Saturday, December 16, 2006

In Conversation with Uzma Aslam Khan

Ahmede: My reading of your Trespassing has found it be a sad epic. Your portrayal of life in Pakistan is both ruthless and bleak. Do you see yourself as a social realist, someone whose primary aim is to depict the existing social relationship of the time?

Uzma: I see myself as a novelist. I’m not sure which parts of the book you find so bleak. To my mind, there is both darkness and tenderness in the lives of all the characters described. If this is ‘social realism,’ I suppose I have not written a fantasy!

If your question refers specifically to the violence in Karachi through the 1980s and early 90s, well, it was a very violent time. The Soviets were in Afghanistan, Pakistan was ruled by its most brutal military dictator, General Zia ul Haq, a United States ally (one Pakistani general referred to Pakistan as the condom through which America entered Afghanistan), billions of dollars worth of arms spread across this country, mostly to Karachi, where a nasty ethnic war ensued between the indigenous people of Sindh, and the Urdu-speaking, Punjabi, and Pathan migrants who settled in Sindh after Partition (and continued to pour into the province during the Afghan War). It is the period I grew up in, and it must have left a deep mark on me. I studied at a Convent and during Independence Day ‘festivities,’ I remember marching between an icon of Jesus and Mary (which I associated with our colonial history) and the Islamic Flag (which I associated with our present, namely, General Zia), and wondering if anybody understood how any of it happened.

But I absolutely didn’t know I was going to set my novel TRESPASSING during that period when I started writing the book. It just took that turn on its own. Often impressions that shape us the most are absorbed unconsciously. That’s the difference between non-fiction and fiction: in the former, you know what you want to say and even how you’re going to say it. You have a thesis, an argument. You very consciously set out to prove it. The beauty of fiction is that you tap into something hidden. At some point in the process of writing, the fiction writer stops inventing the rules. She has to surrender to the book’s own rules. It’s own ecosystem, if you like. When I write, my only aim is to be in the story.

Ahmede: You may know that, Tariq Ali has said this about Trespassing: ‘Cocoons are not the only things that explode in this novel. The silken prose emphasizes the conflict between the tender subject and a world where violence of every sort has become institutionalized.' How do you respond to this comment?

Uzma: By saying, Thank you!

Ahmede: Your approach to handling narrative is Western and, if you allow me to say, modern in nature. Does South Asian fiction, as a concept, really exist? Or is it merely the subject matter that defines it?

Uzma: What makes a category really exist? I’m not sure how to define American fiction, or even British fiction, except to say that the latter especially has been around for so long it has come to be recognized and respected as having a significant influence on others, both inside and outside the UK. There is a sense of continuity there. But what makes it ‘British’?

South Asian fiction is relatively new. (Poetry is of course a lot older.) Does it have to have the weight of history for it to really exist? I can’t say. I have difficulty relating to many other South Asian novelists because the ones who write in English tend to live abroad, while I live in Pakistan. There are some Indian novelists who write in English and live in India, but not in the rest of South Asia. I know that as a Pakistani fiction writer who writes in English and continues to live in Pakistan, people both here and abroad don’t know where to put me. They cannot put me in the ‘diaspora’ group, which is, increasingly, where this fiction is coming from.

Diaspora writers typically fall into two groups, neither of which is true for me. The first group lives outside, or mostly outside, South Asia but does not write about the country of residence, only the Motherland. These novels have been very popular with both Eastern and Western readers. Their authors rely on memory, family and drawing room gossip, the media, and/or the odd back-to-my-roots holiday. They follow the Orientalist tradition, using trite icons – jasmine flowers, spices, saris, bangles – to evoke an exotic ‘East’ that is best smelled from afar. I think it’s plain that I’m not interested in this South Asia, seen through the nostalgic lens. The second group of South Asian diaspora writers is a more recent phenomenon. These writers focus more on the immigrant experience. Their work grapples with the restrictions placed on minorities by the minority group itself. It shies away from looking as openly and critically at non-‘Asian’ groups. But at least it does not romanticize the East!

But I am not a diaspora writer. I can’t even relate to the category of ‘Asian’ or ‘non-Asian’ since I live in Asia. Overall, then, I suppose ‘South Asian fiction’ is too vague a category for me, both as a concept and even as subject matter.

Ahmede: How do you see the role of English in the context of South Asia, a place where the language had once been imposed on its people?

Uzma: I don’t know what ‘role’ English should play. It exists here. It is becoming a South Asian language, if it hasn’t already. After North America and the UK, South Asia has the highest percentage of English-speaking people in the world, and we’re not all from the same background. Many Pakistanis feel that Urdu has also been imposed on them, and yet they speak it and write it. The resistance to English in Pakistan is ironic when seen in this context. Many Urdu speakers who never thought twice about ‘imposing’ Urdu on non-Urdu speakers bristle at the idea of having English ‘imposed’ on them. So, instead of viewing English as an ‘outside’ language, better to accept that it’s ours now.

Ahmede: In your last novel we see two lovers struggling for freedom and passion in a hostile world. Do you see love as a force that has the ability to free us from existing social relations?

Uzma: Yes, love can overcome societal restraints. But only if both sides are equally committed to putting their love first!

Ahmede: As a woman coming from South Asia, how free do you feel when you write?

Uzma: I’m usually able to shut out the outside world when I write. I leave my own skin, become my characters, which is I think how I’ve written about men as much as women. In TRESPASSING, the character I revised the least was Salaamat, the Sindhi fisherman’s son who comes to Karachi for work and gets involved in a violent gang, ostensibly, as a ‘freedom fighter’. I knew him intimately, right from the start.

But I’ll admit, it’s not always so easy. The biggest challenge for me a writer in Pakistan who happens to be a woman is: interruptions. The doorbell ringing, the phone ringing, visitors, social obligations. When men want privacy, they get it. When a woman wants it, she’s being selfish. This is an ongoing battle. I have carved a quiet solitary space from which to write at the cost of social relationships.

Then there is the subject of sex. All three of my books – including the one I’m writing now – have frank sex scenes, told from the point of view of both men and women. Pakistani women tend to tiptoe around sex when writing about it. I like to describe it. (I like to describe almost everything.) These details matter to me a lot. I get lost in them. I play with them. That is the joy of living! But when my first book, THE
STORY OF NOBLE ROT, which has a masturbation scene, was released, I know there were people in my family who were ‘shocked’. They were more shocked by TRESPASSING, which describes the male body more then the female body, from the eyes of (unmarried) women and men, both. People who know me sometimes have difficulty reading ‘controversial’ passages without putting me in them. And that has caused some upset, unfortunately.

Overall, I feel free when I write because I insist on the sanctity of my space, both mental and physical, but it has not been given to me. I have had to fight for it, a lot.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

In Conversation with Bapsi Sidhwa

Ahmede: Does your background as a Parsi Zoroastrian influence your identity as a writer?

Sidhwa: It certainly does: it has formed my habits, my thoughts, my values, and I have fun portraying my community, as in Crow Eaters. No matter where they are the Parsis are a minority, and the tension this creates compels one to express feelings, ideas, politics etc. Being a Parsi also can also make a writer a more objective observer perhaps.

Ahmede: In "Water" we see you narrate the story of an eight-year-old against the backdrop of Indian independence movement. This little girl has been abandoned at an Ashram after the death of her husband. We see this theme of an individual's presence in history coming back to your work like a leitmotiv. Can you explain this for us?

Sidhwa: I like the way you've put that question. One cannot really remove an individual from his/her political or historical context. The Partition was one of the defining moments of our history, and the mass exodus and carnage affected millions of lives in the subcontinent. Unfortunately too little has been written about it in fiction. It is our history and shapes what we are today. Gandhi's influence in moderating bias and injustice benefited the subcontinent in substantial ways.

Ahmede: How do you perceive the role of religion in the social and cultural life of South Asia?

Sidhwa: Religion is so subjective: I think we each mould it to suit our needs. I think religion appeals to what is noblest in humans. It has nourished and brought peace to us through the ages. It has also been misused by those in power to benefit themselves and wreak havoc in its name. In the subcontinent I grew up in one learned from infancy not to discuss it, and to respect other people's religion.

Ahmede: As a woman coming from Pakistan, how free do you feel as a writer?

Sidhwa: There are thousands of women writers, journalists and poets in Pakistan. Writing is a solitary activity -- it does not entail interacting with men, and as such is considered a suitable and even laudable pursuit. Of course there is the extremist element who are ready to take umbrage at what they conceder "fawsh" or obscene, but luckily they are not given to reading fiction. I find quite raunchy stuff written even in Urdu. I am disappointed though that my books are not taught in colleges and schools because of this prudery.

