Friday, December 16, 2011

Bangladesh 2011- Forty years of ease, deceit, anarchy and the Rahman’s

by Mac Haque

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again." Maya Angelou

Bangladesh turns forty on Friday the 16th December 2011, yet we have not heard about any special celebrations. Wherever I have asked, I have been dismayed, for the Government probably doesn't look at forty years as too long a time to celebrate anything. Maybe fifty is more like it – ahhh…. ten years of further window dressings, a half century well spent, and we will have so much to say, as if in the last forty we didn't!

When we look back at history, the reasons we seem not to cheer on, do not celebrate, is because we believe in a round about way, that our Independence was no more than a donated moment from the past. The past in turn reminds us that everything that we hold sacred or of core value have come without us having to work too hard for it.

If we just look at the duration of our hard fought Liberation War – nine months to be precise, it wasn't until end-May or early-June 1971 that our national resistance, the Mukti Bahini started to retaliate. It means the actual fighting was no more that six or seven months? I wonder if any other nation anywhere in the world has been this fortunate.

That said, none can deny that the genocide perpetrated by Pakistan Army took a huge toll on human lives, but fate would leave us to live with a controversy surrounding numbers. Whether it was three million or three hundred thousand is really immaterial here. The fact that so many died for the benefit of so few is hard reality to digest. Number games have been played and will continue to be played, only to recompense for a failure to take stock of the malignancies that continue to bedevil us forty years later.

What changed in 1971 was no more than changing of honor guards and incorporating new regalia denoting a State, a flag, a map maybe. What did not happen were the promised emancipation, liberation, freedom and Independence, for those who needed it the most – the poorest of the poor. In forty years Bangladesh despite its forward looking indicators remains a 'developing country', the euphemism for a 'poor country', meaning the majority of our people go hungry, are stricken with diseases, have no roof on their head and are ripe for the dole.

We are therefore left with only two classes in society, the have-nots and the have-plenty's. The pretentious middle class worrying and spitting venoms about economic indicators and the get-rich-quick scam called the share market, is fast becoming a rare species and doomed to extinction – i.e. if it has not been already.

Quite savagely natural disasters such as storms, typhoons, cyclones and tidal bores are looked upon as opportunities, a prime time for the have-plenty's to loot dole coming in as foreign aid meant for the destitute. Much like vultures who feasted on the corpses of the hundreds of thousands that were killed in such disasters in forty years, humans resembling hyena scavenged the land, pouncing upon whatever money came our way.

It was Henry Kissinger's infamous take in the seventies of Bangladesh being an 'International Basket case', which led to foreign aid trickling to a near halt. The creed of greed thereafter got more institutionalized. In place we had the NGOs some who ended up siphoning money under 'acceptable limits' yet were left with more money and clouts than the Bangladesh Government.

Possibilities for change in Bangladesh were immense. What did not change is the mindset of our ruling class and I am not at all game to the repeated roulette played out as to who did or did not support the Liberation War. To accept that a shadowy 'anti-Liberation' force is active forty years down the line and wants an imminent destruction of our nation, is co-opting to the notion that real Independence, yet eludes us.

That in effect would be reducing us to a mentality of blasé servility, a defeatist trap, the juggled artistry of political masters who want to enslave us into their vulgar partisan thinking. Bangladesh's ruling class is happy living in a time warp of the 60's but two questions for them : Will our woes be truly over if the 'anti-Liberation' forces were eliminated? If so, why hasn't it happened in forty years?

And why is their pauperized mentality so entrenched in our national psyche? Simply because power brokers are slaves to an irreversible status quo – one that harps on the past, making mincemeat out of the present – only to placate their sheer inadequacy, not to forget their fragile vulnerability. The continuity of slavery is their foremost agenda. The practice of freedom in its entirety is unknown to them - for good reasons.

Like 1971 everything else that came later our way was really too easy. Importantly quick-fix, get rich mantras' playing on the pathos of the poor was all that was needed to get whatever one wanted, with an unsuspecting majority perpetually prepared to gulp the bait. I am talking about power, and those in power get so drunk, they do not realize that they also stayed drunk and unreasoning in their pursuit to achieve the same.

Let's take a look at the first Military Coup that led to the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was just a 'handful' of disgruntled Army officers stirred up passion in a 'handful' of men, move Tanks without ammunitions from the Cantonment and go in with blazing machineguns, kill the President and his family, capture the nations Television and Radio station – and one has captured state power. Piece of cake?

While all of this was happening, the Army Chief (who in forty years survives unscathed while the actual killers have already been hanged) failed to wake up from deep slumber? When he did he was unable to go for a counter offensive against the renegades although they were just a 'handful'?

So the first Coup and capture of State power was, really too easy and not much hard work had to be expended, or am I to be imminently proved wrong?

