Monday, July 23, 2007

The Knowledge Sinners

Socrates maintained that all evil proceeded from ignorance. Boy, was he wrong!

The Bengali language has an exquisite term for a corrupt intellectual: I refer to the word ‎vigorously doing the rounds these days – “ganpapi”. ‎

The word, like many a word in another language, is untranslatable, and literally would be ‎rendered “knowledge-sinner”. Now, what is a “knowledge-sinner”? ‎

A man or woman who uses his/her knowledge to do evil rather than good: that is, one ‎who knowingly does evil. The term is applied to our intellectuals, and that is cause for ‎hope. People have realised that it is not our politicians alone that are responsible for our ‎present predicament, but that the active connivance of our intellectuals was required for ‎things to come to such a pass. ‎

And today the intellectuals at Dhaka University have come out in favour of our two ‎hartal-walis. These teachers have corrupted the students – as can be seen by the Chatra ‎League going along with them. And are there sons in Chatra League? No! ‎

Meanwhile, Mahfuz Anam's editorial on "strengthening democracy" has come in for ‎criticism from readers here and abroad. That's another "ganpapi" who has shown his true ‎colours. Indeed, today, we are getting a slow-motion analysis of the pathologies of the ‎last 16 years. ‎

Indeed, over the last sixteen years, it was the intelligentsia that legitimised the two ‎murderous groups that we called political parties, that sanctioned the edict of Washington ‎in our affairs, that colluded in the disappearance of decency and humanity from our daily ‎lives. Now, all we have to do is to take that insight to its logical conclusion. ‎

But logic, of course, has never been our forte. ‎

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Secular is Very Religious

Any almanac, such as the Britannica, will tell you that around 85 per cent of the people of ‎Bangladesh are Muslim, that Hindus trail at about 10 per cent, with Christians, Buddhists, ‎animists…bringing up the rear. My concern here is with two religions – and one of them ‎is Islam, and the other? Nationalism! No almanac announces this surreptitious religion in ‎the body politic, but its tokens and totems are as visible as those of the more run-of-the-‎mill variety.

‎A secular religion? No, not an oxymoron, but an ascertainable fact. How does one define ‎‎“religion”? According to Ninian Smart, in his book The World’s Religions (‎(Englewood ‎Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989, pp 10 - 25‎), every religion has seven characteristics, or ‎dimensions. We tick them off one by one, with respect to nationalism: (1) the ritual ‎dimension: speaking the language, saluting the flag, national holidays, pilgrimages to ‎sights considered important (the Shahid Minar comes readily to mind); (2) the ‎experiential or emotional dimension: nationalism has a powerful emotional side, a fact ‎that seems to me to explain why children are peculiarly susceptible to it, as during the ‎Chinese May 4th Movement, or the 21st February 1952 students’ movement in the then ‎East Pakistan; these emotions are always kept simmering below the surface through ‎patriotic or heroic songs, dramas…(3) the narrative dimension is obvious in nationalism: ‎the history of the nation; the stories (fictionalized, or embellished) of great men, women ‎and even children who made the nation what it is; (4) unlike the emotional dimension, ‎nationalism lacks a strong doctrinal dimension, reinforcing my observation that the power ‎of the emotional aspect renders nationalist sentiments peculiarly appealing to children; ‎however, nationalism can appeal to a set of doctrines, such as democracy, individual ‎freedom and rights (or it could appeal to purely religious doctrines as well); (5) the ‎ethical dimension of nationalism refers to loyalty to the nation, martial values needed ‎during defense (or offence), family values; (6) the social and institutional aspect of the ‎nation-state consists in such public figures as the head of state, the army and its military ‎ceremonies, the education system – a formidable apparatus for collective indoctrination – ‎and even in games (the Olympics is the egregious example); (7) finally, the material ‎dimension of religion are the physical monuments and artistic objects that have been ‎created by the “nation-builders”.

‎There are those in Bangladesh who are proud to be “secular” and perform ‎‎“secular” pilgrimages to the shrine of the language martyrs every 21st February, promote ‎the language at fairs and cultural soirees, in short, place themselves diametrically ‎opposite the religion of Islam, which, naturally, has its own, sharply differentiated ‎dimensional contents. In fact, of course, the “secularists” are not secular at all: they have ‎a religion, just like the people they despise (and who despise them).‎

Now, to what extent are these dimensions shared across the nation? To a very ‎minor extent. The Bangladesh Television interviewed crowds of ordinary people about ‎such seminal events as 21st February, asking them what the day meant, and nobody could ‎reply. I write “21st February”, when in fact I should write “Ekushey February”, for that is ‎how the day is commemorated. The ordinal number occurs in Bengali, and the month ‎belongs to the international calendar, not the corresponding Bengali month. It is the same ‎with other “national” dates: “sholoi December” (16th December), “Chabbishe March” ‎‎(26th March)…Other dates are entirely in the Gregorian calendar: “Martyred ‎Intellectuals’ Day (13th December)”, “Homecoming Day (10th January)”, “Asad Day (20th ‎January)”, “Declaration of Independence Day(7th May)”…. These considerations would ‎indicate that the language and nationalist movement has been a purely elite, urban ‎phenomenon, highly influenced by western ideas and totally divorced from the people. ‎

As anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah has observed: “In India, Pakistan, Sri ‎Lanka, and Bangladesh, the attempt to realise the nation-state on a Western European ‎model has virtually failed. The nation-state conception has not taken deep roots in South ‎Asia or generated a wide-spread and robust participatory “public culture” that celebrates ‎it in widely meaningful ceremonies, festivals, and rituals”.‎

That brings us to a major point: Sheikh Hasina as the symbol of nationalism is ‎largely an elite symbol.

