"There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity... You can smell it. It smells like death."
- Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Writer Tahmima Anam says that "The founding fathers of Bangladesh were also interested in another idea, one that had yet to fully take root in Pakistan: democracy.
"But far more than our neighbour, India, the political leadership in Bangladesh had had a troubled relationship with democracy (emphases added). Again and again the army has muscled into power."
The emphases above show how the writer sidesteps the issue as to who killed democracy first and made it impossible - by her own account, not the army. But for the army, the country would have sunk in the Ganges.
(Our redoubtable neighbour, India, has been an autocracy from day 1 - or, at least, since 1962, when Nehru lost the Sino-Indian war. He didn't resign; nobody asked him to resign; not even the opposition. His biographer, Michael Edwards, has observed that "It is difficult to believe that in any other democratic state he and his cabinet could have survived." But India was not a democratic state.)
Clearly Nehru was an autocrat. He delivered the message to India that the executive is unaccountable: it can get away with anything. Nehru was the first Maharaja of modern India.
Today, India - following inexorably from Nehru's logic - has a mass murderer for prime minister, twice elected. For as long as he remained chief minister of Gujarat, where he was complicit, for want of a better word, in a pogrom that killed 1,000 Muslims, America refused him a visa.
Indian democracy rests, no doubt, on rationality: rational voters exchange ideas and information in the political bazaar, and the soundest views and the most factual evidence transcend other concerns and considerations.
This is the democracy so admired by Tahmima Anam - the path, not only sadly but wantonly, not taken by us.
Look closely: instead of rational, deliberative politics in fine democratic forums, the Indian gentleman (spare the ladies!) prefers a blunter instrument- a sledgehammer taken to a mosque.
Thus, in India today, we have thuggocracy, not democracy (unless the two are synonymous). And, because of the felicitous absence of democracy here before 1990, we have only recently, after that annus mirabilis/annus horribilis (according to taste) reached that nadir of human development, to the horror even of the familiar brutes on our streets and the exotic fauna of our zoos, could they but speak.
"The longest-standing example of this was the dictatorship of General Hossain Mohammed 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."
But she had already written that our political leaders played footsie with democracy: so how did Ershad destroy our never-nascent democracy?
Furthermore, it appears that Ershad, alone among the luminaries, created "the foundations for the unbridled corruption that has since hobbled the nation".
There was, therefore, no corruption before Ershad. On that score, even the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Bangladesh is surely mistaken in the matter of our prelapsarian incorruptibility (along with other error-vendors and yellow journalists).
The elephant in the room was, of course, the famine of 1974, which trifling non-event seems to have slipped her mind. There was enough food in the country, but it was exported to India (famine, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1988). Various sources, including the Banglapedia, estimate the number dead at 1.5 million. This was a massive case of government failure (failure of a non-military, elected government).
People like me and my wider family did not starve. The priests at Notre Dame College started a feeding program in 1974; every day, they filled 1,000 bellies. They were able to get food in Bangladesh, not from outside it. Thus, the biggest national failure - what WE did to US, and not what THEY did to US - was a democratic failure.
Our second puerile ludo of democracy was played after 1990 among contending children. As children without adults, their will was law (percipient readers will notice an attempt to sneak in the parable of The Lord of the Flies!).
About this period of democratic awakening, she congratulated herself and her compatriots (some departed to a higher realm prematurely, dispatched by the student thugs in hartals): "For three consecutive elections, we have had a large and enthusiastic electorate who have ushered in freely elected governments and representative parliaments. Although young and sometimes faltering, we have been understandably proud of our fledgling democracy."
Proud, indeed, of arson and immolation, vandalism and the dexterous use of the Molotov cocktail. DIY bomb-making became de rigueur.
And here's the loudest laugh: the elections were phony. Walter Mebane and his team at Cornell crunched the numbers and found that the elections of 1996 and 2001 were not on the up and up (1991 was an exception). Yet the Carter Center and the European Union had vetted the eye-wash. Our authoress, it seems, has partners in the recent tendency not to call a fact a fact, but to cook a hodgepodge of post-truth for the mass consumption of an ever-gullible - dare I say it? - electorate. (A brief search for Walter Mebane in the Economist search facility will yield the article, Political Science: Election Forensics, How to detect voting fiddles, February 22, 2007. This article is publicly available, yet not a single newspaper thought we had the right to know, and seems to have outmatched even Pravda in its economy with the truth.)
In retrospect, it is not the eleven years of General Ershad's rule, but the succeeding 30 years of thuggocracy that seem to mirror the General a latter-day Augustus (whereas the civil strife preceded Augustus, here it followed General Ershad's illegal imprisonment).
In history, one man may be a bulwark against chaos, or watch helplessly the spread of chaos from behind prison walls, knowing he would have stood firm against the advance of the factions, had he been, like the Roman god, in command.
* *. *
(Interested readers are directed to the author's expanded essay Bangladesh, and the Lucifer Effect - The Allure of Toxicity: A Situationist Explanation of the Evil in Bangladesh.)
(Article changed on June 16, 2019 at 11:49)
(Article changed on June 17, 2019 at 01:02)