Ahmede: You, we all know, write in English, a language that has once been imposed on the people of the region where you come from; and at the same time, people of South Asia have embraced English at the later half of the last century and have modified it significantly. What is your response to this issue?

Sidhwa: Although Gujrati is my mother tongue, English is the only language I learnt to read and write in. It has become the dominant language and people in most countries are striving to learn it for commercial or scholarly benefit. It was perhaps among the better features imposed on us by the British. I have no problem incorporating the Punjabi, Parsi, or Pakistani idiom in my fiction.

Ahmede: Does the concept of South Asian fiction really exist? Or it is only the people and region that defines the genre?

Sidhwa: Well, people need to compartmentalize for convince; it makes life easier for many professors in the West also. But I do find the definition limiting if not demeaning - each writer stands on his or her merit in the community of world writers.

Bapsi Sidhwa is the writer of "Ice-Candy Man", "The Crow Eaters", "The Cracking India" and "An American Brat".

Saturday, December 09, 2006

An Interview with Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami, Morocco-born writer and author of Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, talks about her life and times.

Ahmede: In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, we see you use a stream of narratives with the brilliance of a master. Why is this reliance on multiple narrations?

Lalami: It was not a conscious choice. I had started with just one short story about a young man named Murad, an unemployed university graduate who feels emasculated by his sister’s ability to provide for the family, so he decides to try his luck in Spain, and leaves the country on an inflatable boat, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar at night. As I was working on the story, I became curious about the other characters who were with him on the boat. There was Faten, a fanatically religious girl on the run from the law; Halima, a mother who takes her children with her on the boat; and Aziz, a mechanic who leaves his wife behind to try and find a job, to name just three. So I decided to write stories about each of them, and that's how the idea of multiple narratives came about, the idea of having a book in which we follow four characters' journey out of the country, and discover their lives before and after that fateful trip.

Ahmede: How do you see rising Islamic extremism across the globe?

Lalami: I think it is the result of very specific political and economic failures that happened in the 60s and 70s. In many countries in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, leftist movements did not deliver on the promises they made after independence. In addition, there was widespread, Western supported repression of these movements. These two factors created a political vacuum, which was filled by a religious discourse that continues to grow. I think the only way that this will change is from within, not through external military involvement.

Ahmede: Coming from a predominantly Muslim country how free do you feel as a woman and a writer?

Lalami: As a Muslim woman, I'm often expected to talk about how my father or brother oppressed me, but the reality is that my father always encouraged me to study, to work, and to be independent. There are of course many problems facing Muslim women, chief among which are illiteracy, poverty, access to healthcare and family planning, and so on. There are many feminists in Muslim countries trying to bring about change within their societies; unfortunately, we are living at a time when some religious conservatives often stand in their way.

Ahmede: The language you have chosen to write in is English; is their any reason behind it?

Lalami: I wrote in Arabic and French when I was a child but English superseded those languages by the time I was in college. I was the product of a post-colonial education that still emphasized French to the detriment of Arabic. In addition, the written form of Arabic which is taught in school is not the same as what Moroccans speak at home, so it was more difficult to write about every day life using a classical form of the language. I started learning English in high school and liked the mechanics of the language and soon I was reading almost everything I could get my hands on in English. By the time I was working on my Ph.D., English became the language I did all of my writing in.

Ahmede: Your portrayal of Morocco reminds one of a stagnant pond; why is it so?

Lalami: A stagnant pond? I wouldn't say that at all. I think the book describes the despair of some very specific individuals, these four characters who find that their lives at home have led to a dead end, and they want to risk it all for a new beginning.

Ahmede: Will you share your reading of novels by South Asian writers with us?

Lalami: Among the writers I've read and admired are Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra, Monica Ali, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others. I also just received a copy of The Golden Age, a debut novel by Tahmima Anam, which I look forward to reading very soon.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Interview With Amitava Kumar

Ahmede: What is your forthcoming novel Home Product about?

Amitava Kumar: A Hindi film-director asks a Bihari journalist in Bombay to write a story about a small-time poetess who's been killed by her politician lover. The journalist is unable to write that screenplay. Instead, he begins to narrate the story of his cousin who is in prison for running an Internet porn parlour but who is dreaming of making a film when he comes out of jail. The actor who will star in that film is his old school-friend from Bettiah, a man who is now big in Bollywood. I'd say that the book is about anarchic impulses in a society, and the search among its members for order, and even artistic brilliance.

Ahmede: Your non-fiction work "Husband of a Fanatic" is about modern secular India, a country you have left some years ago. How do you see rising fanaticism--both Hindu and Muslim-- in this part of the globe?

Amitava Kumar: I read the other day that the killers in Rwanda were the shoeless who were fighting those who had a shoe to wear. When I think of what happened in Gujarat, when a thousand or more Muslims were butchered, the situation appears more complex. There you had those with shoes going after the barefoot. But I must add, the Hindu fanatics I interviewed always mentioned Bangladesh. They would say to me, "when will you liberals raise your voice against what the Muslims do to Hindus in Bangladesh? Do you know what is happening to Hindu temples there?"

Ahmede: In "Bombay, London, New York" we see you masterfully dissect the idea of post colonial fiction; can you tell our readers how you see English in the south Asian sub-continent, a place where the language has for some years been a mere tool used by the colonisers?

Amitava Kumar: Even our constitution was arguably a gift from our colonisers--the point is not where this language came from, but what we now do with it. In the hands of our best writers, but also as a tool used by millions on the street, English has been changed. It has become a creative weapon in our hands. We cannot be blindly opposed to it. At the same time, it has to be said that in the subcontinent, given the deep social divisions, those who are considered the rightful users of this tongue, and those who employ it most authoritatively, belong to a class that's set so far apart that to think of writing in English as being wholly free from contradictions would also be a mistake.

Ahmede: Is there any particular way you think readers in the west read or react to texts from our side of the universe?

Amitava Kumar: In an ideal world, the reader in the west would have to be prepared to encounter a novel or a short story from our part of the world as more of an enigma than a plain tale. This hypothetical reader would not get their texts as either ready-made exotica or even as a very legible, easy-to-consume product. In a more just and equal world, the western reader would have to work, and work hard, to translate our truths. Just as we do with them.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of literary non-fiction and has edited five anthologies. His 'Husband of a Fanatic', was on the "Editors' Choice" list in the New York Times. He is Professor of English at Vassar College. His novel, 'Home Products', will be published in 2007.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

An Interview with Michael Albert

In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, Michael Albert, economist, editor of ZNet and co-editor of Z magazine, talks about Islamic extremism and new revolutionary theories

Ahmede: What is your interpretation of what western corporate media calls a rise of militant Islam across the globe?

Michael Albert: I would imagine that there are militants among all parts of the Islamic community, as there are among all parts of any community, whether defined religiously, or geographically, or economically, etc. But militant about what would be an important thing to assess, of course.
Other than using the word pejoratively, when you think about it, who thinks being militant per se is bad? How about militant about freedom, about justice, about self-determination or self-management, about ending slavery, or for that matter, wage slavery?

I think the media you have in mind are, however, talking about Muslim Fundamentalist groups, or at least referencing them and implying that they include all Muslims. The media's motive, overwhelmingly, in this and everything else, is just to earn profits in ways consistent with the larger agendas of the U.S., including the war on terror. If they report sports scores accurately, that is why. If they spin news of the war in Iraq to obscure its causes, motives, and effects, that's why. And the same holds for spinning stories about Muslim commitments and trends. The motive is not truth or edification, but making profits and maintaining the conditions of doing so in the future in a setting dominated by government policies and agendas that must be supported. That said, it doesn't mean that everything that appears in the media is false, or entirely false. The sports scores are generally entirely true. Reporting of international events sometimes are partly true, if that is what will enhance profits and power.

There is a growing allegiance toward Muslim Fundamentalism in many countries, largely produced by the destruction of alternatives on the one hand, sometimes by the U.S. interfering and even assaulting socially responsible communities and projects, and by anger at the U.S. for its war policies, on the other hand. While one can understand the causes of the trend toward Fundamentalism, I, for one, do not think this is a good thing, any more than I think the growing allegiance to religious fundamentalism in large sectors in the U.S. - generated rather similarly
- is a good thing.

Both trends are quite horrible because what the fundamentalist communities are militant about is norms and values and behaviours that are harmful to other communities and even, often, to their own selves.

Ahmede: How, do you see the war in (or on) Iraq? Do you think the insurgency in the country a mere rebellion of people "in small ethnic pockets" or a national resistance?

