Switch off the lights. Rend your hair. Don only white. It is time to go into mourning. An old and ailing relative? democracy, has died an inevitable death. Dead at barely 60 years old though the abuse it suffered during its short life span made it appear much older.
Like the aunt who lingers on long after most of the family believe she is already dead, this week?s death was a quiet one, it was long expected, some would say even overdue. There was no shock, no sudden loss.
Democracy in this country wasn?t overthrown by a dictator, nor shattered suddenly by the chaos of war and revolution. Instead it died a painful, slow death. Strangled by corruption, stifled by authoritarianism and finally snuffed out by the disinterest and apathy of the general public. ?And while it somehow lingered on despite being savaged by decades of war, riots, and attempted revolutions, ?this week we finally saw democracy die in the hearts and minds of voters.
The turn out ?for the 2010 general election stands as the lowest in history? only ?50% of the country?s people made the effort to participate in the country?s political process; not enough to sustain democracy?s ebbing life force. ?While some will criticise the voters? apathy, in reality you can only marvel at the patience of a people who voted regularly for six decades. ??At the devotion of a population who after years of false promises and disappointment continued to vote until finally a lack of credible candidates, tangible issues and the impossibility of effecting real change finally destroyed their interest in democracy.
Of course the truth is and always has been that ?regardless of the final results of this election, thugs, cronies and criminals will continue to rule this country. And regardless of anyone?s vote the present ?situation of lawlessness, ?emergency rule and authoritarianism is guaranteed to continue. The election was never going to address this country?s fundamental issues. Its lack of law and order, its almost medieval levels of women?s representation, the broken education system.
None of these things were even on the agenda. With victory guaranteed ?the most keenly fought battles in this year?s election took place within the ruling party, as the government?s heavy weight candidates fought openly over the spoils of certain UPFA victory; the 20 million vassals and serfs who no longer enjoy even the pretense of rights.
Instead of issues and achievements, candidates ?struggled to display their closeness to the country?s centre of power. ?We were treated to the unashamed sycophantism of ?posters showing Wimal Weerawansa sharing breakfast with our leader and ?Bandula Gunawardena daring to pass the ?phone to the President. ?Eventually ?desperation for inter-party preference votes saw ?government candidates desecrate Buddha statues and violate every section of the country?s election law ?with impunity.
Seeing the ugliness of the government, the impotence of the opposition and the hypocrisy ?of the institutions ? police, courts, charged with safeguarding democracy the people were inevitably disgusted. ??And at ?a crucial moment in the country?s history they ?chose to hide their faces from this mockery of the democratic process. They looked away ?from the hideous posters, meaningless slogans and the futile opposition ?and refused to make the effort to vote.
But while everyone looked away ?democracy died a second death ? that of the two thirds majority. ?Figures indicate that the UPFA ?will receive nearly two-thirds of the votes ?cast. ?And with this majority comes nothing less than absolute power. The ability to amend the constitution, the very basis of ?the nation?s law. The checks and ?balances that ?are the key to democracy have disappeared. ??And with the government in such a comfortable position the reforms that could ?possibly have breathed new life into the islands democracy? the 17th Amendment, quotas for women, a Right to Information Act, will never materialise.
Democracy in Sri Lanka is beyond revival. And in its place we now have just one party or more accurately, one ?family. ?And the country?s citizens have just one choice, either demonstrate their loyalty, obedience and gratitude to the ruling family or risk detention, death or worse the utter irrelevance of ?powerlessness.
This is no longer a criticism or a warning, ?it is simply reality. One chapter of the country?s history is now closed ?? the flickering light of democracy has gone out. ?The ailing opposition, the clapped out General, the toothless UNP will never be able to restore the people?s right to democracy. ?Instead if it is ever to return, democracy in this country will have to be reborn. Instead of ?being imposed by colonial masters it will have to take hold again in the hearts and minds of the people.
If nothing else this year?s low turn-out indicates dissatisfaction ?with the current political system and perhaps ?a longing for a process we can all believe in; ?it is still possible that the country?s people still long for genuine democracy. ?But until that hope manifests itself as a genuine grass roots movement for a return to a politics based on principles, representative politics and good governance we ?have dark years of despotism ahead of us.
Democracy is dead. And today only thugs, cronies and sycophants ?have reason to celebrate; the rest of us will be in mourning for a weak, flawed but comforting old friend.
Landslides are dangerous. Things get buried. People get hurt. The 9th parliamentary elections was to return Bangladesh from a two year military backed caretaker rule to an elected Government. The gathering on the last campaign day was massive, but there were fewer women and more people with white caps than one expected. The BNP candidate in Paltan Maidan boasted of how EVERY household in his candidacy, had assured him of their vote. Awami League candidates, the previous day, postured similarly, but both sides probably felt there was a reasonable chance of winning. The two-year gap between BNP’s misrule and the elections, might have eroded some of the moral gains that Awami League would otherwise have had. Voters sometimes have short memories. A landslide election win for anyone was not on the cards.
The Bangladeshi voter however, is remarkably savvy. They voted out Bhutto in 1971. Despite genocide, it did lead to independence. Since then, in every reasonably free and fair election they have had, they have voted with their heads. Hasina’s lack of repentance about BAKSHAL and previous Awami League misrule cost her the 1991 elections. Khaleda’s police fired upon farmers demanding fertilisers. Even a rigged election didn’t help her in 1996. ‘Safe’ seats of numerous ministers were lost in the re-taken polls. Hasina blew it in her term with her thugs causing havoc on campus and her ministers demanding that journalists be beaten up. The votes went to BNP. Khaleda went overboard yet again, with corruption reaching new heights, and her sons unleashing terror. Rising prices didn’t help. Khaleda made an attempt at apology. It was too little too late. The pendulum swung. History does not appear to be either party’s strong point.
There has however, been a change in the recent script. Political skirmishes in the past, were largely between political cadre, and localised. A few cocktails might have been thrown, but since the killing of general Zia, there had been few assassination attempts. Until recently. Bomb attacks were a new thing. The capture of trucks laden with small arms. The vigilante groups in the rampage in the north. The targeted attacks on secular scholars, were new. Assassination attempts on Hasina took political violence to new levels. The BNP brought in its own vigilante. The black bandanas of the Rapid Action Battalion became another source of terror with hundreds of ‘crossfire’ deaths to their credit.
Against this backdrop, the landslide win of the Awami League, had analysts gushing with excitement. The superlatives flowed. People cheered this ‘historic victory’. A change of government generally starts with a witch-hunt, traditionally meted out to the opposition party previously in power. This caretaker government had stayed rather longer than usual. Given the documented torture of ‘rajkumar’ Tariq Zia (Khaleda’s son and the general secretary of her party), BNP’s return to power would not have been so comfortable for the incumbent government and its unofficial backers. Hasina’s promise of ratifying the misdeeds of this government meant she was the safer bet.
Accusations of the military having actively engineered the Awami League win is probably exaggerated, though news of intimidation was not infrequent, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But that too is history. Hasina’s position regarding her neighbours is more pertinent. She has already declared solidarity towards Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The relationship towards big brother India, will probably have more to do with the relationship with bigger brother USA. The US has always played a major role in recent subcontinental politics. The 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was needed when the USSR was dominant. Today, the US, Israel and India are close allies, the war on terror being a collective pet project. A pliant military and a grateful Hasina will both play the game. The routing of Jamaat in the elections has to do with people’s sentiments. The war on war criminals to the war on terror is a small bridge to cross. The fluttering flag of democracy will obscure a few indiscretions along the way.
I?m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.?
? Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party
It was a victory for electoral democracy.
I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn?t register with any political party?. Someone else?s photo, name, and father?s name graced the space where Saif?s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.
Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.
A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition ? whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government ? would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.
In the early hours of the morning, as AL?s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.
Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League?s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution ? a ballot box revolution ? had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.
There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.
I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia?s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government?s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.
At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ?unprecedented rigging,? or of the polls having been conducted according to a ?blueprint?. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia?s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID?s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ?bribe money?, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel?s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID?s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.
Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.
A ?smooth transition?: impunity in the offing?
Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…
How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ?inalienable? fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy ? be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.
Allying with bigger terrorists
The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army?s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ?terrorists.? A seamless whole seems to be in the making.
And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina?s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ?the spirit of 1971? will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.
Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.
My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.
The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.
Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.
Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.
Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
Jonotar Chokh (16 October 2008), and weekly Shachitra Shomoy (26 October 2008).
Translations by Rahnuma Ahmed
I have doubts about December’s parliamentary elections: first, whether they will take place — at all — on the 18th. And second, if they do, whether the elections will be such that are acceptable to all sections of society, whether all political parties are able to actively take part in it, and whether the elections, on the whole, are held smoothly ? says Nurul Kabir.
Jonotar Chokh: You often express doubts about whether parliamentary elections will be held on December 18th. Why? Nurul Kabir I have doubts about December’s parliamentary elections: first, whether they will take place — at all — on the 18th. And second, if they do, whether the elections will be such that are acceptable to all sections of society, whether all political parties are able to actively take part in it, and whether the elections, on the whole, are held smoothly.
When national elections are held under a non-party based caretaker government, the main task is to create an equitable political atmosphere where parties can contest equally, and of course there are pre-conditions to this: conducting constructive discussions with all political parties, big or small, framing democratic norms and rules that are acceptable to all. But the present government and its nominated Election Commission has never been seen to have engaged in constructive discussions with all concerned political parties, with similar sincerity, or an attitude of dealing with them equitably. On the contrary, sometimes this government and it’s Commission have attempted to divide the political parties. Sometimes it has extended state patronage to the people it prefers so as to enable them to form new political parties. Sometimes it has tried to stoke up mutual distrust and suspicion between the mainstream political parties. As a result, the relationship which has developed between the political parties, and the government and its Election Commission, is one based on a kind of distrust. This is not congenial to the holding of elections.
On the other hand, the government has taken advantage of the state of emergency to create and implement policies which are extraneous to its constitutional mandate and its legal powers. Most of these are anti-people. For instance, shutting down nationalised factories, industries and banks, tele-communications, gas, airlines etc., handing over government service sectors to private limited companies in order to strengthen private ownership etc. etc. These actions have further embedded Bangladesh economy into the US-led ‘new liberal economic order,’ which is bound to have a negative impact on the economic lives of most people. These decisions were taken and implemented by using the state of emergency as a shield, by disallowing popular protests through armed means. In this context, it is difficult to be certain about whether those who have strangled peoples’ fundamental rights will leave the shelter of emergency powers and hold elections. On the other hand, the major political parties have clearly spoken of their unwillingness to take part in the elections under emergency. And, of course, none of the major political parties can agree to take part in the elections under a state of emergency, without sacrificing their obligation to struggle for the restoration of peoples’ constitutional rights. Besides, the government might take advantage of the state of emergency, it might try to legitimise election results that have been decided beforehand.
And then again, if we look at it from another angle, it is not possible to be absolutely certain that any of the political parties will not betray the people and their aspirations for the restoration of democratic rights. Elections, whether held under a state of emergency, or after the withdrawal of emergency, generally enable a political party to assume power, to take on the reins of government. Any political party coveting power can disavow their commitment to restoring peoples’ fundamental rights, and can singly begin to, let’s say, walk towards the throne. Such things have happened before. But then, even in such a case, given the current stalemated political situation, I do not think that the military-backed caretaker government will welcome the idea of holding elections without having worked out beforehand, an effective understanding about post-electoral politics with one of the major political parties — at the very least. And elections based on pre-election understandings of this sort, are bound to be flawed.
We can see that the government is engaging in dialogues with the political parties, but we also hear that the government is attempting to arrive at secret understandings with them. The results of direct discussions are not very positive, whereas, on the other hand, we do not know what is taking place behind the scenes. And it is for these reasons, that I express concern about whether elections will be held on December 18th, and that, even if these are held, I express concerns about the quality of elections that will be held under a state of emergency. Jonotar Chokh: At times the government is giving some advantages to the Awami League, at other times, to the BNP. And now we see it putting pressure on both political parties. What, in your opinion, is the reason behind this strategy? Nurul Kabir The reasons behind the strategy of the military-controlled caretaker government for sometimes giving advantages to one party, at other times, to another, are very clear: to evade the responsibilities outlined in the constitution so as to keep open the option of advancing ahead with the political-economic agenda of their western masters. The government’s constitutional obligation was to not award special privileges to any particular party, to ensure equal opportunities for all, and to hold a well-organised general election that will hand over power to the elected representatives. But the present government and its invisible national and foreign partners are stoking up suspicion and distrust between the political parties, whose relationship, as it is, is based on competitiveness. In such a situation, in order to bring a return of normal political processes, the contending political parties and camps should reach a minimum level of understanding on the removal of the state of emergency. If the politicians fail to do this, the unelected government may use excuses to prolong its tenure, and this will be harmful for the country, for its people, for the national economy, and for the political process. Jonotar Chokh: Two major political parties provide leadership in Bangladesh politics — do you think they will be able to rise above nepotism and corruption in future, and play a positive role with respect to the people? Nurul Kabir The two major political parties that provide leadership in Bangladesh politics — Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Dal (BNP) and the Awami League (AL) — basically represent the political, economic and cultural interests of the nation’s ruling class. This ruling class, which is of course a small section of the nation’s total population, is authoritarian. It is so for several historical reasons. From the economic point of view, it is corrupt. From the cultural point of view, it is reactionary. Hence, a democratic orientation, economic transparency, and cultural progressiveness is inherently against the nature of this class, it goes against the processes through which this class was constituted, as a ruling class.
The ruling class, which as I said earlier, is anti-people. It has developed an economic system that is consistent with its class-based interests. It has kept intact a state and society that is undemocratic. Nepotism and corruption are its inseparable features. Military and civilian bureaucrats, corrupt businessmen and industrialists, local agents of foreign or multinational companies and opportunistic politicians, have all contributed to this corrupt system. On the other hand, there exists a vast army of compliant intellectuals, teachers, journalists, artists, writers, experts of different colour, who unfailingly keep providing social and cultural legitimacy to this anti-democratic system. On the social level, they produce and reproduce conventional and stereotypical ideas. They do not question the political and economic ideas that exist. There is no realistic reason to believe that in this situation, with this political, economic, and cultural system, and with its unhindered continuance, the mainstream political leadership will rise above nepotism and corruption, and will devote itself — or, that the leaders are capable of devoting themselves — to peoples’ welfare at the first opportune moment. To get the mainstream political leadership to work in the peoples interest, they have to be kept under constant pressure — the members and followers of the political parties have to be much more conscious, they have to shake off the prevalent tradition of extending blind support to their leaders, they have to work hard to get their leadership accustomed to the idea of democratic accountability. In this case, progressive journalists and intellectuals have the opportunity to play a critically significant role — and of course, there is a tremendous need for them to do this. A journalism that is biased towards the people must continuously unearth how the existing political system, how economic philosophy and cultural outlooks produce and reproduce corruption. A journalism that is biased towards the people must necessarily place these facts before the people. What progressivist intellectuals can do, is to analyse the inherent limitations of the existing system, they can present it before the people, they can present positive alternatives to the existing political and economic system. This requires hard work. Not only that, it is also risky. Only those who are committed to the idea of history and to progress, will be willing to take such risks.
