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Colonial Democracy

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The natives were restless that night. ‎

Hence, the imperial powers Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Brussels, ‎‎- asked the president to declare a state of emergency and impose a one-night curfew. ‎After this one-nighter, the elections scheduled for 22 January were cancelled, and the ‎caretaker government was revamped. Jubilation followed. ‎

International newspapers published the fact that the army was now running the ‎country. The Economist article on Bangladesh bore the facetious title "The coup that dare ‎not speak its name". And why dare it not speak its name? Because western powers ‎especially the United States want to see a Muslim country like Bangladesh to be ‎democratic. Only the spectre of civil war with one set of parties boycotting the ‎elections, and threatening mayhem, and another set contesting them showed the donor ‎countries the madness of their methods. Patrica A. Butenis, the U.S. ambassador, had ‎been so busy before the emergency that she has clearly been seen as the "Governor-‎General of Bangladesh". Other diplomats appeared to play the role of Deputy Governor-‎Generals. ‎

Civil war in Bangladesh would not have mattered much to America but for the ‎similarity such an outcome would bear to the failed experiments in democracy in Iraq and ‎Palestine. A third Muslim, democratic country in a state of civil war would have been ‎seen as too great a failure of foreign policy. The jubilation in Bangladesh was, sadly, ‎made possible by the misery in Iraq and Palestine. ‎

The paradox of being a colony and a democracy must seem very new. Yet the ‎origin of the oxymoron goes back to the time of Darius. When Darius sent to Athens for ‎the signs of submission, earth and water, the democrats were all too willing to kowtow; it ‎was the conservatives who held out. It would appear that the reforms of Cleisthenes did ‎not preclude rule under a distant monarch. After Darius conquered the Ionian cities, he ‎permitted them to practice democracy under his imperium: the tyrants were expelled by ‎the satrap Mardonius only when Darius was certain that he had subdued Ionia! Eretria ‎was betrayed by the democrats, and the punishment meted out to that hapless city ‎dissuaded even the Athenian democrats from following suit. The rest is history. ‎

‎"We quite forget that we ourselves long since passed through the town-meeting ‎stage, "observed A.T. Olmstead, "when we governed ourselves much like the Athenians, ‎and have now become a mighty world empire whose problems are those of the Persians." ‎He was writing in 1948. ‎

I wonder how many Americans perceive themselves as Persians and their ‎presidents as the members of the Achaemenid dynasty. Even more, how many of us here ‎in Bangladesh perceive ourselves as an American colony? That we pride ourselves for ‎holding three elections under the benign auspices of that mother country testifies to the ‎poverty of our insight into our true status as subjects of a vast empire, not citizens of a ‎free country. Whatever form of government we adopt, the incontrovertible fact of our ‎dominion will stare us in the face. ‎

Other parallels and dissimilarities with the Persian Empire are even more ‎illuminating of our present discomfiture. The Persians exacted tribute; America confers ‎cash. The Persians perfected the art of bribery; America is past master. Our entire elite ‎have been bought! And not only with cash, but with the more subtle currency of kudos, of ‎careers in the mother country, of respect conferred by way of labels. Persepolis lacked ‎universities to confer graduate or postgraduate degrees, held here in such high esteem. ‎

Take an egregious example. I questioned the Palestinian counselor, Faik Hamza, ‎regarding our attitude towards the Palestinians. He has been living in this country for ‎thirty years, and in all that time, he observes, he has never seen any discussions held on ‎the Palestinian subject. After the third anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, I again ‎met Mr. Hamza. I asked his if any public commemorations had been held. He sadly ‎replied, "No." We had evinced the same neglect the previous year. Why would a ‎Bangladeshi Muslim wish to offend the imperial power by betraying the least loyalty for ‎his kindred in religion? The local chapter of Transparency International holds seminar ‎after seminar on the subject of corruption: yet how can they cast the first stone? It is ‎surely convenient for western powers that we are one of the most corrupt nations: this ‎makes us docile. Of course, the Americans have not been able to do what the Persians ‎had succeeded in doing: bribing the priests. The Persians bribed the oracles, but that is ‎not possible with Islam which has no priesthood. This makes rare exceptions like Osama ‎bin Laden possible. For a people who are supposed to espouse jihad as an obligation, ‎Muslims have been notoriously pacific under an imperial yoke. ‎

Our democratic experiment which so reminds me of the Tuskegee experiment ‎has been relegated to the back burner by all our overlords. Yet what have we learnt from ‎sixteen miserable years? That some of our politicians are corrupt and criminal, but the ‎system works just fine. We have taken as self-evident the truth of the counter-factual "if ‎it hadn't been for these venal chaps, the system would have worked". We point to ‎America: the system works there, so why wouldn't it work here? How can it be said of a ‎system that it works when it contradicts the very principle on which that system rests: ‎respect for the dignity and freedom of other people? The very fact of our fetters renders ‎false the precept of liberty. ‎

On my estimates, around four student politicians were murdered every year ‎‎(mostly by their own members in intra-party feuds over sharing of extortion money); ‎these boys were systematically used by the parties to rotate in power. That means, over ‎sixteen years, around 800 boys died because of our democratic transition. In 2005, 310 ‎people were killed in political violence, a figure that jumped 21% to 374 in the election ‎year of 2006. Assuming that 300 people were killed in political violence every year, then ‎over sixteen years 4,800 people have died because of politics. And in the last four years, ‎‎700 extrajudicial killings by the state have been reported killings that were immensely ‎popular with a public disgusted by violence, despite the fact that those killed were ‎Frankensteins created by the two major parties. The number of rapes committed by the ‎thugs of the political parties has not been recorded, but the Ministry of Women's and ‎Children's Affairs tells us that the number of rapes rose from 248 in 1984 to 982 in ‎‎1991, that is, just after the democratic transition, to reach the astounding figure of 2,224 ‎by 1997! We can conclude that thousands of women would have been spared the ‎agonizing humiliation of rape if the democratic experiment had not taken place. ‎

What finally brought around the elite to suspend democracy? The nationwide ‎blockades enforced by the opposition crippled the country in the second half of 2006, ‎and, as observed, the election would have brought something like civil war. American ‎interest and elite interest converged: neither wished to plummet into an Iraq-like ‎situation. That means neither the murders of young boys, nor the routine political ‎violence, nor the rapes of thousands of women could stir the elite from their apathy and ‎subservience. Only when their financial interests were affected when business could no ‎longer be conducted and children could no longer go to school did the elite and their ‎masters put an end to a nightmare. ‎

Such are the workings of a colonial democracy. Darius would have been ‎delighted. ‎

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 
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