is an art,
like everything else,
We do it exceptionally well
- with apologies to Sylvia Plath
"Between the 1947 partition of India and the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan had struggled to establish a democracy, as power passed from one military ruler to another.
On the eve of Bangladesh's birth, we vowed to do better."
Thus opens the potted history of Bangladesh on the BBC webpage by Tahmima Anam . Unlike Pakistan, which has a predilection for military rule, we in Bangladesh sought to "do better". Apparently, democracy is better than military rule: when political scientists like Charles S. Maier are talking about making democracy safe for the world, rather than the other way around, Ms. Anam blandly assumes that the Thucydidean nightmare is the best form of government. We shall soon see why she clings to this view. (To quote Maier straightaway: "The history of democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries involves the story not so much of making the world safe for democracy, as Woodrow Wilson wanted it, but of making democracy safe for the world.  ")
THE MYTH OF PARTITION
First, a word about 'partition': was there any partition of India? Before replying to that, let's ask a set of related questions.
Was the Austro-Hungarian Empire partitioned into nation-states? Was the Ottoman Empire partitioned into its component parts? We do not talk about the partition of the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, yet the words "partition of India" blithely trip off our tongue. "India" was part of the British Empire, and when Empire ended, new units of political organization emerged. There was no pre-British entity that was partitioned, like a porcelain vase smashed into two.
Was there then no unity at all? There was: and it was a religious unity. In his book, Pakistan, Ian Stephens makes this trenchant observation  : "We should perhaps consider whether these secular Congress leaders may not themselves, without realizing it, have been swayed by latent religious motivation, conditioned into them by their upbringing. Consent to the creation of Pakistan meant that pieces would be lopped off the body of Bharat Mata, of holy Mother India".
Rajendra Prasad, India's first president, in a book in 1946, had observed: "Every Hindu who performs his sandhya has to repeat a sloka in the sankalpa, in which he pictures the country as a whole, and imagines the waters of the Sindhu, the Ganga, and the Cavery to be mingled together in the water of his small waterpot....the Hindus have never conceived of India as comprising anything less than what we regard as India today."
Indeed, in his biography of Nehru, Michael Edwardes observes how Nehru's funeral was a mass of contradictions: in his will, Nehru had stated that no religious ceremony should be associated with his funeral. "Sanjay lit the pyre and the body of Jawaharlal Nehru, socialist, agnostic, prophet of Indian secularism, went up in flames like that of a Hindu king.  "
And why was it that that young Sanjay and not Nehru's daughter, Indira, had to light the pyre? Because Nehru had no son.
For others, the ceremonies were not traditional enough. Some of Nehru's ashes had been scattered from an aeroplane, per instructions in his will. One of those who took offence was the Berlin-educated socialist leader Dr. Rammanohar Lohia, arch-enemy of the late prime minister. He opined: "Whatever Mr. Nehru might have written in his Will, whatever he might have said about his attitude towards religion, the fact remains that Mr. Nehru was born a Hindu, he had his [sacred] thread ceremony performed in the Hindu way, he lived a Hindu, died a Hindu, and was cremated according to Hindu rites. All his ashes should have been immersed.  "
Indeed, Nehru's will was by then ten years old, and towards the latter part of his life he came closer to the Hindu religious way of life that he had claimed to have outgrown. He moved away from his earlier agnosticism. "During the years in which he had sought to identify himself more and more with Indian India, he had moved closer to religion.  "
Religion and officialdom were intricately connected after the alleged partition. Hindu occultists, astrologers and priests were regularly consulted by ministers, officials and politicians.
In fact, in a note on page 140 of his book, Stephens observes: "The Indian Union's decision to call herself 'India' rather than Hindustan as had been assumed a few weeks before Partition, still causes some confusion in western countries, to Pakistan's detriment, perhaps intentionally so."
Nor was it the case that fanatical Muslims had insisted on a separate homeland. On the contrary, they had fought the very idea of Pakistan. For the idea of Pakistan seemed too nationalist and idea, and nationalism was anathema to them, as it signified the break-up of the ummah. The schism led to a bifurcated education system, with seminaries educating future mullahs, and mainstream schools providing a secular education . (Stephens has pointed out that quite a few European countries combine religion and state without losing their secular character ). But for the founders of Pakistan, it was the terror of domination by the Hindu majority in a democracy that galvanized them into action. Jinnah observed in 1939: "In my judgment, democracy can only mean Hindu Raj all over India; to this, Muslims will never submit. "
In this, Jinnah was – no doubt inadvertently, for he was not initially in favour of creating Pakistan – echoing the sentiments of the Muslim revivalist leader, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817 – 1898). When the Indian National Congress was born, Sir Sayyid had nothing to do with it: historians tend to date the creation of Pakistan from this time. He maintained that a democratic regime would mean majority rule, that is, Hindu rule. Muslims then turned from being enemies of the British imperialists to their loyal allies: the departure of the British would mean Hindu domination .
In a letter to The Economist by two professors of sociology, Paul Attewell of City University of New York, and Katherine Newman of Princeton University, it was observed: "Our two-year study, which we will soon present, found widespread discrimination against highly qualified low-caste individuals. We sent out 4,800 applications in response to advertisements for graduate jobs in Indian and multinational companies. These applicants bore distinctively upper-caste names, Muslim names and dalit surnames, but were otherwise identical in educational qualifications and work experience.
"The odds of a dalit being invited for an interview were about two-thirds of the odds of a high-caste applicant with the same qualifications. The odds of a Muslim applicant being invited to an interview were even worse: only one-third as often as the high-caste Hindu counterpart."
The evidence is solid.  "
Jinnah's fears were well-founded, as were Sir Sayyid's.
THE MYTH OF DEMOCRACY
"We need a rich and well-functioning democracy, not to provide credibility to a corrupt political system, but rather to ensure that the state acts and exists for all its citizens, rich, poor, sheltered, or homeless."
Thus concludes Tahmima Anam's BBC article. It is to be inferred that she finds these missing democratic ingredients in India, her original inspiration for South Asia. There is always the inevitable dichotomy: democratic India, military Pakistan.