Michael Albert: The war itself is, of course, about control of resources (oil) and general domination of outcomes, both by the U.S. It is a war of the U.S. on Iraq, an invasion, a violation. That's the overarching purpose or motive and nature of it. The Iraqi resistance is, I think, a very mixed phenomenon, partly involving people with diverse agendas that they want to advance for Iraq's future, sometimes not very desirable agendas, and partly involving people who are simply repulsing an invader - and it is probably far more of the latter, though I am in no position to know for sure.

Of course the resistance, whatever its motives, is a quite general phenomenon. And a remarkable one, at that. Given the hardships and injustices routinely meted out by Hussein, it wasn't entirely idiotic for the U.S. to think that an occupying force, even though motivated by reasons of empire and oil, might be seen by the occupied population as a positive move toward a future without dictatorship, etc. But, the general understanding of U.S. motives is now so widespread that such confusion was probably modest at the outset and, in time, the more prevalent reaction has clearly been a totally justified horror at our presence, fuelling resistance.

Ahmede: Some theorists argue that ultimately it is not in the hegemony of a particular Empire (US Imperialism to speak of) we are living under, but an invisible syndicate of multinationals and big corporations, who actually runs the show. Could you please put your own analysis of this domination (cultural, economic and political) a bit for our readers?

Michael Albert: I am not sure I even see the difference. Or that there is anything particularly new in this, either. But I think it is really both, and has been, in the past as well. Yes, multinationals often have owners in more than one country remitting profits to people in more than one country.
And sometimes they have their owners overwhelmingly in a country other than the U.S. - say Japan or Britain, and so on. That is true enough. So what?

Let's call the empire, then, the empire of corporate control and profit seeking, if you like. Where is the gendarme, the military, for this empire? It is overwhelmingly in the U.S. And what nation is the main beneficiary, too, of this empire, still? Well, it is still the U.S. So I just don't see that there is anything very useful in the debate. If your village or town or city or nation is subject to harsh deprivations leading to piles of corpses and the underlying cause is a bunch of German pharmaceutical companies, say, or U.S. or some other countries oil companies, does it matter much that their home office is in Frankfurt and not New York? The power behind the imposition is largely the U.S. military, ultimately, in either case, but suppose that wasn't true, either. Again, so what? Would it matter to the village, town, city or nation, if the army behind the scenes was less American?

The task is to not only put brakes on international interventions and exploitation by trade and/or corporate control, but on the domestic institutional arrangements that breed these international phenomena, and not only in the U.S., but in countries all over the world. Thought about that way, yes, there are variations and balances and imbalances among responsible parties, sure, but the overriding reality is capitalism running roughshod over most of humanity, with the guns and bombs made in and delivered by America.

Ahmede: After the demise of Soviet Union and a change of course in China, has Imperialism changed its colour and character too?

Michael Albert: Of course some aspects have changed, mostly, you can no longer rationalize actions taken for reasons of state or empire and for reasons of profit, by manipulatively claiming that they are undertaken to ward off the evil of Communism. Now you manipulatively say they are undertaken to ward off the evil of Islamic Fundamentalism. In both cases the purported reason had some weight in the sense that the highlighted opponent really did have and does have negative features - dictatorship, sectarian violence, and so on. But these features exist in many places around the world and go unopposed. American elites highlight them not out of sincere concern but when it serves them to do so as a cover for continuing to pursue their overriding agendas, profiting and maintaining the conditions of profiting.

Ahmede: You may as well know that Dr Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi and founder of Grameen Bank, has won this year's Nobel Prize for Peace. What do you think of the role of Micro Credit in "less developed and underdeveloped countries"; do you have any observations to offer our readers on the activities of Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)?

Michael Albert: The condition of poor people everywhere is - well - poor. And poor means they have lives that are diminished in their options and that are even brought to a needless and premature conclusion by hunger, disease, limited options, etc. In that context there is a tremendous variety of things that can be done that will improve the quality of some people's lives. All these things, supposing they don't at the same time make others worse off, or entrench the underlying causes of inequality and deprivation for most, have considerable and sometimes great benefits.

I don't know anything much about the Grameen Bank. My guess is that it probably does have some very good effects for some people, but at the cost of to a degree further validating as inevitable certain kinds of social relations, market exchange, profit seeking, and so on. So I think it is probably - and again, I admit my knowledge of this bank is slim to none - very helpful in part, to some people, but that it could be more valuable and positive if its actions were undertaken in ways directly challenging existing relations, posing positive alternatives for the whole economy and society, and thus trying to develop militant consciousness against capitalism and especially for a new system in its place. This would be a good kind of militancy.

Michael Albert is an economist and author of 13 books on Economy and Politics, His most famous book is "The Political Economy of Participatory Economics" (co-authored by Robin Hahnel; Princeton University Press). The theory of Participatory Economics (abbreviated as ParEcon) "posits a society run by neither markets nor central planning, neither competition nor control, instead a society based on participatory planning and sharing". More on this theory is available at:
This interview has been reprinted in the Zmag.

An Elegy for Nur Hossain

Nineteen years after Nur Hossain, a young man of 26, laid down his life, how far have his dreams of a free secular democracy been materialised?

On the 10th November of 1987, Nur Hossain, an auto rickshaw driver and an activist of Awami League, went out to the street, his torso bared, with two lines written in Bangla on his chest and back-- Gonotontro Mukti Paak, Shoyrachar Nipat Jaak (Long live democracy, Down with tyranny). This single act of valour and self-less ness from the part of this young man has embodied the soul of the first democratic revolution in Independent Bangladesh.

Before that, before Nur painted the words on his body which military despot Ershad's Police found so blasphemous that they shot and killed him, Bangladesh has another hero in its political history who had actually joined a resistance against autocracy and military dictatorship-- Asad. Coming from a lower-middle class background, this schoolboy from the old part of Dhaka laid down his life during the mass upsurge of 1969 against Ayub Khan's regime, setting the tune and character of our great independence struggle. Both Asad and Nur died for a democratic and secular Bangladesh, a country that will be governed on the basis of economic equality and social justice.

Hossain's struggle--or statement so to speak--was not actually against a particular regime, it was a brave resistance against a brutal and corrupt economic system that had made the country a filthy playground for a class of nouveau arrivé bourgeois. One and a half decades after that nothing significant has changed.

The hue and tone of the exploiters are different now, for they have assumed a democratic shape. Nur's own party, with the alacrity of an anole, has shed Secularism and Socialism after an electoral setback in 1991; its leader once even wore a headscarf to woo Muslim voters. In every speech the leaders of both the major parties give their lay an allusion of Islam, ways to assert how each is a better Muslim than his or her rival. Socialism, or economic justice, on the other hand, remains a far cry. After the demise of the Soviet Union, subsequent governments have been trying to juxtapose a mangled version of the market economy, which fosters a get-rich-quick lifestyle among an entertainment-hungry and money-driven class.

Nur's martyrdom, however, has established a semblance of parliamentary democracy in this nation of 14 crore poor; but that, too, is taken into hostage by of a bunch of venal, egocentric, avaricious political leaders. Parliament has remained ineffective; all the other components of state are also mired in sheer corruption and unabated misrule; allegations are there that some judges are susceptible to sweeteners, police have always been corrupt, one must not take any credit for discovering it.

Both the parties, in fact, have betrayed the spirit of the mass upsurges of 1987 and 1990; Ershad, whose police shot and killed hundreds, corrupt and vile as he has been, sides with either BNP or AL, whenever he senses worry. Ershad's corrupt and oppressive cronies are not brought to book, many of them have joined the BNP and AL, some have become ministers, holding posts as important as law and justice.
So, it is a little wonder that the 19th anniversary of Nur Hossain's martyrdom has gone unnoticed. The persons who have become the beneficiaries of his sacrifice are now squabbling for power again, and the memories of Nur Hossain, Bangladesh's forgotten hero of democracy, face oblivion.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Tale of Conceit and Deceit

Even after the President Iajuddin Ahmed, frail and enfeebled at 76, has been sworn in as the Chief of the caretaker government (CCG), the spectre of death looms large over Bangladesh’s political horizon. He and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) faithful say that as the talks between warring political parties have failed and all the constitutional options have been exhausted he has to assume power to save the country from further bloodshed. But beneath this veneer of seemingly beguiling intentions stands a pack of lies and deceptions. The President did not properly explore all the plausible options of the constitution as he now claims to have done, but instead, this former professor of Dhaka University has played at the hands of, what it now seems, the BNP’s long standing plan to rig the next general elections.

In the face of a presidential takeover, the Awami League (AL) has given Iajuddin four days to prove his neutrality; the party has also laid down an 11-point demand on the table of the ailing President, which include: the removal of three election commissioners and correction and revision of the voter list.

If these demands are not met, the AL has warned to go back to the streets. The country’s hard-earned democracy is under threat, and there is a fear that further trouble lies ahead for this poor nation of fourteen crore people.

