Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Getting To Know The General

I had the privilege of meeting General Ershad, our former dictator of nine years, at his suite in Baridhara.

During the conversation, I asked him if he was aware of Muslim political philosophy. He grinned and said he knew nothing about Muslim political philosophy.

This was unfortunate ignorance on the General's part, for his long and fruitful rule rested on no ideology. He had built, as he told me, 8,000 kilometres of highway, 3,000 MW of generating capacity...all of which I knew to be true.

Nevertheless, he had groped towards an ideology: he amended the constitution to make Islam the state religion, for instance. He was seeking a rapport, a religious rapport, with the people.

More interestingly, the General tried to tap into the people's native Sufism. As the reader may know, Islam was spread in South Asia by Sufis, dervishes, ascetics. I know the son of a holy man whose father's death is still celebrated as an urs and to which many people come - including Hindus. This is very common here.

The holy man whom General Ershad cultivated was the Pir of Atroshi, famed as having a jinn of his own. It was said that he could not leave his khanqua because then he would be killed by jinns, or something of the sort. A friend of mine, Samuel Peter Landell-Mills, did his PhD thesis (unfortunately unpublished, with a copy on my shelf) on the pir as part of his work on Islamic holy men. He used to regale us with vivid descriptions of the pir's goings-on: thousands used to flock to his dargah, from president and bureaucrat to humble shopkeepers.

However, this holy man was unable to help the General keep his throne. For the power that matters in Bangladesh is of a less mystical nature: it is the power of western donors. And as soon as the cold war was over, they pulled the rug from under him.

Now, to get back to the General's suite. If the General had implored Muslim political thought, and insisted on the philosophy of nonresistance that sunni thinkers have insisted on, then the donors might not have been able to use a rent-a-crowd of students to overthrow him on December 6, 1990.


Anonymous said...

This reveals nothing so much as your utter f**king ignorance of Bangladeshi politics as it was in 1990. Bideshi kutta English shikhey dictator'er goon-gaan gao. Lojja korey na?

Iftekhar said...

Ah! democratic diatribe - what could be more earthy and of the people and without education! The anonymous commentator is a solid republican - he (or she) has no time for logic or reason, but shows the common man's love of expletives and name-calling (he calls me a 'foreign dog' that has learned English: mixing his metaphors a bit, he makes a trenchant point, no doubt. But aren't 'dictator' and 'democracy' English words, albeit ones that an English dog may not know?). I preserve this as a fine specimen of our democratic impulses. Enjoy!