Thursday, 7 March 2013

Razakar-free country, or: nationalism on steroids

Consider the wording used in this Daily Star article:

On the day in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced to the thunderous roars of hundreds of thousands: “The struggle this time is for emancipation. The struggle this time is for independence.”
Forty-two years after that independence was won, the Shahbagh demonstrators on the same ground declared the struggle this time was to rid the country of Razakar and Jamaat-Shibir.

This call sounds quite ominous to my ears - how exactly are you going to 'rid the country' of Jamaat-Shibir? And who is going to define the meaning of 'Razakar'? The mob at Shahbag? Notice also the huge portrait of Sheikh Mujib in the photo accompanying the article. One cannot help being amazed by the extent to which the personality of Mujib is revered by Bangladeshi nationalists. The picture of Mujib, the Father of the Nation, is everywhere, and respect ought to be paid to it, as was dutifully done by the President of India during his recent visit. Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of the Mujib cult is the custom of cutting birthday cakes to mark that blessed day of his coming to this world.

Now, the cult of the portrait tended to develop around most dictators in recent history; a particularly striking example is Saparmurat Niyazov, the late dictator of Turkmenistan. As is well known, Sheikh Mujib, shortly before his assassination in 1975, banned all political parties except his own, and gave himself dictatorial powers - all under the pretext of facing a very difficult situation in the country. That difficult situation, however, was largely of Mujib's own making. An editorial in the Times from December 1974 warned that

the government must now not only put an end to the violence it attributes to its opponents and to hooligans, but it must also restrain the brutality and indiscipline of its own paramilitary forces. No political factions can escape blame. Millions of pounds are needed to keep people alive and will not be forthcoming because aid givers lost heart. Governmental administrative corruption goes from top to bottom.

Soon after, Mujib shut down all opposition newspapers, in order to make sure the people of Bangladesh hear only news which the government wants them to hear. Within a few months, Mujib was ruthlessly assassinated together with most of his family (including a number of children) by men who a few years earlier fought for the independence of Bangladesh.

In this manner, even a cursory reading of Mujib's political career - especially its final years - reveals what a flawed character he was. How, then, is it possible that a man who presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in recent memory, and under whose rule up to 1.5 million people died due to a famine caused by corruption and mismanagement, is still revered by so many? The answer to this question is the key to understanding the Shahbag phenomenon.

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