WERE we not well-cured, edible inhabitants of this city, it may have appeared in the months following December 30th, that a time capsule like some underground ruin had been excavated in the central valves of this city. Used to the cannibalism of our roads, the manic indifference of our horns, and the overlaying of the new with the old in our public holidays, history books, and landscape, however, many of us would have understood that what we were seeing was no uncovering, rather, a bombardment of covers. For, it is as if a section of the brain of the memory-swooning ‘Bongo’ body was declared both new and ancient, a magical saw cutting across that thin line between the two and allowing the grafting that births a Frankenstein of perfect timelessness: the dream of urban ‘scientists’ dedicated to tactile and tactical Time.
In the gol chottor where Bijoy Sharoni turns, and along the broad footpaths striding the astrodome and military museum, each week an unlikely exhibition performed and festooned, like perfect and incredible signs. One week, the week of Ekushey, at the foreground in colour, was a larger than life size image of the prime minister, in her primary incarnation as prime minister and daughter (not the secondary title of Mother of Humanity or even her tertiary one, as poet) while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Father of the Nation, and eponymously her father, stood in the background, but in contrast, he in black and white chromes, signaling history’s long waving hand, and, in the present, just to the left of where the feet of the life-size figure may have been, lay small cube sized images of several of the murdered members of the Sheikh family. The image is one of ‘arrival’, victorious, for it is not the image of tragedy and sadness that also appears at anniversaries of death, coming out as it does on the shore of the past, which is now at the foot of this present — tragedy at the feet of victory, and sums up national Joy. Another week, if one batted a jam-stilled eye, benign juxtapositions of police, military or just-mourned or active politicians in the same visual plane; another week perhaps Putin; and another still, images of traffic awareness; what is unsaid, each week, is how this living and transient museum of images, with superimposed past and present, bids the ubiquitous future etched into the wall: ‘Do not lose your path, Bangladesh.’ A few signals later, along Manik Mia, one would see less –in-your-face but nonetheless not-ignorable painted walls with images of national poets, national father and quotes of a few wise men; the present, in this overlay of visual wisdom and icons, runneth over, this cup of victory, through the joyous proclamations and analogies: national poet, Nazrul, poet of politics, Sheikh Hasina. And the poets do have a lot to mourn, a lot to celebrate. The ranks of artist and celebrities in collusion with the more immediate victory (December 30th, not March 26 or December 16 1971) are not menial. From actress Suborna Mustafa to cricketer Mashrafil, from now dead poet Syed Shamsul Haque, to those who have just recently won Ekushey Padak. Who would doubt such an irrepressible joy?
Sadly, twenty one February, barely a month ago, had a rather déjà vu quality. The day commemorating language martyrs transmogrified into a night of hell fire. In the late night of the branded day of both mourning and victory, came the hot news, Old Dhaka Fire. Very quickly, as the number of burned rose to eighty plus, several news channels framed the story as the Chawk Bazaar Tragedy, with appropriate background music, even as the minister of industries, Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun, referred to it as an accident. Erstwhile, the owners of the chemical industries which were illegally running their inflammable production in that congested area, kept quiet until the smoke settled; after a few days of follow up news, on whether these industries had been moved, and where, screens of new smoke, new stench, took over. Sensational news in Chittagong; terrors abroad. As with much of performed or televised history, emotions are performed and dates are marked. But what happens if it happens again, on the same day? Another tragedy? Another form of collective torture? Do we declare it an international day of misery? Or should someone patent it, before someone else claims that misery as their own?
