by Rahnuma ahmed
Speaking on the basis of information available in the public domain, I think it would be fair to say that the intellectual understanding, the political framework, effectivity and inspiration of the shusheel shomaj was largely dependent on western diplomats and donors — characterising it thus, helps us to analyse subsequent events. However, by saying this, I do not mean to imply that the shusheel shomaj, one of the constitutive elements of the consortium government was a homogeneous group; what I do mean is that no fracture lines within the shomaj were markedly visible, nor do subsequent events indicate that this group had a set of allies and enemies distinct to that of western diplomats and donors.
This, however, is not equally applicable in the case of the military leadership (and the Directorate of General Forces Intelligence, DGFI, military intelligence agency). What strikes one most when examining the manner in which the consortium project manifested itself in the national arena, is that the civil-military power equation which was reached at, and maintained in Bangladesh during the last two decades of parliamentary politics (http://tinyurl.com/7ynnn6f), was the concerted attempt made by the military leadership and DGFI’s seniors, post-consortium coup, to tilt the equation in favor of the military.
To achieve this at the ideological level, a campaign was carried out through a flurry of promotional videos, consisting of video footage of army personnel undergoing training, performing UN Peacekeeping missions abroad etc., accompanied by specially-composed songs, which were telecast regularly (often at hourly intervals, if I remember correctly) on national TV and privately-owned channels glorifying the national army, shoda dipto, uddipto, mano nako porajoy…tumi amar shena bahini, amar desher gourob (there is no reason not to be proud of one’s national army, but surely not one which usurps political power?). It is possible that the campaign was considered to be necessary in order to emphasise the military backing of the caretaker government, in other words, to make its coercive strength visible for, after all, most video footage showed army personnel carying guns, manning tanks, firing artilleries etc. — so as to maintain the culture of fear that was introduced and perpetuated across the nation.
But simultaneously one must not forget that from the beginning of 2007, officers belonging to the DGFI, were instructing the print and electronic media on news presentations and programmes. At a later stage, intelligence officers reportedly drew up black and white lists of TV talk show discussants and monitored the programmes to see that the instructions were followed; while it is true that this was not evenly applied throughout the two-year period (or else, one would not have seen Nurul Kabir and a few other courageous souls repeatedly stressing the undemocratic nature of a regime which claimed to be driven by no other objective than to “strengthen” democracy), it is also true that there were some, particularly within the electronic media, who defied the DGFI’s strictures at tremendous risk to themselves. Retaliatory measures undertaken by the DGFI included banning particular talk shows for certain periods, on insisting that some should be pre-recorded, in a few extreme instances, cutting off live shows mid-air. Several journalists and media owners were picked up by members of the joint forces or police; some were allegedly tortured. Many others were hauled to army headquarters and grilled.
The undue interference of the military intelligence agency in the electronic media helps shed light on the nature of the military-shusheel collaboration. In other words, those who were on the white list were there because the government was confident that they would represent the views and interests of the consortium; other discussants who featured in talk shows were there because they were not regarded as threats to the consortium’s project of de-politicisation. Collaboration of a similar nature between the military leadership and the shusheel shomaj was evident in the print media as well; several dailies (at the forefront were Prothom Alo and Daily Star) published ‘confessions’ extracted from politicians and businessmen under remand without clarifying the sources through which these had been obtained, without seeking and publishing the remanded person’s side of the story. There is reason to believe that some of the published material had been supplied by the DGFI itself, that some of these were ‘manufactured,’ i.e., concocted.
The enthusiasm for holding these media trials (or, “remand entertainment” as a blogger puts it sarcastically) abated somewhat after audio CDs containing excerpts of politicians and businessmen being interrogated (including Abdul Jalil, then general secretary of the Awami League), were made available for sale and could be bought in music shops in Dhaka city and elsewhere. This contributed to further exposing the incongruence between the regime’s verbal claims — Fakhruddin, “[the government’s] objective is strengthening Bangladesh’s democratic order,” Time magazine interview, March 22, 2007 — and its actions. Leading members of the shusheel shomaj which included lawyers, were apparently embarassed at the turn of events, but only after questions had been raised publicly.
As the rampant exercise of coercive power by the military leadership continued unabated, it became increasingly difficult for members of the shusheel shomaj to insist that the application of force was a necessary evil, i.e., it was needed to dismantle the generalised system of corruption which had been brought about by political rule. That it was needed to introduce a “level playing field” (a favorite metaphor of Fakhruddin and others) so that “free, fair and credible elections” could be held.
As public discontent began to simmer, shusheel resolve gradually began to weaken; however, this did not occur due to a change of heart or mind, or an awakening of conscience, or a self-critical examination of the consortium’s agenda; at least, there is no tangible proof to indicate that. I am inclined to believe that it was due to public opinion and pressure.
One of the chief objectives of the consortium government, which later came to be known as the ‘minus two formula,’ was: the removal of the two main leaders Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from the political scene. Dismemberment of the two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Humiliation of the politicians in order to generate support and mobilise public opinion for an ‘apolitical’ regime i.e., one that is above the constant bickering, mayhem, bloodletting, chaos, murder and killings that signify a political party-ruled government — in other words, re-creating a general consensus for rule by an ‘unrepresentative’ government. A general consensus that only such a government can restore law and order , can return peace to the nation. Further, that a confluence of national and international forces (‘unrepresentative’ ones) have the right to intervene in the political sphere of the nation, that, when they do so, they do it out of disinterested motives. For the betterment of all.
That the consortium project was directly inimical to the issue of national sovereignty, was concealed by the rhetoric of democracy. In other words, that the consortium’s objective of de-politicisation was to redraw the field of politics (and national sovereignty) in its entirety, to institute a rational exercise of political power (attempts to float a king’s party headed by reformists, turncoats and new faces, however, failed miserably), was kept hidden by the consortium government. The rhetoric of democracy, uttered repeatedly by civil, military leaders, shusheel-ites, western leaders, western diplomats, donor officialdom — was generously applied as a disinformation technique.
This technique largely failed because of the reign of terror that was unleashed on the nation. Curfew was imposed immediately after the declaration of emergency; surprise raids were carried out leading to the arrest of 2,552 politicians from their homes; later, the joint forces began making mass arrests in the name of anti-corruption: 1,00,000 people were arrested in the first few months, but some contend that the number of arrests were closer to double this figure; at the end of 2007, the number totaled a staggering 4,40,400. Among those arrested, warrants had been issued for only more than half the number (2,39,480).
The technique also failed due to resistance, anchored in the growing incongruencies of the consortium administration. Between what it said, and what it practised.
Published in New Age, Tuesday, February 28, 2012.