How does one define a generation? This question has been on my mind since February 2012, when I turned fifty, an age that made me interested in a form of retro/introspection involving what the US sociologist C Wright Mills called the Sociological Imagination, whereby individual biographies could serve as mirrors for larger historical processes, and vice versa. I noted down many points that I wished to weave together into a narrative that I thought could be of interest to potential readers, at least to those of my generation. But I was not sure of how to define ‘my’ generation, or, to put the matter differently, which of the different generational names in circulation best described the one that I belonged to. This uncertainty was one of the factors that led to my repeated postponement of writing up the intended narrative, and when another birthday approached, I decided to shelve my notes indefinitely. Then ‘Shahbagh’ happened, catching many by surprise, announcing the coming of age of a new generation of Bangladeshis in an unprecedented and highly spectacular fashion. Against this backdrop the word ‘generation’, which was being uttered and inscribed widely, was back on my mind again.
Shahbagh, the site of a spontaneous gathering, on February 5, 2013, of mostly young men and women – brought together by a group of bloggers and online activists – protesting what was widely seen as an unjustly lenient verdict for a convicted war criminal of 1971, suddenly emerged as the centre stage of a nationwide reawakening process that is still taking shape. The place was promptly named ‘Projonmo Chottor’, translated in English as the Square of the New Generation. Although the Bangla word projonmo just means ‘generation’, in the naming of the square, it acquired the connotation of ‘new generation’. Earlier, the word ‘Projonmo’ had been mainly associated with a movement led by the children of martyred intellectuals killed by pro-Pakistani forces during the Liberation War of 1971. This group – which calls itself Projonmo Ekattor (Generation ‘71) and has been at the forefront of a movement to revive long standing demands for justice for the martyrs of 1971 – consists of individuals who are in their forties. However, the people who turned out in large numbers at Shahbagh, and have continued to occupy the place continuously since the 5th of February, are, generally speaking, a younger crowd, including students – many probably in their teens – and online activists, writers, artists and young professionals in their twenties or early thirties. These vocal youths have laid a claim to the word Projonmo as their own, by emerging as the generation that seems most intent on burying the ghosts of 1971 and reinvigorating the Spirit of Ekattor (‘71) in national life.
With last week’s sentencing of the third person accused of committing war crimes in 1971, politics in Bangladesh has just entered a new, violently-contested phase, with different sides trying to exploit the process and outcomes of the ongoing trials, as well as the associated debates and public reactions, to their own advantages. At this juncture, it is too early to say how those constituting the New Generation will adjust their stance(s) and path(s) amidst the threat of escalating violence, but they have already captured the attention and imagination of all those people who care about, or have some interest in, Bangladesh, regardless of their location and nationality. As one such individual, I offer this piece as my attempt to figure out how people from ‘my generation’ could connect to the New Generation on whom so much hope is now pinned.
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Back to the question of how one defines a generation: let me start with some facts at the intersection of the biography and history surrounding one particular individual that I know reasonably well–me!
I was born in 1962 at a remote village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of what used to be East Pakistan. It was the final year of the first phase of martial law in Pakistan; the year when the military rulers of the country that came up with a new constitution, which took away the ‘excluded area’ status of the CHT, which became redefined as a ‘tribal area’; it was also the year when the Kaptai Dam was completed, when a young man named M. N. Larma organized a student conference in Rangamati. Regionally and globally, it was the year when India and China fought a war; when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out, and the first person trying to cross the Berlin Wall (built a year earlier) was killed; it was also the year when Nelson Mandela was arrested for standing up for freedom, dignity and equality in South Africa.
My parents – who are from a generation whose cohorts in the West have been dubbed as the Silent Generation, people born before 1945 but too young to have taken up arms during the World War II – lived in a rural area in Khagrachari, situated along Chengi valley, that would experience, soon after my birth, a sudden influx of people displaced by the Kaptai dam. In 1971, the five sons (I was the second) that my parents had were all too young to bear arms, but we did have relatives who became freedom fighters. As the Liberation War broke out, we knew which side we were on, and our search for safe refuge took us to different places, including – for a very brief period – Tripura, India. Towards the end of the war, our final refuge was a village not far from what is now the Khagrachari district headquarters, where our own home village was located. I remember returning there with my brothers and some other young boys singing ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, the national anthem of Bangladesh, right after the Day of Victory, the 16th of December, 1971.