The emergence of journalists and intellectuals who are committed to the democratic rights of the people, to fearlessly fighting on behalf of party workers and followers to build an accountable political culture, to greater action-based unity on the part of people, can work to create a situation where the current political leadership rises above corruption and nepotism, and can, or is forced to, work for the welfare of the people. Jonotar Chokh: How do you assess the role of journalism in Bangladesh in times of emergency? Nurul Kabir The emergency has had a terrible influence on journalism in Bangladesh. After 1990, one had seen the emergence of positive trends in journalism in Bangladesh. Until January 2007, before the promulgation of emergency, journalism in Bangladesh, despite its flaws and limitations, was the most vibrant in the whole of South Asia. But the state of emergency, and the subsequent oppression — which is of course, a part of emergency — and the virtual surrender of most media institutions, has destroyed the proud identity that we had as journalists. At the beginning of emergency, the government had stated that in the absence of a parliament, it would be the media that would express the hopes and aspirations of the people, that the government would conduct its activities on the basis of public opinion which would find its expression in the media. But, in practice we have found the government using the media to implement its own undemocratic agenda. Of course, it is true that some newspapers and televison channels executed the government’s orders voluntarily, falling over backwards in their attempts to do so, but there were others who were forced to do so, in the face of abusive behaviour and threats from members of the military intelligence agencies. We — who are a very small part of the media in Bangladesh — disregarded the emergency government’s unfair demands and threats. We have tried our level best to maintain standards of professional excellence. In doing so, we have had to risk our lives, our honour. I am sure readers remember that the present government, immediately after coming to power, began a sweeping campaign against politicians, saying that they are all corrupt. But actually, the military intelligence agencies handed-out printed information to newspapers on the financial corruption of politicians, that they would publish the following day. The politicians were then in prison. There was no opportunity to get their version of the story, to find out what they had to say for themselves. But we were expected to print the stuff! We [at New Age] didn’t. Most newspapers did, many did so very eagerly, while others had no option. This period is scandalous, it will forever remain so in the history of journalism in Bangladesh. Not all politicians are free of scandalous dealings, this is absolutely true. But the government’s motive in making them scandalous springs not from a desire to rid the country of corrupt politicians, but from the evil intention of de-politicising the nation. Extending support to such a plan of action is anti-people. Extending support to such an idea is against the practices of democratic journalism, regardless of whether it is initiated by the government, or by non-government forces.
A couple of un-elected persons, vastly removed from the people of this country have been in control of state power for almost the last two years, in the name of correcting its faulty political process. This idea is laughable. Democracy can be developed only by extending the democratic rights of people, by removing hindrances to the exercise of these rights. But the rulers claim to be servicing the democratic process by suspending the fundamental democratic rights of the people! Journalism in Bangladesh should have risen up in revolt against such an unreal and absurd idea, but it didn’t. Therefore, generally-speaking, there is nothing about journalism during emergency times that we can be proud of.
Journalism is also a kind of intellectual practice. The duty of democratic journalism, just like democratic intellectual practice, is to ignore the wrath of the ruling class, and to ceaselessly work for upholding the truth in front of the common people, to organise public opinion against all sorts of un-democratic practices, to prepare the cultural soil for a decisive rise of democratic social and political forces. Journalism too, is a kind of political struggle. Practising journalism for the growth of democracy is not separate from the political struggle for the establishment of a democratic state. These are processes that go hand in hand. Jonotar Chokh: How do you view the role that the army has played in the politics of Bangladesh since 1/11? Nurul Kabir `Playing a role in politics’ did not begin on 11th January 2007. On the contrary, the army leadership had a determining role in initiating the political changes of 11th January. But one must bear in mind that the army leadership’s involvement in politics was actively instigated by two things: on the one hand, the crass power struggle between the contending political parties that was shorn of any ideals whatsoever, one that led to a conflictual situation. On the other, the incitement provided by a miniscule, but organised, anti-politics group known as ‘civil society’ (shusheel shomaj), several local agents of multinational corporations who are barriers to the development of national capital, and several foreign embassies, both western and non-western. This self-serving clique of national and foreign forces get greater pleasure when unrepresentative and weak governments are installed, since it becomes easier for them to gain business and trade advantages, to secure their own power and influence. The combination of unrepresentative government and a state of emergency creates a politically authoritative system, in such a state of affairs, people do not have the right to protest against the actions of the state and government through constitutional means. As a result, interested quarters are able to realise their own political and economic plans, to do this, in an absolutely unhindered manner.
This is the unhealthy state of affairs that has existed in our country under the current military-backed caretaker government for the last twenty months. Many factories and industries have closed down during this period, employment opportunities have greatly lessened, the national economy is in a critical state. As I said earlier, Bangladesh has become further embedded in the western-dominated global economic order, the nationalised service sector has moved further away from the common people, the state’s education and health sector has become more antagonistic to public interest, the purchasing power of people has further lessened etc. etc.
Since the army leadership was directly associated with the changes of 11th January, people equate the illegal and anti-people actions taken by the caretaker government — as it was formed under the army’s direct supervision — with the army as a whole, rather simply, in a lineal manner. The army is regarded to be partly responsible for the caretaker government’s visible role in the political sphere, particularly within the political parties; it is regarded to be partly responsible for the never-ending creation of instabilities, for the government’s unlimited failure in solving everyday problems of the common people.
I think that, being a nation state, it was inappropriate for the national armed forces to have attained such an image. It is not beneficial for the country, in other words, it is not beneficial either for our people, nor for our army. Jonotar Chokh: Barrister Rafiqul Huq recently took initiatives to organise private meetings between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, how do you view this? Nurul Kabir From what I can tell, Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s initiative of arranging a private meeting between Khaleda Zia (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina (AL) has been welcomed by the common people. Khaleda immediately responded. Hasina too, did not oppose the idea, she said, she would decide after she had discussed the matter with her party members.
It is not possible to say whether this meeting will take place, and if it does, whether it’ll bear any results. That depends on the circumstances in which it occurs, the agenda of the meeting, etc. etc. But what we need to understand and appreciate is why such initiatives receive popular support. First of all, Bangladeshis want to be rid of this state of emergency that is throttling us, right at this moment. And I think, the people understand very well that in order to be free of this state of emergency the two top leaders of the two most influential political parties need to arrive at a minimum consensus against this military-backed caretaker government. Second, once the state of emergency is withdrawn and a political process is re-initiated, people do not want a return to the warring relationship that had existed between the two parties prior to its imposition. The BNP and AL’s crass struggle for political power, one that is shorn of any ideals whatsoever, inflicts miseries on the everyday struggles of common people, it obstructs the conduct of normal economic activities. Therefore, what the people want is that these two leaders, who wield paramount power within their own parties, should, of their own accord, reach an understanding on the basic issue that the lives and means of living of the people of this country will not be hampered in future because of their own struggles for state power.
Besides, people want that the two top leaders should sit and discuss, and mutually agree on the need for effecting a positive transformation in our whole political culture, on issues that were being discussed in Bangladesh society over the last couple of years, such as, the growth of a democratic culture within the political parties, ensuring transparency in the party’s financial dealings, building habits of tolerance among party leaders and followers, orienting the parties towards being effectively accountable to the people etc. etc. and that they should receive a clear assurance about these essential matters.
At the present stage in the history of our political development, no other leader exists who is as popular, as successful, or as influential as Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Therefore, people have no other recourse but to demand that they behave properly. Hence, I think that there is popular support for Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s initiative. And I think that the leaders should respond towards the love, affection and trust that the people bestow on them.
