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Regime change has been all the rage. In Bangladesh, we experienced regime ‎change in 1990. The evil dictator, Genral Ershad, was deposed by "people power" on ‎December 6th. But wait! Who propped him up for nine long years as evil dictator? Our ‎western donors. And who toppled him? The embarrassingly same answer. ‎

And weren't there only three democracies in sub-Saharan Africa in 1989, and 30 ‎in 1991? And haven't anthropologists like Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, as well ‎as newspapers like The Economist, linked the domino-like decline of dictators to the ‎western aid tied to multi-party elections coupled with the collapse of communism? ‎

And then came the Gulf War, and a dozen years later, the emancipation of Iraq, ‎the regime change of all regime changes. From now on, we were expected to be ‎democratic and egalitarian - to kick our nasty hierarchic habits picked up over several ‎thousand years, to level man, woman and child (well, maybe not child) to the same ‎height, or raise them to it, depending on your perspective. ‎

There is no such thing as history; there is no such thing as culture; there is no such ‎thing as language. There is only democracy. ‎

This was the new, imperial message. ‎

Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, fifteen years of freedom have produced two ‎dictators where there used to be one - two veritable royal families in a latter-day War of ‎the Roses. It seems that you can't kill language, culture and history - no matter how ‎many people die (and around forty people have already died in political violence before ‎the next elections) or how much money donors pour into the country (of which, ‎according to studies by a noted economist, only 25% reach the poor; 30% go to foreign ‎consultants and suppliers, and the remainder purchase the loyalty of the elite). ‎

Let's confine ourselves to language - that eternal Orphic song, flowing with ‎Daedal harmony, to quote Shelley. ‎

The most important thing to realize is that - we cannot translate between ‎languages. Thus, words such as 'democracy', 'vote', 'accountability', 'representation', ‎and 'parliament' cannot be translated into other languages. ‎

Hence, we have been forced to adopt an ostensive definition of democracy. ‎Democracy means that: the ballot box. This ostensive definition has led to the winning of ‎the ballot box by fair means and foul (mostly foul). For the meaning of a word, as a wise ‎philosopher pointed out some time ago, cannot be given by ostension, but depends on the ‎‎- social - rules guiding the use of that word. Meaning is a social entity, and since an ‎entire society - and its history and culture - can never be exported, no amount of regime ‎change can export the meaning of a word. Indeed, ccommentators such as Ayesha Jalal ‎and the Mahbubul Haq Centre have observed that democracy in South Asia is an empty ‎ritual. Just so. As Willard Van Orman Quine pointed out: "...people feel drawn to a ‎mentalistic account of language, despite the conspicuous fact that language is a social ‎enterprise....". ‎

Take the word 'you'. In Bengali, there are three of these pronouns; in Farsi ‎‎(Persian) there are two. My Iranian friend tells me that she could never even think of ‎sitting across from her grandmother at dinner and calling her "to" instead of "shoma"! ‎Yet in egalitarian English, "you" would be perfectly acceptable to grandma. The ‎implication for a Persian-speaker and Bengali-speaker is that there can be no dissent - the ‎language precludes dissent, since one must not argue with elders, and elders should only ‎dictate to youngsters. The ideal is obedience. ‎

The Bengali translation of the verb 'sit' would be bosha. But translation would ‎not reveal how the word is used. The pronoun discriminates carefully between equals, ‎inferiors and superiors as 'apni', 'tumi' and 'tui' respectively; and so does the ‎verb! The language reflects and reinforces the social hierarchy.‎

"Apni boshun" would be used with a superior; "tumi bosho" with an equal; and "tui bosh" with an inferior or an intimate. Yet the English translation would, in each case, be "Sit"!

It may be of interest to note that a former president of Bangladesh launched a ‎‎"Say Apni" campaign, "a social motivation programme for polite and gentle behaviour". ‎Citizens were asked to greet strangers with "apni", whatever their status - yet surely a ‎democracy should encourage everyone to greet each other with the egalitarian "tumi" ‎instead of any of the other forms!‎

Therefore, with regime change, donors must perform surgery on the language - ‎remove every trace of any part of speech that connotes or denotes hierarchy. Every novel ‎and play must be thoroughly revised by a central institution - financed by lots of donor ‎money - to eradicate the offending words. And when Sheikh Sa'di and Rumi have been ‎purged of every occurrence of "shoma', and all of Bengali literature expurgated of the ‎odious "tui" and "apni", then - and then only - will we achieve a non-hierarchic, ‎democratic order, and not before that. ‎

An English friend of mine, who is a teacher at the London School of Economics, ‎comes over frequently to Bangladesh, and laments, almost as frequently, that the term ‎‎"civil society" is misused and abused here. Well, what does he expect? It's an expression ‎that's been exported with oodles of donor money, and foisted on an uncomprehending ‎people who still cannot call their grandmothers "you". Thus, we find such inanities in ‎newspaper reports as "civil society leaders"! Now, the essence of civil society is that it ‎should be non-hierarchic, but it transpires that there are leaders - securely established, for ‎their names come up again and again under the above rubric - who always lead "civil ‎society" and to whom deference is due. There is even a think tank that absurdly describes ‎itself as "a civil society think tank". One wonders what a non-civil society think tank ‎would be like - very uncivil, no doubt. ‎

Meanwhile, we are left with our mother tongue and its imperfections: and, since ‎this is an English essay, I must try and provide solid English examples of our hierarchic ‎society. No less a personage than the President of the Bangladesh Economic Association ‎betrayed the bent knee when he observed, "It would not be therefore beyond our means to ‎make Bangladesh poverty-free, if we could achieve high equitable economic growth in an ‎uninterrupted way for 10-15 years. While faced with such enormous problems and ‎possibilities, why then in our national politics, are we moving towards self-annihilation? ‎This is the question I would most humbly put before both of you (The Daily Star, ‎February 11, 2000)." In an international missive from 23 Bangladeshi professors teaching ‎abroad, we find a similar kowtow. "Please note that we do not have any stake in party ‎politics in Bangladesh. The only reason we make some humble suggestions in this letter ‎is that we want to see Bangladesh prosper. It hurts us to see Bangladesh's prospects being ‎harmed by unnecessary political strife" (reported in The Daily Star, March 23, 2000). But ‎the recherche' specimen flowed from the anguished pen of an advocate of the Supreme ‎Court of Bangladesh, Ms.Rehana Begum, in the opinion section of that same mouthpiece ‎of the intelligentsia (September 20, 2000): "May I crave indulgence of the Prime Minister ‎to say that let her disabuse the mind of the people from thinking that she is smoke-‎screened or not being correctly guided. I would equally like to crave the indulgence of ‎the present Leader of the Opposition in Parliament that she would rather set an example ‎of a political party that does not believe in the politics of gun culture and vandalism". (It ‎would not be ludicrous supererogation to add that the italics are entirely mine.) This is ‎not the language of citizens - this is the language of subjects. ‎

While such genuflection contradicts the very spirit of democratic equality, it consists ‎eminently with our culture of hierarchic submission. ‎

No language change, no regime change. ‎
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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