I’m one of those migrating ‘birds’ of Bangladeshi winter who, having no natural wings of our own, must rely on the mechanical wings of commercial airlines to swoop down on this wonderfully welcoming land of ours, in time to enjoy both the Poush Mela for our aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures, and the Ekushe Boi Mela for our intellectual nourishment. We, the so-called expatriates of the mother country, are, by the grace of Allah the Great, well accustomed to enjoying the best of both worlds, to the extent that we have almost developed a healthy sense of entitlement, much like the culture of entitlement that seems to have gripped the upper echelon of the Bangladesh society of today.
On a personal note this is the third time in a row that I landed in Dhaka to be promptly greeted by a paralyzing episode of chest and throat congestion that quickly became a matter of great concern to my good sister at Gulshan , who bundled me up to deposit at a doctor’s clinic. Having nothing to do but bide my time watching the pretty girls singing their hearts out on the TV screens, I was able to glean the premier newspapers of Dhaka and find out what was going on in the country. Not much different, I thought, from previous years. A little hush hush, perhaps. Understandable, in view of the emergency, the rifles in the barracks and the rule of the RAB. The gun and the rod have always been an effective silencer for the agitation-prone fellow Bengalees of mine. One thing, however, must always go on in our country: sports. Even when there are no games to play. Especially when there are no games on international fields, because that is about the only times our team doesn’t lose. Politics is probably the next competitive sport in the country, that every talks about, everybody shouts about, everybody fights about, sometimes even kills about, yet nobody seems to have any idea what really it is all about. Students are always out of classes shouting slogans, demanding something, anything, workers are always carrying placards, if not busy burning effigies and tires or breaking windshields. This is a country where politicians seem to be more concerned with percentages than national affairs, where the bureaucrats are squabbling about perks and cuts, the businessmen about how to buy up the corrupt officials, the engineers about how to become millionaires within a year of graduation from college. This is also a country where people are yet to decide who the real father of the nation is ( as if that is such a pressing issue for the nation) , or whether they are Bangladeshis or Bangalees. This is one country where professors are not known by their research output, but by their white or blue labels, where the policemen are always saluting the notables and screaming at the un-notables, while the traffic runs amok all over the streets, and the seasoned criminals and political cronies prowl the alleys enjoying the best fruits of independence.
Thankfully, or should I say unfortunately ( depending on which side of the fence you are on ), we see a sudden bump—an unaccustomed halt in the free fall of the Bangladshi society that has been going on almost uninterrupted since the dawn of independence. Is this man real? This well-dressed man from the ivory towers of the World Bank, the well-spoken man from high heavens—is he genuine? Is he the Messiah, or just a front man for our brave men in uniform? So we speculate. We give opinions. We all have opinions—we are true Bangalees. I am an outsider, an NRB, according to the new terminology (it sounds so much more respectable than an expatriate ). I am a nobody, yet I am a somebody as soon as I arrive at Zia. So I must have an opinion. After all, I have the same blood.
So, what did I see in Dhaka? The first couple of weeks the papers were abuzz with two issues: rice, and the amazing theater of teacher-student trials. Rice, understandably, generated a lot of heat, that had the potential of having a few heads roll. A few heads did roll, not entirely due to rice, but perhaps triggered by it. We always like the spectacle of heads rolling on the tarmac, especially of the members of the high and mighty. So the heat simmered down, even though the price of rice didn’t fall substantially. Prices need not fall as fast as the heads in our society, apparently. Anyway, rice had quickly been downgraded a notch by the good editors of the national papers. The raging topic was now the student-teacher internment issue. How dare you touch these noble creatures of upper stratosphere with your dirty arms of law? That seemed to be the prevailing tone everywhere. At least that is the impression I kept getting from the impassioned statements and demonstrations of the learned luminaries of the academic world of Bangladesh. From my outsider’s vantage point I saw a few unfortunate individuals, mostly university students, as well as some professors, who were arrested, rightly or wrongly, by the lawmen sometime last year, and had just seen the end of their trials in the courts. Having been an academic all my life (including the first four at the University of Dhaka), I cannot deny a natural empathy for my fellow academics in Bangladesh. Freedom of mind, thought and expression is the most essential ingredient for healthy growth of academic life in schools and universities, and a modern society would be well advised not to interfere with their pursuit of knowledge by raiding their premises with a show of brute force. However, with my understanding of the ‘due process of law’, conditioned by a long stay in a modern western country I cannot help an uneasy feeling that the courts in Dhaka had perhaps been pressured into submitting, a bit overtly for my taste, to the will of a loud and determined academic ‘mob’ , even before the honourable men and women of the bench had a chance to examine the merits of the cases. My secret hope throughout the process had been that these gentlemen were found not guilty and they would go back peacefully to their classes, where they really belonged. But I’d never imagine doing or saying anything that would be tantamount to interfering with the due process of law, whatever reservations I might personally have about the law itself. If we, the academics, claiming to be the uncompromising defenders of the moral standards of the society, are unable to demonstrate a token respect for the law of the land, for the courts and the judiciary, then how can we expect the institution of law to stand firm on its feet in a land where almost every other institution seems to be under continual pressure from interest groups of all kinds, political or otherwise. Rule of law is the final line of defense for the ordinary citizens of a civilized society. Those who foolishly try to weaken its foundation for their selfish interests are destined to be its ultimate victims. Unfortunately, years of erosion has already pushed our legal system to point of near collapse. Today, ‘justice’ by the courts has an object of ridicule and criticism by almost everyone who has a mouth to speak and a pen to write.
The last news I heard from boarding my flight out of Bangladesh was that these charged individuals had been released. Even the handful of convicted ones had been pardoned by His Excellency the President of the Republic. The released professors have been promptly garlanded by a jubilant crowd of students and academics at the prison gates, and paraded in some sort of a victory march along the streets of the capital. A very joyous moment indeed. But isn’t it also a moment of serious concern and grave reflection for the good of the country? Who is the winner in this whole episode? The students and teachers? The courts? The people? Or is there a winner at all?
Feb. 14, 2008.
Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান