Thursday, May 24, 2007

The End of Imagination -Arundhati Roy


India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Vol. 15 :: No. 16 :: Aug. 1 - 14, 1998




"The desert shook," the Government of India informed us (its people).

"The whole mountain turned white," the Government of Pakistan replied.

By afternoon the wind had fallen silent over Pokhran. At 3.45 p.m., the timer detonated the three devices. Around 200 to 300 m deep in the earth, the heat generated was equivalent to a million degrees centigrade - as hot as temperatures on the sun. Instantly, rocks weighing around a thousand tons, a mini mountain underground, vapourized... shockwaves from the blast began to lift a mound of earth the size of a football field by several metres. One scientist on seeing it said, "I can now believe stories of Lord Krishna lifting a hill."

- India Today.

MAY 1998. It'll go down in history books, provided, of course, we have history books to go down in. Provided, of course, we have a future.

Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things.

There's nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons. There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world, and made passionately, eloquently and knowledgeably.

I am prepared to grovel. To humiliate myself abjectly, because, in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible. So those of you who are willing: let's pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play. But let's not forget that the stakes we're playing for are huge. Our fatigue and our shame could mean the end of us. The end of our children and our children's children. Of everything we love. We have to reach within ourselves and find the strength to think. To fight.

At the Miyuki Bridge, Hiroshima, 11 a.m, August 6, 1945.

Once again we are pitifully behind the times - not just scientifically and technologically (ignore the hollow claims), but more pertinently in our ability to grasp the true nature of nuclear weapons. Our Comprehension of the Horror Department is hopelessly obsolete. Here we are, all of us in India and in Pakistan, discussing the finer points of politics, and foreign policy, behaving for all the world as though our governments have just devised a newer, bigger bomb, a sort of immense hand grenade with which they will annihilate the enemy (each other) and protect us from all harm. How desperately we want to believe that. What wonderful, willing, well-behaved, gullible subjects we have turned out to be. The rest of humanity (Yes, yes, I know, I know, but let's ignore Them for the moment. They forfeited their votes a long time ago), the rest of the rest of humanity may not forgive us, but then the rest of the rest of humanity, depending on who fashions its views, may not know what a tired, dejected heart-broken people we are. Perhaps it doesn't realize how urgently we need a miracle. How deeply we yearn for magic.

If only, if only, nuclear war was just another kind of war. If only it was about the usual things - nations and territories, gods and histories. If only those of us who dread it are just worthless moral cowards who are not prepared to die in defence of our beliefs. If only nuclear war was the kind of war in which countries battle countries and men battle men. But it isn't. If there is a nuclear war, our foes will not be China or America or even each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. The very elements - the sky, the air, the land, the wind and water - will all turn against us. Their wrath will be terrible.

Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness. There will be no day. Only interminable night. Temperatures will drop to far below freezing and nuclear winter will set in. Water will turn into toxic ice. Radioactive fallout will seep through the earth and contaminate groundwater. Most living things, animal and vegetable, fish and fowl, will die. Only rats and cockroaches will breed and multiply and compete with foraging, relict humans for what little food there is.

What shall we do then, those of us who are still alive? Burned and blind and bald and ill, carrying the cancerous carcasses of our children in our arms, where shall we go? What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we breathe?

Pokhran, May 13, 1998.

The Head of the Health, Environment and Safety Group of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay has a plan. He declared in an interview (The Pioneer, April 24, 1998) that India could survive nuclear war. His advice is that if there is a nuclear war, we take the same safety measures as the ones that scientists have recommended in the event of accidents at nuclear plants.

Take iodine pills, he suggests. And other steps such as remaining indoors, consuming only stored water and food and avoiding milk. Infants should be given powdered milk. "People in the danger zone should immediately go to the ground floor and if possible to the basement."

What do you do with these levels of lunacy? What do you do if you're trapped in an asylum and the doctors are all dangerously deranged?

Chagai, May 28, 1998.

Ignore it, it's just a novelist's naivete, they'll tell you, Doomsday Prophet hyperbole. It'll never come to that. There will be no war. Nuclear weapons are about peace, not war. 'Deterrence' is the buzz word of the people who like to think of themselves as hawks. (Nice birds, those. Cool. Stylish. Predatory. Pity there won't be many of them around after the war. Extinction is a word we must try and get used to.) Deterrence is an old thesis that has been resurrected and is being recycled with added local flavour. The Theory of Deterrence cornered the credit for having prevented the Cold War from turning into a Third World War. The only immutable fact about The Third World War is that if there's going to be one, it will be fought after the Second World War. In other words, there's no fixed schedule. In other words, we still have time. And perhaps the pun (The Third World War) is prescient. True, the Cold War is over, but let's not be hoodwinked by the ten-year lull in nuclear posturing. It was just a cruel joke. It was only in remission. It wasn't cured. It proves no theories. After all, what is ten years in the history of the world? Here it is again, the disease. More widespread and less amenable to any sort of treatment than ever. No, the Theory of Deterrence has some fundamental flaws.

Flaw Number One is that it presumes a complete, sophisticated understanding of the psychology of your enemy. It assumes that what deters you (the fear of annihilation) will deter them. What about those who are not deterred by that? The suicide bomber psyche - the 'We'll take you with us' school - is that an outlandish thought? How did Rajiv Gandhi die?

In any case who's the 'you' and who's the 'enemy'? Both are only governments. Governments change. They wear masks within masks. They moult and re-invent themselves all the time. The one we have at the moment, for instance, does not even have enough seats to last a full term in office, but demands that we trust it to do pirouettes and party tricks with nuclear bombs even as it scrabbles around for a foothold to maintain a simple majority in Parliament.

Flaw Number Two is that Deterrence is premised on fear. But fear is premised on knowledge. On an understanding of the true extent and scale of the devastation that nuclear war will wreak. It is not some inherent, mystical attribute of nuclear bombs that they automatically inspire thoughts of peace. On the contrary, it is the endless, tireless, confrontational work of people who have had the courage to openly denounce them, the marches, the demonstrations, the films, the outrage - that is what has averted, or perhaps only postponed, nuclear war. Deterrence will not and cannot work given the levels of ignorance and illiteracy that hang over our two countries like dense, impenetrable veils. (Witness the VHP wanting to distribute radioactive sand from the Pokhran desert as prasad all across India. A cancer yatra?) The Theory of Deterrence is nothing but a perilous joke in a world where iodine pills are prescribed as a prophylactic for nuclear irradiation.

India and Pakistan have nuclear bombs now and feel entirely justified in having them. Soon others will too. Israel, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Nepal (I'm trying to be eclectic here), Denmark, Germany, Bhutan, Mexico, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bosnia, Singapore, North Korea, Sweden, South Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan... and why not? Every country in the world has a special case to make. Everybody has borders and beliefs. And when all our larders are bursting with shiny bombs and our bellies are empty (Deterrence is an exorbitant beast), we can trade bombs for food. And when nuclear technology goes on the market, when it gets truly competitive and prices fall, not just governments, but anybody who can afford it can have their own private arsenal - businessmen, terrorists, perhaps even the occasional rich writer (like myself). Our planet will bristle with beautiful missiles. There will be a new world order. The dictatorship of the pro-nuke elite. We can get our kicks by threatening each other. It'll be like bungee-jumping when you can't rely on the bungee cord, or playing Russian roulette all day long. An additional perk will be the thrill of Not Knowing What To Believe. We can be victims of the predatory imagination of every green card-seeking charlatan who surfaces in the West with concocted stories of imminent missile attacks. We can delight at the prospect of being held to ransom by every petty trouble-maker and rumour-monger, the more the merrier if truth be told, anything for an excuse to make more bombs. So you see, even without a war, we have a lot to look forward to.

But let us pause to give credit where it's due. Whom must we thank for all this?

Nagasaki survivors at a refugee centre, August 10, 1945: "From now on it is not dying we must fear, but living."

The Men who made it happen. The Masters of the Universe. Ladies and gentlemen, The United States of America! Come on up here folks, stand up and take a bow. Thankyou for doing this to the world. Thankyou for making a difference. Thankyou for showing us the way. Thankyou for altering the very meaning of life.

