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The present as history. Life and death in Dilara Begum Jolly’s work.

by Rahnuma Ahmed

bullets

After the end of time - 3. Dilara Begum Jolly

Flowers blossom, but with bullets in place of stigma. Bullets signal the end of fertility, the end of life. They signal death and destruction (After the end of time – 3).

Before the end of time 2

Before the end of time 2. Dilara Begum Jolly

A chess board. The king wears Stars and Stripes, his minister is dressed in the Union Jack. Soldiers litter the board, two have holes in their hearts. The path to a target practising board is strewn with eyes, un-seeing eyes. Dead targets. One eye, may be half-alive, stares at us unblinkingly. An eagle, hovering above, stops in its flight of extending the empire, to oversee American-style democracy take root in a faraway land (Before the end of time – 2). This is how Bangladeshi artist Dilara Begum Jolly captures the present moment on her canvas.

Before the end of time 4

Before the end of time 4. Dilara Begum Jolly

Bodies fractured by wars of the present, dismembered limbs, single hands — coloured red, yellow, blue, purple — lie lifeless. Others are raised upwards, they seem to be imploring. Stop this madness, stop the war. A human body folded, her head and pair of legs buried beneath the soil, her arms too. The trunk of her body and her fingers are visible. Fingertips stretched outward, towards the sun, towards light. A flaming red petal of a bird of paradise springs forth like a knife from the navel of a human body as she lies face upwards, her hands tied in a knot. A pair of army boots remind us of how it happened (Before the end of time – 4).

Before the end of time 1

Before the end of time 1. Dilara Begum Jolly

An Iraqi flag interweaves between dead bodies lying in a heap. Mother Teresa grieves silently as a furious red hand, gloved in Stars and Stripes, hangs over — and above — everything else. Once again, a Union Jack, this time in the background (Before the end of time – 1).

Other canvases, other images. Naked bodies, imprisoned bodies heaped on each other, surveilled by an eagle eye, the new owners of Abu Ghuraib. Autumn leaves falling on a white background as women, dressed in hijab, some in brown, others in purple, or blue, grey, white, stand shoulder to shoulder to the right of the canvas. They seem to be grieving. May be for a lost husband or a daughter. May be a son, a grandmother or a lover. For people, obscured by words spun by the invader — safe and secure in Pentagon, Washington, Fort Benning, and Downing Street — “collateral damage.” May be for the loss of national independence and freedom.

Other canvases, other images. Not any civilisation, but the cradle of civilisation itself destroyed. Army vehicles advancing on monuments. Statues and sculptures lying scattered as blank pages of history waft down. A Buddha head looks impassively as a shot is fired into its right eye. A broken cuneiform tablet.

And yet, in the midst of all the death, destruction and havoc, a pink lotus blooms. And that, as we who are familiar with the artist’s work know, is Dilara Begum Jolly’s signature. A flower, a sapling, a shoot springing forth in the midst of ruins. Signalling life, its force and energy. Its beauty. Signalling the will to live. The death of forces of evil.

Dilara Begum, known more by her nickname Jolly than her proper name, has always produced art that is social, and political. That is keenly critical of the prevailing order, whether at home or abroad. Or, as her exhibition Excavating Time (Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, 4 – 17 September 2006) shows, of the new order that has not only destroyed the cradle of civilisation, but threatens to destroy all vestiges of life on the planet. An inexorable war machine, spinning lies and deceit to the heavy rounds of applause by western politicians, generals, defence analysts and journalists.

Embryo withdrawn 1

Embryo withdrawn 1 Dilara Begum Jolly

Other canvases in the exhibition drew on the womb, on foetuses, on the pain of giving birth. Or, of not giving birth, of an embryo that retreats into the womb, repelled by the patriarchal order that controls and regulates life outside (Embryo withdrawn – 1).

Jolly’s more recent work draws on the the nokshi kantha (quilt-making) tradition of Bangladeshi women, quilts that are made from worn-out saris, two to three sewn together, richly embroidered from folk tales, myths, everyday artefacts, and daily village life as seen by, and as intrepreted by, women. Always. Instead of strokes and brushes, Jolly paints short stitches that weave tales, of women as mothers, as sisters, and as friends, drawing on traditions of weaving to tell stories of the pain and wonderment of giving birth. Of creating, and re-creating, bonds of solidarity.

February 7, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Technician in the Establishment: Obama’s America and the World

By Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles and is presently with the University of California Education Abroad Programme in India.

Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly

Barack Obama is poised to become the 44th president of the United States. Many see in the ascendancy of a black man to the highest office of the world’s hegemon a supremely historic moment in American if not world affairs. Such is the incalculable hold of the US, in times better or worse, on the imagination of people worldwide that many are more heavily invested in the politics and future of the US than they are in the politics of their own nation.

There may yet be method to this maddening infatuation, for Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, among many others, known and unknown, the target at some point of the military wrath and moral unctuousness of America, may want to reason if their chances of being bombed back into the stone age increase or decrease with the election of one or the other candidate. The French, perhaps best known for the haughty pride in their own culture, were so moved by the events of September 11, 2001, which the Americans have attempted to install as a new era in world history, rendering 9/11 as something akin to BC or AD, that Le Monde famously declared, “Nous sommes tous Americains” (“We are all Americans”). One doubts that, had it been Beijing, Delhi, or Dakar that had been so bombed, the French would have declared, We are All Chinese, Indians, or Senegalese. That old imperialist habit of presuming the royal We, thinking that the French or American we is the universal We, has evidently not disappeared.

Obama vs McCain

There can be little question that Obama’s presidency would be much preferable to that of McCain. If nothing else, his presidency is not calculated to be an insult to human intelligence or a complete affront to simple norms of human decency. After eight years of George W Bush, it seemed all but improbable that America could throw up another candidate who is, if not in absolutely identical ways, at least as much of an embarrassment to the US as the incumbent of the White House. But one should never underestimate the genius of America in throwing up crooks, clowns and charlatans into the cauldron of politics. It is likely that McCain has a slightly less convoluted – or should I say jejune – view of world history and geography than Bush, nor is his vocabulary wholly impoverished, but he will not strike anyone with a discerning mind as possessed of a robust intelligence. McCain has already committed so many gaffes, accusing (to take one example) Iran of training Al Qaida extremists, that one wonders whether his much touted “foreign policy experience” amounts to anything at all.

In America, it is enough to have a candidate who understands that Iraq and Iran are not only spelled differently but constitute two separate nations. Obama seems so far ahead of the decorated Vietnam war veteran in these respects that it seems pointless to waste any more words on McCain. Obama writes reasonably well, and even been lauded for his skills as an orator; he is suave, mentally alert, and a keen observer of world affairs.

Far too many American elections have offered scenarios where a candidate has been voted into office not on the strength of his intelligence, sound policies, or moral judgment, but because the candidate has appeared to be “the lesser of two evils”. The iconoclast Paul Goodman, writing in the 1960s, gave it as his considered opinion that American elections were an exercise in helping Americans distinguish between undistinguishable Democrats and Republicans, and there are, notwithstanding Obama’s appeal to liberals and apparently intelligent people, genuine questions to be asked about whether this election will be anything more than a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Candidates with wholly distinct views have always been described as “spoilers” in the American system, and anyone who do not subscribe to the rigidly corporatist outlook of the two major parties can only expect ridicule, opprobrium, and at best colossal neglect. To this extent, whatever America’s pretensions at being a model democracy for the rest of the world, one can marvel at the ease and brilliance with which dissenters are marginalised in the US. The singularity of American democracy resides in the fact that it is, insofar as democracies are in question, at once both perversely primitive and advanced. In its totalitarian sweep over the political landscape, the one-party system, which through the fiction of two parties has swept all dissent – indeed, I should say all thought – under the rug, has shown itself utterly incapable of accommodating political views outside its fold; and precisely for this reason American democracy displays nearly all the visible signs of stability, accountability, and public engagement, retaining in its rudiments the same features it has had over the last two centuries.