But the government immediately swooped down on the idea of a consensual meeting taking place between the two leaders. This gave rise to a complex situation. Those who are politically-conscious realise that the military-backed caretaker government, which is far removed from the common people, wants to forcibly extract commitments. I don’t think that people support the idea of a quasi-military system extracting these commitments forcibly. I don’t think that Bangladeshis want to see their leaders humiliated. I think that the common people want to see their leaders make these commitments, of their own free will. Jonotar Chokh: There are many among the educated sections who blame the political leadership for Bangladesh not having progressed as a nation. What is your opinion? Nurul Kabir The extent to which a nation, or the people of a country — who belong both to big and small nationalities — can make progress in the world system as a whole, depends to a large extent on the nation’s political leadership, I admit that this is true. If political leadership is progressive, is educated, is democratically-inclined, is committed to the progress of the nation and its people, the people and the country as a whole are bound to make advancements.
But what kind of politics will emerge, the extent to which political leadership will be progressivist and democratically-inclined, the purposiveness and accountability of its actions — these do not depend on political leadership alone. They also depend on the particular political party’s members and its followers, and also on the political consciousness and cultural norms, as a whole.
If the political leadership is truly democratically-inclined, if it really believes in transparency and accountability, if it is committed, then people’s political consciousness and cultural values as a whole, are bound to be more progressive. Further, if the political consciousness of party workers, supporters and common people is democratically-oriented, the political leadership is forced to behave democratically.
And therefore, I do not agree with those among the educated sections who blame only the politicians for Bangladesh’s lack of progress. Among these educated sections are people who have generally gained disrepute over the last two years, who are known as the ‘civil society,’ who have laid the blame on politicians in a most sweeping manner, who have thereby cleared the way for a situation that led to the emergence of this military-backed, undemocratic regime. They have extended the rein of this government, they continue to do so. But it is common knowledge that many of them received favours from the very political leadership, and the political regimes, of which they are now so critical. This is downright monafiqi.
A certain class of educated people look at politics as a homogeneous phenomenon, they fail to grasp the fact that political ideals and programmes can be different, that these can be loyal to different class interests of society.
It was the duty of our educated classes — it still is — to minutely examine and analyse different political ideologies, to present these before the people, so as to assist general party workers and common people understand better the distinctions, to make them politically more aware, to play a role towards constructing a democratic ethos. It is public consciousness against the undemocratic behaviour of the political leadership, its acceptance of an anti-people economic programme, that plays a decisive role in the growth and development of a democratic culture. There is no shortcut route to effecting positive changes in politics. Jonotar Chokh: The current stream of politics and its leadership has repeatedly failed us in the past. A truly democratic current was much needed, but it failed to emerge. In your opinion, what are the reasons? Nurul Kabir The two major mainstream political parties, the BNP and the AL, have not at all failed to protect the interests of the class that they represent. Both parties have made tremendous misuse of state power, they have built a huge army of very wealthy people among the ruling class. This wealthy group of people control the major part of our national resources, they hardly-ever abide by the law, their very visible indifference towards the plight of the many crores of poor people, towards their political and economic rights, their rights to education and health, is horrific.
Both the Jatiyatabadi Dal and the Awami League through their contribution to the growth of this inhuman and affluent class have proved that their political and economic ideals and policies when put into practice, are basically neither nationalistic (jatiyatabadi), nor pro-people (awami). If you seek answers to their failures in the fact that they have not served the interests of the majority, you would be making a serious mistake because that is not, and never was, their political programme. They have, very visibly, in front of everyone, churned out economic policies that favour the privileged, they have executed them, they have followed the prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF which are clearly against the interests of the poor, they have imposed these on our national economy. These policies have led to economic growth, but they have also led to proportionately increased disparities between the rich and the poor. Therefore I am not willing to say that the mainstream political parties have failed to serve the interests of the common people, because that is their politics. One just needs to read their party manifesto a bit attentively to realise that their policies are anti-people, that it is these policies that they implement when they are in power.
It is the failure of those who call themselves progressivists but have not practised progressive politics. They are not doing this, not even now. It is the failure of those who put their signature to mild press statements against the imperialist global capitalist system, but in practise, continuously cling to the coat-tails of a mainstream politics that prevents the furtherance of progressive politics. It is the failure of those intellectuals, artists and writers who prefer to present a progressive public image but do not make use of their intellect and labour to unmask the reactionary character of mainstream politics and economics.
If we are unable to pull Bangladesh out of the path of conventional politics and economics, the future of the majority of the people will slide into a dark, abysmal hole — this is undeniable. But, in order to move forward, towards better futures, we need to build a progressive politics, one which is in tune with the times. In order to take that politics forward we need women and men who are politically united, who are imbued with democratic cultural aspirations. There is no other alternative.
Conventional politics is innately loyal to the existing undemocratic state. It is the act of unmasking the ruling class’ material interests — ones that are intertwined in an unholy alliance with the expansion of the state — that a picture of a truly democratic state will emerge in clearer outlines in front of the people, a state in which women and men, Hindus and Muslims, workers and all other citizens will be able to enjoy equal rights in all spheres of the state. It is the act of analysing the warped capitalist economic programmes and policies followed by the mainstream political parties, that the central principles of a truly nationalist or awami economy will emerge before the people, that will, if applied, ensure equitable rights of all citizens over the nation’s resources, and ensure that the results of economic growth will be equally beneficial for all citizens.
But in order to take these political and economic ideas forward, as I have stressed earlier, we need political organisations. We need a group of people who are intellectually bright, culturally aware, courageous and committed toward democracy, who can initiate the process and can begin to walk toward this road with a firm belief that people are innately capable of enforcing democracy. It is a difficult task. It is a painful task, but if one avoids it, it will be impossible to create positive alternatives to the anti-people politics that are prevalent.
And therefore, I wait for the emergence of a group of men and women who have faith in the people’s innate democratic capacity. Surely, history will not betray us.
________________________________________________________________________ Shachitra Shomoy: Nearly all political parties have applied for registration. In this context, the government has claimed that the country has now risen on the highway to elections, that no doubts should exist any longer on whether elections will be held as scheduled, on Dec 18th. What do you think? Nurul Kabir Whether elections will take place on Dec 18th or not, depends primarily on the government, the Election Commission, and on the army administration. It does not depend on the political parties. Some of the political parties have willingly applied for registration, others have done so unwillingly. This means that they are eager to take part in the elections. But the creation of an environment that is congenial to the holding of elections, taking preparatory steps that are necessary for it to take place, is chiefly the responsibility of the government and the Election Commission. I am afraid that doubts will continue to exist if the government is busy mouthing words instead of carrying out its responsibilities.
For the parliamentary elections to take place, the very first requirement is an electoral constituency based voter list. The electoral schedule cannot be announced without this. But the government and its Election Commission have not yet been able to fix the boundaries of the newly-proposed electoral areas. And therefore, they have not yet been able to take up the task of determining the electoral constituency based voter list. The Attorney General who is the the chief law officer of the state, and who, by the way, is an appointee of this government, has recently said that if court cases over the newly-proposed electoral areas are not quickly resolved, uncertainties are likely to arise over whether elections will be held on Dec 18th or not. If the Attorney General himself has doubts, how can ordinary folks like us not have any?
Secondly, the larger political parties have been saying for quite some time now — as a matter of fact, they have put forward reasonable arguments — that the local elections should not be held so soon after the national elections, after a period of only six days. But the government has ignored this demand of theirs, one that is unitedly held by nearly all political parties.
And most of all, all political parties and people who are intelligent, have repeatedly asked that the emergency should be withdrawn prior to the holding of national elections. But the government has remained committed to holding elections under a state of emergency, it has put forward lame excuses in defense of its wish.
Clearly, in terms of the time frame, the government is lagging behind in taking necessary steps for holding the elections, and in creating a suitable environment. But the fact that it is lagging behind cannot be explained away by saying that it is inefficient, or that it is unqualified. I think what is particularly important is its non-commitment toward holding the elections, and toward democracy. Shachitra Shomoy: Why do you repeatedly stress the need for lifting the `state of emergency’? Nurul Kabir I put the greatest stress on lifting the state of emergency because it is the most important issue for democracy; because it is the most important issue for the common people.
