over khaki, Zia continued to base his politics on that theme.

Perhaps it made sense for him.  After all, ‘whatever happened’ by late 1975 — a devastating war of liberation, post war political conflicts, experiment in one party rule, killing of the president and his family, coups and countercoups — were very much fresh in everyone’s mind.  In the very week before the Zia-Shafayet conversation, the entire political leadership of the Liberation War and dozens of freedom fighter officers were killed.  These dark, blood-soaked days were not in some distant past from Zia’s times.  They were his times.  And Zia could tell the Shafayet Jamil, and the nation, to ‘unite and rebuild’ because of his own record from 1971 to 1975.

Of course, one can criticise and analyse whether Zia lived up to his stated goal — perhaps he created new divisions, perhaps he chose to unite with the wrong people.  I’ll leave those for a different day.  The relevant point here is, being who he was, and when he was, Zia could make this pitch of ‘whatever has happened, let’s unite and rebuild’.  Fast forward to 2012, and from Mr Mirza, does it make sense?

The equivalent of the facebook class of 1975 — the university students, young professionals, junior officers in the army — lived through the blood-soaked years that constituted the ‘whatever’.  In contrast, much of the target audience in the article doesn’t have good understanding of even the anti-Ershad uprisings of the 1980s.  One has to be close to 40 to have a lived experience of the tumults in the university campuses of that decade.  And even though 40-somethings lead Jubo Dal and League, they are not really young.

It seems to me** that the people Mirza Fakhrul is trying to address know a particular version of history where there are good guys and bad guys.  In this version of history, 1971 is clearly black and white — most Bangladeshis were good, razakars and their Pakistani masters were evil.  In this history, 1975 is a bit more complicated, but still has goodies and baddies — Mujib and Taher were good-in-their-own-way or flawed-but-meant-well, while Mushtaq, Faruq-Rashid and Zia were somewhere between evil and could-have-been-good-but-chose-not-to.  During the past two decades, this is the historiography that has dominated.

And this has political consequences.  The consequence is that the literate, affluent, ‘facebook class’ has become inherently uncomfortable with BNP because it’s seen as the heir to the wrong-side-of-history.  This is reinforced by BNP’s alliance with Jamaat, which to the facebook class is a party representing ‘evil’.

Against this background, when the facebook class is told to ‘not remember the dark past’, they don’t hear a war hero trying to pacify his comrades.  The message they get is a weaselly, hand wringing “look, we aren’t as bad as AL, and don’t worry about all that history stuff”.

The result is perhaps exactly the opposite of what Mirza Fakhrul intends.

Does that mean he shouldn’t have written the piece?  Should BNP not even fight the history wars?

No.  Far from it.  I think BNP has no choice but to engage.  If for no other reason, BNP needs the facebook class to be a ‘ ‘party of the future’ (ভবিষ্যতমুখী দল — in Mirza’s words).

The author makes a good swipe at the two Abuls in the current government — the finance minister and the former transport and communications minister.  These posts were held by Saifur Rahman, Oli Ahmed and Nazmul Huda in the two Khaleda Zia governments.  All three were relatively young men when they started politics under Zia, who himself was barely 46 when he killed.  One was a chartered accountant, among the first Bengali Muslims to get that qualification from Britain.  Another was a decorated freedom fighter.  The third was a barrister.  None of them came from political dynasties.

Now, one is dead, and the other two are old men fighting for political relevance — and they aren’t even in BNP.

BNP needs to win back today’s and tomorrow’s Saifur-Oli-Huda.  Without professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals, BNP’s future will be dominated by the likes of Lutfuzzaman Babar. Winning the history wars is essential for avoiding that dark future.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is a great writer who knows the history well.  I know he will not be in a position to write anything anytime soon.  But if he could, here is what I would suggest he writes.  I would urge him to write about our history of political-social-economic struggles that predates 1971 and continues to our time.  This would not mean ignoring 1971, but to put that seminal year in its proper context.  I would suggest he writes about our founding leaders like Fazlul Huq and HS Suhrawardy who came before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, putting these men in their proper historical context.

Mirza Fakhrul should show that we have struggled for a democratic polity, or social justice, from the time of British Raj.  Sometimes these struggles have been violent, at other times we had peaceful ‘ballot revolutions’.  Sometimes the leaders betrayed the trust people put on them.  Sometimes they made mistakes.  But overall, we have been making progress.  And he should make the case for BNP in the context of that march of history.

Ironically, this means that BNP needs to move away from the approach its founder used so successfully in the 1970s.  But then again, Mirza Sahib claims ‘আমরা সময়ের সাথে নিজেদের বদলাতে চাই; যে-জন্য বিএনপির রাজনীতি সাস্টেইনেবল (we want to change ourselves with time; that’s why BNP’s politics is sustainable)’.


*The sentence was a rather clever wordplay, and my translation didn’t do it justice.

**Being closer to the age when he joined electoral politics in Thakurgaon than when he was involved in student politics in Dhaka University, I am in no position to really judge the reaction of the ‘young’ the author tries to reach out.  As always, the post reflects my tentative thoughts.

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  1. Bleak, Ne’er-do-well, Past | Mukti said, on December 12, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    […] hard on the haloed Mujib myth.   Like it or not, history wars is a key part of our politics that BNP cannot shy away from.  Apparently Tarique paid respect at Mujib’s grave several times when BNP was in power […]

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