Trust, but verify

Posted in army, Bangladesh, democracy, history, politics by jrahman on January 10, 2019

Ataur Rahman Khan was a veteran politician with the unique achievement of becoming both the Chief Minister of East Pakistan and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.  He achieved the first in the 1950s, when his Awami League commanded a majority in the provincial assembly after the 1954 election.  His government was dismissed in October 1958, when Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan declared martial law.  He remained steadfastly opposed to the Ayub regime, but formed his own party — Jatiya League — after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pipped him to the AL leadership.  He was arrested by the Pakistan army in March 1971.  He joined neither the Mujib nor the Zia regime, and was elected as an opposition MP in both 1973 and 1979.  A key member of the BNP-led alliance against the Ershad egime, he was considered a principled, seasoned counsel to the political neophyte Mrs Khaleda Zia.  I don’t know if she ever asked why he became the prime minister under HM Ershad’s military dictatorship.  But Mr Khan’s quip to a journalist was that he joined the general to help him shed his uniform and promote democracy.

I was reminded of this politician during a recent political adda where couple of online activists had come up.  Both of them staunchly self-identify as progressive, and would have been described by the so-called ‘pro-1971’ folks as fellow travellers.  One has been in exile since exposing the Bangladeshi army’s link with jihadi extremists when BNP was last in power.  The other, a vocal Shahbag reveller, is in hiding because of his criticism of the current regime.  Both of these men actively supported the Jatiya Oikya Front.  And some of my so-called ‘nationalist’ friends aren’t quite sure of the bona fide of either activist.  It occurred to me that my own record can be questioned too.  And more importantly, as we hunker down for a potentially long period of totalitarianism, how do we choose trusted allies?

One way to choose allies we can trust is by applying some form of litmus test — such and such can’t be trusted because of attending Shahbag, or supporting the 1/11 regime, or once sitting in the same table with Gholam Azam, you get the idea.  One problem with this approach is that it can become dogmatic quite quickly.  And what is the correct litmus test anyway?

An alternative approach might be to ask two sets of questions.  First, consider the person’s stated aim.  What do they say they want?  Why do they want it?  How do they propose to get it?  Second, are their actions consistent with their stated aim?  If they can explain in a satisfactory way that their actions are consistent with their aim — and note, its their aim, not ours, we don’t have to agree with their aim — then perhaps they can be given the benefit of the doubt.  If they can’t, then they are likely to be an opportunist.

Let me explain the framework, applying it Ataur Rahman Khan and another of Ershad’s prime ministers.  Mr Khan wrote about his political life in a set of memoir.  In the first two, covering the 1950s and 1960s, he tells us how democracy in Pakistan didn’t fail but was never given a chance.  The one on the 1980s reads as a series of anecdotes, there is no clear explanation why he joined a military dictatorship in ripe old age when he refused to do so in his political prime.  Was he simply duped?  Did he give into some base instinct like vanity or greed?  Did he simply become an opportunist, a dalal?

Khan wasn’t the only seasoned politician to leave Mrs Zia’s side to become Ershad’s prime minister.  Several decades younger than Khan sahib, Moudud Ahmed worked for a free Bangladesh in the 1960s London, and as a political assistant to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the lead up to the 1970 election.  He was a senior official in the Mujibnagar government, but didn’t approve of the Mujib regime.  He became a minister in the Zia regime, and was initially jailed by Ershad.  He went from jail to cabinet to the post of prime ministership and vice presidency.  Like Ataur Rahman Khan, Moudud too wrote of his experience in several books that serve both as memoir as well as critical political economy analysis.  And he makes a better job explaining himself — that he preferred Ziaur Rahman’s vision of Bangladeshi identity and market driven modernisation over the cult of Mujib and overtly pro-Indian cultural identity or any form of pan-Islamism, and in the 1980s Bangladesh he made a judgment that the military dictatorship was more likely to be successful than Mrs Zia in carrying out Zia’s ideas.  He stood by that judgement in the lead up to 1991 election, and became an MP on the Jatiya Party ticket.  He did eventually return to BNP, and has stood by the party.

It seems to me that there is a difference between Ataur Rahman Khan and Moudud Ahmed.

British economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped that When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do sir

Facts have changed fundamentally in Bangladesh.  We have never had a totalitarian regime like the current one.  That’s one fact.  Another is that a broad alliance is the best possible way to end the tyranny.  In the light of these facts, one’s past cannot be the sole filter of trust.  We should ask what a potential ally’s stated aim is, and then judge their actions against their statements.

Doveryai, no proveryai is a Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan popularised in the 1980s.  It means trust, but verify.






is several decades younger than Mr Khan.




Is there some way to det

He was, however, asked that by a journalist.

joined the military regime as the prime minister in 1984.  I don’t know if she ever asked him




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