Let me explain: the political significance of a state of emergency is that it is disastrous for peoples’ lives. The essence of emergency lies in wresting away all basic democratic rights of the people.
It is true that the constitution makes provisions for the declaration of emergency, either in a particular area, or in the country as a whole. But the kind of disorder that requires a declaration of emergency was not prevalent in the country as a whole, in January 2007. But even if we are to assume — for argument’s sake — that it did exist, that the frightening political conflict that had been created in the capital city could spread to other parts of the country, that the declaration of emergency by the President was necessary to prevent it from spreading, the fact remains that there is no political rationale for its continuation, for it having existed for the last 19 months. Notwithstanding this, the government has usurped the individual’s right to free speech, the freedom of the press, the right of people to conduct meetings and rallies, to bring out processions protesting against the government’s unjust actions, the right to seek justice in a court of law etc. etc. by dint of emergency powers.
The state of emergency has placed a handful of people, unelected people, in the highest seats of government. This group of people, on the one hand, have been invested with extra-ordinary powers, while the rest of the people, on the other hand, have been made powerless. Not only that, the wrath of emergency powers has given birth to a culture of fear, to a culture that is not easy to be rid of, or easy to overcome. Its negative effects are bound to continue for a long time in peoples’ minds, even after it is lifted. As a result of this, people become afraid of thinking independently, of expressing their thoughts uninhibitedly. As a matter of fact, a chasm grows between a person and her or his sense of dignity, it is something that one is unaware of, that happens unconsciously. The state of emergency oppresses people psychologically, and hence, it is important that we become free of this state of oppressiveness at the earliest possible moment. Otherwise, we are bound to fall behind in our struggle to democratise our state and society.
No society is known to have developed politically without people who are free and who, as thinking people, are politically active, in a positive manner. Shachitra Shomoy: Does that mean you are claiming that democracy was prevalent in our society before the imposition of emergency? Nurul Kabir No, neither state nor society was democratic prior to emergency. Bangladesh was never democratic. Definitely not during military rule, not during electoral rule either. But what did exist, what has always existed in this country, is the people’s struggle to make state and society democratic. It is a struggle that is both political and cultural. Military rule, or a quasi-military rule under the cover of a state of emergency has in effect throttled that struggle. An elected government at the earliest is imperative because under the rein of an elected government, under a normal rule of law, people are generally less hindered in their struggle for democracy. Shachitra Shomoy: Political parties have recently introduced some democratic changes to their party constitution. Do you think this will lead to the growth of democratic practices within the party? Nurul Kabir It is true that political parties have democratised their constitutions. It is also true, to some extent at least, that they have done this because they have been forced to do so. However, there is no credible reason to think that this process will bring into being limitless opportunities for practising democracy in the political parties of the ruling class.
Through introducing these democratic changes, the only thing that the political parties have admitted to, is the fact that although they had spouted democracy at every opportune moment, they were loath to practise it. I agree that their admission has a certain amount of political value. But the enhancement of democratic practices, whether in a political party, or in any institution, does not depend on the inclusion of good words in its constitution. Rather, it depends on the leadership’s frame of mind, whether that is democratically-inclined or not. What is also important is the political consciousness of people close to that party or institution, and the political consciousness of those who are subordinate to it. If the majority of the people adhere to a personality cult, if the accountability of leaders is not important, well then, the growth of a democratic culture is not an easy task.
This is also true for state institutions. For instance, it is explicitly written in the constitution of Bangladesh that a non-partisan caretaker government will conclude the elections within 90 days, that it will take leave after handing over power to elected representatives of the people, and that during the interim period, the caretaker government will not draw up, or modify principles that are fundamental in any manner whatsoever, that they will conduct only the everyday affairs of governing. But look at what happened in practice. A handful of people with the highest educational degrees, copiously spouting the necessity of introducing democratic changes, flouted the constitution for the last 21 months without any misgivings whatsoever. And they did this by thumbing their nose at the democratic rights of all peoples’ of this land, even though sovereignty belongs to the people, even though the highest law of the republic is the expression of the general will of the people.
From this instance it should be clear that what is written on paper, and in books, is not enough to ensure the enhancement of democracy. What is most important is whether a democratic mental framework has developed in society, and in its organisations, regardless of whether these are state-owned, whether these are political parties. On the other hand, to enable the growth of a democratic mentality, both thoughtful and free discussions need to take place on a variety of issues, such as, what is the essence of democracy, what are its forms and variations, social and historical changes in democratic ideas, the social division of labour in a democratic state etc. etc. To create an environment where free discussions can take place, we need to be rid of the shackles of emergency. This is of utmost importance.
Barack Obama is poised to become the 44th president of the United States. Many see in the ascendancy of a black man to the highest office of the world?s hegemon a supremely historic moment in American if not world affairs. Such is the incalculable hold of the US, in times better or worse, on the imagination of people worldwide that many are more heavily invested in the politics and future of the US than they are in the politics of their own nation.
There may yet be method to this maddening infatuation, for Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, among many others, known and unknown, the target at some point of the military wrath and moral unctuousness of America, may want to reason if their chances of being bombed back into the stone age increase or decrease with the election of one or the other candidate. The French, perhaps best known for the haughty pride in their own culture, were so moved by the events of September 11, 2001, which the Americans have attempted to install as a new era in world history, rendering 9/11 as something akin to BC or AD, that Le Monde famously declared, ?Nous sommes tous Americains? (?We are all Americans?). One doubts that, had it been Beijing, Delhi, or Dakar that had been so bombed, the French would have declared, We are All Chinese, Indians, or Senegalese. That old imperialist habit of presuming the royal We, thinking that the French or American we is the universal We, has evidently not disappeared.
Obama vs McCain
There can be little question that Obama?s presidency would be much preferable to that of McCain. If nothing else, his presidency is not calculated to be an insult to human intelligence or a complete affront to simple norms of human decency. After eight years of George W Bush, it seemed all but improbable that America could throw up another candidate who is, if not in absolutely identical ways, at least as much of an embarrassment to the US as the incumbent of the White House. But one should never underestimate the genius of America in throwing up crooks, clowns and charlatans into the cauldron of politics. It is likely that McCain has a slightly less convoluted ? or should I say jejune ? view of world history and geography than Bush, nor is his vocabulary wholly impoverished, but he will not strike anyone with a discerning mind as possessed of a robust intelligence. McCain has already committed so many gaffes, accusing (to take one example) Iran of training Al Qaida extremists, that one wonders whether his much touted ?foreign policy experience? amounts to anything at all.
In America, it is enough to have a candidate who understands that Iraq and Iran are not only spelled differently but constitute two separate nations. Obama seems so far ahead of the decorated Vietnam war veteran in these respects that it seems pointless to waste any more words on McCain. Obama writes reasonably well, and even been lauded for his skills as an orator; he is suave, mentally alert, and a keen observer of world affairs.
Far too many American elections have offered scenarios where a candidate has been voted into office not on the strength of his intelligence, sound policies, or moral judgment, but because the candidate has appeared to be ?the lesser of two evils?. The iconoclast Paul Goodman, writing in the 1960s, gave it as his considered opinion that American elections were an exercise in helping Americans distinguish between undistinguishable Democrats and Republicans, and there are, notwithstanding Obama?s appeal to liberals and apparently intelligent people, genuine questions to be asked about whether this election will be anything more than a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Candidates with wholly distinct views have always been described as ?spoilers? in the American system, and anyone who do not subscribe to the rigidly corporatist outlook of the two major parties can only expect ridicule, opprobrium, and at best colossal neglect. To this extent, whatever America?s pretensions at being a model democracy for the rest of the world, one can marvel at the ease and brilliance with which dissenters are marginalised in the US. The singularity of American democracy resides in the fact that it is, insofar as democracies are in question, at once both perversely primitive and advanced. In its totalitarian sweep over the political landscape, the one-party system, which through the fiction of two parties has swept all dissent ? indeed, I should say all thought ? under the rug, has shown itself utterly incapable of accommodating political views outside its fold; and precisely for this reason American democracy displays nearly all the visible signs of stability, accountability, and public engagement, retaining in its rudiments the same features it has had over the last two centuries.
