The Fight for Bangladesh & Everyone's Future

The frontiers of civilization keeps shifting: Now it is in Dhaka. Unlike the American formulation, however, this is not about one kind of civilization up against another. It is a different, but known, variety of struggle - of a modern nation of aspirations against the old structures of repression and fear. The Islamists in Bangladesh, powerful as they always were, have finally come out of woodwork and trying to claim the country: In a rematch of the country's liberation war fought forty years ago, they are, in fact, more ideologically formidable, and may be more numerous. However, they are up against a modern young aspirational nation, no less determined than their forefathers a few generation ago, no less able than the military commanders of the earlier generation.

This time, the battle is fought in proxies. Most powers will sit out on the fence; they ought to: This is a dangerous battle, mostly fought in ideas. While battling against the government, the reactionary forces may unleash a new Bangladeshi spring, that will sweep away them, but also those in power which kept the country impoverished, denied it its potential. This battle, played in Shahabagh in Dhaka, and in other cities around the country, may snowball into a South Asian spring: All governments, powers that be, may have something to fear from it.

What we are seeing in Dhaka is more than just a battle over the country's past. It is a fight to the finish for the country's future. This is about young middle class aspiration taking the streets, the ideas of a modern nation seeking expression, a young country seeking its rightful place, its deserved path, to prosperity, to development. The past was only a prologue - but the battle is for more than just history. This is why it is not meaningless.

One Indian friend wondered why Bangladeshis are so worried about war crimes committed long time ago. His good-natured suggestion was whether a South Africa style Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have been better than a War Crimes Tribunal. I believed he missed the point: Bangladesh is still at war. The forces which wanted to subdue the aspirations of its professional classes are still at work. This is why the country's democracy proved so fragile, so troubled. This is a point when these big questions get settled. This is about something else, not just the war crimes.

There are many reasons why Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan, but there is one key reason. They have always been two countries, right from the start. Pakistan was a British colonial handiwork, an unstable state to be kept in dependency status forever, to keep the dominion of Western powers overlooking Persian Oil, and checking Russian ambitions in Central Asia. But, more than anything, the Pakistani leaders themselves sought protection from the dangerously socialist India, and created the country to keep their landowning undisturbed. But, East Pakistan was just the opposite: It was a peasants', and Professionals', country that wanted to escape the Hindu landlords. From the start, the country's landowning elite wanted to keep the middle class aspirations in control: That was the trigger for its pathetic failed efforts to install Urdu as the state language, thus denying the Bengali speaking middle classes a fair chance. The whole East Pakistan project was to fail, and it did: The Pakistani army's contempt for its own people was always understandable - this was never its own people, just peasants which they thought they could kill at will. 

The trouble is that this battle has never really ended. This battle of privilege versus aspiration went on and on, the successive governments knowing themselves who to side with. Most of the old money and businesses were still under the control of old landowning classes, privileged ones which would rather rule the country with military discipline, but the aspirations of successive generation pulled this beautiful country and its creative, rebellious people to the other direction: To freedom, to shared prosperity and to aspiration. This battle has now come to a head, again. This time, defeat if it happens, will upset the country's power structure unalterably and therefore, the powerful people, the country's old elite, will not give up easily.

This may look like a freak issue, brought to a head by the current Prime Minister's quest for justice for her father's killers, but this is in fact another chapter in the country's freedom struggle. On balance is freedom and democracy, and plutocracy and repression on the other side. The ruling classes in neighbouring countries are afraid. They don't want to unleash the power of th street uncontrollably for the fear of getting drowned by it. But the time for acknowledging the ambitions of the young, the democratic aspirations, have come. Either you will be with it, or against it - and lose badly.



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