Mukti

Games of Peacock Thrones

Posted in fantasy, history, South Asia, what ifs by jrahman on April 8, 2018

I haven’t read Helen Dale’s new book, but Jesus as an extremist, political philosophy of imperialism — sure sounds promising.  However, what about the counterfactual of an industrialised Rome?  I did read the author’s notes, and some commentary, with much interest.  This got me thinking.  What about a counterfactual of an industrialised Mughal Empire?

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Jammin until the break of dawn

Posted in army, books, democracy, economics, history, political economy, politics, uprisings by jrahman on December 2, 2017

What do you do during the evenings, after the day’s tasks are done, of work trips?  You might be tired of being up in the air, or just simply tired.  But depending on the jet lag, you might not find much sleep.  I certainly don’t, even when there is no jet lag — I hate hotel beds.  If you find yourself in a hotel that used to be one of Idi Amin’s torture chambers palaces, and your colleagues are fellow political junkies, you will likely talk about politics over a nightcap.  So did we that rain-soaked Kampala evening.  We talked about, among other things, Zimbabwe.

Why didn’t they get rid of him the old fashioned way, you know, APCs on the streets, tanks in front of the presidential palace, radio or TV broadcast by some unknown major…..

An old Africa hand explained why Robert Mugabe wasn’t toppled in a coup.  No, it wasn’t because of his liberation cred.  Kwame Nkrumah or Milton Obote were no less of independence heroes to their respective countries.  Both were ingloriously booted out, not just of their presidential palaces, but also the countries they led to existence.  At least they lived, unlike say Patrice Lumumba.  Clearly being a national liberator figure didn’t make one coup-proof, particularly if one had turned his (can’t think of a mother of the nation top of my head!) country into a basket case, and had faced concerted political pressure from home and abroad.  According to my colleague with years of experience in the continent, the key to Mugabe’s survival was in relative ‘latecomer’ status.

Mugabe came to power much later than was the case for other African founding fathers.  And the disastrous denouement of his rule happened during a period when the great powers saw little strategic importance in regime change in an obscure corner of the world.  The second factor meant there was no foreign sponsor to any coup.  The former meant that any would be coupmaker, and their domestic supporters, knew from the experiences elsewhere in the continent about what could happen when a game of coups went wrong.

Mugabe gave them hyperinflation.  Getting rid of him could lead to inter-ethnic war.  Easier to do currency reform than deal with refugees fleeing genocide….. 

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Wonder years

Posted in action, Bangladesh, Drama, history, movies, sci-fi, thriller, TV by jrahman on November 10, 2017

Thirty years ago today, Dhaka was shut down as the opposition parties — all of them, Awami League, BNP, leftists, Jamaat — demanded the resignation of President HM Ershad.  There were meetings and rallies around the city, many turning violent.  A working class man in his mid-20s was killed around the General Post Office near Gulistan.  He had the words shoirachar nipat jak (down with autocracy) painted in his chest.  Written on his back was ganatantra mukti pak (free democracy).

Of course, there was no school that bright crispy early winter morning.  Our impromptu game of neighbourhood cricket was ended abruptly by an auntie whose window was smashed by a square cut, or perhaps it was a cover drive, or an overthrow — I don’t quite remember after all these years.  I do remember what happened next.  We rode our bikes.  We didn’t care about politics, but coming from a heavily politicised family, I knew enough to avoid going towards the city.  Instead, we gathered on the new road that was being built near our neighbourhood, and then hit the runway of the old airport.  I don’t think any of us had a watch, but even if we did, who checks the time when so much fun is being had!  Before we knew it, we were in the heart of the Cantonment, and it was around the time of the Asr prayer that we returned home.

I was reminded of the adventures of that day, and the parental wrath thus incurred, while bingeing on the latest episodes of Stranger Things.  I am told it’s not bingeing if I am watching only one season.  But I feel five hour-long episodes straight in a weeknight, starting after the day’s chores are done, counts as binge watching.  Bingeing or not, the second season of Stranger Things is even better than the first one.  And that’s quite a feat considering the hype.  Like everyone else, I had no idea about the first season before watching it, liking it instantly, even if it was, to use the show’s self-deprecation, a bit derivative.  I feared disappointment with the new season, fears that proved unjustified.  This must be how it would have felt to watch Godfather 2 or The Empire Strikes Back back then, unfiltered by the accumulated weight of pop culture now-memory.

Now-memory?  From the show.  This post will have spoilers.  Read at own risk.

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Joy (the other) Bangla?

Posted in Bengal, comedy, Drama, history, movies by jrahman on October 11, 2017

Interesting things maybe happening in the Indian Bengal, and not just with films, though a film is a pretty good place to start.  Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksho — a family dramedy about changing role of women in the mid-20th century bhadralok society — garners two wholehearted cheers.  Moushumi Chatterjee puts on perhaps the best performance of her career, and Konkona Sen Sharma is in her exquisite elements.  That’s two cheers, not quite a third for Srabanti Chatterjee though, who pales before the two veterans.  More importantly, the first two-thirds of the movie is astute social commentary that is simply fun to watch.  Depiction of the partition-induced transformation of a landed gentry East Bengali caste Hindu family into trade-dependent petit bourgeois is up there with the best of partition-related art.  Indian Bengalis tend to have a hard time pulling off East Bengali accent — this is a rare and pleasant exception.  For all that, however, the movie is far from being a great one because of its last third.  And yet, it’s the ending that made me think.

The story ends with this:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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