IN THE EYES OF YOUNG GENERATION
In recent times, Bangladesh has seen a turn towards intolerance, communal conflict and a departure from building a pluralist society. In a social dialogue organised by the Centre for Bangladesh Studies on June 14 held at Bishow Shahitto Kendra young professionals discuss their role in promoting peace and social harmony. Drawing from the conversations in the event, Nasir Uz Zaman writes about their vision of pluralist society in Bangladesh.
Violence, intolerance, disregard for a plurality of opinions and belief system has become commonplace. Series of communal violence in recent years showed a departure from the collective and national commitment to peace, equality and secularism that we pledged during the war of independence. The communal attack in Ramu, Cox’s Bazaar (September 27, 2012) Homna, Comilla (2014), Langadu, Rangamati (April 2017) speak to the situation. In this context, young economist, researcher, social worker, activist, thinker, architect, film maker, educators and other sections of the youth gathered together in a social dialogue organised by the Centre for Bangladesh Studies to reflect on the reality of present Bangladesh and shared their thoughts on cohesion and peace. The dialogue was held on Friday, June 14 at Bishow Shahitto Kendra, Dhaka. Mohymeen Layes, a researcher and member of Centre for Bangladesh Studies moderated the discussion. Considering the significance of the event in promoting a pluralist vison of society, New Age Youth presents the youth perspectives on the issue presented at the event.
Ahbabul Yusuf Khan
Economist, fellow of Centre for Bangladesh Studies
The gross domestic product is the standard of our wellbeing. This it-self is reductive. We need to recognise the imposition of colonial growth model and how this colonialism threatens our generations. Recently, we got the new budget for financial year 2019-20 which states overall budget deficit will be Tk 145,380 crore. According to the newspaper reports, the amount of non-performing loan stood at Tk 1,10,873.54 crore. In 2015, approximately $5.9b was siphoned out of Bangladesh. These two amounts, NPL and illicit outflow of money almost cover our deficit budget. In FY 2017-18 our GDP growth rate was 7.86 per cent and the provincial estimate for FY 2018-19 is 8.13 per cent. Two main sources of our growth are export and remittances. However, in recent years, we have seen these numbers to fluctuate. In FY 2016-17, remittance inflow was lowest in six years. Interestingly, despite the decline in export and remittance, GDP growth rate was on the rise. However, the growth model does not consider other factors like environment, ecology, biodiversity et cetera. In the last 40 years, country’s 75 per cent wetlands and canals encroached. Empirical data show that inequality has increased. Therefore, the GDP growth rate is not reflective of real time struggle and inequality and the policies based on this growth model cannot ensure the wellbeing of 24.7 million farmers. It is not possible to be happy without ensuring a standard of living for the farmers.
Yet our wellbeing is being measured by this GDP growth rate. For example, if I ask someone about his/her wellbeing, the GDP growth would say, s/he is fine because we are in the era of high GDP growth rate. In reality, if I ask someone, ‘how are you?’ S/he would reply, ‘I do not know’ or the one would give you look of dismay. We should decolonise our ideas and thoughts. We should understand that the way our wellbeing is measured is itself problematic. We have to raise our voice against this colonial thoughts and ideas. We need to create a space from where we can denounce the GDP model and point its failure.
Researcher and social worker, fellow of Centre for Bangladesh Studies
Last November, along with two other researchers, I had travelled to remote parts of Chittagong Hill Tracts. At dusk, we travelled to Krokhyong union of Alikadam upazila and reached Unus Member Para. Around 25 women, men and youths were waiting under a huge tamarind tree on top of a flattened hill. We gradually learned that less than a decade ago the village was known as Thoaigyo Para, a Marma village. There were several other Marma villages around. The inhabitants gradually migrated to the outskirts of nearby cities as physical and social insecurity clouded the area due to government sponsored migration of huge Bengali population from the plains to the hills during the 80s. Then the Rohingyas came who fled violence to find a better life in Bangladesh. Slowly, the Marma names of the villages were replaced by Bengali names. Over time, Thowaigyo Para turned into Unus Member Para.
This is only one story out of thousands in CHT. Many places including streams and hills have been renamed with new Bengali names. The way a place loses its previous names and finds new ones is often marked by land grabbing. It also demonstrates the power relation between the populations who named them — the existing ones vs the displaced ones. Weather a group is located on the top or at the bottom of this hierarchy is often decided by various standards. In Bangladeshi nation state, it is nationalism which sets the standard and actively seeks to create an ethnically homogenous state. It fears difference and pluralism. It often creates hegemony of a particular nation over others and throws them at the margin. Nationalism is such a spell that blinds its followers from seeing, acting or thinking beyond what nationalism allows — hegemony and dominance of ‘us’ over ‘them’.
Various studies reveal that among the three hill districts, different forms of land grabbing are highest in Bandarban. Yet, many government representatives including the prime minister and security forces personnel claim Bandarban as the most ‘peaceful’ and ‘cohesive’ hill district. Does ‘peace’ mean to be silent in front of power? Is ‘cohesion’ another name for silent subjugation? It seems so, at least in the context of CHT. Therefore, I find it very important to question the dominant narratives of ‘peace’ and ‘cohesion’. We must ask who create these narratives, what purpose do they serve, who benefit from it, whom do they portray as ‘them’. I strongly believe, questioning the obvious path to ‘peace’ and ‘cohesion’ is at the core to find a way to build peaceful and cohesive society. We all wish to be in a peaceful and cohesive society regardless of our social, cultural and political identities.
Vice-president of Hill Women's Federation
From one side, the CHT looks like a place of peace and cohesion but from another side, the binary opposite scenario becomes visible. Peace and cohesion are related in a way that one cannot exist with the absence of another.
It is not easy for a Jumma woman to wear her traditional dress out-side of CHT. If she does so, every moment, she has to deal with male gaze for it which is quite different from Bengali woman. Jumma women often modify their traditional attire out of security concerns. This situation did not develop over night, but the result of a prolonged political instability in the region. Since childhood people from CHT, particularly women ran to escape violence.
Years after years, political crisis of CHT have been discussed, but nothing has changed. My request to all that we do not restrict ourselves to listening to crisis, but actually do something about.
Environment and renewable energy activist
Today, a particular development model is imposed on us. To understand the truth about this development, one need to ask oneself, are we really ‘developing’? What is this ‘unnayan’ all about? A critical reflection on the dominant discourse of development will reveal the truth about it. Many fatal diseases like cancer are on the rise, autism have become common place. Environmentally hazardous use of plastic is normalised. Environmental crisis has been taken to an epidemic form. Therefore, I would say, I am not doing well in this era of development. Now, what can we do to change this situation? Every one of us should do our part and own up to our responsibility. For example, I have training and interest in renewable energy and I have to use this training and knowledge to improve the situation. Our environmental crisis has taken a dangerous turn, yet the government is taking steps to further aggravate the situation. The government wants to resolve the energy crisis without addressing the environmental concerns. For energy efficiency, they have taken questionable projects like Karnafuli Hydroelectric Power Station, Payra Power Plant, Rampal Power Station, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant and many more. When globally, the trend is to divest from coal and nuclear energy, the government is investing in it. In this situation, we should continue our struggle against nuclear and coal fired power plants and campaign for solar power as it could be a step to resolve both environmental and energy crisis. Sadly, the government lacks the political intention.
When we talk about health issues, we should include the things those affect our health. Though data says that on average 30 people commit suicide in Bangladesh, the number is much higher in reality. Countries in global north or south have addressed mental health issues but Bangladesh is far behind on the issue.
We cannot detangle mental health from overall health issues, it is very much integral. Our social and political surrounding affects our mental wellbeing. Mental health issue is much more serious among middle class population. There is different kind of social pressure for survival, and then this struggle for survival leaves no room to even recognise the importance of mental health. The question mental health needs to be addressed at the structural level, not as individual problem. We should create a community or space where we can at least express ourselves and can feel safe.
Researcher of Centre for Bangladesh Studies
It is important for us to talk about mental health in conjunction with matters of disability, socio-political state of affairs and the inadequacy of scientific methods in understanding this issue. It is important to acknowledge that strictly empirical and bio-essentialist conversations surrounding the scientific study of psychology often fails to include the environment, ecology and politics of our very existences in our understanding of mental health.
In Bangladesh, and particularly in Dhaka, academic approach to the field of psychology as a science remains rooted in Western-European foundations, which makes a lot of this knowledge rather irrelevant for us. Our mental health cannot simply be understood as individual, internal problems that can be treated simply through doctor-visits, medication and in rare cases of some therapy. We must note that none of these are easily accessible, they are expensive, and beyond the reach of common public. Our mental health is not simply a product of our biological machineries. It is largely affected, shaped and triggered by our lived realities of race, gender, class, religion, caste and even our sense of history and identity. Our degrading mental health is very closely related to miserable working conditions, lack of a sense of security and a failing sense of self and community that are direct conditions of rising capitalism. In fact, most of the working class and those who spend entire lives doing unpaid labour are so busy struggling to build a decent life that they barely have the time or the energy to rest or think about mental health. But does that mean they do not have a mental health?
When the burden of healthcare falls on the individual rather than the community and state, important conversations surrounding ability and disability arise. Increasingly, our political-economy allows people of certain mental and physical ability to hold jobs and earn a living. Mental health must be a state priority, the government must create community support centres, provide basic incomes, design more accessible infrastructure. People of diverse neuro-types must be enabled. Mental health must be approached critically as a social and political issue.
Our existing system cannot give securities to children, women and thinkers. Here, children have to earn money for survival. In madrasa there is a sector called etim khana. The etim khana children have to collect fund for self-survival. Children in street hawking has become a common scenario. Actually, the system forced them to do so. In this age, they have to earn livelihood when they should study and play. Women and girls are not secured in this society. Child marriage is still considered as family’s social ‘honour,’ rejecting the issues of life and death. We need to draw our attention on how to create a space where a thinker could be born and could think about a better society. Sometimes I think, If Lalon takes birth in today’s society, he might die of starvation.
It seems an ironic time to talk about social harmony when from Washington to Ankara, Paris to New Delhi only echoed, ‘Hate’. It is marching to eat our soulThis ravenous dominance of hate in political discourse can only be compared to the time of rising fascism.
There exists a history of birth, evolution and institutionalisation of hate. The absence of hate is cohesion or vice versa. Hate involves both the interior, primitive part of the brain and the parts that developed relatively late in human evolution. Love and hate both born in the same brain part — putamen cortex. Therefore, love and hate are both blind which drives us to blind love for our own ‘community’ and hate for ‘others’. This notion of ‘community’ needs our attention, because institutionalisation of hate directly involves the construction and development of ‘community’.
Power just like capital is a terrible disease whose nature is to expand and destroy all the diversity. All those human societies — agricultural, industrial, post-industrial revolution – hate is deployed to expand power. And all our pure emotion ‘love and hate’ become the alimentation for the power. Whenever it saw something different it killed that with hate and then subjugated by love. Therefore, without challenging this Frankenstein called power, any discussion on cohesion will be pointless and fake.
I have seen this naked usage of the word ‘cohesion’ more than anywhere else in CHT. Every government set billboard on this occupied ethnic land, mocking the conquered people by the expression of cohesion and coexistence. But is it possible to have peace and love between the oppressed and oppressor?
We should consider this discussion more to build alliance between the deprived global 99 per cent and to drive our 150000 years old hate towards the one per cent oppressor.
How can we make non existing, but urgently needed alliance possible? The answer is through knowing and questioning. We will know and reach each other without prejudice and will challenge every ethnic, national or gendered taxonomy which teach us to dismiss others existence.
Mazharul Haque Tonmoy
There is a harmonious relationship among peace, sleeping and architecture. We already left behind our traditional materials for building our houses. In architecture, we are taught to use concrete materials and iron. It is commonly said that these concrete materials last more than 100 years. In reality, it is nothing but a trick for business. We do not see buildings which are more than 50 years old. These concrete buildings might collapse or the owners have to demolish them for a new one before the buildings reach 50 years. Concrete is also responsible for underground water crisis as it holds water and obstruct water from moving surface to underground.
Concrete may even be more dangerous than plastic. One question might come that what will we do to avoid using concrete. Actually, we are taught to think such. It is said that using natural materials for building is complex, hard and these are not long lasting. It is not the true. For example, bamboo could last more than 30 years if we cut on a new moon night. No chemical is needed for preserving it. It is sad that sustainable, eco-friendly ideas that connect us with nature are not promoted for profiteering interest.
Script writer, film maker and entrepreneur
Statistics shows that average 80 per cent youths want to leave this country. Among the causes, a crucial and cruel cause is that what and how they have to think is forcefully imposed on them. They do not have the space to think what and how they want to think.
What dream a youth have is the most important thing. The society including the family imposes their want, thought and dream on the youth. Most of the time, this imposed burden makes the youth frustrated. What I want to emphasise that let the youth think as they want to think, let the youth dream as they want to dream, let the youth do as they love to do.
President of Bangladesh Students’ Federation
We are living in such situation that we have to find peace and social cohesion. In this state, no oppositional voices are tolerated. Peace and social cohesion are not separate things but are the parts of structural problems. When fundamental rights of mass people are exploited, its impact affected them. Fundamental rights such as right to vote, freedom of expression and many more have been taken away from people.
It is normal that if people cannot exercise their basic rights, they would not be in peace and there will not exist social cohesion. In this present situation, there is no alternative way except a democratic transformation to create a space for peace and social cohesion. If policies only serve the smallest part of the society and exploit the largest part, such policies cannot ensure peace and cohesion but only inequity, discrimination and exploitation.
To change present situation people need to recognise their rights and stand for their rights collectively.
Member of Rashtrochinta
Present crisis in Bangladesh is rooted on the ways of ruling and concentric power structure. Without an inclusive society, it is not possible to have peace and social cohesion. Inclusive society means the republic where there must be equality, human dignity and social justice.
Though we are promised to have those but in reality we still do not get those. Most of the people think that democracy means election. Our last national election shows the reality of such false thought. Here, there will exist autocracy though fair election will be held. Because the existing constitution allows it in an unprecedented scale.
We need to rethink the saying, ‘Bangladesh is a nation because it wants to be a nation, nothing else’ and should move ahead with a better vision.
President of Revolutionary Student-Youth Movement
When we talk about peace, we must recognise whose peace we are talking about? If we cannot recognise it, there is no meaning of such discussion.
If we really want peace for youth, we have to go to them. In Savar or Keraniganj, you will find huge number of youths who are working in factories or garments sector — working class youths. If we cannot reach them, it is not possible to think about a change.
People cannot be in peace if they do not have freedom. For long time autocratic ruling ways, our freedom and peace have lost. To regain it, we must need a revolutionary change in the whole system. And youths have the greatest role for such revolutionary change.
Khandaker Toor Azad
Correspondent of Auraj Network
Talking about peace and cohesion in the context of today’s Bangladesh, we also have to consider about freedom and rights. Without free existence, peace and cohesion do not make much sense.
Remembering the labour movement happening in January, where the workers on whose labour we boast so much of our GDP growth, came to the streets being betrayed of promised minimum wage. The state used force upon them and killed one. Peace and cohesion seems meaningless for the labours deprived of political and economic freedom.
Just days ago, it was 23rd anniversary of the state abduction of indigenous people’s leader Kalpana Chakma. It has been more than two months since Michael Chakma went missing. When the ethnic people are facing constant atrocities, how do we speak of peace and cohesion?
Our so called development model actually depends on exploiting many by the powerful few. Health care, a mandatory service is becoming a commodity for the rich. Today, a first year student of University of Dhaka needs to pay thousands in the name of development, welfare and other fees but has to accept servitude of ruling party’s student wing. No peace exists for him.
We are told that there is no other choice but to welcome Rampal and Rooppur. Is peace possible amidst toxic environment?
Through resistance and alternative forms of organisations, we can move towards a desired society which will involve every individual in decision making, meet the needs of every groups of a locality and co-exist with nature. But we should not impose our own version of resistance to an oppressed group, rather try to understand them. If willing youth from oppressed classes and identities come together, then peace and harmony will be viable.
Lecturer of ULAB, fellow of Centre for Bangladesh Studies
Many of us have power or privileges in many ways even if we are oppressed in certain other ways. It is important for us to understand that because we exist in this society, we are a part of this. As a university lecturer, I benefit from the exploitation of working class people. Every time when there is conflict or trouble in CHT, living in Dhaka, some-ways I am complicit in the exploitation of ethnic communities. Oppressed people can oppress others and we need to constantly figure out ways to support our comrades, make comrades and practice solidarity.
In this nation-state, surveillance system and strict nationalist patriarchy, it is so difficult to dream. We are policed in every aspect of our lives, in every social space and institution. Even thinking spaces regulate the direction of our thoughts so much at every stage that we are being made to forget how to dream.
I want to imagine a world where I and my comrades do not have to constantly fear for safety. As Chandra said about her dress and the targeted attacks on Jumma women, I too think a thousand times about what I will wear. I want to live in a world where verbal and physical harassment are not normal, where allies will not co-opt other people’s work, where comrades can be trusted, where people care more about supporting each other and building rather than stealing, appropriating, callously endangering other people’s work. I want us to imagine, try to imagine, and practice dreaming individually and collectively.
Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team.