As an adolescent, I would leave Khagrachari in 1977 to go to school elsewhere, including Dhaka, where I studied for three years before going abroad, on a scholarship, to the US, where I spent a big part of my youth (1982-1990). As a young man, I was deeply unhappy about all the happenings in the CHT, in Bangladesh as a whole, and in the wider world as well. Bangladesh was under actual or de facto military rule from 1975-1990, when the heaviest brunt of undemocratic governance was borne by the people of the CHT. Globally, the world was then heavily polarized across ideological divides represented at opposite ends by the US and the USSR. As a student in Dhaka, I had been briefly drawn to a student organization that looked up to the socialist world as a source of inspiration, yet I found myself switching over to the ‘other side’, much to the dismay of the leader of the organization that I had become actively involved with. Before leaving for the US, I had inhaled tear gas in Dhaka, and in the CHT, witnessed, and even experienced at a personal level, abuse of power and violations of human rights perpetrated by agencies of the state. But to me, the US or the ‘capitalist world’ that it represented – led by the likes of the then US President Ronald Reagan or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – were not places to feel at home either. I remember that at the convocation ceremony of the class of 1986 at my college in the US, many of us graduating students wore red ribbons signalling our demand for divestment from South Africa, where apartheid was still in force. At a smaller graduation ceremony held at my department, where I was nominated as a commencement speaker, I touched on my angst for deciding to pursue further studies in the US at a time when people in the CHT that I knew and cared about were literally fighting for survival.
Having endured the mental agony of spending much of my youth under the regimes of rulers like General Ershad (1981- 1990) at home, or Reagan (1981-1989) and Thatcher (1979-1990) abroad, in 1991, I returned to Bangladesh for good, not necessarily with high hopes or big dreams, but just searching for my own little place under the sun as an individual. By this time, the Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had dissolved, and the reign of military rule in Bangladesh had also come to an end. Just before returning home, seeing Nelson Mandela live at a stadium in San Francisco was a great moment of joy and celebration for me and my friends, a reason for us to feel upbeat about the direction that we thought the world was taking.
However, there would hardly be any peace in the world. On the very day I reached Bangladesh in January 1991, a US-led coalition force invaded Iraq in response to the latter’s occupation of Kuwait. At home, while democracy had formally returned in Bangladesh as a whole, the same was not true for the CHT region. I will not, however, narrate the larger events from this point onwards except to note that as a young university teacher – the role that I took on soon after returning home – I would become loosely connected with several movements, dealing with issues ranging from the rights of indigenous people to that of the trial/‘eradication’ of the Killers and Collaborators of 1971. However, the little activism that I engaged in largely dissipated when I morphed into a development professional–partly by chance and partly by choice – in 2001, the year of 9/11.
During most of my working life in Bangladesh so far over the past twenty-odd years, one vacuum that I have been keenly aware of is the relative absence of people of my cohort – particularly in terms of my former classmates and friends – living in the country. I have often wondered whether this was simply a matter of perception, due to my individual circumstances, or whether there were macro forces at play that had pushed many people from my cohort out of the country, or into professional orbits that did not intersect with mine (For example, I learnt that the student leader who once opposed my going to the US had turned into the owner of a garments factory!). Be that as it may, my perception led me to the idea of defining my cohort as a Lost Generation, a notion around which I even contemplated writing a book, but it turned out that this particular label had already been taken, at least in Europe, by those who fought in World War I.
In terms of categories used in the West, as can be found through Google searches, people of my age fall somewhere between the tail-end of the Baby Boom Generation (those born during 1946-1964) and Generation X (born 1961-1982). Some subsets of the latter generation have also been called Yuppies (self-centred ‘young urban professionals’), the MTV generation (named after Music TV, first aired on cable in 1981), et cetera. Last year, I even came across the notion of the Theory Generation that seemed to be a very apt description of individuals like me who had to cope with the postmodernist turn of academic life in the 1980s. Nicholas Dames, author of an article titled ‘The Theory Generation’ (http://nplusonemag.com/the-theory-generation) writes, “If you studied the liberal arts in an American college anytime after 1980, you were likely exposed to what is universally called Theory. Perhaps you still possess some recognizable talismans: that copy of The Foucault Reader…. A Thousand Plateaus…; Adorno’s Negative Dialectics; a stack of little Semiotext(e) volumes… Maybe they still carry a faint whiff of rebellion or awakening, or (at least) late adolescent disaffection. Maybe they evoke shame (for having lost touch with them, or having never really read them)… But chances are that, of those studies, they are what remain…” After this introduction, the author announces, “If so, you belong to what might be called the Theory Generation.” As part of characterizing this generation, the author at one point uses excerpts from a novel where one character, a woman named Mindy who is in her forties, displays an admixture of the “high theoretical and the personal”. During a conversation with a twenty-something travel agent, who shows ‘structural hatred’ towards Mindy, though she does not take it personally, the latter answers a question about the contents of her backpack: “Anthropology books….I’m in the PhD program at Berkeley.” Having once carried the same baggage at the same place, the article, shared on Facebook by a ‘lost and found’ friend living in the US, felt like a blast from the past. But, to me, here and now, the notion of the Theory Generation seems more like a distant echo from the past, helping us little in reading Shahbagh.
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Or perhaps people like me, those who were somewhat reluctant members of the Theory Generation, simply feel awkward to be putting back on our postmodernist glasses in trying to ‘read’ (or ‘write’) Shahbagh. Yet I cannot help thinking that Bangladeshis of my generation, or the generations that preceded ours, are watching Shahbagh from a distance, if not showing up there in person. One feels this by tuning to the waves after waves of a wide spectrum of people – old and young, men and women, Bengalis and Adibashis, liberals and conservatives, and so on – who have been drawn to Shahbagh, virtually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Amidst such diversity, one also realizes that the people who are the driving force of Shahbagh are overwhelmingly young, who seem to be finding their feet at the crossroads of global capitalism and an emerging new Bangladesh. Their contemporaries in the western metropolitan centres comprise of two generations, one known by names like Generation Y, Generation Next, the Net Generation etc. (people born from 1982 to early 2000s), the other as Generation Z, or Generation I (I for ‘Internet’), Generation AO (‘Always On’), Generation Text etc. (people born in the early 1990s onwards).
In the Bangladesh context, the youngest generation named above could also be called the ‘post-autocracy’ (i.e. post-Ershad regime) generation, people born after Bangladesh’s formal ‘return to democracy’ in 1991. Members of this generation would be voting for the first time in their lives in the upcoming national elections, and I am sure political strategists will be busy counting, and courting, such potential voters. The youth of this country have already begun to make themselves heard. Can they make their votes count as well? More importantly, can they bring in fresh ideas, raise totally new slogans, and paint a new picture of a Bangladesh that is not haunted by the ghosts from the past, but driven by forward-looking dreams, projecting a country that would be more inclusive and pluralistic, and more liveable? Can they also bridge the digital divide that is little talked about, but we know to be there, separating different classes of people from the same age group into different worlds (e.g. garments factory workers within the country or migrant workers overseas, who are sacrificing their youth – and sometimes lives – to keep the wheels of the economy of this country running)? I believe that the answer will depend on what we – people from different generations – choose to do, or not to do, in the days, months and years ahead.
Hopefully our actions will prove the predictions of a recent survey by The Economist, which placed Bangladesh at the 77th position out of 80 countries sampled in terms of the ‘best country for a child to be born in 2013’, to be wrong. After the arrival of the New Generation at Shahbagh, 2013 has ushered in new hopes for this country, making many expatriate Bangladeshis wish they were here. Can we not use such energy to imagine and build a future in which the newborns of this year will look back to 2013 as the year when they were lucky to be born in a land called Bangladesh?
Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.