General Labyrinth

The Generals In Their Labyrinth
by Naeem Mohaiemen
[originally published in DAILY STAR, Sep 28 '06]

"The #1 hot-selling item is democracy, nothing else comes close. Not religion, love, lust, hamburger, fish and chips, coca cola, beer, or Princess Diana."
[Humayun Azad, Rajnithibidgon, Agami Press, 1998]

One quiet morning in 1982, I headed to school as usual. My father used to give me a "lift" on his way to work. A military doctor, he had a long trek to CMH and would leave at the pagan hour of 6 am. I staggered out with him, unfinished homework bulging in my backpack.

Suddenly my aunt came running out.

"Bablu bhai, don't go near Cantonment! They just announced on the radio, there's been a coup!"

"Coup? Abar ke coup korlo?" my father barked with his usual brusqueness.

"General Ershad."

Ershad? Who the hell was Ershad? The only General I knew well was retired Osmani on the election trail. Ey cheese kothheke elo? I thought, still sleepy. And in the next moment, a secret thrill as the larger significance sank in.

No school today!

Over the next ten years, we got to know that cheese very well. Nothun Bangladesh Gorbo Mora led to Beshi Kore Aloo Khan, golf tournaments, poetry festivals, state religion, university closed sine die, Mishuk rickshas, street urchins renamed Pothokoli, KAFCO corruption, Atroshi's Pir as royal guru, Nur Hossain's dead body, and much more. It was a long bumpy ride, capped by Qamrul Hasan's deathbed drawing.

After a decade in the wilderness, Ershad is back. Dhaka streets carry this bold JP slogan:
Je Bole Shoirachar/Thar Mookhe Jootha Mar
(He Who Calls Us Dictator/Kick Him In The Face)

Not just the return of the king, today's political earthquakes could set the stage for an Ershad sequel, whether from the army or elsewhere. During Sattar's brief tenure, students set a bus on fire over a fare dispute. Compared to what we have seen recently, it was a zero level conflict. But even that was enough for a journalist to say, "This bura mia, Sattar, can't control the country!" Sure enough, a few days later, along came Ershad. From the journalist's mouth to somebody's ears

When an army intervenes to stop chaos, everyone is initially happy. Even diehard nationalists I interviewed for a film talked about the trains "running on time" under Ayub. The idea of the benevolent dictator has tremendous appeal, in spite of counter-examples that include Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Ziaul Haq, Than Shwe, Jorge Videla, Manual Noriega, and Jose Efrain Rios Montt.

An industrialist friend recently wrote to me, "Ar Bhalo Lage Na. How do you run a business with hartal? Tomorrow if the military comes, I won't protest!" Talking to a relative, I heard another dangerously familiar sentiment, "Konta Chere Konta Dhorbo? Both parties seem equally hopeless."

When this nihilistic mindset sets in, a third force starts looking tempting. Perhaps they will even start with genuine intentions. It always starts that way. Our histories are cluttered with liberators who talked about desh ke bachathe ar kono upai chilo na (I had no other choice, to save the country). And then the rot sets in. Did I say I would return power to civilians in a year? CMLA (Chief Martial Law Administrator) means Cancel My Last Announcement.

This is not to say that the army is bubbling with intrigue or waiting to take power. Today's army appears to be more professional than in the past. Pundits say that their role in UN Peacekeeping has become a safety valve. It allows soldiers mobility and opportunities. It is also a reason that today's army cares about maintaining international reputation.

Anyway, the army is no longer the only third force. I'm also worried about radical Islamist groups. Do we really know who funds them, who they owe allegiance to, and what their future plans are? When death sentences are passed quickly on JMB men, not many voices protest. The bearded militant is an unpopular figure, who would want to defend his rights? But these "express" courts will carry out pre-election executions and destroy any chance of finding the real paymasters. From Khalid Musharraf to Taher to Manzur -- our history is littered with dead men who didn't tell the full story.

Waves of protests in Thailand ended in Thaksin's ouster. Mexico has been in a post-election gridlock, as Obrador threatens a "parallel government." Both those countries have more stable infrastructure than us. The rhetoric being used by our government and opposition is also far more poisonous than anything seen over there. Total breakdown after our election seems eminently possible. How difficult would it be for a third force to step in - whether Islamists, or Army, or something else?

What then? Another decade of struggle to regain democracy? It's 2006 not 1982. Bangladesh can no longer afford these "growing pains". By the time we extract ourselves, the world will have moved on, leaving us far behind. An economy isolated from the world will be very hard to rebuild.

