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         Volume 10 |Issue 25 | July 01, 2011 |


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Mind your Language

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Minister of State Hasan Mahmud has displayed sheer bravado of late. He has decided that Anu Muhammad and his friends are agents of foreign powers. The first question which pops up before us relates to how the minister, who recently prescribed hippos to be brought into our clime, came by the inference that a respected academic like Anu Muhammad had turned into a foreign agent? Then comes the next question: by what right, legal or moral, does the minister feel that he can go around questioning people's patriotism, especially of those who do not share his or his government's views? Anu Muhammad has been doing a fine job of articulating popular worries on the deals the government has been making with foreign multinational companies. If that expression of concern is a sign of sedition or treason, then all of us who do not agree with the government on some core issues of national concern are traitors to the cause of the nation.

Josip Broz Tito
Josef Stalin
Yahya Khan

The minister has hurled the gravest insult at Anu Muhammad, indeed to all citizens who have the gall to have the interests of the country in mind. He ought not to have done that. By doing what he has done, he has only reinforced the generally held belief that those who wield power often tend to have the lines between common sense and nonsense blurred. Language, the way you employ it, is what determines the way people judge your ability to focus on matters that have to do with public welfare. And yet language has been a casualty at the hands of many who ought to have done better. When the prime minister launches a broadside at a Nobel laureate and without taking his name calls him a bloodsucker because of the way he has pursued his micro-credit programme, we do not find that edifying. When she berates her own ministers, because they have their reservations over a preservation of certain communal aspects in the constitution we would all like to go, and reminds them that they once served under General Ershad, we do not find it amusing. If she does not ever mean to forget that they were with the erstwhile dictator once, what cause was there for her to bring them into her party and her government?

Anu Muhammad

The powerful must not be flippant with language or about individuals. But when they succumb to the urge to denigrate others, they only lend themselves open to question, even ridicule. Time was when the irascible Morarji Desai, beaten to India's prime ministership by Indira Gandhi, tried dismissing her as a chhokri, a mere slip of a girl. No one applauded him for that ill-advised remark. And history has made sure that Indira Gandhi remains a powerful presence in the consciousness of her nation. For their part, Desai and his ilk are today as good as forgotten. In his time, the imperious Shah of Iran demonstrated the ultimate contempt for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini by throwing him out of Iran in the mid-1960s. Sixteen years later, in a tragic twist of fate, it was the Shah who fled his country. Days later, Khomeini returned to Iran in glory. The moral: do not say or do something that reeks of the arrogant merely because you happen to occupy the peaks of authority, for your condescension toward people might someday come back to haunt you.

Remember Yahya Khan? Contempt for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dripped from him, froth-like, when on 26 March 1971 he told the people of Pakistan: 'The man and his party are enemies of Pakistan . . . this crime shall not go unpunished.' The man? He had deliberately forgotten that 'the man' would have taken over as Pakistan's prime minister had the country's soldiers not decided to abort the results of the elections. Tikka Khan, informed that the Bengali leader had been taken into custody and asked by the soldiers if he should be brought before him, was withering in his response: 'I don't want to see his face.' And now recall the shame history was to heap on Yahya and Tikka. The former died in house arrest nine years after he began murdering Bengalis. The latter found himself saluting Bangabandhu in Lahore on a February morning in 1974. The Pakistan army played Shonar Bangla in Bangladesh's honour.

Shooting off one's mouth is a dangerous game, often turning out to be humiliating for the one who does it. At the height of the Vietnam War, an irate Lyndon Johnson tried undermining Senator J William Fulbright, who had publicly begun opposing the president's policies, by calling him Senator Halfbright. It was in bad taste. LBJ failed in Vietnam, was forced to renounce a second term and left America in a mess. Fulbright, now dead, is yet the recipient of respect the world over. Long ago, Joseph Stalin, incensed by what he perceived as brazen independence in Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, bellowed in the Kremlin: "Tito? I shall flick my little finger and he will be gone!" That was not the way things turned out. Stalin died in 1953. Tito survived Khrushchev and then Brezhnev before life ended for him in 1980.

Calling Anu Muhammad a foreign agent or spy will not work. He will still be there tomorrow and the day after, long after today's self-righteous men of power are gone from office and properly forgotten.

The writer is Editor, Current Affairs,The Daily Star.


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