Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Revolution Betrayed

Conversations with Suleman
Afsan Chowdhury
Shrabon; pp 35

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

‘Requiem for the Croppies’
Seamus Heaney

The birth of Bangladesh has been the result of a bloody and ruthless civil war in which thousands died, millions were rendered homeless. The country’s war of independence, the vanguard of which have mainly been rural proletariat and urban middle class, promised a state based on the bourgeois principles of social and economic justice. The war has primarily been against the Punjabi-Sindhi dominated ruling class of Pakistan, and immediately after the emergence of the new nation an army of lumpen bourgeoisie quickly replaced them. Bangladesh became a textbook example of the Post Colonial mess that sometimes follows the so-called national bourgeoisie coming into power “or plotting for power, the instability of arrangements, the unappeased crowds of long suffering natives…” that Elizabeth Hardwick has said about VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
Through Suleman, who lost both his hands in our great war, in his first book of poetry, Afsan Chowdhury brilliantly depicts this transition; Conversations with Suleman is an extended poem, at the same time, it has the scope and vastness of an epic. Like the other National Bourgeoisie Revolutions, Bangladesh’s Muktijuddo has a progressive aura (or to be precise a dash of socialism) attached to it, but the ‘revolution’ was soon betrayed: hordes of transnational and multinational companies, against whose vested interests ordinary Muktijoddahs so valiantly fought, were soon welcomed by the government; the help of the World Bank, the bastion of Imperialist power, were sought; collaborators of the Pakistani junta, some of whom helped to kill and rape millions, were socially and politically rehabilitated. It is a little wonder, then, that Suleman’s words will be bitter, harsh, that the sentences which he utters will be soaked with the blood of the martyrs like Havildar Jamal.
“Were you frigging with your filthy hands
when I rolled down and fired and fired?”
Where were you?
Yes, where were you?
“Doesn’t World Bank lend fingers and hands
at low interest rates anymore?
What is Grameen Bank doing
about useless, landless hands?
Call BRAC.
Beg Golam Azam the Lord
for my two shrunken hands.”

What is so curious about our Muktijuddo is its class character. There has been an intermingling of the aspirations of the masses and the middle class; the urban and rural proletariat were led (perilously) by the urban middleclass, most of whom have petit bourgeoisie ambitions. Afsan Chowdhury has been a minute observer of the change in the social anthropology of our region. Read:

“…Did your zamindar father
buy the bullets?
They belong to the desh,
not you, you swine.
Feel, feel with your
dirty soft hands,
you bastard from the city,
the patriotic deshi soil.”

Chowdhury masterfully makes use of angst as a leitmotif, this is a violent poem; it is meant to be so. The hate and violence in the language that Conversations with Suleman is so infested with is the inevitable by-product of a sense of helplessness and decadence we more often than not find in every Post Colonial society. Suleman refuses to remain a mere individual, torn and mangled by a savage war and its treacherous aftermath, the “Crippled. Freedom. Fighter.” becomes a life symbol for a nation, a revolution thoroughly betrayed, Suleman, here, becomes the nation itself.

Downsizing can never the Only Answer

Jute has to be made free of corruption and mismanagement

Once the barometer of our national economy, Bangladeshi jute products have been facing a difficult time in the international market. In a part of her ministry’s Jute Reform Programme, Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, adviser to the Jute and Textiles Ministry, has declared this month her government’s intention to shut down four state owned jute mills and to get rid of 14,000 workers from 22 mills. While it is true that the state-owned jute mills’ cumulative loss stands at a staggering Tk 5000 crore a year, downsizing is not the answer. The reasons for this loss, which the ordinary citizens bear year in and year out, have been manifold in nature. Trade unionism, mismanagement, coupled with the lack of sincerity and the absence of a proper jute policy are a few of the blows our jute sector has taken in the last one and a half decades. The once-golden fibre of Bangladesh has quickly turned into a noose on the farmers’ neck. In the early and mid nineties, under the so-called structural readjustment policy some of our jute mills have been shut down while products made of jute have witnessed a remarkable growth in the international market thanks to a worldwide environmentalist movement. India and China, our two next-door neighbours, now control a good share of the market when we were busy laying off our mills, not to mention the trade-unionism that does nothing for the benefit of the labourers. Instead of giving the workers a voice, trade unions have become mere bullyboys à la Hitler’s Brown Shirt. Most trade unions are far from being the vanguards of the proletariat; most of their leaders, in connivance with some unscrupulous managers have made the state-own mills a profitable business for themselves, illegal selling of bales of jute procured for the mills, over employment, corruption in procurement are a few salient features of our forlorn jute sector.
Severing one’s head if one is having a headache is not the answer; a massive investment is needed in the jute sector. No one (not even our high-flying, shining neighbours) will deny that we produce the best jute in the world. Bureaucratic tangles between the jute and finance ministries, and the BJMC have to be removed. A body, comprising of experts and labour leaders, should immediately be formed to revive the old glory of our jute. Closing down jute mills is not the answer, the government must think twice before taking any step that will hurt hundreds of lives. The adviser has informed us that after the so-called ‘golden handshake’ these 14, 000 labourers will be employed on a daily basis, which is not going to be cost-effective, and there is every danger of losing skilled workers, not to mention the social cost of such a venture. We must not forget that faced with a resurgent environmentalist movement across the globe, the demands for artificial synthetic products have witnessed a slump in the international market. It is high time that we take effective concentrated efforts to save our jute sector. Good planning is needed, so are sincerity and goodwill. A task force can be formed to probe into cases of corruption in the jute mills; the arrest of Osman Gani, the Chief Conservator of Forest, has opened a can of worms in our administration, we believe, more of the likes of Gani are at large, and some are still running the show in different government-run mills and factories. Otherwise nothing can justify the fact that subsequent governments have claimed to run the country smoothly but have always found managing mills and factories difficult. The financing and procurement process has to be freed from the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued this sector for so long. Meanwhile, we must nurture our skilled labour, make ways to developed new ones. The beginning of a new industrialised forward looking Bangladesh can start from the jute sector.