Dhaka, last Friday night, resembled civil war torn Beirut in the eighties. The Prime Minister Khaleda Zia gave a speech to the nation at seven in the evening and immediately after it ended machete and oar-wielding opposition workers poured onto the streets of the capital in their thousands. Khaleda claimed normalcy and gloated over her government’s “glorious five-year rule” as the country quickly slipped into chaos and lawlessness. A faint column of smoke rose first near Dhanmandi from a bus that had been burnt and quickly turned into a mangled corpse of charred steel; after this, as though after the first blood of the war was drawn, the war formally declared, opposition workers, with a renewed vigour, turned to every other moving vehicles on the roads, buses were burned, shops were looted, innocent passers-by, mostly women, returning to the city after holidaying, were robbed near Kanchpur. At zero hour, goons belonging to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), riding a microbus and armed with automatic rifles, shot and maimed 40 opposition workers, who were organising themselves for the next-day’s rally. The old part of the city, even before Khaleda’s fustian speech began, had turned into a battlefield; boys as young as ten or eleven, belonging to Nasiruddin Pintu of the BNP and Hajji Selim of the Awami League (AL), took the rivalry into a new height; rival groups’ houses and businesses were torched, women were harassed; throughout the night, like the other half of the city, mobs of different colour and hue were on the prowl. Homes of BNP leaders across the country were attacked by the AL leaders, and on different occasions by the BNP's own disgruntled factions.

On this gory and ruthless night and the day that followed 20 people were killed all over the country. Saturday had witnessed even the worse incidents of violence. In the capital, the bone of contention was the control of Paltan Maidan, where both the opposition parties and the workers’ wing of the BNP called a meeting. BNP-men were not seen venturing into the ground, instead Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) workers and the opposition fought a savage battle near Baitul Mukarram National Mosque; at one point of the fight the JI, which actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence by carrying out numerous acts of rape and mass murder, introduced gun into what would have otherwise been a pitched battle. “Allah-hu-Akbar (Allah is the Greatest),” a loudspeaker blared while JI-men fired 20 rounds of bullets at AL-workers who had so far been using oars and brickbats. It took the night to descend and paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles to join hands with an outnumbered and withdrawn police force to restore some semblance of peace in the area, but before that four had died and a hundred were already maimed.

Not far away from the pandemonium, at her party headquarters, to a small audience of about two thousand followers, Khaleda declared that she would follow whatever decision the President made: a good hint for anyone who has been following the events closely.

Empty Talks

The talks that have failed, on the pretext of which the President has appointed himself as the Chief of caretaker government (CCG) are one of sorest and disreputable episodes in Bangladesh’s political history.

A long-running controversy has taken birth a few years ago when Judge KM Hasan, former foreign affairs secretary of the BNP and one-time nomination seeker of the party, was made the Chief Justice (CJ). Many smelled a rat when the government suddenly extended the term of Supreme Court judges, making Hasan the last retired CJ available. The opposition made protests, and declared not to go to any election held under any government led by him; the BNP talked about following the constitution, which they themselves had tailor-made to make a likeminded person the CCG. The issue of Hasan’s political past has never been discussed in parliament; instead, at the beginning of this year, the secretaries general of both parties swapped letters, as many as eight times, to discuss the possibilities of a reform in the electoral process; the seven round of talks that came out of the letter-swapping were shady, as murky as these two politicians could have made it to be. The tone and the mood were strikingly similar-- Abdul Mannan Bhuyan of the BNP, in a black suit, wearing an always-ready-to-smile face, Abdul Jalil of the AL, a seemingly weather-beaten, throwing a puckered smile at everyone in sight-- "We have made significant breakthrough. We are hopeful to give the nation a good piece of news before Eid.”-- Either of them could have been passed on to have said this to the anxiously sweating newspersons waiting outside, sometimes, just to get a glimpse of the duo.

Trouble began when, three days before the Eid, both Bhuyan and Jalil came out of the venue within ten minutes into their discussion with sealed lips-- "Let’s see what happens,” Bhuyan declares; Jalil, uncharacteristically reticent and irritable, “Not now…not now,” he said as his car rolled on. That night the BBC scooped its rivals by airing the news that both the politicians did not care to let their nervous countrymen know-- "At the ongoing talks the BNP has proposed the name of MA Aziz as a substitute to Hasan”; this has been a nerve-wrecking information, which has effectually meant that the last chance of breaking the stalemate has fallen apart. The next day, the day before Eid, Mannan Bhuyan broke the news--"The BNP does not think it is possible to replace KM Hasan with anyone else as it is unconstitutional”. This has spelled disaster for the ordinary citizens as the Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina has already urged “people come to Dhaka with oars and sticks if power is handed over to KM Hasan”.

Justice KM Hasan, meanwhile, has remained silent, and it has needed a violent eruption of people’s angst and frustration, 20 people have to die to make this retired judge realise that “for the greater benefit of the nation”, he, KM Hasan, a good citizen, should not become the CCG.

The Farce that has been enacted

After the discussions failed, the parliament expired its terms, mayhem followed and KM Hasan declined to become the CCG, the President has stepped into the ring; he started his own talks with the leaders of different political parties and in the first meeting declared his own willingness to be the Chief of the caretaker government. It came as a surprise to everyone because all the other options set out by the constitution were not exhausted yet -- The AL did not want MA Aziz, who has already earned a name for being controversial and partisan; without giving any reason, the BNP and JI for their part said they had a problem with Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, another retired judge, becoming the head of the new government.

Controversy arose and Abdul Mannan Bhuyan, the BNP secretary general, played foul with the issue; to the press Bhuyan lied by saying that Hamidul Huq, another retired judge and second in line to be the CCG, had expressed his inability to take over; but on the following morning the retired judge told a private television channel that it was not the case-- "I am available if all the parties involved come to a conscientious about me."

The Clause 58C (5) of the constitution says, " If no retired judge of the Appellate Division is available or willing to hold the office of Chief Adviser, the President shall, after consultation, as far as practicable, with the major political parties, appoint the Chief Adviser from among citizens of Bangladesh who are qualified to be appointed as Advisers under this article."

That the President has to assume power means that no one qualified to be the Chief Adviser has been found among the citizens of Bangladesh, which is ludicrous and laughable.

Iajuddin's magic draught

This is the same Iajuddin Ahmed, whose ill-health and the mystery surrounding it created a world of intrigue not more than six months ago. The President is taken ill, the press were told, but a thick veil of secrecy was drawn around Iajuddin, who the government said had suffered a "massive heart attack". The President, after the "massive" heart attack, went to the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka, and walked down the asphalted road and concreted corridor to get admitted; he was later flown into Singapore and Jamiruddin Sirkar, the Speaker and a BNP faithful was made the acting President, and for a long time, even after Iajuddin came back to the country and seemed well enough to perform his duties, Jamiruddin carried on with his "extended role" as the acting President. Not to mention that the BNP, at that time, had already grown a habit of changing Presidents; Badruddoza Chowdhury, once elected the head of the state by the BNP, only a year into his job, was removed overnight; no reason was given, and Chowdhury, who now heads his own party, refuses to talk much about it.

For about a month, effectually, there were two Presidents-- Iajuddin and Jamiruddin. Rumours ran wild when some younger MPs of the BNP-- the so-called young Turks-- demanded the removal of Iaj on the ground that his health did not allow him to perform the day-to-day duties of presidency. It was clear that his own party did not want him to remain President, especially with the next general elections in the offing. A more loyal and workable Jamiruddin Sirkar was wanted and the party, later on, grudgingly made do with Iaj because of the huge uproar that was made when the party tried to dump him.

Has the President, so weak only six months ago that he was finding it increasingly difficult to perform as a titular head, has that same Iajuddin Ahmed had a magic tablet that he will hold not one but two most important posts at the same time, and will not make a blunder? Even when he has long past the standard age for retirement?

Waiting for the Barbarians?

The Awami League has failed to stand up to the occasions when the day of reckoning has arrived. The party, while the sectary-general level talks were going on, never disclosed the day-to-day outcome of the discussions. By making KM Hasan the centre of their demands, the party has actually played at the hands of the BNP. The AL has thrown all its attentions and might on the appointment of KM Hasan as the CCG, downplaying its previous, and more important demands for the reform of the caretaker government system.

Last Friday and Saturday, when the whole nation was anxiously waiting for a vision of the future, for a guideline, the Awami League could not come up with any. Sheikh Hasina, who has led the first government of the country's history to complete its full five-year term, starting from 1996 to 2001, has never showed a way out of this anarchy, instead she fomented more violence by calling her followers to "seize the capital with sticks and oars".