From now on it is not dying we must fear, but living.

It is such supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they're used. The fact that they exist at all, their very presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behaviour. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness. They are the ultimate coloniser. Whiter than any white man that ever lived. The very heart of whiteness.

All I can say to every man, woman and sentient child here in India, and over there, just a little way away in Pakistan, is: Take it personally. Whoever you are - Hindu, Muslim, urban, agrarian - it doesn't matter. The only good thing about nuclear war is that it is the single most egalitarian idea that man has ever had. On the day of reckoning, you will not be asked to present your credentials. The devastation will be indiscriminate. The bomb isn't in your backyard. It's in your body. And mine. Nobody, no nation, no government, no man, no god, has the right to put it there. We're radioactive already, and the war hasn't even begun. So stand up and say something. Never mind if it's been said before. Speak up on your own behalf. Take it very personally.


In early May (before the bomb), I left home for three weeks. I thought I would return. I had every intention of returning. Of course, things haven't worked out quite the way I had planned.

Charred remains of a boy, August 10, Nagasaki.

While I was away, I met a friend of mine whom I have always loved for, among other things, her ability to combine deep affection with a frankness that borders on savagery.

"I've been thinking about you," she said, "about The God of Small Things - what's in it, what's over it, under it, around it, above it..."

She fell silent for a while. I was uneasy and not at all sure that I wanted to hear the rest of what she had to say. She, however, was sure that she was going to say it. "In this last year - less than a year actually - you've had too much of everything - fame, money, prizes, adulation, criticism, condemnation, ridicule, love, hate, anger, envy, generosity - everything. In some ways it's a perfect story. Perfectly baroque in its excess. The trouble is that it has, or can have, only one perfect ending." Her eyes were on me, bright with a slanting, probing brilliance. She knew that I knew what she was going to say. She was insane.

Radiation victim in Nagasaki.

She was going to say that nothing that happened to me in the future could ever match the buzz of this. That the whole of the rest of my life was going to be vaguely unsatisfying. And, therefore, the only perfect ending to the story would be death. My death.

The thought had occurred to me too. Of course it had. The fact that all this, this global dazzle - these lights in my eyes, the applause, the flowers, the photographers, the journalists feigning a deep interest in my life (yet struggling to get a single fact straight), the men in suits fawning over me, the shiny hotel bathrooms with endless towels - none of it was likely to happen again. Would I miss it? Had I grown to need it? Was I a fame-junkie? Would I have withdrawal symptoms?

The more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me that if fame was going to be my permanent condition it would kill me. Club me to death with its good manners and hygiene. I'll admit that I've enjoyed my own five minutes of it immensely, but primarily because it was just five minutes. Because I knew (or thought I knew) that I could go home when I was bored and giggle about it. Grow old and irresponsible. Eat mangoes in the moonlight. Maybe write a couple of failed books - worstsellers - to see what it felt like. For a whole year I've cartwheeled across the world, anchored always to thoughts of home and the life I would go back to. Contrary to all the enquiries and predictions about my impending emigration, that was the well I dipped into. That was my sustenance. My strength.

I told my friend there was no such thing as a perfect story. I said in any case hers was an external view of things, this assumption that the trajectory of a person's happiness, or let's say fulfilment, had peaked (and now must trough) because she had accidentally stumbled upon 'success'. It was premised on the unimaginative belief that wealth and fame were the mandatory stuff of everybody's dreams.

Radiation victim in Nagasaki.

You've lived too long in New York, I told her. There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honourable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors that I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less 'successful' in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled.

The only dream worth having, I told her, is to dream that you will live while you're alive and die only when you're dead. (Prescience? Perhaps.)

"Which means exactly what?" (Arched eyebrows, a little annoyed.)

I tried to explain, but didn't do a very good job of it. Sometimes I need to write to think. So I wrote it down for her on a paper napkin. This is what I wrote: To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.

I've known her for many years, this friend of mine. She's an architect too.

She looked dubious, somewhat unconvinced by my paper napkin speech. I could tell that structurally, just in terms of the sleek, narrative symmetry of things, and because she loves me, her thrill at my 'success' was so keen, so generous, that it weighed in evenly with her (anticipated) horror at the idea of my death. I understood that it was nothing personal. Just a design thing.

Anyhow, two weeks after that conversation, I returned to India. To what I think/thought of as home. Something had died but it wasn't me. It was infinitely more precious. It was a world that has been ailing for a while, and has finally breathed its last. It's been cremated now. The air is thick with ugliness and there's the unmistakable stench of fascism on the breeze.

Day after day, in newspaper editorials, on the radio, on TV chat shows, on MTV for heaven's sake, people whose instincts one thought one could trust - writers, painters, journalists - make the crossing. The chill seeps into my bones as it becomes painfully apparent from the lessons of everyday life that what you read in history books is true. That fascism is indeed as much about people as about governments. That it begins at home. In drawing rooms. In bedrooms. In beds. "Explosion of self-esteem", "Road to Resurgence", "A Moment of Pride", these were headlines in the papers in the days following the nuclear tests. "We have proved that we are not eunuchs any more," said Mr Thackeray of the Shiv Sena. (Whoever said we were? True, a good number of us are women, but that, as far as I know, isn't the same thing.) Reading the papers, it was often hard to tell when people were referring to Viagra (which was competing for second place on the front pages) and when they were talking about the bomb - "We have superior strength and potency." (This was our Minister for Defence after Pakistan completed its tests.)

"These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests," we were repeatedly told.

This has been hammered home, over and over again. The bomb is India. India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just anti-national, but anti-Hindu. (Of course, in Pakistan the bomb is Islamic. Other than that, politically, the same physics applies.) This is one of the unexpected perks of having a nuclear bomb. Not only can the Government use it to threaten the Enemy, they can use it to declare war on their own people. Us.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and entourage at Pokhran, May 20, 1998.

In 1975, one year after India first dipped her toe into the nuclear sea, Mrs Gandhi declared the Emergency. What will 1999 bring? There's talk of cells being set up to monitor anti-national activity. Talk of amending cable laws to ban networks 'harming national culture' (The Indian Express, July 3). Of churches being struck off the list of religious places because 'wine is served' (announced and retracted, The Indian Express, July 3, The Times of India, July 4). Artists, writers, actors, and singers are being harassed, threatened (and succumbing to the threats). Not just by goon squads, but by instruments of the government. And in courts of law. There are letters and articles circulating on the Net - creative interpretations of Nostradamus' predictions claiming that a mighty, all-conquering Hindu nation is about to emerge - a resurgent India that will "burst forth upon its former oppressors and destroy them completely." That "the beginning of the terrible revenge (that will wipe out all Moslems) will be in the seventh month of 1999." This may well be the work of some lone nut, or a bunch of arcane god-squadders. The trouble is that having a nuclear bomb makes thoughts like these seem feasible. It creates thoughts like these. It bestows on people these utterly misplaced, utterly deadly notions of their own power. It's happening. It's all happening. I wish I could say 'slowly but surely' - but I can't. Things are moving at a pretty fair clip.

Why does it all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black and white images from old films - scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps. Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless columns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no sound-track? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right? Could those images be the inevitable culmination of what we have set into motion? Could our future be rushing forward into our past? I think so. Unless, of course, nuclear war settles it once and for all.

When I told my friends that I was writing this piece, they cautioned me. "Go ahead," they said, "but first make sure you're not vulnerable. Make sure your papers are in order. Make sure your taxes are paid."

My papers are in order. My taxes are paid. But how can one not be vulnerable in a climate like this? Everyone is vulnerable. Accidents happen. There's safety only in acquiescence. As I write, I am filled with foreboding. In this country, I have truly known what it means for a writer to feel loved (and, to some degree, hated too). Last year I was one of the items being paraded in the media's end-of-the-year National Pride Parade. Among the others, much to my mortification, were a bomb-maker and an international beauty queen. Each time a beaming person stopped me on the street and said 'You have made India proud' (referring to the prize I won, not the book I wrote), I felt a little uneasy. It frightened me then and it terrifies me now, because I know how easily that swell, that tide of emotion, can turn against me. Perhaps the time for that has come. I'm going to step out from under the fairy lights and say what's on my mind.

