Musings on the 52nd Victory Day

Fifty-two years after 1971, as Bangladesh stumbles towards a future where a legitimate government that reflects the mandate of the people seems like an unachievable dream, everything around us seems a little faded and dim. The festivities are lackluster. The celebratory music is muted. The tributes to Bangladesh’s finest, who gave their lives to bring us independence, seem less fulsome.

Even the flags in the VIP vehicles and government motorcades, as they sweep up in a procession, seem a little faded. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light, but the flaming circle of red seems less vibrant, less vital. It looks like it has almost been bleached of its original intent and meaning. It almost looks white.

Fifty-two years after the fateful year when the failure to allow the democratic process to play out cost millions of lives and an ocean of blood, we are again back to a place where the democratic process is not able to function. We have become so numb that the daily headlines, each of which should be enough to make us rethink the state of our society and country, have become just meaningless words to us. The head of the government is encouraging “dummy candidates” to contest elections? The Election Commission has banned all political events except for those that expressly parrot the government stance? Every political party willing to bend the knee to the current calculus of political reality is asking Awami League for guaranteed constituencies where it will win, under the assumption that a guarantee from one person is stronger than the votes of millions of Bangladeshis? The main opposition party, BNP, is being blamed for not contesting the elections after 20,000 of its activists are thrown in jail and the police and judiciary of the country are corrupted beyond redemption for the sole purpose of oppressing this political party? All follow one after the other, inexorable developments in a perverse political logic where the atrocities of yesterday become the norm of today and the laudatory examples presented by the sycophants of tomorrow.

Our national elections, instead of becoming celebratory events when Bangladesh comes together as a nation and decides on the direction of our country for the next five years, seem to have become a problem to be managed. To the current prime minister and her government, in power since 2009, they are tricky problems to manage, an opportunity for fellow travelers, new collaborators, as well as the same-old political parasites to line up in front of her door as she distributes a few choice crumbs off the table, leaving the vast entirety of the feast for herself, her family, and her coterie.

Did we want a Bangladesh where millions of people have to stay away from their homes and constantly fear arrest, just because of their political opinions? Did we want a Bangladesh where more than twenty thousand people can be stuffed in jails just because of their political affiliation? Did we want a Bangladesh where the courts become an assembly line of convictions and imprisonment, with the police bringing the charges and also being the only witnesses to their own charges?

In this landscape of broken promises and shattered dreams, perhaps the only remaining cause for hope is the rising belief in people all over the country that this is not how our country needs to be. That we can have a country where peaceful transfers of power are possible. That we do not need to criminalize political opposition and freedom of speech. That elections can serve as a valuable purpose to indicate the will of the electorate. That we can work together and solve our country’s problems together.

A better Bangladesh is possible. We do not have to remain shackled to leaders who suffer from a failure of imagination. The government, the administration, the country: none of these are the property of any one individual or any one family. We can build a Bangladesh where every single person is a stakeholder and dedicated to leaving behind a better place tomorrow than what we had yesterday.

And as I look at the flags festooned all across the country, fluttering from our schools and colleges, in the hands of the grinning young children and the hopeful youth of tomorrow, I perceive that the red has never been more vibrant, neither the green stronger. The morass and confusion of today will fall apart, and we will march ahead united towards a country that fulfills the promises of 1971.