The fall of Dhaka
AUTUMN, or fall, as the Americans call it, is one of the best times to be in Dhaka. Not this fall though. Visiting the resilient Bangladesh capital, with its teeming, upwardly mobile middle class in late October, twice, in a span of two years entailed different experiences.
Many more years seemed to have been squeezed between the two visits. The clear blue sky, the bright foliage and the road traffic were relatively the same; there were fewer carbon emissions and thus a cleaner, clearer environment; but much of the rest had undergone a sea change.
In Oct 2005, meeting Dhaka felt like conversing with a 20-something-year-old young man, a fresh graduate equipped with his tools and skills and confidently eager to pursue his dreams. This, given his honed Bengali sensibility, also meant a will to change the world around him, making it a better place for tomorrow. Politicians, he reflected, had to reform themselves and the young people like him would make that happen via the ballot.
In Oct 2007, the same young man with the drive to change the world appeared wary and cynical, if not defeated. The glimmer of hope on his face and the passion to be part of it had paled. He spoke with a guarded ease and much less confidence. It was not clear whether rising consumerism and physical comforts in his lifestyle had taken away his resolve to change the world. He looked less ready to bother with his surroundings.
From the airport to the hotel, autocracy hung heavy in the air. The sight of army jawans carrying live ammunition and standing a useless guard was all too conspicuous for comfort. In the five-star hotel, an army of uniformed recruits and plainclothesmen were posted every few steps. Outside the lobby, a contingent was ready to salute the officers making their way in and out of the hotel; a long row of flashy, new SUVs with the army emblem on them waited in queues. Inside, many more young men from the forces were deputed to ensure the visiting and residing officers’ safety; many of the latter now wear two or more hats, some serving as ministers and advisers in the government. Autocracy, Pakistani style, seemed to have found a new home.
“Who are you going to vote for in the next election?” I asked a young participant at a conference of South Asian editors arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross in collaboration with Dhaka University and the official information department.
“Politicians are all bad. I wish the military-led government to stay and call off the election. Politicians loot and plunder and demonstrations cause much disruption. We can do well without all such nonsense. I have a job with the government and wish to rise through merit, without having to submit to the whims of a politician.” He was emphatic.
A young lady had other views. “I am depressed. More than 400 of my friends and teachers have been picked up by the intelligence agencies. We don’t know what the future holds for us. I miss my friends and teachers, and fear for them.”
In the street, too, smiles had gone missing. Like sensitised clones the evening rush hour multitude waited quietly at the bus stop near the parliament building, looking too tired to share what was on their minds. VIP vehicles whizzed past at an electric speed, followed by a trail of luxury personal vehicles. A sense of déjà vu: one could have been in Clifton, Karachi if it weren’t for Dhaka’s new-found cleanliness and manicured greenbelts. In the upscale Gulshan, too, youngsters hopped in and out of dazzling designer outlets and funky-looking restaurants.
A fellow Bangladeshi journalist said: “The corporatisation of the army is underway. They are setting up an economic empire, like the one identified by Ayesha Siddiqa in Pakistan. This is not good for Bangladesh, politically or economically, but nobody will say so. The press is largely docile; many editors and owners are perhaps settling personal scores with politicians. This depoliticisation is no good,” he asserted.
“They (the government) are obsessed with unveiling corruption scandals involving politicians and anyone worth the name, even businessmen,” revealed another journalist.
“The army’s objective is not so much to clean up the mess left behind by the two mainstream parties but to gain popularity, with a view to becoming a public watchdog even after elections,” said another analyst.
A third one revealed that his friends and acquaintances had been approached by the intelligence agencies to dig up dirt on him and be rewarded for it. “I have nothing to hide. I am clean, so I walk free. For how long, I do not know.”
A singer said he felt scared going home after dark. “They might stop me at night and check my car. If they find booze on me, I am damned.”
In Dhaka only a verbal prohibition order is in effect.
“There is no justification for it. The law permits the sale and purchase of alcohol; liquor stores are open and so are the bars in hotels. But it should not be found on you or in your house. This is hypocrisy,” he complained. “The army is doing it only to score points with the people, acting as good Muslims.”
Back at the five-star hotel, the bar had a karaoke floor where showgirls went around soliciting. A young man danced drunk, planting kisses on other men’s cheeks. The country is a people’s republic, though the military dictator Hussein Ershad had declared Friday as the weekly holiday to appease the rightists. Subsequent Awami League and BNP-Jamaat governments kept it despite demands by the business community to restore Sunday as the weekly holiday. Sitting ministers and advisers too have increasingly taken to wearing their faith on their sleeves.
A high-ranking official, with impeccable manners, told me so in so many words: “I am a practising, God-fearing Muslim. I pray five times a day and fast in the holy month. I stay away from all that is forbidden by Allah.”
The declaration was made aloud for all to hear, mainly for the plainclothesmen present at the afternoon tea. It was uncharacteristic of Bengali ethos, and there was no occasion for it.
High officials present at the international editors’ conference began their speeches by reciting Bismillah and greeting the audience with Assalam-o-Alaikum. All stressed the need for media to observe responsibility while exercising freedom of expression. Some senior Bangladeshi editors, too, nodded in acquiescence. One said the press was looking forward to the unveiling of a new law on freedom of the press.
Among the audience were present many plainclothesmen or the new, depoliticised bunch of university students, those who had not been picked up during the recent crackdown on Dhaka University after which it was closed for weeks to reopen only on Oct 28. During question hours youngsters rose to advise the editors on the media’s role in society, placing undue emphasis on exercising self-censorship, restraint and caution in political reporting.
This was a far cry from the politically vibrant, liberated and confident Dhaka experienced in 2005.
Reorienting youth policies
RECENTLY, President Pervez Musharraf expressed his resolve to extend greater support to youth affairs. Whereas the president’s intention sounded noble, there is little evidence that the situation will change in any way.
More than half the population of Pakistan comprises young people below 21 years. For obvious reasons, their needs are different from those of older people. Opportunities of education, skill development, an enabling environment for a healthy lifestyle, sports and recreation facilities and, above all, a promising future are what the young want. It is disappointing to note that policymakers have failed to effect changes on the ground.
Quality education with access to opportunities is the foremost need of the young. The number of institutions of higher learning in the country are not more than 200. Thus a mere five per cent of the youth are likely to enroll in university. Even within this narrow parameter, the guarantee of quality education is acutely limited. Institutional infrastructure does not exist for technical and vocational training, and the moth-eaten structure of polytechnics and technical training centres died an early death due to utter neglect on the part of the public sector departments concerned with these.
In the past, several polytechnics were established with the collaboration of developed countries which not only helped in setting up institutes but also sent senior staff to manage them for some time. A decadent law and order situation and student politics soon paralysed these seats of learning. In a ghastly accident some years ago, the European principal of a joint venture institute was shot dead in broad daylight. In this year alone, more than 30 students and young people in Karachi have been killed in clashes or targeted by terrorism.
Growing intolerance and the declining ability of the government has adversely affected the normal running of institutions. Riots, political skirmishes and the resulting closures of educational institutions cause frustration to brew among the ranks of positive-minded young people. Unless the government strictly enforces order and restores peace to campuses, the youth will continue to suffer.
More than 35 million young and adolescent women constitute Pakistan’s youth. They can be marked as the most deprived and vulnerable section of the population. Growing intolerance towards women, reduction in their social status by design, governmental inability to ensure the rights to life and freedom, shrinking spaces — even for biological existence — are some of the growing menaces for our young women.
Opportunities to acquire basic literacy are reduced to half when compared to their male counterparts. Armed with the false pretension of morality, reactionary elements in various parts of the country have created multiple taboos to restrict the basic rights of women.
Abject poverty and restrictions on social mobility affect a sizable segment of young people. Low scale of economic productivity, resourcelessness, lack of adequate support services and the absence of monetary or knowledge capital do not allow a substantial number of young people to cross the subsistence level.
It may be noted that perpetual poverty generates a feeling of helplessness that eventually causes frustration of an acute kind. The general attitude of the young people on the streets and in public places clearly conveys their sense of despair through their body language. Feverish marketing of plush lifestyles by the media has also raised the demands of young people.
A high rate of crime, violence, lawlessness and indisciplined behaviour emerges when demands remain unmet. Poverty has several drastic repercussions. Many young people fall prey to extremist outfits who lure them into violence and terrorism. The spread of social and moral disorders is also a direct outcome of frustration born of unfulfilled expectations. General anarchy in society intensifies as the youth lose their faith in laws, systems and codes of conduct. This also drains their talent.
The government’s response to this crisis is to announce projects and programmes meant to create jobs. But this approach has severe limitations of scale and outreach. Even the most powerful and resourceful regime cannot extend direct employment to the entire population.
Instead, it would be more feasible to work towards the creation of an enabling environment, removal of inefficiencies (such as lack of infrastructure), reduction of regional disparities, strategic use of subsidies, effective control of corruption (to restore public trust) and the generation of a foolproof law and order situation that could channel human and capital input for corresponding outputs. Sadly, the regime has betrayed its citizens — especially the youth — on this count.
Youth is a resource not to be wasted. At present, the bulk of the world population is young. Many countries have taken effective measures to deal with problems of this vibrant section of society and has come up with simple but far-reaching strategies.
For example, Cambodia launched a youth volunteer service to help the rural youth increase food productivity by learning appropriate techniques in agriculture. Many other countries have also followed similar approaches. To ensure early productivity, young people are provided multiple choices to acquire skills while at school.
Technical and vocational education, apprenticeship programmes, small-scale entrepreneurship, consolidation of work opportunities in the informal sector, incentives to prevent dislocation from home towns/settlements, gender specific policies to support young women and the creation of financial products by the banking sector have all proved useful in helping the youth realise their potential and move up the ladder of social mobility.
The unendurable truth
IN 2005, just after the identity of London’s 7/7 bombers had been ascertained there was a phrase missing from almost all the media coverage. That phrase was: British terrorists. Instead, the most common adjective used to describe the suicide bombers was ‘homegrown’ though ‘British-born-and-bred’ and ‘British citizens of Pakistani origin’ were also doing the rounds.
The last term was, for me, the most objectionable in its insidious way of handing off responsibility to a country in which the four men never lived.
At first glance, ‘British-born-and-bred’ appeared far less problematic than ‘British citizens of Pakistani origin’. It was, after all, asserting and re-asserting the Britishness of the men — they were not just born, but born and bred in Britain. And yet. That addition of ‘born and bred’ called attention to itself, and begged the question of why it need exist at all. Why not simply say ‘British’? What is the difference between someone who is ‘British’ and someone who is ‘British-born-and-bred’?
The longer I thought about the phrase ‘British-born-and-bred-terrorists’ the more it bothered me. At the most literal level it created a distance between the words ‘British’ and ‘terrorist’ — but it wasn’t only at the literal level that it had that distancing effect.
There was, within the phrase, the suggestion of something that could be at work beyond birth and breeding in shaping individuals. Some outside force, some otherness. They are of us, but they are not us, is what the phrase suggests. There is Britishness in them, but they are not quite British.
This brings us to the most commonly used adjective to describe the bombers: homegrown. As with ‘born-and-bred’ what was the need for an adjective at all? What was the need, particularly, for such a de-humanising adjective? The images it brought to mind were of some foreign body ‘taking root’ (within the context, perhaps even ‘transplanted’) in ‘British soil’.
In other words, the use of adjectives separating nationality from noun seemed like an evasion, a mediating factor between Britishness and terrorism.
But why? Why were so few people saying ‘the terrorists were British’? The easy answer was that there remain people in Britain who feel that if you are Muslim and of Asian descent you aren’t really British. I don’t doubt that’s part of the truth for some of the people using that language.
But there was more to it than that I realised (I was in London the weeks just after the bombing) — there was also a genuine sense of shock in Britain that the capital city, which only a day before was revelling in Olympic success, should be targeted by people who hated what the city stands for sufficiently to kill themselves over it.
That those people should have grown up in Britain, understood its realities, been educated in its schools and (in one case) worked in a fish-and-chips shop made it almost unendurable. To say ‘British terrorists’ or ‘British bombers’ was to confront, without flinching, that almost unendurable truth.
It was easier in the aftermath to suggest (as many news reports did) that the bombers were brainwashed during their trips to Pakistan, rather than that they went to Pakistan after becoming radicalised. And then, when it became clear that the case was more complex, it was easier to say this was a ‘Muslim problem’ rather than a British one.
More than two years on, a two-part drama on Channel 4 is confronting that easy viewpoint. Peter Kosminsky’s Britz, which aired earlier this week in the UK follows the stories of two siblings: Sohail and Naseema. Both are young Britons, with parents who migrated from Pakistan before their children were born. In a post 7/7 world their lives take very different courses, as one joins MI-5 and the other enters a training camp for suicide bombers.
Before the drama made it to the screens there was already an outcry. The British Muslim Forum asked for the show to be axed on the grounds that Channel 4 should not be “sowing hate and division in our communities, and reinforcing negative stereotypes” — and the Home Office jumped in to say that Channel 4 “should listen to the views of moderate Muslims…and they should air those views alongside this film”.
Having viewed review copies of Britz prior to those comments I could only shake my head — not in surprise, but with a weary resignation. The whole point of the two-part structure of the drama and its equal time spent on each of the siblings is precisely to air more than singular viewpoint, and to show how it is possible for two people from the same family, with the same upbringing, to take such radically different courses.
If the first part — about the MI-5 agent — is weaker than the second it isn’t because Sohail is less convincing, but because an outpouring of TV shows in the last few years have showed us the narrative of the intelligence agents working against suicide bombers so often that there is a certain ‘I’ve seen this all before’ quality with parts of Sohail’s story.
Really, the reason why this is a show which generates so much controversy is its decision to make Naseema’s path follow on from a feeling of political rage and impotence rather than religious fanaticism.
She is not a template for would-be suicide bombers around the world; instead her story is very much that of a British citizen, reacting to her life and the lives of her friends in Britain. This is not a documentary about why 9/11 happened — it is about what happened afterwards.
In Sohail’s world we see how anti-terrorism legislation can help in the fight to apprehend terrorists; in Naseema’s world we see how the same legislation can catch the innocent in its net and fuel violent rage. Britz is not without its flaws — both siblings seem to come too quickly to certain dramatic decisions — but as its title reveals it is, finally, a direct look at the near unendurable truth: there’s something rotten in the state of Britain, and it won’t do to simply tell the British Muslims to get their house in order.
The writer is a novelist.
|© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007|