By Rahnuma Ahmed
As I’d explained in my column published on February 13, 2012, I’d disappeared from these pages to work on three manuscripts intended for Boi Mela 2012. While they missed the bus — more work needs to be done for them to see the light of day — but what did make it to the Mela is a collection edited by Udisa Islam, for which I’d written the foreword.
Bikkhobh Shonkolon: Joruri Obosthay Bisshobiddaloy 2007 (Dhaka: Shrabon, 2012) is an archival collection, in print, of the student protests which broke out in August 2007, when army personnel stationed in an army camp on Dhaka University grounds beat up university students who were watching a football match. Dubbed a “trivial incident” (tuccho ghotona) by the then chief of general staff Sina Ibn Jamali, student protests mushroomed, enveloping other public university campuses, and college campuses as well. Protests spilled out on to the streets of Dhaka and other major cities, expressing growing popular discontentment and resentment at the military-installed caretaker government’s rule. The so-called “trivial incident” proved to be a resounding nail in the caretaker government’s coffin.
The government crackdown was vicious. Student halls were raided, universities were closed down, students were asked to vacate dormitories, curfew was declared, young men were approached on roads and streets by police and joint forces personnel, those who identified as students were beaten up, taken away, tortured, thrown into prison for having instigated the protests. As were university faculty, four belonging to Dhaka University, ten from Rajshahi University, many of them senior academics, some were remanded, some allege having been tortured, mentally, physically, or both. A staggering eighty two thousand unnamed persons were charged in nearly fifty cases by the police.
Teachers and students were released from jail 4-5 months later as a gesture of clemency but only after they’d been tried in fabricated cases and had been convicted; all cases against all arrested teachers and students were finally dropped after the present government came to power.
Bikkhobh Shonkolon consists of news reports, editorials, commentaries, scanned images of scribbled notes sent from prison by RU teachers, a poem written by a jailed faculty member, a letter from prison written by another to his wife (Udisa herself, who was then married to Abdullah al-Mamun, who teaches journalism in RU), cartoons, excerpts of courtroom proceedings, official letters issued by university authorities, Fakhruddin’s speech to the nation following the protests, a letter to the vice-chancellor written by the wives of four imprisoned RU teachers who had refused appealing for a mercy petition to free their husbands, two diary entries by Udisa herself describing to the minutest detail of how she’d fought tooth and nail to ensure the release of Mamoon and all others arrested — and much, much more. The Shonkolon is an invaluable piece of work, put together meticulously, with great care and attention to details, inspired by the idea of historycommons, of being the conscious subjects, rather than the objects of history. We are indebted to Udisa, and to all others associated with this endeavour.
While working on my Foreword, it occurred to me that what had then been described, and very courageously too, as a ‘military-installed caretaker government’ — coined by Nurul Kabir, I salute him, and Asafuddowlah, Amir Khasru and others who consistently used it during what were, to say the least, very difficult times — possibly, it is better, more meaningful, to characterise it as a ‘consortium’ government. If what I’ve written, furthers our understanding of the machinations of national and international politics, it is only because of their cutting intelligence and uncompromising bravery.
After the Fakhruddin-Moeenuddin government took over power, it gradually became clear that this caretaker government enjoyed the support of shusheel shomaj (civil society; the Bangladeshi variant could be no further than what either Gramsci or Habermas had meant by the term), and western (and regional) diplomats.
The lapse of time has its advantages, and reflecting on the events, and connecting the dots, it seems to me, that the military-installed caretaker government would be better described as a ‘consortium’ government constituted by national and international forces.
The dictionary meaning of consortium is ‘an association of two or more individuals, companies or organisations with the objective of participating in a common activity or pooling their resources for acheiving a common goal,’ and, as I worked on the foreword, I thought to myself, well, actually, 1/11 could not have been made to happen by any of the three constitutive elements singly — the military leadership, shusheel shomaj, western diplomats.
But I must add an explicatory note here, at the very outset. While for reasons of structural analysis, it is important to identify the chief components of the consortium government — in order to fully appreciate its uniqueness, its foundational character — the inclusion of particular individuals in the council of advisors makes it apparent that they were selected because they represented particular interests among the elite class, namely, military and civil bureaucracy, business.
It is also important to note that an examination of the personal histories of the advisors reveals that they had been able to synthesise different interests in their careers. For instance, Geetiara Safia Chowdhury (business and media by virtue of being the owner of an advertising agency), Tapan Chowdhury (business and electronic media), Barrister Moinul Hossein (one of the owners of daily Ittefaq, legal profession) . The advisory council also included within its ranks senior retired army officers (major general M A Matin, major general ASM Matiur Rahman), and members of the civil bureaucracy (Ayub Quadri, Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury).
Not all members of the advisory council seem to have been equally informed about the aims and objectives of the consortium government, nor do they seem to have enjoyed equal powers. It is important to note that there were individuals outside the council who enjoyed considerably more power and authority than those within the council. Another matter worthy of mention is that it was senior military officials who were later tasked with the duty of fulfilling two of the stated goals of the consortium government: general Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury (Anti-Corruption Commission), retired brigadier general Sakhawat Hossain (Election Commission). The council was headed by former World Bank official Fakhruddin Ahmed, previously unknown to members of the public. Something else worth noting is that although Moeen U Ahmed, being the chief of army staff, was not meant to be present at the meetings of the council, he is reported to have not missed a single meeting.
To return to the three constitutive forces which made up the consortium government, it needs to be spelt out, even though it must be obvious to all, that this government, representing as it did different forces and interests, was not united. The power, authority and status enjoyed by the three constitutive forces were not equal either. Differences of opinion over issues of policy and strategy existed among the national elements (both within and outside the council); these increasingly became visible later.
While the participation and involvement of the military leadership and shusheel shomaj was essential for achieving the central objective of the consortium government — remapping the political field — the steering capacity of the consortium project, and the consortium government, rested in the hands of western diplomats/governments.