Monday, October 27, 2008

The Untold Story of Bangladesh - How Journalists Failed A Nation

For years, I tried to bring to the attention of the international mainstream media how student politicians in Bangladesh were raping girls and killing each other – and failed.

I recall writing to New Hope International, and the editor sending me a terse note saying that if I found democracy so deficient, what alternative did I propose? Earlier, the chief editor had said that they would have been happier if I had attributed the violence I described to the market-friendly policies of the World Bank and the IMF!

I approached the Christian Science Monitor – they weren't remotely interested. I wrote to The Nation – thinking that this paper would surely be concerned about the plight of teenage boys used as thugs by the political parties; I never even heard from them.

I sent an article to the New Statesman. I got a reply saying that the relevant editor would get back to me after the Christmas holidays. I never heard from him again.

Then, my own analysis told me what was going on – these major newspapers were part of what I have come to call "The Freedom Industry". Since their readers have been indoctrinated into believing that democracy is God's gift to mankind (George Bush's phrase), any criticism of democracy would not go down well with them. Prestige and money were at stake.

Finally, I learned about the Alternative Media/ indymedia.

My first break came when Csaba Polony of Left Curve published a cycle of poems on the murder of student politicians by student politicians. I was grateful: I realised that criticism of students – who were supposed to have overthrown a dictator in 1990 – would only be acceptable to low-budget, low-circulation. non-mainstream newspapers and magazines.

And that turned out to be the case: I sent my article to an online journal called Axis of Logic. The editor was breathless with excitement: he immediately published it, and even tried to call me from America – but it's not easy to get through to Bangladesh!

You can access the article here:

It's called THE FREEDOM INDUSTRY AND STUDENT POLITICS IN BANGLADESH: every year, on the average, 50 student politicians were being murdered after the democratic transition of 1990. Why? Because these kids were being used by the political parties to bring down the incumbent in street battles and campus violence. Those street battles are called 'hartals' (these are not 'general strikes'!). Here's a description of a hartal: " Salahuddin (33), a fisherman, was killed in a skirmish between the two student wings of the political parties in the latest hartal. Two rickshawpullers – one of them unidentified, the other Badaruddin (32) - were bombed while they were pulling their rickshaws during hartal hours. It took them 24 to 48 hours to die. An auto-rickshaw was burned to ashes, and when the driver, Saidul Islam Shahid (35), tried to put out the flames, he was sprinkled with petrol, and burned to death. It took him more than two days to die. Truck driver, Fayez Ahmed (50), died when a bomb was thrown on his truck. And Ripon Sikder, a sixteen-year-old injured by a bomb, died on 4th May at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital after struggling for his life for eleven days." The whole idea of a hartal is to keep traffic off the roads to paralyse the country and discredit the ruling party – and that's where you need the boys.

The boys were allowed – even encouraged – to rape with abandon. According to the Minister of Women and Children's Affairs, the number of rapes skyrocketed from 407 in 1990 to 2224 by 1997.

In September 1998, a committee investigated allegations of sexual abuse at Jahangirnagar University against boys from the Chatra League, the student front of the then ruling Awami League. It revealed that

“more than 20 female students were raped and over 300 others were sexually harassed on the campus by the "armed cadres of a particular political party. "

No one was charged.

In desperation people resorted to lynching: lynching was unknown in Bangladesh. If people caught a thief, they used to give him a good beating and hand him over to the police. Now, they started killing them. And then came the public torching of muggers and robbers – they were cremated alive in broad daylight by a populace that had had enough.

Then, I realised that reading newspapers – ranging from The Economist to the Guardian to the New Statesman – would not give me a true picture of the world.

Only anthropologists could do that.

The first eye-opener was Stanely J. Tambiah of Harvard University. In his book, Ethnonatioalist Conflict and Collective Violence in South Asia (a book that, to my knowledge, no mainstream paper ever reviewed), he blames the rise in violence throughout South Asia on the party political system.

He says: ‘...participatory democracy, competitive elections, mass militancy, and crowd violence are not disconnected. (Stanley J. Tambiah ,Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, (New Delhi: Vistaar Publications, 1996), p. 260)."

I noticed that none of the NGOs ever raised their voices against student politics. Odd: these were supposed to be "civil society". Then two anthropologists revealed the truth.

The writers speak of an "aid market" that local NGOs know how to exploit.

“The political significance of such a massive proliferation of NGOs in Africa deserves closer attention. Our research suggests that this expansion is less the outcome of the increasing political weight of civil society than the consequence of the very pragmatic realisation that resources are now largely channeled through NGOs.”

The authors also - like myself - attribute the spread of democracy since 1990 to foreign donor pressure, and reject outright the notion of an emerging civil society: “It cannot simply be a coincidence that, now that the West ties aid to democratisation under the guise of multi-party elections, multi-party elections are taking place in Africa.” (Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999)23, 22, 118).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, donors insisted on multi-party elections. The Economist finally acknowledged the truth after fourteen years: “...the cold war’s end prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start insisting on democratic reforms” (December 18th 2004, p. 69).

Then, when democracy threatened to turn Bangladesh into another failed Muslim state, western governments intervened: they again allowed the army to take over on January 11th 1997.

The number of student politicians murdered plunged from 48 in 2006 to 10 in 2007 and 6 so far this year. The restoration of (colonial) democracy in December means that more kids are going to be killed every year, and more women raped by these kids.

But no newspaper will ever tell you that.

(For more articles on Bangladesh and violence, you can visit

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