RESISTING RAMPAL

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‘Go back NTPC, get out India’
rahnuma ahmed

Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 20, 2016. © Taslima Akhter
Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 20, 2016. © Taslima Akhter

Of all the slogans raised in protest against the coal power plant being built at Rampal in Bagerhat, this one’s the best.

It has a certain ring to it. If it hasn’t struck you already on one of the long marches or processions (a fence-sitter? shame on you), you could watch ‘Ek Ho Ladai Karo,’ a short documentary made by Indian activists of the Dhaka to Khulna four-day long march, held in March 2016 on youtube. Indian citizens joined Bangladeshis to call on our government to save the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, sprawling on either side of the Bangladesh-India border.

For reasons unknown, both governments seem bent on destroying the Bangladeshi part of the forest through collaborating on a joint venture project —the building of a 1,320 megawatt imported coal-fired power plant —14 kilometres to the north of the forest. Indian activists are concerned because destruction of the forest on this side will affect fishworkers and forest dwellers on their side, but also because they do not want their government’s actions to harm a neighbouring country. They insist on exposing, as do activists on this side, that `development’ is often a cover for furthering corporate interests, they want inter-country friendship initiatives to serve the interests of common people rather than that of the `big bosses’ – politicians, bureaucracy, business, military, more often than not, a nexus of all four.

At 4:38 mts into the vimeo, an activist enters the frame, his voice rings out on the bullhorn, “Go back NTPC!” Scores of young protestors, many with colourful placards held high — Sundorbon dhongsho kore bidyut kendro chai na (We don’t want a power plant at the cost of the Sundarbans), PSC chukti batil koro (Cancel the PSC contract), Muktijuddher akankhar rashtro o shongbidhan kayem koro (We want a state and constitution fulfilling the aspirations of the war of liberation) — yell out in reply, “Get out India.”

The two-step sequence of a lead voice shouting (“Go back NTPC!”), followed by a chanting reply (“Get out India”) shortens, as the protestors, some dancing to a hip-hop beat, others swaying to the jangle of a tambourine, yell to a quickened tempo, “Go back, get out India.” The last time around, it almost sounds like the lilt of a filmi song, “Get out India-a-a-a.”

The slogan has since been memorialised by singer Amal Akash and others of Samageet in a song bearing the same title (recordings of live performances at rallies and demos can be watched on youtube).

Slogans can energise and direct, they can express the soul of a movement, most importantly, they are on the lips of all.

Open letter to Indian PM, and an uncivil High Commission

On October 18, 2016, the National Committee, in an open letter to the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, called on India to scrap the Rampal power project.

The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports (NCPOGMRPP, popularly known as the Jatiya, or National, Committee), the umbrella organisation spearheading the Save Sundarbans movement, patiently detailed ‘why’ in its nearly 2,500-word letter: India is the major partner of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project (commonly known as the “Rampal bidyut kendra“), which is a joint venture of the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) of India; the latter is responsible for planning, building and operating the plant; Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) is responsible for engineering, procurement and construction; and ExIm Bank, a state bank of India, is financing the project. (“Scrap Rampal power plant project, save Sunderbans. Open letter to the prime minister of India on October 18, 2016,” New Age, October 19, 2016).

The setting up of a coal power plant so near to the world’s largest mangrove forest, a world heritage site, will spell disaster for the entire ecosystem and biodiversity of the forest, 40 million people live in the southern coastal belt of Bangladesh but the entire coastal community is alarmed at the plan; the livelihoods of 3-4 million forest dwellers and fisherpeople of Bangladesh who are dependent on the Sundarbans and adjacent water bodies will be severely affected, while that of 5 million people living on the Indian side, will be gravely endangered.

The proposed plant has been opposed by UNESCO, the Ramsar Authority, and the South Asian Human Rights Forum; the Norwegian Council of Ethics has withdrawn investment of the government’s pension fund in the Rampal project, as it poses a “high risk of severe environmental damage.”

More recently, at the World Economic Forum in Davos (January 2017), Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States, advised prime minister Sheikh Hasina not to build the “dirty coal plant” in the Sundarbans but to “double down on a more rapid shift to renewable energy.” A feat that was not impossible as Bangladesh had, until 2015, been the “fastest deploying nation in all the world for solar panels” by building two per minute.

The open letter to prime minister Modi was delivered to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka by a delegation of five, consisting of the former director-general of the power cell B D Rahmatullah, lyricist, singer and cultural activist Kafil Ahmed, two Dhaka University academics, Dr Tanzim Khan, department of international relations, and Moshahida Sultana, department of accounting and information systems, and I, myself. Since the programme had been announced well in advance, officials at the High Commission must have known we were coming, but yet, they behaved strangely. As did Bangladeshi officials (members of law-enforcing agencies including the police, various intelligence agencies, plus a magistrate or two).

