‘Lessons’ from Bangladesh today

We can claim that ‘the vaccination drive has been a complete success’, even though there were pictures of physical skirmishing in some sites. Photo: Star

Bangladesh offers many important insights and perspectives in these grim and uncertain times. They indicate the uniqueness that defines us as a people, and the original contributions we are making to the world of politics and governance.

Lesson 1: There may be much international concern, research and speculation about the importance of language in our lives, but Bangladesh is proving that words do not matter. People, particularly those in power, can say anything they want. They do not have to explain, are not required to be consistent, and are not held accountable.

We have institutionalised Orwell's darkest fears expressed in 1984, when the Ministry of Truth dealt with Lies, and the Ministry of Love with Torture. In a world of "newspeak" and "double think", we can claim that "the vaccination drive has been a complete success" (even though there were pictures of physical skirmishing in some sites, 250 vaccines were sent to a venue where 5,000 people showed up, and reports of people waiting for hours, sometimes standing in rain, and not getting it); or "we have enough vaccines" (even though we had stopped registrations at one time, the second dose of some vaccines had been held up, and those registered have to wait for considerable periods of time); or people over 18 who are found "unvaccinated in the streets will be arrested" (even though less than 10 percent of the people had been vaccinated).

Similarly, we can confidently claim that our democracy is one of the strongest in the world—though free speech may face some challenges, over-eager voters may vote a bit early and sometimes often, and the opposition has self-destructed because they typically tend to be criminals and cowards; women, non-Muslims and indigenous communities are all safe and happy—except when they provoke attacks on themselves; our universities are among the best in the world—international rankings are clearly based on self-serving indicators that do not take into account singaras and tea; Bangladesh is a shining example of a development miracle—provided we worship at the shrine of GDP growth rates and aggregate indicators, and overlook quality of life issues including crime, corruption, hate, violence, environmental degradation, human rights violations and rising inequalities.  

Steve Bannon, President Trump's media guru, had advised Republicans that they "flood the zone with s—t" so that the people are overwhelmed, lose faith in everything, including science, reason or evidence, and function in an environment of "manufactured nihilism". Other countries blather on about a post-truth world.  Bangladesh is making it happen.    

Lesson 2: Bangladesh is advancing an administrative model that is rather unique. Each ministry is allowed to function in complete autonomy. The need to coordinate, communicate with each other, reach agreement on decisions, are all considered irrelevant and inefficient. Moreover, every act of coordination is tantamount to a compromise, and every compromise indicates weakness and dependence. Ministries here are empowered, not constrained. 

Hence the left hand does not know what the right is doing. The ministries of Liberation War, Health, Home, Education, Finance, Transportation, Law, Foreign Affairs and others are all free to make pronouncements on pandemic related matters. Consequently, the people are subjected to a barrage of decisions, declarations and directives that may be confusing, often contradictory.

What does a "lockdown" entail, at what level will it be enforced, when will it be lifted? Who are eligible for the vaccine, are registrations and text messages required, will the special campaign last one day or one week, do we have enough vaccines for everybody, from what sources are we expecting them, at what cost? Will shops, offices, RMG factories, educational institutions, transportation systems etc., be opened (can one be closed while others are opened, e.g. RMG factories opened but transportation closed, shops closed but offices opened, shops and offices closed but transportation opened, half of one opened and half of another closed)? 

The problem is not that we are not told, but that we are told too much, by too many different sources. But, while clarity and constancy may be valued elsewhere in the world, we should heed Ralph Waldo Emerson's memorable words that "a foolish consistency is the hob-goblin of little minds". Our minds are anything but little.

It is possible that, when coupled with lesson 2, all this may provide some navigational challenges for individuals. But instead of being cynical or frustrated we should appreciate the fact that we are breaking down "traditional" habits, forsaking "colonial" procedures, refusing to be Naipaul's "mimic men", as we blaze new trails. Moreover, this strategy is also helpful to our national security interests. No one can figure out our real intentions, and the many "conspirators" constantly plotting against us remain befuddled and discouraged. 

Lesson 3: We are all equal in the eyes of the law, though some, as Orwell had pointed out in Animal Farm, "are more equal than others". This is expressed in various ways. 

First, some cases may drag on for years. For example, the murder cases of Abrar Fahad (2 years), Taslima Begum Renu (3 years), Sohagi Jahan Tonu (5 years), Tanvir Muhammad Taqi (8 years), journalists Sagar and Runi (9 years), writer Humayun Azad (15 years), activist Kalpana Chakma (25 years), as well as rapes, disappearances, extremist violence, factory disasters, and many others remain unsolved.

But some cases may be resolved quite expeditiously. For example, two brothers accused of torturing, and even shooting at, some bank executives who were resisting "requests" for false costing estimates (brothers who fled the country immediately after); a young man who had roughed up an off-duty navy service-man and was found to possess various illicit products, weapons and listening devices in his home; or a person who was suspected of abetting a young woman's suicide where her diaries, photographs, CCTV camera footage, and even DNA traces on her body appeared to suggest some connection, were cleared of all charges with prompt dispatch. Unsurprisingly, all these people just happened to be Rich and Powerful (R and P).

Second, bringing charges against the R and P can be hazardous to one's well-being. A young woman, who had filed a case against an individual for his role in her sister's suicide, herself lost her job as a banker. An actor and model who brought various charges against some of the R and P found her own name dragged through the mud in a media circus, and accused of possessing drugs and alcohol, providing sexual services, and vandalising an upscale club. (Obviously, none of the men i.e., the flesh-hungry thrill-seekers who used, abused and profited from these, and other such young women, were ever investigated). Similarly, a journalist who had exposed the fraud and incompetence in a government ministry was herself harangued for seven hours inside the secretariat, and then remanded in jail. When talking about the R and P, as Mel Brooks had warned in The Fly, "be afraid, be very afraid."

Third, in the rare instance that one of the R and P is found guilty (through sheer misfortune), then all is not lost. They can still stay in the relative comfort of a private room in a hospital and conduct official meetings on zoom platforms, or they may have access to female companionship in jail, or even those convicted of murder may receive pardons and whisked out of the country in the dead of night.

Lesson 4: Bangladeshis are some of the most psychologically delicate people in the world. While its law enforcement personnel are overworked and under-staffed, it will nonetheless move with ferocious diligence and authority if there are complaints of sentiments being "hurt", or sensibilities "offended", or feelings "disrespected" by anyone saying anything that someone does not like. Any cartoon, limerick, satirical piece, poem, essay, speech, Facebook post, song, slogan, movie dialogue, investigative report, criticism, or an unflattering picture, may generate a complaint, provoke a huge contingent of police personnel to apprehend the "criminal", and encourage the courts to act swiftly. 

It must be understood that in Bangladesh no one ever makes a mistake, no one ever has to accept responsibility, no one ever has to apologise for anything. If something goes wrong the inevitable default option is to "change the game, and shift the blame". Such guiltless, faultless, sinless people have every right to be a bit hyper-sensitive about their feelings and emotions.


Ahrar Ahmad, Professor Emeritus, Black Hills State University, USA. Email: [email protected]


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