Many historians say that the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century, the most important intellectual movement of the modern era, did not come about because of scientists dispassionately searching for objective truths in nature, but because of the rapid spread of civil and free conversation among the educated elite in the clubs, salons and dining rooms throughout the western world. In many ways the current political crisis is very different from everything that happened previously.
Although the political leadership are still not talking to each other, the general people are conversing freely and frankly like never before. In print and electronic media, in Facebook and on blogs, in sitting rooms and dining rooms, in buses and tea-stalls, Bangladeshis worldwide are furiously talking to each other. Alas! All of this talking seems to produce not even a trifle, let alone something substantial like enlightenment.
I do not claim to have a firm finger on the pulse of the people – my interactions are mostly limited among a particular section of Bangladeshis. What I find surprising is that even among the highly westernised, professional and academic Bangladeshis, two persons may be identical in their taste in popular culture, reading lists of books and movies, outlook on philosophy and life and everything else, but completely talk past each other when the topic is domestic politics. They may completely agree on the politics of USA, Europe and India, but find each other incomprehensible when it comes to politics in Bangladesh.
It seems people are living in two separate moral universes that frequently collide but never interact. One is reminded of the famous lines from Rudyard Kipling: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
I also do not claim to be an impartial observer of the conversation looking down from Mount Olympus. On the balance, I firmly reside in one of the moral universes, but I fervently try to listen and understand what the other side is saying. I think at this time we need to put a little break on the futile preaching and try a little listening. In this short essay I will try to synthesise my take on the basic aspirations and apprehensions of both sides.
Awami League supporters are most pained and bewildered by the seeming cavalier attitude of their BNP friends to the seminal, the proudest, and the most tragic event in our history, the 1971 liberation war. They perceive that BNP supporters are not very animated by our young nation’s history, the symbols, and founding leaders. Most particularly, the indescribable crimes committed against innocent civilians in 1971 cry out to heaven for retribution and redress, but BNP supporters don’t seem to reach out to a large part of their fellow countrymen. AL supporters see from BNP lukewarm support for the trial at best, indifference on average, and dismissiveness at worst.
AL supporters are pained that their secular, cosmopolitan BNP friends do not seem to realise the dangers of cavorting with absolutist religious parties. They see the national trajectory of Pakistan, Afghanistan and sundry Mideast theocracies, and imagine the worst for Bangladesh. They think Awami League is fighting a lonely and beleaguered fight to keep the flame of secularism alive in Bangladesh. They are also very aggrieved with the inconsiderate way BNP supporters dismiss the tragic events of August 15 and 21, when the most heinous attempts were made to wipe out AL leadership from the face of earth.
Keeping in mind such traumatic history, AL supporters think that BNP is not yet fit for state power, however much popular support they now have. They fear that such odious violence may be repeated if an angry BNP, partnered with vengeful Jamaat, comes back to power. That is why a democratic vote is not looked upon by AL as a solution but an exacerbating event for the nation.
BNP supporters’ list of grievances starts right from where AL fears culminate. By happen-stance of state of affairs, BNP now finds itself firmly on the right side of democracy. BNP supporters see that a great majority of the nation is fervid about anti-incumbency and ready to vote BNP to power. After the nadir of 2007-8 and five years of repression-marginalisation, BNP regards state power by popular mandate its rightful reward and it regards AL’s determination to hold on to power by hook or crook as a great travesty of politics.
But the Tantalus Cup of power is only the immediate of BNP’s hope and fear; BNP supporters live in a long-term existential angst. They know that since the death of Ziaur Rahman, BNP leadership had never attempted to shore up the ideological foundation of BNP. In the last couple of decades the party has been mostly defining itself vis-à-vis opposition to AL. BNP supporters are envious of the ideological cohesion of AL and the wide devotion it still attracts from a large section of the country. More politically-conscious BNP supporters see that the original articulation of Bangladeshi nationalism – a political ideal composed of a free market economy with government support, personal and social values derived from religion and community, a state as the Hegelian embodiment for personal growth and freedom, and a nationalism based on geography, history and ethnicity has become the dominant political philosophy of the nation but BNP leadership has failed to lay claim or build upon it.