The Dhaka University teachers who wore black badges and ‎abstained from work are members of the elite. ‎

Not a single member of the hoi polloi has voiced any protest at her arrest – or at ‎the house arrest of the other leader. ‎

Why then, this appeal to "the people"? ‎Newspapers and newspaper readers, teachers, student politicians are not the whole ‎‎– or even a small fraction – of "the people".

‎In the name of the People, as in the name of God, or Dialectical Materialism, or the Herrenvolk, ‎anything goes. ‎

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Operation Clean Hands

What is happening in Bangladesh is not at all unprecedented. Almost identical events occurred in Italy in the early 1990s.

But we have to go back a bit.

Mussolini had nearly destroyed the Mafia. After his defeat, the Americans, who are fond of the vilest bedfellows, resuscitated the mob in order to fight off communism. The Christian Democratic Party (DC) – this was the age of the Christian Democratic Parties in Europe – forged a symbiosis with the Mafia. Throughout the continuing pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Italian Church was mobilized to feed votes to the DC – anything against the communist devil! (Italo Calvino recounts how the good nuns of post-war Turin brought the mentally ill and defectives in their care to cast votes.) Supported partly by American cash, the Social Democratic Party became a coalition partner of the DC.

Thus, over some fifty years, the Christian Democrats became corrupt and criminal. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed, and, with it, Communism.

The Christian Democrats and the Mafia were clearly liabilities now. A systematic purge of the Italian ruling elite began.. It was engineered by some brave magistrates known as mani pulite (clean hands), with, no doubt, the United States in the background. Several of those magistrates were assassinated by the mob. But enough pentiti (penitent mobsters) were rustled up to blow the whistle on the Mafia.

Bribe taking was discovered within the judiciary. The press came under public suspicion, as did the Vatican. By late in 1993, allegations had been made against over 3,000 politicians, business executives, and civil servants, of whom almost a third had been arrested or were under investigation, causing such a backlog in the courts that, it was estimated, the trials might not be concluded for a decade. Ten of those accused had committed suicide. (Nothing so dramatic has yet happened in Bangladesh: we don't even have 500 politicians behind bars, let alone 1,000, and nobody's shot himself.)

The Italian Christian Democrats were finished. Corruption did return, notably in the shape of Silvio Berlusconi; and so did the mafia, which was never an entirely criminal organization, but performed social services in the poorer south of Italy. However, the mafia was a shadow of its former self, and the nexus between politics and organized crime had been broken.

In Bangladesh, things happened in reverse. The Berlin Wall collapsed, and General Ershad was given the heave-ho by the donors (donor-propped dictators were falling like dominoes after 1989 – in that year, there were three democracies in Africa; in 1991, there were thirty! For more on the subject, see Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz's excellent book, Africa Works.)

Thus, instead of one dictator, we had two; and instead of men with guns, we had boys with guns.

Sixteen years later, the western powers realized that democracy was going the usual way, and sought to clean up their little colony called Bangladesh.

Thus, we have our own brand of mani pulite, the ostensible ridding of corruption and actual dismantling of dysfunctional political parties.

The Wicked Civilisation

The Wicked Civilisation

After the end of the cold war, the target of western demonization shifted from the defunct Soviet Union to the anticipated new adversary, the Muslim world. Supposedly universal concerns – women and democracy – were brought to bear with obsessive focus on Islam, to the exclusion of other civilizations where these were, by the same yardsticks, legitimate concerns – including the West.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Freedom and FREEDOM


Individual freedom has been a recurring theme in western literature and society. The essay argues that the word freedom connotes individual freedom in western culture and literature because of the experience of slavery. Since Asia lacked this experience, freedom in the sense of individual freedom has no meaning here. In Asia the word freedom connotes collective freedom in keeping with its colonial experience. Present day implications for the cultural and political transmissions taking place are profound.

Using Students Again

Déjà vu.

‎The Bangladesh Chatra League has again been mobilized to come to the rescue of ‎their patron, Sheikh Hasina. These boys can't be blamed for letting her ruin their ‎young lives: but we, the silent spectators of their ruin, can.

‎How many parent would send his or her son to join the Chatra League? None. ‎

A boy who graduated from Pabna Cadet College, and joined Dhaka University, ‎became a leader overnight. His father is a teacher, and his mother a housewife. He ‎comes from a good family. Nevertheless, he was given control over a hall: he had ‎power, and he was thrilled. ‎I personally know two ex-BCL boys (men now, yes they grow up) who are social ‎outcasts. One of them is a junkie, and the other can't hold a job. His wife left him, ‎saying that she would come back only when he could get, and hold, a job. The ‎former student leader has had another round of rehab – let's hope this will be his ‎last. ‎

I know an intellectual who refused to let his son get admitted to Dhaka College – ‎even when the boy failed to get into Notre Dame. And yet he was a stalwart ‎supporter of student politics. I spoke with Fr. James T. Banas to get his son ‎admitted, and we both stared down at the floor in shame that a man of his stature ‎should have such terrible double standards. The intellectual himself approached Fr. ‎Peixotto and got his son in through the back door. ‎The boy's married now (yes, he has grown up also) and his wife hasn't left him, and ‎he isn't on drugs.

‎Canny intellectual father! ‎

How many of you want your sons to join the student bodies? ‎

Thursday, July 19, 2007

No hope for indymedia in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, what we need badly (and will never get) is an alternative, or independent, media. By that, I don't mean a newspaper, TV or radio that reports without 'fear or favour'. By that I mean newspapers (online as well as offline) that are small and that have integrity. Take the case of Tom Feeley's excellent newsletter, Information Clearing House (ICH). His blurb says that it provides "News You Won't Get On CNN", and he is absolutely telling the truth.

His is a heroic one-man show, and his is forever strapped for cash. Other online journals include, the Online Journal, OpEdNews.Com, GlobalResearch.Ca….

These are people dedicated to telling us what's really going on: they are not corrupt because they have no ties with corporations. They are plainly not in it for the money. An excellent offline magazine that recently went out of circulation was Altar Magazine, run by Mandy van Deven – it went bust because she could no longer pay for it. But that's precisely why these newspapers can "afford" to tell us the truth.

People are gaga over corporate media in Bangladesh, especially one known as the Daily Star. I have worked with these people, and I know what lying weasels they are.

I once submitted an article to Daily Star in 1994. The editor refused to print the last line, which raised the question that has been prominent from Greek times: can democracy and safety go together? First, the sub-editor called me and asked me to change the line. I refused. The sub-editor chuckled and said: "We know people want martial law, but we can't print that". If you know that, then it's your DUTY to print that. My article appeared, and instead of the last line, the editor supplied one of his own!

The lamestream media (as it is known in indymedia, or independent media) is the corrupt mainstream: over the last sixteen years, the lamestream media has done as much damage as the politicians by legitimizing our monstrous democracy.

Research by the Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics, has shown that, while in the United Kingdom people who join NGOs accept a pay-cut, people who join NGOs in Bangladesh get a pay-rise: they are in it for the money, not for the conviction.

That's why I think there will never be an indymedia in Bangladesh, no matter how badly we need one.

Corruption, once again.

Sheikh Hasina arrested

It's about time.

She has committed every crime in the book over the last sixteen years. She should be made to pay for every day of hartal that she called, for every life that she ruined with her student and youth fronts, for every rape that her goons committed....Greek democracy had the custom of ostracism: when anybody got out of hand, they would banish him from the city. Let us do the same to Sheikh Hasina and her ilk- but, instead of banishing them, let's put them away behind bars.

And we must remember that they could never prove AL Capone murdered anyone -they had to get him on tax evasion.

Whatever it takes, let her spend the rest of her days where she belongs - in a tiny 4 X 4 cell. That's more room for manoeuvre than she ever gave us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Queen of Bangladesh

The Queen of Bangladesh has been arrested; for those who thought Bangladesh was a ‎Republic, this may come as news. A few Bangladeshis have reacted with horror at the ‎thought that the Queen of the Republic could be bunged into prison on extortion charges. ‎After all, if I had been bunged into prison, that wouldn't have mattered. I am a mere ‎subject…I mean, citizen. ‎

But the daughter of the King of Bangladesh is surely above the law. Mahfuz Anam of the ‎Daily Star, who had gone on and on about human rights and equality, condemned the arrest of ‎the Queen. After all, we are living in a constitutional monarchy, and a Queen cannot be ‎arrested. ‎

On the other hand, millions of people are happy that the Queen is behind bars: in her long ‎sixteen-year reign, the Queen had made life impossible for the average subject…I mean, ‎citizen. ‎

The oligarchs that grew rich around her, like the barons of old, are not in favour of the ‎army. They have stolen millions over the last sixteen years, and now they can't spend ‎their loot, or invest their booty…they are greatly irked at having to follow the law. This ‎again confirms that we are not living in a Republic. ‎

If a Queen is accused of a crime, she must be kept comfy at home, with hot and cold ‎running water, air-conditioning, soft sofas, thick carpets, a Mercedes. And if or when her ‎highness deigns to visit the court for a cuppa, then and only then should she be ‎questioned, after apologies from all concerned, judges, lawyers, ….‎

If she doesn't like the questions (a fair bet) she should be free to turn her backside on the ‎said judges and lawyers and go out to greet her lackeys…I mean, followers. ‎

That is how a Queen should be treated. ‎

Long live the Queen (in jail) ! ‎