Bangladesh: Who told you that the revolution would be televised?

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Preceding recent violent events in Turkey and Egypt, a massacre of unarmed protesters in Dhaka, Bangladesh went more or less unreported in the international and local press. An exclusive report explores the significance of the massacre at a broader level, notably its colonial historical context.

An elevated view of the crowds around the Shapla (Water Lilly) monument

An elevated view of the crowds around the Shapla (Water Lilly) monument in Motijheel, Dhaka on 5th May, some hours before the government’s crackdown. (Source: Feb28.org image archive)

On the 6th May 2013 at around half past two in the morning, a security operation took place against unarmed protesters who were camped out and sleeping in the heart of the commercial district of a capital city. Thousands of police and paramilitaries used armoured personnel carriers, hot water, sound grenades, live ammunition and rubber bullets against crowds of tens of thousands of men, leaving – at a minimum – scores of them dead and many more injured, terrified and running for their lives.

Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, initially estimated that around 40 people lost their lives. A local human rights organisation published a detailed account after having interviewed dozens of protesters and tight-lipped officials, confirming 61 dead. Live video footage from the scene bears witness to the bodies of protesters lying on the streets, some convulsing, while others are seen escaping in panic as they are fired upon. The hospitalised injured gave vivid accounts via camera phones of trucks full of bodies being driven away from the scene of the crime. A taxi driver recorded a policeman bragging about his exploits and estimating a death toll of at least 400. Meanwhile, the government’s spin machine roared into action, aided by a complicit media.

Moving scenes from Dhaka in the early hours of 6th May. Distressing viewing, caution advised. (Source: DeshRights)

A policeman’s conversation with a taxi driver shortly after the incident. (Source: Kalurghat)

This did not happen in a military dictatorship, or in a country at war, but in the democratic People’s Republic of Bangladesh, hailed as a poster boy for development and progress by the neoliberal Economist magazine a mere six months earlier.

Bangladesh is the eighth most populated country in the world – strategically located between Myanmar and India, not far from China – and hailed by many as a moderate and secular Muslim democracy. And yet, while there was significant international coverage of the tragic and criminal garments factory collapse, there has been near radio silence by the international media concerning this massacre.

This article puts the killings into context and explores the reasons why civil institutions, both international and domestic, have colluded with the perpetrators to underplay and muddle this story. Whereas outright lying, found in buckets in the local press and official transcripts, plays its usual role, moot coverage has a more powerful effect, moving the audience onto other, less challenging, matters, like the now-disputed miraculous rescue of Reshma Begum, the last survivor of the garments disaster.

If we are to believe the myth of the Arab Spring, that people’s voices are free and powerful, and that the days of people being gunned down in the streets en mass or crushed by tanks are over, this incident in Bangladesh says otherwise. This story can be read as a portent of things to come, in the region and beyond.

Untangling the politics of a colonial present

The incident has its roots in the histories of Bengal, South Asia and European colonialism. Some of these roots of conflict are common in other societies impacted by colonialism, past and present. Historical Bengal (illustrated below), whose eastern flank constitutes today’s Bangladesh, was one of the first places to be colonised by the Europeans.

The victory of a pioneering multinational corporation, the British East India Company, in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, marked the beginning of a capitalist colonisation which irreversibly transformed the region, politically, economically and ecologically. As you would expect, the people of Bengal also possess a history of resistance, (co-operation) and co-option which took military, political, educational and religious forms.

A New and Accurate Map of Bengal

“A New and Accurate Map of Bengal,” by Thomas Kitchin, drawn for the London Magazine in 1760. (Source:Colombia)

Two alternate and contesting responses to the colonial encounter collided in Dhaka in early May this year. The first one, which dominates the elites, draws inspiration from the singular ethno-linguistic identity politics of Bengali nationalism, whose narrative was forged in the salons of colonial Calcutta, before being extended through the cultural politics of East Pakistan into Bangladesh.

The other has its origins amongst tenant farmers in the colonially deindustrialised rural hinterlands of East Bengal, who mobilised around their religious and class identities, whose expressions are muffled in the national idea. Both narratives were housed in educational institutions to carry their values, social projects and political movements.

In 1835, in his famous Minute on Indian Education, British historian and Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay evaluated the intellectual traditions around him with characteristic liberal disparagement.

“…I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”

Turning to the policy debate before him, he outlined an educational strategy for elite Anglicisation, with local languages envisaged as dissemination channels.

“…it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Today, this partnership and devaluation of non-secular intellectual traditions of knowledge can be seen most vividly in the traits of single identity Bengali Nationalism. High powered and globally connected, it is carried by gatekeepers such as Sabir Mustafa, editor of the BBC Bengali Service, whose selective coverage of events in Bangladesh warrants closer scrutiny.

In contrast, the other institutional view centers around Qaumi (Community) Madrassas, independent religious schools funded and supported by donations from local communities. The most authoritative of these schools is the Hathazari Madrassa near the port city of Chittagong, formally known as Islamabad during the Mughal era. Founded in 1896, Hathazari is an extension of the Deobandi movement, a traditionalist community-based educational response to the unsuccessful Indian Uprising of 1857. Unlike state-funded madrassas, they steer clear of institutional funding.

Formations, Mobilisations and Meaning

Up until very recently, Hathazari kept a low profile on the political scene of Bangladesh. Three years ago, however, their sector became the subject of wild vilification for allegedly producing terrorists and creating unemployment problems. To respond to these criticisms, and advocate for the welfare of the community madrassa sector, its elderly principal, Allama Ahmed Shafi formed an organisation called Hefazot e Islam (Protection of Islam).

Allama Shafi’s scholarly pedigree is an important lesson in the history of South Asia. He is a student of Shah Ahmed Husain Madani, whose theological rejection of the Two Nation Theory – which split India – and creation of an alternative, plurinational model of Composite Nationalism remains prescient.

Along with a series of running grievances, including the denigration of religious symbols and personalities in public life, donor-driven government policies, Hefazot were moved to protest by the Government’s refusal to submit to a court order under existing defamation law regarding writings they deemed offensive.

In the government and its supporting establishment’s own view, Hefazot’s mobilisation was seen as a counter movement to their own Shahbag phenomenon, which began in February of this year. The Shahbag movement was sparked by sentiments desiring capital punishment for those accused of committing criminal acts on behalf of the losing Pakistani regime in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Thesecontroversial trials are seen by the opposition as a witch hunt, and continue to evoke near sectarian sentiments in the populace.