Signs are there that the BNP leadership has always toyed with the idea of eventually making the President the CCG. The BNP has done everything it can to rig the next general elections-- a stooge like MA Aziz and Khaleda minions like Mahfuzur Rahman and SM Zakaria have been made Election Commissioners, the party has planted its own members onto different layers of the judiciary and administration.

But signs are there, too, that the BNP, which along with its zealot and corrupt partners have enjoyed an absolute majority in the last parliament, may not even get the single majority needed to return to power. The BNP leaders, most of whom are mired in corruption and political scandals, it seems, are aware of this. The party is desperately trying to cling onto power no matter what; on Sunday, the day Iajuddin nominated himself as the CCG, Dhaka was abuzz with rumours of military takeover; there were idle speculations that a state of emergency might be declared. Who fed on these gossips and where they generated from one cannot tell, but these paved the way for the President to become the CCG. The rumours that a martial law can be imposed, that we are going back to the Stone Age, that barbarians in olive uniform are going to take over, have been deliberately spread.

It is surprising; shocking almost that the party that has so overwhelmingly won the elections only five years ago is now frightened to face the voters this time next time round. The level of corruption and misrule of the BNP's last term can only be compared to the forlorn days of 1972-75 when different armed gangs and the then Prime Minister's sons indulged themselves in a world of corruption and degeneration.

By playing foul with the constitution and thus undermining our hard-earned democratic process, the BNP, has, in effect, dug its own political grave. And with the advent of the BNP's own breakaway faction the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and its increasing popularity in BNP bastions like Chittagong, the BNP has reasons to get scared. Iajuddin's appointment as the CCG will not change the situation, on the contrary, it may as well, spell an even bigger disaster for Bangladesh, if Iajuddin, a retired Professor of Soil Science turned President turned Chief of Caretaker government fails to govern.

Khaleda's Balance Sheet

Five years after being voted to power, what legacy is Khaleda Zia and her Four-Party Alliance (FPA) leaving behind?

Of the pledges that the FPA has made before coming to power in 2001, hardly anything substantial has been fulfilled. The long overdue separation of the judiciary, which both the major parties have promised to do 15 years ago, immediately after the ouster of Gen HM Ershad, hangs in limbo. The FPA government, particularly its law minister Moudud Ahmed, who is especially known as politically corrupt, has so far given numerous excuses for the sorry state of the country's judiciary. Instead of giving it independence, Khaleda has effectually ravished the country’s judiciary, especially the lower one, by employing one BNP-man after another; cases of judges taking inducements have remained an all time high during the last government’s tenure.

About the autonomy of the government-controlled Bangladesh Betar and Television, the information minister has never uttered a single word; on the contrary these two organisations have been made the FPA-government’s own propaganda machine; Fascist Hitler’s Nazi information minister Paul Joseph Goebbels believed that a lie becomes a truth if it is said a hundred times; Khaleda’s information minister and his cronies in Bangladesh Betar (BB) and Television (BTV), taking Goebbels’s suggestion too seriously aired lies, one pack after another, blatantly, with a straight face, as many times as they can. These seemingly educated people, who are still not in the helm of these two bodies act as though general people of this country are a bunch of idiots who can be taken for a ride whenever they want to. In her last speech to the nation, Khaleda rightly said that the AL government during its tenure had made the BTV and BB a particular family’s eulogy producing device. True though she is, if anyone has watched BTV or BB in Khaleda’s time will have thought Bangladesh is a hereditary monarchy, where only the Queen (Khaleda) and, the heir to the throne (Tareque Rahman) and his chums are allowed to show their faces on the idiot box. Ekushey Television, the first independent private channel in the country was taken off the air in Khaleda’s rule as it lost an appeal in the Supreme Court.

Dhaka based newspapers, on the other hand, have enjoyed a relative freedom; at the same time different BNP-men have lodged several criminal and defamation lawsuits against editors, publishers and reporters of different dailies. No verdict has so far come out of these cases, most of which are made only to harass journalists. The situation has been worse for journalists living outside the capital, particularly those who live in the northeastern Bangladesh, where thugs and goons have been butchering innocent people. In Khaleda’s five-year-rule journalists were killed in Khulna, Barisal, Nator, Kushtia and Bogra; the list of other types of attacks on journalists like maiming or beating is endless. Khaleda Zia’s full term in office has made the whole Bangladesh a prison for those who believe in free speech. Humayun Azad, the country’s leading linguist and novelist was hacked at a book fair in Dhaka for writing a novel Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad, and over two months later the author died in Germany. Azad’s killers have not been brought to book; interestingly it was Jamaat-e-Islami MP Delwar Hossain Saidee, after its publication, in the parliament who demanded the book's banning. When it comes to clamping down on free speech, Saidee-- who actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence war and had carried out numerous acts of rape and mass murder in that period-- has remained an ardent advocate. In Khaleda’s “glorious rule”, this caitiff fanatic has once demanded that a blood test for all journalists be arranged to see if they are proper Muslims or not. Even after all this Saidee has remained a free man, only a few days ago he used to sit in the Treasure Bench, not far away from where Khaleda herself sat.

So it is no wonder that during her tenure the country has witnessed the worst instances of attack on free speech and religious freedom. Immediately after the FPA came to power thousands of homes and businesses owned by the country’s Hindus were burned and looted; some Hindu women were raped by Khaleda’s boys and many Hindu families were forced to flee the country, selling the properties of their ancestors to Shaheed Zia’s soldiers.

At the fag end of Khaleda’s rule, the lives and properties of minority Ahmadyyas have also come under beastly attack from the fanatics. In different parts of the country their places of worship have been desecrated.

In spite of these, the biggest crime Khaleda-led government has committed on this nation is the creation of a culture of sheer misrule and unabated corruption. Several stories of corruption of Khaleda Zia’s own son Tareque Rahman have been in circulation. From an offer to the Malaysian government to investment of millions of dollars in that country to taking a 25 per cent commission from every new business contract signed-- Tareque Zia’s name has been everywhere. Tareque himself, and, not to mention his mother Khaleda, summarily deny it. The Anti Corruption Commission that has been formed with much hype and hoopla has so far produced practically nothing. In her speech to the nation, Khaleda has accepted the presence of rampant corruption in her government; though she has apologetically termed it unfortunate, this admission, this acceptance of failure to keep the so-called Young Turks (an euphemism for Tareque and his cronies) under control, will not go down well to the electorate.

Standard of living in Khaleda’s term has been plummeted sharply; though her government has boasted a good foreign currency reserve, real income of the ordinary citizens, actually declined in the last five years, because of rising inflation, which according to unofficial estimates is at 8 per cent a year. Though the BNP has claimed to have led a nationalist government, many of its members, particularly those living in the border areas, have indulged themselves in smuggling of essentials to and from India.

Bypassing Bangladesh’s own petroleum exploration body, the Bapex, numerous shady deals have been struck in oil and gas, Bangladesh’s two prime national resources have been leased out to different multinational companies.

Khaleda’s last tenure has also witnessed a rise in violent Islamism. Several grisly bomb blasts have taken place during her government's tenure. The government, at the very outset of its term, has kept denying the presence of these militant outfits in the country; Khaleda herself has blamed the opposition several times for blowing the fundamentalist issue out of proportion, calling it a conspiracy to blemish the country's image abroad. Even after several grenades were lobbed at an Awami League meeting at Bangabandhu Avenue, in which 37 people died, several BNP leaders tried to find the perpetrators in the fold of different criminal gangs. Even when Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai (BB) and his gang were butchering the innocent in the troubled northern districts of the country, the party and some in the state machinery had helped BB carry out numerous acts of gruesome killing and thuggery. It has been found later on that BB is actually one of the linchpins of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist outfit that has declared a jihad to establish Sharia in Bangladesh. The government's role in handling the issue of religious extremism is questionable: though the regime at the tail end of its term has actually cracked down on the outfit, the BNP leaders, who once actively supported and armed BB, remain free.

The parliament, like other democratic institutions in the country, in the last five years, has remained ineffective; the AL has never played the role of a strong opposition in the parliament; the Speaker has always failed to live up to expectations, his role in this parliament has been markedly partisan. The Shangsad has never been made the centre of all political activities; the major policy and political decisions have been made either at press conferences or at party gatherings. The BNP, as the party in power, has failed to make the political atmosphere more congenial and workable; the Awami League, for its part, has always relied on strikes and street agitations; instead of relying on wit, which politicians in other democracies do, both the major parties have resorted to violence and anarchy.

The BNP's last term, apart from corruption, has also been marred by unashamed nepotism and lawlessness. Though the FPA government has formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a new force parallel to the police, to improve law and order, there are instances of RAB-members themselves extorting and killing ordinary citizens in the name of cleansing the country of hooligans.

The BNP, in its last term, has created a culture of corruption and degeneration; goons and thugs belonging to the BNP and its corrupt and vile partners have run amuck; long-term BNP leaders have been sidelined and this has given birth first to Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh, and, eventually, to a major break-up of the party-- Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); the LDP's emergence as a major player in the country's politics means that the BNP, as a centre right force, has lost a significant ground and in the next general elections its votes, in areas like Chittagong and northern districts, are going to be significantly divided. And worst still, chances are there that the LDP may push the BNP further into the hands of extreme rightist elements like Jamaat and opportunist and corrupt leaders such as Ershad and Naziur Rahman Manju. Signs are already there that the BNP, already mired in nepotism and improbity, may move further right under the leadership of Tareque Rahman.

The BNP, as a political party, even as an oligarchy run by a few families, is facing the biggest crisis in its history. Even the death of its founder Ziaur Rahman or the military coup led by Ershad, or a rebellion by party stalwarts in the mid eighties could not cause such a big blow as it is facing now, which is, in fact, its own creation. The unabated corruption and unashamed misrule of the BNP and its partners have put the party's future at stake; with the LDP claiming a big share in its vote, chances run high that a major vote swing will take place in the eighth general elections, which is only months away.

Ershad, himself a crook and a treacherous politician, will not be able to save the skins of the BNP leaders and their cronies. What happens in the next elections will decide the future of many, especially the future of the BNP as a political entity.

Bangladesh Shining?

Khaleda Zia's last term in office has witnessed a boom in the telecom sector and a steady economic growth, but the spiralling price of essentials and corruption may cost her dearly in the next elections

It is, indeed, no less than ironic that every development activity that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) claims to have done in its last five-year rule is attached to allegations of graft and nepotism. One of the major achievements of her tenure has been the banning of two wheelers from the streets of the country. But, that, too, is overshadowed by corruption--it is alleged that due to the dishonesty of some BNP leaders, the Communications Minister Nazmul Huda's brother to be precise, a four-stroke three-wheeler, which costs Tk 1,50,000 abroad is being sold at double the price in the country. The same can be said about the billing-metres of these taxicabs; a metre that usually costs Tk 1000 on the international market is as much as nine times high, costing Tk 9,000 apiece.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even some of the over 70 ministers in Khaleda's cabinet allege that their ministries could not function properly because of Tareque Rahman's manipulations and interventions. When Khaleda herself has urged foreign investors to come and invest in the country, news of Tareque's foreign investment abroad is in circulation.

In fact, it is the same sordid story everywhere. The BNP and FPA leaders have not spared anything or anyone. Though the country's economy is boasting a steady growth and the wild horse of inflation has successfully been tamed, prices of essentials on the market have been skyrocketing. In her last speech to the nation Khaleda has also boasted a steady foreign exchange reserve of USD three billion, saying that remittance inflow has increased to $ 4.2 billion, rising from $ 1.88 billion when she took over as Prime Minister.

That the rate of inflation is at seven per cent a year and the prices of rice and vegetables, along with other daily necessities have been soaring, means the real income of the masses have dwindled. It is tragic that BNP-men are involved in this too-- there is evidence that the party high-ups have created a number of syndicates which have been controlling the supply to different bazaars, creating artificial crises on the market, and thus making the price far beyond the means of the masses.

A real development-- if one must use the word, for the BNP-leaders have abused the word indiscriminately-- has taken place in the telecom sector; the competition has been so high here that even the government-run BTTB, inept and ineffectual that it is, has joined the country's burgeoning mobile phone market. At the same time, the government has opened the world of Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol to private operators. After much delay the BNP-led Four-Party Alliance has also decided to connect the country with the Information Super Highway. Use of polythene, deadly to the environment, has been banned; a massive crackdown was launched on food-adulterers, but, at the same time, no follow up has been done to drive them away from the business for good.

The FPA leaders, BNP-men to be precise, have set up different television channels and banks in the last five years. The most striking of these success- stories is that of a BNP leader who a few years ago lived in a tiny rented house, and, now, this person, a favourite of Khaleda Zia, is an MP, and owns two television channels, a newspaper and a bank.

Apart from corruption, signs of misrule are everywhere. Under Khaleda Zia's rule most of the government-run subsidiaries, which were limping around under Sheikh Hasina in 1996-2001 because of the Awami League leaders' own corruption, have become a refuge for corrupt employers and fat bureaucrats. Though on different occasions Khaleda Zia has talked about "upholding the country's image abroad", urging citizens to be on their guard against any probable conspiracy, on the foreign affairs front Bangladesh remains friendless. The BNP could not solve issues as basic as sporadic shooting by Indian border guards on innocent Bangladeshi farmers. The country's performance at different trade talks of the WTO has been shambolic and miserable.

With the prices of essentials soaring and the real income of ordinary people diminishing fast, it will be laughable if the BNP and its partners claim that the country, under their rule, has been shining. After five years under Khaleda, if anything had been shining at all that, too, would have been in the pockets of BNP and FPA leaders.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bangladesh: A Million Mutinies Now

When the whole country is going on a shopping frenzy, models in flashy designer clothes adorning pages of different magazines and newspapers trying to coax customers into buying the latest Hindi-film inspired Kameez or sari, there exist in this city hundreds and thousands of children, lost and abandoned, who have to struggle day and night to make their ends meet. This is a story of sheer exploitation and utter indifference; a story where mothers are forced to sell their newborns for the price of a two-litre mineral water bottle; a story where children start working as young as five to grow up stunted and malnourished.

On Eid day, six-year old Mohammad Masud will run errands for his benefactor

Mohammad Masud cannot recall what his father looked like; the only thing the six-year old can recall of his father is that of a man drunk who used to beat up his own wife mercilessly; “Like a dog,” Masud says. This he can recall, but how, and under what circumstances one day “that man” stopped coming to their house, Masud’s memory fails to tell us. He, however, remembers entering a shack-- with a ceiling made of blue sheets of plastic--somewhere near BNP-Bosti, where he has been living for the last three years; in their first two years of stay, his mother worked as a housemaid in a nearby house; but one day, Masud believes it was one of the 31 days of last December--precisely on which day that he cannot tell, he has never seen a calendar in his life so far--his mother did not turn up. His wait ended and all hell broke lose under his young feet, when a neighbour called on to inform him of his mother’s death.

“He said it was a truck. He also said that some women did not know how to walk on the streets,” Masud says.

Masud’s neighbour peddles ganja and Phensidyl and soon took Masud under his fold and since his mother’s death, Masud has been running errands for this thin, nervous and shabby man, whom he reveres and to whom he feels grateful for saving his life from starvation. So every day, at dawn Masud will wake up to get ready to carry bundles of ganja to his saviour’s business associates in Saidabad or, at times, to places as far away as Gulshan and Banani.

So, how is he going to spend Eid this time? “These things are not made for us,” he says and smiles; a smile of someone who has earnestly though that a bad question is being asked and anything more need not be told.

At daytime during Eid fifteen-year old Purnima will sleep in a quiet corner of the park

Fifteen-year old Purnima carries a deep scar, the size of a grownup’s middle finger, on one side of her face. Two years ago, a student of class six, Purnima fell in love and eventually eloped with a man she hardly knew. They met when Arif, the man, came to her village to visit one of his relatives. To her, he became an escape from the tortures and brutalities she was going through at the hands of a merciless stepmother. The girl’s dream of starting life anew was soon torn down into peaces. For as soon as they reached Dhaka and booked a room in a hotel in Fakirerpul, Arif left her in a room, alone and locked, saying he is going to fetch her some water.

She has never seen him again.

The following night two men turned up and raped her; for a year she led the life of a sex slave; food they gave her, but whenever she had showed any sign of disinterest in her work, they beat her up, which was usually followed by a threat of gangrape. This ordeal abruptly ended one day; the law enforcers made a raid on one wintry evening, and Purnima, along with her colleagues and keepers were taken to the nearby police station. One humiliation followed the other: the next day some newspapers ran photographs of her along with the others; though the hotel keepers got away with the minimum punishment, a fine perhaps or a hefty bribe, the girls had to spend agonising weeks in the prison. Once they were out in the free world again, she and the other girls were left with no other options but to start the hotel-life all over again. Brutal and soul-killing though it was, this, in the least, gave them three meals a day. But the hotel had been sealed off by the police now; one of the girls knew about the park, where she and the others had come six months ago, and where she now sits and waits for her clients. Purnima is not even her real name, it is a nom de guerre given her by one of the hoteliers, as he thought she resembled a Bangladeshi film actress.