A New Obama after the Election?

Obama’s most ardent defenders have adopted the predictably disingenuous view that Candidate Obama has had to repress most of his liberal sentiments to appeal to a wide electorate, and that president Obama will be much less “centrist” in his execution of domestic and foreign policies. (The US is one country where most hawks, particularly if they are “distinguished” senior statesmen, can easily pass themselves off as “centrists”, the word “hawk” being reserved for certified lunatics such as Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, or blatantly aggressive policymakers such as Paul Wolfowitz. No one would describe Colin Powell, who shares as much responsibility as anyone else for waging a criminal war on Iraq, as a hawk.)

Of course much the same view was advanced apropos Bill Clinton, who then went on to wreck the labour movement, cut food stamps, initiate welfare “reform” that further eroded the entitlements of the poor, and launch aggressive military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and a host of other places. Moreover, unless one is to take the view that Obama thought of his candidacy overnight, it is equally reasonable to argue that, knowing how much he would have to appeal to the rank and file of not only Democrats but the large number of “undecided” voters as a candidate who would be markedly different from both the incumbent and the Republicans running for the presidency, Obama has been projecting himself as far more liberal than either his political record or views would give warrant to believe. Indeed, as a close perusal of his writings, speeches, and voting record suggests, Obama is as consummate a politician as any in the US, and he has been priming himself as a presidential candidate for many years.

Entry to the Obama World View

Obama’s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope (New York, Crown Publishers), furnishes as good an entry point into his world view as any. Its subtitle, ‘Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream’, provides the link to Obama’s memoir of 1995, Dreams of My Father (1995). People everywhere have dreams, no doubt, but there is nothing quite as magisterial as “the American dream”: the precise substance of the American dream – a home with a backyard, mom’s apple pie, kids riding their bikes without a care in the world, a cute dog running around in circles after the kids, ice tea, a Chevrolet or SUV – matters less than the fact that “the American dream” signifies something grand and unique in the affairs of humankind. A politician who does not profess belief in the American dream is doomed, but there is no insincerity on Obama’s part in this respect. Leaving aside the question of how the American dream has been a nightmare to many of the most thoughtful Americans themselves, from Henry David Thoreau to James Baldwin, not to mention tens of millions of people elsewhere, Obama’s fondness for what Americans call “feelgood” language is palpably evident. Just what does the audacity of hope mean? Need one be audacious to hope? Obama’s pronouncements are littered with the language of hope, change, values, dreams, all only a slight improvement on chicken soup for dummies or chocolate for the soul.

The chapter entitled ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’, some will object, is illustrative of Obama’s engagement with substantive issues, and in this case suggestive of his grasp over foreign affairs. One of the stories that circulated widely about Bush upon his election to the presidency in 2000 was that he carried an expired passport; a variant of the story says that Bush did not at that time own a US passport. It is immaterial whether the story is apocryphal: so colossal was Bush’s ignorance of the world that it is entirely plausible that he had never travelled beyond Canada and Mexico, though I am tempted to say that illegal aliens and men born to power, transgressors of borders alike, share more than we commonly imagine. Obama, by contrast, came to know of the wider world in his childhood: his white American mother was married to a Kenyan before her second marriage to an Indonesian.

Obama lived in Jakarta as a young boy, and the chapter offers a discussion of the purges under Suharto that led to the extermination of close to a million communists and their sympathisers. Obama is brave enough to acknowledge that many of the Indonesian military leaders had been trained in the US, and that the Central Intelligence Agency provided “covert support” to the insurrectionists who sought to remove the nationalist Sukarno and place Indonesia squarely in the American camp (pp 272-73). He charts Indonesia’s spectacular economic progress, but also concedes that “Suharto’s rule was harshly repressive”. The press was stifled, elections were a “mere formality”, prisons were filled up with political dissidents, and areas wracked by secessionist movements rebels and civilians alike faced swift and merciless retribution – “and all this was done with the knowledge, if not outright approval, of US administrations” (p 276).

It is doubtful that most American politicians would have made even as mild an admission of American complicity in atrocities as has Obama. But a supremely realist framework allows for evasion as much as confession: thus Obama merely arrives at the reading that the American record overseas is a “mixed” one “across the globe”, often characterised by far-sightedness and altruism even if American policies have at times been “misguided, based on false assumptions” that have undermined American credibility and the genuine aspirations of others (p 280). There is, in plain language, both good and bad in this world; and Obama avers that the US, with all its limitations, has largely been a force for good. And since America remains the standard by which phenomena are to be evaluated, Obama betrays his own parochialism. The war in Vietnam, writes Obama, bequeathed “disastrous consequences”: American credibility and prestige took a dive, the armed forces experienced a loss of morale, the American soldier needlessly suffered, and above all “the bond of trust between the American people and their government” was broken. Though two million or more Vietnamese were killed, and fertile land was rendered toxic for generations, no mention is made of this genocide: always the focus is on what the war did to America (p 287).

The war in Vietnam chastened Americans, who “began to realise that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing – and didn’t always tell the truth” (p 287). One wonders why, then, an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the Gulf war of 1991 and the attack on Afghanistan, and why even the invasion of Iraq in 2002 had far more popular support in the US than it did in Europe or elsewhere around the world. The suggestion that the American people were once led astray but are fundamentally sound in their judgment ignores the consideration that elected officials are only as good as the people to whom they respond, besides hastening to exculpate ordinary Americans from their share of the responsibility for the egregious crimes that the US has committed overseas and against some of its own people.

Good Wars, Bad Wars?

Obama has on more than one occasion said, “I’m not against all wars, I’m just against dumb wars.” More elegant thinkers than Obama, living in perhaps more thoughtful times, have used different language to justify war: there is the Christian doctrine of a just war, and similarly 20th century politicians and theorists, watching Germany under Hitler rearm itself and set the stage for the extermination of the Jewish people, reasoned that one could make a legitimate distinction between “good” and “bad” wars. Obama has something like the latter in mind: he was an early critic of the invasion of Iraq, though here again more on pragmatic grounds rather than from any sense of moral anguish, but like most liberals he gave his whole-hearted support to the bombing of Afghanistan in the hope, to use Bush’s language, that Osama bin Laden could be smoked out and the Taliban reduced to smithereens.

Obama is so far committed to the idea of Afghanistan as a “good” war that he has pledged that, if elected president, he would escalate the conflict there and also bomb Pakistan if it would help him prosecute the “war on terror”. He has recently attacked McCain, who no one would mistake for a pacifist, with the observation that his opponent “won’t even follow [bin Laden] to his cave in Afghanistan”, even as the US defence secretary has all but conceded that a political accommodation with the Taliban, whose support of bin Laden was the very justification for the bombing of Afghanistan, can no longer be avoided. The casually held assumption that by birthright an American president can bomb other countries into abject submission, or that the US can never be stripped of its prerogative to chastise nations that fail to do its bidding, takes one’s breath away.

No one should suppose that Obama, blinded by the sharp rhetoric of the “war on terror”, has positions on Iraq and Afghanistan that are not characteristic of his view of the world as a whole. “We need to maintain a strategic force posture”, he writes, “that allows us to manage threats posed by rogue nations like North Korea and Iran and to meet the challenges presented by potential rivals like China” (p 307). This could have been the voice of Reagan, the Clintons, Bush, McCain, and countless others: there is such overwhelming unanimity about “rogue states” that almost no politician in the US can be expected to display even an iota of independent thinking.

No Change from Staus Quo

On the question of Palestine, Obama has similarly displayed belligerence and moral turpitude. At the annual meeting in June 2008 of the American Israel Political Action Committee, a self-avowedly Zionist organisation that commands unstinting support from across the entire American political spectrum, Obama was unambiguous in declaring that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided”. It would only be belabouring the obvious to state that, on nearly every foreign policy issue that one can think of, with the exception of a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Obama’s position can scarcely be distinguished from all the other advocates of the national security state.

