Mukti

A Bangladeshi superhero

Posted in adventure, Bangladesh, books, desi fiction, history, thriller by jrahman on May 11, 2017

It’s a sun-drenched, ocean-front, posh hotel where the scene is set.  A diabolical fiend is cheating on a game of cards with the aid of an earphone and a skimpily clad assistant with a binocular.

Enter our hero.

Watching the classic scene for the first time all those years ago, my thought was — whoa, 007 ripped off Masud RanaI had read Swarnamriga a few weeks before watching Goldfinger — first Rana novel and Bond flick for the schoolboy who didn’t know the original.  I suspect many Bangladeshis of certain ages would have similar Rana stories to share.

Okay, it is quite possible, likely even, that the typical reader has no idea what I am talking about.  A brief primer from wiki:

Masud Rana is a fictional character created in 1966 by writer Qazi Anwar Hussain, who featured him in over 400 novels.  Hussain created the adult spy-thriller series Masud Rana, at first modelled after James Bond, but expanded widely. …  books are published almost every month by Sheba Prokashoni, one of the most popular publishing house of Bangladesh….

Although there is no superpower as such, his attributes would make a combination of Batman, Bond, and Bourne pale before Rana. Of course, superheroes need supervillains.  Rana’s arch-nemesis is a megalomaniac genius scientist criminal mastermind named Kabir Chowdhury, who’s also a fellow Bangladeshi.  And then there is Israel.  However, it’s his foes from the first decade or so of the series that make for a fascinating political study.

(more…)

Comments Off on A Bangladeshi superhero

On the Eaton thesis

Posted in Bengal, books, classics, history, Muslim world, South Asia by jrahman on January 13, 2016

Awrup Sanyal wants to whet your appetite about Richard Eaton’s seminal work.  Let me complement him on the effort.  I have noted Eaton in the past: a must read book on Bangladesh; and a book that has stayed with me. A full-fledged critical review of the Eaton thesis is well beyond my capability.  This post really is a complement to Mr Sanyal’s.

(more…)

Degenerating the Faith (2)

Posted in books, classics, culture, faith, history, Muslim world, society by jrahman on December 5, 2015

Part 1.

Classical Muslim scholars used to divide travel and travel writing into two categories. First is what they called rihla — a description of what the traveller did, saw or experienced.  Ibn Battuta’s travelogues are the best known in this genre.  However, rihla can also be more than mere narratives and descriptions. They can form the basis of scientific enquiry.  An example of this kind of rihla is the 11th century polymath Al Biruni’s description of India.  Travelling under the protection of Mahmud of Ghazni, Al Biruni studied sciences and mathematics and wrote Tarikh al Hind — one of the most comprehensive books on pre-Islam subcontinent. In fact, great rihla, according to the scholars, had to have some analysis as well as description.

There is another tradition of travel and travel writing among the learned Muslims of yore, that of safr.  Safr is the word for travel or journey in most north and east Indian languages, including Bangla.  To the 11th century Sufi philosopher Al-Ghazali, safr meant any travelling through which a person evolves.  To him, safr meant as well as the physical act of travelling somewhere, mixing with the inhabitants of that land, imbibing oneself with their customs and ways, and evolving into a person closer to Allah.

Al-Ghazali further categorised travellers: those who travel seeking knowledge, the best kind; the Hajis; the immigrants — the Prophet himself was an immigrant; and the refugees, the worst kind.

What is the line between an immigrant and a refugee?  Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul have both written about the uprooting involved in migration.  Both have noted that at some level or other, all migrants are really refugees.  But for Naipaul, the uprooting is mostly a bad thing.  Rushdie is open to the possibility of migration leading to something new.  Migrants are works of translation, he writes.

Those of you who have read the Quran probably have done so in translation.  Translation then can’t always be bad.

(more…)

Comments Off on Degenerating the Faith (2)

The thick blurry line

Posted in 1971, history by jrahman on November 24, 2015

I used to think that there were two clear, fine lines to analyse people’s actions in the context of 1971 — those who fought for Bangladesh, and those who fought against.  These clear, fine lines provided markers that, I used to think, allowed for nuance.

Let me illustrate with the examples of two renowned public servants.  Both Kamal Siddiqui and MK Alamgir were junior sub-district level officials in mofussil East Pakistan when the war broke out.  Siddiqui crossed the border and participated in the war.  Clear case.  Alamgir, not so straightforward.  He did not cross the border or join the Mukti Bahini.  He stayed in his job in the East Pakistan civil administration throughout the war.

But did he fight against Bangladesh?  Alamgir is a leader of the Awami League, and is accused of all sorts of things, many of which are perfectly valid.  But I am yet to be shown any evidence that he fought against Bangladesh.

Like 65 million of his compatriots, Alamgir stayed in the occupied East Pakistan.  Maybe he was afraid of guns.  Maybe it was because he had a two month old son in March 1971.  Whatever the reason, he did not cross the border, but nor did he cross the  fight against line.

My two-clear-lines framework allowed for such shades of grey.  Or so I thought.

Then I came across the case of Major General Amjad Chowdhury.

(more…)

Between the war and the history wars….

Posted in 1971, action, Dhallywood, history, movies by jrahman on November 19, 2015

…. there was a time when acknowledging Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s unquestioned leadership in 1971 did not stop one from acknowledging the significance of Ziaur Rahman’s broadcasts from Chittagong.  Chashi Nazrul Islam’s film Sangram is from that time.  It’s a fictionalised account of the experiences of the 4th East Bengal Regiment during the onset of the Liberation War.

In March 1971, the seniormost Bengali officer in the 4th Bengal, stationed in Comilla, was Major Khaled Mosharraf.  Just before the 25 March crackdown, he was sent to border regions in Sylhet, ostensibly to fight Naxalites but really to be ambushed by the Pakistanis.  Khaled avoided the trap and returned to Comilla where Captain Shafaat Jamil and others had already rebelled.

In the movie, Khaled is renamed Major Hassan.   Jump to about 44 minute mark in the video below to see how the major addresses his troops — Pakistanis have attacked us, Sheikh Sahib has declared independence, our job is to defend that independence.

 

Immediately after that, he is shown as listening to Zia’s radio speech and noting that his is not an isolated mutiny.  That is the real significance of Zia’s March broadcasts, to tell the world that Bangladesh was an independent but occupied land and a war of resistance had begun against that occupation.

When Mr Islam made that movie in 1974, he understood the significance perfectly well, as did his leading man Khasru — both were freedom fighters, the actor was and remained an Awami League activist, the director ended up in BNP.  In the last scene, Sheikh Mujib is seen as taking salute from the Bangladesh army, with Khaled, Zia and other senior officers behind him.

Comments Off on Between the war and the history wars….

Game of coups

Posted in army, Bangladesh, history, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on November 5, 2015

In the blood-soaked history of Bangladesh, this week marks the 40th anniversary of a particularly dark and grim episode.  On 7 November 1975, dozens of army officers of were killed by mutinous jawans.  The mutiny was orchestrated by Lt Col Abu Taher, who was retired from services a few years earlier and at that time was a key leader of the radical Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal.  The mutineers killed Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, who had instigated a coup few days earlier against the regime of Khondaker Moshtaq Ahmed, in power since the bloody putsch of 15 August that killed President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family.  Amid the confusion caused by Mosharraf’s manoeuvres against the ‘killer majors’, four senior Awami League leaders — including Tajuddin Ahmed, the country’s first prime minister who led the war effort in 1971 when Mujib was interned in Pakistan — were assassinated in the central jail, allegedly with the consent of President Moshtaq.  The chaos and carnage of 7 November, coming on the heels of the August massacre and the jail killing, threatened to put the very existence of Bangladesh at risk.

Fortunately, Taher’s mutiny proves short-lived as the army rallied behind Major General Ziaur Rahman.

This post isn’t about revisiting our coup-prone history  or explaining it.  Rather, using the ideas of Naunihal Singh, an American political scientist, I want to discuss why some of those coups were more successful than others, and what they might tell us about the present day Bangladesh.

(more…)

Meddling foreigners

Posted in cold war, democracy, foreign policy, history, politics, US by jrahman on October 18, 2015

Updated: 431pm 19 Oct 2015 BDT

As I try to get back to writing, I asked an old friend and longtime reader about potential topics.  Syria came up, hardly surprising given the recent news.  I have, however, been quite surprised with the way Bangladeshi cyberspace has been reasonably united in reaching the conclusion that Putin’s Russia is the ‘goodie’ in the conflict and America is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in that benighted country.

I have nothing particular to add on Syria except to observe that the United States and allies occupied a country to get Saddam Hussein, bombed another but stopped short of invasion to get Muammar Qaddafi, and did neither when it came to Bashar Assad, and yet Syria is just as much a mess as Iraq or Libya — so the ‘it’s all America’s’ fault line doesn’t really gel with me.  But hey, if it unites Shahbag revellers, Shapla Chattar mourners, and everyone in between and beyond, who am I to disagree.

