Friday, September 16, 2011

An aborted Diplomatic Coup, and Cultural Transit as a priority

Maqsoodul Haque - Mac

"There is no rule which prevents the broadcast of Bangladeshi channels in India. I hope that commercial arrangements can be worked out so that Indian viewers have the opportunity to listen to the great contemporary exponents of Rabindra Sangeet and Baul in Bangladesh or see the films of the late Tareque Masud." Indian Premier Manmohan Singh at Dhaka University, 7th September 2011

The much awaited and hyped trip of the Indian Premier came and went, yet predictably degenerated into a farce. Predictable, because like it or not, citizens in general were keenly watching the ebb and flow of the tide and it didn't necessarily have to be the Teesta that created a wash out.

The near pathological distrust of India by the people of Bangladesh went unevaluated, and this time around one didn't have to be a BNP-Jamaat bigot if you opposed. When push came to shove, it was the pro-India Awami League that said no-deal, and it's not as if it was NOT a big-deal!

What wasn't bargained for was the stab to our proverbial back. In her volte face Mamata Banerjee may have ended up appearing a pariah to New Delhi, but history and Paschim Banga will surely treat her fairly. When the talks fell apart, everybody heaved an apolitical sigh of relief and one wondered if we should give a huge medal for Bangladeshi patriotism to Mamata for doing us a favor.

Not just Bangladesh, more so the two ladies squandering our Nations destiny ought to take lessons from the rabidly quarrelsome Mamata. If our Bengalee kin within an Indian state can show an index finger to New Delhi when coerced, cheated, forced or extorted - surely we should have the courage to emulate the same.


In forty years as a Nation, we have never conducted ourselves with India as equals or with dignity, and never cared to look at the cultural components gone missing that is essential for respectable relations and trust to develop in the first place.

However, newer skeletons spilling out of cupboards suggest that the Teesta and Transit issue was outsourced to two Advisers of the Bangladesh Premier and as New Age front paged on 10th September "It was an open secret that the foreign ministry had been kept almost on the sidelines for two years and a half, especially on dealing with issues with India."

The report goes on, "[Sheikh Hasina] expressed her annoyance as the advisers had given their contacts in New Delhi an impression that the Bangladesh side was ready to sign all the agreements, protocols and memorandums of understanding even if India 'does not sign the Teesta agreement.' ".

All of the above reeks of millennium Mir Jafar-ism torpedoed by intervention of fate at the very last moment. For sure this was an aborted diplomatic coup and time will say that the list of conspirators may have been longer than Plassey. The Prime Ministers annoyance notwithstanding, Mashiur Rahman and Gowher Rizvi should not ONLY be fired, but arrested and put on trial for operating outside the chain of command. Questions should also be raised why the Prime Minister chose two Advisers to handle issues of such sensitivity, bypassing the Foreign Ministry, and if this is/was a violation of the sacred oath of office?

What if the Teesta Treaty and Transit were signed? What would we have been debating today? Would the nation led by the Opposition BNP-Jamaat axis go on an anti-India rampage and lock us indoor with unending hartals as promised?

We really don't know. But we do know that India would have fast tracked Transit, making havoc of our totally anarchic communications networks that is tethering at the seams. And Teesta would have ominously played second fiddle, because treaty or no treaty, Mamata has the capacity and temperament to conveniently agree to disagree. Call it Bengalee brink-womanship!

The outcry following Tareque Masud's death in a road accident on 13th August doesn't mean that our roads have gotten any safer. Quick fix pre-Eid brickbat jobs onto potholed roads were no more than first-aid sealants, and the Communication Minister Abul Hossain declared, roads may not be fixed before 2013.

Meanwhile Jahangir Kabir Nanak, MP's only son was killed in a car crash near Chittagong on 6th September, and WikiLeaks reveals US Embassy's damning indictment of Hossain being less than honest and his being Beijing's man in Dhaka. That he still hasn't resigned means the Government or other outsourced actors probably need him for reasons we cannot reason with.

Hypothetically if Transit were accorded to India the thousands of trucks and other vehicles going to and fro between road borders to riverine and sea ports, on to railway landings etc – would have locked out the entire country in a traffic tailback and bring life to a grinding standstill.

