Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Of ‘compassionate corruption’ and the Khayrat-isation of Savar



“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

by Mac Haque

THE weather on the morning of April 29, when, technically and effectively, the rescue operations at Savar were called off, was gloomy and seeded with dark clouds. This is the Bengali month of Baishakh and the weather is unpredictable at best this time of the year, but my news feeds on Facebook and Twitter gave me no encouragement to feel or even think ‘positive’. There are clear ominous signs that the weather determining the fate of this nation is headed for a massive storm and, as Bob Dylan once said, ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’

The hot April winds as of now are blowing to let us know that while the great and resilient Bengali race may be prepared to handle and cope with natural extremities, we are woefully inadequate and completely unprepared to handle disasters, made and manufactured by man — our own kind. We are after all our own biggest  enemy.

The morning newspapers had the same agonising stories that we have been following almost non-stop for hours on television. The stories of the dead, the dying, the anguish of the ones trapped yet sending feeble signals for help, the helplessness of the rescuers, the smell of rotting corpses, of the heroines and heroes who beat the odds to rescue victims.

The stories of volunteers in thousands who have gone out of their way, sometimes in frenzied over-exuberance, in what may be termed one of the most extraordinary times in our history. I guess we did all we could and did so admirably well with our own feeble resources to handle a disaster, for which the average citizens had no mental preparation, not even any premonition, although the telltale signs were strong all along.

As days wear on, weary and dejected, we are fast approaching a time, when we, the citizens of Bangladesh, will slip into collective depression, for news that comes our way bodes only but evil. Since February of this year, there has not been a single day that the corrupt section of our politicians and the greedy section of our businessmen have given us any respite from the ugliness and sins of their souls. The devilry of the politico/business mafia that went into the making of Savar and one that gripped our and the world’s attention for the better part of a week, the hurt line, the fault lines, the criticism lines, the political blame game lines were not only stretched to the seams, they have in fact snapped at weird ends. The biggest casualty here is imagination. We have been led to believe that anarchic insanity is our only solution, almost a predetermined fate.

In the planned chaos, it was only natural that every television commentator, talk show-offs have become ‘experts’ at something or the other as how things could be done better, done ‘differently’. Every Facebook user has become overnight volunteers, relief workers, construction engineers, doctors, nurses, paramedics and displayed variety of real, unreal and surreal ‘talents’ which otherwise we were not aware of.

Whether or not they were ‘completely engaged’ with Savar is a different story, the fact that there was so much of unsolicited ideas up on offer is in itself ‘history’ in the history of shared ideas of Bangladesh! Yet, surprises, very few of these ideas have come up with tangible solutions. The Bengali penchant for adda or gossips, and excessive hoo-haa together with the pressing of hujoogi or whimsical panic buttons went viral even before the first victims were pulled out of the rubbles.

And one couldn’t help but notice the beeline many opportunists and fortune seekers were making, and my gaze was transfixed on the bunch of horrific scamsters making ‘appeals for funds’ to aid the Savar victims on social networks. People we don’t even know personally were sending in emails and Facebook ‘appeals’ and while some may have been genuine, there were others that left me thinking exactly how the money will be spent on the victims, and what about accountability.

This was particularly noticeable from some appeals made by rich kids of private universities out to ‘save our poor brothers and sisters’ as well as Bangladeshis living in North America, under camouflage of various expatriate ‘welfare’ societies — but the tone, objective and purpose of their appeals didn’t seem ‘appealing’ or convincing at all! Therefore, after consulting some of my lawyer friends, I put this open question up in my status update on Saturday, April 27:

With all due respect to everybody’s sentiments and true and noble intentions, I would like to know if the laws of Bangladesh permit all of us to make appeals (on social networks) and collect funds for the distressed. I gather that anybody can make a direct/personal donation to any victim of a disaster at any time, however, soliciting funds by any individual or group that does not have a licence to operate as a bona fide charity in Bangladesh is illegal.

I was right as far as my insistence that the laws of the lands be respected, come what may. But I was wrong for I did not realise that the moral fabric of our society has by now been completely stripped naked. When it comes to aid or charity work, it seems that the ‘anything and everything goes’ formula is still the active parameters of our value judgement. Our disdainful refusal to abide by the law is in fact no different from the criminals who caused the miseries in Savar. ‘Two wrongs have never made one right’ is for now the jargons of idiots like me.

Ultimately, everything in Bangladesh is weighed, viewed and considered by and only with ‘money’. I do not believe that poverty is beautiful, or that every Bangladeshi is a chor or thief. However, when it comes to charity and the way we go about, the standardised ideals and the ideas we play with, and have come to believe even as default as ‘acceptable’, is indeed the crux of our deepest crisis.

Greed, injustice, arrogance and unaccountably — the four most dangerous curses that have not only led to Savar, but the entire gamut of life and living in Bangladesh are the real ‘heroes’ today. 

Our mindsets regretfully always looks at the ‘meat’, in the numbers up for play, in the takas we are willing discharge from our pockets without asking how the money will be spent. The ‘bones’ of contentions start here as well, and as far as dealing with public perceptions about charity, we tend to make a huge mess, for ultimately when disasters strike, we are left helpless and the only way we think we can ‘help’ is by either donating cash handouts or make ‘appeals’ for the same to others. 

This is paap mochon in Bengali, meaning cleansing of our sins, and we do so for never ever even by mistake do we try to understand the pangs of the poor, go and live with them, have a meal with them, or even share their sorrows in good times and tidings. In situations like Savar it is a prickly pang in our conscience that provokes and traumatises us to ‘act’ — and we do it not for the poor, but for ourselves. It is nothing more than a feel-good psychologically-therapeutic exercise.