The succession of Coup and counter-Coup leading to capture of state power by the ambitious were more or less fashioned on the same initial formula. The strategy; capture the Television and Radio station, kill a few soldiers…and all else falls into place. What else did we have?

Khaled Musharraf during his short-lived stay in power took theatrics to a new height and had the Air force and Naval Chief pin more ribbons into his lapel (and this was photographed and televised), 'promoting' him to a General. In less than forty eight hours he was dead. Ziaur Rahman was swept to power riding on a crest of 'popularity' after a succession of intrigues and counter intrigues inside the Dhaka Cantonment.

Zia the man had the requisite qualification of being a War Hero of 1971 - yet once in power he espoused a new 'identity' for us: 'Bangladeshis', which on surface perhaps made sense. This was to ensure that the world does not confuse us from the rest of our Indian Bengalee cousins from West Bengal. Ironically our identity crisis commenced at this point.

In sinister moves after other, he firmly entrenched the idea of 'Bengalee Muslims' or even 'Pukkah Muslim' and promoted himself to General and went on further to rub in the doctrine of 'Bangladeshi Nationalism'. It was time for half educated Army Officers to teach us 'bloody civilians' a thing or two about patriotism which was all okay, but reeked strongly of a pro-Pakistani bias.

Zia's heavily Urdu-accented Bengalee speeches made us wonder if we have resurrected a neo-Yahya Khan in a Bengalee body!

A new chapter was ushered into our history. The era of half-baked intellectuals, with cronyism becoming institutionalized and we were then forced to go back to the drawing boards. Bismillahs, Khosh Amded, Allah Hafez, Shukriaz and other Cantonment-ized words and expressions entered the popular vocabulary. We were being Muslim-ized and Islamization wasn't too far away.

And there were clear reasons for all of this happening so soon after our Independence.

While Western secularism was certainly not one of the 'pillars of state' we fought for in 1971, the post-Liberation 'secular Khalifa's' (read Awami intellectuals) made a mess interpreting the same in our formative years. Weird ideas and philosophies which were totally alien to our people were 'bull-dozed in' making a sordid mess of our belief system. Secular possibilities within Sufi Islam that was naturally and firmly ingrained in our populace for centuries were never explored – rather were succinctly shunned. We were left initially to whispers that progressively grew to shouts; all our post-Liberation political masters wanted were to 'Hindu-ize' us…huh?

Making things easier for Zia was the Saudi Wahabi assistance that wasn't forthcoming when Mujib was alive, and import of cheap labour from Bangladesh, a country then just reeling out of a man-made famine in 1975-76. Medieval Sharia Islam was clearly making a strong comeback. Zia the cunning fox upped the ante and quickly drove quite a few sharp wedges.

On the one hand he rehabilitated the Jamaat-E-Islami, permitting the Nemesis of 1971 Ghulam Azam to return, as also installing a far right Islamist zealot as Prime Minister. On the flip side he took pain to welcome back to the country from India, Sheikh Hasina – the daughter of the assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Also, as a mean to appease the West, he lured the far-left Maoist and Communist thriving on the underground since 1971 to resurface, and as quickly continued the zero-tolerance pogrom started by Sheikh Mujib in 1972 – a legacy which quite bizarrely is still in place forty years later.

In the intervening hungama there were possibly a dozen Coup attempts against Zia and it is estimated that several thousand military officers, mostly innocent were brutally executed after camera trials. Done to death were the remnants of the Mukti Bahini who fought and ushered in an Independent Bangladesh, a force that ironically, Sheikh Mujib, Zia or the rest in our history ever displayed the magnanimity to share power with.

In a couple of months while attempts were on to begrudgingly 'usher in Democracy' of sort, Zia too was killed in a Coup in Chittagong in 1981. But that didn't change the era of retired men in khakis masquerading with Islamic skull caps. It was time for the gestating right-of-center Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to be born, with a profound sectarian/communal overtone.

What set in next was a continuation of the easy road to power, albeit with a slight difference. Within a year another General, Hussain Muhammad Ershad (repatriated from Pakistan post-1971) would chart the course of our history. He did so after penning in several articles in newspapers on the dangerous trend the country has entered into and how important it was for the Army to intervene. In 1982, with promises of Democracy and the rule of law he 'assumed power via a bloodless Coup' - albeit with the same easy formula of his predecessors.

Nonetheless what would stand out as important in Ershad's stay in power is the abdication of 'secularism' and declaration of Islam as a 'state religion' of Bangladesh in the late eighties. In effect Ershad managed to circumcise Bangladesh and sort of seal its confused Islamic identity, allowing a walkover of myopic Mullahs who plague us to this day. However as President of a country that recently incorporated Islam as 'state religion' his personal philandering was legendary!