It's this:

If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag. I'm female, but have nothing against eunuchs. My policies are simple. I'm willing to sign any nuclear non-proliferation treaty or nuclear test ban treaty that's going. Immigrants are welcome. You can help me design our flag.

My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing.

Admittedly it was a flawed world. An unviable world. A scarred and wounded world. It was a world that I myself have criticised unsparingly, but only because I loved it. It didn't deserve to die. It didn't deserve to be dismembered. Forgive me, I realise that sentimentality is uncool - but what shall I do with my desolation?

I loved it simply because it offered humanity a choice. It was a rock out at sea. It was a stubborn chink of light that insisted that there was a different way of living. It was a functioning possibility. A real option. All that's gone now. India's nuclear tests, the manner in which they were conducted, the euphoria with which they have been greeted (by us) is indefensible. To me, it signifies dreadful things. The end of imagination. The end of freedom actually, because, after all, that's what freedom is. Choice.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with K.C. Pant and Homi Sethna at Pokhran, December 1974.

On the 15th of August last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence. Next May we can mark our first anniversary in nuclear bondage.

Why did they do it?

Political expediency is the obvious, cynical answer, except that it only raises another, more basic question: Why should it have been politically expedient?

The three Official Reasons given are: China, Pakistan and Exposing Western Hypocrisy.

Taken at face value, and examined individually, they're somewhat baffling. I'm not for a moment suggesting that these are not real issues. Merely that they aren't new. The only new thing on the old horizon is the Indian Government. In his appallingly cavalier letter to the U.S. President (why bother to write at all if you're going to write like this?) our Prime Minister says India's decision to go ahead with the nuclear tests was due to a "deteriorating security environment". He goes on to mention the war with China in 1962 and the "three aggressions we have suffered in the last fifty years (from Pakistan). And for the last ten years we have been the victim of unremitting terrorism and militancy sponsored by it... especially in Jammu and Kashmir."

The war with China is thirty-five years old. Unless there's some vital state secret that we don't know about, it certainly seemed as though matters had improved slightly between us. Just a few days before the nuclear tests General Fu Quanyou, Chief of General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, was the guest of our Chief of Army Staff. We heard no words of war.

The most recent war with Pakistan was fought twenty-seven years ago. Admittedly Kashmir continues to be a deeply troubled region and no doubt Pakistan is gleefully fanning the flames. But surely there must be flames to fan in the first place? Surely the kindling is crackling and ready to burn? Can the Indian State with even a modicum of honesty absolve itself completely of having a hand in Kashmir's troubles? Kashmir, and for that matter, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland - virtually the whole of the Northeast - Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and all the trouble that's still to come - these are symptoms of a deeper malaise. It cannot and will not be solved by pointing nuclear missiles at Pakistan.

Even Pakistan can't be solved by pointing nuclear missiles at Pakistan. Though we are separate countries, we share skies, we share winds, we share water. Where radioactive fallout will land on any given day depends on the direction of the wind and rain. Lahore and Amritsar are thirty miles apart. If we bomb Lahore, Punjab will burn. If we bomb Karachi - then Gujarat and Rajasthan, perhaps even Bombay, will burn. Any nuclear war with Pakistan will be a war against ourselves.

As for the third Official Reason: Exposing Western Hypocrisy - how much more exposed can they be? Which decent human being on earth harbours any illusions about it? These are people whose histories are spongy with the blood of others. Colonialism, apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, germ warfare, chemical weapons - they virtually invented it all. They have plundered nations, snuffed out civilizations, exterminated entire populations. They stand on the world's stage stark naked but entirely unembarrassed, because they know that they have more money, more food and bigger bombs than anybody else. They know they can wipe us out in the course of an ordinary working day. Personally, I'd say it is more arrogance than hypocrisy.

We have less money, less food and smaller bombs. However, we have, or had, all kinds of other wealth. Delightful, unquantifiable. What we've done with it is the opposite of what we think we've done. We've pawned it all. We've traded it in. For what? In order to enter into a contract with the very people we claim to despise. In the larger scheme of things, we've agreed to play their game and play it their way. We've accepted their terms and conditions unquestioningly. The CTBT ain't nothin' compared to this.

Mahatma Gandhi "rubbed the magic lamp and invited Ram and Rahim to partake of human politics."

All in all, I think it is fair to say that we're the hypocrites. We're the ones who've abandoned what was arguably a moral position, i.e.: We have the technology, we can make bombs if we want to, but we won't. We don't believe in them.

We're the ones who have now set up this craven clamouring to be admitted into the club of Superpowers. (If we are, we will no doubt gladly slam the door after us, and say to hell with principles about fighting Discriminatory World Orders.) For India to demand the status of a Superpower is as ridiculous as demanding to play in the World Cup finals simply because we have a ball. Never mind that we haven't qualified, or that we don't play much soccer and haven't got a team.

Since we've chosen to enter the arena, it might be an idea to begin by learning the rules of the game. Rule number one is Acknowledge the Masters. Who are the best players? The ones with more money, more food, more bombs.

Rule number two is Locate Yourself in Relation to Them, i.e.: Make an honest assessment of your position and abilities. The honest assessment of ourselves (in quantifiable terms) reads as follows:

We are a nation of nearly a billion people. In development terms we rank No. 138 out of the 175 countries listed in the UNDP's Human Development Index. More than 400 million of our people are illiterate and live in absolute poverty, over 600 million lack even basic sanitation and over 200 million have no safe drinking water.

Seven years after the bombing, hastily-dug graves excavated in Hiroshima.

So the three Official Reasons, taken individually, don't hold much water. However, if you link them, a kind of twisted logic reveals itself. It has more to do with us than them.

The key words in our Prime Minister's letter to the U.S. President were 'suffered' and 'victim'. That's the substance of it. That's our meat and drink. We need to feel like victims. We need to feel beleaguered. We need enemies. We have so little sense of ourselves as a nation and therefore constantly cast about for targets to define ourselves against. Prevalent political wisdom suggests that to prevent the State from crumbling, we need a national cause, and other than our currency (and, of course, poverty, illiteracy and elections), we have none. This is the heart of the matter. This is the road that has led us to the bomb. This search for selfhood. If we are looking for a way out, we need some honest answers to some uncomfortable questions. Once again, it isn't as though these questions haven't been asked before. It's just that we prefer to mumble the answers and hope that no one's heard.

Is there such a thing as an Indian identity?

Do we really need one?

Who is an authentic Indian and who isn't?

Is India Indian?

Does it matter?

Whether or not there has ever been a single civilization that could call itself 'Indian Civilization', whether or not India was, is, or ever will become a cohesive cultural entity, depends on whether you dwell on the differences or the similarities in the cultures of the people who have inhabited the subcontinent for centuries. India, as a modern nation state, was marked out with precise geographical boundaries, in their precise geographical way, by a British Act of Parliament in 1899. Our country, as we know it, was forged on the anvil of the British Empire for the entirely unsentimental reasons of commerce and administration. But even as she was born, she began her struggle against her creators. So is India Indian? It's a tough question. Let's just say that we're an ancient people learning to live in a recent nation.

What is true is that India is an artificial State - a State that was created by a government, not a people. A State created from the top down, not the bottom up. The majority of India's citizens will not (to this day) be able to identify her boundaries on a map, or say which language is spoken where or which god is worshipped in what region. Most are too poor and too uneducated to have even an elementary idea of the extent and complexity of their own country. The impoverished, illiterate agrarian majority have no stake in the State. And indeed, why should they, how can they, when they don't even know what the State is? To them, India is, at best, a noisy slogan that comes around during the elections. Or a montage of people on Government TV programmes wearing regional costumes and saying Mera Bharat Mahan.

