Mukti

A few old men

Posted in Bangladesh, democracy, elections, history, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on December 4, 2018

A corrupt, selfish elite rules over you, an elite in cahoots with foreigners, to whom the nation’s assets and future is being sold; and the lying media and rootless intellectuals stop you from seeing the truth; and yet, you sense the truth, that’s why you flock to the leader; even as the enemies of the people demonise him for not echoing their sophistry, you feel he tells it as it is — that he will kick the elite out, drain the swamp, lock the corrupt up, kill the criminals, and fix what ails the country; and make no mistake, it’s not hard to fix things, it’s just the knavery and perfidy of corrupt elite that need to be rooted out, and the leader will do just that; and he has proved it, hasn’t he, in his remarkable career as (business tycoon or mayor or army officer or whatever); he will make the country great, because he is truly of the country, like you are, and unlike those footloose elite who will flee the land with their ill gotten wealth if things get tough.

In recent years, variations of the above have reverberated from Washington DC to New Delhi, Warsaw to Brasilia, and Istanbul to Manila.  And politics around the world has been shaken.  There appears to be one exception — there doesn’t appear to be a Bangladeshi strongman on the scene.

There might have been.  After all, charges of corruption and ‘selling the country to foreigners’ can be laid quite easily against the current regime in Dhaka.  And historically, Bangladeshis have proved as susceptible to the cult of the leader as any other people.  So there might well have been a would be strongman leading the opposition.

Curiously, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, strongman in Bangladeshi politics is a dog that didn’t bark.

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Ghosts of Shapla Chattar

Posted in Bangladesh, history, Islamists, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on November 4, 2018

What is the current status of Jamaat politics in Bangladesh?  The country’s largest Islamist party — at least in terms of parliamentary representation over the past few decades — is denied registration by the Election Commission.  So it can’t participate in the next election under its own name.  Its members can, of course, participate as independent candidates, or under some other party’s ticket.  In either case, they won’t be able to use the party’s traditional electoral symbol of scale.

But Jamaat is not officially banned.  The party still exists.  And is used as a cudgel by every Awami hack to beat up, literally all too often, any opposition voice.

Ironically, the legal status of Jamaat in today’s Bangladesh seems to be pretty much what it was under the bette noir of the current regime.  As Rumi Ahmed describes in detail, Jamaat was denied electoral registration when Ziaur Rahman restored multi-party politics.   ‘Zia rehabilitated Jamaat’ is one of the commonest lie in Bangladesh, and is so successful as a propaganda that even BNPwallahs don’t tend to refute it.  The fact of the matter is, to quote Rumi bhai:

Ziaur Rahman’s assessment was that after their direct opposition to Bangladesh in 1971 and their atrocities – Jamaat brand politics is too toxic and unsuitable for Bangladesh. He was also very aware of Jamaat’s organizational base and 5-10% vote base which he wanted to be used in the joint moderate IDL platform.

To elaborate on this, Zia was acutely aware of the risk of disenfranchising a part of the country that was capable of ruthless, organised violence.  In that regard, allowing a parliamentary party that explicitly drew its politics from Islam was an act of far-sighted statesmanship in 1978 — that is, before the Muslim world was rocked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran, Soviet tanks in Kabul, and the bloodbath in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

Anyway, this post is not about Zia’s legacy.  Instead, I want to think through some issues around Islamist politics in Bangladesh as we head to what might be another politically charged winter.

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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.

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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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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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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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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.

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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.

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1971: beyond reading

Posted in 1971, Bangladesh, history by jrahman on January 15, 2015

I’ve been asked recently about what to read to clarify one’s thoughts about 1971.  My answer is over the fold.

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How to lose the history wars

Posted in 1971, Bangladesh, dynasties, history, politics by jrahman on December 17, 2014

I said in the previous post:

They didn’t think much of him last winter. And since then, sporadic forays in our pathetic history wars have done nothing to improve his standing. They create media buzz, senior Awami League leaders end up looking quite stupid, and BNP rank-and-file feel fired up for a while. But what do they do to alleviate Mr Rahman’s extremely negative image?

Obviously, I don’t approve of the way Tarique Rahman is engaging in the ‘history wars’.  It occurs to me that I should elaborate and clarify.  Hence this post.  I don’t agree with Mr Rahman’s interpretation of history.  More importantly, from a partisan political perspective, I think they cause more harm than good for BNP.  And most frustratingly, a few solid points that BNP could make very usefully are utterly wasted.

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