Dhaka cha circles say America / Europe "won't allow" a third force. Besides the objective fact of US support for a Pakistani dictator, there are other factors at play. Two decades ago, a military regime in Bangladesh was of concern to the world because there were fewer crises jockeying for global attention. Now there are lethal new conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, the list is endless.

There are also positive distractions, taking attention away from Bangladesh. The BRICs (Brazilian bombshells, Russian oligarchs, India shining, China rising) now dominate world trade, and developing economies are 50% of world GDP (in purchasing power parity). The market arrival of Soviet bloc nations (Latvia and Estonia are now right after Bangladesh on shirt labels at H&M stores), rapid expansion of EU (the apocryphal Polish worker now a symbol for massive internal migration), and warp-speed globalization (tiny Uruguay partnering with Tata to create one of Latin America's largest outsourcing operations) beats even the flat-earth predictions.

Until we grow into Goldman Sachs' prediction of N-11, power blocs won't pay much attention. Whether there is election gridlock, virtual civil war, military crackdown, or islamist upsurge, none of the usual safety mechanisms of global attention may come to our aid.

After a recent government-opposition showdown, a colleague wrote in an e-mail:
"Here's a pessimistic scenario: twenty years from now, Bangla expatriate elites will roam western capitals like the Palestinians, Tibetans and pre-79 Iranians, a combination of high spending elites and idealistic intellectuals. They will not have a homeland to return to, but will have expensive maps and photos on their walls. They will look back with bittersweet nostalgia to the days when Mujib vs. Zia actually seemed like a real debate."

When Cassandras warn of third forces, they name Islamists, Army, India or Pakistan. But there may be others, which we cannot even predict or imagine. If the unthinkable came to pass, democracy would be back in cold storage. Do our political Cain and Abel know that they could be sitting on the outside, looking in, for decades to come?


Das Tripura

To The Polls, Unless Your Name Be Das, Tripura, or Roy
by Naeem Mohaiemen
[abbreviated version printed in DAILY STAR (Bangladesh), November 3, 2006]

"Why can small numbers excite rage? They represent a tiny obstacle between majority and totality or total purity. The smaller the number and the weaker the minority, the deeper the rage about its capacity to make a majority feel like a mere majority." [Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers]

"Hey Ghosh, don't do so much Ghosh-Ghoshani!"

Another day in school, another round of mutual teasing. Young boys specialize in quiet brutality. Schoolyard taunts can be cruel, but nicknames are nothing to be upset about. Everyone at St. Joseph had one. Even the son of the Police IG had been renamed "fangface" (from the cartoon) and "kaula" (lovely reference to his hue). In that context, teasing Ranjan Ghosh by his last name seemed very mild.

Who cares, right? Just another tiffin break. Everyone run to Peter's canteen to ask for an oily burger.

But something about this particular dig stuck, even though my class 6 brain couldn't navigate the cause of unease. Much later, many years on, I realized that it was the first time I was forced into awareness of a "minority" surname. Ghosh, Das, Sankar, Goldar, Adhikary, Purification, Lal, Trivedi, Larma, Gomes, Bhattacharjee[i]. They were all part of me once, before we started taking on names from elsewhere. Ahmed, Ali, Mahmud, Hossain, Jahangir, Rahman. Our elders started saying, "You see, we came from the mountains or beyond, perhaps Persia."

Yes, right.

Relative to all things we have seen in this epoch of Bangla life, St Joseph now seems to be(retroactively) a model of communal balance. Propelled by an affirmative action policy in admission, enforced by the Jesuit brothers, almost half the students were Hindu and Christian. Besides the Ghosh incident, life was fairly uneventful. Even my hyper-active brain can't locate other examples of communal tension (but perhaps I'm not looking hard enough). At that age, the only difference we saw was that the Hindu students studied Geeta in a separate room during Islamiat. Who cares, to each his own...

The mind soaks up many fragments and saves it for future processing. Even at that age some part of me vaguely registered that the wealthy students all had last names like Rahman, Ahmed and Hossain. One day a teacher asked for a collection of money to help Gomes, poorest student in the class, buy the required Geography Atlas. Scattered chuckles in the room. But perhaps at his plight, not his name. Still, a strange unease, but nothing I could pin down.

In 1985, we anxiously crowded around a notice board to find the SSC results. Star Marks, Letters, First Division, Ranking. Magic symbols of future success and prosperity. Two decades on, many in my graduating class (sometimes referred to as Generation 71) have become industrialists, bankers, television directors, ad firm creatives –– executives of every stripe. When I sit with my old Dhaka crew, there's a palpable air of "masters of the universe." But when I take a closer look, not a single non-Muslim among my classmates has made it into this magic circle. 1985 was perhaps the last moment of parity between us. The in-between time has been rough for those who don't fit the national identity project. When I ask my classmates about this, they shrug. Not my problem. One of these bright souls even said to me, during a BUET strike, "Hindu students protesting again! They are always making trouble. lai dithe dithe mathai thule rekhechi." Yes, really, we have spoilt them so!