These two deep sentiments, which don’t necessarily contradict each other, of deep attachment to sacred Islamic and Bengali Nationalist values came to the fore as Hefazot’s alarmingly large mobilisation developed from February through to April’s Long March on Dhaka. Both Shahbag and Hefazot mobilisations bore the signatures of our age of apolitical single-issue mass movements, occupying the cultural and commercial thoroughfares of the capital. However the contrast between how they were treated by the establishment could not be greater.

protesters were attacked by a now established alliance of police and government aligned thugs

During the day of the 5th May, protesters were attacked by a now established alliance of police and government-aligned thugs. (Source: ChairmanBD)

Civil society and the inequality of media representation

Whereas Shahbag was co-opted, patronised, protected and promoted by the ruling Awami League and its aligned media, Hefazot were cast as barbarians at the gates. They were actively misconstrued, obstructed, slaughtered and covered-up with the help of international agencies. This inequality was reproduced in the global media, Al Jazeera English included, due no doubt to the ideological native informancy of local gatekeepers, but also lazy journalism and an appetite for War of Terror narratives.

The articulation of Hefazot’s perspective was prevented in a number of ways: as their movement began to rise in April, the government arrested and tortured the editor of the Amar Desh vernacular daily, Mahmudur Rahman, and closed his press. On the night of the massacre, two television channels, Islamic TV and Diganta TV were illegally shut down, for broadcasting the crackdown live. Given the atmosphere of intolerance towards dissent, victims and their families fear to speak out about their experience and loss.

There are few remaining voices resisting the onslaught of a government and corporate media nexus with massacre on its hands. Farhad Mazhar, an anti-capitalist activist, has been using his right of audience as a public intellectual to argue that Hefazot’s points of contention need to be understood on their own terms, and a constructive dialogue held. Farida Akhtar, a feminist activist, did not see them as a threat to the rights of women, as their detractors alleged, and judged their critique of donor-patronised policies as legitimate.

On 10th June, more than a month after perhaps the most ruthless killings in independent Bangladesh, afact-finding report was published by Odhikar, one of the smaller human rights organisations in the country, but the only one challenging the government’s account of events in a serious way. This report provides a graphic and detailed account of human rights violations during the 5th and 6th May. Contrary to the dominant media depictions, people from a broader spectrum of society were amongst the dead, from imams of mosques and religious school students, to a labour leader and an elite engineering student.

Business as usual, as usual?

As the monsoon season washes away physical evidence, and the bodies which were disappeared (some of which were found in a pauper’s graveyard) decay, the people of Bangladesh carry on with their lives, the memories of the deceased, wounded, humiliated and bereaved bubble away in a cauldron of quiet anger, and a hunger for justice and redress grows. In late June, US lawyers, on behalf of two diaspora organisations, petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate 25 government decision makers from the ruling party and security apparatus.

Both sides claim that they do not simply represent a narrow constituency, but the viewpoint of the majority, pointing to the large crowds they assemble. However, recent electoral victories by the opposition in local city polls suggest that sections of the electorate are aware and disgusted at the massacre of their countrymen at the hands of forces supposed to protect them. This has been admitted by local activists of the governing Awami League in the wake of recent defeats.

The Water Lily monument around which these killings unfolded was erected to mark killings committed by forces loyal to the state of Pakistan during the Bangladesh War of 1971. This brutality changed the political character of the country, and region, irreversibly.

The dark and cyclical irony of the events of 6th May 2013, at the same point in urban space, points to the next transformation, and challenges people of conscience and adherents of the nation’s different narratives to step into the unknown and sculpt a more humane, just and pluralistic selfhood.

The tendency to brook no difference of opinion, and seek to eliminate all opposition, physically as well as from the historic psyche, is fascistic, and single identity nationalism can only lead to it.

 

Ssh! No Islam Please, We’re Bengali

Nuraldeen

This article investigates the seemingly Islamophobic editorial policy of the Dhaka Tribune, and relates it to the deeper question of why Bangladesh’s current ruling elite have such an aversion to the Islam and Muslim culture of their subjugated population. It is high time that this state of affairs was transformed.

man reading newspaper in bangladesh.jpg

‘The Matrix’ that is Bangladesh: Which pill will you take, the red pill or the blue pill, reality or rhetoric?

Two Worlds Apart

In late February 2014 two meetings were held on the rights of ‘indigenous’ people. One was held in Dhaka at the Cirdap auditorium, the other in London at King’s College. Both were talking about the rights of indigenous people, the threats they faced and depictions of Islam.

The Bangladesh conference talked in alarmist tones of the epidemic of indigenous children being converted shock horror, to Islam in Muslim majority Bangladesh. There was no mention of Christian…

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Remembering Maulana Bhashani: The ‘Play’ of Religion and Politics in Bangladesh

By the Brethren of Black Lotus


In this article the Brethren explore some rarely mentioned aspects of Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s political practice. A close reading of his oath of allegiance, adds a new dimension to our existing understanding of his political project. It excites and liberates us from the Manichean question of secular-versus-religious politics that dominates our discourse so unproductively. It is in the greater interest to supercede this intellectual roadblock, which causes national self-harm, but is woven into a narrow account of our people’s historical experience. It is high time to question current ‘banking’ education narratives and ask whether it is not time for a new ‘Historiography of the Oppressed’.

 

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The ‘mystic writing pad’ at the heart of the  Peoples ‘Republic’ of Bangladesh

 

Down I went into the Diaspora (Piraeus)

Have you heard the one about the Maulana and the Marxist?

My first brush with the meanings of Maulana Bhashani was at one of those social gatherings that are part of London diaspora life. It was at the height of the kitsch culture madness of Shahbag in early 2013, which was reaching its Islamophobic conclusion of calling for a banning of religion from politics in Bangladesh. I sat next to a former graduate of Sylhet’s famed MC College, a lifelong JSD (National Socialists Party) member, and a Maulana, a Qawmi Madrasah graduate. Their conversation soon descended into an argument, with the JSD member scolding the Maulana, ‘Why don’t you Mullahs give up politics?’ To this the Maulana replied, ‘How does the son question the existence of his father?’ He continued, ‘Without a free India and Pakistan there would be no Bangladesh, without Bhashani there is no Mujib, where do you think free a India and Maulana Bhashani came from?’

 

or the one about the ‘Bismillah Capitalist’?

Related to the above topic, I remember a conversation with the late Dhaka University’s Dr Aftab Ahmed, months before his 2006 assassination and the 2007 Diplomat’s Coup. He was puzzled by a conundrum that came out of study on Islami Chatra Shibir alumni. He found that a minority progressed into the hierarchy of Jamaat e Islami, and a small number would leave to pursue their spiritual quest, mainly ending up in the ranks of the quietist Tablighi Jamaat. The majority went into the corporate world or private business, and became good capitalists.  He noted an important limitation of the party, that it was basically a modern one with a sprinkling of Islam here and there.

Living in London, which comically pitches itself as global Islamic Finance hub, I observe a similar phenomenon. We call them ‘Bismillah Capitalists’, capitalism with a sprinkling of Islam to make it palatable for an indigenous market, and switch off our people’s critical faculties.   A thread of our conversation that I am sorry not to have had the opportunity to develop, was Dr Aftab’s call for a Liberation Theology amongst Muslims, and the courage to see and study the politics between the Prophet’s (pbuh) companions. Perhaps the optic of Maulana Bhashani’s soulful politics provides some yeast for the former.

Escape from the shadow of Lagado: Preventing Violent Eurocentrism (PVE)

 Laputa_-_Grandville

Academy of Lagado (flying island) was an allegory by the satirist Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), for the Royal Society’s absurdity and complicity in the subjugation of Ireland. Laputa’s tyrannical king keeps control by threatening to cover rebels in darkness (zulm) with the island.

To understand the significance of Bhashani, we are minded to read him within his tradition.  Thus as readers we have to leave our prejudices and let the Maulana speak for himself and be understood in his own categories and definitions.

We must avoid the mistake of many academics at the Academy of Lagado (La-puta), who use Eurocentric monocles, even when gazing in the mirror. This use of an outdated and discredited tradition, unwittingly kept alive today, in a department in the field of Bangladesh Studies (BS) by the likes of Ali Riaz and his supporters ofpublicists and hangers on. An academic discipline which claims to understand Islam and Muslims but has no training in philology or religion but a combination of journalism, political science and interests in (self) sustainability. These experts take a cue from a section of their colleagues in Middle Eastern studies, and speak in the name of foreign policy and development, creating an arid landscape ready for the neocon mind to wrap its talons around. The consequences of such misdirection is increased ignorance and grist to the burgeoning ‘War on Terror’ industry, with ever increasing collateral damage, bordering and crossing over into Islamophobia. An ignorance multiplier effect, exposed by Farhad Mazhar about media manipulation in general and specifically by a recent article on the editorial policy of a national newspaper in Bangladesh, the Dhaka Tribune.

This approach has been critiqued in terms of its professed political objectivity by Edward Said in his Orientalism’, and methodologically by the Native American scholar Ward Churchill in his seminal ‘White Studies’. For the interested, a good starting point for a constructive and knowledge-based philological study of Islam are the works the Malaysian thinker Syed Naquib al Attas, especially his Islam and Secularism’.

The Tao of Remembrance (Mudhakara)

Bhashani’s life reflects the journey of his people, born and educated during the British Raj, he mobilised throughout the United Pakistan period (when not incarcerated) and was revered in Independent Bangladesh. Politically he began with Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind and signed off in the left wing National Awami Party.

One document that that might help us understand the essence of this enigmatic figure is the disciple’s oath (bayah) he administered to his followers. It is reproduced and translated below.

bhashani murid 2

 

“I give an undertaking that in Allah the Supreme I profess firm belief. I will believe with certainty that Rasulullah is the sent messenger. I will abide by all the regulations pertaining to the permitted and disallowed, as propagated by the Messenger.  

I will not bow my head to anyone besides Allah.

I will endeavour tirelessly  to establish socialism, the only way to relieve all forms of human extortion and embezzlement.  

I will join the volunteers corps of the peasantry to eradicate from society all forms of imperialism, capitalism, feudalism,  usury and corruption.

I will perform litanies, contemplation, meditation,  prayers and fasting… according to the tariqah of Qadria,  Naqshbandiya,  Chistiyyah.

Every year on the 19/20th January 5 Magh I will attend the large seminar at Santos, Tangail and assist in the advancement and progression of the Islamic University.”

 The disciple’s oath presents two features of Islamic pedagogy; action melded with belief and an anchoring to an oral tradition. Action, or orthopraxy, is seen in the obligation of adherents to engage physically from prayer, fasting, to attending annual gatherings. It is similar to the Aristotelian concept of hexis, a state of being, conditioned by habits and practice known colloquially in Bangladesh as ‘adab’.

The oral tradition is seen in reference to the Chistiyyah, Qadiriya and Naqshbandi Sufi orders and their practices. The Islamic tradition is oral before being written, even the word Qur’an means recitation. Arabs often distinguish between the Qur’an as recitation, and the written copy of it, the mus’haf. Oral primacy is maintained in Islamic pedagogy: from Qur’an memorisation; to the science of understanding where a Prophetic tradition has been narrated from; to the teaching genealogies preserved in the supplications of the Sufis. Such live oral traditions continue to breath in Bangladesh, through the independent, non-government Qawmi (community) Madrassas, and the Sufi orders.

People with Muslim heritage can relate to this oral tradition through their formative childhood experiences, through the teaching and memorisation of short verses of the Quran, to the method of how to perform the five canonical prayers. This cycle of instruction and embodied practice is communicated from the first community in Makkah with a template established during the early Prophetic period, with the Angel Gabriel teaching the Prophet (pbuh) to recite and memorise the first verses from the Quran, and showing him how to pray.

The principles of this epistemology are laid out in a Prophetic tradition found in the Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas, founder of the Maliki legal school and author of the first book of sacred law. Imam Malik knew many traditions recommending the seeking of knowledge, but felt suffice just to narrate this single hadith on the matter, one which expresses the essence of seeking knowledge, heart to heart – ‘sina ar sina’, teacher to student all the way back to the Prophet (pbuh),


Luqman the Sage (pbuh) made his will and counselled his son, saying, “My son! Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. For Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky.”

ImageMWO-MW011987 - © - J A Akash

Classes in a traditional qawmi (community) madrassa class in Deoband, Northern India (left)and the Hathazari Madrassa, Bangladesh (right).

Genealogy of  Resistance (Mujahada)

‘Let there be among you who enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong’. (Qur’an 3:104)

The Oath affirms actions and a continuous struggle against imperialism and feudalism. Our 2013 Twin Towers of industrial and state crimes deserve better than, the paparazzi politics of the Reshma Rescue, the middle class guilt of Lungi March and the Dad’s Army that is Sushil Samaj. The Oath excites a soulful politics of the human solidarity and spiritual awakening – towards the creation of Al Insan al Kamil (the Perfect and Universal Man).