I found the police’s behaviour ‘strange’ because when our peaceful procession, headed by the National Committee’s leaders intent on delivering the letter en masse to the Indian High Commission, had reached the Mauchak intersection and Malibagh rail crossing, riot police blocked the road and fired countless canisters of tear gas at us, startled at the sudden attack we ran for cover, some among the badly injured were rushed to a nearby hospital, when we regrouped we were told that only a handful would be allowed to go to Gulshan (the diplomatic ‘enclave’). When the five of us reached the High Commission in Gulshan, we discovered a small police contingent waiting on the main road, eager to escort us to the building. No tear gas, no water cannon, all smiles.

The High Commission is located in a side road, our (police) reception committee requested us to get down from the car and walk (not drive) up to the High Commission. Ten to twelve yards away from the building, we were requested to stop and wait. As we hung around, I watched a tall fair-skinned man come out of the High Commission, he obviously worked there. He stood by the doorway, looked self-important, threw his arms around, but his arrogance couldn’t hide his nervousness. The meaning of the flapping around was clear a few minutes later, only one of us would be permitted inside. We chose B D Rahmatullah, who promptly went in.

We waited outside, surrounded by a bevy of police officers, trying in vain to strike up a conversation. To ferret out information? (there isn’t any, it’s all out in the open). So, one of them asked Tanzim, what’s your designation, sir? I mean what’s your post or rank in the movement? Startled at their ignorance, we told them off, ‘belonging to a people’s movement is voluntary, it’s not a chakri, there’s no financial remuneration, it’s all about ideals and social commitment’ etc., etc. But I had a gnawing feeling later, maybe it is the NGO-isation of social movements which had led them to ask what they did. As Arundhati Roy has tersely written, resistance is now threatening to turn into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried preoccupation. With perks and increments thrown in (“The NGO-ization of resistance,” massalijn.nl, 4 Sep 2014).

Rahmat bhai came out ten minutes later. He had been shown into the reception area of the building, a man, probably a clerk, was seated at a desk. A woman employee came out from another room, Rahmat bhai told her he wanted to hand over the National Committee’s letter to a High Commission official. She told him to wait, someone would be coming out shortly, then disappeared into an inner sanctum, never to be seen again. After a long wait, the phone rang, the clerk received it, nodded his head at instructions from the other end, and told Rahmat bhai to leave the letter with him. When Rahmat bhai requested that the seal of the High Commission be affixed to a photocopy of the letter, as a sign of acknowledgement that it had been received, he was stiffly told that the High Commission would do no such thing.

We left for Maghbazar to go see injured fellow processionists who were being treated in a hospital there. As the microbus sped along Hatirjheel, I couldn’t help but wonder, why had the High Commission reacted as it did? The flapping of arms, photographing us from the rooftop, was it chance, or had embassy officials been instructed to behave as they did? If so, how high had the instructions come from? We had gone as a concerned citizens group, representing a people’s movement, to deliver a letter for the Indian head of government because the state of India was a partner to the project; the cause (saving the Sundarbans), and support for it, spanned borders. Was civil behaviour too much to expect? Was there no one at the High Commission educated enough to talk to us? Was there no substance behind the closed doors, and the huff-and-puff on display?

Weeks later, I rang Rahmat bhai to ensure that I had gotten the facts of his reception inside the High Commission, right. He was still furious. Bangladesh is a sovereign country but under the present government, we have less respect than their state governments, West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee has more clout than our prime minister, put that in, write it in your column. We have become their slaves, they didn’t even offer me a chair, it’s disgusting, say, I said that.

Of “strong anti-Indian sentiments,” and “extra sweeteners”

The 18th October 2016 programme was part of the joint Bangladesh-India civil society resistance to Rampal. At a press conference held in New Delhi on the same day, Indian people’s movements, green and civil rights organisations and activists, expressed their solidarity with the National Committee’s appeal to scrap the project. In an open letter to their prime minister, the Indians opposed it in the strongest possible terms, it would cause “irreversible damage to [the] Sundarbans and the fragile ecosystem around it,” it will have a “devastating impact” on thousands of Indian fishworkers and forest dwellers, it will “damage” the natural protection the forest affords against natural calamities (tsunami, cyclone), in sum, the project will cause “colossal damage” to the “people and environment in India and Bangladesh.”

The letter “condemned” the death threats received by professor Anu Muhammad, member secretary of the National Committee, and urged Mr. Modi to “request the Bangladeshi government to ensure the safety of political activists” here.

