12:00 AM, August 31, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 31, 2008

No country for gentlemen and gentlewomen

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Habibul Haque Khondker

Ungentlemanly conduct.

PLEASE do not get me wrong for the use of the phrase "gentlewomen." I am just old-fashioned and once upon a time the phrase gentlewomen was quite acceptable. For example, Richard Brathwaite, the English poet, wrote a book titled The English Gentlewomen in 1631 on social conduct. I am also old-fashioned insofar as I hold on to certain social values such as truth and justice. The country I am referring to is, of course, Bangladesh.
Why am I making such a provocative and unkind statement that Bangladesh may not be suitable for gentle, decent people any more. Okay, let's say, this is more of a hypothesis -- since sociologists are good at it -- and not a statement of fact. A hypothesis is an unverified proposition which can often go wrong. I sincerely wish that this particular hypothesis goes wrong.
It occurred to me when I saw the television footage of many gentlemen and gentlewomen (from their dresses and polite manners with the police) standing in a human chain with posters of Mr. Tarique Rahman's release. There must be a difference between sending an accused person overseas for medical reasons on parole and demanding his unconditional release. In the former the compelling reason is humanitarian; the latter is a defiance of the law.
I have no problem with the demands of sections of people who want to see former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and the rest released from the detention and stand trial as a free person. The issues of technicality, legality, human rights are probably on the side of the BNP loyalists and protestors. If the voices are for human rights and right to fair trial of all the political detainees no one would object. If due process of law finds all these people under custody innocent, so be it -- let them come out and join their loved ones. But if it is a protest against trial of "notables" then that is a serious problem. Why in the 21st century, should some individuals be deemed to be above law?
It is a matter of grave concern and I am simply appalled by the fact that a large section of the people in Bangladesh are ready to stand indifferent to the allegations of corruption and are not willing to see the processes of law take their own course. The prospect of potential wrong-doers and political figures with charges of corruption walking free makes me think that if that transpires, gentlefolk should consider leaving Bangladesh for other countries where justice, fairness and decency remain the norms and guiding principles of society.
Most of those who came to demand the release of Mr. Tarique Rahman, I assume, are BNP loyalists with personal loyalty to the Zia family. I am sure these people would also like to see Mr. Tarique Rahman as a future replacement for Mrs. Khaleda Zia in the tradition of South Asian political culture. The recent political developments in Pakistan may also rekindle hopes in the minds of BNP loyalists that why cannot be a similar drama repeated in Bangladesh? If Mr. Asif Zardari who once earned the nickname Mr. 10% can be placed in the exalted post of the president of Pakistan, why can't Mr. Tarique Rahman, notwithstanding the allegations of corruption and abuse of power, be the future president of Bangladesh?
This is a dark prospect. And this is not the first time. Many decent folks in Bangladesh have done that before. They overthrew President Hussein Muhammad Ershad in 1990 on charges of corruption and abuse of power and then re-elected him as member of parliament. Former President Ershad in the last days of the four-party alliance administration became a prize partner. He is adored him again as a national leader by certain political parties. Many writers suggest that Bangladeshis have short-memory, or maybe they are too forgiving. And why not give every person a second chance for redemption? My theory is that most Bangladeshis suffer from "Stockholm Syndrome," which simply means that hostages after a prolonged period under captivity begin to sympathise with their captors. Bangladeshis -- or a large number of them -- I am afraid, have lived as captives by bandit regimes and thus have developed sympathy for their rulers; the taproot of which is a combination of fear, a sense of insecurity and helplessness.
Some gentle folks, if they can, would leave the country. Others would live with moral qualms; the rest will celebrate the return of "democracy" (i.e. democracy minus the rule of just law) and the return of Mr. Babar and Mr. Tarique Rahman.
Albert Hirschman, the Harvard don, in exploring human behaviour, especially in a firm, suggested that customers usually have three options: exit, voice, or loyalty. These options work just as well, in theory, for citizens in a national context. Some folks will remain loyal no matter what; for others the options are either exit or voice (protest).
Exit may not be a viable option for many in Bangladesh, so they are down to one of the two options: loyalty or protest. This is a choice that the people of Bangladesh and their leaders have to make. And the time is now.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor.

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