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The Price of Conscience

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‎"The real problem in Bangladesh politics," observes Rehman Sobhan, one of our ‎leading intellectuals and chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, ' a civil society ‎think tank', and of the Board of Grameen Bank, a world-renowned NGO and this years' ‎co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with its founder, Mohammed Yunus, "lies in the fact ‎that every party harbours mastaans [Bengali for thugs, goons] because they play an ‎integral part in the election system and in securing a support base in particular areas." ‎Does Mr. Sobhan express outrage with this state of affairs? Far from it. "Thus each ‎party," he goes on, "feels a need for their mastaans and will be reluctant to abandon them ‎for potential but indeterminate gains in public esteem unless their opponents are willing ‎to do likewise. Thus, invocations to political leaders to abandon such proven political ‎resources are an unreal expectation, however important this be in the agenda of ‎governance reform. (Rehman Sobhan, Structural Dimensions of Malgovernance in ‎Bangladesh, ‎click here

Since we are ruled from Washington, and our democracy is a kind of make-‎believe, men such as Mr. Rahman, who are plentiful in supply, in order to further their ‎careers and to earn the dosh that comes from the west, have to accept that America ‎wishes to democratize us at all costs. And 'all costs' includes human costs. One wonders: ‎at what price are people willing to give up their conscience? ‎

Consider what the learned Chairman of the board of Grameen Bank is saying: we ‎must accept thuggery. ‎
Therefore, when a teenager is raped by a member of the ruling party youth wing, ‎as one was in Keraniganj in October, 2006, we must accept the incident as part and parcel ‎of the democracy imposed on us by Washington, DC. ‎

And when, on November 8, 2005, ruling party activists gang-raped six-month ‎pregnant Tahura Begum because her husband, Babar Ali, refused to quit the opposition, ‎and when she had an abortion, and after being kidnapped several times from hospital, she ‎finally died on November 16, we had to accept lawlessness of such caliber because we ‎must accept thuggery: the political parties need these thugs, and thugs will be thugs, after ‎all. ‎

And when 15-year-old Mahima was gang-raped and the political maastans ‎distributed the pictures of the rape throughout the village and the girl killed herself on ‎February 19, 2002, we should have calmly accepted the situation as legitimate: and, in ‎fact, that is precisely what we did, for nobody raised a voice of protest against the ‎incident. Washington wants democracy in Bangladesh, and that entails the use of goons, ‎so we must accept the diktat, however odious the consequences. After all, we, the elite, ‎have careers in America and money flows form there and our children work in the United ‎States, and we're proud of the fact. ‎

Why should we anger Washington, DC over a few miserable girls?‎

Under military rule in 1985, 248 girls per year were raped - and that was 248 ‎rapes too many. After our democratic transition - mandated by Washington, London, ‎Paris, Bonn, and Brussels, since the Cold War was over - the figure jumped to 982 in ‎‎1991, and stood at 2,224 by 1997. Mere statistics, of course; not living, breathing human ‎beings - and all raped for the sake of our precious democracy, to appease the lust of the ‎soldiers and thugs of our political parties. For isn't that what armies do - rape? And Mr. ‎Sobhan above has made it clear that the thugs are the private armies of our political ‎leaders, and that these leaders won't relinquish their armies - and, of course, Washington ‎won't allow any retrogression to military rule for its credo is 'freedom': and Bangladesh ‎is special, for it is one of the few Muslim democracies around, a 'success' story to show ‎the rest of the world that, the mayhem in Iraq notwithstanding, democracy and Islam can ‎get along famously - as in Bangladesh. ‎

Therefore, since we must tolerate the thugs, the people - who can't read and write ‎and so miss the lofty wisdom penned by men (and women) like Rehman Sobhan - take ‎the law into their own hands. That's right - the people for the sake of whom democracy ‎supposedly exists, do not tolerate the private armies. ‎

In August, 2002, a thousand fists and feet rammed into the bodies of two ‎criminals at Rampura lake in Dhaka: Alauddin and his younger brother Rakib‎. These two ‎had tyrannised the area during the rule of the Awami League; the elections came, and this ‎time the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won, so the siblings abandoned the League ‎and joined the BNP. But the people decided that enough was enough: they beat them to ‎death. ‎

Lynching can take even more grotesque forms. ‎
In September, 2005, a man suspected of being a mugger was beaten up by the ‎people; but instead of killing him with their fists and feet, they poured kerosene on him, ‎and set him ablaze. ‎

A newspaper editor had observed earlier: ‎
‎"[The] Catching [of] an alleged mugger and setting him on fire by pouring ‎kerosene all over his body at Mirpur last Monday night raked up a nightmarish memory. ‎We can't forget that not so long ago lynching became a regular occurrence just about ‎anywhere (sic) in the country. But mostly alleged muggers would either be burnt to death ‎or set on fire by angry crowds in broad daylight in the capital city....‎

‎"Police said there was no case against him, though the local people alleged that he ‎was involved in criminal activities. Therefore, it is only natural for us to wonder whether ‎he was a victim of enmity. It is not impossible for anyone to frame someone and instigate ‎the onlookers against that person. We have seen how ugly mob temper can get in such ‎situations. But we are yet to know for sure whether all those who had been lynched ‎earlier on were real criminals or several of them were just victims of circumstances." ‎

Notice the editor's tortuous attempt to justify lynching - if the man lynched is a ‎criminal, then lynching him is all right. He is not exercised by the fact of lynching itself - ‎another example of calm acceptance of violence. ‎

Between 2001 and 2003, more than 150 people were killed by mobs in the ‎capital city alone. In 2006, on an average, six people were lynched per month. ‎

The election of criminals and those with criminal connections have, as we saw, ‎been accepted by the intelligentsia of Bangladesh. Therefore, the people have no recourse ‎except to take the law into their own hands. ‎

Consider only one lawmaker's conduct in broad daylight in February, 1999, as ‎described in a local newspaper: ‎

‎'In an obvious show of strength yesterday, Haji Moqbul, MP from city's ‎Mohammedpur-Dhanmandi constituency, led a motorcade of more than 10 cars and a ‎couple of minibuses at around 11:30 am. As his convoy reached the intersection of ‎Mirpur Road and Green Road, it confronted a group of BNP [Bangladesh National Party ‎‎- the opposition at the time] activists on the run after being chased by police....‎

‎'The armed men caught two young men and started to drag them towards the ‎motorcade that waited on the Mirpur Road. At one point the men hit one of the captives ‎in (sic) his head with a revolver and shot another in the chest point blank, witnesses said. ‎A policeman who was leading a dozen men in riot gear stood silently nearby.'‎

When the president of Bangladesh dared to deploy the army to quell pre-election ‎violence a few days ago, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, Patricia A. Butenis, ‎had a "talk" with him, and the army returned to barracks. While the American military - ‎the mightiest in the world and financed by denying the citizens of the richest country ‎such fundamental guarantees as health (43 millions Americans are uninsured) - patrols ‎the world promoting civilian rule and democracy, we are not permitted to protect our ‎men, women and children with our own army. ‎

When a country is ruled from Washington in the name of democracy, it loses its ‎conscience - at a price. The price the obedient elite receive is exactly the price the masses ‎have to pay. ‎
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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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