Policemen pester her still, on a daily basis, sometimes for a bribe, sometimes for some sexual favour. When a few days ago, as it rained heavily she did not have a single client for a good four days, some policemen turned up and asked for money, she told them that she did not have any. They beat her up, tried to rape her, and when a group of onlookers gathered to view the spectacle, the law enforcers decided to pick her up to their van. One of the hotel-girls happened to be passing by at that time, her 50 taka saved Purnima from further disgrace.

“I still look for him,” she says about Arif, the man who has ruined her life for good. “While walking the streets sometimes I say to myself that there, in the midst of all these people that person who has destroyed me who is living a comfortable life, who knows, may be with a wife and their children!” she says.

Her Eid? At daytime she will try to get some sleep in a quiet corner of the Park, and in the evening she may go to the theatre to watch a Bangla movie. When she says this, a thin faint smile comes to life as though for a few seconds she becomes a child again.

Nine-year old Asma will spend Eid begging in the streets of the city

The first thing one notices about Asma when one sees her in a busy street, standing on a worn-out clutch, in shabby clothes, is that she has a harelip; it curls like a snail’s foot, the left nostril gapes; she does not have a surname, this nine-years old girl does not know who her parents are, nor can she tell how she has lost her left foot. When she is asked anything about, what she says, these “difficult questions” she always suggests that the inquirers talk to her Khala (aunt). Her aunt, a sturdy woman in her mid-thirties says that Asma has been “sold” to her when she was as young as two. The woman, herself a beggar, claims that the deal was struck in Chilmary, Kurigram, where both she and Asma’s parents where neighbours. The family could not afford to look after her, the aunt claims, and as she has lost a leg-- in an accident she says, but knows not what kind of--and as she has a hare lip, the chances of marrying her off has always deemed remote. According to the deal, the woman gave two ten taka notes to Asma’s father to take her to Dhaka where her would-be aunt earns her bread by begging in the streets. Whatever this girl, still a child, earns goes to the woman.

Asma always looks forward to occasions like Eid and Shab-e-Barat, because, she says, only in these days rich people give alms to the poor generously.

What if they refuse to remain poor?

So, under the billboard on which a jazzy local model uses her heavily made-up face to seduce you into buying the new plasma television, children like Asma, Purnima and Masud toil under a seething sun and, at times, in a pouring rain. The live like a dog; death comes to their doors silently; when the rich and mighty get sick they swiftly jet off to Thailand, Singapore or India, these children, on the other hand, only because they were born poor, always die miserably.

In this Eid before one buys clothes at thirty or forty thousand taka apiece so that he or she can brag or boast a little or because a few interesting people will take some interest in him or her, one must know how crude and indecent this looks like. If this does not happen, if after doing something so vulgar and uncouth, your conscience does not gnaw at you or the faces of these poor children do not haunt you in your dream, if you do not wake up one December morning to a recurring nightmare, please know that you have sold your soul to the Devil. Please know, then, that you have just enrolled into a new club of fat arrivistes, who eat and breed like humans, but have ceased to become one long ago.

The tales of these three lives--millions of other such lives-- can never have a happy ending unless and until you stand up and change your attitudes. Development in capitalism is not a homogenous phenomenon, we know; a society can never change itself in a day, we agree. But, it needs a timid step, at first, to start a giant long-march. A single act of goodness from your part can forever change the lives of hundreds and thousands of Asmas, Purnimas and Masuds. You can always chose the path you are on, but please do not complain when the wheel of history turns on you. What if these millions of lost souls, these children with a forgotten dream, growing up in a world of anarchy, at the end, resort to violence? What if they, frustrated and hapless as they are, translate their misery into angst?

One should not have to travel afar to see signs of trouble. Incidents of “ordinary people taking law into their own hands” have been on the rise. First, it was an uprising of apoplectic farmers burning cars and destroying government buildings to press home their demand of an adequate supply of fertilisers. One such incident after the other, however disturbing, however detrimental to the country’s “image” abroad, have given the masses this idea that in a country where every politician is corrupt, where every one of them carries a price tag, the only way to change this apathetic tyrannical world is through a display of their seething angst. Events like Kansat, Phulbari, Mirpur or Uttara have shown us the extent to which people can go, risking everything, to get what they believe their natural right. This has never been a question of which of the two old ladies has served (ruled would have been the apt word for they both act and talk like modern day queens) the nation better. Many may see these as isolated incidents, for these have taken place in what pretentious half-literate analysts have described as “small pockets”; one who does not want take these outbursts of people’s long-running fury seriously may do so at his or her own peril, for these incidents tell us that a significant number of citizens have lost their faith and trust in a system that has failed pathetically to deliver.

When Bangladesh was liberated from the clutches of Punjabi-Sindhi cliques of Pakistani bourgeoisies in 1971, we were promised a society based on Democracy, Socialism, Nationalism and Secularism; that pledge has never come into being; on the contrary, with a heavy heart, we observe the advent of one military despot after another who whored our sacred constitution, plundered the country’s national resources and had made it a hell for religious and ethnic minorities.

When the more corrupt and viler of the two despots were overthrown in a mass upsurge on December 6, 1990, many had described it as Bangladesh’s own Bastille Day, the country’s Bourgeoisies Revolution. Like its French counterpart, the Revolution promised a society based on Liberty and Equality; things have never changed since then though, only the colour and shape of the tyrants varied. Here, in Bangladeshi society, exists an invisible wall of seclusion and segregation. The country has become a filthy playground for a group of lumpen bourgeoisies, who, half-literate and uncultured as they are, driven by a get-rich-quick lifestyle, are aping the most rotten and putrid versions of Indian and US cultures.

This is a country where setting up a trading firm is more profitable than running an industry; more lucrative, however, remains illegal trading; smuggling that is. So the first timid step that has been talked about earlier can be made by a simple but bold move: Buy everything Bangladeshi; this urge is not because everything foreign is bad or we wish to turn our country into a hermit kingdom; but this step is necessary to save our country in a ruthless globalised world where every country has to fight its own battle.

If things are not changed soon, there is a risk that the country may turn into a failed state. Those who are planning to buy themselves substandard expensive foreign clothes for this year’s Eid must know that people turn round when they are faced to the wall; if you still ask what they do when they turn round, please read the newspapers. These are strong words and you are expected to take them as they are.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Letter to Khaleda

Madame Prime Minister,

It is necessary, it seems, to remind you of the good old days of your first tenure as Prime Minister; the necessity does not arise because those were good old days really, but more because I still carry some memories of those five years; those five years, anyone should admit, have a small place to claim in the history of Bangladesh as the first government elected by an election conducted by a caretaker government was running the country. You did a funny little thing at that time; all on a sudden your office declared that you were going to give audience to people. Funny it was because I had the misfortune of seeing you on the state-controlled television, watching fellow citizens of different caste and creed, telling everyone “I will look into the matter; please do not worry”. You looked very lost; I, barely a teenager, felt sorry for you on that. Good sense prevailed and your government later decided to drop the idea. People collectively heaved a sigh of relief, including those on the waiting list; the idea was preposterous: a modern queen giving an impatient hearing to the downtrodden, to those who otherwise may not have got a chance to see Khaleda Zia in person.

So the sum of memories I have just talked about includes a full five-minute newsreel of yours, sitting in a giant of a chair, almost hiding your person, looking worried and disturbed by your visitors, who, however poor and uncertain their lives were, knew that it was not their problems which really mattered, rather they themselves, their problems included, were publicised, televised and made public. I do not know anyone who was benefited from these hearings. Perhaps the people whom you had lent a patient ear at that time did not really expect you to solve their problems, their plights, their miseries: you are a politician after all; as a politician you are meant to do the most atrocious things only to get away with it. Do you know, Madame PM, that in the street of Dhaka, people say that there is, in fact, hardly any difference between your party and the Awami League, be it in economic policy or in political ideology? People in this country live in abject poverty, but that does not mean that you can afford to take them for a ride.

You did it once, at the tail end of your regime. A farcical election was held, I only know two citizens who went to polling centres on that sad day of February 21: One was you, the other was an elderly aunt of mine who thought she would not live long enough to vote in the next elections. That night BTV showed you vote in what looked like a crowded voting centre somewhere in the country; my aunt went to find her vote already cast, the poor woman did not know that in these elections no-one actually casts a ballot, these are meant to be the by-products of a queen’s expensive intractability. In the next elections (the one that does not allow ghost-votes) you lost to your archenemy the Awami League.