Forty-one organisations were signatories to the letter (beside several individual activists) and they included, Narmada Bachao Andolan; All India Union of Forest Working People; National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM); All India Forum of Forest Movements; Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF); Greenpeace India; South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People; International Rivers South Asia; and South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED).

According to news reports of the press conference, Madhuresh Kumar of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) commented on the “strong anti-Indian sentiments” present in the anti-Rampal protests of March 2016, which could be exploited by “fundamentalist groups.” He added, most perceptively, “The public sector companies in India and Bangladesh in the case of the Rampal plant have been ‘behaving in the manner in which the private sector companies do.'” (Daily Star, October 19, 2016).

Jai Sharda, investment advisor and founder of Equitorials, a Mumbai-based financial research firm, in an article in Huffington Post writes, India would be serving its interests better if it were to help Bangladesh develop “a series of solar power plants” instead of building an “expensive coal-based power plant.” Rampal’s use of “outdated super-critical technology” would violate the goals of moving towards “a low-carbon economy,” plus, the subsidies would hinder the building of “efficient capacities.” But despite these subsidies — by all accounts major ones from the governments of both Bangladesh and India — Bangladesh has a lot to lose, the electricity produced will be “very expensive,” 30% more than the average cost of electricity in Bangladesh (Huffington Post, June 24, 2016).

The irony of the Indian government’s support for the Rampal power project is not lost on Sharda. While India supports the development of coal-based power in Bangladesh, it is itself moving away from coal, toward an “ambitious” renewable energy programme geared toward making India “self-sufficient in power” (targets 175GW of renewable capacity by 2022). Also, of “boost[ing] the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Make-in-India initiative by promoting manufacturing of solar equipment in the country.”

Out of three bidders, BHEL was awarded the $1.49 billion construction contract by the Bangladesh-India Friendship Company in January 2016. According to press reports, the contract, which was due to be signed within “a few days,” was delayed by BHEL until “extra sweeteners” — exemptions from taxes and duties, mandatory insurance process – were awarded. The contract was signed (July 2016), only after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina intervened. Greg Aitken observes,

“In what could be a worrying precedent for Bangladesh’s state coffers when the involvement of Indian companies is sought for major infrastructure projects, it’s also been reported that it took a personal intervention from Prime Minister Sheikk [sic] Hasina in April to settle the tax waiver in BHEL’s favour.” (BankTrack, August 11, 2016).

Aitken, more forthright than Sharda, writes, “Delhi is running the Rampal show and putting Indian interests first.” It is reported that Coal India will be supplying 4 million tonnes of Indian coal annually to fuel Rampal. In that case, the EIA (Environmental Assessment Impact)’s calculation of emission and pollution will be proven faulty, having been based on coal from Australia, Indonesia and South Africa, not Indian coal, generally regarded to be of a “lower grade.”

But, as Aitken reminds us, there is worse to come if the Rampal power plan follows through,

“The mounting coal glut in India may, however, have an even bigger long-term outlet near the Sundarbans—as the controversy over the currently proposed plant rages, an often overlooked detail in the EIA is the alarming proposal to build a second 1320 megawatt coal plant adjacent to the first “in the future.” (emphasis mine).

True, the Orion Group is scheduled to build the second coal plant.

But for now, I want to stick to Rampal, why should the Bangladesh government, in what is a state-to-state collaborative venture, accede to, abide by the Indian government’s policy of “putting Indian interests first”?

“Wisdom sinners” on the Awami League’s website

“No country raises a hue and cry over the issue but in our country the wisdom sinners are making a hue and cry. Who are they? They themselves cannot do anything good but always obstruct others from doing something good,” she said (emphasis added).

On 27th August 2016, prime minister Sheikh Hasina held a press conference on the Sundarbans at her Gonobhobon residence. I read a report of the conference on the Awami League’s website (www.albd.org). The lines quoted above are taken from the report.

"We will not let Sundarbans be destroyed to protect Indian interests." Protest outside National Press Club, Dhaka. February 25, 2017. © Shahidul Alam
“We will not let Sundarbans be destroyed to protect Indian interests.” Protest outside National Press Club, Dhaka. February 25, 2017. © Shahidul Alam

 

Those who like to wag their tongues say, the prime minister would not have addressed a press conference if her arch-rival, the former prime minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), had not lent her support to the Sundarbans movement a couple of days earlier. There are other alternatives to generating power, said Khaleda Zia, but there is no alternative to the Sundarbans. She called on the government to cancel the Rampal power plant and all other “thoughtless, irrational and unprofitable coal power plants” in the country (bdnews24.com, August 24, 2016).