A New Obama after the Election?
Obama?s most ardent defenders have adopted the predictably disingenuous view that Candidate Obama has had to repress most of his liberal sentiments to appeal to a wide electorate, and that president Obama will be much less ?centrist? in his execution of domestic and foreign policies. (The US is one country where most hawks, particularly if they are ?distinguished? senior statesmen, can easily pass themselves off as ?centrists?, the word ?hawk? being reserved for certified lunatics such as Bill O?Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, or blatantly aggressive policymakers such as Paul Wolfowitz. No one would describe Colin Powell, who shares as much responsibility as anyone else for waging a criminal war on Iraq, as a hawk.)
Of course much the same view was advanced apropos Bill Clinton, who then went on to wreck the labour movement, cut food stamps, initiate welfare ?reform? that further eroded the entitlements of the poor, and launch aggressive military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and a host of other places. Moreover, unless one is to take the view that Obama thought of his candidacy overnight, it is equally reasonable to argue that, knowing how much he would have to appeal to the rank and file of not only Democrats but the large number of ?undecided? voters as a candidate who would be markedly different from both the incumbent and the Republicans running for the presidency, Obama has been projecting himself as far more liberal than either his political record or views would give warrant to believe. Indeed, as a close perusal of his writings, speeches, and voting record suggests, Obama is as consummate a politician as any in the US, and he has been priming himself as a presidential candidate for many years.
Entry to the Obama World View
Obama?s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope (New York, Crown Publishers), furnishes as good an entry point into his world view as any. Its subtitle, ?Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream?, provides the link to Obama?s memoir of 1995, Dreams of My Father (1995). People everywhere have dreams, no doubt, but there is nothing quite as magisterial as ?the American dream?: the precise substance of the American dream ? a home with a backyard, mom?s apple pie, kids riding their bikes without a care in the world, a cute dog running around in circles after the kids, ice tea, a Chevrolet or SUV ? matters less than the fact that ?the American dream? signifies something grand and unique in the affairs of humankind. A politician who does not profess belief in the American dream is doomed, but there is no insincerity on Obama?s part in this respect. Leaving aside the question of how the American dream has been a nightmare to many of the most thoughtful Americans themselves, from Henry David Thoreau to James Baldwin, not to mention tens of millions of people elsewhere, Obama?s fondness for what Americans call ?feelgood? language is palpably evident. Just what does the audacity of hope mean? Need one be audacious to hope? Obama?s pronouncements are littered with the language of hope, change, values, dreams, all only a slight improvement on chicken soup for dummies or chocolate for the soul.
The chapter entitled ?The World Beyond Our Borders?, some will object, is illustrative of Obama?s engagement with substantive issues, and in this case suggestive of his grasp over foreign affairs. One of the stories that circulated widely about Bush upon his election to the presidency in 2000 was that he carried an expired passport; a variant of the story says that Bush did not at that time own a US passport. It is immaterial whether the story is apocryphal: so colossal was Bush?s ignorance of the world that it is entirely plausible that he had never travelled beyond Canada and Mexico, though I am tempted to say that illegal aliens and men born to power, transgressors of borders alike, share more than we commonly imagine. Obama, by contrast, came to know of the wider world in his childhood: his white American mother was married to a Kenyan before her second marriage to an Indonesian.
Obama lived in Jakarta as a young boy, and the chapter offers a discussion of the purges under Suharto that led to the extermination of close to a million communists and their sympathisers. Obama is brave enough to acknowledge that many of the Indonesian military leaders had been trained in the US, and that the Central Intelligence Agency provided ?covert support? to the insurrectionists who sought to remove the nationalist Sukarno and place Indonesia squarely in the American camp (pp 272-73). He charts Indonesia?s spectacular economic progress, but also concedes that ?Suharto?s rule was harshly repressive?. The press was stifled, elections were a ?mere formality?, prisons were filled up with political dissidents, and areas wracked by secessionist movements rebels and civilians alike faced swift and merciless retribution ? ?and all this was done with the knowledge, if not outright approval, of US administrations? (p 276).
It is doubtful that most American politicians would have made even as mild an admission of American complicity in atrocities as has Obama. But a supremely realist framework allows for evasion as much as confession: thus Obama merely arrives at the reading that the American record overseas is a ?mixed? one ?across the globe?, often characterised by far-sightedness and altruism even if American policies have at times been ?misguided, based on false assumptions? that have undermined American credibility and the genuine aspirations of others (p 280). There is, in plain language, both good and bad in this world; and Obama avers that the US, with all its limitations, has largely been a force for good. And since America remains the standard by which phenomena are to be evaluated, Obama betrays his own parochialism. The war in Vietnam, writes Obama, bequeathed ?disastrous consequences?: American credibility and prestige took a dive, the armed forces experienced a loss of morale, the American soldier needlessly suffered, and above all ?the bond of trust between the American people and their government? was broken. Though two million or more Vietnamese were killed, and fertile land was rendered toxic for generations, no mention is made of this genocide: always the focus is on what the war did to America (p 287).
The war in Vietnam chastened Americans, who ?began to realise that the best and the brightest in Washington didn?t always know what they were doing ? and didn?t always tell the truth? (p 287). One wonders why, then, an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the Gulf war of 1991 and the attack on Afghanistan, and why even the invasion of Iraq in 2002 had far more popular support in the US than it did in Europe or elsewhere around the world. The suggestion that the American people were once led astray but are fundamentally sound in their judgment ignores the consideration that elected officials are only as good as the people to whom they respond, besides hastening to exculpate ordinary Americans from their share of the responsibility for the egregious crimes that the US has committed overseas and against some of its own people.
Good Wars, Bad Wars?
Obama has on more than one occasion said, ?I?m not against all wars, I?m just against dumb wars.? More elegant thinkers than Obama, living in perhaps more thoughtful times, have used different language to justify war: there is the Christian doctrine of a just war, and similarly 20th century politicians and theorists, watching Germany under Hitler rearm itself and set the stage for the extermination of the Jewish people, reasoned that one could make a legitimate distinction between ?good? and ?bad? wars. Obama has something like the latter in mind: he was an early critic of the invasion of Iraq, though here again more on pragmatic grounds rather than from any sense of moral anguish, but like most liberals he gave his whole-hearted support to the bombing of Afghanistan in the hope, to use Bush?s language, that Osama bin Laden could be smoked out and the Taliban reduced to smithereens.
Obama is so far committed to the idea of Afghanistan as a ?good? war that he has pledged that, if elected president, he would escalate the conflict there and also bomb Pakistan if it would help him prosecute the ?war on terror?. He has recently attacked McCain, who no one would mistake for a pacifist, with the observation that his opponent ?won?t even follow [bin Laden] to his cave in Afghanistan?, even as the US defence secretary has all but conceded that a political accommodation with the Taliban, whose support of bin Laden was the very justification for the bombing of Afghanistan, can no longer be avoided. The casually held assumption that by birthright an American president can bomb other countries into abject submission, or that the US can never be stripped of its prerogative to chastise nations that fail to do its bidding, takes one?s breath away.