Well here we are, it is Independence Day, the day of the declaration of Independence. The stench from Old Dhaka, the dead bodies, the criminal negligence, to use the legal frame finally given to the Tazreen ‘tragedy’ (or, for the sake of alliteration — torture) are miniscule compared to the price we do not have to pay for development in this People’s Republic: after all, we’re getting it free, right, sort of like the way we get to vote — rights are gratuitous or superfluous, depending on the rhetoric of the moment. Or these are ‘growing pains’: since we have to grow, develop: the future-present. Like the digital screens along that same Bijoy Sarani, Dhanmondi and throughout the city. For those who watched their burning siblings or friends, or entire families, the present continuous matters, not just the past that is re-read by the present or the present re-read by the past.. Arundhati Roy, in her much awaited talk, finally showcased in Midas Center, on March 6th, spoke of how the Russians speak of the past as ‘unreliable’ and of the future as unknowable. She did this in the context of what the left might benefit from, in situating themselves, orienting themselves towards the future via the present as much as that ‘dialectical’ motor of history: antagonistic forces. But to extend the analogy, at least the Russian one, to Chawk Bazaar fire — its relation to the past, is not so easily juxtaposed or super imposed. In the age of appearances, where the visual mode predominates, certain narratives, and their discourses, are so sedimented, one layer over another, the texts of our landscape can be read as the absence of those stories, and human beings, naked walls and streets, that have been vanished.
It is interesting to note that for a few of generation Z (those born in the mid 1990s), February 21st is easily overlaid by March 26, for national history has become not only inflated, through endless com./modifications, but conflated. February 21, then, today, marks history in its double gaze: where the sedimentation of the language movement has coalesced to form International Mother Language Day. And if we go a little further, in the framework of those writers who deal in the currency of Mothers of Humanity, the shaheeds of the past are buried in the meaning of the present. This is reminiscent of Baudrillard’s notion of the ‘precession of simulacra’, for the signifier, or symbol, precedes the signified; it all begins and ends with the victorious mother tongue. How can anything else be said, above, over, even alongside, this, symbol of conquest/joy?
Perhaps that which has suffered most from this overlaying and precession is language itself; political rhetoric, in the hands of officialdom, is little more than ‘gibberish.’ The quick retraction of words uttered point to the meaninglessness and nonsensical value of instrumental language. A case in point is the minister of shipping and the minister of road transport and highways during the earlier road protests. Otherwise would the unpunished crimes, that the road protestors remind us of, need to reiterate in ENGLISH what has been demanded a thousand times in the mother tongue? What political rhetoric communicates is nothing more than the working of the Humpty Dumpty of the language machine:
…Words work — on behalf of the dominant organisation of life. Yet they are not completely automated: unfortunately for the theoreticians of information, words are not in themselves ‘informationist’; they contain forces that can upset the most careful calculations. Words coexist with power in a relation analogous to that which proletarians (in the modern as well as the classic sense of the term) have with power. Employed by it almost full time, exploited for every sense and nonsense that can be squeezed out of them, they still remain in some sense fundamentally alien to it. Power presents only the falsified, official sense of words. In a manner of speaking it forces them to carry a pass, determines their place in the production process (where some of them conspicuously work overtime) and gives them their paycheck. Regarding the use of words, Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty correctly observes: ‘The question is which is to be master’ — that’s all.
But the point of any truly free communication would be for language to play, according to the Situationists: ‘Real communication would dissolve the state.’
Instead of a coup d’etat, the Awami League came to power in what is called the 2018 general elections. The present regime won the elections. The rest is semantics. The nominal difference between a coup d’etat and an election is the visible use of force. If elections serve to legitimise rule, through the will of a conscious majority, ideally, coup d’etats are imposed by a willful minority with — or more often, without — popular support. The Economist, in its article of the same day, ‘By hook, cook and ballot’ (2018) described the embarrassment the League simply has been unable to feel: ‘Along with a clutch of smaller allies, her Awami League party looked set to capture a garish 82 per cent of the popular vote. A rival alliance dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party appeared unlikely to muster more than a handful of the 300 parliamentary seats. But the embarrassingly skewed tally suggested that the BNP was not really the biggest loser. The biggest loss was for democracy itself.’ In the history of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, there is a singular memory of ‘coups’— unlike, say, Thailand whose military regime postponed elections, again, after the umpteenth coup — General Ershad; today the Awami league is in alliance with that same General. The memory of ‘democracy’ is short.