The people who have a vital stake (or, more to the point, a business interest) in India having a single, lucid, cohesive national identity are the politicians who constitute our national political parties. The reason isn't far to seek, it's simply because their struggle, their career goal, is - and must necessarily be - to become that identity. To be identified with that identity. If there isn't one, they have to manufacture one and persuade people to vote for it. It isn't their fault. It comes with the territory. It is inherent in the nature of our system of centralized government. A congenital defect in our particular brand of democracy. The greater the numbers of illiterate people, the poorer the country and the more morally bankrupt the politicians, the cruder the ideas of what that identity should be. In a situation like this, illiteracy is not just sad, it's downright dangerous. However, to be fair, cobbling together a viable pre-digested 'National Identity' for India would be a formidable challenge even for the wise and the visionary. Every single Indian citizen could, if he or she wants to, claim to belong to some minority or the other. The fissures, if you look for them, run vertically, horizontally, layered, whorled, circular, spiral, inside out and outside in. Fires when they're lit race along any one of these schisms, and in the process, release tremendous bursts of political energy. Not unlike what happens when you split an atom.

It is this energy that Gandhi sought to harness when he rubbed the magic lamp and invited Ram and Rahim to partake of human politics and India's war of independence against the British. It was a sophisticated, magnificent, imaginative struggle, but its objective was simple and lucid, the target highly visible, easy to identify and succulent with political sin. In the circumstances, the energy found an easy focus. The trouble is that the circumstances are entirely changed now, but the genie is out of its lamp, and won't go back in. (It could be sent back, but nobody wants it to go, it's proved itself too useful.) Yes, it won us freedom. But it also won us the carnage of Partition. And now, in the hands of lesser statesmen, it has won us the Hindu Nuclear Bomb.

To be fair to Gandhi and to other leaders of the National Movement, they did not have the benefit of hindsight, and could not possibly have known what the eventual, long-term consequences of their strategy would be. They could not have predicted how quickly the situation would careen out of control. They could not have foreseen what would happen when they passed their flaming torches into the hands of their successors, or how venal those hands could be.

It was Indira Gandhi who started the real slide. It is she who made the genie a permanent State Guest. She injected the venom into our political veins. She invented our particularly vile local brand of political expediency. She showed us how to conjure enemies out of thin air, to fire at phantoms that she had carefully fashioned for that very purpose. It was she who discovered the benefits of never burying the dead, but preserving their putrid carcasses and trundling them out to worry old wounds when it suited her. Between herself and her sons she managed to bring the country to its knees. Our new Government has just kicked us over and arranged our heads on the chopping block.

The BJP is, in some senses, a spectre that Indira Gandhi and the Congress created. Or, if you want to be less harsh, a spectre that fed and reared itself in the political spaces and communal suspicion that the Congress nourished and cultivated. It has put a new complexion on the politics of governance. While Mrs Gandhi played hidden games with politicians and their parties, she reserved a shrill convent school rhetoric, replete with tired platitudes, to address the general public. The BJP, on the other hand, has chosen to light its fires directly on the streets and in the homes and hearts of people. It is prepared to do by day what the Congress would do only by night. To legitimize what was previously considered unacceptable (but done anyway). There is perhaps a fragile case to be made here in favour of hypocrisy. Could the hypocrisy of the Congress Party, the fact that they conduct their wretched affairs surreptitiously instead of openly, could that possibly mean there is a tiny glimmer of guilt somewhere? Some small fragment of remembered decency?

Actually, no.


What am I doing? Why am I foraging for scraps of hope?

The way it has worked - in the case of the demolition of the Babri Masjid as well as in the making of the nuclear bomb - is that the Congress sowed the seeds, tended the crop, then the BJP stepped in and reaped the hideous harvest. They waltz together, locked in each other's arms. They're inseparable, despite their professed differences. Between them they have brought us here, to this dreadful, dreadful place.

The jeering, hooting young men who battered down the Babri Masjid are the same ones whose pictures appeared in the papers in the days that followed the nuclear tests. They were on the streets, celebrating India's nuclear bomb and simultaneously 'condemning Western Culture' by emptying crates of Coke and Pepsi into public drains. I'm a little baffled by their logic: Coke is Western Culture, but the nuclear bomb is an old Indian tradition?

Yes, I've heard - the bomb is in the Vedas. It might be, but if you look hard enough, you'll find Coke in the Vedas too. That's the great thing about all religious texts. You can find anything you want in them - as long as you know what you're looking for.

But returning to the subject of the non-vedic nineteen nineties: We storm the heart of whiteness, we embrace the most diabolical creation of western science and call it our own. But we protest against their music, their food, their clothes, their cinema and their literature. That's not hypocrisy. That's humour.

It's funny enough to make a skull smile.

We're back on the old ship. The S.S. Authenticity & Indianness.

If there is going to be a pro-authenticity/anti-national drive, perhaps the government ought to get its history straight and its facts right. If they're going to do it, they may as well do it properly.

First of all, the original inhabitants of this land were not Hindu. Ancient though it is, there were human beings on earth before there was Hinduism. India's tribal people have a greater claim to being indigenous to this land than anybody else, and how are they treated by the State and its minions? Oppressed, cheated, robbed of their lands, shunted around like surplus goods. Perhaps a good place to start would be to restore to them the dignity that was once theirs. Perhaps the Government could make a public undertaking that more dams like the Sardar Sarovar on the Narmada will not be built, that more people will not be displaced.

But, of course, that would be inconceivable, wouldn't it? Why? Because it's impractical. Because tribal people don't really matter. Their histories, their customs, their deities are dispensable. They must learn to sacrifice these things for the greater good of the Nation (that has snatched from them everything they ever had).

Okay, so that's out.

"So stand up and say something...Take it very personally."

For the rest, I could compile a practical list of things to ban and buildings to break. It'll need some research, but off the top of my head, here are a few suggestions.

They could begin by banning a number of ingredients from our cuisine: chillies (Mexico), tomatoes (Peru), potatoes (Bolivia), coffee (Morocco), tea, white sugar, cinnamon (China)... they could then move into recipes. Tea with milk and sugar, for instance (Britain).

Smoking will be out of the question. Tobacco came from North America.

Cricket, English and Democracy should be forbidden. Either kabaddi or kho-kho could replace cricket. I don't want to start a riot, so I hesitate to suggest a replacement for English (Italian...? It has found its way to us via a kinder route: Marriage, not Imperialism). We have already discussed (earlier in this essay) the emerging, apparently acceptable alternative to democracy.

All hospitals in which western medicine is practised or prescribed should be shut down. All national newspapers discontinued. The railways dismantled. Airports closed. And what about our newest toy - the mobile phone? Can we live without it, or shall I suggest that they make an exception there? They could put it down in the column marked 'Universal'? (Only essential commodities will be included here. No music, art or literature.)

Needless to say, sending your children to university in the U.S., and rushing there yourself to have your prostate operated upon will be a cognizable offence.

The building demolition drive could begin with the Rashtrapati Bhavan and gradually spread from cities to the countryside, culminating in the destruction of all monuments (mosques, churches, temples) that were built on what was once tribal or forest land.

It will be a long, long list. It would take years of work. I couldn't use a computer because that wouldn't be very authentic of me, would it?

I don't mean to be facetious, merely to point out that this is surely the shortcut to hell. There's no such thing as an Authentic India or a Real Indian. There is no Divine Committee that has the right to sanction one single, authorized version of what India is or should be. There is no one religion or language or caste or region or person or story or book that can claim to be its sole representative. There are, and can only be, visions of India, various ways of seeing it - honest, dishonest, wonderful, absurd, modern, traditional, male, female. They can be argued over, criticized, praised, scorned, but not banned or broken. Not hunted down.

Railing against the past will not heal us. History has happened. It's over and done with. All we can do is to change its course by encouraging what we love instead of destroying what we don't. There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with grace from others, enhanced, re-invented and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it. Making bombs will only destroy us. It doesn't matter whether we use them or not. They will destroy us either way.

India's nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people.

However many garlands we heap on our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth is that it's far easier to make a bomb than to educate four hundred million people.

According to opinion polls, we're expected to believe that there's a national consensus on the issue. It's official now. Everybody loves the bomb. (Therefore the bomb is good.)