Amena Mohsin talks about the flaws of Bengali nationalism –– a structure that sings of Ek Shagoro Roktho, yet remains blind to the invisible second class of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Paharis, Adivasis and all other communities that don't fit within a Bengali Muslim ethos. The concept of a singular nation, needing to be produced or naturalized at any cost, is not unique to us. Hannah Arendt argued in 1968 that the idea of a national peoplehood was a fatal flaw in developed societies. Philip Gourevitz, surveying the brutality of Rwanda, observed that "genocide, after all, is an exercise in community-building." But what is remarkable for Bangladesh is a national memory project devoted to the 1971 Pakistan army genocide (against "us") that fails to recognize how we are replaying that scenario on a smaller level against non-Bengali and non-Muslim identities. "Non" is the key modifier, everything is about what you are not. When these small groups assert their presence and refuse to be crushed under a "Bengali Muslim" identity, spectacular and extreme violence is our tool for producing a homogenized national map.

The strange, so very strange, thing is that even hyper-minority status in other spaces (North America, Europe, India) have not given the Muslim ummah an extra sensitivity, or sense of responsibility, or even historical prerogative (think of the Caliphate's decent track record vis-a-vis conquered non-converts) on how it treats its own minorities (can someone please come up with a better phrase) with respect and equality. Friends and allies say to me "This is not the time to bring up these issues. Muslims are under attack everywhere, we should talk about ourselves first." I usually respond with an expletive and a pronoun. A gentleman sent me yet another e-mail about "Quran desecration." I wrote back that this was not a priority. Waste of time, I said. Enough already with our offensensitivity. Our hysteria about the slightest offense to the Prophet, the Book, the People. Are we so very weak? A terse reply: "Maybe not a priority to you, but to us it is." Who is the us? People who value a book more than a human life? Gamal al-Banna (who parted ways with his brother Hassan, founder of Muslim Brotherhood) says: "Man is the aim of religion, and religion only a means. What is prevalent today is the opposite."

My St. Joseph memory trip came while considering the crucible of the approaching Bangladesh elections. In keeping with the overall pattern of convulsive violence, minority communities are already under threats to stay away from the polls. Unlike 2001, when the orgy of anti-Hindu violence was enacted after the elections, the idea is to block these communities from even daring to vote. As documented by Daily Star, Prothom Alo and others, a signficant proportion of minority voters have already been taken off the controversial voter list.[ii] When even Muslim voters find themselves missing in large numbers from the list, what chance for Bahadur, Kumar, or Larma?

The 1991 and 2001 Bangladesh election results could have been different given the razor-thin margins by which many seats were won, and the huge number of minority voters that were prevented from voting in those very seats. Out of 300 constituencies, there are 71 where minority voters are significant (ranging from 11% to 61%)[iii] and 50 where they are visible (5-10%). The current election sets every incentive for the 4-party rightist-islamist alliance to aggressively choke off the minority vote. The opposition Awami League's embrace of secularism has always been shaky (is there anybody with the guts to hold their feet to the fire and force them to eject Nejame Islam from the 14-party coalition?). But even this weak commitment has produced many potential Pahari candidates for Hill Tracts, as compared to the exclusively Bengali Muslim candidates from the 4-party. For Bengali candidates to win in Pahari-majority areas, a massive blocking of the Pahari vote is needed. A similar pattern is expected in all areas with a significant minority population. This is not to say that minority voters should vote en masse for AL –– but simply that they to be allowed to vote.

I invoke St Joseph because anecdotes sometimes carry more emotive power than statistics. When the silent majority continually ignores the pain of others, we end up at the embryo stages of ethnicide. These days it is hard to sit still for a song ashor during 1971 commemorations without choking on the failure of the nation project. Yes, yes, we liberated ourselves from Pakistan. Yes, they were destroying our adored Bangla language. Yes, yes, but and again but. What of the state that we created since 1971. 22 wealthiest Pakistani families have been replaced by 22 wealthiest Bangla Muslim families. Was that what the revolution was about. Pity Shiraj Sikder, Colonel Taher and all the other revolutionaries. Actually the bullet in Sikder's back, and the noose around Taher's neck saved them -- who wants to live to see this end? Today, our numerical majority has chosen methods of predatory nationalism that include racist tactics that directly echo the Pakistan regime, reify Bengali Muslims, and render all other identities invisible[iv].