"[India is]...a society which has combined an ancient caste system, founded on the assumption of radical inequality, with a modern state proclaiming equality before the law. The impact of such utterly contradictory moral messages on a caste such as the Untouchables cannot fail to have been profoundly disturbing. To the extent that caste labels have continued to be the crucial sources of personal identity in India, Indian society may be said to have been suffering from a kind of collective schizophrenia.  "
With these words, Larry Siedentop disses, and dismisses, India as a democracy. Of course, he has nothing nice to say about the Muslim world, which he (rightly) claims to be hierarchic, and so beyond (or beneath, according to taste) democracy. The problem, of course, with Islam is that it asserts the essential equality of all humans, like Christianity, and unlike Hinduism. "If my account of the relationship between Christianity and liberalism is correct, then Islam poses an interesting problem. Islam, like Christianity, is formulated in a universalist idiom. In that way Islam resembles Christianity rather than Judaism. Both are religions of 'the book' and appeal to humans as such rather than as members of any particular society. " However, since Muslim society is hierarchic and family-centred, he dismisses the possibility of Islamic democracy.
(What Siedentop fails to grasp in his attempt to demonize Islamic culture is the historical fact that, ever since the rule of the Prophet Mohammed until the coming of the western colonizers, Muslim society had been governed by military men – even by military slaves (a phenomenon unique in the history of government) who often became kings! The contrast with western slavery couldn't be starker – and explains the latter's preoccupation with 'freedom'.).
One can't help being baffled by the western sense of awe at the 'miracle' of Indian democracy. How can a caste-ridden society be a democracy? There's a little more to democracy than casting votes every five years, surely.
Ayesha Jalal, an expert on South Asia, has observed again and again that democracy in India is an empty ritual . The Mahbubul Haq Centre repeated the observation in a scathing report . And it is a deadly ritual at that too.
Consider what it takes to become an opposition party in India.
In the 1990s, an obscure political party called the Bharatiya Janata Party achieved overnight notoriety – and popularity. The strategy was quite simple: demolish a 400-year old mosque in Ayodhya in the Uttar Pradesh, and promise to build a temple to Ram in its place. The man responsible for this spectacular extravaganza, L. K. Advani, went on to become the Home Minister, and then the Deputy Prime Minister, of India – not despite, but because of, the death of 3000 people in the ensuing riots! If Jinnah and Sir Sayyid ever needed vindication, this was the moment.
Among India's 150 million Muslims, a few retaliated. One such group has been the Indian Mujahideen, which enumerated crimes by the state against Muslims: "If you still think that the arrests, expulsions, killings, murders, fake encounters, tortures, sufferings, cases, trials and tribulations inflicted on us will not be answered back, then here we remind you: that those days have gone. " The Indian Mujahideen, in fact, referred to the later pogrom in Gujarat, which catapulted its author, Narendra Modi, to a landslide victory – over 2,000 dead bodies. In Orissa, 2000 churches and Christian houses were burnt in 2008 by the BJP, and over 50 people killed.
And this was not a recent syndrome. The man who engineered the invasion and conquest of Goa was Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, Nehru's defence minister. Elections were due in February, and both of them had been under pressure from leftists for their inaction against imperialist Portugal in the shape of Goa, and from rightists for inaction against China. 'Moreover, Menon's own parliamentary seat was in danger, and shrewd Indian political opinion held that Menon could only win if he made himself popular by "solving" the Goa situation, observed TIME magazine . Interestingly enough, when Nehru lost the Indo-Chinese war, it was Menon who took the rap, and Nehru got off scot-free. "It was a tribute to Nehru's towering position both in Congress and in the country that he neither suggested that he should resign nor was his resignation ever called for even by the opposition. It is difficult to believe that in any other democratic state he and his cabinet could have survived.  " The dynasty begins here.
Another minority that has suffered immensely due to Indian democracy has been the Sikhs. Indira Gandhi's Sikh guards murdered her after she launched a military attack on the holy Sikh shrine in Amritsar. A massacre of Sikhs by Hindus followed, of which Stanley J. Tambiah has observed: "Even when the suddenness and the emotional trauma of Indira Gandhi's assassination are taken into account, the evidence is clear that...the destructive actions of the mob...were encouraged, directed, and even provisioned by Congress (I) politicians, activists and supporters, and indirectly aided by an inactive, cooperative police force.  "
Nor have Sikhs and Kashmiris been the only separatists in India. In the north-east, the secessionist groups form a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms. In Manipur alone, there are over 20 tribally based separatist groups! According to the Economist , some 200,000 Nagas have been killed by the Indian army – which itself claims to have lost more soldiers there than in Kashmir.
Is so much violence the product of an 'unfinished' or 'stunted' democracy? According to Tambiah, the answer is the opposite: it is because of democracy that South Asia has been so violent. "The general theme of whether democracy as a political process and the democratic state as a system intensify the occurrence of violence is an old one in the history of political theory. From the Greeks onwards, even up to the nineteenth century, many theorists, perhaps most, associated democracy with civil strife, and it is only subsequently that this became a minority view.  " We have already noted Maier's views on the subject.
He observes: '...participatory democracy, competitive elections, mass militancy, and crowd violence are not disconnected." He adds: "They were not disconnected in Europe: in Britain, for instance, the latter part of the nineteenth century saw the parallel rise of democracy and industrial militancy....And before that the French Revolution had ushered in the crowd as an enduring political force...."
The myth of democracy, as this section is called, lies in the fact that India is, in effect, held together by sheer military power. It is the army that provides the integrity of Indian society and state.
This was the sad, but ineluctable, conclusion reached by Mark Tully. "'There has never been any significant political protest in India against the brutal tactics used by the army and the paramilitary police in curbing uprisings and other challenges to the central government's authority, whether in the remote tribal states of the north-eastern hills, in Punjab or now in Kashmir. It is surely because politicians know that they have the
ultimate sanction – the power to declare war on a section of their own people – that they do not feel bound to look for political solutions to problems.' His book had been published just when the BJP was emerging. Had he written a few years later, he wouldn't have blamed the Congress Party alone for electoral violence: "...it's the Congress Party in which the Indian electorate has placed its faith time and time again, and so the Congress Party must bear most of the blame for the growing disillusionment of the electorate and the violence of elections. " In this, Tully was profoundly wrong: he confused correlation with causation – because the Congress Party had been elected again and again in violent elections, it seemed as if the Congress Party was the cause of the violence.