Hasina must have thought she had won votes for the things she had promised, how would she know that it was no one but your visionless stubborn leadership that had helped her woo weary citizens. Hasina’s five-year was equally anarchic, if not worse than the misrule and corruption that your near five-year had become. It looks as though you both are locked in a quirky competition where the athlete who touches the line last wins. You two have taken us citizens for fools; but Madame PM, what if the fools fool you this time round. Is it not obvious for people-- even for my old aunt who is still alive and will vote in the next year-- to see the rabbit’s ear, much before you have pulled that magician’s cloak over its head?

I should have used a strong metaphor for someone like Ershad, vile and immoral a person that he is. But, pardon, Madame PM, he is hardly a phenomenon in Bangladeshi politics; he does not deserve to be called a shark or, worse still a jackal. You need his support badly, that is understandable; after all that I, not a kid any more, have witnessed in the last few years. I, like others, do not find it surprising that Economist, a leading newsmagazine, has described your son Tareque, as a businessman. What are you going to do with that Madame PM? If you allow me I can guess: Everyone has a right to run a business; when you say it, you see one of those smirks that usually hover on people’s face when they listen to someone defending a horrid public secret. They know what you are afraid of, you know what they are laughing on; I never knew that life would be so cruel to you.

A drowning man, we are told, grabs at a straw; you should take it as a mere saying, I daresay, in real life we do not come across any drowning man who has tried to do that in the waters and come out alive. Madame PM, Ershad is a straw in the stagnant pond of Bangladeshi politics; he thinks he can save himself by being clutched at by you. Usually people who do not have anything to hold on to in a swelling wave drown, straws can never save them. And I thought you knew that before.

You should have learnt to swim.

Monday, August 14, 2006

That One May Smile, and Smile, and be a Villain…

Thirty years after her husband and military dictator Ziaur Rahman rehabilitated notorious wartime collaborators, Khaleda Zia is bent on giving a new lease of life to one of the vilest dictators in the country's history

General Zia, at the height of his dictatorial rule, once most infamously said that he would make politics difficult for politicians. In doing so Zia bought politicians left and right. The party that he formed immediately after seizing power in a bloody coup became a shelter for corrupt Awami Leaguers, frustrated Maoists and hibernating wartime collaborators (Razakars). Much is talked about Zia's financial honesty (Viz. his broken suitcase and ragged T-shirts) but there is no denying the fact that Zia believed that every politician carried a price tag and he could buy anyone if he could meet the price.

Zia was killed in one of the 30 something military revolts that his five-year rule was plagued with. Gen HM Ershad was the chief of army at that time, and the way almost all the coup plotters were killed by their fellow army-men has made many sceptical about Ershad's role in the mayhem. There are other reasons to assert this claim: Months after Zia's killing Ershad assumed power by removing a frail President Abdus Sattar from power. In 1997, at a meeting in Fulbaria, Khaleda Zia, Zia's widow, accused Ershad as one of the co-conspirators behind Zia's murder. However, as a military despot, Ershad followed Zia's footsteps closely-- like his predecessor, Ershad declared a war against corruption, even bicycling his way to the office once, saying it would save money.

Zia bought politicians: Ershad used the army and government apparatus to torment them to get them by his side. Worst of all, unlike Zia, Ershad's corruption was pervasive. From mosque to rickshaw, he did not spare anything or anyone. After a Friday prayer in Kakrail Mosque he told a gathering that the previous night he had a dream that he was saying his Friday prayers in the mosque. The Imam and the fellow faithful were shocked because for the last one month, people belonging to the National Security Intelligence had been scanning the Mussalis saying the President was going to visit the place. That was a typical thing for Ershad to do-- nothing mattered to him as long as he remained the President.

Like the way Zia formed the BNP, Ershad formed his own party-- the Jatya Party (JP), which apart from corrupt Awami Leaguers and notorious Razakars, housed depraved BNP-men and a few opportunists like Moudud Ahmed. Ershad's violations of all the democratic institutions that Zia had not dared touch were flagrant; the country, under Ershad's rule became one of those banana republics, people of Bangladesh had only heard of and had never imagined would end up in.

The similarity between Zia and Ershad has been striking to escape anyone's notice; the politics they both had pursued centred on different cantonments. People did not really matter, as long as you have the support of the barracks. In a plebiscite Zia got over 90 per cent of the total votes cast; Ershad, on the other hand, had more shame in him; in his own plebiscite, he gave himself over 80 per cent of the votes.

It was during Ershad's corrupt and accursed reign that Khaleda Zia, earned a name for being a fearless and uncompromising leader. Khaleda refused to give legitimacy to Ershad's government by refusing to participate in any elections under his regime. Sheikh Hasina, leader of Awami League, for her turn, had vowed to do the same. Half through Ershad's demonic rule, in a public meeting in Chittagong she said that only a "national traitor" would participate in any election while Ershad was in power. Two days later, Hasina changed her mind and decided to "oust Ershad through democratic process", giving Khaleda a field day.

Throughout Ershad's nine-year rule that the country had to endure, Khaleda stuck to that stance. Hasina in the same issue suffered from indecision and lack of vision. Even after Ershad's police shot and killed Noor Hossain-- an incident that snowballed into a mass upsurge in 1987-- Hasina did not resign from the dictator's rubberstamp parliament. It took three more years and more bloodshed to oust Ershad in 1990.

Hasina's flippancy cost her dearly, in the elections that followed Ershad's ouster, Khaleda, and her party, with the help of Jamaat got a single majority in the parliament. Though her government did not send Ershad to the dock for illegally seizing power, numerous cases of corruption were brought against him, some of which are still pending. In its first term, the Khaleda government brought numerous cases of graft against Ershad, and the deposed dictator had to serve prison sentences for corruption.

Immediately before the 2001 general elections, the BNP tried to woo Ershad; the JP president, a shrewd politician that he is, had promised to join hands with the BNP, but later backed off and formed an alliance with a cluster of extreme-rightist elements of the country's political spectrum. Five years after that the "Uncompromising leader", it seems, still wants Ershad's hand. Last month, Khaleda sent her son Tarique Rahman to Ershad's house to make a bargain with the despot; this time round, Ershad has set two preconditions before the BNP to form an alliance: The 13 cases of corruption that are pending against him at the court have to be withdrawn and, more interestingly, the second one requires the BNP to declare Ershad President should the party win the elections. Tarique, also the BNP's joint secretary general, has apparently nodded in assent to this despicable person, whom only a few years ago his mother has called his father's killer.

The incident only shows the level of desperation the BNP is mired in. The party has so far had an open door for all the extremist elements of Bangladesh politics: From notorious killers and war criminals like Matiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Saidi to bigots like Fazlul Haque Amini, the BNP-led Four Party Alliance has every type of extremist elements in it, only Ershad's name has been missing from this list of war criminals, corrupt politicians and religious extremists.

Given the way the BNP had banked on and cashed in on Khaleda's "uncompromising image" only a few years ago, this tail-between-the legs attitude of Tarique's should have come to the voters as a ghastly surprise. But, eerily for the party, most of them, though annoyed as they are at the move, have expected the BNP to join hands with the military despot. The reason is not unfathomable though: It is understandable that a group of people neck-deep in corruption and misgovernment will seek solace on the shoulder of fellow crooks. So lost in the labyrinth of power are the voters… a dictator, worse still a convicted criminal, after Tarique Rahman's magical nod could be turned into a major ally, a people's leader…

The BNP leadership, however unwittingly, is sending all the wrong signals to the voters-- forget about Ershad's vile past, his demonic rule; hold back the fact that his hands are caked with the blood of Maijuddin, Nur Hossain, Dr Milan and hundreds of martyrs; erase his diabolic past…just for once; we badly need to win the elections again, and for that we need to sell our soul to the Devil… Dear citizens, please…

One can picture the bemused voters staring down in contempt at the BNP's recent move. Even in the elections of 1991 or 1996 Ershad and his JP could have been considered a force in the country's politics. Since his party has been split into almost half a dozen factions, Ershad has lost that national appeal which the BNP is so belatedly thinking he has. Even the mass support he had in northeastern hinterland has been waning. This new alliance will remain a mere gimmick, perhaps it is meant to be one of those expensive and erratic stunts politicians find themselves performing at times.

The irony, however, does not escape us: What links Khaleda's BNP and Ershad's JP is a common history of misrule and corruption; and faced with the possibility of an ignominious ouster in the next elections because of unabated corruption and shameless nepotism the BNP needs Ershad's support. There is a few more standing jokes attached to this squalid saga: With memories of Ershad's razzias still fresh and vivid, this new alliance may come to many as an incident plucked up from one of those bad gangster movies where goons swear allegiances and form umbrella groups to fight the cops.

While trying to give a new lease of life to Ershad, Khaleda Zia runs the risk of being thrown into the dustbin of history. So much for the uncompromising Jononetri that she once was.