The contrast of politics and the pastoral in Bangladesh


Beaudin Bennett is a UVic Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) and Students for Development intern working with the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants (WARBE) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This is the second of two instalments that share his experiences.

In early February 2013, less than a month after I arrived in Dhaka, a controversial court verdict of life imprisonment for politician and Islamic scholar Abdul Kader Mollah was delivered. Mollah, a leader of the main Islamist party in Bangladesh, was found guilty of crimes against humanity during the war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. Mollah flashed a V sign — as in V for victory — to the press scrum waiting for him outside the Dhaka courtroom. The image was broadcast across the country and appeared in many of the country’s major newspapers, resulting in a spontaneous demonstration at Shabagh, a street intersection in downtown Dhaka not far from Dhaka University. Protesters were outraged by the perceived leniency of the sentence.

In Canada, a life sentence verdict would be as tough as it gets, despite the clichés about convicts sitting in a “Club Fed” pen playing golf and eating gourmet meals. In Bangladesh, however, where you can still be sentenced to be “hanged by the neck until dead,” a life sentence can come off as a tad soft. Especially considering Mollah was convicted of the 1971 rape and murder of pro-independence activists and minority Hindus, as well as the burning of their homes and businesses. Shabagh thus became the centre of a grassroots populist push to have Mollah hanged. It was a natural reaction for Bangladeshis: justice was not served, they felt, and the best way to make this known was to gather immediately in a public place of national prominence and demonstrate their displeasure.

“I was there in the first days,” said 29-year-old Kamrul Hasan, a WARBE employee and a graduate of Dhaka University’s political science master’s program. “There were very few people, but the next day the common people came. It started unintentionally [but became] a movement for the young generations.”

Indeed, within a few days the movement leaders had adopted a new name for Shabagh: Projonmo Chottor, or New Generation Square. Like their parents who had the Liberation War of 1971 as their generational symbol of struggle, these people — mostly students — made their symbolic struggle for justice synonymous with Shabagh. But whereas the generation of 1971 was focused on independence for Bangladesh, the generation of today wants its collective voice to be considered in court proceedings.

“I have some reservations about these protestors,” said my 20-year-old neighbour, Mashruk, as we searched for a tuk-tuk to take us to Shabagh one Friday afternoon. “I feel like this is mob rule.” Later, listening to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina react to the Shabagh protest by recommending that the courts take the wishes of the people into consideration when delivering their verdicts, I couldn’t help but agree — it was unsettling to hear young children chant “fashi, fashi, fashi chai!” (rough translation: “hang, hang, we want them to hang!”).

And just as there are differences between Bangladesh and elsewhere, there are differences within Bangladesh, too. In the city, for example, you’re a pinball in a pinball machine, bouncing from one place to the next, never quite knowing which way you will go or how you will be propelled there. Lights flash; horns sound in your ear and you curse; rickshaw bells ring, their pullers crying for your business. Everyone and everything seems to want to push or pull you somewhere else. “Hey boss! Boss! Good food. Nice place. Come!”

But in the relative peace of the countryside, you are a leaf in a brook, drifting slowly, idling in small villages that hold your attention like a back eddy and moving passively between meals, concerned only with the next trip to the Ganges, where you will swim with the river dolphins or help a fisherman empty his nets.

Away from the city, politics is something that plays out on the local television set or on the front page of the newspaper, and most farmers could not be bothered with it. The simple life is the status quo, and for farmers the simple life is the planting and harvesting of crops, evening prayers and spending free time at the local tea stand, discussing the season’s market rate for rice or when the rains might come.

Farming tools — like the life of the Bangladeshi farmer, and in contrast to the complicated political machinery of Bangladeshi party politics — are simple, designed with a single purpose in mind and limited resources. Ploughs are handmade and, except for a spade-like device that cuts the earth, constructed entirely of wood. Hand sickles are used to harvest the spring wheat crop. During the sugar cane harvest, cane is transported to the mills on wooden-wheeled bamboo carts hauled by great, black, mythical-looking water buffalo.

To meet the demand for agricultural equipment, carpenters set up shop under banyan trees and — smoking beedis and using chisel, hammer, adze and rasp — craft wheels, carts, ploughs and other farm implements. A Canadian pub might have an antique, handmade plough hanging on the wall. One person’s present is another’s past.

In his admiration of human diversity, American expatriate author and translator Paul Bowles stated, “I assume it is natural for a traveller to seek diversity, and that it is the human element which makes him most aware of difference. If people and their manner of living were alike everywhere, there would not be much point in moving from one place to another.” More so than a country’s food, politics or rural/urban divide, it is people that make a place unique.