Imagine a thought experiment. It is Aug 14, 1975. Bangabandhu is informed very early in the day that a grave conspiracy has been hatched by his cabinet minister and long-time confidant Khandaker Mushtaque along with Lt General Zia, Colonel Farooq, Colonel Rashid and the sitting head of CIA in Bangladesh to not only assassinate him the next day but to also murder his entire family. The plot also aims to exterminate the leadership of the Awami League, who have played a decisive role in the country’s liberation movement. Bangabandhu takes this information into serious consideration. He asks the relevant law enforcement agencies to arrest all the conspirators (except the head of the CIA) to uncover and thwart the plot that is under execution. Moreover, through this quick response, he has prevented one of the bloodiest coup d’état in contemporary history in any country since World War II.
Of course, the residents of Dhaka (if not the entire nation) wakes up now (in this alternate past) on Aug 15, 1975 hearing that the law enforcement has arrested some of the most decorated military officers in our country – who are also freedom fighters. Not only that, Bangabandhu has also arrested his long-time confidant Khandker Mushtaque. These residents are frustrated, feeling dejected and annoyed with the overall shape of events. Bangabandhu then addresses the nation during the evening of Aug 15 to inform everyone how his decisive decision has saved the country from facing the consequences of a brutal military coup that would have derailed Bangladesh from the ideals of the Liberation War.
If this was indeed the alternate reality of 1975, then what would have happened next? More precisely, what would have been the reaction of the people to his speech at that time? And how would this alternate past play out? Let me suggest one possibility. The social elites of our capital and a large segment of the intelligentsia of that era would have rejected Bangabandhu’s speech. They would have argued that Mujib is repressive, brutal and has lost his ability to offer stable leadership. The international media would have reported that the political space in Bangladesh is shrinking and that Mujib’s leadership can no longer be trusted for a prosperous, democratic Bangladesh. I am quite certain, even Bangabandhu’s close associates would be uncomfortable with his perceived heavy-handed response. Many, perhaps, would have even lobbied for the release of Lt General Zia and Khandker Mushtaque. This is because very few could have harnessed the capacity to understand the severity of the thwarted political conspiracy.
This is the central nature of all political conspiracies. Its consequences are only accepted and recognised in historical hindsight, not before. So, let me now come to the basic point that I am trying to make with the help of the noted thought experiment. During the recently concluded student movement, when things were becoming violent, the vehicle carrying the US ambassador to Bangladesh was attacked while she was visiting a member of the civil society. Why was the car of the US ambassador attacked during such political turmoil? Who would have benefited if any bodily harm came to the ambassador? Would Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government benefit in any possible way if the sitting US ambassador is assassinated in Dhaka? Or are such events symbolic of a deep-rooted conspiracy to overthrow the present government?
Additionally, the fact that senior leaders of the opposition were found asking their supporters to infiltrate the well-organised non-violent movement of students to ensure the agitations do not end (even when the government has met all their demands) and fake news was propagated at an exponential pace to incite violence, is it not pragmatic to argue that a simplistic analysis is no longer capable of identifying the political forces at play? After all, which exact actors could have carefully crafted the fake news? Why were they interested in inciting violence? Were they hoping for some mishap – ie a police atrocity which could have delivered them some real dead bodies of students to further fuel political anarchy? And who would have benefited from political anarchy few months before the general elections?
The possible answers to the posed questions are not very difficult to decipher if one avoids the temptation of blaming the government for everything that goes wrong in a political space. It is true that after a crisis of such nature, one can make an armchair analysis and argue that things could have been better handled, and perhaps it is true. One can even blame the government for heavy-handedness. Yet, that does not justify evading the responsibility to also inform citizens that a deep-rooted conspiracy was under execution. As the previous thought experiment pointed out, once a conspiracy is thwarted, there is a natural tendency for people who are not directly linked to it to discount its possibility or undermine its severity. But, that natural bias does not change the truth, which makes statecraft exceptionally difficult during such times. Nor is it acceptable to witness international media offering a very superficial examination of the political violence, where the government is chiefly held responsible for all the political anarchy at sight. Politics in South Asia has never been that simple. And those who care about the truth will find some time to ask difficult questions regarding the source of anarchy in such politically divided geography.