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Prisoners of their language

  • Published at 12:02 am August 1st, 2019
Human wooden
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When politicians say the wrong thing 

There are times when language, or the unwitting use of it, often gets important men and women into some irritating knots. 

Not many days agoDhaka South City Corporation Mayor Sayeed Khokon loudly let it be known that all the talk about dengue was a rumour. Well, he now knows that it never was a rumour, that dengue has indeed insinuated its vicious way into homes and offices. The sight now of the mayor, in a blazer in this steamy weather and saddled with an anti-mosquito spray machine, is an unambiguous sign of a change of perspectives in the man. 

A good number of years ago, the home minister in a government led by the “Bangladeshi nationalists” tried to commiserate with a couple whose child had died from a stray bullet. In his naivete, he let the couple know that God had taken away His own. He could have used another turn of phrase to console the grieving parents. But his comment, “Allah’r maal Allah niye gechhen,” sounded rather insensitive. He was excoriated for a long time after he made that statement. He certainly did not mean to sound cavalier in his expression of sympathy, but it was his words which did him in.

Language, especially when it is employed by people occupying responsible positions at state institutions, is a weapon which can keep them going or simply bring them down. At the very least, it can result in long-term embarrassment for the one who employs it and for those who happen to be his camp followers. In his glory days as Bangladesh’s first military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman demonstrated his stunningly poor understanding of economics when he told the nation that money was not a problem. 

Ah, but it was. Since when have Bangalis felt, in this country born of war and genocide, that they do not have to worry about money? With all the corruption around us, with all the money laundering going on, with senior police officers found in possession of unaccounted for property and a patently unearned Tk80 lakh at home, we know who are purloining our money and where it is going.

Money remains a problem and you only have to skim that list of men who have defaulted on a repayment of the loans they have taken from the banks. It is a crime to steal from the state and strut around in the false peacock feathers of entrepreneurs. But then, observe the view of wrongdoing which has recently come to us from the chief of the Anti-Corruption Commission. Mistakes made in good faith do not amount to crime, said he. 

That is incendiary language. It is also a breather for the corrupt and the sinful around us. You can be sure that it is language which will for a long time, if not for all time, be associated with the ACC chief.

Men and women often become prisoners of the language they give expression to; and before people in possession of long memories, they are condemned to perdition for all time. In the days and months after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family were assassinated, men who ought to have condemned the deed did precisely the opposite. 

Ataur Rahman Khan and Oli Ahad, politicians who knew Bangabandhu well, cheerfully decided that August 15 would be observed as najat dibosh or deliverance day. We have got past these men and the likes of them. But history will forever be a record of the insensitivity they demonstrated through employing such low language to describe a national tragedy.

Back in the days of Begum Khaleda Zia’s rule, her Minister for Sports Fazlur Rahman Potol sought to instill inspiration in the national cricket team by invoking Pakistan’s late dictator Ayub Khan. It did not occur to him that he was a Bangladesh minister. That we were no more part of Pakistan, that quoting a dictator was a mark of political immaturity was something which escaped him. 

Ayub Khan, said he, had inspired Pakistan’s soldiers during the 1965 war with India with the words, in Urdu “aage barho, qadam barhao” (go forth, march on). Potol borrowed those very words to drive courage and inspiration into a Bengali cricket team. He would rue his blunder for long.

There are men in public life who remain impervious to the embarrassment their language, outrageous and obscene, causes even though it might momentarily titillate their listeners. Shah Moazzam Hossain regularly spewed suggestive language against Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in the days of the national struggle against autocracy. That language cheapened him, but he was not worried. 

In more recent times, we have observed the law minister inform us that the chief justice of the country was suffering from illness (and this was at a time when Justice Sinha was involved in a dispute with the government). When Sinha finally emerged from his residence to proceed to the airport and leave the country, he emphatically told the media he had never been ill, that he was in good health. 

We do not recall the minister saying he was wrong in his assessment of the chief justice’s health condition. Nor do we recall the predecessor of the current foreign minister telling us that he stood corrected over his remark that General Pervez Musharraf had indeed apologized to Bangladesh for the Pakistan army’s atrocities in 1971. There is no record of any Pakistani leader or government saying sorry about 1971, but here was our foreign minister giving us information that was completely without foundation.

And, yes, we have had Health Minister Zahid Maleque committing his own blunder. He was right about the nature of the dengue menace. But why did he have to bring the procreative prowess of the Rohingyas into his assessment of the situation? It was a horrible way of playing to the gallery.

Language is a steep, slippery cliff. It must be navigated cautiously and carefully. A slip can only send one hurtling all the way down, with terrifying results. The foot will be in the mouth. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.