Is it possible for a man who cannot write his own name to understand even the basic, elementary facts about the nature of nuclear weapons? Has anybody told him that nuclear war has nothing at all to do with his received notions of war? Nothing to do with honour, nothing to do with pride. Has anybody bothered to explain to him about thermal blasts, radioactive fallout and the nuclear winter? Are there even words in his language to describe the concepts of enriched uranium, fissile material and critical mass? Or has his language itself become obsolete? Is he trapped in a time capsule, watching the world pass him by, unable to understand or communicate with it because his language never took into account the horrors that the human race would dream up? Does he not matter at all, this man? Shall we just treat him like some kind of a cretin? If he asks any questions, ply him with iodine pills and parables about how Lord Krishna lifted a hill or how the destruction of Lanka by Hanuman was unavoidable in order to preserve Sita's virtue and Ram's reputation? Use his own beautiful stories as weapons against him? Shall we release him from his capsule only during elections, and once he's voted, shake him by the hand, flatter him with some bullshit about the Wisdom of the Common Man, and send him right back in?

I'm not talking about one man, of course, I'm talking about millions and millions of people who live in this country. This is their land too, you know. They have the right to make an informed decision about its fate and, as far as I can tell, nobody has informed them about anything. The tragedy is that nobody could, even if they wanted to. Truly, literally, there's no language to do it in. This is the real horror of India. The orbits of the powerful and the powerless spinning further and further apart from each other, never intersecting, sharing nothing. Not a language. Not even a country.

Who the hell conducted those opinion polls? Who the hell is the Prime Minister to decide whose finger will be on the nuclear button that could turn everything we love - our earth, our skies, our mountains, our plains, our rivers, our cities and villages - to ash in an instant? Who the hell is he to reassure us that there will be no accidents? How does he know? Why should we trust him? What has he ever done to make us trust him? What have any of them ever done to make us trust them?

The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made.

If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man's challenge to God.

It's worded quite simply: We have the power to destroy everything that You have created.

If you're not (religious), then look at it this way. This world of ours is four thousand, six hundred million years old.

It could end in an afternoon.

© Arundhati Roy July 15th 1998

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Revolution - The Islamist challenge to secular Bangladesh

Gmail - Boston Review - On Bangladesh May/June 2007 Issue

Nicholas Schmidle
Boston Review
May/June 2007

The headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami, an Islamic organization in Bangladesh, is a single tower whose frosted green windows rise several stories above the coconut trees and rooftops of Muhammadpur, a neighborhood in central Dhaka. Below, in the streets of this capital city of seven million, bicycle rickshaws with handlebar tassels, tin wheel covers, and carriages painted with faces of Bengali film stars ding-ding-ding along. Car, dump-truck, and bus horns blast four- and five-note jingles, and ambulance sirens wail. But none of the commotion reaches Mufti Shahidul Islam, the founder and director of Al-Markazul Islami, through the thick windows of his fifth-story office.

Al-Markazul Islami provides free healthcare and ambulance services. Many Bangladeshi journalists, analysts, and politicians think it is just a cover, and that Shahidul’s real business is jihad. “Mufti Shahidul is a very dangerous man,” the owner of my Dhaka guesthouse cautioned the morning I headed off to meet him. Besides running Al-Markazul Islami, he is a former member of parliament. His party, Khelafat Majlish, wants to transform Bangladesh into an Islamic state. In 1999, Shahidul was charged with involvement in a bomb blast that killed eight Ahmadiyyas, members of a sect of Islam that denies that Mohammad was the final prophet. Islamic fundamentalists consider Ahmadiyyas heretics. When I asked about it, Shahidul denied any involvement, rolling his eyes and letting out a dismissive laugh. He does openly admit that some of the organization’s funds are used to build mosques and madrasas.

Before I left my home in Islamabad, Pakistan, for Bangladesh, I had visited a radical yet friendly cleric there—someone who talks openly about fighting in Afghanistan, his links to international jihadi organizations, and his relationship with Osama bin Laden. When I asked if he knew anyone I could speak with in Dhaka, he scribbled down Shahidul’s name on a business card. Clutching the card, I entered the downstairs reception area of Al-Markazul Islami one recent morning to find barefoot men conversing over cups of tea while custom ring tones and land-lines clattered away in the background. I took the elevator to the fifth floor where Shahidul sat behind a large desk, surrounded by assistants and relatives. His aging father-in-law looked on proudly.

“Assalaamu alaikum,” peace be unto you, he said as I opened the door. Shahidul is in his 40s. His face is framed by a scraggly, henna-died beard, and his forehead boasts a puffy, nickel-sized mehrab, a bruise that pious Muslims acquire from intense and regular prayer. He wore a white dishdasha and a diamond wristwatch. We exchanged greetings and made small talk in Urdu. Shahidul wore a wide, comic-book grin the whole time.

Local newspapers describe Shahidul as a former mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. When I asked him if he knew the cleric in Islamabad from Afghanistan, Shahidul shot back, “No, no, no. I never went to Afghanistan.” He recited his life story, which included a stint at the infamous Binori Town madrasa in Karachi and, later, a short fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia. No stops in Afghanistan. And since he started Al-Markazul Islami in 1988, how could he have the time to wage jihad? “My main business is driving ambulances and carrying dead bodies,” he said later during lunch, as we sat around a blanket covered with plates of french fries, cheeseburgers, and pizza.

Last December, Shahidul sparked a nationwide furor and reinvigorated a long-standing debate in Bangladesh. Four weeks before the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 22 (but later postponed), his party signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Awami League, one of the nation’s two mainstream parties and traditionally its most secular one. The agreement stipulated that Shahidul’s Khelafat Majlish would team up with the Awami League for the elections. If they won, the Awami League promised to enact a blasphemy law, push legislation to brand the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims, and officially recognize the fatwas issued by local clerics. The deal outraged secularists across the country. “Khelafat Majlish is a radical Islamist militant group which is against the spirit of the Liberation War,” said the Anti-Fundamentalism and Anti-Militant Conscious Citizens’ Society in a written statement. “By ascending to power through a deal with a section of fundamentalist militants, the Awami League... will never be able to create a secular Bangladesh.”

The Western media had been predicting similar things for years. In January The New Republic suggested that, “Left unchecked, Bangladesh could become another Afghanistan—a base for regional terrorism.”

But the prospects for Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of Minnesota, with 170 million inhabitants, are not nearly as certain as such reports would suggest. Islamist parties have multiplied over the past decade and public support for them has grown. Yet Bangladeshi society remains overwhelmingly secular, even militantly secular. And while the Islamists have grabbed headlines, the secularists are holding their own in an intense power struggle. Bangladesh has a long history of civil activism, and people are passionate and eager to voice their opinions in the streets. The secularists may not have the finances and weapons that the Islamist groups have access to. But the same leaders who fought against the imposition of Islamic politics in the Liberation War of 1971 are not about to hand the country over to men like Mufti Shahidul Islam. And he knows it.

For the most part, Islamic militancy or anti-American sentiment is not what draws support to politicians like Shahidul. While voters in Pakistan or Afghanistan might be impressed by a politician’s links to the Taliban or his jihadi credentials, in Bangladesh such affiliations are a political liability. This is why Shahidul hurries to change the subject whenever his are brought up. While he mentioned to me that he didn’t believe in secularism, he didn’t care to elaborate. He prefers to discuss other things. Take his constituency of Narail, a city in western Bangladesh, for example. “There is no corruption there,” he said. “And it is a big Hindu area.” Before the partition of India in 1947, more than half of Narail’s population was Hindu. Shahidul boasted that, because of his work, “Hindu people now say, ‘Islam is a nice religion.’ ”

Three days after our meeting, I went to Itna, a village near Narail, where I met a teacher, Rajib Asmad, at a local girls’ school. “Mufti Shahidul Islam has helped a lot of poor people—Muslims and Hindus,” Asmad said. “He’s not only built mosques. He also drilled a lot of tube wells and distributed a lot of money. So everyone will vote for him again.” A local journalist later told me that Shahidul has funded at least 40 mosques, 13 madrasas, and 350 wells. Of course, this phenomenon, where Islamist parties gain support by providing basic services, is not specific to Bangladesh. Hezbollah has done it in Lebanon. Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Since the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, Jamaat-i-Islami and numerous other groups, some actively involved in waging jihad across the border in Indian-held Kashmir, have provided unflagging relief and reconstruction aid. The Islamists in Bangladesh are pursuing a similar strategy. The major difference in Bangladesh is that the public is almost completely uninformed about their political aims.

“Do local people support his vision of an Islamic state?” I asked.

“Most people don’t understand what he really wants,” Asmad said. “They think, ‘Mufti gave us so much money.’ ”

Bangladesh is one of the few post-colonial countries whose demographics almost make sense. Whereas Pakistan is a hodgepodge of nations, where hardly 10 percent of the country speaks the national language, Urdu, in their homes, 98 percent of people in Bangladesh are ethnically Bengali and speak Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language derived from Sanskrit. More than 80 percent are Muslim; the rest are Hindu (15 percent), Christian (less than five percent), or Buddhist. Historically, this religious mix has contributed to the vibrancy of Bengali culture. Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, was a Bengali-speaking Hindu. Poems of his later became the national anthems of both Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Tagore composed both poems during the first partition of Bengal, which lasted from 1905 to 1912. In “Amar Shonar Bangla,” Bangladesh’s national anthem, he writes: “My Bengal of gold, I love you / Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune, as if it were a flute.” After seven years of unrest and a flurry of nationalist poetry, the British capitulated and reunited Bengal. In 1947 it was divided again, this time for good. As the British were leaving the Subcontinent that year, they created two new states: India and Pakistan. West Bengal joined India; East Bengal became the East Wing of Pakistan.

From early on, the founders of Pakistan faced huge challenges trying to reconcile the West Wing (present-day Pakistan) and the East Wing (present-day Bangladesh). More than 1000 miles separated them, with their hostile neighbor, India, sandwiched in between. Bengalis accounted for more than half the population, yet the country was led by those from West Pakistan, a mix of Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Balochis, and Mohajirs. Meanwhile, Urdu, a language spoken by less than five percent of the population, became the national language. Because the written script was derived from Arabic, and Bangla was derived from Sanskrit, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, said Urdu was a more “Muslim” language. “What nonsense,” recalled Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh’s first law minister. “Identifying language and religion? Bangla was our language. We were Muslims. What was the problem?”

Decades of economic and cultural neglect took their toll on the Bengali masses. Between 1965 and 1970, the West Wing of Pakistan was allotted a budget of 52 billion rupees (about $865 million), while the East Wing, despite its larger population, received 21 billion. Then, in the 1970 parliamentary elections, Bengalis voted almost unanimously in support of the Awami League, which, because of the Bengalis’ numerical advantage, gained an overall majority in the national assembly. Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the head of the party, should have been named prime minister, but the leaders in the West Wing delayed the opening session. On March 25, 1971, Bengali leaders declared their independence and the Bangladesh Liberation War began. The Pakistani Army sent soldiers into the streets to crush the Bengali nationalists, an effort code-named Operation Searchlight.

Shahriar Kabir was one of hundreds of thousands of mukhti bahini, Bengali nationalists who took up arms. “It was total guerilla warfare,” he told me. Today, Kabir is a squat man in his late fifties with a comb-over and a hand-broom mustache. On the night I visited him in his Dhaka home, Nag Champa, a type of incense from India, was burning and the room smelled of sandalwood. Between the incense and the hemp tote bag he held on his lap, Kabir didn’t strike me as a freedom fighter.

During the Liberation War the mukhti bahini faced volunteer brigades of Bangladeshi Islamists who were collaborating with the more than 100,000 Pakistani army troops stationed in the East Wing. The brigades, known as razakars, came from Jamaat-i-Islami, a fundamentalist political party formed in 1941. “They were a killing squad, like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany,” Kabir said. The razakars lurked in places where uniformed soldiers could never go. They targeted intellectuals, whom they considered, according to Kabir, “the root of all evil for promoting the ideas of Bengali nationalism and identity.” In December 1971, in the final days of the war, they murdered hundreds of prominent doctors, engineers, journalists, and lawyers.

On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered at Dhaka’s Ramna Racecourse, and Bangladesh became an independent state. It emerged from the war as a fiercely secular nation. The 1972 constitution declared “Nationalism, Socialism, Secularism and Democracy” to be the four pillars of Bangladesh. The constitution also banned religious-based politics.

But Bangladesh lasted only five years as an officially secular state. In November 1975, General Ziaur Rahman, a hero of the Liberation War, seized power after a quick succession of military coups and counter-coups following the assassination of Mujib, who had become the first prime minister of Bangladesh, and his family in August 1975. To solidify his rule, Zia felt it necessary to appeal to the Islamists. In 1977 he removed “Secularism” as one of the constitution’s principles and lifted the ban on religious-based politics. Jamaat-i-Islami bounced back and has been steadily gaining power ever since. Its members occupied 17 out of 300 seats in the last national assembly, including the leadership of two ministries—Social Welfare and Agriculture. “With the Ministry of Agriculture, they have access to grassroots and can reach the farmers. The Ministry of Social Welfare can reach the common people by providing funds. From here, they recruit and build their power,” said a journalist with The Daily Star in Dhaka who reports on the Islamists and requested anonymity. According to Shahriar Kabir, Jamaat-i-Islami receives “enormous amounts of money” from the Middle East and “enormous amounts of arms” from Pakistan, part of what he calls their “global jihad network.”

Most of Jamaat-i-Islami’s top leaders, says Kabir, are former razakars and “enemies of Bangladesh.” Fifteen years ago, Kabir formed the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, which had two demands: to try former razakars as war criminals, and to reinstate the 1972 constitution’s ban on religious-based politics. (The Nirmul Committee is known alternatively as the Voice of Secularism.) He feels that the rise of parties like Jamaat-i-Islami and Khelafat Majlish contradicts everything he fought for in 1971. “We wanted a secular democracy,” he said. “Three million people were killed during the Liberation War. If we now have to accept Islam as the basis of politics to run the country, then what was wrong with Pakistan?”

A few days later, I made an appointment with Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the assistant secretary general of Jamaat-i-Islami, whom the Nirmul Committee has accused of war crimes. According to the committee, Kamaruzzaman was “the principal organizer” of one of the most ruthless razakar brigades. Their pamphlet alleges that in 1971 Kamaruzzaman dragged a professor naked through the streets of Sherpur, a city in central Bangladesh, beating him with leather whips. It also claims that he ordered numerous killings and supervised torture cells. When I asked Kamaruzzaman about these charges one morning in his Dhaka office, he scowled and replied: “Is there any evidence? Not a single piece! I was only a 16-year-old college boy. How can I lead such a political force?”

Kamaruzzaman wears nice suits and gold-framed glasses, and his mustache and goatee are so finely kempt they look stenciled. Critics sneer at him for being “all suited and booted,” which they say reflects Jamaat-i-Islami’s aims to dupe the masses. We snacked on two plates of potato chips, which he ate with his pinky askance.

Despite Jamaat-i-Islami’s advances in recent elections, Kamaruzzaman admits that there are numerous barriers to its growth. Its role in the 1971 war, he told me, “can be an obstacle. But we are addressing it. We have accepted reality and are now working for Bangladesh. In 1971, the leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami didn’t want to see our Muslim state separated. We wanted the country to be united, but the game is over. The countries are independent. We made a politically wrong calculation,” he said. Another obstacle is poverty. Kamaruzzaman added, “People in the villages don’t want to hear you talk on and on about religion if you can’t provide food to them.”

But what about the “Hindu factor”? If Jamaat-i-Islami ever hopes to enact its Islamic revolution, then it will have to undo centuries of cross-pollination between Hindu and Muslim cultures in Bangladesh. Jamaat-i-Islami’s puritan vision of Islam simply has no foundation in Bangladeshi society. I asked Kamaruzzaman who was winning the culture war in Bangladesh: the Islamists or those promoting a secular, pluralist vision of Bangladesh. “We are neither winning nor losing at this moment,” he said. “But one day people will realize the effects of this so-called openness. Pornography and nudity in these types of Western and Indian films are encouraging violence and terrorist activities. Children shouldn’t be distraught by such things. Society cannot be a boundless sky.