I wonder if planners even looked if our critically stressed natural gas resources have the capacity to handle that many Indian vehicles filling up on our side of the border. The fallback would mean our relationship with India will have further deteriorated consequent to the cherished transit treaty.

Post the diplomatic debacle, on the cultural front - we should take the cue from Premier Singh's speech at the Dhaka University. Cultural transit is fundamentally more important than one based on mere commodity trading. Even before India starts having newer wet-dreams the first order of business is to guarantee Transit for our airwaves, for our thoughts, ideas and aspirations, which are in many ways more vibrant and powerful than that of India?

And it surely makes sense when we go back to our track records. We have been magnanimous in permitting India's air waves 24/7/365 bombardment and invasions since 1992 without signing any commercial agreement and without asking for anything in return. And we foam at our mouth about friendly relations?

It is rather perplexing that wherever in the world there are Bengalees, people get to watch our excellent TV channels. Yet, just across the border in India we have been shamelessly denied access and no Government of Bangladesh has never even made it an issue in that many years.

Blocking of airwaves is usually done to thwart hostile enemy propaganda. What was a pre-Liberation War phenomenon of the Indian Republic on Radio airwaves (when we were East Pakistan and the enemy) is still been extended forty years later.

In the mind-set of politicians sitting in South Block in terms of our TV Channels or dissemination of our culture, Bangladesh remains India's enemy in the Cultural context. India talks about friendly relations but has done nothing to placate the ire of the people of Bangladesh on this count. The resultant distrust of India is therefore neither unexpected nor unnatural.

That the visit of Manmohan Singh was scuttled because of India's ingrained cultural inadequacy or insensitivity is evident in his earlier misplaced premonition about twenty-five percent Bangladeshi's swearing by the Jamaat and ISI as also indicator of overriding ignorance about our culture.

Loud talks of people-to-people contact have largely been limited to NGO initiatives and on Internet e-forums. Confidence Building Measures (CBM) and a clear understanding of Bangladesh's new and emerging ground realities have never been New Delhi's agenda.

While time will decide whether or not India will permit entry of our TV channels on a reciprocal basis, suffice to say that it is missing out so much of the dynamism that Bangladesh's culture is all about today.

It is also a sad day when we as a nation mourn the death of Tareq Masud, in India nobody is even curious or aware that what has passed by was the Bengalee equivalent of Ray and Kiorastani all rolled in one.

If we trust only market forces to lead the bull charge on Culture we can jointly thwart a global cultural swamp-out as much as Teesta was for India this time. True, there will be no end to crass culture beaming out of Bollywood, but the quiet resistance and huge cultural leaps and bounds made by Bangladesh cannot and should not go unnoticed.

When I discuss these with many friends in Poschim Banga, I am surprised how little they know and if they do their knowledge go no further than Taslima Nasreen or Honuman Ahmed or worse case scenario - Beder Meye Jotsna. Yet try talking to an average Bangladeshi and he/she will quote you verbatim from Tagore, Bankim and who else have you at the drop of a hat, right down to the last episode of the latest serial beaming out of Kolkata, not to forget sing and dance you a line or two of Sheela Ka Jawani!

Just a thought; imagine if a movie is made by Dhaka and Kolkata - the investment together and fact that this will cater to a world wide audience of over 250 million Bengalee speakers - the market so to speak would be stupendous. This is precisely New Delhi's worry. We have to come out of the cocoon of our own creation and importantly reclaim our lost pride i.e. what Bangladesh thinks today - India will think the day after!

Poschim Banga has been colonized by outsiders leaving it so vulnerable that its own people refuse to speak Bengalee. While we make God out of Rabindranath, his Santiniketan bears witness to derelict buildings on display for tourist.

Bangladesh is the last outer-spoke in the South Asia hub. We may as well look East and try singing Chinese songs as clearly Bollywood has nothing in common with our Culture. And pray if true, that the Chinese can help us get rid of the other chink…..Abul Hossain?

New Age XTRA/Print Version, Friday, 16th September 2011

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