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‘Al Insan al Kamil’ words anddeeds. (l) A Cairene typographic imprint ofal-Jili’sInsan al-kamil. (r ) Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (1807 -1883) sufi and scholar of Islam, who led the armed struggle against French imperialism in North Africa for 15 years.

 

The impact of the Sacred on Bhashani’s political training can be seen not just in the oath’s content and monotheistic refusal to submit to all but God, but in the relationship of his teacher’s to the growing power of colonial capital. As T S Eliot wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’,

‘No poet, no artist of any art, has complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

Bhashani was the disciple of the Baghdadi Pir of Lakhimpur in Assam, who advised him to journey to the Deoband seminary in Uttar Pradesh to study under Maulana Mahmudul Hassan.  Bhashani’s chain of teachers were deeply committed to anti-imperial activities against the British before, during and after the 1857 War of Liberation.

Mahmudul Hassan accompanied his father in the war as a boy, and his own teacher Rashid Ahmed Gangohi had to flee from the British for his participation, he was later caught and imprisoned. Gangohi was the spiritual disciple of the Sufi Master Haji Imdad Ullah Makki. The pictures below of Delhi show the ferocity of British retribution on the built environment in the aftermath of 1857, and the simplicity of the graves, reflecting the humility of those who took part in the struggle.

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(Left) Two photographs of Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, before (lower) and after (upper) the wrath of the British Army.  (Centre ) The graves of Mahmudul Hassan (1851 – 1920) and his student Hussain Ahmed Madani (1879 -1957)(Deoband, India) and  (right) the grave of Rashid Ahmed Gangohi  (1829 – 1905) (Uttar Pradesh, India)

All three scholars (Hassan, Gangohi and Makki) were either influenced, intimately took part in, or were inheritors of the Madrassa Rahimiyyah, the intellectual centre of resistance to the British in 1857. Scholars and students from Rahimiyyah participated in the war intellectually and physically, giving it moral legitimacy and directing movements and defences. Rahimiyyah, translates as an adjective of the enduring manifestation of Divine mercy, grace and love, as a consequence of human work, sacrifices and supplications. The madrassa was established in the 17th century during the reign of the Emperor Aurangzeb by Shah Abdul Rahim, who also helped to compile the Fatawa Alamgiri, a landmark codification of the Muslim legal tradition.

Aurungzebs Quran

 

A handwritten Qur’an by the Emperor Aurangzeb on display at the Muslim Literary Society’s library in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Aurangzeb, like a latter day Justinian commissioned one of the first attempts at creating a unified codex for the Muslim legal tradition, the ‘Fatawa Alamgiri’. It remains a reference text to this day throughout the Muslim world.

When the British eventually captured Delhi, amongst other civilising barbarities, their Army decided to destroy the leading Islamic educational institute in India, ordering the Rahimiyyah closed and selling it to Hindu businessman. The poet Mirza Ghalib is quoted in William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal,

“The madrasas were almost all closed, and their buildings were again mostly bought up-and in time demolished – by Hindu moneylenders. The most prestigious of all, the Madrasa-i-Rahimiyyah was auctioned off to one of the leading baniyas, Ramji Das, who used it as a store (p463)”.

Out of the ashes of Rahimiyyah, its alumni began a new wave of Muslim institutional innovation, with Deoband (1866), Aligarh (1875) and Nadwatul Ulema (1894) founded to establish dignity, social justice and representation for radically disempowered Muslim communities. These institutions were supported across India, cascading regional developments. Without Deoband, Aligarh and Nadwatul Ulema, there would be no Hathazari or Dhaka University. They also schooled leaderships for the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, who led the freedom struggle for Independence. This contribution was recognised in the anniversary celebrations of the Deoband Madrasa in March 1982, by the attendance of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and leading members of her opposition including Raj Narain, Jagjivan Ram, and Chandra Shekar.

Two images reproduced below demonstrate how cosmopolitan the intellectual milieu of India’s Muslims was at the dawn of the last century, and how educational and political liberation are intertwined. We next contrast this to academic obscurantism on Bangladesh today.

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A picture of session participants at Nadwatul Ulema in 1912, prominent figures include Abul Kalam Azad the future president of India and Sulaiman Nadwi future constitutional committee member for Pakistan.

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The All India Muhammadan Educational Conference at Dhaka, was organised by Nawab Muhsan-ul-Mulk, the then Organizer as well as the Secretary of the Muhammadan Educational Conference at Aligarh.It laid the foundation of Muslim League in 1906.

The Academy and the Maulana : Escaping the Cave

 dav_soc

Death of Socrates (470 – 399 BC) – Like Socrates before him, Bhashani is: accused of being a political magician, hypnotising his admirers (into collapsing traditional left right dichotomies); or is scapegoated as an anomaly in the body politic that must be cast out to maintain its purity.

 

Talking about Bhashani connects with wider narratives of religion, politics and the subaltern Bangladesh. He is claimed by most factions as their own, from members of Jamiatul Ulema to Marxists who place his picture beside Marx and Lenin. He continues to suffer poor treatment from the Joy Bangla Kitsch Culture Machine.  Recovering Bhashani washes away the formaldehyde into which Bangladesh’s (mis)leadership has tried to drown and trade religion, and remove dynamic religion from both the political sphere and informed public debate. Recovering Bhashani transcends this bourgeois political cul-de-sac of the post-Liberation era.

In the unfortunate political shorthand of our times, leftists are invariably considered atheists who battle with rightists, who invariably aren’t. Figures who cross these two immiscible currents are pathologised if not dismissed outright, for example the case of Abul Hashem, author of ‘The Revolutionary Character of the Kalima’, a formative influence on the Awami League and proponent of Islamic Socialism. His son, Marxist-Leninist historian Badruddin Umar is on the record as saying that his father was ‘a political schizophrenic’.

Between the politics of competition and class considerations, enchantment with the Maulana is not shared by all. In a certain camp of Political Islam, Bhashani has even been takfired upon. His politics of the dispossessed disturbs the tactical movements for business as usual, but with beards. A deconstruction of the cold war politics and the personal anxieties of the individual allegedly behind this dismissal is long overdue. Looking through the eyes of the colonially colour blinded, it seems Bhashani was a flash in the pan never to be found again. Yet the same kind of personalities and struggles against oppression can be found all over the Muslim world.