The other significant parameter of his stay in power was its sheer length. Ershad hung on to power for two years as the Army supremo and a staggering seven years as President despite repetitive efforts by Awami League, BNP as also the Jamaat-E-Islami (strangely all three party's united in a joint Opposition from 1987 to 1990) to oust him. In the cumulative nine years he proceeded to institutionalize corruption.

Giving the devil his due, he did manage to 'make politics difficult' - a promise made to his former boss man Zia, and ensured that the Army doesn't make further misadventure into power. He managed the very difficult job of reigning in the Army by converting it to a Mercenary force – one the United Nations would use for peace-keeping operations anywhere in the world, less Bangladesh. The status quo for the Army remains unchanged as of 16th December 2011.

By the time Ershad was ousted in a popular revolt led by students of Dhaka University (not political parties) in December 1990, the BNP had emerged strong, with its popularity higher than ever before. The reasons were quite simple. The Awami League in its lust for power had connived with Ershad prolonging his stay. In the aborted 1987 agitations against Ershad, the Awami League shamelessly stabbed the movement in the back and moved away from the Opposition unity.

This enhanced Zia's widow Khaleda's reputation as an 'uncompromising leader' only to be voted to Government when elections eventually came in 1991. In from 1991 to 1996 when she made way for a political experiment masterminded by the Jamaat-E-Islami called the 'Caretaker Government', Bangladesh entered an insane phase in its political life that was perfected to a fine art during the anti-Ershad agitations.

The trend would go on to be the mainstay of yet another easy formula to capture State power under a Democratic charade.

Planned chaos and mayhem, killing of demonstrators and law enforcers, arrest of politicians (safe refuge?), days upon days of Hartal (general strikes), and arson and bomb attacks, meant whoever came to power would be subjected to same stratagem by whoever was in Opposition. The word Utkhat or 'overthrow' of a democratically elected Government entered common usage among politicians, yet none of them ever got killed in the process!

The new formula: create anarchy of the worst kind, let Bangladesh hang on a thread in its day-to-day existence and ensure the common people who are prepared to die and kill rule the roost. In the mean time allow partisan intellectuals to write their fiery columns that no one reads in exercise of free speech, let black money backing the political parties finance 'historical gathering of people' (read assembly of the innocent, poor and vulnerable) and that's not all. The Army would be more than obliged to step 'to aid the Civil administration' at the very last moment for a show of brinkmanship and ensure order – and then all is hunky dory, and you have captured state power?

The overriding attribute for capturing state power got more focused in that the sole ownership of Bangladesh by now was in the hand of two 'Rahman families' – that of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman. By the nineties they had made Bangladesh a fiefdom to be fought over – a Zamindari that lives on even to this new millennium.

There was hardly anything creative in how the two families jockeyed for power before the 1996, 2001 or the 2008 elections. The same formula, the same ease; use the commonest of people as live fodder, bring life to standstill by anarchy and murder mayhems and don't talk about economy or wellbeing of the people when all of it happens. If there was at all any 'fear' left in us, it was for the Army and what they may or may not do. What does seem a bit out of place is how the Army too is used by politicians to rally favor incognito onto warring sides.

In 1996, even though the Awami League was all poised to win the election and did so eventually, it nonetheless attempted to back a botched Coup by an errant General Nasim. As a natural corollary to that, and when things went completely out of control towards the end of 2006, Bangladesh was blessed with something new.

It was to be a 'world's first'. When a 'Caretaker Government' failed to take shape due to bickering among 'respectable citizens' representing either sides of Rahman's, the President in a surprise move, called in the Army. It was a Coup backed by foreign missions in Bangladesh, with the support of the United Nation and what we then had was two years of total chaos with the common citizens paying a very steep price. The Army kicked in for a long stay, initially reined in corrupt businessmen and their political cahoots.

Both Rahman women were arrested as well as thousands of their cronies.

The nation initially applauded as it seemed the days of the Rahman's were on the verge of being history, or to be rendered obsolete. Those of us on the dumb apolitical fringe hoped, but like everything else in Bangladesh things would prove short lived.

Before long, the Army too was left corrupted from its rank-and-file up to its Generals. It eventually shimmied up to one of the Rahman's to have a clear bail-out from the mess it jumped into. Therefore if conspiracy theories and the grapevines are to be believed, the real beneficiary in the shenanigan, the ultimate victor of the UN backed Army Coup in Bangladesh was the Rahman family – that of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League.

End line, the next ten years leading up to our fiftieth Independence Day 2021 is crucial. The people of Bangladesh have lived long enough under the yoke, whims and caprices of this two warring and diabolically deceptive family. Their personal gripes and resentment towards each other, their propelling of their siblings and relatives as future rulers of Bangladesh will simply not work. It is time that the patriotic people of Bangladesh, took stock and plan on a forceful Utkhat of the Rahman's and their stooges.

Short of that, the lessons we learn from history will always run short, and we will continue to be short charged.

New Age Xtra, Friday, 16th December 2011

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