A time for grown ups?

Posted in activism, politics by jrahman on February 23, 2013

Something curious has been happening in Bangladesh in the past 24 hours.  After the jumma prayers yesterday, groups belonging to a dozen or so small Islamist parties took out processions against ‘atheists’ and ‘apostates’ of Shahbagh.  Apparently these defenders of Islam were joined by Jamaat as well.  There were scuffles with police.  Shaheed Minar was attacked in Sylhet, and the national flag was burnt.  And then there were some counterattacks against Jamaat-owned businesses.  By nightfall, things were under control.

That’s what I get from the mainstream media (or the parts I can access — Prothom Alo and Daily Star aren’t safe for my iPad), and that’s not the curious thing.  If that’s all there was to it, it would be hardly different from the occasional rampage some of the more ‘pious’  and excitable fellows get up to every time any government wants to give women equal rights of inheritance.

The curious thing is what I see in facebook and blogs.  Judging by their account, Bangladesh stood on the brink of civil war.  Religious fanatics had openly declared war on the country as it exists.  On the other side, a large crowd had returned to Shahbagh in the evening, demanding that unless the government acts, there will be a revolution.

As explained earlier, on Shahbagh I’ve preferred to keep my mouth shut and eyes open.  That remains my general approach.  I have little factual understanding of what exactly is happening in Bangladesh.  It may be that my facebook friends are an alarmist bunch (bloggers of all types in all countries are usually a hyperventilating lot — Andrew Sullivan felt suicidal when Obama did poorly in a debate!), and the mainstream media had it right: nothing of consequence happened yesterday.  Or, it may be that there are complicated games at play — not being privy to any palace intrigues, I’ll leave conspiracy theorising to others.

If those scenarios happen, then what follows should be discarded.  But as long as there is a non-trivial probability that the more alarmist version is right — that Bangladesh was/is close to civil war — then I believe it’s time for the grown ups to calm things down.

Based on various online accounts, the following seems plausible: over the past week, Daily Amar Desh has printed excerpts of Bangla blogs that appear to be extremely critical of Islam or its Prophet; it’s hardly a secret that some Muslims tend to take the Prophet’s honour very seriously — just ask Salman Rushdie; during the Friday prayer, these faithfuls were incited to react violently; Jamaat chimed in — anything that creates chaos today is good for it.  And then things got out of hand.

Whether it is two children fighting, or there is a communal riot, or armed men are holding a plane full of passengers hostage, or two countries are amassing tanks on the border, the first thing to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension.  That’s Governance 101.

If Bangladesh is staring at civil violence/war/anarchy, then it’s time for the grown ups to act.

Who are the grown ups?  It may be unfashionable these days, but I will call upon the two leaders who have consistently received the support of two-thirds of Bangladesh between them over the past quarter century.  I believe that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition must act.

They must act not because of some grand moral reasons, but because it’s in their best interest to do so.

Take the Prime Minister first.  If there is a genuine civil disturbance, she has the most to lose.  Her government will fall, and depending on what follows, she may well have to live the rest of her days in retirement.  This cannot be a good prospect.  Far better that she makes a categorical promise to Shahbagh that their demands will be met.  There is nothing in their demand that is inconsistent with the Awami League politics.  Most crucially, it seems that the demand regarding Jamaat — With a view to banning politics of Jamaat-Shibir, bring war crimes charges against Jamaat-e-Islami under the amended law [The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973] and start the legal process by March 26 — is both eminently achievable and is beneficial for AL.

If she can make the Shahbagh movement go home, the sting will be taken out of the mullah agitation.  Once the tension subsides, politics can resume as usual.

As for the Leader of the Opposition, if she believes that she can benefit from a chaotic exit of her rival, she is living in a fool’s paradise.  Any extra constitutional change in power will mean she will meet the same fate as the Prime Minister.  So for her own survival, and the chance to fight another day and actually win, she should do her part to calm things down.

She should categorically condemn mullah violence and those who incite such violence.  She has already moved the party away from hardline anti-Indian rhetoric.  Tough gesture against religious fanaticism will do her well for the real fight — the one for a free election.