There can be no gainsaying the fact that Obama’s election as president of the US will appreciably alter American debates on race. African-Americans make up 12 per cent of the population but constitute nearly half of the US prison population; one of three black males will, in his lifetime, have gone through the criminal justice system. African-Americans are, alongside Puerto Ricans, two ethnic groups among whom poverty is endemic, and repeated studies have shown that in every critical sector of life, such as access to jobs, housing, and healthcare, blacks face persistent racism and discrimination. Obama is fully cognisant of these problems and is likely to address them to a greater extent than any other candidate. But one can also argue, with equal plausibility, that his ascendancy will strengthen the hands of those who want to think of American democracy as a post-race society, and whose instant inclination is to jettison affirmative action and reduce the already narrow space for discussions of race in civil society.

It is immaterial, even if fascinating to some, whether numerous white people will vote for Obama to prove their credentials as non-racists, while others will give him their vote because he is not all that black – just as some black people will surely cast their ballot for Obama precisely because he is black. By far the most critical consideration is that the US requires a radical redistribution of economic and political power: Martin Luther King Jr had come to an awareness of this in the last years of his life, but there is little to suggest that Obama, a professional politician to the core, has similarly seen the light.

Establishment Candidate

In these deeply troubled times, when there is much casual talk of the American ship sinking, the white ruling class is preparing to turn over the keys of the kingdom to a black man. Imperial powers had a knack for doing this, but let us leave that history aside. Here, at least, Obama appears to have displayed audacity, taking on a challenge that many others might have forsworn. However, nothing is as it seems to be: with the passage of time, Obama has increasingly justified the confidence reposed in him as an establishment candidate. A man with some degree of moral conscience would not only have shrugged off the endorsements of Colin Powell and Scott McClellan, until recently among Bush’s grandstanding cheerleaders and apparatchiks, but would have insisted that Powell and others of his ilk be brought to justice for crimes against the Iraqi people. But Obama will do no such thing, for after all Powell and the master he served, like Kissinger and Nixon before them, only made “tactical” errors. Obama prides himself, moreover, on being a healer not divider: he will even rejoice in the support for him among previously hardcore Republicans.

When Obama is not speaking about values, hope, and change, he presents himself as a manager, representing brutal American adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan as illustrations of policies that went wrong. He comes forward as a technician who is best equipped to fix broken policies, repair the system, and get America working once again. One can only hope that an America that is once again working does not mean for a good portion of the rest of the world what it has meant for a long time, namely, an America that is more efficient in its exercise of military domination and even more successful in projecting its own vision of human affairs as the only road to the good life. To believe in Obama, one needs to hope against hope.

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Perspectives from Sri Lanka

Nalaka Gunawardane from Sri Lanka comments on the role of new media in the campaign.
Groundviews –  – Sri Lanka’s award winning citizens journalism website

In Barack Obama: Hope for America, but not for the world? Nishan, who shares Obama’s alma mater, shares a simple insight, noting that nothing Barack Obama has done or promised will usher in the change needed in the world. Posing eight pertinent questions Nishan ends his article by noting that, ” For those who were listening, Barack Obama has in fact been threatening the world, by the trade, military and foreign policy positions that he has articulated consistently throughout his campaign – and there is no reason to think he didn’t mean what he said. Has Barack Obama offered “hope” for Americans? Resoundingly “Yes!” But the hope that President Obama offers Americans is not hope for the world.”

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, in Barack Obama: History’s High Note comes to a very different conclusion to Nishan, noting that “[Obama’s] natural tendency will be to be a great teacher, reformer and reconciler on a global scale; to be a planetary ‘change agent’, leaving the world better than he found it.”

November 4, 2008 Posted by | governance, New Media, World | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lalon and Terror. Re-configuring the Nation’s Political Map during Emergency

by rahnuma ahmed

Drifting in cage and out again
Hark unknown bird does fly
Shackles of my heart
If my arms could entwine
With them I would thee bind

— Fakir Lalon Shah, “Khachar bhitor ochin pakhi,”
translation by Shahidul Alam.

Baul sculpture, and the nation’s most powerful man

‘No decision is taken without the the army chief’s consent, that’s why we informed him,’ said Maulana Noor Hossain Noorani, amir of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh and imam of Fayedabad mosque, at a press conference. `He didn’t like the idea of setting up an idol either, right in front of the airport, so close to the Haji camp. It was removed at his initiative’ (Prothom Alo, 17 October).

The `it’ in question was a piece of sculpture, of five Baul mystics and singers. Titled Unknown Bird in a Cage, it was being created in front of Zia International Airport, Dhaka. Madrasa students and masjid imams of adjoining areas were mobilised, Bimanbondor Golchottor Murti Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Idols at Airport Roundabout) was formed. A 24 hour ultimatum was given. The art work, nearly seventy percent complete, was removed by employees of the Roads and Highways Department, and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.

Artists, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers, teachers, students, and many others have since continuously protested the removal of the sculpture, both in Dhaka, and other cities and towns of Bangladesh. They have demanded its restoration, have re-named the roundabout Lalon Chottor, and accused the military-backed caretaker government of capitulating, yet again, to the demands of Islamic extremists, and forces opposing the 1971 war of liberation.

Soon after its removal, Fazlul Haq Amini, Chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) and amir of Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee (IABC) said at a press conference, if an Islamic government comes to power, all statues built by Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001) will be demolished, since statues are `dangerously anti-Islamic’. Eternal flames, Shikha Chironton (Liberation War Museum), and Shikha Anirban (Dhaka Cantonment) will be extinguished. Paying respect to fire is the same as worshipping fire.’ What about statues built during Khaleda Zia-led four party alliance government (of which he had been a part). ‘Where, which ones?’ Rajshahi University campus was the prompt reply. `Why didn’t you raise these questions when you were in power?’ ‘We did, personally, but they didn’t listen. We were used as stepping stones.’ Amini also demanded that the National Women Development Policy 2008, shelved this year after protests by a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties, should be scrapped (Prothom Alo, 18 October).

Noorani and his followers demand, a haj minar should be built instead, and the road should be re-named Haj road. ‘Men from the administration and the intelligence agencies,’ he said at the press conference, `wore off their shoes, they kept coming to us.’ (Prothom Alo, 17 October). Now where had I read of close contacts between Khatme Nabuwat and the intelligence agencies?

I remembered. A Human Rights Watch report, Bangladesh: Breach of Faith (2005) had stated that KN had close links to the ruling BNP through the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ, its coalition partners. I remembered other things too. It was the same Noor Hossain Noorani who had said, Tareq Zia, Senior Secretary General of the BNP, was their “Amir and same-aged friend,” and had threatened police officials saying Tareq would directly intervene if Khatme Nabuwat’s anti-Ahmadiya campaign was obstructed. According to reports, highup intelligence agency officials (DGFI, NSI) had mediated contacts between the ruling party and the KN. He had met the DGFI chief in Dhaka cantonment thrice, Noorani had thus boasted to Satkhira reporters in 2005, a statement never publicly refuted by the intelligence agency (Tasneem Khalil, The Prince of Bogra, Forum, April 2007, issue withdrawn, article available on the internet).

What links does the present military-backed caretaker government, and more so, its intelligence agencies, have with these extremist groups? I cannot help but wonder. Is there more to what’s happening than meets the eye?

Other questions pop into my head. The Baul sculpture was not advertised, as public art should be. No open competition, no shortlisting, no selection panel. On the contrary, the contract seems to have been awarded as a personal dispensation. The only condition seems to have been that the sculptor must get-hold-of-a-sponsor. High regard for public art, for Baul tradition, listed by the UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and for procedural matters. Particularly by a government whose raison d’etre is establishing the rule of law, and rooting out corruption.

