The Finished Revolution

Posted in Bengal, history, left, politics by jrahman on March 25, 2019

Traffic was uncharacteristically brisk that winter morning in Dhaka, and it took me less than an hour to get from Lalmatia to Savar.  We barely even stopped around Asad Gate, and only after we had crossed the junction that the historical significance of it occurred to me — fifty years ago that week, those red pillars in Mohammadpur got its current name.  That evening, I flicked through seemingly endless streams of Bangla channels to find not a single mention — no septuagenarian waxing nostalgic, no Tagore-quoting melodramatic fictionalisation, not even a perfunctory news item, nothing — about Asad’s bloodstained shirt.


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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.


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Showing up

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 27, 2018

Is there a proper Bangla term for Monday morning quarterback.  There sure ought to be.  After all, we all know many of them in real life — that chacha who confidently opines about the mistakes of everyone on everything from cricket to quantum physics, or that khala who has the told-you-so ready for every occasion.  In the first couple of weeks of 2014, Deshi cyberspace was full of such so-called expert opinions on how BNP should have participated in, and won, that winter’s election.  As Awami League blatantly rigs next week’s election, there will probably be a chorus explaining how BNP got it wrong by participating when clearly a boycott was the better option.

Now, I don’t presume to lecture veteran politicians on how to do politics any more than I can tell a doctor how to diagnose illness or prescribe medicine.  There can, of course, be analysis of what happened, might have happened, should have happened, and what will probably happen.  To the extent that some of this is, well, Monday morning (or five seasons later) quarterbacking — I beg your indulgence.

This might come as a surprise to many that up until the 1980s, election boycott was relatively rare in Bangladesh.


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Street failures, and successes

Posted in AL, Bangladesh, BNP, democracy, history, politics, South Asia, uprisings by jrahman on March 2, 2014

The party’s undisputed supremo has given an iron clad ultimatum to the all powerful government, while an unequivocal promise has been made to the party rank and file that victory is imminent.  Political temper is reaching an unprecedented level.  Violence has spread to even the remotest village, and the government repression is just as fierce.  Ultimately, with the economy on the verge of disintegration, the urban and moneyed classes prevail upon the leader to call off the protests.  The andolon has failed.

Mrs Khaleda Zia.  BNP.  Awami League.  2013-14.

MK Gandhi.  Indian National Congress.  The Raj.  1921-22.

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Curse of the majors

Posted in 1971, army, Bangladesh, history, politics by jrahman on July 7, 2012

While commenting on an early draft of my post on the chronology of coups and mutinies, a friend suggested I turn it into a long form magazine, or even semi-academic article.  Now, I am not in a position to write anything long form — or short, op ed, form either; dear reader, this blog is the only thing I write in these days.  If I were writing a long article, I would pose two questions:

1. Did history pre-dispose Bangladesh to military interventions?

2. How do we end the cycle of interventions?

This post tackles the first question.  There maybe a separate post on the second one.


The general out of his labyrinth

Posted in AL, army, Bangladesh, BNP, history, politics by jrahman on March 25, 2012

Couple of weeks ago, I showed how the Ershad regime had the worst economic record of all the Bangladehsi governments of the past three decades.  Why did the regime perform so poorly?  At a first glance, as finance ministers, Syeduzzaman or Maj Gen MA Munim appear to be no less qualified than Saifur Rahman or SAMS Kibria, while the current top econocrat AMA Muhith served in that role back in 1982-83.  All five are/were professionals and technocrats with personal integrity.  All pursued similar economic policies — macroeconomic stabilisation packages and structural reform programmes — with similar imprimatur from the IMF and the World Bank.  Why then the disparity in the results?

The difference was not in the ministers and their policies.  Syeduzzaman and Munim did their best.  It’s just that their best wasn’t enough to off set the reckless and cavalier way Lt Gen HM Ershad ran the country.  While the finance ministers would negotiate a macro stability package and do the hard work in restoring order to public finances, Ershad would dispense political patronage that would blow a hole in the budget.  While the ministers worked out a privatisation plan to revive industrialisation, Ershad would give bank credits to favourite cronies.  The result was the dismal performance shown in the earlier post.

And not just in economic affairs.  In his nine years in officer, and in two decades since, Ershad has done tremendous damage to Bangladesh, killing — in a spiritual sense — an entire generation, the generation that is actually running Bangladesh today.


The politics of synthesis: 30 years on

Posted in history, politics by jrahman on May 30, 2011

Ziaur Rahman, military strongman turned a very popular politician, was killed exactly 30 years ago today.  Despite the twists and turns of politics, three decades from his death, when things actually work in Bangladesh, they work along the path set by Zia.  And they work because the politics of synthesis crafted by Zia had continued from the work of his predecessors, and his successors saw the merit in keeping them.

In a five-part series, I show how the Zia synthesis still defines Bangladesh’s politics and governance, economy, society and culture, and foreign policy.  Not in all aspects does this blog agree with the synthesis — the disapprovals are also pointed out.  Finally, the series points out how along one crucial dimension, the Zia synthesis has completely been abandoned.

The discourse about Zia is dominated by lies of various degree.  This series is a modest attempt at setting the record straight.


The other March anniversary

Posted in fantasy by jrahman on March 24, 2011

This week, Bangladesh celebrates its 40th birthday — the country came into existence on 26 March 1971.  As it happens, this week as also seen the 71st anniversary of another seminal event — on 23 March 1940, the Lahore Resolution was presented at a meeting of the All India Muslim League by AK Fazlul Huq, the then Prime Minister of Bengal.   Popularly known as the Pakistan Resolution, it stated:

That the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.

Did the events of March 1971 nullify the resolution of March 1940?  Or was the earlier resolution realised by the later events? 

Beyond the chest thumping Bangla blogs and op ed columns, there is actually a very lively academic discourse that wrestles with these questions.  I strongly recommend the reader to writings of Ahmed Safa, Jatin Sarkar, Tazeen Murshid or Joya Chaterjee — a page of their average writing is much better than a dozen op eds by, say, Syed Badrul Ahsan (unless you read Ahsan for sheer entertainment value).

Personally, I prefer to see myself as a student of history, not a scholar.  So I don’t really have anything terribly original to say about that discourse.  Instead, let me indulge in ‘what if’ fantasies about a two-winged Pakistan surviving beyond 1971.