No one should suppose that Obama, blinded by the sharp rhetoric of the ?war on terror?, has positions on Iraq and Afghanistan that are not characteristic of his view of the world as a whole. ?We need to maintain a strategic force posture?, he writes, ?that allows us to manage threats posed by rogue nations like North Korea and Iran and to meet the challenges presented by potential rivals like China? (p 307). This could have been the voice of Reagan, the Clintons, Bush, McCain, and countless others: there is such overwhelming unanimity about ?rogue states? that almost no politician in the US can be expected to display even an iota of independent thinking.
No Change from Staus Quo
On the question of Palestine, Obama has similarly displayed belligerence and moral turpitude. At the annual meeting in June 2008 of the American Israel Political Action Committee, a self-avowedly Zionist organisation that commands unstinting support from across the entire American political spectrum, Obama was unambiguous in declaring that ?Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided?. It would only be belabouring the obvious to state that, on nearly every foreign policy issue that one can think of, with the exception of a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Obama?s position can scarcely be distinguished from all the other advocates of the national security state.
There can be no gainsaying the fact that Obama?s election as president of the US will appreciably alter American debates on race. African-Americans make up 12 per cent of the population but constitute nearly half of the US prison population; one of three black males will, in his lifetime, have gone through the criminal justice system. African-Americans are, alongside Puerto Ricans, two ethnic groups among whom poverty is endemic, and repeated studies have shown that in every critical sector of life, such as access to jobs, housing, and healthcare, blacks face persistent racism and discrimination. Obama is fully cognisant of these problems and is likely to address them to a greater extent than any other candidate. But one can also argue, with equal plausibility, that his ascendancy will strengthen the hands of those who want to think of American democracy as a post-race society, and whose instant inclination is to jettison affirmative action and reduce the already narrow space for discussions of race in civil society.
It is immaterial, even if fascinating to some, whether numerous white people will vote for Obama to prove their credentials as non-racists, while others will give him their vote because he is not all that black ? just as some black people will surely cast their ballot for Obama precisely because he is black. By far the most critical consideration is that the US requires a radical redistribution of economic and political power: Martin Luther King Jr had come to an awareness of this in the last years of his life, but there is little to suggest that Obama, a professional politician to the core, has similarly seen the light.
In these deeply troubled times, when there is much casual talk of the American ship sinking, the white ruling class is preparing to turn over the keys of the kingdom to a black man. Imperial powers had a knack for doing this, but let us leave that history aside. Here, at least, Obama appears to have displayed audacity, taking on a challenge that many others might have forsworn. However, nothing is as it seems to be: with the passage of time, Obama has increasingly justified the confidence reposed in him as an establishment candidate. A man with some degree of moral conscience would not only have shrugged off the endorsements of Colin Powell and Scott McClellan, until recently among Bush?s grandstanding cheerleaders and apparatchiks, but would have insisted that Powell and others of his ilk be brought to justice for crimes against the Iraqi people. But Obama will do no such thing, for after all Powell and the master he served, like Kissinger and Nixon before them, only made ?tactical? errors. Obama prides himself, moreover, on being a healer not divider: he will even rejoice in the support for him among previously hardcore Republicans.
When Obama is not speaking about values, hope, and change, he presents himself as a manager, representing brutal American adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan as illustrations of policies that went wrong. He comes forward as a technician who is best equipped to fix broken policies, repair the system, and get America working once again. One can only hope that an America that is once again working does not mean for a good portion of the rest of the world what it has meant for a long time, namely, an America that is more efficient in its exercise of military domination and even more successful in projecting its own vision of human affairs as the only road to the good life. To believe in Obama, one needs to hope against hope.
Perspectives from Sri Lanka Nalaka Gunawardane from Sri Lanka comments on the role of new media in the campaign. Groundviews -? – Sri Lanka’s award winning citizens journalism website
In Barack Obama: Hope for America, but not for the world? Nishan, who shares Obama’s alma mater, shares a simple insight, noting that nothing Barack Obama has done or promised will usher in the change needed in the world. Posing eight pertinent questions Nishan ends his article by noting that, ” For those who were listening, Barack Obama has in fact been threatening the world, by the trade, military and foreign policy positions that he has articulated consistently throughout his campaign ? and there is no reason to think he didn?t mean what he said. Has Barack Obama offered ?hope? for Americans? Resoundingly ?Yes!? But the hope that President Obama offers Americans is not hope for the world.”
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, in Barack Obama: History?s High Note comes to a very different conclusion to Nishan, noting that “[Obama’s] natural tendency will be to be a great teacher, reformer and reconciler on a global scale; to be a planetary ?change agent?, leaving the world better than he found it.”
Singapore Airlines warned of “protests by university students developing in Dhaka” as we boarded the plane. But emails from Delower and Rahnuma during the brief stopover in Singapore talked of the curfew in place in the six main cities. This was no longer a small skirmish in Dhaka University. Joshim was going to be at the airport with my accreditation card and we would try and find a way back home. Students at Dhaka University under teargas attack, throwing bricks at police. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews Students at Dhaka University shielding themselves with sheets of tin, during fights with police. Photographer anonymous. Protesting students gather at Dhaka University campus during violent clashes with police. Photographer anonymous. Student hit by police shotgun bullet being carried away by fellow students. Photographer anonymous. Enraged students burn a car at the Teacher’s Student’s Centre (TSC). Photographer anonymous. Members of Dhaka University Teacher’s Association protesting against the attacks on campus by police and army, and demanding withdrawal of the state of emergency. Two of the teachers in the front row have since been arrested. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews Rocketing prices of essentials create extreme distress for people with low earnings, like the people pictured in the foreground. The military of Bangladesh, which has not had to fight since the birth of the nation in 1971, has in the meanwhile, had increasing budgetary allocations in each successive regime. Numerous allegations about corruption in military purchase, has gone uninvestigated. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
The government had taken all mobile networks off the air. With only official press releases for information, the person in the street was in for a rough time. It was easy to find Joshim in the empty car park. Only the occasional long distance truck plied VIP road. I put the video camera on record mode, but relied on my less conspicuous LUMIX to photograph the empty streets. Though I stopped on the Mohakhali flyover to take pictures, I was nervous when the RAB vehicles passed below. There was never a good time for being arrested, but this was as wrong a time as it could get.
Aaasteeey! The policeman strode over lazily. Ki bapar? I did have my card dangling from my neck, and from previous experience, used my confident, ‘I belong here’ approach. That usually worked best with low tier security people. The Mohakhali Junction, one of Dhaka’s busiest traffic spots, is empty on the night of the 22nd August, when the government called an indefinite curfew. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
I’d stopped to take pictures by the near-empty Tejgaon rail station. Stepping carefully through the people sleeping on the floor, I came up to Shahjahan and Neela. Unaware of the curfew, they had brought their sick child Shamim from Tangail, but got stranded in Tejgaon. There was no food, no doctor, no place to sleep, no way of knowing how long this would go on. Each visit to the toilet cost 5 Taka. Stranded passengers at Tejgaon Railway Station, sleep on the floor. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld Shahjahan and Neela tend to their sick child Shamim, whom they had brought to Dhaka for treatment. Along with other stranded passengers at Tejgaon Railway Station, the family had no food or drink, or a place to sleep. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
The next checkpost was slightly more hostile, but the expired accreditation card dangling from my neck was working overtime. We passed without much harassment. Dropping Joshim home, I went past the Shonar Bangla Market in Karwan Bazaar. The busy market place had a haunted look. No cackle of chickens, haggling for prices, or calls from vendors. Just one man counting loose change. Shonar Bangla Market at Karwan Bazaar is one of the busiest market places in Dhaka. The shops are empty on the night of 22nd August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
The brightly lit Square Hospital in Panthapath stood out in the dark. Government orders to turn down the lights after dusk to save electricity was presumably for commoners only. The street was empty, but this time as I approached with my camera police converged from all directions. I fumbled a bit, but recovered in time to get one shot. This was not the time to look for best angles. Rattling off important sounding words like ministry of information, and dropping the occasional names I could think of, I got into the car and drove off before the uniformed men had gathered their wits. A government adviser’s business interests in Square Pharmaceuticals – while undeclared – was well known. Students had already attacked the building the previous day. The approaching police knew whose business interests to protect. The Square Group, one of the wealthiest business enterprises in Bangladesh owns the Square Hospital. Government regulations prohibit the excess use of electricity and non-essential shops are required to close by 8 pm. Several people were killed by the police when they came out in protest, demanding adequate electricity. The Square Group is owned by the family of one of the advisers of the caretaker government. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
The road through Dhanmondi was eerie. The women who walked the streets near Abahani playground were nowhere to be seen. Like the many others who struggled to make a living, they too would not be earning tonight.
