Guha raises a glass

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on January 15, 2016

A trained economist turned historian, a liberal who has written on cricket, you can see why I might like Ramachandra Guha.  When it comes to our corner of the subcontinent, Mr Guha particularly resonates with me because unlike so many other liberal-progressive Indians, he is unsentimental about partition.  This allows him to observe Bangladesh (and Pakistan) with less blinkered eyes.  This was evident in the two op eds he wrote after visiting Bangladesh late last year.

Based on ‘ long, drink-filled, evenings’ of addas with his local interlocutors as well short trips to Manikganj and Tangail, he concludes the first piece as:

The present is scarcely trouble-free, the future is clouded and uncertain. That said, this Indian would like to raise one cheer, and perhaps even two, for the people of Bangladesh. They were once part of Pakistan; after separation, they have been somewhat more successful in thwarting Islamic fundamentalism. They were once part of the undivided province of Bengal; after separation, they have shown more entrepreneurial drive and constructive social activism than their counterparts to the west.

Little quibbles — for example, Bangladesh is not, nor has it ever been, an Islamic Republic — aside, I agree with Guha’s assessment.  It is his second piece, however, that I found more interesting.  Let’s remember that one of his hosts in the Dhaka Lit Fest is an Awami League MP, and his trip was — as things tend to be — quite carefully managed.  I suspect the literati and the chatterati he interacted with have little enthusiasm for the non-existent opposition politics.  And yet, he came away with this stinging indictment of the current order:

… the manner of her administration’s present functioning is dangerously reminiscent of her father’s most ignoble period, those early months of 1975 when he amended the Constitution to virtually outlaw dissent and consolidate power in himself.

Thus, Mr Guha raises his glass, but not three cheers for Bangladesh — politics is letting us down, and the current prime minister deserves the blame.  Who could disagree with that assessment?  Foreign correspondents were coming around to that view over four years ago.

And yet, is that the full picture?  Perhaps the glass Mr Guha raises contains a cocktail that the people of Bangladesh the establishment is willfully imbibing.  Perhaps, Mrs Wajed’s autocratic ways are accepted because the alternative in our winner-take-all set up are perceived to be too risky for stability that underlines social and economic achievements he lauds?




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  1. Rubel Hossain said, on January 18, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    In mathematics, you are often in a state of confusion about the problem being studied. It is not the case that you will have these magical “insights” that allow you to see the essence of a problem immediately. It is that through time and effort, using the bag of assorted tricks that you have picked up over the duration of your studies, and possibly adding and expanding new ones, you are able to attack the problem that allows it to yield a potential solution. However, you are often labouring in the haze of confusion, with no clear guidance on where to go next. Success is being able to work productively and comfortably in a piecemeal fashion, solving a certain section of the problem which allows you to make progress without solving the whole thing at once. Breakthroughs come, but they are not the stuff of movies, being able to solve everything at once at a glimpse, with no further intuition necessary.

    So to it is with nation-building, I think. Bangladesh is not the only country with identity problems (which are alluded to in the 2 op-ed pieces). These issues surface in surprising ways in even very homogeneous countries around the world. The key to building a successful nation, I think, is to be able to work productively towards common goals despite these identity issues and confusion, much like the mathematical analogy above. Things like improving child literacy, infant mortality, infrastructure, equitably-distributed economic growth, industrialization etc. No doubt a better political system would aid in such a scheme, making the possibility of smoother functioning government more viable for Bangladesh. But let’s start by admitting that we disagree on what our identity should be in the first place, that we all have our own ideas about what that should be, and they probably all differ quite considerably. Then let us agree that the above model, to work productively in such a state of confusion/disagreement, producing tangible results that allow development, is the natural state of affairs of mankind of which we Bangladeshis are not exempt. Only then do we really bypass this dilemma, by acknowledging that there are more important issues with which to ground ourselves with in this nation.

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