Spring signs are always positive and optimistic. It is a time for rejuvenation, new planting of seeds, and the promise of hard work. This is predominantly a peasant imagination with later urban societies adopting the imagery of the experience. Spring is an agricultural phenomenon. However, one always likes to hope anew every year, like the cycle of planting and harvesting. The colour of the sun is flaming yellow, so women wear yellow, we welcome yellow flowers and spice in a homage to the spirit of spring.
However, what works in agriculture doesn’t necessarily translate positively to political situations. The agricultural paradigm is fundamentally different from political ones. Agriculture follows cycles of renewal and rebirth but Bangladesh politics follows neither. So to speak of spring and hope and all that, is fundamentally false. Agriculture is continuous in Bengal, politics is an interruption. Agriculture has triumphed and produced our history. One is not sure what role politics has played in history since one can never be sure of which history one is talking about.
So are you saying that this is not a spring?
No. What I am saying is that natural history and political history are different and they have different paths. But at some level there is conflict between the natural and the political. In that sense, our agricultural life could be in conflict with state/urban politics. For example, politicians are trying to control an agrarian society and its production, although its contribution to the same is limited. The grammar of management is not the same. Political constructs are almost entirely driven by urban political forces, though they don’t interact much. Politics is about controlling decision-making privileges over resource access and the relevant mechanisms. It is about the conflict arising between groups competing with each other for these privileges. Politics in Bangladesh is about power management not providing resources.
Could you explain it a bit more?
The conflict between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL) is almost like a private conflict between two families. There are certain differences, but essentially they are for reigning over the same space. However, this conflict has little to do with most Bangladeshis. Bangladeshis operate in their own space. So in some ways the present conflict is neither about common objectives, nor common control by common groups. That doesn’t mean AL and BNP are the same.
But are you saying that the present violent politics is not affecting ordinary people?
No, it is affecting the common people, but they are not party to violent politics. It is difficult to see how they can benefit, whatever the conclusion of the present conflict. They didn’t ask for it nor were consulted about it. They are merely surviving without much of a choice in the matter. The latest edition has a history which they were not involved in. So it really is not a national problem but a problem of politicians. Politicians are about governments, and people are about society.
You seem to be saying that the BNP-AL combine is unaware of this matter?
I think so, because they deal with power, not the support of livelihoods. The challenge Bangladeshis face is over livelihood not power. But then politics in Bangladesh is about power of the powerful, not advantage of the powerless. Political parties are not linked to such realities – they are self-serving. Citizens neither have, nor crave power.
Can you give an example of this misunderstanding as you seem to hint at?
BNP’s tactics is a good example. When they refused to go to polls under AL, they were waiting for a massive public movement which would propel them to power. BNP thought people cared a lot about voting in general, and the system in particular which they thought of as democracy. People don’t care much because political democracy is about power and people have little to do with it.
But what about the present phase of violence?
This too is about the same lack of understanding. BNP strategy is based on the assumption that public suffering will force the AL to the negotiation table. This arrives in two parts: people can’t suffer beyond a point, and that AL cares about whether the public are suffering or not. On both counts they were wrong. The people’s capacity to withstand suffering is far greater than expected. It is a historic skill which they learned over thousands of years. People of deltas know how to cope with floods, famines, drought, disease, and war. So although there was initially fear and discomfort, the people immediately started to adjust and cope. In two months they have adjusted to some kind of a new normalcy despite great difficulties. BNP never anticipated that anyone could get used to bombings and anonymous deaths from burnings. So the next call of non-cooperation will have limited impact on people and politics. Since people have absorbed the heat, AL can ignore the pressure which never built up as BNP had expected.
So the AL is in a good place?
AL is surviving better than the BNP because it has a fairly good idea how far the BNP can run and because there is no public pressure, they can ignore all the public suffering and stick to their guns. They’ve taken a cynical position to not budge come what may, and want to see how far the situation goes. AL has no plan to counter the crisis, though they have a better control of the situation. BNP has no new ideas of creating a favourable situation, and while the AL knows this, they do not know what to do other than to arrest and occasionally kill. Nobody wants a political situation.
So all the appeals for peace talks are useless?
Yes. Why should politicians listen to civil society types? If AL listens, they would have to share the space, and if they don’t have to do the same with the BNP, why bother with this lot?
So what’s the final word?
None really. This is an internal fight for aspirants of political power. This has very little to do with ordinary people who will have to learn how to survive the politicians today, as they have always done with floods and pestilence in the past.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.