Simplifying the present: from `1971′ to the `Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh

British historian Eric Hobsbawm terms what he calls the ‘short twentieth century’, The Age of Extremes (1994). I can’t help but think, things seem to be getting more extreme in the twenty-first century.

In his most recent book, On Empire. America, War and Global Supremacy (2008), Hobsbawm traces the rise of American hegemony, the steadily increasing world disorder in the context of rapidly growing inequalities created by rampant free-market globalisation, the American government’s use of the threat of terrorism as an excuse for unilateral deployment of its global power, the launching of wars of aggression when it sees fit, and its absolute disregard of formerly accepted international conventions.

The US government’s role in not only contributing to the situation, but in constituting the conditions that have given rise to extremes, of being the extreme, is disregarded by many Bangladesh scholars, whether at home or abroad. Most of these writings are atrociously naive, exhibiting a theoretical incapacity to deal with questions of global inequalities in power. Authors repeatedly portray American power — in whichever manifestation, whether economic or cultural, military or ideological — as being benign. Two images of Bangladesh are juxtaposed against each other, a secular Bangladesh of the early 1970s, the fruit of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle of 1971, and a Talibanised Bangladesh of recent years. `National particularities’ and ‘the dynamics of domestic policies’ are emphasised (undoubtedly important), but inevitably at the cost of leaving the policies of US empire-building efforts un-examined.

One instance is Maneeza Hossain, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, who, in her 60 page study of the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh politics, tucks in a hurried mention of US’ supply of weaponry to Afghan jihadists, and moves on to call on the US to shake off its `indifference’ to Bangladesh, to use its ‘good offices’ to help democratic forces within Bangladesh prevail (The Broken Pendulum. Bangladesh’s Swing to Radicalism, 2007.

Ali Riaz, who teaches at Illinois State University, author of God Willing. The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (2004) provides another instance. International reasons for the rise of militancy are the Afghan war, internationalisation of resistance to Soviet occupation, policies of so-called charitable organisations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and (last, it would also seem, the least) `American foreign policy’. A token mention showing utter disregard towards 1,273,378 Iraqi deaths, caused by the invasion and occupation. 1971 was genocidal, but so is the Iraq invasion. On a much larger scale. Unconcerned, he goes on, policy circles in the US are `apprehensive’ about militancy in Bangladesh. Even now. The solution? He advocates open debates, particularly between the intelligence agencies and the political parties (Prothom Alo, 3 February 2008).

And then one comes across Farooq Sobhan who claims that president Bush has ‘taken pains’ to convince Muslims that the war against terror is not a war against Islam or a clash of civilizations (no, it’s a crime against humanity). Rather petulantly, he asks, why has Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, not figured prominently on the US ‘list of countries to be wooed and cultivated.’ Further, he writes, “High on the US agenda has been the issue of Bangladesh sending troops to Iraq“. Sending ‘troops’, like crates of banana, or tea? Surely, there are substantive issues — of death and destruction of Iraqis and Iraq, of war crimes — involved.

Re-configuring Politics during Emergency

Creating a level playing field so that free and fair national elections could be held, that’s what the military-backed caretaker government had promised. Twenty-two months later, after failed attempts at minusing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, with their respective parties in shambles, thousands of party workers in prison, constitutional rights suspended due to the state of emergency, economy in tatters, police crack-downs on protests of garments workers, jute mill workers, women’s organisations and activists, on human chains against increasing prices of essentials, the only two forces to have remained unscathed are the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Muslim clerics, Islamic parties and madrasa students, those who protested against the Women Development Policy, agitated for the removal of Baul sculptures, recently caused havoc in the DU Vice Chancellor’s office protesting against newly-enforced admission requirements. Are these accidental, or deliberate governmental moves? I cannot help but wonder.

Several western diplomats — members of the infamous Tuesday Club, particularly ambassadors from United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the EU representative — and also the UN Resident Coordinator actively intervened in Bangladesh politics prior to 11 January 2007, in events that led to the emergence of the present military-backed caretaker goverment. Renata Dessalien did so to unheard degrees, leading to recent demands that the UN Resident Coordinator be withdrawn.

In a week or so, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon arrives in Dhaka, to see for himself electoral preparations, and extend support for the government. A visit that has nothing to do with politics, we are told. In the eyes of many observers, Ban is one of the most pro-American secretaries general in it’s 62-year history. He has opposed calls for a swift US withdrawal from Iraq, and is committed to a beefed-up UN presence in Baghdad. The UN staff committee has protested Ban’s decision saying it would `make the institution complicit in an intractable US-made crisis’ (Washington Post, 24 September 2007).

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact (`democratic party,’ Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State, 2006), Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats.

A beast in the guise of beauty? Time will tell.

On the Flight Path of American Power

I borrow the title from British-Pakistani historian Tariq Ali’s coming event: `Pakistan/Afghanistan: on the Flight Path of American Power,’ to be held at Toronto, November 14.

Seven years after the US led invasion, Pakistan, America’s strong military ally, is now “on the edge” of ruin. Pakistani political analysts repeatedly warn Bangladeshis that they see similar political patterns at work here: minusing political leaders, militarisation, milbus, National Security Council etc etc. I do not think that an Obama win will make any difference to the American flight path for unilateral power. As atute political commentators point out, Obama and McCain differ on domestic policies, not substantively on US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, president Bush signed the highest defense budget since World War II.

Maybe there should be an open public debate in Bangladesh, as Ali Riaz proposes, but with a different agenda: are we being set on America’s flight path to greater power by this unconstitutional, unrepresentative government, one which is more accountable to western forces, than to us?

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CONVERSATIONS: BEING A WOMAN

Left leadership in Bangladesh

by rahnuma ahmed

[the relationship between class struggle and women’s liberation is] very close. Women were the first to be oppressed, and will be the last to be liberated when class oppression ceases. So the test of whether class oppression still exists is if women’s oppression still exists or not.

Comrade Parvati, central committee member and head of women’s department, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)

… communist men should know that the revolution and the gains of revolution can only be preserved and furthered when more and more women join and lead the revolution.

Comrade Parvati, CPN (M)

‘IF YOU look at efforts to develop women’s leadership aimed at establishing equal relations between men and women, the party leadership seems to think that it is a waste of time. That women’s contribution will somehow be lesser. I don’t know how, through which process, they come to that conclusion. And the one or two women leaders like us, those who have managed to make it to the top, we are looked upon as exceptional. On some occasions, we are lauded, on others, condemned.’

I was talking to Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum and convenor, Biplobi Oikko Front. In the twenty-five-plus years that I have known her, on the few occasions that we have met, nearly always we have fallen into each other’s arms and talked non-stop. About a whole lot of issues, garments workers wages, the mercilessly exploitative conditions under which they work, her party’s organisational work, the struggles of women workers as women, her own personal struggles, government persecution, the forty-odd cases against her. She has always been curious about my own work, what I am writing, what I am reading, and has always stressed the need to share ideas.

Mishu continued, there are many dedicated women, women who have ceaselessly devoted every living and thinking moment to the party, but they are not even central committee members. Look at the CPB (Communist Party of Bangladesh), Hena Das became a central committee member only when she was eighty. Or at Krishna di, she became a central committee member recently, in her sixties. Men? Oh, at a much younger age. Maybe at my age, I am forty-five now, in a few cases, even in their late-thirties. Do left women talk about these things, I asked. A bit, said Mishu. I remember, several months ago, Shireen apa (Shireen Akhter, joint general secretary, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) took Zaman bhai (Khalequzzaman Bhuiyan, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal) to task because Rousseau apa, Joly apa are not even central committee members. Even though they are such dedicated women, have tremendous leadership qualities and organisational capabilities. They are not even alternate members of the central committee. No woman has ever become a member of BSD central committee.

How do I dare to speak? Well, because I lead the Garment Workers Unity Forum, I work at the grassroots level. I am accepted. I think women comrades of other left parties, they might tell you one or two things but only off the record. Is it because of party loyalty, I interrupt. No, me, I am loyal too, I speak because I think it’s necessary. I think if they were to speak out they may well be suspended from the party. After all, how many heads does one have on one’s shoulders?

