THE month of November, with its scheduled nascent coolness, has been the unofficial portent of a three-month winter season of staged ‘culture’ for years; the capacious capital boasts its social capital (the synergies of its urban, global, and now, ‘trans-rural’ agglomerations) in established platforms like Hay (Dhaka International Literary Festival) and Bengal’s Classical Indian Music fest as well as the more recent ‘blockbusters’of Dhaka (Samdani) Art Summit and BPL/ICC. This year, rehearsed loudly in the habitual corporate brochures, event catalogues and free/VIP registration circuits, a new entree has entered the menu of the spectacle.
The Dhaka International ‘folk’ festival, a rather pink fountain for variously coloured thirsts — popular Lalon and Sufi exponents branded or re-branded ‘folk’ in the well-protected precincts of the Army Stadium — had its debut, as highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow sat in classified and declassified zones during the hallowed trinity — three nights of ‘Bliss’ not to ‘miss’ — together in concert as they almost never are, except possibly… in queue on voting day. Ai! The month is a harbinger, too, of not only Jibanananda’s once punctually rapturous rural winter and the hemanta harvesting of aman rice but the municipality polls 2015. The barely audible static surrounding these polls, in contrast to the April 28 mayoral polls, hardly interfered with our recreational sublime. One would have to be exceptionally and easily bored to notice the odd man out in the rose-coloured screen that dropped over the writer/publisher serial murders and the posthumously advertised petrol bombs of January: blue prison vans here and there, uploading busloads of new arrivals in the already overloaded Dhaka central jail. If one cared to, however, one might notice the bars of music synchronised to the bars of the prison vans, inside which only the hands of anonymous prisoners are visible…. Outside Jahingar gate that opens to the cantonment where urban vintage and musical ‘enlightenment’ is tasted… zigzagging traffic through Shahbagh…. No Prussian or electric blue, no warm or fluffy blue: the prison blue of the prison van.
On a sudden, if a staccato rhythm suddenly jerks our gaze and we see 13 brown hands shaking the small bars that open to the outside world inside the moving penitentiary… our imagination might take us somewhere… quite far, as far as a Passage to India… or rather haphazardly… as mine did, to Grameenphone. I imagined, for I am particularly and peculiarly imaginative, that these 13 hands, shaking the van for what it’s worth, picked up from God knows where, were missed calling the Dhaka Folk festival, the one that almost tempted me with its constellation of stars and the understated smell of dried roses.
Such an understatement: prison. The headlines from September (‘BNP in Dire Straits,’ The Independent, 1/09/15) do not overstate the bodies it contains: 17,000 workers/activists of the (unofficial, major) opposition. The subheading on the front page of the Daily Star from November 21: Party claims 500 of its prospective candidates detained this month. Elsewhere: ‘Every day, three hundred of our workers are picked up…’ Forget the cases against 22,000 (September — now it is closer to 32,000) of its leaders and activists. Just count the number detained each day… hell, if there were three consecutive storms in the south not as many rickshawallahs could show up in the capital.
We live in insecure times, alias, very secured times. From bleeding Paris to burning Dhaka, a blanket of security, a grid of surveillance and its alter ego — mass arrest and mass detention, is thrown over us. Before we had time to swallow the enormity of the ‘insecurity’ posed by five bloggers and a publisher killed in the last eight months, we were covered up in a ‘blanket of security’. Before we could register the one-party municipal election we are about to enjoy, two eagerly awaited hangings were announced. Thus, and so: ‘Nirapattar chadore dheke rakha hoyechhe Dhaka central jail.’ Good, in fact, thank you, but has the blanket been lifted since? Will this coldness, this fear, ever thaw? And did the blanket really come down that fateful night when history was served or was it already keeping us warm in an ever warmer earth? Precedents are perhaps all we are about… ‘Amader first hote hobe, tai na…’
An IUB faculty and friend was sarcastically referring to biometric SIM registration and how we were proudly stepping into unchartered territory, with the exception of one or two African states. Terrorism calls for terrific measures. But if the opposition, and its tens of thousands of supporters, is not a banned terrorist outfit — in spite of endless rhetoric that would have it even more illegitimate than Jamaat, not even just by association any more — this form of ‘delegitimising’ a political party would normally have the effect of delegitimising the state that has declared an unofficial war against almost/at least forty percentage of its population. While the imprisonment of leaders before the nonetheless performed spectacle of petrol bombs during January’s post electoral blockade can be post facto argued as ‘pre emptive,’ the pre-emptive ‘strike’ of November has no deductive or inductive logic behind it. It is simply justified — if it is justified at all, no one feels the need in a climate of generalised ‘terror’ — by the suspicion of potential sabotage (albeit sabotage of ‘normalcy’ as much as anything else). One man’s sabotage is another man’s subterfuge: will potential provocateurs and saboteurs, disciplined, remanded, be released in time for elections? Discipline and Punish: just don’t make this spectacle so damn obvious. News from yesterday: We are looking forward to Awami-Awami violence, in case we miss the normal bipartisan blood spilled. Thousands languish in Bangladeshi prisons since time immemorial (that’s colonial Greenwich standard time); but the tens of thousands in prison now herald the zeitgeist of a new political age.
The question occurs, under what climate, in what world, through which discourse, can a society accept this form of ‘open’-literally, for many are in a permanent ‘makeshift’ prison in tents — incarceration of tens of thousands of its people? The grass-roots workers in jail, those who ‘do’ the BNP (just as their counterparts who ‘do’ the Awami League), are not separate form this society. Their party has not been declared ‘illegal’ as Jamaat has — even — rhetorically; yet, by all means, if there is any path towards such a historic moment, then the mass detention of the (unofficial) opposition’s workers certainly entail that inexorable destiny. In world and national history it is one-party or one-man/woman dictatorships that have been synonymous with such mass detention (apart from episodes of ethnic cleansing, etc).
Not a few fingers point to a state that has one, inviolable source of legitimacy: the war crimes tribunal. In itself, it is no mean source, with genuine support if not national consensus, much more powerful than the regime’s growth rhetoric. Apparently, though, it is not sufficient to ensure the sound sleep of our rulers, underneath that blanket of security: complete acquiescence seems necessary, the slightest divergence/dissent somehow points at the threat of a critical mass, ‘democracy’ seems as much a threat as ‘terror.’ Critical mass (the threshold on which the status quo one day dissipates) where the foundations cannot hold. Thought is almost as ‘unfree’ as action.
Again, let me repeat, not to say that the AL does not have support, the highest members of the ‘cultural literati’ paid homage to the prime minister for her ‘environmental achievements’ even as UNESCO finally expressed alarm at Rampal power plant in the Sundarbans.
But these same supporters, who ‘cover’ with a shroud of protective love, fierce rhetoric and sometimes, sometimes, genuine feeling, never even feel they have to answer why thousands of the BNP’s workers are being rounded up before the polls, rather than — just for comparison’s sake — thousands of Jamaat’s workers before the verdict of a war criminal. The threat of the BNP organising its grass-roots workers (leaders in September declared they had begun work in 74 units, The Independent, 1/09/15) seems sufficient condition for such blatantly totalitarian actions by the regime.
But I have a proposition: remember how ‘we’ were comparing the BNP to the Naxals? Absurd to some, perfectly logical to others, but hey, for rationality’s sake/if not realpolitik: why don’t we just follow through and do what India did with them? Why don’t we declare them illegal? At least then that section of Bangladesh considering opposition politics as a legitimate form of protest will know that somehow their actions have crossed a boundary that never existed when their counterparts were in their place (history begins and ends with the victors and why should this be different?) — know that they have been so ‘burnt’ in the eyes of the public, in poetic banners and graffiti all over town, that they are not allowed to function legally? Look into the legal question. Lock the terror away — no, confiscate, quarantine, suffocate, squelch, corner, liquidate…. No… they will only throw blockbuster shows, while the prison vans carry them away….
Alas, the question is not legal. In a country of one hundred and sixty million people, if the 40 per cent (approximately half) of the population that constitutes the BNP’s core vote is incarcerated and ‘incarcerable’, the prison-bail-remand industry becomes a lucrative source of profit. And more importantly, virtually endless. Prison, after all, is not just perianal amusement, mind you, but often referred to as an industrial complex, with a vibrant economy. In America, the ‘military-industrial’ complex has its own GDP, if you will.
One of the most successful ‘throwers’ of parties in Bangladesh is the military: so are the US Marines stationed here in Dhaka. The military has always been a player in Bangladeshi politics, but its cultural import should not be considered insignificant; for reasons both profound and ironic, it still inspires respect, awe and submission. The army stadium, just one platform for civic ‘togetherness’ is just a token ‘cultural refreshment’, only a mocktail after all, not a Molotov….
Now, this article is not another brick in the wall of the well-established discourse of a militarised, police state. Or an obituary for the opposition; or even, the slightest death threat to the ruling regime. It is, if anything, a missed call to the uncritical ‘mass/class’ here and there orbiting November, December, January…. To pretend everything is normal as long as the wheels of growth do not grind to a halt is the great virtue of the capitalist mode of production and, if you will, mode of ‘life’ and death. And, if anything, the ‘culture’ precedes the politics.
‘Art’ replaced God in the west a long time ago as the ‘opiate’ of the m/asses, as a professor of literature in the University of Geneva once declared to me… The tourists may come to the biggest show in town in February, the Dhaka (Samdani) Art Summit, through different borders than the dealers in arms, but the circuits of pleasure and pain somewhere do meet, perhaps in the no man’s land of spectacle. Oishi will have a noose on her neck, but the security forces and godfathers who deal in Yaba will not. War criminals who facilitated or participated in the torture of so many will hang but those who keep well-identified torture cells today will not. The age of the spectacle does not let us mourn the horrors of a terror attack or the loss of our freedoms long, sublimating everything into fear and/or joy, lest we recognise other crimes, other criminals, repeating history piecemeal, like the bullet-perforated path of a third world war. And the prison vans pass us by, on our way to the ‘theatre’. Yesterday’s news of ISIS, tomorrow’s news of Ansarullah Bahini, and a promise of more of the same. Nothing, nothing between pleasure and pain, the keyboard set to this scale. No third taste, no minor chord. Once in the theatre, that old Arabic root word next to the Latin: No exit.