On December 28th, a Daily Star report on Rajshahi 3 constituency revealed intimidation in broad strokes, and the devil in the detail. Anarul Islam, a rickshaw puller, from Ramchandrapur village of Rajshahi’s Paba upazila, stated to the The Daily Star reporter that AL activists had surrounded him while he was taking tea at a tea-stall, forced him to chant the ‘Joy Bangla’ slogan and threatened him of dire consequences if he would not vote for ‘boat.’ When AL locals claimed 25 BNP voters had converted of their own free will, Anarul further claimed ‘two tea-stalls belonging to BNP supporters were torched in the neighbouring Bhalam village during the early hours of December 26 to terrorise the BNP supporters in the area’ and ‘that they had been intimidating villagers saying they [AL men] would keep an eye on who they vote for.’ In the mother tongue, the title of a Daily Star report on the same Rajshahi upazaila ran: ‘Dhaner shish vote dille gram oborodh.’ In other words, it was not just hockey sticks and ram da; vehicles were stopped, and the entire village prevented from moving. Contradicting claims, of course, were made by AL men. Language works. Meanwhile ten thousand five hundred workers of the opposition according to Voice of America had been rounded up in the weeks before election and the cases of voter intimidation poured in.
Some things are too graphic, too obvious, to ‘carry the pass’ of official language. On the eve of the eleventh general election: a thirty one year old woman from Dhanshiri, Noakhali, was taught a lesson for voting for the opposition, by being gang-raped before her three children and husband, by a group of local members of the ruling Awami League. The Dhanshiri woman’s husband, who filed a case against nine people with Char Jabbar police station, said the assailants, wielding firearms, barged into their home around midnight, tied him and his children up, forcefully took his wife away from their home, and gang-raped her. But rather than highlight this rape, symbol of ‘extremism’ in electoral rigging and intimidation if there ever was one, the international media highlighted a dozen killed in inter-and-intra political ‘violence’, while some, like Kazi Anis Ahmed of Dhaka Tribune, who wrote for the New York Times, right before the elections, highlighted the prime minister’s strong stance against ‘terrorism’ after Holey. What exactly does it take to have a strong stance against terror these days? One might look around the region, both northeast and beyond, for answer, and to that percentage of the population wearing the stigmata of ‘being on the wrong side of history’ — the easily disappeared, slandered, vilified.
Alas, for those who know that ‘It is better to die than to be raped’, there is nothing more to conquer. Not even terror. The sexually molested insurrection of young students (think Mariam during the quota protest who was threatened by female police with being stripped and broadcast nude after already being molested by a group of BCL men as they took her for a ride following a protest); the jailing of a world renowned photographer; his re-wounding during the vote;
Meanwhile, the rapists of that Dhanshiri woman have been arrested after public outcry but has the practice of intimidation stopped? If a river is named after a rape victim, if a footbridge is named after roadkill, as the peers of Abrar are promised, will the overwriting of injustice with names and stones create more than symbols? How much infrastructure, how much development, has to be baptized with blood?
December 30th was not Redemption Day, as was mused by some in the Dhaka Tribune, nor will February 21 or March 19th or whatever else we can come up with. Simulacra can only go so far, before injustice without words, essence without symbol, inflames. Today there is no single ‘Nur Hussain’; there are hundreds, seen or disappeared, and there is no untainted symbol because language itself is gibberish; and in its absence, the body speaks. Quiet storms called news percolate, through the sieve of shameless agendas and hoarse truths, like forgotten, relentless nightmare. A tirade of white trees rising in the dust of a digital scream: devil-opment. When Bangladesh’s schoolchildren and college students say ‘We want justice’, are they willing to go beyond the law that itself is a kind of language and language, as we know, works for someone? In the blindside of vision, perhaps they know that language can play.
Seema Amin is a writer and lecturer.
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