“We don’t want to impose anything. Of course, there should be a law that, in public places, someone should not be ill-dressed or undressed. But sense should prevail.” He paused a moment before reaching in my direction, palm upturned as if to present his next idea on a silver platter: “You know, self-censorship.”

Bangladesh has more than 50 Islamic political parties, militant organizations, and terrorist groups, according to Abul Barkat, an economics professor at Dhaka University. Barkat, a middle-aged man with a penchant for coining technical terms, contends that each of these groups comprise “operational research projects,” ultimately overseen by the most adept of the bunch, Jamaat-i-Islami. “They know they will never capture state power through democracy, so they all work in different ways,” he told me. “Harakat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami is not doing the same thing as JMB”—Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh—“and JMB is not doing the same thing as Khelafat Majlish. They are trying different things to find the best way to get power.”

Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh may not be the biggest of the Islamist groups, but its activities provide a terrifying example of how even the tiniest outfits can shake—or destabilize—a society. On the morning of August 17, 2005, JMB simultaneously detonated 459 bombs in 63 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. Near each of the blast sites they left leaflets claiming responsibility in Bengali and Arabic. “It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh,” the leaflets read. “There is no future with man-made law.”

The irony of the leaflets was that just a year earlier the government and its man-made law had built up Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh in order to fend off a menace from the left. Bands of Communist rebels known as Sarbaharas had been growing stronger near the northwest city of Rajshahi. The Sarbaharas arose during the Liberation War, when they fought to expel the Pakistani army from Bangladesh. They have been trying to bring an armed, Maoist revolution to Bangladesh ever since. Some prominent secularist leaders may have sympathized with the Sarbaharas in the past. But, as Shahriar Kabir told me, the Sarbaharas are “no longer political agents.” Kabir, who has interviewed Maoist rebels in India and remains a leftist revolutionary at heart, sounded somewhat despondent when he said that these days the Sarbaharas are “just gangsters. They are looting and plundering the common people. Nothing more.”

Meanwhile, just across the border in India, Naxalite rebels were murdering policemen and raiding government offices in several districts. In nearby Nepal, Maoists were threatening to topple King Gyanendra. The government in Dhaka, led by Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party in conjunction with Jamaat-i-Islami and Khelafat Majlish (before it defected to join the Awami League alliance), formulated a strategy to crush the Sarbaharas. They assigned the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a previously unknown militant group, to the task.

The government initially treated JMB with respect. At least eight members of the national assembly bankrolled the group, according to a report in the January 30, 2007, edition of the Bengali daily Prothom Alo. In a phone interview, a member of JMB recalled police officers publicly saluting the JMB operations chief, Siddiqul Islam, or “Bangla Bhai”—Bengali Brother. At the time, Bangla Bhai was torturing and terrorizing anyone who he thought was even remotely sympathetic to the Sarbaharas.

Gradually, as the Sarbaharas were defeated, the government withdrew its support for Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and had several of its members arrested. Bangla Bhai felt betrayed and used. JMB resolved to send the government a message. “We wanted to frighten everyone about our strength,” the JMB member told me. The organization trained in camps alongside remote riverbanks and in jungle clearings. Maulana Abdur Rahman, the group’s spiritual guide, would stand in front of the blackboard, sketching out tactics and strategy. Both Rahman and Bangla Bhai carried gym bags filled with grenades wherever they went and clutched field-hockey sticks to use in the event of an ambush. In a Daily Star interview, Rahman warned, “We don’t believe in the present political trend,” which is to say in democracy and elections.

The bombings in 2005 stunned the nation. Parents rushed to pull their kids out of school and offices closed early. But for Swapan Bhuiyan, it was a call to action. For years, people like him and Shahriar Kabir had been warning people about the threat militant Islamic groups posed to Bangladesh, though few wanted to listen. The bombings proved that their concerns were credible, but did they have any coherent strategy to respond with?

Bhuiyan, a gentle-seeming middle-aged man with dark skin and a grey beard, represents a growing class of militant secularists. Many of them are former socialists or communists who have refashioned their ideology to oppose everything that the Islamists stand for. Bhuiyan told me, “I know you shouldn’t kill other humans, but these Islamic fundamentalists are like wild dogs. The Islamists have been destroying our values since 1971. They killed our golden sons in the last days before liberation.” I had met Bhuiyan about a year earlier in Karachi at the World Social Forum. On one of my first nights in Dhaka he brought me to the office of his organization, the Revolutionary Unity Front. The electricity was out and a single candle splashed light on a poster of Chairman Mao hanging on one wall and a framed photograph of Lenin on another.

Bhuiyan has fought for a secular Bangladesh twice before. In 1971 he was a freedom fighter. Then, in 1975, while he was serving as a lieutenant in the Bangladeshi army, news broke about Prime Minster Mujib’s assassination. Incensed by the murder of the nation’s founding father, Bhuiyan led a mutiny at the Dhaka airport against those in the army who sympathized with Mujib’s killers. After a couple days, the mutiny was suppressed. Bhuiyan’s seniors sentenced him to die by firing squad. That sentence was commuted to four months of solitary confinement. “No one goes longer than three months,” he said with a slight twitch. “Four is unheard of. They tried to make me crazy.”

When the lights in the Revolutionary Unity Front’s office eventually powered on, I could make out the faces of the other six people in the room. Most of them were in their 30s, born after the 1971 war. “We are all anti-fundamentalists,” Bhuiyan said, gesturing around the room. The others nodded. Although their brothers, sisters, and cousins weren’t killed by razakars, their generation is no less militantly secular. “The secular culture of the common people is strong enough to defeat Islamic fundamentalism here,” Manabendra Dev, the 25-year-old president of the Bangladesh Students Union at Dhaka University, told me later.

I asked Bhuiyan how he viewed the contest of ideologies in modern Bangladesh. “There is only one -ism,” he replied. “That’s Marxism. When it joins with Bengalism—and it will—there will be a great revolution in Bangladesh.” His neck jerked and he ran his hands through his long, silver hair. “But first, if I had the money, I would train a brigade of people in India and return to kill all the Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh has a rich, turbulent legacy of civil, political, and cultural activism, starting from 1971, immediately after the war. “There was no government and we had no experience of ruling ourselves,” said Abul Barkat, the economics professor. “We organized to reconstruct bridges and rebuild the country. The rise of NGOs”—Barkat estimates there are more than 70,000 nongovernmental organizations in the country today, compared to 300 30 years ago—“stems from local-level initiatives. These were people’s organizations.”

The boom of NGOs is indicative of Bangladeshis’ inclination to act in the name of some greater calling. Perhaps more than in any other country, protests and strikes are seen as legitimate avenues of political discourse here. Dhaka University is a battleground between the student arms of the two major parties—the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The campus cafeteria is referred to as “the second parliament” due to the number of student leaders who later became members of the national assembly. “It is a landmark for identity because of its powerful influence in shaping the ethos, the values, and the goals that were pursued by the country’s founders,” said Kamal Hossain. The Language Movement, which initiated Bangladesh’s campaign for independence, began at Dhaka University.

“The history of our country is one of sacrifice and struggle,” Manabendra Dev said to me one afternoon in the “second parliament.” People’s movements have defeated foreign armies, overthrown a military government, and forced concessions from a multinational energy giant. (In August 2006, Asia Energy Corporation abandoned a lucrative open-pit coal-mining project in Fulbari, a city in the northwest, after months of demonstrations against their shady dealings and environmentally damaging work.) With this kind of track record, people are optimistic that society will be able to repel the forces of fundamentalism.

As part of their efforts, Shahriar Kabir’s Nirmul Committee has built 80 private libraries around the country, targeting places where the Islamist parties are strongest. Each library doubles as a museum for the Liberation War; while Jamaat-i-Islami is trying to put 1971 behind them, Kabir’s libraries are keeping the narrative alive. In Chittagong, the second-largest city, there are 13 libraries. At the Double Mooring library there, 105 members—mostly teenage boys—pay an annual fee of five taka, or about 14 cents, for borrowing privileges. The shelves contain some of Kabir’s own work (he has written more than 70 fiction and nonfiction books), classics by Tagore, Bengali translations of The Old Man and the Sea and Harry Potter, and a section about the mukhti bahini. Arif Ahmed, a boy in his early teens with a spiky haircut, had just finished reading a Bengali translation of Hamlet on the day of my visit. His thoughts on Shakespeare? “Not my favorite. It was too much all about kings.”