To the West, in Syria we have Abd al Rahman al Shaghouri (1914 – 2004), a scholar of sacred law, poet and sufi. Originally a weaver, then a textile mechanic and later foreman of technicians at a fabric plant, his story has more than a few lessons of how we think of our garments workers. Al Shagouri was instrumental in unionising workers in Damascus and was part of the team that led the Syrian Textile Workers Union to a successful 40 day strike for workers compensation. To the East, in Malaysia we see Nik Abdul Aziz, graduate of indigenous punduk seminaries and elected premier of Kelantan State for a period of 23 years. Last year we saw a coalition of his Islamic party, Chinese Malaysians and Anwar Ibrahim’s Kedalan forming Pakatan Ryat, The People’s Alliance, and mount the biggest challenge to the Malay ethnonationalist UMNO establishment so far.

Nearly four decades after Bhashani, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to cover up his politics and enduring contributions. The erasure takes several forms, from the demotion of his life in textbooks, to the  festival cancellation, following his annual death memorial prayers. In Bangladesh today there is only room for the cultural hegemony of the feudal-industrial complex, which splices the dynasty of ‘The Sheikh’ to the kitsch culture of Shahbag. Judging by the quantity of faces on billboards, or media mentions, or columns in print, the legacy of Maulana has  faded away.

The urge to forget emanates from a structural push by literary custodians of elite history to exorcise the undecidability and derailment that Bhashani brings to their ‘Little Boxes’. The false dichotomies we see bandied around today, of religious vs secular, urban vs rural etc, were delivered by ‘Biman’s’ own ‘cabin crew’. The court painters of the Republic’s history have stopped exercising their memory and have forgotten themselves. Their reliance on external marks of writing instead of their internal capacity to remember and relate, holds them hostages to their own appearances.  Seemingly knowledgeable and connected, but unfortunately quite the opposite, they are thoroughly intolerant of dissenting views. We see this attitude evident in the ‘Academy’ of Bangladesh today, like three prongs of the same thrusting trident. The  flat earth mantra of 3 million war dead, mediated by faux objective civil society speak, and somewhat more sophisticated but juvenile ersatz Jean-Luc Godard, Marxist Existentialist mirages of ‘Utopia’.

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In Plato’s ‘Republic’, The Noble Lie is a lie told by elites to maintain an existing hierarchy in society and to advance their agenda.

 

Can the subaltern remember?

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Muslims of Delhi praying congregational prayers in the ruined grounds near where the Madrassa Rahimiyyah was reported to be.

 

Unfortunately for his detractors, the ghost of the Maulana and the legacy he represents refuses to die and continues to live in the body politics of Bangladesh. He is the tip of an iceberg of a living collective memory and continuity that permeates and ennobles the lives of ordinary people. Bhashani is more than politics, and in many ways emblematises the country’s story (mistakes included) of an uphill struggle for truth, justice and dignity. It is a narrative which also unfolds in India, as expressed by Mahmood Madani in a recent intervention with Tehelka.

Such a narrative disrupts the orthodoxies of contemporary politics, from the traditional far left arguments of religion being an opium of the masses, to the public Islam offered by Jamaat, of an Islam in the public sphere, relegated to the Islami Bank, local shopping centres, and a few ministries in a coalition government. Tariq Ramadanechoes a similar view when he observes that the present generation of Political Islam in Egypt had strayed from his interpretation of their original raison d’etre – of Liberation Theology.  Bhashani’s anchoring in the Sacred speaks to a greater narrative of the Bangladeshi people, which we visit next.

bhashani 1aminul islam

The struggle continues: (left) Maulana Bhashani (1880 – 1976) and (right) Aminul Islam (1973 -2012) trade unionist who struggled for workers rights, and was tortured and killed by individuals linked to the security services of the current Bangladeshi government.

 

Uncovering the Story(ies) of Bangladesh

Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as ‘the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’.

In 1989 the British Broadcaster Channel 4, commissioned a three part documentary called the ‘The Story of Bangladesh’. It was directed Faris Kermani, and the theme was betrayal, from Plassey to the modern day. Following the tumultuous events of 2013 and our most farcical election in January its hard to say anything has changed. Maybe its time for critical introspection, into whether these are isolated events or woven into an overarching narrative of self harm.

The nation’s elite and their foreign partners tout the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 as the end of history. It is a story, of a land without progress and development for progressives and developers without a land. A story which is the exclusive property and achievement of the elites. The villain on this blank canvass is the country bumpkin, who doubles up as an Islamic militant if not a microloan borrower, in a tale faithfully retold recently in the Washington Post.

Viewing the world with this history explains the radio silence and editorial misdirection of its adherents regarding the government’s human rights violations, hamstringing of oppositional voices and state crimes in Bangladesh. The case for investigation has been submitted and is being processed by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Contrast this complicit silence with the amplitude of humane concern when that same alleged state sponsored violence spills over into the homes of minority religious communities. The secret, open to all who work in and know the sector, is in the funding streams and the agendas that frame them.

 ramubaitul mukarram

From Ramu to Baitul Mukarram: The desecration and desacralisation of the ‘Republic’ of Bangladesh. According to elite narratives, one form is reprehensible while the other is the necessary price of progress.


Towards a Historiography of the Oppressed (Mazlum)

 

There are other histories, for those who listen, rarely recorded by foreign observers and their native informants, but spoken and heard locally and regionally, amongst the people. This Deshnama has its roots in the deeper history of the Bangladeshi people, the places they have been and the peoples from whom they are descended. It is where the history of a sacred land meets its residents, a memory that not only has its (re)source in the Medinan community of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but connects with precedents in the edicts of Ashoka.

 It is a familiar synthesis, to the incorporation of the Ethics of Aristotle and theRepublic of Plato, into Christian thought by St Augustine and St Aquinas, co-authored and harmonised in the works of medieval Muslim theologians such as Al Ghazali, Al Razi and Averroes. These authors, books and ideas are still read and heard in the mosques, madrassas, churches and temples that bejewel Bangladesh today. The country’s music and poetry is filled with the same cosmopolitan religious symbolism shared and contested by all those who live within it.

 Near my abode, there is a wondrous City of Mirror,

where my Great Neighbour lives.

(The Great Neighbour’ – Lalon Shah)

 moor teaching guitarRavi Shankar (left), Baba Allauddin Khan (centre) and Ali Akbar Khan.

Playing from the same ‘hymn sheet’ – from (L ) Medieval Muslim Spain to ( R) Modern South AsiaRavi Shankar (left), Baba Allauddin Khan (centre) and Ali Akbar Khan.

It is a chronicleprologued by Atish Dipankar, who arose amidst the general background of the Buddhist struggle in Bengal against the hegemony of the Brahmin led caste system. To invoke a few Prophetic paradigms, it is like a replay of the battle between the Prophet David (pbuh) and Goliath with the dialogue of the Prophet Moses (pbuh) with Pharaoh.