The junction near ULAB was scarred by burnt tyres. The convoy of police vans deterred me from getting my camera out and I turned into road 4A. It was time to go home. Kamaler Ma, Joigun, Zohra and Rahnuma were all up waiting. With the mobile network off, they didn’t have any news about me. There must have been others in many more homes who were up worrying.
Rahnuma and I talked of the events over the last two days, of the army camp in Dhaka University. Of a soldier slapping a student. Of the vice chancellor (acting) being beaten up by police. This had never happened before, not even during the Ayub or Ershad military regimes. The reference to ‘evil doers’ in the chief adviser’s speech to the nation was worryingly close to the ‘axis of evil’. Independent media channels were then still defiant. That night the information adviser advised the media to practice ‘self censorship’.
Despite their claims, this government had never been called in by the people. We had no say in who the advisers would be. It was not military rule the people had welcomed, but the cessation of violence and the fear of further anarchy if the rigged elections were held. Banana trees would have made equally good replacements. However, banana trees would not have sold national interests. Closed down environmentally-friendly jute mills. Made slum dwellers homeless, or tortured and killed adibashis protesting the military acquisition of their ancestral lands. So while there was initial relief, as the price of essentials soared, news of nepotism and the partisan manner in which Jamaat -e-Islami was being shielded soon made people realise this banana tree would never bear fruit, let alone run a government.
Warrantless arrests by plainsclothes army under the cover of curfew. Dissenting teachers picked up in the middle of the night. Making threats to independent channels ETV and CSB are hardly the character of a saviour government pledged to the return of democracy. As the behind-the-scene military decides it will now take centre stage. As Bangladeshis realise that a democratically elected autocratic government has simply been replaced by an unelected autocratic one, the tune in the streets is changing. Symbols of fascist oppression drawn on university road. 21st August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
Multiple demands of students and teachers have been whittled down to one – withdraw emergency rule. Underground pamphlets are spreading like wildfire. With the Internet down, text messages are filling up the ether. The information adviser’s suave statements to the media faltered as he snapped, “why such a fuss about a slap or two?” ****
The photograph that was being shown here has been removed on the request of the photographer
**** “In unprecedented scenes, soldiers in uniform were seen being chased out of the Dhaka university campus by students. In two days, the myth of the army’s omnipotence was all but laid to rest.” BBC. Photographer Anonymous.
The US has declared support for the chief adviser’s statement. What he lacks is the support of the people.
Standing in the grand parliament building in Karachi, built by his grandfather, veteran Pakistani MP Qamar Zaman reflected on the irony of it all. He had long campaigned against the militarization in Pakistan, but recent developments in Bangladesh worried Zaman. ?They saw what went wrong in the Pakistani experiment and decided to fine tune it? he lamented. The election commissioner in India, SY Quraishi, repeated the sentiment. Bangladesh following in Pakistan?s footsteps was not something he welcomed. Kunda Dixit, in Kathmandu, talked of how the same blueprint was being used in all our countries. Despite the rhetoric of democracy, the militarization of South Asian countries was the flavour of the day. Aided by chaotic situations created by political mismanagement, the anti-corruption Trojan Horse brought in its deadly military content.
As in Troy, the people had welcomed them with open arms. Years of mismanagement and corruption had worn down their patience. People wanted respite, regardless of where it came from. This was just the window the military needed. Not wanting to lose out on the lucrative UN placements, they needed a mask. The ?neutral? caretaker government was the perfect foil. The arrests of corrupt politicians, businesspeople and godfathers provided a much needed relief. Few worried about the flimsy, and sometimes concocted accusations used to reel them in. None dared to speak of the glaring omissions. Curbing media freedom took care of the main obstacle. The military or the Jamaat were strangely absent from the list. Amongst the largest and most controversial deals made during previous regimes were the MIG and the Frigate purchases. Yet neither had featured in the cases being investigated. ?kaker mangsho kak khai na.? (A crow doesn?t eat crow?s meat).
After much foot dragging, and over two months of delay, a one member body was asked to probe into the death of adivasi activist Choles Ritchil in the most gruesome killing while in military custody. The Shadarghat launch disaster, in contrast, had three separate investigation committees ordered to submit reports within 24 hours. Choles on the other hand had resisted a multimillion dollar deal to take over adivasi land. It was a different ball game.
Tasneem Khalil was one voice that they had not been able to silence. His incisive, well researched investigations flew against the culture of silence that prevailed. Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the leading English daily, The Daily Star, had proudly told me, ?In all these years, not a single story had been spiked.? That was some time ago. Things were different now. The story of military involvement that Tasneem had revealed was pulled back from the press in the last minute. A commentator on the roundtable at Drik on the 3rd May, International Press Freedom Day, had equated the Daily Star and the Daily Prothom Alo with a new political party. The newspapers had elaborate reporting on the US ambassador’s love for democracy and a free press. The Drik roundtable, featuring some of the bravest journalists working in the land, went unreported. The roundtable had discussed the military, the corporate deals taking place, the heavy hand of foreign countries. It talked of deals being pushed through in the absence of dissent.Tasneem had deliberately not been asked to speak. That would be inviting trouble.
That didn?t protect Tasneem for long. In my room in Shangri La Hotel in the early hours of this morning I received an SMS from a student. Tasneem had been picked up from his home. This is a risk that all journalists speaking against the?government are prepared to take, but given what Choles Ritchil went through, this arrest is more ominous. A suicide note for an epitaph is too likely an outcome to let the system take its course.
“We travel to Dhaka, in Bangladesh for a celebration of South East Asian photography thanks to a festival called Chobi Mela, on its fourth edition so far. Their theme this year is ‘boundaries’: ideas, aspects, images that divide peoples and cultures. Perfect backdrop for the violence in the country ahead of forthcoming elections…” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/the_ticket.shtml. They did a hatchet job on Anita’s interviews, but at least the BEEB did give coverage to Chobi Mela IV.
Besides Cristobal (asleep on the rickshaw) and Norman, all the others have gone back.
Richard, Wubin and Cristobal, testing out environmentally friendly modes of transport.
Rupert claims his neighbours need sunglasses to cope with his glistening green punjabi from Dhanmondi Aarong.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) motorbike cruised slowly past Drik in the morning. Earlier I’d seen them cruise in Gulshan and Baridhara. It was like a scene from Easy Rider, though the ‘crossfire’ victims might not think so. I’ve never seen them in the troubled areas of Paltan, or Muktangon, or anywhere there are clashes between the public and the police. The RAB seem to have different priorities. For the moment at least, the elite force seems only concerned with protecting the elite.
Meanwhile, a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) takes a strange and undefined ‘leave’, with veiled threats of “I shall return”, and the fighting gives way to election frenzy.
The Police in a different role
The campaigner, a new kid on the block
Hired supporters, a new form of employment
Employment for all
And the inevitable traffic jams
For those trying to avoid the winter chill, the priorities are somewhat different. A girl cooks dinner at Russel Square. Earlier the burning cars provided the flames.