In the first few minutes of 2020, nearly 30 animals, mostly apes, were burnt to death in Krefeld Zoo in West Germany. A mother and her two daughters, who lived in the neighbourhood, confessed that the sky lanterns that they had released while celebrating the New Year were responsible for setting the ape-house in flame, killing almost all the inmates. This news of accidental death of animals gave this year an ominous start.
Meanwhile, the claimed extinction of a whopping one billion animals across Australia in an apocalyptic bushfire added a further twist to the plot of death by fire, in which Mother Nature appeared to be in an avenging mood. Earlier, California offered a similar story. The mass death tally of Australian critters is ricocheting around the internet, evoking public empathy. Almost as a footnote, the news of camel culling has surfaced. We are told of the Australian government’s decision to shoot down 10,000 feral camels. This is not the first time they are doing it. The timing of the news, however, could not have been worse. While people are warming up to the ceaseless kangaroo hugging images, there is a rather discriminatory attitude shown towards these once-imported-gone-native animals. Apparently, these animals have become pests to the Australian eco-system and are encroaching upon the limited water resources of the aboriginal population down under. Yet these are the animals that were brought from the Indian subcontinent in the eighteenth century to travel across the arid lands of the continent. Once motor vehicles became available, these animals lost their utility and were left in the wild. Now their number has grown exponentially, and the government feels systematic culling is as the only solution to the immigrant species.
In a parallel universe, on January 3, a “rogue” military man was shot down from an eye in the sky. He was guilty of waging an asymmetrical war, helping out freedom fighting men in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq—running a proxy war for Iran. While the West tarnished him as an ignominious villain, in his own country, Iran, this army general was deemed as an emblem of national pride. The murder brought the East West twain at loggerheads, heightening the possibility of an epic battle with potential seeds of WWIII. We entered a near mythical plot where, you have to imagine, Achilles had just killed Hector, and the Trojans must retaliate despite their dwindling might. As the virtual audience, we got glued to screens of different shapes and sizes, anxiously waiting for the Iranian retaliatory response. The media hyped it in epic proportion, and the world sympathy seemed to be with the Iranians. We could sense the scripting of the revenge plot; we waited in apprehension just as we watch and wait while the three translucent dots quiver in our messenger inboxes indicating the typing of a message. Finally, the response came. The sky-lanterns lit up the sky. Tens of missiles were hurled, and the one who received the counter slap, said, “All’s well”! I don’t know whether the response was from the Bollywood movie Three Idiots or not—but it became apparent that neither party had serious intention of escalating the situation (maybe Iran’s presence in the Oil market is an issue). The intended targets got enough time to evacuate to minimise the damage. But one presumed target, which was not a target at all, got hit by a missile (or two) killing 176 people on board of a Ukrainian commercial plane. They say, innocence is the first casualty of war. That is why, Agamemnon the Greek commander in chief had to sacrifice his own daughter before setting off for Troy.
I wish I had some theory to string up my fragmentary narratives. But it is heartening to see the Iranian population has risen up to the state lies; the US is also processing presidential impeachment not being hoodwinked by the smokescreen in the Middle East. It is equally inspiring to see the way volunteers and professionals in Australia have come in support of the surviving animals—the cravings for human hugs by the kangaroos and koalas show how all our lives and predicaments are laced together. Deep down the humans and the non-humans are a part of the same eco-system handcuffed to the same destiny. Often we cross borders, pursue greater goals or ideas, because that is one of our basic instincts.
While the Xenophobic fence building has its temporary appeal and benefits, in the long run it does not help anyone. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, for one, has spoken out against our Big Brother India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act that promotes a myopic view. His microblogging caused an uproar in the Tweetdom, and he had to clarify his position with the following:
“Every country will and should define its borders, protect national security and set immigration policy accordingly. And in democracies, that is something that the people and their governments will debate and define within those bounds. I’m shaped by my Indian heritage, growing up in a multicultural India and my immigrant experience in the United States. My hope is for an India where an immigrant can aspire to found a prosperous start-up or lead a multinational corporation benefitting Indian society.”
Nadella is deft enough not to present his hypothetical Bangladeshi immigrant in religious terms. Then again this is not a narrative that we should glorify. We should focus on strengthening our own tigers than chasing a mythical unicorn in India. The religious harmony that we have in this country is often dampened by human greed. We receive bad press for land grabbing, evoking fear in a community, or disrespecting minority rights by ignoring their holy days. If we can prove to the world that we can host 1.1 million Rohingyas on our land, we can also give respect to our brothers and sisters with different beliefs. The fate of Bangladeshis who crossed the borders is not that rosy either. They had their utility in certain historical juncture, and are now treated as feral camels.
I feel there are lessons to be learned from this story of camels and unicorns. There are lessons to be learned from the smokescreens in the Middle East. Our neighbour is currently undergoing a serious economic crunch. According to WION TV, there is going to be a job cut of 16 lakh in India. Their unemployment rate has shot to 8.5 percent against our 5 percent (nationmaster.com). India’s agrarian economy is suffering as the producers are not getting the fair price, while their bad-debts are hurting their banking sector. Although signs of such economic regression are brewing on the horizon, I don’t think any Bangladeshi would consider India as a dream destination, let alone create Unicorns there. It is true millions of Bangladeshis are working in India to roughly fetch about USD 4.5 billion in remittances; but thousands of skilled Indians are siphoning more than that from our economy.
The world is fast becoming a dangerous place. Only at times of danger, we unite and seek for a common purpose. The only way we can deal with the steaming tension is by making ourselves resilient. We can do so only by making ourselves contributing members of society, contributing to the not only national but also global growth of science, technology and culture. It is a slippery slope—if we are not careful, we may slide into the abyss and soon be considered feral.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.