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Bangladesh: Troubled Future

Future Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? by Hiranmay Karlekar; Sage, 2005; SARMILA BOSE If the title was meant to attract attention, the author has been pipped to the post by a Bangladeshi writer who recently wrote a book posing the question,

Bangladesh: Troubled

Future

Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan?

by Hiranmay Karlekar; Sage, 2005; pp 311, Rs 320.

SARMILA BOSE

I
f the title was meant to attract attention, the author has been pipped to the post by a Bangladeshi writer who recently wrote a book posing the question, “Is Bangladesh becoming a Taliban state?” It got the attention of plenty of people in Washington, many of whom may have barely heard of Bangladesh but were terrified by the ‘T’ word. Several experienced south Asia hands were wheeled out to reassure the American policy-making elite that Bangladesh was not at the point of imminent collapse into the hands of a one-eyed mullah who once headed the Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, this particular line of thinking has been emanating from Delhi with enough regularity lately to wear off any residual novelty value.

The author also could have dispensed with much of the first chapter. The interpretations of Islam and the historical rise of “fundamentalist” Islam are indeed important issues, but this book is not the place and Karlekar probably is not the best person to address them. When he returns to the topic that is of relevance to the main focus of the book, the creation of Bangladesh, he is unfortunately heavily dependent on one or two sources of doubtful reliability and ends up repeating a number of well-worn myths and clichés, without actually addressing the interesting questions thrown up by some of his remarks.

For example, why did Sheikh Mujibur Rehman suddenly drop the course of vengeance and attempt national reconciliation by declaring a general amnesty (that was extended to members of Islamic parties)? What was the effect of his subsequent “unpopular and authoritarian steps” (personal rule via a one-party state, to put it plainly) on the fledgling state’s stated ideals of democracy or secularism? Or, if both the “mainstream” parties of Bangladesh now “sup” with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), as Karlekar puts it, and the opposition Awami League was corrupt and ineffective in government, where is the space for “secular democracy” in Bangladesh, and what is the point of heaping opprobrium on the present government led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) alone.

Despite the title, Karlekar concedes that Bangladesh is very different from the Afghanistan of the early 1990s – it is much more developed, it has a democratic political system and organised political parties, “a vocal and assertive civil society supported by an active and secular intelligentsia”, and of course, women in important positions of power. His answer: “The positive features attributed above to Bangladesh also applied to Italy and Germany when these countries went under Fascist and National Socialist (Nazi) control respectively”. And so we are catapulted to a comparison of Bangladesh not only with Taliban Afghanistan of the 1990s, but also Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy of the 1920s and 1930s.

Most of the rest of the book is seized with the recent bombings, especially the deadly grenade attack on the opposition Awami League’s rally in August 2004. Apart from pointing out that militancy in the name of Islamic radicalism is a nasty and undesirable phenomenon, (a statement that appears to be preaching to the converted in the “mainstream” world), Karlekar lashes out at two “softies” – the BNP government of Bangladesh for allying with Islamist parties and not taking on the militants, and the Indian government for being too nice to the Bangladeshis even in the face of egregious offences. Islamic terrorist groups, Bangladeshi and Pakistani intelligence agencies are all accused of using Bangladeshi territory to destabilise India while somebody is out to wipe out the Awami League in order to destabilise Bangladesh.

Karlekar expresses much indignation at what he terms the BNP-led government’s attempts to “tarnish India’s image” by alleging a “foreign” hand in the August 2004 bombings and arresting political opponents after every terrorist incident. (Indeed, parts of the book may come in

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

handy for the opposition Awami League’s election campaign.) He argues that the Islamic parties are the ones who stand to gain from a destabilised Bangladesh, and cites numerous instances that he says show a collusive pattern among the BNP-led government, the state machinery and Islamist terrorists.

The trouble is that though the book appears to be heavily documented, the notes reveal it to be almost entirely reliant on one newspaper of Bangladesh and on its internet edition. While very contemporary events do necessitate the use of news reports, this needlessly narrows the basis of Karlekar’s argument. The inclusion of the views of a wide range of Bangladeshi intelligentsia would have helped, but here also Karlekar is mostly limited to one or two individuals.

Perhaps what is most disappointing is the writing. Strings of rhetorical questions, repetitions, sub-headings galore not necessarily addressed by the text that follows, and above all a shrill, hectoring, pamphleteering tone, make it a wearying read of a worrying subject. Yet the issue is an important one. Political violence and persecution in Bangladesh in the name of militant Islam is a serious policy concern

– for Bangladesh itself, as well as India and the region as a whole. The recent escalation of violence, coordinated attacks and possible suicide bombings are deeply worrying. The need remains for a broad-based, informative and thoughtful analyses of what is happening in Bangladesh.

EPW

Email: sarmilabose@yahoo.com

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

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