While transcribing Mishu’s interview, and in between breaks reading Comrade Parvati’s ‘Women’s Leadership and the Revolution in Nepal’, these lines catch my eye. ‘It is seen that revolutionary communist movements have always unleashed women’s fury, but they are not able to channelize this energy into producing enduring women communist leaders. The question has been raised again and again as to why there are so few women leaders in communist parties when Marxism offers such a deep penetrating analysis and solution to women’s oppression.’

This is Mishu’s question too, why are there are so few women leaders in the left movement in Bangladesh? What role have respective communist and socialist parties played in developing women leaders?

Where, I wonder, does one begin to seek answers?

‘Women agitation’

The other day I was so shocked, says Mishu. Ganotantrik Bam Morcha, at present I am the co-ordinator, held a meeting to review a human chain programme organised to protest against the rise in prices of essentials. A young Morcha leader, personally I like him a lot, he is very modern in his outlook, said, ‘photographers rush off to photograph Mishu apa. They want to present the protest as a “women agitation”. I think we should be careful. We should keep an eye out for others, for senior leaders around us.’

I was truly shocked, said Mishu. I raised two questions: what do you mean by women agitation? Does that mean only men can, and should agitate, that women cannot? Even though women garment workers are a majority, even though most of our party members are women workers? Do you mean to say that these women should retreat to the back when men raise slogans, and should fall silent? You ask women to be present at the front of rallies, but when their photographs get taken, you become unhappy, you say, it becomes a women agitation. Of course, I am aware of the politics of media representation, of turning events into women events, but surely that is a separate issue.

Why does a woman leader’s photograph create problems, but not a male leader’s? Why is it that when photographers raise their cameras at me, I become a mere woman, that I am not a leader, like any other leader? Mishu added, I told them, I do not think of Tipu Biswas, or Comrade Khalequzzaman as ‘men’, I think of them as my comrades. And anyway, how is it possible, amidst all that jostling, shoving and pushing, with the police coming down upon us, to keep an eye on who is where. I told them, unlike many other women comrades, I do not deny my womanness. Yes, of course, I am a woman. However, what intrigues me is why, and when, this gets raised as an issue.

Listening to Mishu, I think, so the left movement assumes that men are not gendered creatures. That men, by virtue of being men, have been able to rise above ‘mere’ gender concerns. That when they agitate, they do it on behalf of both men and women. That it is women who are particularistic, they can represent only other women. They alone are gendered. They alone are sexual beings. Familial beings.

Let me tell you of another incident, says Mishu. It happened when I was much, much younger. I was then president of the Chhatra Oikya Forum, the only woman president among forty or so student organisations. I was arrested, I was accused of possessing arms, and of attempted bank dacoity. A group belonging to the Sarbahara Party had been caught while committing dacoity at a petrol pump station in Gazipur, I had been publicly critical of that party, so when they were caught, they falsely implicated me. They said I had led the dacoity but had managed to escape by driving away in another car. Members of my student organisation, my sisters who were then new recruits to the party, had gone around asking left leaders to give a signed statement protesting my arrest, but they refused. They said, it was not a political matter. Nirmal Sen had wryly said, at least, we now have a woman dacoit in Bangladesh. My question is, how can my arrest, and the false cases not be political? Would they have uttered my name if I was a housewife? Some left members went to the extent of wondering aloud – I know for sure because one of them, a woman leader later asked me – were you romantically involved with any of the Sarbahara members? Did he implicate you because of an affair gone sour?

Listening to Mishu I think of Kalpana Chakma, a pahari leader, abducted by army personnel from her house in Marishya, twelve years ago. A similar story, that she was romantically involved with Lieutenant Ferdous, that she had eloped with him, had been spurn. That similar threads of reasoning, albeit a very gendered one, exist in discourses conducted by institutions one assumes to be poles apart, continues to amaze me.

Comrade in marriage

Comrade Parvati writes, women who have potential do not emerge as leaders of the revolution in Nepal because of the institution of marriage. The People’s War is changing the pattern but even within the PW, marriage and the decision to have children results in a lack of continuity of women’s leadership. Having children is a ‘unilateral burden’, the birth of each new child brings greater domestic slavery. Communist women complain that ‘having babies is like being under disciplinary action’, since they are cut off from party activities for long periods. Bright, aspiring communist women are lost to oblivion, even after marrying comrades of their choice. There is little support for women during their reproductive, child-bearing years. Women cadres are overtly or covertly pressurised into marrying since both men and women are ‘suspicious’ of a woman who is not married. Sexual offences, she says, are taken more seriously than political offences.

I ask Mishu, how have the social relations of marriage and sexuality impacted on women who belong to the left tradition in Bangladesh? And you yourself, you are single. Tell me, how have left women shaped and formed the project of women’s emancipation in their aspirations for bringing socialist change in Bangladesh.

What I have seen from my left student organisation days to now, at the Party level, women who are brilliant and beautiful, shundori and sharp, in the language of left men, are selected for marriage. The idea is, this will ensure that they will remain within the left. But, that is not necessarily the case, for they often disappear into domestic oblivion. I have also heard brilliant left men say, in cases where both comrades are equally qualified, have similar potential, both cannot be built up, one needs to be crucified. Well, adds Mishu with an impish smile, I myself have never seen men being crucified. Of course, people in the left always speak of the contributions of Jenny Marx, of Krupskaya, also of Leo Jogiches (Rosa Luxemburg’s comrade and lover). And I myself, I deeply respect and admire our male comrades, they have not sacrificed any less, they have endured, persevered against all odds, they are not lacking, it’s just their outlook, they are so terribly chauvinistic. Also, in a racist sense, you cannot imagine all the talk I overhear about forsha (fair) wives, and kalo (dark-skinned) wives.

Progressive men, communist men here, and I say this Rahnuma, in all seriousness, and with the utmost confidence, they do not practise equality between men and women in their personal lives. Neither towards their wives, nor their daughters, nor sisters. They emerge as korta (lord, master). I do not want to mention names, but daughters of left leaders have been known to be given away in marriage to good grooms, good meaning husbands with qualifications from abroad. I have discussed this with other women, and their experiences are similar. And what about party women who marry comrades, party leaders, I ask. Often, says Mishu, these women are new to the party, new to Marxist philosophy. In this situation, receiving a proposal and marrying so-and-so is perceived as bringing more status, greater prestige. They seem to form an elite by themselves.

What about the issue of sexuality? You are single, you have remained single, I return to an earlier thread of our conversation. This word is never ever mentioned, says Mishu. It is taboo. I have seen men sit and chat, they laugh among themselves, I can tell that they are talking about these things. I am sure if I had a couple of men friends, I would not have a leg to stand on in politics. There would be no space for me. After being released from jail, I hear the word ‘sacrifice’ being muttered, but I know there would be no space for me if I had lived differently. I would have liked it I had a male friend, of that I am sure. And what about male comrades, I ask. Is it different? But, of course, she replies. Many male comrades were single. It seems, they had women friends, but no one gossips about it. You mean their political image does not suffer as a result? No, says Mishu. You mean, in your case, they would call you characterless? Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to be called a ‘prostitute’. On hearing Mishu’s words, I wasn’t surprised either. As a university teacher, during the 1998 anti-rape movement on Jahangirnagar campus, an influential teacher who was furiously angry at my role in the movement had referred to me as a bessha. He had said it to another university teacher, who could not bring himself to repeat the word when he related the incident to me. Women are framed and located within a bou-bessha dichotomy, an everyday tool men use to whiplash female dissenters of patriarchy. Progressivist men dismiss it as ruchir obhab (tasteless), or nimno srenir bhasha (lower class language). The left cannot afford do it. The dichotomy itself is woven out of class-ed and gender-ed ideas. That, and its middle-class reception, both remain unexamined.