Maybe. Maybe the prime minister took her opponent’s call seriously. That the National Committee didn’t is clear from what the leaders said at their press conference of 29th August 2016. Both the Awami League and the BNP oppose the National Committee when in power but conveniently reverse their roles when in opposition; any kind of alliance with the BNP was “out of the question” because it had also “inked deals against the national interest.” Professor Anu Muhammad added, Khaleda Zia’s recent words of support were being used by the prime minister to “smear” the National Committee’s movement (bdnews24.com, August 29, 2016).

Gyan paapi is a Bangla metaphor for “one who sins wilfully,” i.e., bad deeds are exempted from punishment if they were committed in innocence but sinful in the eyes of the Creator, if committed knowingly, wilfully. Whoever translated gyan paapi was probably at a loss and opted for the easy way out: treat the words separately, dig up their English meanings, gyan (wisdom) + paapi (sinner), put the two together, voila, “wisdom sinner.”

A mistranslation is a mistranslation but rather than blaming the hapless soul responsible for the deed, other thoughts raced through my head, does no one ever read what’s posted on the website? How can the ruling party’s, the Awami League’s, official website misrepresent their leader, I mean for God’s sake it’s her own party’s website, she’s a national leader, she’s the current prime minister, why should she be made to sound nonsensical? And this is information made available on the internet, wasn’t “digital Bangladesh” their campaign promise? While a `cultural’ divide does exist in Bangladesh (like the rest of South Asia) between the handful who go to English medium schools vs. the majority educated in Bangla (both situated above the sea of people with no benefit of schooling), the Awami League, particularly its current leader, has a vast army of sycophants with degrees in higher education, ranging from university teachers, journalists, writers, diplomats, playwrights, poets, CEOs, bankers, lawyers, admen, bureaucrats, vice-chancellors, Bangladeshi expatriates and so on, does no one bother to read the party’s website? Who is it for? Why does the Awami League even bother to have an English website if no one oversees its contents, checks to see whether what the prime minister says has been conveyed accurately, why is no one bothered that English-speaking readers may laugh at what she says? What about her bhabmurti?

Hold it, I thought to myself, maybe I’m taking it all too seriously. I decide to turn to Translation Studies instead.

Translation is not unproblematic, write the editors of a collection of scholarly papers on new, critical approaches to translation, which problematises the West-centredness of the principles of translation (Judy Wakabayashi and Rita Kothari eds., Decentering Translation Studies. India and beyond, 2009).

The notion of fidelity to the text is a Western concept, viewing the ‘source’ text as sacred developed in the West because often enough, the translated text was a sacred text, i.e., the Bible—the most canonical text of the West. The translation of the Bible was idealised in the West, hence, the notion of fidelity to the text gained significance. This can, and has, led to conceptual limitations, it has privileged literacy over orality, it has assumed that the anxiety about ‘original’ and ‘translation’ is universal, it has unquestioningly accepted Eurocentric notions of ‘fixity’ of text, and the need to respect the text’s boundaries. Translational practices and ideas from non-Western contexts have been ignored, for instance, the possibility that orientations and attitudes to local religious texts may have very different epistemological foundations. For instance, the authors say, a sacred text in India is much more loose and interpretative, a plurality of interpretations of sacred texts in different art forms, dance, sculpture, poetry, does not constitute “a fall from the origin” (is not considered debasing, sinful).

Other writers have written about the text not being a “closed system,” of how it intersects with levels of composition (texts written by other authors) and reception (readers), of how every re-telling of the Ramayana, with subtle variations, generates new meanings (Ajay K. Rao, Re-figuring the Ramayana as Theology: A History of Reception in Premodern India, 2015).

The linking of postcolonial theory and translation studies has led to what some call “symbolic” translation. Words can be translated to say “entirely new things, often in an effort to subvert the predecessor by producing a countertext” (Decentering).

A new translation of gyanpaapi, an interpretative one? One that is subversive, based on an awareness of self and other, full of ironies, parodies? “Even sneers”?

But to make the ‘translation’ meaningful—not nonsensical like “wisdom sinners”— wouldn’t one need to tweak the ‘original’ a bit? What about “gyan-i-paap” (instead of gyanpaapi)? Which, when translated stands as “wisdom-is-sinful”— symbolically expressing the inner anxieties of the powerful.

While “wisdom” is a sin, “oily affability” is a virtue

So, if “wisdom” is a sin, what is a virtue? After watching the Q&A session of the prime minister’s press conference on youtube, “oily affability” came to my mind.

Although the phrase is an old one, I first encountered it in James Boyden’s scholarly study of Ruy Gomez de Silva (1516-1573), the son of an obscure Portuguese nobleman, who rose to become the favorite of Philip II, the king of Spain. Ruy Gomez was also the king’s chief minister for a brief period, his ascent is ascribed to the “suave exercise of the grace and wiles” upheld in courtly manuals of the 16th century (James Boyden, The Courtier and the King: Ruy Gomez de Silva, Philip II and the Court of Spain, 1995).

Ruy Gomez was not born to power and authority but he died as the prince of Eboli, he had been granted the highest nobility title, Grandee of Spain by king Philip, he had built the ducal house of Pastrana, one of the high-ranking noble houses of Spain. A “supreme opportunist,” he was successful because of the “establishment of a special relationship with his prince and master, Philip II,” and as Boyden argues in his carefully-researched book, his success was the “product of an oily affability, social grace and an uncanny knack for anticipating and catering to the desires of his prince.”

I mention Ruy Gomez because I find most discussions of media sycophancy inadequate; to my knowledge, no such study exists in Bangladesh; in neighbouring India, while chamchagiri is noted and commented upon often enough in both printed and electronic media, much of the discussion is anecdotal, and framed in an essentialising manner, chamchagiri has existed since time immemorial, it will continue to do so as long as India, and Indians, remain.

Glenn Greenwald, in an article published several months ago, expresses his disgust at the 45-minute, one-on-one interview of president Barack Obama, conducted by Rolling Stone editor and historian Douglas Brinkley at the Oval Office, for being an exercise in “sycophantic, power-worshipping ‘journalism.'” Brinkley’s questions are “vapid” and “reverent,” and Greenwald castigates Brinkley for his lack of “dignity” and “professional self-esteem” which prevents him from questioning and challenging “all sorts of dubious assertions and controversial actions on the part of the president.” Greenwald lists the questions, most of which are basically about asking Obama in some form or the other, “Seriously, how heinous is Mitt Romney [Republican nominee for 2016 US presidential elections]?” “And really, how great are you?” (The Guardian, October 26, 2016).

But the US media, Greenwald is careful to point out, is biased neither towards the Republican nor the Democrats, its “overwhelming, driving bias…is subservience to power, whoever happens to be wielding it.” While media figures claim that they protect press freedom but in reality, instead of being “adversarial,” instead of scrutinising the “claims of those in power,” they “serve as worshipful, propagandistic amplifiers of those claims.”

Greenwald concludes by insisting that Brinkley was given the opportunity (which he “squandered”), precisely because the White House knew what he would do with it.

Henry Pelifian writes that it would be blinkered to think it is only the US media which is sycophantic. It is American culture (culture used in the widest possible sense); the unsaid national slogan, “go along to get along” orients people to never criticise their superiors (even, to confuse “criticism with impoliteness”) whether in educational institutions or workplaces, whether in the military or in representative political institutions, or the civilian bureaucracy. The culture of sycophancy inhibits ordinary citizens with poor credit ratings who are denied employment from questioning why financial managers involved in fraudulent credit ratings are not disbarred (interestingly, a probe after the 2008 financial crisis into Wall Street bankers was quietly closed); the culture of sycophancy ensured US Congress’ approval of the Iraq war without any serious debate, it enables the New York Times and the Washington Post to give “abundant space to pro-war cheerleaders,” it leads other media institutions to either practice self-censorship or be “silenced through censorship or intimidated into sycophancy,” it orients elected officials into generally obeying their leaders “unflinchingly,” and the US Senate to effectively be a rubber stamp for the president. “Fear, subservience and sycophancy” pollutes public discourse (Dissident Voice, 2009).

Many readers, I am sure, will be startled by the parallels with Bangladesh, and like me, wonder how it can be possible given the wide divergences in history, politics, economy and culture. But I want to return to Ruy Gomez, because his “oily affability” intrigues me.

In a book on masculinity in modern Spain, Shifra Armon deliberates over whether one of the traits of the courtly art of sociability is better translated as “nonchalance,” i.e., whatever was said and done to please the monarch was done with an air of effortlessness, as has been argued by other scholars working on the subject. She dismisses the notion however, maintaining that whatever Ruy de Gomez did had less to do with “insouciance” and more with his “uncanny knack” for accommodating to the monarch’s wishes, with his capacity to foresee Philip’s desires. It was his ability to maneuver “like a well-lubricated ball-joint” which translates into the quality of oily affability (Shifra Armon, Masculine Virtue in Early Modern Spain, 2015).

Even the best of the power-worshipping journalists at the prime minister’s conference on Sundarban was legions away from the highly-accomplished Ruy Gomez. Most of them babbled or blathered, much of their conversation was not punctuated by any fullstop or comma (except for awkward pauses occasioned by searching for words in mid-air), since it was a live Q&A, as opposed to say a written one, it was interactive, and in some cases, one can see journalists change track while speaking, visibly influenced by the prime minister’s reaction to their speech (“anticipating and catering to the desires of his prince”).

I present two short excerpts from the Q&A session below, the first was made by a noted journalist, the selection is less than one-thirds of what he said. The second is made by a senior journalist, if one deducts the time when the prime minister interrupted him midway and responded to what he had said, this extract too, is about one-thirds of what he said; albeit these are excerpts but I would like to assure the reader that the manner of speech, content, substance of the rest of what was said, is essentially the same.

As mentioned earlier, I watched the programme on youtube, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qne59und0Bg, রামপাল বিদ‌্যুৎ কেন্দ্রে সুন্দরবনের ক্ষতি হবে না: প্রধানমন্ত্রী [Rampal Biddut Kendre Shundorboner Khoti Hobe Na: Prodhan Montri], 1:25:09). Both selections have been transcribed, translated, copy-edited by me; editorial interpolations have been made to make the text more readable, these have been placed in square brackets,

Excerpt 1 (48:05 – 49:29): I want to thank you [for] the plan which you have accepted for fuel diversification, [by] 2030-40, 50% [of energy needs will be met by] low-cost coal, 10 percent [by] solar [energy] and 20 percent to 25 percent [by] gas, [to accomplish] this you have taken a timely decision and [I] thank you for this. Only you could have done this, food security, energy security, environment security, to be coordinating all three, I was amazed on seeing a memo written by you with Nasrul Hamid (Bipu) [State minister of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources] as a journalist, you have written that solar will be [installed] but not on land where my crop grows. Even if [solar panels are installed] they must be placed with gaps between them so that a bit of light can penetrate, some crop or the other can grow. So, when the issue of environment is raised with such a leader [as you] that is truly mar cheye mashir dorod beshi [the aunt is more concerned for the infant than her mother]. I have only one question, all technology is available in the world, when our Begum Khaleda Zia goes to London and drinks water at her son’s house that is (actually) sewerage water. The London City Corporation is recycling sewerage water [a burst of laughter can be heard from the prime minister off-camera] as drinking water and it is 100% guaranteed. Therefore, it is possible to recycle Poshur river water and do everything else [needed], all technology is available, I have only one question… (Mozammel Haque Babu, chief editor, news, private channel Ekattor TV).

Excerpt 2 (56:45 – 58:27): You have spoken in detail about Rampal electricity, coal[-based] electricity, [you have addressed] questions which we had, [still] have, you have answered almost all questions most competently, therefore, you often say, `ask me questions, ask me questions,’ therefore, there isn’t much to ask [really], we can add some comments. In that case, let me say, if you had said what you said today, I don’t know why, but if [you had said them] earlier before the waters got muddied, if such a detailed account had been given earlier then they couldn’t have advanced as far as they have. That, I know, to some extent [is interrupted by the prime minister who says she has placed it in parliament], respectable prime minister, I am talking of publicising it nationwide, what we saw today will be published all through the country in tomorrow’s newspapers, it will be telecast today, it is being publicised but that is not the end, the whole country must know the movement [for what it is], those who are opposing [the Rampal project] are sufficiently powerful, [Mozammel Haque] Babu said [so] right now, and I want to say something, respectable prime minister, what is most dangerous is that your patriotism is being questioned, it is being said that you are harming the country, that you want to sell it off, [you are] the father of the nation Bangabandhu’s daughter, [and] now, you are directing the country, [to think that] she who is ready to sacrifice her life, has lost everything, [that] she will sell off the nation’s interest, I think these words should be protested against very strongly (Golam Sarwar, editor, daily Samakal).

Speeches instead of questions, heaping praise upon praise, squandering what could have been an excellent oportunity, to be adversarial as the media should be: why was BHEL given extra sweeteners? Are you aware that there are people within the bureaucracy who are deeply upset at Indian presence and interference? There is a culture of sycophancy in Bangladesh, you are powerful, people around you say only what you want to hear, have you taken any measures to counter chamchagiri, how do you expect to get to know the truth?

Did Gonobhobon know who would be best at squandering the opportunity? Was it pre-arranged? I do not know. I want to draw attention instead to the discourse of sycophancy prevailing to please this prime minister (in a democracy, prime ministers change), it has become formulaic almost, first, place her on a pedestal as the daughter of Bangabandhu, the father of the nation. Demonise opposition or dissent by adopting a tone of admonition, cast opposition as impertinence, how dare they, do they not know that she is the daughter of…. second, engage in Khaleda-bashing, preferably, using sexual innuendos, Khaleda (the ‘other’) is impure, she drinks sewerage water. What gets unsaid, but is obvious to all is, you (prime minister), are pure.

Reminiscent of the text, and sub-text, to the questions posed by Douglas Brinkley to president Obama: “Seriously, how heinous is Mitt Romney?” “And really, how great are you?”

Only one genuine question was courageously raised by Rizwanul Huq Raja, a reporter from Maasranga TV channel: (I paraphrase) those who are opposing the Rampal power plant have been doing it for long, they also place facts and figures before us, the BNP leader Khaleda Zia lent her support only a few days ago, you know some of those in the movement personally, wouldn’t it be possible for you to sit and discuss with them, to review the situation?

He was severely reprimanded by the prime minister, she threatened to shut down all quick rental power plants. It sent a strong message to other journalists and media institutions, either practice self-censorship, or be intimidated into sycophancy.

None of the journalists present asked the prime minister about government repression of the Save Sundarbans movement, for instance, why the staging of the play “Konthonalite Shurjo” by Tirondaj at the Experimental Theatre in the Shilpakala Academy was cancelled at the last minute by the Academy authorities on July 20, 2016, on the grounds that no discussion of the play could precede the play. The play was on Sundarbans, and professor Anu Muhammad had been invited by Tirondaj to speak about the impact of the Rampal coal power plant.

None of the journalists asked the prime minister why a peaceful procession marching towards her secretariat to deliver an open letter to the prime minister, was brutally attacked by the police who used lathicharge and tear gas, injuring fifty protesters, and arresting six.

I regard the Sundarban Q&A as an important visual document of the contribution made by journalists and the media toward political authoritarianism in Bangladesh.

The violence of development

The problem with the concept of ‘development’ is the aura of self-evidence that surrounds it. To quote Gilbert Rist, “conventional thinking..make[s] us take it for granted that ‘development’ exists, that it has a positive value, that it is desirable or even necessary.” (Gilbert Rist, The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith, 1996).

Conventional thinking, as permeates the National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) 2010-21: the need to meet the challenges of economic, social and environmental sustainabiity, the goal of achieving sustainable development, attaining middle-income country status by 2021, our average annual growth rate of 6%… there are very few economists in Bangladesh willing to think outside the box.

Anu Muhammad is one of the handful, and his evocative words depicting the violence that development inflicts, is one of the most powerful critiques that I have come across in recent years,

“…which is why the calculation of GDP increase and the list of bridges, roads, flyovers, multi-storied buildings etc., must be accompanied by yet another set of calculations, how many rivers, canals and water bodies have been reduced to gutters, what percentage of these are now privately occupied, how many rivers have died, how many hills have been grabbed, how many have been leveled to construct buildings atop, how many forests are now bare, how polluted is the air, how low is the water level, how toxic is the river water, how poisonous is the atmosphere, how contaminated are fruits, vegetables, fish and meat, how much more expensive it is to educate one’s child, to be treated, how much greater is the debt burden, can one put a figure to the hundreds of thousands of lakhs of crores of taka looted and stashed abroad, the amount of land that has been grabbed, the numbers that have been murdered or disappeared, how we have become more fearful and insecure, what is the increase in the `sale’ of admission or jobs, the percentage increase in bribes and speed-money, the rise in the murder, rape and trafficking of women, the weakening of institutions. Only then will we be able to understand and appreciate the true nature of development, whether it is sustainable, who are its beneficiaries, whether it is leading to long-term affluence or to vulnerability.” (Sarbojonkotha, November 2016, translated by me).

Ansatullah’s death threat to Anu Muhammad, “Say ‘yes’ to Rampal”

On October 12, 2016, professor Anu Muhammad received a death threat through a text message late at night, “Death keeps no calendar, and Ansatullah knows no time.” (New Age, October 13, 2016)

Ansarullah is the name of a religious group which is known to have committed acts of terrorism. Was the ‘t’ instead of ‘r’ in the name, a mistake, or was it deliberate? Who should be perceived to have sent it? Who actually sent it?

I had accompanied Anu and his partner Shilpi Barua to the Rampura thana, alongwith two other close friends, who are also his colleagues at Jahangirnagar University, to register a GD (short for General Diary, basically, a complaint at the local police station). A lawyer came and joined us later.

The officer-in-charge, one of several (I learnt of changes to the thana structure, a thana now had more than one OC, each with separate responsibilities), was gracious and helpful. We entered his room, occupied up all the chairs, looked around curiously, a wooden bookshelf teeming with books attracted our attention, we sipped sweet tea and made small talk with the OC. Soon, a steady stream of officers popped into the room to get a glimpse of Anu, a couple of them even introduced themselves, obviously wanting to impress Anu. Did I hear someone say—we are not into politics sir, we respect you for what you stand for—or did I imagine it?

And then, as Anu was writing the GD, with his mobile phone placed on the officer’s table, another text message came. This too, from the same number: “Say ‘yes’ to Rampal, otherwise you must will be hacked to death incredibly by us!” (Dhaka Tribune, October 14, 2016)

“Anu, you must include this second death threat in the GD as well,” I got up and went over, but the office-in-charge demurred, sir, please sir, there is no need sir, one is enough. As Anu insisted, but why not? Its another death threat, look, its from the same number, it happened in front of you, my GD is exactly about this, but the OC kept dragging his feet, please sir, no sir, it is not needed sir. One will be enough.

He looked embarassed at the “jihadi death threat” story falling apart. It was his embarassment and unwillingness, that gave away the tale.

There are more players in the “terrorism/jihadi” field than the government cares to admit.

Indian propaganda, and bonds of gratitude

Indian propaganda, political, diplomatic, and academic, constructs Bangladesh’s 9-month long independence struggle as “their” war with Pakistan, and the liberation of Bangladesh by the freedom fighters, as India’s “victory” over Pakistan. The myth has never died, even late last year, the Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar was reported by the Times of India as having said, “Lord Rama won Lanka and gave it to Vibhishana. We did the same in the Bangladesh operation.” (The Times of India, October 2, 2016).

But, as a New Age editorial demanding that Dhaka protest against “Delhi’s insulting narrative” (which Dhaka never did, why, what about national self-esteem?) was quick to point out, the Indian account is “ahistorical,” forgetful of the fact that the people of East Bengal had organised an armed resistance against the Pakistan army. (New Age, October 4, 2016).

The Indian government and its people, more particularly, the latter, provided assistance to the many millions who had fled to Kolkata in search of refuge from a marauding army, and to the freedom fighters, who received training from the Indian army. Indian troops joined Bangladeshi freedom fighters on December 3, 1971, which possibly expedited the liberation of Bangladesh (December 16, 1971) but despite the sacrifice of the lives of 1500 Indian soldiers, India’s active participation was not the “decisive factor” in the independence of Bangladesh. The Pakistan army had increasingly become demoralised, certain spectacular guerrilla attacks had proved to be unnerving, but most importantly, 1971 was a people’s war in which men, women, even children, fought to defeat the occupying forces. “India’s strategic interest to dismember Pakistan, after all, coincided with Bangladesh’s aspiration for independence.”

The Indian propaganda industry has influenced some foreign scholars, too. In an anthology titled Handbook of India’s International Relations (London: Routledge 2011), its editor David Scott writes of Bangladesh as the “neighbour born with Indian help in 1971” (p. xx), and speaks, a few pages later of, “India’s consequent ‘liberation’ of East Pakistan into Bangladesh” (p. 7). The anthology contains other grave errors (shoddy scholarship?), Harsh V Pant, of the Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London, in his article, “India’s relations with Bangladesh,” writes of “Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s party that was now led by his widow Sheikh Hasina Wajed (p. 84), repeating the same mistake two pages later, “the massacre of ruling Awami League leaders including Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman (Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s husband)” (p. 87). (Interested readers can look up these pages of the Handbook on googlebooks, I myself have a pdf copy).

The “giving birth” story (which suppresses any mention of “India’s strategic interest”) runs parallel to a “gratitude” story, this goes as follows, since India helped/ assisted/gave birth to Bangladesh, Bangladesh should be grateful to India (subsuming the interests of its own people?).

Bangladeshi scholar Bhumitra Chakma adds a personal angle to the “gratitude” story. He writes, Sheikh Hasina has a “positive perception” of India, in all likelihood, this was formed through her “personal experiences and ideological stance,” India’s “critical role” in the war of independence must have left a “feeling of gratefulness” in her towards New Delhi, the Indian government’s “hospitality” and “generosity” toward her after the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujib and family members, the development of “personal friendship” with many Indian leaders during her years of exile, all these must have contributed to the Sheikh Hasina-led government’s “India-positive policy.” He does add a caveat, although a causal linkage between the two is hard to establish “personal factors, at times, do matter in leaders’ policy choices.” (“Bangladesh-India Relations: Sheikh Hasina’s India-positive policy approach, RSIS Working Paper 252, 2012).

But if “gratitude” conflicts with independence, what then?

The answer, my friend…

I am reminded of the American Nobel Laureate, singer and poet Bob Dylan’s famous song:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
… The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Which could be subverted to ask our leaders,

How many acts of gratitude must be performed
Before the nation can really be free?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Published in Independence Day Supplement, New Age, March 26, 2017.

 

 

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