BNP supporters fear dissolution and dispersion of the party in yet another successive oppressive AL regime. Their fear is reinforced every day by proclamations and actions of AL leaders and supporters who never seem to give political legitimacy to a party that has won repeated popular mandate. They see that AL regards BNP as an artificial construct made in cantonment and vocally predicts the demise of BNP routinely. They fear the overwhelming advantage of AL in the media and intelligentsia, an advantage more or less enjoyed by left-of-centre parties in most developed democracies, and feel apprehensive about a concerted effort to establish a dominant one-party rule like the initial years of the republic.
BNP supporters are ambivalent about the war crimes trial. Many of them understand the need for bringing to justice the worst perpetrators and collaborators of those terrible crimes, perpetrators who obscenely flaunted themselves for four decades. But they have misgivings about show trials carried out for political advantage. They understand that rule of law is established by rule of law, and targeted show trials and verdicts do not pave the way towards that goal but may worsen the division of the nation.
As I see it, deep existential fears are compelling each side to scream and shout at each other in the same wavelength but not hear each other. Moreover, pervasive clientelism in the country mean that a very deep and wide base built on trading of favour gets built every time a political government gets entrenched. As Upton Sinclair famously said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his pay depends on his not understanding it.” Even many who have no personal stake in the political battle have identified their self image so closely to the political parties that they regard every political reversal as a personal slight and dread defeat as physically crippling.
We must recognise that this is no apocalyptic battle between good and evil, where good will finally triumph over evil to usher in a thousand years of peace. For better or worse, the two political factions are firmly entrenched in the people. If we love the country more than our politics, we must interact and meet somewhere. Our political overlords in and out of the country will sort out an intermediary arrangement sometime in the future but we the citizens must seek what we can agree upon while respecting our disagreement. With a measure of impudence, I want to propose a program that can at least serve as a catalyst to such an interacting conversation.
The war crimes trials must proceed as they are currently advancing. There may be flaws in the process but recognising our limitations and circumstances, flawed but acceptable trials that tick most of the check-boxes, are the best we can hope for.
We should not demand any more death sentences to be carried out. This will be very hard to accept for many but I do not think killing a few old men, however heinous their crimes, will bring retribution to the hundreds of thousands of souls untimely terminated in 1971.
Jamaat as an organisation should be put on trial as soon as possible and, as many expect, should be banned as a political organisation for crimes against the nation and independence struggle. However, Jamaat leaders and activists who are untainted by crimes in 1971 must be allowed to form political organisations under different names and acceptable charters. Mahfuz Anam, a man whose pro-71 credentials can hardly be questioned, essentially said the same thing recently in his opinion-editorial.
Religion is a deep and living belief for most of our people, and people must be allowed to do politics according to their beliefs; this is a fundamental political right enshrined in every democratic country.
Most importantly, we must agree to a fundamental constitutional reform so that a party with near or less than 50% popular vote cannot become an omnipotent-autocrat with the constitution and every organ of the state as its plaything. We must recognise that the unbridled concentration and exercise of power has been the main political ill afflicting our nation right from its birth, and we must put up all kind of safeguards to thwart its repetition.
We must know that a republic derives its legitimacy from the people, and a credible, inclusive election with participation of all major legitimate parties must take place as soon as possible. This election must be held under the supervision of an impartial government accepted by the major parties.
Now comes the most audacious proposal. Since incumbent political parties and their members of Parliament will never agree to voluntarily give up power, through constitutional reform, the next caretaker government must be in place for six to nine months so that a constitutional convention to reform the constitution can take place. The reformed constitution will be ratified by popular referendum, and the next general parliamentary election will take place under the reformed constitution. The six to nine months will also act as a cooling-off period for the superheated political passion endangering the stability of the country.