The left political tradition in Bangladesh, Mishu continues, is very masculine. That women can contribute to that tradition, both theoretically, and through their experiences as women, is something that is not seriously entertained. It is generally assumed that women can only inspire. They cannot lead. That women’s leadership can radically transform existing relations of power, this is not given any serious theoretical consideration. Men are considered to be theoretically superior. We women are adjuncts. That women’s participation, and women’s leadership can initiate changes in a masculine power structure, and that this is necessary, men in the left just do not give this any serious thought.

If we cannot create space to work together as comrades, if socialist aspirations for women are restricted to ‘yes, we must do something for the women too’, if socialist ideals of equality are not practised at every level, in the party, in the family, in personal lives, in marriage, it will not happen automatically. If I raise these issues I am accused of being a neo-Marxist, of being a feminist, but what my Marxist comrades fail to realise is that this is essential for the creative development of Marxism. Her face suddenly breaks into a smile as she says, at least they no longer tell me, the masses won’t accept you. I work at the grassroots level, unlike many. I have no problems in gaining acceptance. And yes, did I tell you, women members are expected to wear mostly white saris. You mean dress like widows? Why on earth, I ask. We burst out laughing.

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution, had said Emma Goldman, Lithuanian-born American international anarchist.

Women’s emancipation: a male script

Left men have created a framework. Women’s emancipation will have to be thought from within that framework. You will lead your life within that framework. If you do, you can preside at the next meeting. If not, regardless of the leadership qualities you may have, you cannot. I want to repeat, I respect my male comrades, I think very highly of them, they are not an oppressive lot, but I find it difficult to accept their framework of thoughts and ideas. Leaders of other parties will compliment me on my work, they will also expect me to seek advice from them, contrary to norms of party discipline. If I do so, I am a good woman, I mean an ideal woman leader. An ideal woman leader must be a good woman, as defined by dominant social norms. We are still expected to believe that once socialism is achieved, women will become emancipated. It will happen automatically. This is an over-simplification. If and when it does happen, we will advance only one step, women will gain a few rights. What will be achieved is macho socialism.

And what about women party members, I ask. I don’t think their experiences are very different. As newcomers, often they receive proposals. Such a situation may be upsetting. She may not like it. She may leave. She may become disillusioned. To say that women have to be strong enough to handle this, ignores the question of Party responsibility to tackle these issues head-on. To make creative space for women members. For those who are the party’s ‘other’.

Our long conversation comes to an end. I am reminded of Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai who had insisted that the emancipation of women requires not only the end of capitalism, but also a concerted effort to transform human interpersonal relations – of sexuality, love and comradeship – along with the struggle for social change.

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First published in The New Age on Tuesday the 5th August 2008

August 4, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Jamaat’s farce unravels

rahnuma ahmed

A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation. The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat’s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat’s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth,
writes

Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

The Duchess, in Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

IT WAS to be a convention of freedom fighters, his neighbour had told him. They had both fought against the genocidal onslaught unleashed by the Pakistan army in 1971.

On Friday, a weekly holiday morning, veteran freedom fighter Sheikh Mohammad Ali Aman had gone to the Diploma Engineers Institute in Dhaka. He had peeked into the auditorium. He had expected to see familiar faces, to hear cherished stories of loss and courage. Of a victory achieved, of justice denied. Of betrayals. Of trying the collaborators – the local accomplices of Pakistan army’s genocidal campaign – to right the wrongs, at least some. There were collaborators thought to be guilty of committing war crimes, but they had gone scot-free. Their political rehabilitation and brazenness in the last three and a half decades was like a wound that festers. Yet another brazen act, yet another shameless lie brings the pus to the surface. It keeps oozing out. Again, and again.

He was puzzled at the faces that he saw. None of the Sector Commanders were present. No familiar faces, faces that symbolise for him the spirit of the struggle, the spirit of the nine-month long people’s war. Mohammad Ali is a man of modest means, he earns a living by painting houses and buildings in Badda, Dhaka. Unable to recognise any of the imposing figures present inside the auditorium – ex-chief justice Syed JR Mudassir Hossain who was chief guest, energy adviser to the previous government Mahmudur Rahman, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Rifles Major General (retd) Fazlur Rahman, Wing Commander (retd) Hamidullah Khan, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Press Institute Rezwan Siddiqui, who was the special guest, New Nation editor Mostofa Kamal Mojumdar, general secretary of the Federal Union of Journalists Ruhul Amin Gazi, journalist Amanullah Kabir – he felt alarmed. And left. One can hardly blame him.

`So I went and sat on the lawn,’ Mohammad Ali said in an interview given later. ‘I saw some people come out, I heard them say, we don’t want to be part of a meeting that demands the trial of Sector Commanders. An ETV reporter came up to me and asked, are you a freedom fighter? Yes, I replied. I belonged to Sector 11, First Bengal Regiment, D Company, led by Colonel Taher. What about the trial of war criminals, what do you think? I said, I think that those who had opposed the birth of the nation, those who had committed rape, razed localities to the ground, murdered intellectuals, they are war criminals. They should be tried. Those who were chairman and members of the Peace Committees, they belong to Jamaat, and to the present Progressive Democratic Party. They should be tried, they should be hung. I think this is something that can be done only by the present government, a non-party government’ (Samakal, July 13).

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her…

They swooped down on Mohammad Ali. He was kicked and locked in a room for three hours. Before his release, his voter ID card was photocopied. ‘I do not wish to say what they did to me. It will bring dishonour to the freedom fighters,’ was all he said of his ordeal. ETV reporter Sajed Romel, also made captive, was released an hour later, after his colleagues rushed to his rescue. The camera crew, fortunately, had escaped earlier, with its recorded film intact.

Engineer Abdur Rob, a vice-president of Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad – the organisers of this farce – was asked why a veteran freedom fighter and an electronic media journalist had been locked up. He replied, ‘Impossible. Such a thing could not have happened.’ Prothom Alo’s reporter was persistent, it was filmed. We have it. ‘Well then,’ came the immediate reply, ‘it was an act of sabotage. Our people could never have done such a thing.’

New lies. Emergency lies

Soon enough, press releases were handed out by Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad detailing the sabotage story: Prothom Alo, Samakal, Jugantor, Inquilab, and Daily Star were guilty of spreading lies. Some persons had come to the national convention without any delegate cards, they had tried to barge in, JMP volunteers had wanted to see their invitation cards, their responses had been unsatisfactory. Instead of covering the main event, the ETV news crew had shot something else, it was staged by hired people and instigated by yellow journalists. These acts, deliberate and pre-planned, were aimed at wrecking the convention. They had failed. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad is an authentic organisation of freedom fighters. It is not affiliated to any political party. The liberation struggle is above party affiliation. Journalists are demeaning the honour of freedom fighters by propagating lies. They are creating disunity.

A later press release added more details: no one by the name of Mohammad Ali had been invited to the national convention of Freedom Fighters. The ETV’s interest in interviewing him proves that it was staged, it was a conspiracy aimed at foiling the convention. Politicians are attempting to capitalise on the incident. The JMP calls on all freedom fighters to stay united (Naya Diganta, 13, 15 July).

Newspaper reports, however, provide concrete details. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad was formed on January 26 this year. After the Sector Commanders Forum had demanded the trial of war criminals. The JMP’s office is located in a room rented out by an organisation headed by ATM Sirajul Huq, ex-amir, Paltan thana, Jamaat. It is not registered with the liberation war ministry. This, according to legal experts, makes it illegal. Three high-ranking members of the Parishad claim that they had fought in 1971. These claims are false. Muktijoddha commanders of the respective areas do not know them. Executive committee members of the Parishad include men who contested parliamentary elections on behalf of Jamaat-e-Islami. Vice-president Engineer Abdur Rob had admitted to journalists, yes, the Parishad did receive ‘donations’ from Jamaat-e-Islami.

