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Colonial Democracy

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Follow Me on Twitter     Message Iftekhar Sayeed
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. ‎
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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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