WE journalists are a cynical lot. We are a hard to convince and even harder to please. And when something smacks of propaganda, then our 'inquiry- antennas' are sharply primed, far more so if it is state sponsored. It is our training to look at events from multiple angles and point out the unpleasant even in the most inspirational of events. This makes us an unsavoury lot often criticised by people as being incapable of seeing anything as 'unmixed' blessing. The case in point is the “Lakho kanthey Sonar Bangla.”
But first some comments about the billboards surrounding the T20 World Cup series. Unlike Mamata Bannerjee in neighbouring Kolkata, who has plastered the city with her hoardings and life-size cutouts, Sheikh Hasina was far more restrained, for which she received deserved praised. But not anymore. On the pretext of the T20 World Cup, hundreds of billboards have sprung up all over the city depicting her exhorting our players to be inspired by her. (Given our performance, especially the defeat by Hong Kong, she should be regretting those hoardings).
What purpose such self-publicity serves has never been examined. These are remnants of totalitarian mindset, a legacy of the communist dictatorships, whose last vestiges can be seen in North Korea. (The North Korean leader has ordered all men in the country to follow his hair style, according to report published yesterday.)
Whatever reason the prime minister may have, we see absolutely no reason for the BCB chairman to put himself up with the PM in all those billboards. What possible inspiration can we draw from him? Using Bangabandhu's portrait for the same purpose was, according to us, an insult to the memory, honour and dignity of that great man. Whoever did it, did so to ingratiate themselves to the PM, but ended up in trivialising the legacy of the Father of the Nation.
Coming to the issue of “Lakho kanthey Sonar Bangla,” as Bangladeshi we are really not unexposed to huge mass gatherings. People of my age will remember several historic meetings in those days of our uprising in the late sixties resulting from 6-point and 11-point movements, the January 1970 post election victory meeting of the Awami League, the famous March 7 speech of Bangabandhu, his homecoming to independent Bangladesh in January 1972.
I did not witness the gathering at Ziaur Rahman's janaza nor the anti-Ershad movement and hence cannot compare the public outpouring in those days, but read reports that they were massive.
Since then as our politics became fractured so did our capacity to inspire people to gather together for causes of national importance.
Considering all that, last Wednesday's gathering of more than 2.5 lakh people to sing our national anthem together to celebrate our Independence Day deserves praise. The occasion was unique as it was inspirational. It would be hard to imagine citizens anywhere of any country who would not to be moved at the sight of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens singing their most favourite song. So were we. Being as emotional as we are, our reaction was perhaps far more intense than many.
As a freedom fighter, like millions who took part in that war that made us who we are, the event had a special meaning. It brought back memories of our young lives full of energy and purpose and yet not knowing exactly how to proceed or what the future held for us. Songs and poetry played very important roles in our lives in those days, especially “Sonar Bangla.” I remember, in our war camps, we used to hum this song while doing our daily chores. The line “Ami tomai bhalobashi” used to be sungs with the same feeling as if we were addressing our 'beloved.'
Like people everywhere who waged a war to liberate themselves, our nationalism and our armed struggle were for us, the biggest love affair of the moment imaginable -- love for the country, people, culture, the seasons, the rivers, the rains (oh how we yearned for that soothing drench), and of course the arts, and especially the music. The song “Amra ek-tee phool ke bachabo bole juddha kori” so truly expressed our feelings of those exhilarating days.
Of all the songs, naturally, it was “Sonar Bangla” that we loved most, that inspired us most, and the one we sang every time we would gather and on any pretext that we could think of.
So when 2.5 lakhs people sang “Sonar Bangla” together last Wednesday it necessarily filled my heart, and those of crores of others, with pride and delight.
However, (and here the freedom fighter gives away to the journalist and emotion to a reality check), the saddest part of it was that it was done, as publicly and proudly announced, to get into the Guinness Book of records.
Just imagine, literally the whole state machinery of an independent and sovereign country, including the army, was put into motion just so that we get a few lines in a book of records which can be broken by another country putting its state resources for the same purpose, as was recently the case with our world record national flag. The Indian national anthem event, held in Lucknow in May, '13, that brought together 1,21,635 individuals, was organised by the Sahara Group, a private company.
Can't there be a bigger national purpose in which the whole state machinery, including the prime minister -- specially the PM -- can act together, like in saving our rivers and forests, preventing road accidents that is the highest in the world, fighting corruption, etc., for instance?
More than a hundred crore takas, millions of person-hours of government staff whose salary would amount to several crores, many more crores in incidental expenses went behind setting this record.
The way money was raised from private companies and banks can be termed as nothing short of state 'extortion'. The finance minister said on March 9 that government would collect Tk. 100 crores -- Tk. 50 crore for T20 World Cup and the rest for the national anthem event. Such 'toll' collection is a common practice he said and “I do a lot of toll collection for the government.”
Lists were made, assigning different amounts to be paid by individual companies-minimum Tk. 1 crore-with declared message that PM is personally attached to this project and the 'undeclared' message of unforeseen consequences if not complied with.
Any company with a minimum financial discipline cannot be expected to have disposable fund amounting to crores. So in most cases the finance minister's 'toll' will come out of CSR funds, with the consequence that poor beneficiaries will be deprived of whatever social activities these companies were undertaking.
Schools were strictly asked to assemble their students by 6.30 am to be picked by buses at 7 am for a function that ultimately started at 11.20 am.
Parents have horrendous stories to tell of how they had to subject their children through a grueling experience of early morning wake up, hours of waiting for transport, in places that often changed, anxious waiting with no possibility of contact till the function ended, inadequate water and food, and no exception being made for sick students. As is usual in our society, the poorer the schools and their kids the stricter and more arduous were the conditions imposed on them, sometimes by overzealous principals who wanted to curry favour with higher ups.
Are we being naïve to suggest that the whole event could have been left to a spontaneous participation of the people? We recall how beautifully, effortlessly and voluntarily (without much money being spent) the 'candle light' evening of the Ganojagoran Mancho was organised in which millions expressed solidarity with the War Crimes trial.
However many millions may sing the anthem, the real challenge is to translate this energy into nation building. We are too caught up in self-complimentary rhetoric and often confuse intents for actions. There is too much self praise and too little self analysis and not even a semblance of self criticism. All of this is bad for nation building and far worse for democracy.
The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.