The story about Jamaat’s role in the liberation struggle, the liberation struggle itself, whether it was genocidal or not, whether war crimes should be tried or not, who was on which side, is an evolving one. What interests me particularly is how Emergency rule, and its raison d’etre of removing corruption and corrupt political practices for good, has impacted on Jamaat’s story. On its warped sense of history. Last October, as Jamaat’s secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid was leaving the Election Commission after talks on electoral reforms, he was asked about the growing demand for declaring anti-liberation forces, and war criminals, disqualified from contesting in the national elections. He had replied, the charges against Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh are ‘false’, and ‘ill-motivated’. There are no war criminals in the country. He had added, ‘In fact, anti-liberation forces never even existed.’ A day later, in an ETV talk show (26.10.2007) Jamaat-sympathiser and former Islami Bank chairman Shah Abdul Hannan had said, there was no genocide in 1971. Only a civil war.

And now this. A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation.

The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat’s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat’s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth.

Old truths

Historical research which includes newspaper reports, speeches and statements made by those accused of war crimes, attests to the fact that Mujahid, as president of East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Sangha, and as chief of the Al-Badr Bahini, collaborated with the Pakistan army in conducting massacres, looting and rape. Also, that he had led the killings of renowned academics, writers and poets, doctors, engineers, and journalists, which occurred two days before victory was declared on December 16. Senior Jamaat leaders Abdus Sobhan, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Abdul Kader Molla and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, who accompanied Jamaat’s secretary general to the Election Commission for talks on electoral reforms last October, are also alleged to have committed war crimes. According to the People’s Enquiry Commission formed in 1993, Jamaat’s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami, as commander-in-chief of Al-Badr, is also guilty of having committed war crimes.

Who needs Jamaat?

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had accepted Jamaat as an ally during the anti-Ershad movement. After the national elections of 1990, Jamaat support had ensured the BNP its majority in the fifth parliament. The Awami League, which claims to have led the liberation struggle, joined forces with Jamaat to help oppose and oust the sixth parliament. In the seventh parliament, the Awami League inducted at least one identified war collaborator in the cabinet. And, in the eighth parliament, the BNP paid the ultimate tribute by forming government with Jamaat as a coalition partner.

But what about now? That this government, the Fakhruddin-led, military-controlled government, is giving Jamaat-e-Islami a kid gloves treatment has not escaped unnoticed. Jamaat’s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami was one of the last top-ranking leaders to be arrested. He was also one of the earliest to be released, that too, on bail. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of party supporters were allowed to gather on the road to cheer his release last week, while the banner of Amra Muktijuddher Shontan activists, who had formed a human chain the next day, to protest against the assault on Muhammad Ali, was seized by the police. The Bangla blogging platform Sachalayatan could no longer be accessed after a strongly worded article on the assault of Muhammad Ali was posted. Was it a coincidence? Or, are the two incidents related? When asked, ABM Habibur Rahman, head of BTCAL internet division, refused to comment. One of the founders, who lives in Malaysia, has confirmed that the blog can be accessed from all other parts of the world.

As the US expands its war on terror, its venomous civilisational crusade of establishing democracies in the Middle East, one notices how Bangladesh has gradually been re-fashioned as a ‘moderately’ Muslim country, in an area considered to be ‘vital to US interests’. Jamaat-e-Islami, in the words of Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a ‘democratic party’. James F Moriarty, US ambassador to Bangladesh, in his congressional testimony (February 6, 2008), said US interest in Bangladesh revolved around the latter denying space to ‘terrorism’ (mind you, Islamic, not US, not state-sponsored).

Moriarty’s ideas echo Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami’s. In an interview given last year, Nizami said, Jamaat was important to keep Bangladesh free of militancy and terrorism (Probe, June 27-July 3, 2007). Interesting words coming from a person who had, three years earlier, as amir of the then ruling coalition partner and industries minister, denied the existence of militancy in Bangladesh. Bangla Bhai was the ‘creation of newspapers’, it was ‘Awami League propaganda’.

The US and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh fashioning a new partnership on war on terror? chorer shakkhi matal, many Bengalis would say. The drunkard provides testimony for the thief.

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First published in The New Age on Monday 21st July 2008

July 21, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Quitting Is Leading Too

If only our own leaders (past and present), Mugabe, Bush and a host of others could learn! At the silver jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence, Madiba had set an example. He had called out to Khaleda (then the leader of the opposition) from the stage. An act of respect and reconciliation none of our leaders (including Khaleda) have learnt from.

Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership

The President and the Prime Minister attending the Silver Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence along with visiting foreign dignitaries President Demirel of Turkey, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President Yasser Arafat of Palestine. © Abir Abdullah/Drik/Majority World

Nelson Mandela has always felt most at ease around children, and in some ways his greatest deprivation was that he spent 27 years without hearing a baby cry or holding a child’s hand. Last month, when I visited Mandela in Johannesburg — a frailer, foggier Mandela than the one I used to know — his first instinct was to spread his arms to my two boys. Within seconds they were hugging the friendly old man who asked them what sports they liked to play and what they’d had for breakfast. While we talked, he held my son Gabriel, whose complicated middle name is Rolihlahla, Nelson Mandela’s real first name. He told Gabriel the story of that name, how in Xhosa it translates as “pulling down the branch of a tree” but that its real meaning is “troublemaker.”

Nelson Mandela at 90

A look at the life and leadership of the world’s great hero.
Narrated by TIME’s Managing Editor, Rick Stengel

As he celebrates his 90th birthday next week, Nelson Mandela has made enough trouble for several lifetimes. He liberated a country from a system of violent prejudice and helped unite white and black, oppressor and oppressed, in a way that had never been done before. In the 1990s I worked with Mandela for almost two years on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. After all that time spent in his company, I felt a terrible sense of withdrawal when the book was done; it was like the sun going out of one’s life. We have seen each other occasionally over the years, but I wanted to make what might be a final visit and have my sons meet him one more time.

I also wanted to talk to him about leadership. Mandela is the closest thing the world has to a secular saint, but he would be the first to admit that he is something far more pedestrian: a politician. He overthrew apartheid and created a nonracial democratic South Africa by knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. Uncomfortable with abstract philosophical concepts, he would often say to me that an issue “was not a question of principle; it was a question of tactics.” He is a master tactician.

Mandela is no longer comfortable with inquiries or favors. He’s fearful that he may not be able to summon what people expect when they visit a living deity, and vain enough to care that they not think him diminished. But the world has never needed Mandela’s gifts — as a tactician, as an activist and, yes, as a politician — more, as he showed again in London on June 25, when he rose to condemn the savagery of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. As we enter the main stretch of a historic presidential campaign in America, there is much that he can teach the two candidates. I’ve always thought of what you are about to read as Madiba’s Rules (Madiba, his clan name, is what everyone close to him calls him), and they are cobbled together from our conversations old and new and from observing him up close and from afar. They are mostly practical. Many of them stem directly from his personal experience. All of them are calibrated to cause the best kind of trouble: the trouble that forces us to ask how we can make the world a better place.

No. 1
Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it
In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

No. 2
Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind
Mandela is cagey. in 1985 he was operated on for an enlarged prostate. When he was returned to prison, he was separated from his colleagues and friends for the first time in 21 years. They protested. But as his longtime friend Ahmed Kathrada recalls, he said to them, “Wait a minute, chaps. Some good may come of this.”

The good that came of it was that Mandela on his own launched negotiations with the apartheid government. This was anathema to the African National Congress (ANC). After decades of saying “prisoners cannot negotiate” and after advocating an armed struggle that would bring the government to its knees, he decided that the time was right to begin to talk to his oppressors.

When he initiated his negotiations with the government in 1985, there were many who thought he had lost it. “We thought he was selling out,” says Cyril Ramaphosa, then the powerful and fiery leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. “I went to see him to tell him, What are you doing? It was an unbelievable initiative. He took a massive risk.”

Mandela launched a campaign to persuade the ANC that his was the correct course. His reputation was on the line. He went to each of his comrades in prison, Kathrada remembers, and explained what he was doing. Slowly and deliberately, he brought them along. “You take your support base along with you,” says Ramaphosa, who was secretary-general of the ANC and is now a business mogul. “Once you arrive at the beachhead, then you allow the people to move on. He’s not a bubble-gum leader — chew it now and throw it away.”

For Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principles. Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction. His unwavering principle — the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote — was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.

“He’s a historical man,” says Ramaphosa. “He was thinking way ahead of us. He has posterity in mind: How will they view what we’ve done?” Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and weeks but decades. He knew history was on his side, that the result was inevitable; it was just a question of how soon and how it would be achieved. “Things will be better in the long run,” he sometimes said. He always played for the long run.

No. 3
Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front
Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from behind.” He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the analogy.

As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. “Don’t enter the debate too early,” he used to say.

During the time I worked with Mandela, he often called meetings of his kitchen cabinet at his home in Houghton, a lovely old suburb of Johannesburg. He would gather half a dozen men, Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki (who is now the South African President) and others around the dining-room table or sometimes in a circle in his driveway. Some of his colleagues would shout at him — to move faster, to be more radical — and Mandela would simply listen. When he finally did speak at those meetings, he slowly and methodically summarized everyone’s points of view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it. The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. “It is wise,” he said, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

No. 4
Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport
As far back as the 1960s, mandela began studying Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who created apartheid. His comrades in the ANC teased him about it, but he wanted to understand the Afrikaner’s worldview; he knew that one day he would be fighting them or negotiating with them, and either way, his destiny was tied to theirs.

This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents’ language, he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating himself with his enemy. Everyone from ordinary jailers to P.W. Botha was impressed by Mandela’s willingness to speak Afrikaans and his knowledge of Afrikaner history. He even brushed up on his knowledge of rugby, the Afrikaners’ beloved sport, so he would be able to compare notes on teams and players.

Mandela understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans as deeply as blacks did. He knew, too, that Afrikaners had been the victims of prejudice themselves: the British government and the white English settlers looked down on them. Afrikaners suffered from a cultural inferiority complex almost as much as blacks did.

Mandela was a lawyer, and in prison he helped the warders with their legal problems. They were far less educated and worldly than he, and it was extraordinary to them that a black man was willing and able to help them. These were “the most ruthless and brutal of the apartheid regime’s characters,” says Allister Sparks, the great South African historian, and he “realized that even the worst and crudest could be negotiated with.”

No. 5
Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer
Many of the guests mandela invited to the house he built in Qunu were people whom, he intimated to me, he did not wholly trust. He had them to dinner; he called to consult with them; he flattered them and gave them gifts. Mandela is a man of invincible charm — and he has often used that charm to even greater effect on his rivals than on his allies.

On Robben Island, Mandela would always include in his brain trust men he neither liked nor relied on. One person he became close to was Chris Hani, the fiery chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing. There were some who thought Hani was conspiring against Mandela, but Mandela cozied up to him. “It wasn’t just Hani,” says Ramaphosa. “It was also the big industrialists, the mining families, the opposition. He would pick up the phone and call them on their birthdays. He would go to family funerals. He saw it as an opportunity.” When Mandela emerged from prison, he famously included his jailers among his friends and put leaders who had kept him in prison in his first Cabinet. Yet I well knew that he despised some of these men.

There were times he washed his hands of people — and times when, like so many people of great charm, he allowed himself to be charmed. Mandela initially developed a quick rapport with South African President F.W. de Klerk, which is why he later felt so betrayed when De Klerk attacked him in public.

Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them: they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. After all, he used to say, “people act in their own interest.” It was simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect. The flip side of being an optimist — and he is one — is trusting people too much. But Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn’t trust was to neutralize them with charm.

No. 6
Appearances matter — and remember to smile
When Mandela was a poor law student in Johannesburg wearing his one threadbare suit, he was taken to see Walter Sisulu. Sisulu was a real estate agent and a young leader of the ANC. Mandela saw a sophisticated and successful black man whom he could emulate. Sisulu saw the future.

Sisulu once told me that his great quest in the 1950s was to turn the ANC into a mass movement; and then one day, he recalled with a smile, “a mass leader walked into my office.” Mandela was tall and handsome, an amateur boxer who carried himself with the regal air of a chief’s son. And he had a smile that was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day.

We sometimes forget the historical correlation between leadership and physicality. George Washington was the tallest and probably the strongest man in every room he entered. Size and strength have more to do with DNA than with leadership manuals, but Mandela understood how his appearance could advance his cause. As leader of the ANC’s underground military wing, he insisted that he be photographed in the proper fatigues and with a beard, and throughout his career he has been concerned about dressing appropriately for his position. George Bizos, his lawyer, remembers that he first met Mandela at an Indian tailor’s shop in the 1950s and that Mandela was the first black South African he had ever seen being fitted for a suit. Now Mandela’s uniform is a series of exuberant-print shirts that declare him the joyous grandfather of modern Africa.

When Mandela was running for the presidency in 1994, he knew that symbols mattered as much as substance. He was never a great public speaker, and people often tuned out what he was saying after the first few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood. When he was on a platform, he would always do the toyi-toyi, the township dance that was an emblem of the struggle. But more important was that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile. For white South Africans, the smile symbolized Mandela’s lack of bitterness and suggested that he was sympathetic to them. To black voters, it said, I am the happy warrior, and we will triumph. The ubiquitous ANC election poster was simply his smiling face. “The smile,” says Ramaphosa, “was the message.”

After he emerged from prison, people would say, over and over, It is amazing that he is not bitter. There are a thousand things Nelson Mandela was bitter about, but he knew that more than anything else, he had to project the exact opposite emotion. He always said, “Forget the past” — but I knew he never did.

No. 7
Nothing is black or white
When we began our series of interviews, I would often ask Mandela questions like this one: When you decided to suspend the armed struggle, was it because you realized you did not have the strength to overthrow the government or because you knew you could win over international opinion by choosing nonviolence? He would then give me a curious glance and say, “Why not both?”

I did start asking smarter questions, but the message was clear: Life is never either/or. Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears.

Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced. Much of this, I believe, came from living as a black man under an apartheid system that offered a daily regimen of excruciating and debilitating moral choices: Do I defer to the white boss to get the job I want and avoid a punishment? Do I carry my pass?

As a statesman, Mandela was uncommonly loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro. They had helped the ANC when the U.S. still branded Mandela as a terrorist. When I asked him about Gaddafi and Castro, he suggested that Americans tend to see things in black and white, and he would upbraid me for my lack of nuance. Every problem has many causes. While he was indisputably and clearly against apartheid, the causes of apartheid were complex. They were historical, sociological and psychological. Mandela’s calculus was always, What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?

No. 8
Quitting is leading too
In 1993, Mandela asked me if I knew of any countries where the minimum voting age was under 18. I did some research and presented him with a rather undistinguished list: Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Iran. He nodded and uttered his highest praise: “Very good, very good.” Two weeks later, Mandela went on South African television and proposed that the voting age be lowered to 14. “He tried to sell us the idea,” recalls Ramaphosa, “but he was the only [supporter]. And he had to face the reality that it would not win the day. He accepted it with great humility. He doesn’t sulk. That was also a lesson in leadership.”

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life — and there were many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the least South Africa could do.

In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him — not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent. He would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and refused to hold it hostage. “His job was to set the course,” says Ramaphosa, “not to steer the ship.” He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.

Ultimately, the key to understanding Mandela is those 27 years in prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined. He is not and never has been introspective. I often asked him how the man who emerged from prison differed from the willful young man who had entered it. He hated this question. Finally, in exasperation one day, he said, “I came out mature.” There is nothing so rare — or so valuable — as a mature man. Happy birthday, Madiba.

July 11, 2008 Posted by | governance | , , , , | 1 Comment