So, if one does not oblige or agree with the ‘appealers’, well in that case too bad. You will be drowned with cursing of being ‘miserly, heartless brute’, who is ignorant about the ‘plight of the poor’. True, we often follow our hearts and not the law, but the problem is heartless thieves also exploit our ‘hearts’ in times of crisis without our knowing it. And as a friend on Facebook remarked, ‘some do break our hearts and some steal them. So we make careful judgement’ — perhaps such a time is now, to judge without being judgmental, agree that corruption and construed compassion are first cousins if not identical twins?

Then there is all this tall talks about religion; for, it is only when disaster strikes, and we are caught with our pants down, that we suddenly turn ‘holy’. However, if we are to look at the lofty ideals of Islam where essentially individual poverty is not tolerated then we must take a more critical and careful look at one of its essential pillars, Zakat doesn’t mean ‘charity’, as is in the popular Wahabi mullah-driven misconception, nor does it mean ‘alms’ at any rate. It means ‘sacrifice’ and with it comes social responsibility. The responsibility to ensure that our time, actions as also wealth does not go unaccounted for; for, neither wastage nor excess of any kind is acceptable and both are sins. Financially able Muslims are encouraged to offer the mandatory zakat to a ‘deserving individual’ who is economically disadvantaged, and the idea is to guarantee that the person who has received the same is effectively in a position to offer the same support to someone else subsequently.

This implies that other than the cash or kind we offer, we also have a conditional responsibility to help and assist the distressed for a longer rehabilitation — in other words, offer part of our valuable time for welfare. This is to ensure that the vicious cycle of poverty is broken and no one is left without necessities to make a living and take care of their immediate family at the outset.

On the other hand, the Islamic ideals of khayrat or alms are specific. On a day-to-day basis, one does and will come across people in deep financial distress. The hungry, homeless and ones without clothes, elderly men and children, diseased people who are unable to do anything but live on handouts of the affluent, rich — or whatever you wish to call yourself. These are people for whom we use the politically incorrect term ‘beggars’ as they have no other means to draw our attention, but to ask, plead for help — and alms are therefore due to them as they deserve it.

One may feed these destitute who we are not likely to meet again, donate some money from our pockets, regardless of coins or notes, so that he/she will not have to go without a meal on a specific day or days. We may then go about our business that we have done our duty not to God, but to humanity and indirectly atoned for our collective sins.

However, in the case of Savar, the appeals for money on social networks are all unfortunately falling within the category of khayrat, which is downright condemnable. The prime reason for that is the victims of Savar or their families weren’t ‘beggars’, neither have they, individually or as a body, made any appeal anywhere asking for any donation — whether cash or kind. 

They were perfectly dignified individuals, who worked and toiled in these death-traps, without complaining, without asking for either our favour or our pity. They have been nameless and faceless entities in our lives, and simply because a building has come crashing down on them, what legal or moral right do we have to go asking for khayrat or go begging on their behalf? Who has given us the right to denigrate these marginalised yet self-respecting humans — God?

The filth in our soul has taken such a terrible toll on all of us that all that has been praiseworthy in our upbringings, all that is humane has somehow evaporated from our beings. For instance, our sensibilities were challenged when we also had to bear witness to the charnel saga of merriment that a national vernacular newspaper dished out via a hugely hyped yet sordid ‘star night’ even as dead bodies lay trapped, many not even buried.

When confronted and challenged by outraged citizens, their defence was equally bizarre. They claim that they have ‘managed’ to raise Tk 52 lakh as funds for helping the Savar victims. 

Again, a question to the dim-witted national newspaper: How often have you cared about workers’ rights for so many years? How often have you done anything praiseworthy for the ‘poor’? And why now and what for? Is money and pompous show of wealth going to be our only criteria for ‘help’ — the only parameter of our compassion?

Essentially, what is happening today is we are overlooking the corruption, the greed, the callousness that caused Savar in the first place, and building yet another edifice to a set of greedy demons masquerading as ‘donors’. It’s like bribing the policemen when you are caught breaking a traffic law, instead of paying a fine. 

And on the sickening political fronts to Savar, it was interesting to note two subsequent developments. 

The first was by BNP’s Moudud Ahmed who went public to state that each and every victim will be provided with the princely compensation of Tk 20 lakh, with the catch — if ‘his party is voted to power’! Social networks pulverised this:
"Excellent idea, sir. How about paying it right now if your intentions are so pure. Or do you intend to come to power and loot money from the people, to pay the people back?"

The other glaring incident was the pretentious defenders of Islam – a Free Masonic organisation with the suspect name of Hefajat-ul-Islam.

The messages bordering on profane absurdity was that Savar apparently was the consequence of the ‘bod-doa’, literally ‘bad prayers’ or ‘curse’, of the ‘venerated master’, for the government’s failure to accede to their 13 insane demands, foremost of which is banning women from work.

How more dangerously pathetic can politics and religion combined be is something that leaves all of us baffled. Also, where in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is there one instance of him seeking ‘bad prayers’ or cursing his followers, his Ummah?

When we fall into morass of excrements because of our unrestrained greed that breeds everything from corruption to bigotry, from shoe thieves to pick pockets in mosques to scamsters on social networks making a killing out of the miseries of Savar victims, to garments manufacturers et al – if at all there will be anyone that can do us ‘hefajat’ or defend us, let us hope and pray that it is one, the all in all, Almighty Allah!

New Age Op Ed Wednesday 1st May 2013

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