You say you want a revolution….

Posted in Bangladesh, history, politics, TV, uprisings by jrahman on June 6, 2018

During the 1972 Sino-American summit, Premier Zhou Enlai told President Richard Nixon that it was ‘too early to say’ what the impacts of the French Revolution were.  Deep and poignant?  Apparently not! It turns out, the Premier was not talking about the July 1789 storming of the Bastille, but the protests that brought France to a standstill fifty years ago this month.  Of course, it wasn’t just Paris where one heard the sound of marching, charging feet.  Protests against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had been raging in the United States for a while, there was the Prague Spring east of the Iron Curtain, and the global south — from Mexico to Pakistan — were rocked by upheavals.

Channelling the Stones in his 1960s memoir, Tariq Ali lamented the failure of the street fighters to usher in revolution anywhere.  Reviewing his work for my first published article (in a student magazine — it was the 1990s, and I don’t even have a copy, let alone a link) ahead of his visit to our campus, I wondered as a Gen-Xer whether the fascination with 1968 reflected the Baby Boomers’ demographic plurality.  Of course, they are still reminiscing about the glory days, but there is a lot in the reflections of the ultimate soixante-huitard that resonates with me, for example: pseudo-revolutionary violence would change nothing, but peaceful reforms might.

What are the Deshi equivalents of Baby Boomers and Gen-X, and for the sake of completeness, Millenials?  Following the Pew Research, let’s roughly divide these generations as those born between: mid-1940s and the mid-1960s; mid-1960s and 1980; and after 1980.  I guess we can channel Rushdie and call the oldest generation the Midnight’s Children.  The middle generation can be called the Liberation generation — for the older part of this group, events of 1971 and aftermath form the first memory though they would have been too young to recognise their significance in real time, while the aftermath of the war shaped the childhood of the younger ones.

Generations played a key role in Zero Point — a political drama by veteran actor-director Abdullah Al Mamoon that was aired by the BTV in December 1990, just after street protests led to the resignation of President HM Ershad.  Mamoon plays a Learesque patriarch whose travails while shuffling between grown up children might remind you of Bollywood tearjerkers.  But this is no ordinary family soap.  You see, like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Mamoon was born (to use his soliloquy) in the insignificant and inconsequential year of 1920, whereas his older sons were born in the significant and auspicious years of 1947 and 1952.

Aly Zaker is the older son — a minister in the Ershad regime, with the catchphrase: ami doftor er kotha bashay boli na.  The second son is a corrupt businessman.  And Mamoon’s daughter is married to a razakar — completing the unholy trinity that bedevilled the country in the 1980s.

Salvation is through the character played by Shahiduzzaman Selim — a student of Dhaka University who joins so many other marching, charging feet towards the square near Dhaka GPO where Nur Hossain was gunned down a few years earlier: the Zero Point of the title, symbolising a reset button for the country.

We are not told when Selim’s character was born, but he would more likely to belong to the Liberation generation than be a Midnight’s Children.

Ah the prospect of revolutionary regeneration through the redemptive power of the rebellious youth!  Speaking of the youth, you might be wondering about what we should call the Deshi Millenials — that generation whose political memory consists only of Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, the generation that has never known the passion ignited by a Mohammedan-Abahoni match, the one who knows Amitabh Bachchan only as an old man.

A former blogger borro bhai friend calls them the Materialists — বর্তমান তরুণ প্রজন্ম আন্দোলনের প্রজন্ম না – এরা ভোগের প্রজন্ম (today’s youth is not one for street protest, this is a materialist generation).

I think my friend, a fellow Liberation generation, is being a churlish old man.  There may not be any liberty in today’s Bangladesh, but by protesting the incredibly corrupt quota system, many Materialists faced considerable risks to not just illusions of happiness that material possession brings but their very life.

This wasn’t the first time.  A few years ago, university students protested VAT on tuition fees.  Few years earlier, local protests led to the cancellation of an airport outside Dhaka.  Nor are the protests uniquely against the Awami League government — Mrs Zia’s government faced a local uprising in Kansat, and Dhaka University students protested incidences at a girls’ dormitory back in 2002.

Today’s youth is not for street protest?  Really?

Ah, but they have not brought down a dictator, we did — might be my friend’s retort.  And yes, he would have a point.  There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for anything beyond local, here-and-now stuff among the Materialists, or for that matter younger Liberation generation.  Over the decades since Mamoon’s drama first aired, we have increasingly become depoliticised — there is no getting away from that.


Replying ponderously to the rueful borro bhai, another former blogger friend noted: At root is always capitalism which works to make us competitive individualists, not collective comrades.

Deep and poignant?  Or banality masquerading as deep and poignant?

Hyper-capitalism has widened inequality and caused environmental depredation.  But one has to be quite detached from the reality to not notice the successful worldwide waves of anti-colonial nationalism, feminism, civil rights for ethnic/religious/sexual minorities, and environmentalism, as well as majoritarian populism and religious fundamentalism, that have happened in our capitalist times.  But then again, the promised global revolution shows no sign of coming, because capitalism turns us into automatons.  Or something.  Whatever.

I would eschew grand pronouncements about capitalism and look for specific, local reasons for the political apathy in Bangladesh.  The political institutions we inherited contributed to depoliticisation:

The institutions we created/inherited, with the historical factors, led to the politics of the past decades. After 1991, BNP realised that it had power over so many things, while AL realised that it had power over absolutely nothing.  AL immediately set on winning power. It went with what it knew well —andolon. BNP panicked and rigged a by-election in Magura, giving AL a casus beli. After 1996, BNP figured that andolon would not do, so they introduced the alliance concept. After 2001, AL did andolon, but also formed a bigger alliance and introduced behind-the-scene moves with the establishment. Meanwhile, each successive government took centralisation to a new level.

And all this, because losing is not an option in a winner take all world.

At least in that world, the existence of two parties created some form of balance of force.  That balance is now gone.  BNP is not able to dislodge the government.  Calling for a free and fair election is a pointless exercise because the government isn’t interested in offering one, and the establishment isn’t convinced switching the masters will do anyone any good.  As a result, politics as we have come to know is finished.

In the absence of politics, the establishment consensus in Bangladesh for now stands solidly behind the status quo.  And the urban middle class might be too small to matter.

Fifty years ago they didn’t just fight and Rome, London, Paris and Berlin.  They fought, and won, in Lahore, Karachi and Dhaka too, in what Tariq Ali calls the ‘unfashionable’ revolution.  It started with a scuffle between college students and army jawans in Punjab in the autumn of 1968, but by the end of the winter, it was Bengal that burnt down Ayub Khan’s Pakistan.  Materialism and capitalism notwithstanding, something seemingly trivial may yet set off a chain of events that unravel the current political order in Bangladesh.  There is, however, a crucial difference.  The Midnight’s Children waving Asad’s bloodstained shirt were animated by revolutionary ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and even more so by Mujib’s Six Points.

You say you want a revolution?  In a land of dead ideas, I hope you don’t get fooled again.

(Thanks RA and NM for your encouragement over the years).

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Shafiq Rahman said, on June 6, 2018 at 8:51 am

    I agree with you that scapegoating capitalism for scarcity of revolutionary idealism is not justified. South Korea, a capitalist uber success story and a very materialistic, consumer culture deeply immersed virtual world, produced widespread and successful mass citizen protest time and time again. Malaysia also showed that hunger for a more moral nation is quite robust among the young.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: