Bangladesh: Give me back my country

When Tahmima Anam went home to Dhaka to cast her vote in the now-postponed election, she found a nat

On 10 January 1972, my father came home to his country for the first time. It was three weeks after the end of the Bangladesh war, and he was making his way back from India, where he had enlisted with the newly formed Bangladesh army. When I think about that day, I always wonder what country my father thought he was returning to. Surely it was a thing of his imagination, born out of the years marching against the Pakistani occupation, the months touring India to gain support for the war, the gruelling training at the officers' camp in West Bengal. I can picture the shock that he and his fellow freedom fighters must have felt when they finally did cross that border, seeing their imagined country and their real country meet for the first time.

The Bengali phrase desh-prem means "love for the country". Like many expatriate Bangladeshis, my desh-prem makes me believe there will come a day when I pack my bags and leave London for good. My desh-prem is a long-distance affair, full of passion and misunderstanding; often, my heart is broken. Many Bangladeshis never actually return home; it is more of an idea, something to turn over in our hearts before we go to sleep, but for me the prospect of returning is real. In 1990, after 14 years abroad, my parents left their jobs with the United Nations and moved back to Bangladesh. So many of their friends told them they were foolish to return to a country that had so little to offer, but in the latter months of that year, Hossain Mohammad Ershad's military dictatorship was toppled by massive public action of a kind not seen since the days of the independence movement. So the country my family returned to was bathed in hope, and, almost two decades after the birth of Bangladesh, we finally seemed on the brink of becoming a functioning democracy.

Sixteen years after Ershad's dramatic fall, Bangladesh is a very different place. We have had three national elections, and our two main political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, have handed power back and forth to each other like a baton in a relay, each election becoming successively more bitter, and each five-year term bringing dramatic increases in corruption and partisan politics. Amazingly, when the Awami League was in power, the BNP refused to attend parliament; when the BNP was in power, the Awami League refused to attend. As a result, the people we mandated to represent us in government failed to discharge their responsibilities, instead taking to the streets and announcing that their defeat was engineered and not willed by the voting public.

In Bangladesh, elections come hand in hand with claims of vote-rigging. Where there is an election and a transfer of power, there will inevitably be rumours of conspiracy, of stolen ballot boxes and hijacked polling stations. Whether and to what degree these rumours are true is almost less important than the assumption that a sitting government cannot hold a fair election. Therefore, in 1995, the constitution was amended to include a peculiar and rather clever system of handing power to a caretaker government that is responsible for holding a fair election. According to the constitution, the last retired chief justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court becomes chief adviser to the caretaker government. He has the authority of a prime minister, and is given the responsibility of appointing a cabinet, together with which he will govern the country for no more than 90 days. During this time his main tasks will be to oversee fair and non-partisan elections and to hand over power to the newly elected government.

So far, so good. But as plans go, this one is not foolproof. Although the arrangement worked on the first two occasions, this time around the BNP felt it could not afford to lose the election. All the signs indicated that if the election was free and fair, the BNP would be defeated by the Awami League. After five years of alleged corruption, theft and autocracy, it was faced with the possibility that it would actually have to be accountable for the crimes it had committed during its tenure. The excesses of previous regimes were mild compared with those perpetrated during those five years, which saw an alliance between the BNP and the most powerful of the Islamic parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BNP formed this strategic partnership in 2001, and over the past five years the Jamaat's influence has spread throughout the bureaucracy and district governments, enabling the party to build grass-roots support and gain crucial political and public recognition.

As well as giving power and legitimacy to the Islamic right, the BNP alliance committed severe abuses of power. It politicised the police force and formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special branch that was responsible for hundreds of killings in the name of "law and order". This force signed contracts for bridges that were never built, bought television channels, appointed biased judges, jailed and harassed the opposition, and placed RAB people into every post that might influence the election. The alliance invented 14 million false voters. By the same stroke, it wiped most Bangladeshis from a religious or ethnic minority from the electoral register.

Popular opposition to the BNP's blatant attempts at manipulating the election has made it terrified of losing power, and so, instead of allowing the caretaker government to fall into the hands of a neutral chief adviser, it encouraged the BNP-appointed president, Iajuddin Ahmed, to take the post. When we first saw the ageing Iajuddin taking the oath to become chief adviser, he appeared harmless enough. People, including the opposition, decided to give him a chance to show his neutrality - his desh-prem. But he proved to be easily manipulated, and after a few weeks he became a hated figure.

In the meantime, the beleaguered Awami League has committed its fair share of mistakes. In order to press its demands it called an indefinite series of strikes, bringing the economy to a halt while it conducted its campaigns of civil disobedience. No one went to work; the classrooms emptied out, the ships were marooned at Chittagong port, and the price of dhal tripled in a matter of months. But by far the most un forgivable blunder it committed was to sign a deal with the far-right Khilafat-e-Majlish. The Awami League has long claimed an ideological advantage over the BNP, branding itself the more secular, progressive party, so for those of us who believed there was a significant difference between the two parties, this was a cynical and heartbreaking manoeuvre. Under the terms of the deal, the Awami League will assist the Khilafat-e-Majlish in legalising fatwas and challenging any laws that contradict "Koranic values". Whether the Islamic right will really gain a foothold in mainstream politics - and the hearts of the public - in Bangladesh remains to be seen; however, that both parties believe they cannot win an election without the endorsement of the right is sign enough that Bangladesh's identity as a moderate Muslim country is under threat.

When I landed in Dhaka a few days ago, the city looked as it so often does in January. The fog was low and woolly on the ground; people were huddled under their shawls; the smell of oranges and roasted peanuts lingered in the air. But, of course, I knew that all was not as it seemed. In these past few months my desh-prem has been under siege, and this time, I arrived in Dhaka in bitter spirits. I had planned this trip so that I would be able to vote; I had spent months looking forward to returning to Bangladesh to exercise my democratic right. Yet as the day drew near, I realised I wouldn't be going home to vote, but rather to witness a sham election. With the Awami League boycotting the elections, and talk of a constitutional crisis, we all began to worry that this year could mark the death of democracy in Bangladesh. The mood was sombre and people seemed resigned; it appeared there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this political charade from going ahead.

But then, just as it appeared there was no solution in sight, the president suddenly declared a state of emergency and postponed the elections indefinitely. He resigned as chief adviser and dissolved the caretaker cabinet. The exact reasons for his about-face are still opaque, but we do know that it happened through a combination of international pressure and army intervention. To what degree the army is now running things is unclear; vague and ominous ordinances have been proposed, some of which hint at restrictions on personal freedom and on the media.

Walter Benjamin famously said that a state of emergency is also always a state of emergence. Can we take this literally in Bangladesh? Will the emergency see us through to a fair election, or will the army consolidate its power and wrest democracy from us indefinitely? And what would happen to my desh-prem then? Could it survive another onslaught?

Whenever I imagine returning to Bangladesh for good, I wonder what kind of country I want to return to. I want, more than anything, to have that feeling of protean possibility that my father must have had when he crossed the border into his new country. I want a country where my gender does not preclude me from being an equal citizen. Where corruption has not touched every facet of public life. Where the children don't sell popcorn on street corners or work in matchstick factories. I want to know that I'm going to show up on polling day and see my name on the voter registration list. I want to stand in a queue, press my thumb into a pad of ink, and put my mark wherever I like. I want my politicians to stop courting the Islamic right. I want the water table to stop rising. I want the government to stop driving the Hindus and the Chakmas and the Santals out of this country. I want someone to count my vote. I want a halt to the steady erosion of civil liberties. I want a country where the army cannot arrest anyone without a warrant. I want our political parties to be democratic, transparent and accountable. I want fair and neutral judges. I want the right to vote. I want there to be no such thing as a legal fatwa. I want the war criminals of the 1971 genocide to be tried, condemned and jailed. I want to vote. I want a country worthy of my desh-prem. I want a country.

Tahmima Anam's debut novel, "A Golden Age", set during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, will be published in March by John Murray (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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