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Reading poetry in the time of despair

Nurul Kabir

What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?

Thomas Jefferson

IN THESE times of national despair, born out of self-seeking politics and featuring devastation of the economy, loss of lives and limbs and destruction of public wealth, et cetera, the idea of reading poetry and reciting poems might sound weird, if not irresponsible, to many; it may remind them of Nero playing his favourite flute while Rome was burning. Bangladesh is indeed burning today and most of its people are baffled and bereft of hope amidst mindless violence by the combating political camps — one desperate to retain power and the other determined to return to power.
In such trying circumstances, while it is important for the thinking citizens to study scholarly prose on critical junctures of history—national and global—to figure out ways and means to overcome the situation, there is, however, no reason to ignore poets such as Wiji Thukul [b.1963] and Martin Niemoller [1892–1984], whose works are capable of generating hope among, and providing directions to, the despaired and disconcerted.
There is little doubt that most of the democratically-oriented sensitive minds in Bangladesh are in a state of despair, thanks primarily to the violence unleashed by the governing quarters on the opposition political camp and the retaliatory violence by a section of the opposition on the supporters and backers of the oppressive regime . Life seems to have become too cheap amidst such seemingly endless political clashes.
As the rulers of the day continue to use the law enforcement agencies of the ‘republic’, illegally, to repress opposition leaders and activists, the latter are forced to fight on the streets both ruling party men and law enforcers backing them. The obvious result is deaths on both sides of the political divide and, of course, destruction of wealth — public and private.
Worse even, non-partisan men and women, boys and girls, and even infants, who have nothing to do with the crude power struggle, are falling prey to the political violence; many of them have been burnt alive — inside buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws. The perpetrators, either pro- or anti-opposition shutdowns, use gun powders, Molotov cocktails or simply petrol and matchbox, to set alight public transport, with men, women and children inside, in their bid to touch off panic in the public. As the opposing political camps trade blames, no one knows for sure if the perpetrators of such monstrosities would ever be identified and punished on the charge of committing crimes against humanity.
Such monstrosities are not unprecedented though. In 1994, when the Awami League, then in opposition, was agitating against the then ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party, more than a dozen people were burnt alive in a bus in the capital Dhaka. There has been change of guards since, more than once, but no has thus far been identified for the gory act, let alone punished.
Little wonder then that ‘hope’ has taken the backseat and ‘despair’ engulfed the sensitive minds.
As if this were not enough, the feuding political camps do not even spare animals. A cow stall was set ablaze in Satkhira during a clash between ruling party men and their political opponents on December 22, the former being aided by the law enforcement agencies. Again, a truck carrying several cows was set on fire in Sitakunda on December 24. The first incident of crime was committed allegedly by ruling party activists, while the second, as if in an act of retaliation, by opposition activists.

WHY is this orgy of killing and getting killed? The answer is simple: crude power struggle between the two political camps led by the Awami League and the BNP. The AL politics of duplicity, deceit and double standard is chiefly responsible for the current spate of political clashes.
It was Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, then in opposition, that forced upon the state’s constitution in 1996 the concept of non-party caretaker government, composed of some unelected persons, for holding general elections, following a prolonged series of relentless agitation. The catchphrase that the party propagated those days was: ‘Caretaker system for people’s voting rights’.
Now, in power, the same AL has unilaterally struck out the caretaker provision from the constitution, ignoring the opinions of the entire opposition, its own coalition partners, almost all professional organisations, leading media outlets and even a significant section of the AL leadership. The AL high command now wants to have us believe in its new slogan: ‘Abolition of the caretaker system for people’s voting rights’.
The AL high command also claims that it possess the political integrity to act as a party-neutral election-time interim government and create a level playing field for all the contesting parties to participate in the national elections, scheduled for January 5, 2014. Practically, however, it has completely failed to keep up to its proclamation since the so-called ‘interim government’ not only is exercising crude partisan control over the administration of the republic but also has managed  154 seats of the 300-strong national parliament in the entirely uncontested elections in those constituencies, much before the elections. In many already ‘won’ seats, the Awami League coerced the ‘independent’ candidates to stay out of the electoral process, to clear the path for its candidates to be elected ‘unopposed’. In the process, the incumbents have already denied 52 per cent of the total voters—4,83,27,110 of 9,19,65,977—their inalienable rights to franchise. So much for their claim that they have abolished the ‘caretaker system’ to ensure ‘people’s voting rights’.
If people’s ‘consent’ is the fundamental basis for any political organisation to form the government in a democratic dispensation, the incumbents have already lost the legitimacy of forming the next government based on the strength of the majority seats in the next parliament, for the majority of the voters in the majority of the parliamentary constituencies were not allowed to express their consent to or dissent with the incumbents. However, the AL high command and its political sycophants refuse to accept the universally accepted principles  of political science, and they are hell bent on continuing with the fraudulent electoral process at the cost of public money and, of course, at the risk of more people getting killed in the political violence.
With its public support having reached the rock bottom, thanks to its perpetual repressive measures against political opponents, intolerance to dissenting views of free-thinking citizens, hostility to media criticism and, of course, economic mismanagement, random rent-seeking and massive corruption by its bigwigs, the AL can no longer afford to face a free and fair election. The party has thus understandably resorted to fraudulent electoral practices in the name of constitutionalism.
The party has never bothered in the past five years about the fundamental dictates of such constitutional provisions as equality of citizens, equitable distribution of public wealth, people’s right to assemble for demonstration against governmental misdeeds, et cetera. Why should the people, with whom lies the sovereignty of the republic, and to whom the AL high command literally ‘begged’ votes for the key to Ganabhaban five years ago only to betray them almost on all fronts, now accept its pleas to cling to power without their genuine consent?
Entertaining such self-seeking whims of the government, any government for that matter, is bound to prove suicidal for the entire populace, particularly in terms of the preservation of the people’s democratic right to choose their representatives in free and fair elections.