Oppression (zulm) transforms with time from local rajas, Delhi Emperors, the inimitable British East India Company, The British Crown, Calcutta zamindars, military juntas to Indian hegemony. The same can be said for the movements and figures that champion the oppressed (mazlum) like Shahjalal, Isa Khan, Nuraldeen, Titu Mir, Dudu Mian,  and Bhashani. Post independence, we might observe Ziaur Rahman’s struggles and achievements, against internal and external opposition, in this vein, in laying the foundations of a modern democratic state amongst the ‘basket case’ ruins of despotictotalitarianism and the devastating 1974 Famine .

This is a story of people with a rich culture, entangled in global and regional developments, and a history of struggling against great odds, with great losses, for justice and dignity, inspired and strengthened by the Sacred. In this narrative, 1971 is a continuation of that history and not its end.

When an individual participates in this of sort historical experience, he or she comes to a new sense of awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity, and is stirred by a new hope. It gives the individual the tools to take on the arrogance, violence and false ending, that characterises the power discourse in Bangladesh today, or at least partially defang it.

Finally, have you heard the one about the Maulana and the Britisher Teacher?

During my research on the 2013 May Massacre in Dhaka, I was fortunate to meet a graduate of Hathazari Madrasah. He emigrated to the UK, took up a career in business and is now married with children. In our discussions on the importance of education placed by the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406), he narrated an anecdote.

That one day, his son came home from school and told him that he learnt from his teacher that Bangladesh was a poor and backward country, to which the UK government gives a lot of money for development. The next day, instead of dropping his son off to school, the Maulana took him on a day out, stopping first at the Tower of London. As they stood looking at the crown jewels, the Maulana pointed at the Kohi Noor stone and asked his son, ‘where do you think that came from?’ All day father and son visited various landmarks throughout London, which breathes heavily with the impacts of colonial capital, and discussed their history.

The next day at school the furious headteacher wanted to take the Maulana to task for taking his son out of education. When pressed by the headteacher for an explanation, the Maulana indicated to his son to reply. His response and act of defiance is something worth sharing across our amnesiac nation, ‘We learnt in school that Bangladesh was a poor country but that’s a lie, because all its wealth is here in the UK along with the riches of other nations stolen by the British Empire’.

“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.

(Emperor’s New Clothes –

Hans Christian Christian Anderson)

 As practitioners of the ‘Academy, Journalism and Art’ and as seasoned desh watchers, our roles should be to listen and record the stories that the people of Bangladesh tell us, not the ones that our foreign ‘development partners’ (funders & masters) pay for and want to hear. The challenge is to cultivate a dignifying and polyphonic history to humanise each other and heal the divisions that plague Bangladesh  – a new ‘Historiography of the Oppressed’.

 

O you who have attained to faith!,

Be ever steadfast in upholding equity,

bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God,

even though it be against yours own selves,

or your parents and kinsfolk.

Whether the person be rich or poor;

God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them.

Do not then, follow your own desires,

lest you swerve from justice:

for if you distort [the truth], behold,

God is indeed aware of all that you do!

(Quran 4:135)

 

_________________________

 We would like to dedicate this article to Mohammed Burhan Uddin who passed on April 2014 in Tangail, Bangladesh. Pictured here in his mid 80s, he was one of Bhashani’s oldest surviving disciples (mourides). He became involvedas a young man in the 1950s when he heard Maulana Bhashani pray and supplicate openly,  ‘don’t do anything for my kids but provide freedom for all !’.

He was a cultivator who had not finished his primary education, but well informed about Syria, and American Imperialism in general. He was part of a cultivator’s committee which went around checking prices of fish from market to market – just to make sure people were not getting swindled.

A few years ago on the 20th night of Ramadhan,  Bhashani appeared to him in a dream instructing him to struggle, “Shongram kor” ,and that modern technology was insufficient, only a people’s movement would work


Rage against the ‘Joy Bangla!’ Kitsch Culture Machine

Article originally published in ‘Ceasefire Magazine’ in the UK . http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/

Attempts to decode the political crisis submerging Bangladesh must first survey its connections to the cultural landscape. The ever-widening gulf between the ruling class and the people under its subjugation stems from the Islamophobia of the current ruling elites, a hangover from the 19th-century Orientalism of the British Raj given a new lease of life by the ‘War on Terror’.

T

In a local adaptation of Lord of the Flies a small child is draped in religious clothing and a noose - Ceasefire

In a local adaptation of Lord of the Flies, a small child is draped in religious clothing, and a noose

 

Kitsch (/ˈkɪtʃ/; loanword from German) is a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. Also referred to as “tacky“.

Islamophobia is a neologism, used generally to refer to prejudice against, hatred towards, or theirrational fear of Muslims or of ethnic groups perceived to be Muslim.

Contested Narratives of Bangladesh: Whose Bangla is it anyway?

During my undergraduate studies, I used to rummage through the second-hand academic remainder bookshops that grace the area between London’s British Museum and Tottenham Court Road. One day, I came across a volume on Bangladesh, Basant Chatterjee’s Inside Bangladesh Today – An Eye Witness Account, a pessimistic 1973 travelogue of the country by an Indian journalist. Chatterjee argued that the term ‘Bengali’ etymologically referred to upper class Hindus in nineteenth century Calcutta, those who rose to power and eminence under the political umbrella of British rule and who also acquired a new culture experience from the Britishers. It did not apply to the Hindu community at large and it definitely then did not apply to Muslims.

Post-6th May Massacre I revisited the book, to understand the motivation of the protesters killed, their killers and the complicity of those in the media and civil society who covered it up. Surveying the cultural landscape 42 years on, the pendulum of disenfranchisement in Bangladesh appears to have swung to another extreme. It seems that the people have merely exchanged a Rawalpindi barracked Sandhurst-educated junta, which suppressed the aspirations of its populace, with a Dhaka-cocooned, Delhi-directed and Gopalganj -taffed feudalism, perceived as suppressing its citizen’s religious manifestation, expression and dignity.

Culture of Alienation

On the moon it is hard to breath and remain on a firm footing

On the moon it is hard to breath and remain on a firm footing

Surveying the cultural landscape of modern Bangladesh, the etymology of what it means to be a Bengali has not moved on, and remains caught in a timewarp of 19th century colonial capital-driven Calcutta. Instead of a constellation of vibrant interacting institutions and a creative cultural milieu articulating and refining the views of the majority, we have a derivative suppression of Muslim identity in the cultural space. At the 2013 Dhaka Ekushey book festival, organisers forced a stallholder to switch off an audio Quranic recitation performance, deemed to be offensive. At the recent Dhaka Hay Literary Festival we came to know the same fate met a work of Islamic calligraphic art.

Such Islamophobia in Bangladesh, as argued by Chintaa magazine’s Farhad Mazhar is the pervasive systematic practice of a culture of hatred and ignorance maintained by Bangladeshi cultural elites, through their portrayals of the characters of religious people and the religious, social and cultural practices of Islam. Such evidence is abundant in Bengali dramas, novels, stories and other media and genres. An evil character is almost invariably signified by an image of an Islamic religious personage with his bears and traditional attire of skullcap, long shirt, sarong and loose fitting pyjama bottoms. This video clip from a ‘Game Show’ on Ekushey TV demonstrates the banality of the culture machine.

This is a constant insult and humiliation, not only to the scholars and students of religious specialisms, but also to the majority of rural people, the urban poor and most self respecting Muslims. This was the basis of Hefazot e Islam’s ninth point of protest last year.

Stop the spread of Islamophobia among the youth through depiction of negative characters on TV plays and movies in religious attire and painting negative stereotypes of the beard, cap and Islamic practices on various media.

This kinds of Islamophobia is co-produced in the corridors of power. From the Prime Minister’s son, Sajib Joy’s pontifications on Muslim female attire, to his mother, Sheikh Hasina, giving Chris Blackburn – a contributor to  the right-wing Frontpage magazine – a ‘Friend of Bangladesh’ award. It rides on bicycles too, back in 2012 London cycling tsar and controversial mosque-busting hackAndrew Gilligan was invited for a week-long press junket to Bangladesh.

This fantasy kitsch culture, detached from reality and contemptful, of the soulful intellect of the ordinary person, reached its zenith in the movement of Shahbag in February 2013. There is however a downside to spending as much energy as the Shahbag complex did running away from reality. It generates a period of time in which unreality becomes the norm, when common sense gives away to madness, and darkness grows.

It is a kind of madness where demons come crawling in through the dark, when reason gets high onphensidyl, and an immoral artistic imagination hunts for its next victims. This mania reached a peak during the Dhaka version of ‘The Bonfire of The Vanities’ last year, when the entire establishment, including the Prime Minister, came out in attendance for the Islamic funeral prayers (janazah) of the murdered, self-declared atheist, Rajib Haider.

A new innovation in Bengali nationalist syncretism a state orchestrated funeral prayer for an atheist young man never mind a robust investigation of his grizzly murder.

A new innovation in Bengali nationalist syncretism: a state orchestrated funeral prayer for an atheist young man, never mind a robust investigation of his grizzly murder.

Historical Omissions and Misdirection: an Orwellian Nightmare

This ‘Joy Bangla’ kitsch culture is founded on a series of myths, omissions and misdirection. The primary myth is that history began in 1971. It ignores the historical facts and interconnected reality, that 1971 was a consequence of the 1947 and 1905 partitions, which themselves were a consequence of the Permanent Settlement of 1793 and the failed 1857 War of Liberation.

1905 prayer of thanks

Muslims of Dhaka offer a congregational prayer of thanks for the 1905 Partition of Bengal, which they viewed as shot in the arm for their struggle for equality and social justice

Even the institutions that make up modern Bangladesh have their origins before 1971, from the Dhaka University, the Supreme Court and even the Bangla Academy. Yet, in Joy Bangla Land everything began in 1971. How many more times will we be forced to cringe at the “But we are a Young Nation” excuse?

The second myth is that people do not have multiple interacting identities but singular deterministic ones. Thus the population in 1971 exchanged their pre 1971 Muslim identity for a post 1971 Bengali one. The reality is that the mass of the population could see no contradiction between their Muslim faith and the call to challenge the local oppression, as exemplified by the actions of the many who fought. The state too was very much interested in (controlling) Islam.  It was through the Islamic Foundation Act of 1975, that Mujib established a state organ to disseminate its values and ideals of Islam and carry out activities related to those core principles, thus de facto establishing Islam as the state religion of the new country.

These are just two of countless number of myths and omissions perpetuated by the fantasy fairy tale of ‘Joy Bangla’. The main plot is a Bengali version of a Greek Tragedy, of the father killed by his faithless lover after a battle and eventually avenged by the daughter. The subplots in this epic fantasy include: the creation myth of universal exceptionalism of the Bangla Language Movement; the painting of the secular Ayyub Khan and the alcoholic Yahya Khan as villainous religious fundamentalists; the selective amnesia of Bhutto and the PPP’s critical role in pushing the military crackdown; the myopic blackout of the 1974 famine, which may have claimed more lives than the war; the 1975 one party state of BAKSAL; not to mention flashback depictions of the inclusive Zia and Ershad administrations as shadowy krypto Islamists.

The effects and inconsistencies of the Joy Bangla fantasy eventually generates an Orwellian nightmare, as reality is constantly being suppressed to conform with delusion. The kneejerk reaction to the recent 1971 research of Sarmila Bose and the hounding of a history lecturer for including her Dead Reckoningon a reading list for undergraduate historians at a public university was a case in point. This hysteria even spread to elite art circles of Dhaka with the self-censorship by the literary press of Neamat Islam’s critically-acclaimed novel of the 1974 famine, ‘The Black Coat’.

Entrenched in a redundant, modernist view of history, it would not be a cliché to quote a “gender-empowered” truth from George Orwell’s 1984 here, “She who controls the past controls the future. She who controls the present controls the past.”

AL-al o Dalal: Hasina’s Willing Executioners

AL-al o Dalal Hasinas Willing Executioners

For an elite mythology to be effective, a priesthood is needed to deliver and execute its edicts. Enter the upper middle class cadre officers of the Joy Bangla Brigade, willing to turn a blind eye to an increasingly brutal regime in exchange for career opportunities and a Bangladesh rid of all cultural impurities. Some, like Zafar Iqbal andTahmima Anam have effectively become PR spokespeople for the regime in their pursuits of cultural purity. Others, still in the seminary of dark arts,  self-censor massacre with excuses, deny the free speech they proclaim to those they disagree with, and take on the role of authority’s batmen and women as their fellow humans are slaughtered. We cringe at the pantomime of the self-proclaimed progressives, a silent dance of ever-increasing logical contortion, of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is a crying shame that so many self-proclaimed liberals in Bangladesh hold their neighbours lives up to liberal values, yet conveniently forget to scrutinise their own.

As this Bangla Winter demands, we re-appraise the values of Language and Liberation with a sobriety aroused by the brutal reality of Bengali hypernationalism that is still fresh in our minds. Three facts are worth noting here. Firstly, that the Bengali East Pakistanis were not unique in challenging Urdu/Hindiupon decolonisation. Secondly, as Anandita Ghosh’s work on the artificial construction of the Bengali language in the 19th century suggests, the expulsion of Arabic and Persian from the language during this period, for the sake of a ‘chaste’ Bengal, can be seen to underlie the cultural eliminationist Islamophobia of the Joy Bangla Brigades, wittingly and unwittingly. Thirdly, the teleological view of history at the core of Bengali Nationalism, as argued by Srinath Raghavan, belies multiple options available to regional, international and subnational actors at various decision points. Liberating Bangladesh from the narrow confines of being an end point of history is a powerful motivator to reform.

Unlike European Islamophobias, which tend to be essentially anti-immigrant, the Islamophobia expressed in Shahbag and by the ruling elites is more insidious. It is an eliminationist form of Islamophobia, which has been developed over the years through a cultural cascade of narrow, virulent and exclusive nationalism. This is witnessed by: the continuing mistreatment and marginalisation of the new Muslim arrivals from India during the 1947 Partition; the shameful attitude towards Burmese Rohingya refugees; and the eliminationist demands of the Shahbag movement to ban Islamic expressions and symbols from the public and political spheres.

Calendrical Coloniality: From Alpha to Omega

Bangladesh’s ruling elites like their dates, they are the national opiates. Alpha is denoted by Ekushey, the 21st of February, which selectively commemorates police firings on Language Movement protesters in 1952. Omega is known as Victory Day, the 16th December, and marks the end of history, our Victory Day, the surrender of the Pakistani junta to the Indian Army in 1971, a few weeks after they joined in officially and nine months after the juntas ultra violent crackdown sparked exodus, insurrection, guerilla warfare and heartless Cold War powerplay.

So roll on, Ekushey (21st), International Mother Language Day, but let us ignore the 22nd February 2013, when protesters against Joy Bangla’s finest ‘satirists’ were fired upon after Friday congregational prayers. On that fateful day, the Baitul Mukarram Mosque resembled the aftermath of a security raid by Indian forces in occupied Kashmir rather than the national mosque of Bangladesh. One Britisheyewitness recounted –  in confidence as he runs a charity in Bangladesh – that before those prayers at the Baitul Mukarram mosque were complete, security forces stormed in and started shooting indiscriminately at worshippers as they sat praying, waiting for the final salaam (call to peace) of the Imam. February is now not so simple anymore from the point of view of national calendrical coloniality: it is not just the day after the 21st, the 22nd (Baishey), that bites, but the week after, on the 28th (Athaishey), as the state ruthlessly suppressed nationwide protests at the conviction of aninnocent man.

Silence over Satkhira

This detachment from reality and the logical conclusion of this eliminationist Islamophobia came to prominence in the recent 2013 Victory Day celebration. While the Joy Bangla kitsch culture machine and its Dalals were putting on a Nuremberganj rally that would make a North Korean dictatorship proud. Perhaps the young ruler in Pyongyang will commission Shahidul Alam to take some pictures for him, too some day.

silence on satkhira bangla flag

With the Prime Minister too afraid to put on a military parade, the corporate media obliged

Within a few days of those celebrations, a scorched earth attack was being carried out in Satkhira, a district in the south west of Bangladesh that regularly returns MPs from the government’s avowed nemesis, Jamaat e Islami, to power. In coastal Satkhira, hugging the Indian border, and perhaps better-known to the climate change community for its proliferation of salinity case studies, we witnessed a historical reenactment of the Pakistani junta’s crackdown, an Operation Searchlight ‘2.0’. However, this time the troops were from the Bangladeshi joint security forces, with an alleged assist from the Indian Army. As ever, there was a performance from the legendary human rights make-up artistSultana Kamal, director of the increasingly incredulous and ever-unaccountable Ain o Salish Kendra.

Harrowing reports came out of Satkhira following the operation of the 16th to 19th of December 2013, from the indiscriminate hunting of all adult males, to the looting and destruction of homes in front of the children and women folk they left behind. Meanwhile, in Dhaka, there was no hue or cry and the show went on, with the leader of the main opposition placed under virtual house arrest and a constitutional coup d’etat carried out under the guise of a farcical election.

Right on cue, when the international community started raising concerns of the worrying “democracy deficit” in Bangladesh, the Dalals crawled out of the woodwork again, clutching the fictional narrative of Joy Bangla and singing the same song of mission civilisatrice. Taking their cue from the ‘thin red line’ of 19th century Imperial Orientalism, we saw Anam Junior, BRACademic Nayma Qayum and neocon Daniel Greenfield carrying on the narrative, with a cacophony of factual inaccuracies: of Muslim barbarians at the gate, and the heroic role of the Awami League ‘gatekeeping’ government in combatting them. It appears that in our 21st century, it is not patriotism, but the ‘war on terror’, that is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Strange Fruits on Victory Day

As I settled down in the Christmas break, to researching the brutality in Satkhira and adjoining regions, I encountered something that resonated deep inside me that summed up the brutal nightmare engulfing Bangladesh. It was a story reported in the Daily Inquilab, that due to security forces brutality, the call to prayer at the Jamia mosque had been suspended as there were no men left to offer the congregational prayer.

The story cut into my own family history. Nearly 750 years ago, I had ancestors who fled the Mongol invasion of Central Asia, crossing the Indian subcontinent to unsettled lands in the Surma valley in order to practice their religion in peace. As reward for public service, they were granted land containing a mixture of jungle and marsh. The first thing they did was to establish a mosque, and right beside the mosque they planted a date palm, replicating the act of earlier ancestors who planted the date palm in Central Asia as they settled upon lands in the wake of expansions during the Umayyad Caliphate.

Throughout the centuries, as in all the other villages and settlements in Bangladesh, the call to prayers at the mosque has continued and the syrup of the date palm is tapped every winter for its sugary molasses. This sweet harvest continues to this day, throughout the villages and mufassil towns that constitute Bangladesh. The date palm and the adhan are permanent threads of this fabric, as permanent and regular as the life-giving monsoon rains and pulsating rivers. A story, narrative and experience which is documented in Richard Eaton’s,‘The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204 – 1760.’

As I reflected on our situation, I listened to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, and my mind was moved to the devastation of Satkhira and adjoining regions. I could only imagine the scene, and that instead of the usual clay jars hanging from the date palms to collect the sap, strange fruits hung.

Courtesy of the Islamophobic, ‘Joy Bangla!’ Kitsch Culture Machine.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop