World-renowned architect Louis Kahn, who also designed the parliament building of Bangladesh, while defining his philosophy once said that even a brick has a soul. Three of our top leaders – Shaikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia and H.M. Ershad – have spent confinement within the red brick walls of sub-jails adjacent to the parliament house. While Ershad claims to have been a victim of Khaleda Zia’s vengeance, both the women leaders allege that their confinement was an attempt to implement the minus-2 formula. Whatever the allegations and counter-allegations, the common outcome was sabbaticals forced upon all three of them for soul-searching within the red-bricks of Louis Kahn.
Ershad took over power by removing a democratically elected BNP president, Abdus Sattar, after which he went on to shelter war criminals as well as the killers of the Father of the Nation, gifted Bangladesh with a state religion, implemented Ayub Khan-style basic democracy that was nothing but mere eye-wash, and wrote poetry. All this catalyzed the twin processes of criminalization and Islamisation in politics. Then came the mass democratic movement of the ‘90s and Ershad was jailed. It’s easy to assume that he passed his days and nights like Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar by staring at the red bricks. The subsequent 15-year democratic spin ended with the installment of a military supported 1/11 caretaker government in 2007. Khaleda Zia and Shaikh Hasina were in turn relocated to those same red brick premises.
Khaleda Zia was incarcerated for her desire to rule over Bangladesh till her death. She came to power in 1991, and as a means to an end followed in the footsteps of her arch-enemy Ershad by tolerating political criminalization and promoting the killers of Mujibur Rahman. People’s choice ousted her 5 years later but as luck would have it, Shaikh Hasina too failed to hold her party godfathers on a tight leash and had to relinquish power after five years.
BNP won the 2001 polls with a brute majority, and we assumed Khaleda Zia must have learnt from her mistakes. We were again disappointed. This time round her son Tareq Rehman, like Sanjay Gandhi, started a parallel government from his whirl castle. Tareq’s sycophants launched percentage terrorism while simultaneously courting and facilitating the Talibanisation of Bangladesh, and prepared ground for election engineering. Tareq could not play the Nero’s flute as times would not permit him to go that far, so he took to cricket to ridicule an opposition protest. But it had the same effect: Dhaka started burning like Rome. Sadly, Khaleda Zia’s affections for her son turned out to be blinder than that of Indra Gandhi.
Having said that, it’s lamentable the kind of physical abuse Tareq Rehman had to face during the 1/11 administration. Such penance cannot be expected in a modern state. One can simply hope Tareq has realized that no power is absolute. He could have avoided being the target of such harassment had his involvement in politics been fair enough to win the hearts of an apolitical majority. Then there would have been no reason for the masses and the military to support 1/11. If leaders consider relying on political institutions a long winded wait and try to take fate into their own hands, nature inevitably steps in to put things back on course, sometimes rectifying a wrong with another wrong.
One might add that it’s still quite early to judge if lessons have been learnt, but a time-tested maxim does arise: without respect for democracy and people’s will, political ground can overnight turn into ashes.
And what did Shaikh Hasina learn during her confinement within the red bricks of soul? She displayed courage by getting rid of a few party godfathers and power abusers who had made her ’96 government unpopular. She, however, has not been able to stop her party cadres from changing the names of institutions in the BNP fashion, nor restrain their attempts to paint the face of Bangladesh with the colors of Awami League.
Politicians of questionable ethics and pseudo media-intellectuals talk about 1/11 as if they had no contribution to the rise of that undemocratic setup. Such political businessmen and opportunist intellectuals would do better if they learnt to earn their bread and butter just like the hardworking people they claim to represent.
Had there been no Hawa Bhaban (Tareq’s whirl castle), had the BNP not tried to install a favorable caretaker government to engineer elections, had there been an impartial election commission with a fair voters’ list and had the civil bureaucracy not been lego-ised to support election fraud, the political scene today would been much friendlier.
The current Awami League-led grand alliance will have to show conformity with democratic institutions and will have to rely on people’s will alone. It will have to realize that voters are neither supporters of Awami League not of BNP. Voters are only clients of democracy, willing to give mandate to the party that delivers. Neither they nor anyone else wants to see the shadows of 1/11 haunting the collective fate of peace-loving nation.