IT IS not that the government, which secured a massive electoral victory in 2008, was not warned from time to time of its waning popularity due to its various illegal and extra-legal administrative, political and economic steps against the democratic aspirations of the people. Different sections of the people, particularly the media, has pointed out almost every anti-people step that the incumbents have taken — political tyranny to financial malpractices, politicisation of the administration and judiciary on partisan line to illegal distribution of favours among party men, extortions of money to sexual assaults of girls by members of its student front, so on and so forth. But the government did not care, nor did it notice that a large section of the people, who even voted for them, had started switching over to other TV channels while the AL leaders were busy uttering empty rhetoric of public services on the government-controlled Bangladesh Television.
In the face of growing arrogance displayed by ruling party leaders and activists, the intimidated sections of people whispered about their struggle for survival into each another’s ears, and silently poured their anger into the ballots boxes during the local governments elections. However, the government did not bother to gauge the sentiments of the masses, let alone listen to their grievances.
In the face of increasing political intolerance of the governing clique towards the divergent and dissident views and voices, a thinking section of the citizens dared protest in different public forums, particularly in the media, against the rulers violating electoral pledges, and continued to warn the possible adverse consequence of such undemocratic practices for the future of the political process in general and that of the ruling party in particular. But the incumbents, instead of taking the criticism as cautionary notes of the intellectually conscientious citizens, chose to react to the warnings by unleashing verbal violence against them. Besides, they have engaged ‘service intellectuals’ of the party in the media outlets to irrationally ‘counter’ the objective political and economic analyses of independent critics, and thus driven many honest analysts out of the public forums.
Meanwhile, the opposition political camp put forward various proposals for a negotiated settlement of the disputed issues, the ways of holding fair elections being one, through a sincere and effective process of dialogue, but the incumbents hardly paid any heed. They kept playing to the gallery, repeatedly uttering rhetoric about empty constitutionalism on the one hand and indulging in oppression of political opponents on the other. They continued to squeeze their opponents’ democratic space for bringing out protest processions and holding public rallies against autocratic governance and simultaneously had opposition leaders and activists arrested on charge of ‘subversion’ and ‘disturbing security’.
In such suffocating circumstances, resistance against the incumbents’ politically illegitimate aspiration for power remains the only means to preserve the people’s inalienable democratic right to freely choose their representatives. This was exactly what Indonesian poet Wiji Thukul had come to realise under the dictatorial regime of Suharto. He wrote:

If the people leave
while the rulers deliver their speeches
we must be careful
perhaps they have lost hope

If the people hide
and whisper
when talking over their own problems
rulers should be aware and learn to listen

If the people don’t dare complain
then the situation is dangerous
and if what the rulers’ chatter
may not be rebutted
truth is surely menaced

When proposals are rejected without consideration,
voices silenced, criticisms forbidden without reason,
accused of subversion and of disturbing security
then there are only two words: fight back!

However, apart from running the risk of being exposed to multidimensional harassment, it is not a morally easy task for everybody to prepare for resistance against an autocratic government, particularly when the victory of the resistance would enable a combine of political forces, the BNP along with Jamaat-e-Islami in the present case, to replace the present regime. The reason is simple: the political conglomerate, now in opposition, could hardly be expected to deliver better in terms of contributing to genuine democratisation of society and the state.
While many consider the BNP as a moderately ‘democratic’ party, compared to the Awami League that deems anyone critiquing it as an enemy who should be marginalised, Jamaat remains a political force that does not ideologically believe in the ‘sovereignty of people’ in running the affairs of the state, not to speak of its armed resistance against the war of independence in 1971. It is indeed a matter of difficult choice for many, and this is exactly the political card that the ruling Awami League is now playing to justify its repressive measures against its political opponents on the one hand and fraudulent attempt/s to prolong its stay in power without people’s mandate on the other.
In this regard, one needs to take note of the fact the Awami League has been oppressive to not only the pseudo-democratic opposition vying for power but also the progressive democratic forces of the left political camp and even social movements like the one pressing for  protecting national  natural resources from being plundered by multinational companies. The independent critics of the government misrule were also not spared.
Thus, perpetual resistance against any undemocratic authority, the present one and the one in waiting, is the only answer to autocracy of any political colour. Failure to resist the current autocracy on the ground that it is being oppressive towards another combine of undemocratic forces might eventually prove suicidal for those who are not exposed to the rulers’ wrath right at the moment. This is the lesson that Martin Niemoller learnt the hard way in Germany under Hitler’s rule:

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I did not speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

There is also another formidable reason, as pointed out by Iranian journalist Akbar Ganjil, to fight for the rights of others, i.e. protecting the ‘human essence’ of a fighter who is not a direct victim of oppressive authorities. ‘I witness that other people’s rights are being trampled upon…If I do not take action to help achieve the rights of this Other, I will become alienated from my human essence. The rights of the Other are complimentary to my own rights. I must fight for those who have no right to speak …those who are humiliated, and those who are deemed second-class citizens,” writes Ganji.
In absence of the rule of law, apart from ruling party supporters, all citizens are treated as practically ‘second class citizens’. In such oppressive political circumstances, protests and resistance remain the ‘sacred’ duty of democratically oriented citizens for the sake of securing their own rights by defending those of the others and, of course, protecting their ‘human essence’.
So, long live poetry, long live journalism.

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