by rahnuma ahmed
Yesterday, I had ended with the words, “there is still hope.”
But, of course, hoping doesn’t mean that one daydreams, or fantasises. Or, becomes cynical when things don’t turn out the way one had wished.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — words attributed to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, imprisoned by Mussolini. To see the world as it really is, underpinned by the will that humans have the courage to change it. One thus needs to dispassionately examine what occurred later. But before doing so, let me turn to the cat- out-of-the-bag story.
The ‘minus two plan’ was officially confirmed by the World Bank South Asia vice-president Praful C. Patel. While visiting Dhaka, at the end of 2007, he said, “What [had] looked possible before, like the minus-two approach, does not seem possible today, because the two ladies have [a] very strong and powerful power base.”
However, he’d also felt the urge to add, “if the ‘minus-two’ approach can be realised by removing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina from the helms of the BNP and the Awami League, then the country will enter into an era of more sustainable democratic governance.” (“Some Concerns Matched by Major Achievements,” Daily Star, December 17, 2007).
But since it was obvious by then that the consortium government had failed to “minus” the two leaders, what did the consortium’s policy planners do? Did they turn their attention toward the two political parties, and their leaders?
Publicly available information indicates this. The Awami League’s former general secretary Abdul Jalil hints at a deal having been struck. In an interview given to a private TV channel in London, he said, “At least I think that there was some understanding behind [the Awami League’s] massive victory…Didn’t she [Sheikh Hasina] go to America while under detention? Didn’t she stay there?” (Ami ontoto mone kori je khomotar ei bipul bijoyer pichone ekta understanding ache…Uni bondi obosthay Amerikay gelen na, Amerikay thaklen na?,” Bangla TV, September 22, 2009).
Sheikh Hasina, who had been jailed on charges of extortion on July 16, 2007 by the Fakhruddin-Moeenuddin regime, was released nearly a year later (June 11) on parole, for medical treatment abroad (her hearing ability had been impaired in the August 21, 2004 grenade attack on her rally, killing 23 people; the incident had occurred when the BNP-Jamaat government was in power). Hasina had gone to to the US for medical treatment, she returned to Dhaka on November 6, 2008. Her election campaign was formally launched on December 11, 2008; the Awami League-led grand alliance won a landslide victory in the elections of December 29, 2008 (263 seats out of 300, the BNP won 31 seats).
The voter turnout, a record 87 per cent, was the biggest ever. Election results, Khaleda Zia alleged, had been “stage-managed,” but according to international poll monitoring groups — the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, the polls were “free and fair,” the results were “credible.”
Is there truth to what Jalil had said, i.e., that there was an “understanding”? Between who? Is this the reason why the present prime minister insists on not trying Fakhruddin, Moeenuddin (and the spineless former president Iajuddin) for having illegally and unconstitutionally usurped power?
If it is true, then who was involved in working out the deal? How many parties were involved? Who represented which side? How ‘big’ was the deal, what did it cover?
Does it bear any similarities to the immunity deal worked out in favor of Pakistan’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf? In a US Embassy Islamabad cable, released by WikiLeaks (September 21, 2011), the US Ambassador Anne W Patterson (August 23, 2008) reports to her Washington superiors that Pakistan’s top civilian and military players are committed to providing immunity to Musharraf; one must note that this was after Musharraf had been formally named by the government in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination case.
The cable covers Patterson’s separate meetings with prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani (August 21, 2008), president Asif Ali Zardari (August 23, 2008), and army chief General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani (August 20, 2008); it is important to note that the cable was written after Musharraf?s resignation (August 18, 2008) and before Zardari?s election as president (September 6, 2008).
The cable says, Patterson had stressed, it was “only the promise of indemnity” which had persuaded Musharraf to step down as president. “We believed, as we had often said, that Musharraf should have a dignified retirement and not be hounded out of the country.”
“Zardari noted that he already had firmly committed to the U.S., the UK, and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Kayani that indemnity for Musharraf would be forthcoming.” The ambassador “urged him to do it quickly,” in response to which Zardar and Gilani had said, “not until after the presidential election.” Pushing it right now, might “jeopardize Zardari?s candidacy.” Gilani had assured the ambassador that he and the party did not want vengeance, adding, “Many will say that we have done a deal with America, but still I understand that we have to do it.”