Later that night, Kamran Hasan Badal, the president of Nirmul’s Chittagong chapter of libraries, explained what he hoped to accomplish. Badal and I sat on a bench in front of a hip bookstore in downtown Chittagong where poets regularly gather to sip tea and converse. He wore a blue plaid shirt and was freshly shaven. “Secular education is often not available outside of the cities. There is only madrasa education,” Badal said. “We want to start a debate through the libraries about what kind of secularism is best for Bangladesh.” While children are allowed to check out books for older siblings and parents, the Nirmul libraries are oriented toward the minds of the next generation—and their thoughts about secularism. Badal added that a top priority of a secular state should be to protect the rights of religious minorities. “When the Hindus and the Ahmadiyyas have been attacked by Islamists in the past, the government doesn’t do anything. It has to ensure the safety of minorities.”

The longer we spoke, the more I sensed Badal’s animosity toward anyone who wore a headscarf or beard. I asked how he differentiated between symbols of religious revivalism and so-called “Talibanization.” There seemed little room for compromise in his mind. “We are against anyone who capitalizes on religion for political gains,” he said.

After our conversation I left the quiet alley where the bookstore was located and stepped into the frenetic streets of Chittagong. A slight chill made the February night air refreshing. I thought about Badal’s ideas and compared them to things I had heard from Swapan Bhuiyan, Abul Barkat, and Shahriar Kabir. Besides being staunch secularists, all four men’s world views were rooted in intellectual traditions springing from the left. They romanticized the downtrodden. But in trying to protect the rights of tens of thousands of downtrodden Hindus from the aggressive Islamists, were they neglecting the plight of tens of millions of downtrodden Muslims?

On the night of January 11, 2007, after three months of violent protests, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency. The move dashed the hopes of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-i-Islami, whose alliance was heading for a landslide victory in the January 22 elections; in early January, the Awami League–led opposition bloc had announced its intention to boycott the polls. The decision to boycott convinced the international community that January elections could be neither free nor fair. By the time I arrived in Dhaka on the morning of January 13, the army had postponed the election.

In the following weeks, army and police units launched an aggressive anticorruption drive. Scheduling an interview in Dhaka became difficult. Many politicians turned off their mobile phones and slept at a different place each night. Dozens of high-ranking politicians from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were arrested, including the son of Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister. But Jamaat-i-Islami remained unsullied by corruption charges. In fact, they emerged sounding like model democrats. “The constitution has been violated,” Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the Jamaat-i-Islami leader, said during our meeting in late January. “The election should have been held. Whether a party decides to participate or not, this shouldn’t be a consideration.”

Mustafizur Rahman, the research director at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka, said, “Jamaat-i-Islami has handled things very tactfully. They just aren’t into the business of extortion like the other two parties,” he added, referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. A top army general, who asked not to be identified, said, “Every devil has its pluses and minuses. And at least Jamaat is relatively honest.” Their party workers, the general added, are the only people in the country who show up for anything on time, “pencils sharpened and ready to take notes.”

Even Harry K. Thomas, the former American ambassador to Bangladesh, described Jamaat-i-Islami on several occasions as a “moderate” and “democratic” party. It is the only large party in Bangladesh whose internal affairs and promotions are based on merit and elections. (The mainstream parties are driven by personality cults and family connections.) Most of its members are university educated, English-speaking, and know how to speak to Western journalists. “Our idea is to bring change through a constitutional and democratic process,” Kamaruzzaman said.

Jamaat-i-Islami’s commitment to elections puts voters in an awkward situation. What constitutes democracy? Is it elections? Or liberalism? Should voters back a liberal, one-woman party like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the Awami League? Or the democratic but illiberal Jamaat-i-Islami? Who is a liberal, democratic Bangladeshi to support?

In light of the mainstream parties’ autocratic ways and backroom deals with Islamist parties, Abul Barkat is relying on civil-society groups to build and sustain a convincing model of secularism. Though the Islamists are strong, he is confident that they aren’t going to win. “Jamaat-i-Islami can only succeed if we, as civil society, fail,” he said. He rehashed his days as a freedom fighter and nodded slowly, as if impressed by his own strength of character. “The burden is on us.”

After our first meeting at Al-Markazul Islami, Mufti Shahidul Islam and I stayed in frequent contact. I think he liked having an American friend; perhaps he thought our relationship would shield him from allegations of being pro-Taliban. But on the first Friday in February he didn’t show up for a planned meeting at the headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami. When I inquired into his whereabouts, a colleague of his told me that he was in bed. “High blood pressure,” he added. Four days later, Shahidul was arrested for having links to militant Islamist organizations.

The following morning, I visited Kamal Hossain, the former law minister, who wrote the 1972 constitution. Hossain has a deep voice and modest bulges of fat around his cheeks and knuckles. He heads a political party known as the People’s Forum. I met him at his house, where we sat in a room with towering ceilings, Turkmen carpets, and glass coffee tables.

“I see that the army arrested a political ally of yours yesterday.”

“Mine? No, no, no,” Hossain said. His party belonged to the Awami League’s electoral alliance that Khelafat Majlish had joined. He glared at me. “I feel insulted and offended and outraged that I should be called an ally of this man. The signing of the deal with Khelafat Majlish was about rank opportunism and totally unprincipled politics,” he said. Spittle collected on his lips. “Some of us are still guided by principle.”

Hossain describes himself as faithful Muslim, but he is also a militant secularist. He admires the way that the U.S. Constitution framed secularism. The rise of groups like Khelafat Majlish and Jamaat-i-Islami, he believes, is totally anathema to that style of secularism. “I go into the Jamaat areas and tell them, ‘You have completed misinterpreted Islam. The Prophet didn’t summon you as guides. We had Islam in Bengal for 700 years and we didn’t need you then. You did the wrong thing in 1971—and it would be just as well if you stayed out.’ ” From 1998 to 2003, Hossain had similar conversations with the Taliban government of Mullah Omar while he was serving as the UN Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan. “ ‘Who keeps telling you this nonsense that women can’t work?’ I’d ask them. ‘The Prophet’s wife was a business lady and you don’t even let them go to school.’ ”

As the author of the 1972 constitution, Hossain played as pivotal a role as anyone in deciding the nature of secularism in Bangladesh. I asked him if he ever imagined that he would see the day when the Awami League would be signing agreements with Islamist parties. “Absolutely not,” he said. In fact, he says he often asks himself, “What have we done to deserve this?”

Hossain struggles to determine a proper course of action. Immediately after the Awami League signed the memorandum of understanding with Khelafat Majlish, many secular-minded people experienced near paralysis. Hossain cautions that, especially now, society should be vigilant not to be “psychologically blackmailed” into inaction.

But inaction is only one possibility. Overreaction is another.

One evening, near his hometown of Dinajpur, Swapan Bhuiyan and I were sitting on a flat-bed trolley being pulled by a bicycle when we passed a one-room madrasa standing in the middle of a rice patty. Banana and coconut trees leaned over the ramshackle structure. “They are training terrorists there,” Bhuiyan said.

The madrasa sign was written in Bengali and Urdu, and I could see that the seminary was for young women memorizing the Quran. “Swapan, it’s a girl’s madrasa,” I chuckled. “Not all madrasas and mosques are training terrorists.”

He jerked his head side to side. Then he shared a short Bengali parable with me. In it, a cow gets burned by fire. The rest of its life, the cow is too afraid to even look at the sunset.

Bhuiyan paused. “We are thinking like that,” he said. “When we hear about a new madrasa we get frightened.” <

Nicholas Schmidle is a writer and fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Arise Awake Stop not till the goal is reached. - Swami Vivekananda Swami ji is my inspiration, not as a monk but as a social reformer and for his universal-ism.