And the Nobel Prize for Violence Goes to…
No, silly, there is no such prize for violence. That's just a conversation starter. After all, what better way to invoke the mighty Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) than with a nod to violence? But, believe it or not, there was a time when we came very close to having a Nobel Prize for Violence. It was in 2009 when Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize for – wait for it – not being George W. Bush. He really wasn't. He dropped more bombs in one year than Bush did during his entire presidency. Or think of when the European Union got the prize despite being one of the biggest producers of weapons in the world. It takes a Megamindian sense of humour to have violence double as peace.
But if there is a universe in which this headline will make sense, BCL will surely love to be in it.
After all, who doesn't love awards? In a basic sense, an award is a recognition of the hard work you put into something. When Benjamin Franklin said, "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about," he wasn't just raising the bar for us scribes, but also for BCL activists, who as "students" can't seem to do either. So they're doing what they do best, and with all the fists and feet they can master. We have respectable-sounding prizes for crappy achievements and crappy-sounding prizes for respectable achievements. But none for violence. How is this fair??
Violence, especially organised violence, is hard work. It takes discipline, commitment and a practised apathy to pursue an unpopular course to conflict resolution. And, contrary to popular belief, it requires both brain and brawn. You need both to commit violence, to mobilise support for it, and to dodge repercussions in case things go haywire. Ask anyone who has ever been involved in a war, revolution, genocide or terrorism.
But in Bangladesh, the peril of political showmanship is that nothing you do, however egregious, for your party is worth a dime unless it reaches the intended eyes and ears. With so many competitors around, it's hard for the average muscle to get the message of his "contributions" across to senior party leaders. Anonymity does not maketh political careers, nor is the satisfaction of beating the daylights out of a rival meant to last long. Violence, after all, is not its own reward.
To BCL's credit, it knows this all too well. So after the recent series of violent attacks on the rival activists of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), many hard-hitting men and women of the organisation made no secret of their complicity. Some of them were luckier than others. They managed to get their photos and strangely revealing defences published in the media. Others, not to be outdone, came stampeding out of their social media closet to announce their "contributions," subtlety be damned. While neither group will get any award for that, they certainly hope it will get them noticed in the right quarter and a better position when the organisation's next council is held in a few months.
But then, as always, like night follows day, comes the righteous pushback: What gives BCL the right to attack JCD? Why would its leaders give excuses that no one in the four hemispheres would believe? Why would anyone openly admit complicity in violence? Or why be so unrepentant about it?
Violence, defence, righteous pushback – rinse and repeat. This has been a trademark BCL outrage cycle for so long. What this shows to me is that, for all its dedication and hard work in violence and its seemingly inexhaustible ability to "keep at it," BCL sucks at public relations.
Let me explain. In director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki's 2007 drama series "420" – perhaps the most scathing portrayal of grassroots politics in Bangladesh – two wannabe politicians celebrate by treating people to sweets after a photo showing the older one wielding a gun is published in a newspaper. In another scene, the younger one forces a girl into marriage and tries to settle into a comfortable life. Hardly anyone felt put off by these scenes.
But BCL doing the same is a problem. Its violence, with helmet or without, in Dhaka or Rajshahi, is always frowned upon. Its defences are always met with incredulous reactions. Even its choice of weapons – machetes, bamboos and iron rods – is mercilessly derided. It's like whenever it goes full pistols-at-dawn at JCD, the enemy is somehow replaced by the public. Somehow, what is thoroughly unforgettable for BCL becomes thoroughly unforgivable for them. What is necessary to it is excessive to them. What it finds desirable, they find repulsive. The public seems to have a problem with everything that BCL does. And this, justifiably, confuses the more sober section of the organisation.
The question is, having put every other enemy in their place, can BCL change the prevailing public perception about it, or at least nudge it in a slightly different direction? At the risk of drawing both righteous and lefteous flak, let me offer a few suggestions.
I think the BCL leadership should, first and foremost, recognise the importance of public relations in today's world. If Barack Obama can beguile the Nobel committee into giving him an award, and bemused Americans into giving him a second term in office, there is no reason why BCL cannot do the same and win a few hearts in the process. Once it has realised that, there is a lot that it can do. It can hire a PR firm to rebrand its public image. It can fund news/views outlets to present its violent activities dressed in a suit of peace, or at least buff away a pesky fact or two here and there. It can subject all its members to mandatory training, not just in the art of violence, but also in the art of guile, charm, subtlety and political spin.
The goal should be to improve its image by refining its engagement with the public. The public, as history shows, can indulge in selective mutism if it suits them. The BCL just has to tap into that resource and make them mute or feel unperturbed about it. Knowing how forgiving we can be or how susceptible to suggestions, I'm sure we will not mind it.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.