My uncle used to tell the story of the maulana who stood in front of a temple in 1940s Noakhali, using his body to defy those who wanted to burn alive the Hindus who had been their former neighbors. This is in Noakhali of all places, a blight in 1940s partition narratives for so many examples of brutality, including the apocryphal story of Muslims who slaughtered Gandhi's goat (is it true? I have never been able to find any evidence). If that village elder found an interpretation of religion that taught compassion, how are we in this backwards trap fifty years on?

I shout at all of you with rage, because I refuse to accept a haven for me that is a nightmare for others. There is still time to stop this with our words, our actions and our bodies.

Amra ki ei Bangladesh cheyechilam?

Naeem Mohaiemen is a filmmaker and artist based in Dhaka and New York. He is author of the chapter on Hill Tracts Paharis & Flatland Adivasis in the 2004 Ain Salish Kendro Annual Human Rights Report.
[i] A researcher friend recently explored the etymology of the names in Bangladesh and wrote in an e-mail:

"Of course not all surnames are created equal. Chattopadhyay/Chatterjee, Bandopadhyay/Banerjee, Mukhopadhyay, Gangopadhyay, Bhattacharya/jee, Chakrabarty, Mahalanobis, Adhikari etc are Brahmin. Some names are titles that are usually held by higher caste including Brahmins, but can also be Muslim names (as they were handed out by either the Nawabs or the British to loyal retainers) - Thakur (Tagore), Majumdar, Talukdar, Dastidar, Ghatak, Chowdhury, Biswas, Sarkar. Most of these people will still know their original "gotra" (ie, "apni ghotok? asholey ki?" - answer: chattopadhyay, sen etc so you can still signal caste when prompted). Next rung includes Sen, Das, Ghosh, Bose, Sarkar, Nath, Saha, Dev, Mandal, Pandey (Parey), etc The rung that you won't hear much of in academia, business, politics or probashi communities include Basak, Gain, Bain (as in Goopy & Bagha), Tisku, Barui, Majhi, Gop (Gope), Dop (Daup), Soren, Marandi. Many of these names are also found among Adivasis through intermarriage or loss of language some time back. Some purely sub-ethnic names as well. Rajbongshi, Tripuri, Puruli, Pradhan, Bahadur (indicates Gurkha lineage) etc. In terms of people left in Bangladesh, hardly any from the Brahmins, and most are probably at the bottom of the caste hierarchy - as they are pretty screwed whether in Bangladesh or in India."

[ii] Daily Star, May 6, 2006: "Religious Minorities Under Pressure"; Daily Star, May 10, 2006: "Minority Voters Intimidated"; Prothom Alo, January 6, 2006: "Voter List Compilers Say They Didn't Go to 4 Minority-heavy Villages By 'Mistake'"; bcdjc.org/mreport-1.html

[iii] According to the 1991 census, the following 71 constituencies have a minority ratio ranging from 11% to 61%: Rangamati, Khulna-1, Bandarban, Khagrachari, Gopalganj-3, Moulavibazar-4, Khulna-5, Sunamganj-2, Dinajpur-1, Gopalganj-2, Dinajpur-2, Barisal-1, Khulna-6, Satkhira-3, Bagerhat-1, Gopalganj-1, Chittagong-6, Thakurgaon-1, Dinajpur-4, Pirojpur-1, Bagerhat-3, Satkhira-5, Moulavibazar-2, Magura-1, Madaripur-2, Narail-1, Bagerhat-2, Hobiganj-4, Chittagong-7, Nilphamari-2, Nilphamari-3, Magura-1, Satkhira-4, Rajbari-2, Lalmonirhat-1, Jessore-6, Narail-2, Khulna-4, Barisal-2, Satkhira-1, Netrokona-4, Natore-1, Sunamganj-1, Brahmanbaria-5, Hobiganj-1, Thakurgaon-2, Satkhira-2, Netrokona-1, Manikganj-2, Sunamganj-4, Chittagong-1, Kishoregonj-5, Rangpur-1, Kurigram-2, Pirojpur-2, Dinajpur-6, Rangpur-2, Jhalokathi-2, Manikganj-1, Faridpur-1, Natore-3, Bagerhat-4, Netrokona-2, Dhaka-7, Faridpur-3, Madaripur-3, Khulna-2, Barguna-2, Mymensingh-1, Dhaka-3, Sunamganj-3. All portions of the 2001 census were released, with the exception of the religious figures.

[iv] This can be seen in the drastic drop in minority populations: 1961 (18.5%), 1974 (13.5%), 1981 (12.2%) and 1991 (10.5%). Analysts expect the 2001 census to reveal even further drop, but the government has not released those numbers.