(more…)

Comments Off on Meddling foreigners

Golden fibre

Posted in Bangladesh, economic history, economics, history by jrahman on October 3, 2015

Naeem Mohaiemen is a well known name in Bangla cyberspace, going all the way back to the days of soc.culture.bd and DOS.  To many, its his tireless work for the marginalised peoples of Bangladesh such as the Paharis or the Ahmadiyaas that matters most.  To others, it’s his art, intricately linked with his politics.  And then there is his work on the history around the formation of Bangladesh — few things highlight the intellectual shallowness of the Sachal-Shahbag types than the way they reacted to the most detailed take down of Sarmila Bose.

Few know that Naeem is also an empirical economist.  Or was.  Or could have been an excellent one.  Consider the abstract of his honors thesis:

I will look at the factors that effect (sic) jute prices. This is important for several reasons.  Since sudden changes in the price of jute are unanticipated by the individual farmer, they are adversely affected if they produce the same amount of jute each year but suddenly receive lower prices for it. Jute prices are also important factor in Bangladesh’s development. If overall production remains stable, but prices suddenly drop, revenue fluctuates. In trying to aid the jute industry, there have been two arguments frequently repeated in Bangladesh. One is that, jute growers need to bring sudden supply shocks to a minimum. The other is that jute growers need to concentrate on developing new markets for jute, so that Polypropylene and other substitutes do not keep eroding the market. The analysis in this paper may help to isolate the more important factors effecting price variations and, therefore, point to which factors need to be concentrated on to reduce price fluctuations in the jute industry.

(more…)

Tagged with:

Learning from history

Posted in democracy, elections, history, politics, South Asia, Uncategorized by jrahman on July 5, 2015

Forty years ago last week, things were happening in New Delhi that are more often seen in Islamabad and Dhaka.  India came under a State of Internal Emergency on 25 June 1975.  Indira is India — the cult of personality around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi preceded the Emergency, but with wholesale detention of opposition politicians on spurious charges, draconian censorship, executive decrees and ordinances bypassing the legislature and subordinating the judiciary, Indian experiment in democracy seemed to be over.

Then, in early 1977, Mrs Gandhi called fresh elections, which were held on the announced date, in a free and fair manner, and her party was thrown out of office by the voters, she herself losing her seat.  Accepting the verdict, she stepped down.  Indian experiment in democracy returned, to be continued to our time.

The Emergency plays a climactic role in Salman Rushdie’s much-celebrated novel Midnight’s Children.  But it’s Shashi Tharoor’s treatment in The Great Indian Novel that I find more nuanced.  Tharoor’s rendition of the Mahabharata has the general election of 1977, following the Emergency, as the modern-day Battle of Kurukshetra.  Duryodhana, the leader of the ‘baddie’ Kaurava clan, is recast as Mrs Gandhi, while the ‘goodie’ Pandava brothers are: Morarji Desai (who replaced Mrs Gandhi as the prime minister) as the virtuous Yudhishtir; the Indian army as the valiant Bhim; media as the heroic Arjuna; and the civil and foreign services as the Nakul-Sahadeva twins.  As the epic battle isn’t simply ‘good trumps over evil’ in the Epic, so it is in the novel, which ends with a place of honour accorded to Priya Duryodhoni / Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi in the ‘court of history’.

(more…)

Surviving the white crow

Posted in Bangladesh, democracy, economics, governance, macro, political economy, politics by jrahman on January 20, 2015

Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularised the term ‘black swan’ in his 2007 book.  It comes from the Latin expression rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno, meaning “a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan” — they didn’t have any black swan in Europe, and thought swans must be white.  That notion changed when the Europeans came to Australia.  Taleb pithily summarises his thesis as:

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

In Bangladesh, perhaps we could think about ‘white crow’ events — our crows are black, we think crows must be black, but of course there are white crows Down Under.

Taleb’s work gained much popular acclaim after the 2008-09 financial crisis.  The thing about black swans / white crows, however, is that they are hard to predict ex ante.  That’s Taleb’s first attribute.  As such, for analysts and policymakers, it might seem that Taleb has little of practical value to offer.

His subsequent work seeks to address this concern.  In a widely read Foreign Affairs article*, Taleb and a co-author argues:

Thus, instead of trying in vain to predict such “Black Swan” events, it’s much more fruitful to focus on how systems can handle disorder—in other words, to study how fragile they are. Although one cannot predict what events will befall a country, one can predict how events will affect a country. Some political systems can sustain an extraordinary amount of stress, while others fall apart at the onset of the slightest trouble. The good news is that it’s possible to tell which are which by relying on the theory of fragility.

…..

For countries, fragility has five principal sources: a centralized governing system, an undiversified economy, excessive debt and leverage, a lack of political variability, and no history of surviving past shocks.

How does Bangladesh look through the prism of Taleb’s theory?  I’d argue we should be at least concerned about the possibility of things falling apart, though there are also things to be hopeful about.

(more…)

Tagged with:

Comments Off on Surviving the white crow