My parent’s generation is unique. In their lifetime, three different flags have represented their existence. First, it was the Union Jack, accompanied by the ‘God Save the King’; the second one was the white crescent and the star on a green background, accompanied by “Pak Sarzaben Saat Baat’; and finally came the red sun on a green background accompanied by ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ in our own mother tongue. They have been granted formal independence literally twice. Citizens of many countries, including myself, can claim that they have saluted two flags, but our parents have been unique to salute three.
It is and should be the end of the journey for them and albeit for all of us. The foreign oppressors and colonisers and their foreign tongues telling us to dance to their tunes or else are gone. Gone are the colonial imperatives and their dictums. But, so are the modes of decorum in private and especially in public it seems. We have advanced in leaps and bounds, and yet somewhere we have fallen behind. We have become the third largest exporter of garments in the world, and yet the vast pool of women workers are still paid 40 dollars a month. We install fancy air coolers and gadgets and yet cannot run them most of the day because there is no electricity. The majority of the workforce is in agriculture and yet their earning, and prices of the commodities they produce are at odds. We want them to be highly paid and yet we want cheap food, somehow both of these expectations are not adding up. Our universities, once acclaimed with such lofty accreditations as the Oxfords of the East have descended into lofty political arenas where the post of the Vice Chancellor is a political one. Instead of expanding, our railway networks have shrunk, our population has doubled since independence but the road networks, albeit our entire infrastructure, be it law and order, healthcare, or any other sectors have not.
Yes, some progress has been made in line with the millennium goals and we are ahead of some of our immediate neighbours, but they are not enough. In our short history of 40 years, we have bungled up democracy to the point that we have two major assassinated leaders, the act which barbarity have become the driving force of our political parties, we have seen decades of military rule, and due to the severe mistrust and corruption that have become endemic among us all, we came up with a unique system of caretaker government, whose validity among the political arena has made the lives of ordinary citizens just plain miserable recently. Unfortunately it seems, suffering from political myopia and from the lack of external oppressors, we are declaring independence from ourselves every five years, with each and every policy and project to be carried out within those five years in mind.
Unfortunately, institutions and traditions do not have a five-year shelf life. They take decades to solidify and get ingrained in the collective psyche of the citizens of a country. They are supposed to be ingrained to the point that they are supposed to be taken for granted, life is supposed to go on uninterrupted regardless of who is in the helms of the government and we are supposed to, to borrow a western epitaph, go after life, liberty, and pursue of happiness. Sigh.
I dread listening to the news of any news channel these days. With so many studios and apparently not enough news, after the customary coverage of political bile exchange, it is about accidents and the loss of lives, the spiralling cost of commodities and plight of the dwindling middle-class, the perennial traffic jams, and, to put it politely, the total lack of civility amongst ministers, MPS, and what not.
So, we are slowly evolving into the Republic of ‘In Spite Of’. In spite of a hartal, our young students will show up at the exam halls at 12 midnight to sit for our exams. In spite of a creaking educational system, we have students coming out successfully in the SSC and HSC exams. Their fight to get into the colleges and study the subjects of their choice is another matter. In spite of a dysfunctional democracy, we have the likes of Hillary and Pranab coming into town. In spite of the corruption charges of various ministers, the aforesaid ministries are still functioning with them as their heads. We also have seen the independence of the judiciary, effective to such extends that it did not dither once to put 30 plus opposition leaders to the cells and silence them from the TV cameras who were becoming quite dependent on their sound-bites. So in spite of everything and everywhere, I am very uncomfortable to be a non-political, non affiliated citizen right now. I have lost my voice in the mayhem of the cacophony of voices between the two parties. I don’t seem to know anyone of stature directly and therefore if something does go wrong, no one is there to call someone on my behalf. I am without ‘tadbir’ and in the ‘Republic of In Spite of’ I am a nobody it seems.
As a child, I recall the sounds of machine guns of ’71, I remember the election day of 1970 and the enthusiasm with which my parents and their neighbours went together to cast their votes, I recall the horrors with which our leaders were put down in ’75 and ’81, I recall the movements led by two young women who led the fights to get rid of military dictatorships and only later to fall upon each other, the constant promises of betterment over the past 40 years and the dreams of our leaders, past and present. Unfortunately, I am wide awake. The realities of daily livings have made dreams a luxury and I am extremely uncomfortable. In the fag end of yet another elected government, the usual positioning for the continuation of terms have begun. The politicization of the so-called non-partisan administration has been completed decades ago, with their own turmoil affiliated with whichever party is in power, and I personally do want to see a peaceful resolution to the erupting quagmire that may engulf us all. The trenches dug are getting deepened, claws are being sharpened, and my problems will not be solved. I still won’t have electricity to run the pump on time to fill my tanks with water; due to the lack of an efficient mass transit system, I still have to get into a car or a decrepit bus and be part of the traffic mess; and I still have to argue with the vendors as why the prices of basic food items keep creeping up on a daily basis while our incomes are not.
In spite of everything, we are here in the land of our birth, constantly buoyed by hope that things will get better. In spite of the daily curve balls of life thrown at us constantly, we hope that tomorrow will bring some news that will make us smile with a collective ‘aaah’. In spite of everything, we are Bangladeshis forever… Like a western wedding vow, ‘for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part’.
MK Aaref is an architect. He studied architecture and urban planning at the University of Houston. Later, he specialised in privatisation during his MBA from Aston University, UK. He currently resides and practices in Dhaka.