Friday, July 2, 2010

The Father Figure

Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, was charged with murder under the caretaker government (2007 - 2008). The charge was entirely justified: the workers of her party killed several opposition activists in broad daylight during a riot witnessed by the entire nation. Of course, she never killed anyone with her own hands: neither, presumably, did Al Capone. But the authorities couldn't get her even for tax evasion, although several cases of extortion were lodged against here. The dirty nature of politics in Bangladesh was underscored by the release of Sheikh Hasina from a makeshift jail - to become the prime minister once again. And this wasn't the first time that her henchmen had committed murder. Yet the loyalty of her supporters - which included my parents and my wider family - never diminished, never wavered.


Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first member of the dynasty, was a murderer on an even greater scale. He is also known as the father of the nation, and it is true that his demagoguery created the conditions for a civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. A detailed record of the murders and the deliberate famine that led to his killing by the army appears here.

The paradox that needs to be explained is the continuing loyalty towards the dead monster on the part of a section of the educated of Bangladesh (the uneducated never count in this country: as a writer put it, Bangladesh never represents Bangladeshis). That immoral loyalty has been transferred to his living daughter, as we saw above.

How do we explain this phenomenon?

I was baffled by this question for years until I began to study anthropological psychology, especially the role of anxiety in national culture.

What is the biggest anxiety of middle class persons? That they would cease to be middle class, and fall below their station - or, more accurately, that their children will. For the parents have struggled towards a certain elevation, and can see their way clear for some distance in time. Still, even they might slip....But they don't want their children to struggle...and slip.

Now, the working classes have their ability to labour, as Marx astutely pointed out, so their dread is of a different calibre - the dread of illness, and injury. In fact, anthropological studies have revealed that in Bangladesh, the working class define health in terms of the ability to work. This has unnerving implications: infections like HYV would not be regarded as a threat so long as full-blown AIDS did not occur. Also, doctors know that the poor suffer from chronic depression and ulcers through worry.

But the middle class is a class-unto-itself. They are highly articulate, clubby and ambitious. They can make and break nations. When Bangladesh was East Pakistan, the eastern wing of Pakistan, with the western king a thousand miles away, known as West Pakistan, the middle classes had just emerged from two hundred years of British rule. They had seen what the Indian middle class achieved - independence for India, and the devil take the poor. Today, 800 million Indians labour for a minority of 200 million of the middle class. This was to be their paradigm for Bangladesh.

A full-blown mythology was created - that the West Pakistanis spoke Urdu, and the East Pakistanis Bengali, when in fact Urdu was the language of a minuscule minority of the polyglot West Pakistanis. But the trick worked: the Urdu-speakers were exploiting the Bengali-speakers.

And the man who delivered the message on behalf of the middle class was Sheikh Mujib, rabble-rouser extraordinaire. His speeches remind one a great deal of the speeches of Hitler, the leader who led a ruined middle-class to horror.

Thus, the Bengali-speaking intelligentsia identified completely with Sheikh Mujib, who was to relieve them of their anxiety. Psychiatrists have long known that patients tend to identify them as father figures: indeed, Freud spoke of the need to transfer feeling to the pseudo-father figure to cure neurosis.

Freud observed: "It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against outsiders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestation of their aggressiveness (Civilisation and Its Discontents,tr. James Strachey, W.W.Norton & Co: New York, p 61). Recent research has confirmed this to be true of chimpanzees as well.

What Freud has to say about the father in the same book is most illuminating: "In my Future of an Illusion" I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion - with the systems of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father." One doesn't have to agree with Freud here: current research has shown that identification with a father figure is important for a child's emotional well-being. Infantile powerlessness clearly has a great deal to do with it.

However, Freud is completely wrong in his definition of religion: there are religions which have no transcendent father figure, such as Confucianism (Confucius was an earthly father figure). And that modern religion - nationalism - needs no father figure at all. Nevertheless, Sheikh Mujib was a father figure of the Mosaic type: he led the chosen people - the Bengalis - against the West Pakistanis, the Canaanite equivalent, promising the former a land of milk and honey. Sheikh Mujib was the prophet of Bengali Nationalism - perhaps even the God. There are many young kids among the foot-soldiers of the Awami League, the party he led, who reject their own fathers for Sheikh Mujib: I have done a systematic study of the subject.

Hence, Sheikh Mujib's infallibility: he assuaged a terrible anxiety, delivered the land of milk and honey for narrow, corrupt elite, and drove out the Canaanites. His lineage must equally be infallible: hence the idolatry of the Mujib family against Islam, the religion of Pakistan. Awami Leaguers favourite - intramural - pastime is ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed

Naturally, the middle class are a bookish people, like all scribes: their only source of success was through education. These were the people Mujib led. Consequently, the Awami League's biggest supporters are to be found among the university teachers, and the intelligentsia. They are in a position to refute history and sanction murder.

1 comment:

shakir said...

Thank you for your nice column.