This post may well seem contrary to the ‘non-political, revolutionary’ spirit that pervades my facebook.  May be it flies in the face of Dhaka’s zeitgeist.  But there is a Burkean conservatism I adhere to that deeply values stability over revolution.  In case of Bangladesh, I don’t want a ‘grand sweeping away of the rat infestation’ (as a fellow blogger has put it).  Rather, I want to persist with our 6% a year growth that has made lives of most Bangladesh better than any of their ancestors.

I want Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia to stand up and show some leadership.

14 Responses

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  1. Shonpapri said, on February 23, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Not sure if you wrote this before or after the news of BNP’s “unconditional” support of the shutdown on Sunday but it seems the battle lines are drawn.

    “We’ve decided to give our full supports to the shutdown programme called by the Islamist parties in protest against the Friday’s police attacks across the country on the faithful,” [BNP Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi] said

    • jrahman said, on February 24, 2013 at 2:07 am

      I wrote this before BNP’s decision. This blog ‘unconditionally’ opposes today’s hartal.

      • sujon said, on February 24, 2013 at 9:32 am

        Good for us! BNP has flipped flopped about Shahbag more than anybody in the history of the humankind. They have revealed the true face. And you expected them to act like a grown up? If undecided voters are important to swing the election, then BNP has lost the boat. With 6% growth, people of Bangladesh not only live better than their ancestors, they have developed better free will and wisdom as well. No matter how much you defend BNP’s politics (party away from hardline anti-Indian rhetoric. blah blah), there is nothing grey here, BNP is playing for Jamat and if they can come to the power again Nizami and Mujahid will ride cars in our national flags.

  2. jrahman said, on February 24, 2013 at 11:27 am

    My record of prediction is pretty bad. But for what it’s worth, if BNP continues to play with/for Jamaat, I think they will not come to power anytime soon.

    • Diganta said, on February 24, 2013 at 3:00 pm

      I am not that well-versed with Bangladesh politics but does BNP have any separate agenda not in line with Jamaat?

      • jrahman said, on February 26, 2013 at 5:09 pm

        To answer that question will require several posts, which, frankly, I am not to keen on. Let me refer you to Alal O Dulal, BDN24 op ed page, Sachalayatan and other Bangla blogs.

  3. shafiq said, on February 24, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    In the wikileaks disclosures, Sheikh Hasina clearly stated in 2006 that she prefers that the Army take over rather than BNP continue on power. There is no reason to suppose that Khaleda Zia will not prefer do go down in flames with her archenemy who also evicted her. I think underestimate the level of rancor the two women hold for each other.

    Not only them, but there are millions of people in Bangladesh who meaning in life comes from this duel to the death of two houses.

    There will not be a civil war in Bangladesh. The army supported by the business community will intervene before that. Probably we are heading to that scenario sooner than expected.

    • jrahman said, on February 26, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      Yes, the army supported by the business community will probably intervene before things get too bad.

  4. Rethinking Pilkhana | Mukti said, on February 26, 2013 at 11:45 am

    […] to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension —  that’s what I said in the last post about today’s Bangladesh.  This was even more true four years ago.  Whoever was at fault […]

  5. White crow rising? | Mukti said, on March 1, 2013 at 8:29 am

    […] I said last week: In case of Bangladesh, I don’t want a ‘grand sweeping away of the rat infestation’ (as a […]

  6. Diganta said, on March 2, 2013 at 3:10 am

    I got that answer and that came from Khaleda Zia today. Very clear and she did not effort to hide the intentions 🙂

  7. […] that I find BNP’s call for a hartal on Tuesday completely unacceptable.  I called for grown ups earlier.  I called for the Prime Minister to use her authority to wind up Shahbag, and the […]

  8. […] in this respect that I find today’s hartal by BNP’s completely unacceptable. I called for grown ups earlier. I called for the Prime Minister to use her authority to wind up Shahbag, and the […]

  9. […] I had a clearer view of things.  I wanted the Shahbagis and mullahs to go home.  Let me quote my 23 February post at […]

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