That after 30 years, the prime minister has to depend on the legacy of the founder, is a sad state of affairs.
Dhaka is a place of strange paradoxes. I arrive on Janmashtami, a Hindu holiday in a Muslim country, to attend a workshop on advancing the Right to Food in Bangladesh. The weather is sultry, humid and drab. Streets are teeming with multitudes of men and women. Unlike what many would expect, most women are not in hijabs.
I fail to spot a single bus on the road – the only means of public transport – that is not scraped and battered; symbolic of the chaos that reigns. Hand-pulled rickshaws and auto-rickshaws are a common sight. I am left gaping at the auto-rickshaws that have grills on the side, unlike in India; for safety reasons, my guide tells me. Traffic and transport are a major concern in the city where a students’ movement for road safety crippled traffic in August.
Poverty on the roads is visible in a stark manner, it is little wonder then that many make a beeline for India. London is filled with families of wealthy Bangladeshis and back home, the inequality is exceptionally appalling. Tall buildings are sprouting everywhere, if for no other reason than to cut commute time to the city centre for those who can afford the luxury. These buildings are not like one would find in Delhi or Mumbai, these are unplanned. They resemble matchboxes or even bottles of various hues, if one were to describe them more aptly.
The social parameters, health and education indices of Bangladesh are far better than those in India. Mobility of women that forms a larger part of the workforce than in India, too, is noticeable and could be a reason for this. While India shuns NGOs, much of the human development in Bangladesh is the result of NGO activism. NGOs have, over time, become humongous; empires more to say.
The largest, BRAC, employs more than 100,000 people. Can such organisations still be called NGOs? The lines of differentiation become hazy and I would equate it to Tata Trust, which recently gave up its entitlement of a charitable organisation. It is only a matter of time before this is demanded in Dhaka too. Many other NGOs like WAVE foundation also do good work and it shows.
The political atmosphere is more stable, there is unanimity that dissent will be suppressed in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The last prime minister, Khaleda Zia, is imprisoned on corruption charges and it seems likely that she will remain in jail. All the roads are plastered with posters of the ruling alliance, Bangladesh Awami League. Each poster has photo of founder of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rehman prominently displayed. Most posters have a splash of red colour to signify and remind us of the ghastly assassination of the dear founder and his family.
I find time to visit the home of the Bangabandhu, as the founder is popularly called, to learn more about the enigmatic freedom fighter. He and his family were assassinated at their home, which has been turned into a museum. After depositing my phone at the counter, I head to buy the Take 5 ticket. I do not have the required change and I am denied a ticket. A boy standing next to me to buy tickets for himself and his parents, offers to buy my ticket without consulting his parents who are within earshot. They neither object nor care. When I thank the young boy, who couldn’t be over 15, he thanks India for what we have done for Bangladesh.
It is a touching reminder of better times. This feeling towards India is fast eroding. Each one entering the premises is photographed by a person busy watching videos on his TV screen. The museum is in a sad state, dusty displays, empty displays, non-functioning TV screens and lift. The photo of the Bangabandhu’s son and pregnant wife on display remind me of Che Guevara. Outside the museum, in the shop selling memoirs, I am unable to find a single book explaining the circumstances of the assassination in English.
That, after 30 years, the prime minister has to depend on the legacy of the founder, is a sad state of affairs. One is left to ponder if the daughter, Sheikh Hasina Rehman, the current prime minister is doing a disservice to the Bangabandhu by using his image to garner votes. That the opposition to her regime is slowly but steadily eroding the regard for the Bangabandhu to indifference is evident in the small number of visitors to the museum.
I gather the impression that the liberals are in the doldrums, uncertain and worried about the reports of the rise in militant Buddhism in neighbouring Myanmar and Hindu nationalism rearing its head in India and contemplating how long before Bangladesh is torn towards Islamic Jihad. An eminent lawyer tells me the people of the subcontinent look to India’s institutions for moral bearing but with media reports of lynching across India, stories of submissive media and now wavering Indian judiciary, that belief is getting shaken and will have an adverse impact beyond Indian shores.
India desperately needs many iconic soft-spoken editors like Mahfuz Anam editor of Daily Star, the largest selling English daily in Bangladesh. Nearly 100 cases have been filed against him including many of sedition with cumulative damages amounting to over US $6 billion.
India is rightly perceived as a supporter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman but the opposition party is supposedly reaching out to India as well. No amount of Chinese money can turn Bangladesh into a Chinese protectorate but if India socially and morally tears itself apart, even that may well become possible. There is clear unanimity in Bangladesh that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will return to power in 2019 just as every person I meet in Bangladesh is convinced that Sheikh Hasina will return to power though, unlike In India, she is expected to return on the back of a rigged election.
In the last parliamentary elections, 153 parliamentarians were elected unopposed to the 300 member house. Even so a democracy in name is better than an autocracy. Symbolism is better than no symbolism. It is safe for now but he next election in 2024 could see opposition tapping into people’s dissent and violence spilling onto the streets.
Due to a communication error, I arrive at the National Museum instead of the Liberation Museum and the visit is a disaster. The museum is a disappointment. The only things worth seeing are the sculptures. Surprisingly all sculptures are dated 9th to 12th century AD, as if society sprung up overnight. The rooms following them are filled with tablets of Muslim inscriptions and photos of mosques, all constructed post the 14th century AD. If that is the historical message of progression, the museum wants to convey, it has succeeded.
The administrative structure, unlike in India, has no state assemblies. The country is divided into 64 districts run by government-appointed district commissioners. The people on the streets complain of reeking corruption, crony capitalism and police highhandedness. The judiciary may be a little better off and surprisingly there is no military presence on the streets like in Pakistan. People have not forgiven Pakistan and it is possible India too may face the displeasure of the people if things continue the same way.
My guide is from Netrakona, a district headquarters, 135 km from Dhaka but his commute time is five and a half hours. The jams extend far out of Dhaka too. The traffic on the roads is enough to dissuade one from venturing out unless absolutely necessary. My parting thoughts are, first, that any political party that promise to ends traffic jams could win in Bangladesh. No ‘feku’ slogans will be required. Second, a venture capitalist can mint millions starting a scooter taxi service to circumvent the traffic jams. The day dreaming over, after two short days, I am back in India where the Supreme court is trying to desperately bridge some of the growing trust deficit with its ruling on Section 377.
Ajay Vir Jakhar is a Punjab-based citrus farmer. He is the chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, a non-political association of farmers’ advocating the crucial need for India to focus on farmer prosperity.