Violence in elections cannot be separated from elections:
"To the rattle of gunfire, the Indian state of West Bengal completed local elections in traditional fashion on May 20th. At least 37 people were killed in the polls, mostly in fighting between the goons of rival political parties, including those within the Left Front coalition that has ruled the state since 1977. Some were mown down while waiting to vote. Others were incinerated in their thatch-roofed houses. Supporters of the main ruling party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), were mostly to blame." Indeed. When several women were raped in Nandigram in November 2008, in a struggle between Maoists and Marxist thugs, the Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, himself pronounced that the former had been "paid back in their own coin ".
There seems to be something dehumanizing and desensitizing about democracy – when the best must lower its standards to the level of the worst.
With the myth of Indian democracy – military-backed, violent, murderous – we now return to Tahmima Anam's observations regarding Bangladesh: for, at the back of every Bangladeshi intellectual's intellect, the Indian Example looms like a Platonic Idea.
Jingo Bells, Jingo Bells, Jingo All the Way....
"And if India was built on secular lines, and Pakistan upon religious unity, then Bangladesh was created by the linguistic and cultural nationalism of the Bengali people," intones Tahmima Anam.
We have seen that both propositions of her protasis are false, and now for the apodosis.
The sentence above is code for something like this: Bangladesh was founded on jingoism, and noting but jingoism. It is remarkable that a Harvard doctorate in social anthropology, domiciled in London, and contributor to the New Statesman, should find nothing reprehensible in nationalism. For what is nationalism?
"At the heart of nationalism – and among the most peculiar feature of its 'grammar' – is its simultaneous treatment of the Other as everything and nothing," observes John Keane . "The Other is seen as the knife at the throat of the nation. Nationalists are panicky and driven by friend-foe calculations; they suffer from a judgment disorder that convinces them that the Other nation lives at its own expense."
To quote Ms. Anam again: " The founding fathers of Bangladesh were also interested in another idea, one that had yet to fully take root in Pakistan: democracy."
And democracy, we know, produces demagogues. And one of the founding fathers of Bangladesh – indeed, the sole father of Bangladesh, according to followers of the party he led – was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
According to TIME magazine: "First he [Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman] opposed British rule in India. After the subcontinent's partition in 1947, he denounced West Pakistan's dominance of East Pakistan with every bit as much vehemence. 'Brothers,' he would say to his Bengali followers, 'do you know that the streets of Karachi are lined with gold? Do you want to take back that gold? Then raise your hands and join me.  '
And what were the streets of Karachi like at the time? We shall let Ian Stephens, first-hand observer of the entire subcontinent, describe. "And one of the worst clusters of grossly overcrowded shacks and hovels, unfit for animals to live in, lay beside the main route from one of the airports to the rich centre of the city. Visiting foreigners were appalled, not merely by what they saw and smelt, but by the apparent helpless apathy of successive political Cabinets towards this mass of human misery unmitigated on their doorstep. Probably nothing so discredited Pakistan internationally, during the confused years before the military coup, as the persisting shameful squalor along the pavements of her capital. "
But we believed Sheikh Mujib: we believed that the streets of Karachi were indeed paved with gold. And how did he get us to believe where we had no evidence, where the city he described was a thousand miles away, separated by India and the sea?
That was precisely his strength: the sheer distance between East and West Pakistan meant that no remark made about either half in the other half could be verified or falsified by the average Pakistani.
But his chief strength lay in his oratory. By that term, I don't mean he had any linguistic flourish or rhetorical command of the language he championed. These would have been liabilities, for he was appealing to an almost totally illiterate mass. When a non-German speaker listens to the speeches of Hitler, he doesn't understand a word of what's going on, but he can feel the animating power that held a nation captive. Similarly, Sheikh Mujib had that stentorian voice, heavy with anger, heaving with emotion – nothing but emotion (for "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer" read "One people, one language, one leader").
Already in 1951, reported Ian Stephens, there was "in the East, [where] a vague popular sense of grievance ". This was only four years after the creation of Pakistan. What cause for grievance could arise in four years?
Again, TIME observed in 1958 that "In a divided nation, where East is East and West is West, the Pakistanis of the neglected East have long regarded their own half as by far the more mutilated, truncated and moth-eaten [part of Pakistan]. "
For one of the people who had opposed the creation of Pakistan, calling instead for a united Bengal in a divided India, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy found himself skint when the new Indian government taxed him into penury . In 1949, he moved into East Pakistan (having been the Chief Minister of Bengal during the Raj), created a political party, the leftist Awami League; doffed his western clothes, donned local garb and began touring the villages of East Pakistan. He has been described as a "complete opportunist" (which he revised to "complete politician", evidently trying to draw a distinction); and 'not noticeably shackled by ethical scruples' (Stephens' expression.) He went on to become Prime Minister – Pakistan's fifth – in 1956. (East Pakistan seems to have been singularly cursed in its lack of choice of leaders: in 1955, in the election to a new Assembly, the fat octogenarian Fazlul Huq had triumphed in East Pakistan: Fazlul Huq, along with Suhrawardy, had fallen out with Jinnah before independence, and, after becoming Chief Minister, Huq visited Calcutta and made comments that were regarded as treasonable - on his watch, an appalling riot occurred in the new jute mill at Narayanganj in which over 400 people were killed and about 1,000 injured. Thus the major players all seem to have been pro-Indian or at least anti-Pakistan.)
Sheikh Mijub was the protégé of Suhrawardy. According to the author's late friend, Omar Ali Chowdhury, who was personal secretary to Suhrawardy, the only reason that Suhrawardy picked Mujib to run the Awami League was because he was rabble-rouser par excellence.
Mujib, therefore, brought to East Pakistan the same nationalism that had enthused the Hindus. As we have seen, Muslims did not want the British to leave; the prospect terrified them (justifiably, as subsequent developments have shown). But Mujib was part of the anti-British campaign: his loyalty to Pakistan was probably not nil, but negative.
The distance between East and West also helped Mujib and others to recreate the metropolis-colony, or Britain-India, dichotomy. The psychology was powerful since so fresh, and succeeding economists, Marxists to the last man (some of them the author's teachers at Dhaka University in the '80s), provided 'facts' to back up this dichotomy (in the incoherent intellectual hothouse of South Asia, with its exotic ideas, one can be simultaneously a Marxist, democrat, nationalist and – as we saw above in the case of the Berlin-educated socialist leader Dr. Rammanohar Lohia – a staunch believer!)
Furthermore, we were told that 'they' spoke Urdu, while 'we' spoke Bengali. In fact, Urdu is the mother tongue of a fraction of the people of Pakistan even today. Contemporary Pakistan is a polyglot nation. But it was essential to create the Other as a homogeneous entity akin to the British. Again and again, it was drummed into the collective ear that the Pakistanis spoke Urdu and we spoke Bengali. TIME magazine, too, was taken in by the ruse: "They even speak different languages: in the East, Bengali; in the West, Urdu. "
If there was any exploitation, it was not by the people of West Pakistan, but by a small, elite group of Punjabis. But even here important qualifications must be made. Punjabis had been favoured by the British; they stood in stark secular contrast to their tribal, devout, compatriots. The former had been schooled in the British administration; soldiers, officers and bureaucrats were provided by Punjab . The situation was analogous to that obtaining in Sri Lanka after its independence. Hatred against the Tamil minority was fomented by politicians because the Tamils were better-educated and better-paid, thanks to the British.
But Sheikh Mujib's ire was not directed against a minority in Punjab, but against the whole of West Pakistan. This was the Other wielding a knife at the trachea of the Bengalis; this was the Other living at our expense. And this Other spoke another language, and was therefore not a friend, but a foe.
Bangladeh's elite claim that the West wing tried to impose 'their' language, Urdu, on 'us'. It is repeated ad nauseum that Jinnah said that Urdu alone would be the state language of Pakistan; but Jinnah couldn't speak a word of Urdu! "The man who could not speak Urdu could move the Muslim multitude. " According to Stephens, Pakistan experienced none of the language-based upheavals of South Asia. The only fracas he notes was the attempt by Prime Minster Nazimuddin to rank Bengali below Urdu in 1952 . That produced our 'language martyrs' or 'language shaheed', the latter a curiously Muslim word used to denote those who die for Islam. The event was, compared to other South Asian movements, so trivial that Stephens mentions only "some students among the casualties ". And under the 1956 constitution, Urdu and Bengali got equal rank, a status confirmed in the constitution of 1962. But 21st February 1952 has lodged permanently in the elite psyche of Bangladesh. It was essential to define the demon 'Other', West Pakistan, though Nazimuddin himself was Bengali.
It is ironic to note that Bengali literature flourished under British rule – when the state language was English. In 1835, Lord William Bentinck had effectively replaced Persian with English, which Muslims refused to learn, and Hindus, who had learnt Persian under the Mughals, quickly adopted . "During this period, Bengali literature produced a spate of novels-satiric, social, and picaresque. " Bankim Chandra Chaterjee's infamous anti-Muslim novel Anandamath appeared in 1881: "a patriotic tale of the revolt of the sannyasis against the Muslim forces of the East India company.  "
"To his contemporaries his voice was that of a prophet; his valiant Hindu heroes aroused their patriotism and pride of race. In him nationalism and Hinduism merged as one; and his creed was epitomized in the song 'Bande M taram' ('Hail to thee, Mother')-from his novel nandamaṭh-which later became the mantra ('hymn') and slogan of Hindu India in its struggle for independence." Of course, the crowning achievement was that of Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize.
That is to say, the official English language, far from muting indigenous literary output, actually stimulated it. If Bengalis were willing to put up with English then, why not with Urdu later? Not because Urdu would have killed off Bengali – but because, as the violent linguistic movements throughout South Asia in the '50s attest, nationalism was on the ascendant, ironically infected by English jingoism. But we shall see the pharisaical nature of our attachment to Bengali.
Besides, whatever the economic differences between West and East Pakistan, ultimately nationalism knows no rationality. The Quebec elite still wish to separate from Canada; the Basques and Catalans want autonomy verging on – if not actual – independence. To claim that nationalism is a rational response to perceived economic inequality would be to assign rationality to a lunatic aspiration. Income inequality has existed in every country – witness Italy's and England's south and north....The latter can argue that the former grew rich on the industrial might of the northern English towns, now blighted through deindustrialization. Therefore, the north should secede from England! Scotland gets a handsome amount of dosh from England, yet the Scottish Nationalist Party wants to secede. It is remarkable that the cinema 'Braveheart' could reignite Scottish nationalism.
"Their victimhood is an invention," observed The Economist of the Scots in a disturbing article .It observed that Tony Blair, Helen Liddell, Robin Cook, Derry Irvine and John Reid were all Scots – and Scotland had its own parliament and executive. During the World Cup, the bestselling newspaper The Daily Record urged the Scots to cheer on every opponent of the English team. And, more frighteningly, incidents of bullying of English children at school rose alarmingly; ChildLine Scotland recorded a sudden surge in calls from hapless English children. "Scots seem to have an enormous chip on their shoulder," observed the head of the Confederation of British Industry who blamed Scotland's weak economy on its failure to attract English investment. Ross Finnie, a Liberal democrat minister, retorted eloquently with "English prat".
Consider the career of Slobodan Milosevich. As leader of the Serbian communist party in 1986, he turned Kosovo into a crusade – merely to advance his political career. He revived the cult of Prince Lazar, who had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks six hundred years ago – and on June 28 1989, he turned the anniversary into a national event . Who was the victim here? Was any rational calculation at work? Yes, from Milosevic's point of view – he advanced his career. But what about the people whose emotions he stirred? Were they behaving rationally? Nationalism brooks no reason.
Nationalism, of course, was a West European, Franco-German, idea: it spread to Asia by means of conquest and subsequent reeducation of the natives. That the experiment of the nation-state was bound to fail seems, in retrospect, obvious. And fail it did, throughout South Asia, according to Tambiah. "In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, the attempt to realise the nation-state on a Western European model has virtually failed. The nation-state conception has not taken deep roots in South Asia or generated a wide-spread and robust participatory 'public culture' that celebrates it in widely meaningful ceremonies, festivals, and rituals ."
In India (as in Bangladesh), the elite and the masses live in two separate worlds. "Rajiv's political career," writes Mark Tully, "can be seen as a parable of India's failure to shake off its colonial past and build a nation on the foundation of its own culture. " Tully observes that Mrs. Gandhi never allowed her son to be an Indian – whatever that means – and instead educated him at a public school that was "more British than the British". He could not even speak Hindi properly. Once, while interviewing Rajiv, Tully spoke to his cameraman in Hindi. Rajiv observed that he spoke Hindi very well, at which the Englishman remarked that he wished he spoke it better. "I wish I did too," he laughed and said. After public school, it was Cambridge and then Imperial College, London – and he failed to get a degree from both. His mother sequestered him from politics – until the death of Sanjay. Thus, the sequential death of first a son and then mother brought Rajiv into Indian politics, and forced him to descend to the popular level. (The needs of dynastic democracy and nationalism sometimes conflict to ludicrous effect: but for her self-restraint, Hindu India would now have had an Italian Catholic for prime minister.)
The contempt felt for the native culture by the elite cannot be overemphasized, and is perhaps almost impossible to fathom by the casual foreign observer. However, no observer can fail to notice the multiplication of English medium schools in Bangladesh. The ability to speak English is regarded with awe by those unable to do so. There are myriad coaching centres offering a gullible clientele two- or three-month courses in 'spoken' English. As a teacher of English, the author knows first hand the excruciating torment endured by those who cannot speak the language, the sense of inferiority they experience before a fluent native speaker. And there's one thing that adult students insist on: that no one – categorically, no one – must find out that they are learning English. It is a deficiency to be remedied, not a skill to be acquired.
"Since childhood America has captured my imagination. She has been my distant dreamland... a land of fairy tales. Then one day pretty much like a fairy tale my dream became real. This is the story of my American dream." The writer is Tohon, who is the author of 'The Landscape of a Mind, Athena Press, London, 2005', as the Daily Star magazine informs its elite readers. He must be a very effective writer for in a few English words he has summarized the socialization of the Bangladeshi elite child: to admire America, and as the rest of his article suggests, the western world in general .
Mahfuz Anam, father of Tahmima Anam, spoke to an assembly of high-achievers in the British O and A level exams organized by his newspaper. A remarkable statement reveals him to be a 'babu': "He said many of the awardees will go abroad while others will study at home, but those who do not go abroad should not feel deprived, because, 'I know many men and women who excelled globally, but had studied in Bangladesh.'" The sheer ability to go west for an education and a job marks the beginning of success.
But the words the author remembers most, a cry from a lost soul, are from a letter to the agony aunt of the same magazine: "I am a 21-year old boy and am studying in a private university. I am very studious and ambitious as well. My problem is that most of my classmates laugh at my accent. and make fun of my ways since I come from the village. In fact, nobody considers me as a good friend either. Some of the students who come from an elite background, don't care about me at all and ignore my presence. The time I spend at university, I feel isolated and alienated in a world of mixed culture and money. How can I get over this depression?."
Now, that's a question the whole nation should be asking. Consider how our 'nationalist' struggle appears on the calendar: 21 February, 26 March, 16 December....Not a single day has been commemorated in the local calendar, the Bengali calendar used by the masses, but only in the Gregorian calendar of the elite. When the author and his wife asked their literate maidservant what was happening on a certain 21 February, she had absolutely no idea! A survey conducted by the national television found that exact lack of comprehension on the part of the hoi polloi.
The other aspect of our elite culture is its hatred of Islam. Now, nationalism tends to hate all religions other than itself: nationalism is, after all, a religion, according to Ninian Smart . An imported idea, nationalism is, in South Asia, a thoroughly incoherent ideology. The hatred of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia is directed, not at all religions, but at Islam, and their love towards Hinduism (and by extension all things Indian).
According to Ian Stephens, this was the attitude of the British (and the Europeans) towards Islam and Hinduism – loathing for the former, and admiration for the latter. As editor of the prestigious Statesman, he was in a position to know and articulate what his fellow Britons thought and felt on the subject: "But the attitude towards Islam of westerners, American and European – a less obvious but interesting matter – needs some discussing here and now. Their lack of interest in a country so exceptional as Pakistan, so populous, so strategically important, a country, moreover, which has allied itself with them militarily; their frequent symptoms of a vague emotional repugnance; their inclination to turn elsewhere, towards other less significant parts of the map, combine, on reflection, into something strange, which asks for inquiry.." After considering practical matters of administration and empire, Stephens turns to religious history: "It is the rough military fact of seizure of European soil by, for him [the Occidental], an alien, infidel regime, that grips his thoughts....Or, delving deeper into European group-memory, where the hurt of it still festers a little, he may think of the high hopes, the chivalry, the faith and then the disillusioned, ignominious end of the Crusades."
"It can scarcely be questioned that, though detailed attempts to analyse them would be absurd, thoughts like these do distort the westerner's attitude towards Islam, and therefore towards the interesting country dealt with in this book."
Despite sixty years of "independence," we still think the way our former masters wanted us to think.
The author once, and only once, visited Ramna Park on Bengali New Year's Day. The day has been thoroughly politicized as an antithesis to Islam's holy days. Young men even pretend to be Hindus, and dress up in saffron; songs celebrating the liberation of Bangladesh, and consequently the death of a united Pakistan, fill the air. Having taken one look at these neo-pagan rituals, the author felt certain that bombs would go off here some day soon. Sure enough, on April 14, 2001, bombs went off, killing ten people: they were, apparently, exploded by Harkat-ul-Jihad (Huji), and one of their members died because he was unable to get away in time . This was before 9/11, and was an Islamist reaction, not against the west, but against the Bengali intellectuals and the Awami League, the vehicle mobilized by Sheikh Mujib to ride the democracy express. On 21 August 2004, his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, now, in true dynastic fashion, the leader of the party, was nearly assassinated in a grenade attack that killed 22 people; she has received death threats, and has had to campaign under tight security in the last election. Today, of course, the perception has changed: the elite are perceived to be not only pro-Indian, but pro-western as well (they are both).
This superficial Anglicization explains the ersatz militarized democracy of India. As it explains the ersatz democracy of Bangladesh.
Tahmima notes in her BBC article: "But far more than our neighbour India, the political leadership in Bangladesh has had a troubled relationship with democracy. Again and again the army has muscled into power.
"The longest-standing example of this was the dictatorship of General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh for nine years, destroying our nascent democratic institutions and creating the foundations for the unbridled corruption that has since hobbled the nation."
The lady perverts the truth more than she economizes on it. She observed that Bangladesh had been born wedded to a non-military ideal, like that of India and unlike that of Pakistan, that we were dedicated to democracy.
Let's look at the facts.
Gwynne Dyer observes of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first prime minister and president of Bangladesh, that he was "an autocrat without a single democratic bone in his body ." For him, democracy was truly a train to board and leave when the destination has been reached. In his case, as in the case of any demagogue, that destination was Power. About the Mujib years, it has been observed by David Reynolds, "He [Sheikh Mujib] failed to disarm the guerrillas or check the rampant corruption, and the country soon degenerated into anarchy ". And that's not all.
In 1974, there was a famine in democratic Bangladesh that was entirely man-made. Floods damaged crops, but merchants sold rice to India – and the "father" of the nation, the aforementioned Sheikh Mujib, did not lift a finger to help the people who had elected him. According to the Britannica :
"In 1973 an election gave Mujib a landslide majority, but the euphoria soon turned sour. Prices escalated, and in 1974 a great famine claimed 50,000 lives. Faced with crisis, Mujib became a virtual dictator; corruption and nepotism reached new depths."
Sheikh Mujib instituted a one-party rule, and the years of democracy were, in fact, characterized by his personality cult, as Reynolds astutely observes: "The ailing and autocratic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman offered only the ideology of 'Mujibism', a thinly disguised cult of personality" . But perhaps Reynolds' most insightful statement is this: "Like most nationalisms, it was stirred up by the educated elite...."
Because of this elite, and its insatiable greed which manifested itself in the corruption after the country was born, close to 500,000 people perished in a so-called war of liberation (Reynolds dismisses the absurd Indian figure of 3 million killed , and quite rightly: it would mean that the Pakistan army was as effective in nine months as the American army in Vietnam over several years!). One elite wished to replace another elite, and it did. The new elite calmly watched 50,000 of their compatriots starve to death while they sold food to the new mother-country, India.
These facts give the lie to Tahmima Anam's assertion that "The founding fathers of Bangladesh were also interested in another idea, one that had yet to fully take root in Pakistan: democracy." We have never been interested in democracy, as our reverence for the autocratic founder of the country proves beyond doubt. And, pace Ms. Anam, corruption was well entrenched during Mujib's reign, not during military rule.
The next ruler of Bangladesh was the military strongman, General Ziaur Rahman. He was an honest leader, who died a violent death, as had Sheikh Mujib. Then came General Ershad's rule, nine long years of stability that prepared the groundwork for Bangladesh's present, albeit unequal, prosperity. When I interviewed the General at his Baridhara suite, he reeled off his accomplishments: 8,000 kilometers of highway, 2,500 MW of electricity....
THE MYTH OF THE MASSES
"Through mass protests and a popular campaign of agitation, Ershad was overthrown in 1991, and since then, three general elections have taken place in Bangladesh." How true is this assertion?
Even as I write, General Ershad has won the three constituencies he had contested, and is part of the ruling majority. The people did not overthrow him. The western donors did.
Speaking of the East European countries, Neal Ascherson states: "...these nations...could not claim the main credit for their own liberation....spontaneous acts of self-liberation ...were made possible by events and pronouncements in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev made it obvious, if not exactly clear, that there would be no further use of Soviet armed force to protect the existing Communist regimes in eastern and central Europe. By the end of 1988, at the latest, it was evident that domestic politics in Warsaw or Budapest really were domestic .
Similarly, the ultimate author of Bangladesh's transition to democracy in 1990 was none other than the aforementioned Mikhail Gorbachev. With the cold war's end, the western powers stopped propping up anti-communist dictators, like General Ershad. Adds Ascherson: "The crowds and their leaders were none the less afforded the enormous pride of sensing that their own decisions to come out into the street had won them freedom: a pride that was to provide moral capital for subsequent governments." Ditto in Bangladesh.
Thus, Ms. Anam's statement that mass protests brought down General Ershad simply does not stand up to the facts. Nor does it stand up to common sense: who, after all, bankrolled General Zia and General Ershad – both pro-American leaders – during their military tenures? The west. It was they who took Bangladesh away from Mujib's devastating socialism to a free market economy, turning away from Mujib's minders, India and the Soviet Union. Henceforth, we were to be a colony of the western powers. And that is all the democracy we have ever achieved: colonial democracy.
There's humour in this situation, no doubt: the masses elect their representatives, who in fact represent western powers. This is representative democracy, all right, but not the kind that most people usually have in mind. We might call it non-representative democracy.
"These trends laid the groundwork for the events of January 2007, when the political landscape in Bangladesh underwent a dramatic shift.
"Instead of looking forward to another chance to exercise our democratic rights, we realised, on the eve of the fourth election, that this election was planned and engineered to give victory to the ruling party." How true is this assertion?
"Another chance to exercise our democratic rights". What was the earlier chance – that of 2001? According to a reliable bureaucratic source, the election of 2001 was rigged in favour of the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by the wife of General Zia, against the Awami League. A brilliant mathematical analysis reveals fraud in two out of three elections: "One example concerns an analysis of the last three elections in Bangladesh. The 1991 election showed no strange results. For the 1996 election some 2% of results were problematic. And fully 9% of the results in 2001 failed the test. The 2001 election was fiercely contested. Yet monitors from the Carter Centre and the European Union found the election to be acceptably, if not entirely, free and fair. Tests like Dr. Mebane's one could provide monitors with quantitative estimates of exactly how free and fair an election has been...." And that's the last thing that western election monitors in banana republics would want!
(Deeming doctored elections 'free and fair' has been a favoured ploy of western powers whenever they favoured the outcome. Johan Perera reported form Sri Lanka that 'it seems the ritual of voting in the Third World is not so much for the purpose of democracy, but is rather for the purpose of legitimizing stable government.' His observation was based on what happened in Sri Lanka's elections in 2000. "Election observers attached to the local monitoring bodies, People's Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL) and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), expressed shock and revulsion at what they saw happening in the Kandy district on the day of the election." Armed gangs of 20 to 100 went from polling station to polling station. The rigging of the election extended beyond Kandy to many other parts of Sri Lanka. In the election monitoring offices in Colombo, phones rang off the hook, and fax machines churned out reports giving detailed accounts of what was happening. "In a post-election statement, the Election Commissioner stated that in the context of the conditions that apply in the Third World the election should be considered satisfactory.... The teams of foreign observers from the European Union and British Parliament seemed to think that way too. ")
After all, it was the United States (plus Europe) that wanted the two begums out of power, permanently. This was the famous "minus-two formula", backed by the western donors and the army (itself backed by the donors). After all, these two women – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – were giving democracy a bad name and creating another failed, Muslim state: the last thing the west needed.
But the minus-two plan backfired: there can be no alternative leaders in Bangladesh because there can be no democracy in Bangladesh. The old dynasties were destined to remain, as in India and Pakistan.
So, Plan B, it seems, was to allow elections, but make sure the anti-mullah Awami League won a landslide (like the pro-mullah BNP did in 2001): the world can still be shown that Islam and democracy are not oil and water.
The 2001 experiment – allowing the pro-mullah party and indeed quite a few mullahs to win – had not worked. The idea then was to co-opt the mullahs into the democratic process. But the best-laid plans....
With the cold war over, and the hot war on terror on, Bangladeshi politics must be seen in terms of the events following 9/11: our internal politics faithfully reflects western preoccupations.
Indeed, the internal mess in Bangladesh got so bad that the west asked the army to take over. As an editorial in the Bangladesh Observed observed: the two-year interregnum constituted "an apolitical, unelected, undemocratic and unconstitutional government placed there by the military with the full connivance of the United Nations and USA...."
During these two years, it became glaringly obvious that our real rulers were western nations. "The foreign ministry yesterday warned foreign missions here not to interfere in the country's internal affairs after reports emerged that the US had asked the government to clarify the reasons for the countrywide arrests made since Friday.
"This is the second time the foreign ministry, under the current government, has spoken out against 'interference' by foreign missions, which also followed statements made by US Charge d'affaires Geeta Pasi. " This report comes straight from the newspaper run by Ms. Anam's own father, Mahfuz Anam. And yet the lady insists that we have had occasional bouts of democracy. Under British rule, we had the Governor-General, under western rule, we have the American ambassadors, European Union envoys, and the British High Commissioner.
"Let me tell you frankly that I haven't started a political dialogue; that's up to the government to do," insisted Geeta Pasi, instead of apologizing for meddling . But then, why should she?
"Bangladeshi people are in charge of shaping their own destiny," insisted a foreign ministry spokesman, despite all evidence to the contrary .
"I wouldn't dream of getting involved in your internal affairs," assured James Moriarty, US ambassador to Bangladesh, speaking to the local press . And why should he dream about it when, in fact, he runs the country?
"If we see it is simply (sic) the government that does not want to pass on power, then we would certainly not show any understanding for this (sic) and exert our political influence and insist that the election be held soon," said Thilo Hoppe, head of a German parliamentary delegation .
In one episode, the Law Advisor had to remind some foreigners that the law of the land did not allow foreigners on tourist visas to hold press conferences.
The outgoing British High Commissioner, a British-born Bengali, categorically denied any involvement in the declaration of the state of emergency on January 11 2007, and urged Bangladeshis not to 'blame foreigners' . "We cannot and will not interfere in your country," he said. But, he noted, the country might have faced a 'civil-war' like situation if the January 22 elections had gone ahead. "We don't want a failed democracy in Bangladesh," he said, adding that Bangladesh has to look forward and end an obsession with the past. Tellingly, he added that he British aid to Bangladesh would not go to the NGOs or the middle class, and would reach the poorest people (it doesn't, for the purpose of foreign aid is to purchase the allegiance of the elite that allowed their countrymen to starve to death).
Free and fair elections in Palestine produced a result repugnant to western powers. When I spoke with the Counselor of the Palestinian Embassy in Bangladesh, Faik Hamza, about the response to the Gaza bombing in this country, he sounded distinctly disappointed. There were a few, minuscule, shows of protest, and nothing more. The reports of these 'rallies' have been deeply buried in the inside pages of newspapers. This is unsurprising. According to Faik Hamaza, in the last thirty years, there have hardly been one or two public discussions on Palestine. Whatever response there has been has come from the government – the routine condemnation voiced by so many Islamic countries. Civil society – all those donor-funded NGOs – have been sternly silent on the subject. This is not, Tahmima Anam, an independent country.
LOGOS, AND THE TRUTH
One meaning of the Greek word 'logos' is account: in her account of Bangladesh's past and present, how faithful has Tahmima Anam been to the truth? Not very.
This raises a major question: what duty does an author have to truth, as opposed to say, a person of negligible gifts? Should a writer be held to a higher standard of probity than lesser mortals? We have the feeling that writers owe us a logos faithful to the truth. Ms. Anam's logos lacks fidelity.
But then, why should she be any different from other members of the Bangladeshi elite? Her father, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, the biggest selling English language daily, Mahfuz Anam says of his daughter: "Tahmima more or less stayed in Bangladesh only for four years of her life. But as she matured, she became intellectually inclined to this land, to this culture, to this people and to this heritage. And that to me as a father is my biggest satisfaction -- to see my daughter become a part of this heritage, and be so proud of it. " Thus, born into the elite, she remained more or less estranged from Bangladesh except for four years. That's something to be proud of.
And he should be proud. Tahmima Anam's 'A Golden Age' won the Overall Best First Book Award 2008 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in Cape Town, South Africa. The book, based on Bangladesh's war of liberation in 1971, earned the prestigious award as part of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2008 organized by the Commonwealth Foundation .
In fact, Mahfuz Anam was proud enough to share the book with the former American ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh, William B. Milam. "Islamist influence has grown almost geometrically in Bangladesh in the past decade," noted Milam . In the article, he was deeply exercised over the subject of Islamist influence, an influence his government hardly deplored in the jihad against the Soviet Union. His friendship with Mahfuz Anam apparently extends far, for he wrote what amounts to a review of Tahmima's book in the Daily News of Pakistan. "This week I was going to write about what I learned on my second stop in Pakistan, especially about the complicated issues that roil current politics. But that intention was subverted by a proud Bangladeshi father who gave me, as I was leaving Dhaka, a copy of the first novel of his talented daughter. When I opened the book, it captivated and captured me."
After praising the book, he goes onto ask: "What was East Pakistan and became Bangladesh has always been important to Pakistan's political development, mostly as a counterfoil, a check on what might have been. How different would Pakistan have been if Yahya, the army and ZA Bhutto had chosen a political solution to the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71 instead of a military solution? Had the results of a free and fair democratic election been allowed to be implemented, that might have been the start of a viable democracy."
Not so fast! Wasn't it the United States that didn't lift a finger to stop the descent into chaos in 1970-1? Wasn't West Pakistan a staunch American ally in the cold war? And wasn't the major reason that America did not interfere – and Pakistan would not have dared to go against its sponsor – the fact that Pakistan was the go-between in the Sino-American talks undertaken secretly by Kissinger?
In 1969 Richard Nixon had begun overtures to Peking through de Gaulle and Yahya Khan. The Pakistani link proved fruitful in December 1970 (the month elections were held in both East and West Pakistan), when Yahya Khan returned from Peking with an invitation for an American envoy to discuss Taiwan . The following April the famous "Ping-Pong diplomacy" began. There followed a secret trip to Peking by Kissinger in July 1971 (it was made under cover of a "diplomatic illness" during a trip to Pakistan ).
Thus, we find that during the worst months of the assault of the Pakistan army on the people of East Pakistan, America and China were on intimate terms with Pakistan. Neither wished to imperil their relations with that country, and its army .
The elite of Bangladesh never acknowledge the role played by America in the atrocities of 1971. That is understandable: it is a dependency relationship. Demonizing Pakistan doesn't cost anything in material terms; demonizing America would mean that all those children of the elite studying at American universities and then settling proudly in the Land of the Free would be unable to do so. And which parent isn't proud that their son or daughter "lives in the States, you know"? Hence the groveling.
"How different would Pakistan have been if Yahya, the army and ZA Bhutto had chosen a political solution to the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71 instead of a military solution?" Milam's question leaves out one important personality: that of Sheikh Mujib. The fact of the matter was that in the two wings of Pakistan, two demagogues respectively had been elected. Both were inflexible, intractable.
Democracy was not in their genes: it is not the culture of Asia, let alone South Asia. The election of 1970, the first since 1956, was destined to be a disaster - precisely because it was an election. We have seen Tambiah's observations to that effect, a propos India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
"That decision not only split the two halves of what was supposed to be the Muslim homeland of South Asia, it proved that the tie of religion which supposedly justified bringing together the two different wings into one country was not as binding as had been thought by its founders. Ethnicity, culture and language proved stronger than religion as a binding force. It showed once again that these deep-seated social ties are not really amenable to force in the long run; though they can be repressed in the short run, repression must ultimately turn to genocide to maintain the status quo." Thus Milam goes on in his article.
Not amenable to force? Then how does India remain a unit? India, as we have seen, is held together by the centripetal pull of the military. Where the Pakistan army killed 500,000 Bengalis, the Indian army killed 200,000 people in Nagaland alone – combine that with figures from Punjab, Kashmir, Assam, and force proves adequate glue.
Surely Milam couldn't have forgotten the history of his own country, which, but for the first terrible modern war, nearly sundered in two in 1861? Secession brings out the worst in government and people.
Only one book, to my knowledge, has been written on the savagery of Abraham Lincoln and his army, that by historian Walter Brian Cisco called "War Crimes Against Southern Civilians". I quote from a review of the book by Thomas J. DiLorenzo:
"The union of the founders was destroyed in 1865. War Crimes Against Southern Civilians explains in great detail how, in addition to killing some 300,000 dissenters to rule by Washington, D.C. on the battlefield, the U.S. Army, under the micromanagement of Abe Lincoln, also murdered tens of thousands of Southern civilians, including thousands of slaves and free blacks, while stealing tens of millions of dollars of their private possessions as well. None of it was necessary, of course, for the purpose of ending slavery; all other countries on earth ended slavery peacefully during the nineteenth century. This included the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Danish colonies, where 96 percent of all the slaves in the Western Hemisphere once existed. The purpose of the war was to finally realize the Hamiltonian dream of a consolidated, monopolistic government that would pursue what Hamilton himself called "national greatness" and "imperial glory." The purpose of the war, in other words, was a New Birth of Empire, one that would hopefully rival the Europeans in the exploitation of their own citizens in the name of the glory of the state. "
Lincoln did not undertake the war to end slavery, but to preserve the union. How were his actions different from those of Indira Gandhi or Yahya Khan?
(En passant, it should be observed that the bloodied United States was the first country, decades before Europe, to achieve mass democracy; indeed Martin van Buren, the manager of Andrew Jackson's victory, was a direct ancestor of Aflred Hugenburg, the German press-lord who significantly paved the way to Hitler's rise to power . While America experienced one civil war, Europe experienced two, for the world wars are regarded by some today as intra-European conflicts to be contained by the (undemocratic) European Union.)
The election of 1970 produced two demagogues in a face off in which they must not lose face. We know the devastation that one demagogue can cause – and when two demagogues are at it, well, hell's doors are opened wide.
The election of 1991 in Bangladesh was to usher in two dictators – Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. And two dictators nearly tore apart the nation, but for foreign intervention. But that is another story.
Meanwhile, we may question the wisdom of the BBC in publishing such a packet of falsehood as the article by Tahmima Anam. Anyone unfamiliar with Bangladesh and its politics (that is, almost everyone) will get a distorted logos.
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