I’d written earlier that the consortium government was not homogeneous, that immediately after the consortium’s coup, the military leadership (including the DGFI, the military intelligence agency) had set themselves to the task of tilting the previous civil-military power equation, in favor of the military. That, this had been conducted at the ideological level, and through the deployment of coercive powers. The security forces had unleashed a reign of terror, had expressed disregard and contempt for poor people’s livelihoods and homes; huts, shanties and roadside shops were torn down, pavements were forcibly cleared of hawkers and sellers; the prices of food and other consumables had also shot upwards. At the ideological level, a flurry of promotional videos, featuring video footage of army personnel in combat training, UN peace-keeping etc., accompanied by specially-composed songs eulogising the army, were telecast regularly. Surprise raids were carried out in the homes of politicians, mass arrests were made, nearly half without arrest warrants. Interrogations were conducted, audio tapes of these were made available for sale. Remand and torture, some leading to deaths (e.g., adivasi leader Choles Ritchil), had occurred; the media was closely monitored, instructions on news treatment were given to both print and electronic media, black and white lists of TV talk show discussants were drawn up, media owners and journalists were also picked up and tortured (e.g., Tasneem Khalil). The culture of fear was palpable.
On August 20, 2007, army personnel stationed in an army camp on Dhaka University grounds beat up university students who were watching a football match. A close examination of publicly available information leads me to believe that the immediate response of the government was aimed at ameliorating matters, it expressed deep regret and decided to withdraw the offending army camp from the campus; this leads me to believe that decision-making powers of how the situation should be tackled, still rested in the hands of the civil-military coalition. However, the situation seems to have changed rapidly, within a matter of 48 hours, with the military leadership, particularly the DGFI, taking control (this has been confirmed in press reports of the parliamentary standing committee’s probe of the August 20th incident). Whether the changeover occurred without any resistance from the civilian elements within the consortium government, or whether objections, however mild, had been raised, is not known.
It is difficult for me to ascertain at this stage whether the two incidents which stand out in public memory: (a) the chief of general staff Sina Ibn Jamali being heckled (roughed up?) by students when he went to see injured students at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital on the 20th evening (b) the ‘flying kick’ photograph, which was published the day after the incident (Daily Star, August 23, 2007) as students protests spread nationwide, and was spread virally through the internet — had anything to do with the DGFI-sation of the situation. If it did, who were involved and how, is not known; it requires future research. (Another issue which needs to be researched is whether forces ‘external’ to the two political parties, the AL, and the BNP(-Jamaat), had stoked the fires of the deepening political crisis in October 2006 over who would head the caretaker regime; although the bitter animosity between the two leaders is well-known, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that it might have been capitalised upon by interested quarters).
It may well be that the ‘flying kick’ incident acted as a catalysing factor in the brutal crackdown that followed. However, if the consortium government’s overarching objective was ‘de-politicisation,’ then, an assault on public universities was inevitable, sooner or later. Press reports of the recently-completed parliamentary standing committee’s probe of the 20th August incident hints this as a possibility.
From press reports, one also learns that the government was “finally” able to trace Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed to deliver the standing committee’s letter to testify on the August 20th incident. He “has been living” in Maryland, USA, and had, at first, declined to accept the letter (Fakhruddin finally “traced”, The Daily Sun, April 13, 2011).
General Moeen too, lives in the USA (Florida). He too, expressed his inability to appear before the committee in person (because of illness) but consented to a teleconference interview, unlike Fakhruddin who resorted to a letter. The standing committee report has suggested that Fakhruddin, Moeen U Ahmed and some others be punished, but the prime minister seems to be adamant in her refusal to do so. An indemnity deal like Musharraf’s? Its a possibility that cannot be shrugged off lightly.
An assault on public universities was inevitable for two reasons, its longstanding tradition of dissent (1948-1971); and secondly, post-independence, particularly in the era of parliamentary politics (1990 onwards), the re-constitution and re-alignment of the allegiances of teachers and students, on party political lines; almost, mindlessly so. These have combined to making party control over university campuses essential for mobilising support for the ruling party, for controlling party opposition, and dissent, which has often resulted in turning campuses into battlegrounds. Given this historical context, I think that the consortium government’s decision to locate army camps on Dhaka University campus, needs to be viewed problematically.
The 20th August student protests prove that it is inevitably public university students who are the first to raise the alarm against authoritarianism, to organise movements of resistance. In 2007, when the protests spread from Dhaka University to other campuses, noticeably strongly in Rajshahi University, when they spilled out on to the streets of Dhaka and other major cities, when common people, petty shopkeepers, hawkers, others whose homes and means of livelihood had been destroyed joined in, a ‘local’ protest rapidly took on the proportions of a ‘national’ one.
It just went to prove that public universities are still, ‘public.’
Published in New Age, Saturday, March 3, 2012.