Waiting for Birnam Wood to Come to Dunsinane

Shakespeare was a big part of my schooling. My otherwise affable English Literature teacher was quite irate when I wrote an entire essay misspelling the Bard’s name (I omitted the last “e”). We struggled through Hamlet in Class 5 without worrying too much about poor Ophelia’s torment or the indecisions of the Prince of Denmark. Othello and its layers of manipulation and deceit likewise did not leave a strong impression. Romeo and Juliet was mostly an occasion for the popular couples in class to flaunt their togetherness over the unwashed and unattached masses.

Macbeth, though, left a mark.

A usurper who removes the rightful king and claims the throne instead. The misdeeds and dead bodies pile up all around him as he has to commit more and more crimes and misdeeds to stay on the throne. But each of those misdeeds only results in newer enemies.

It’s almost as if we were being prepared for Bangladesh 2024.

The subject of the rightful leader, and efforts by various leaders to prove that their regimes are legal and legitimate, is a recurring topic in societies the world over. Chinese emperors would claim the mandate of heaven to signal their virtue and benevolence – and their misfortunes or military defeats would be attributed to losing this mandate. The monarchs of the United Kingdom still bring forth the Stone of Destiny to tie their tenure to those of their legendary ancestors. For all the vitriol directed to the Mughals by the current Indian prime minister, he still stands at the rampart of the Red Fort, the former residence of the Mughal emperors, and gives a national speech every year on the Indian Independence Day, just like all his predecessors did, going back to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947.

The current Hasina regime is blissfully unconcerned with questions of legality or legitimacy. After the untested election of 2014 (with 153 uncontested MPs elected), the nocturnal election of 2018, and the dummy election of 2024, Sheikh Hasina and her government have ventured to a realm untrodden by any other ruler of independent Bangladesh. Their ability to inflict violence and coercion is only limited by their imagination, but their lack of popular mandate gives them a curiously ephemeral flavor that is incongruous with a government that has been continuously in power for the last 15 years.

Macbeth, beset by enemies at all sides, and desperate to ease his mind against his accumulated misdeeds, goes looking for supernatural assurance that all will end well for him. He receives a prophecy that he will never be defeated until a nearby forest called Birnam Wood marches to another location called Dunsinane. Secure that a forest would never uproot itself and march to another location, thus seemingly secure in his impenetrable armor of prophecy, Macbeth immediately launches another round of slaughters and seizures.

Macbeth also discusses another concern common to leaders the world over: their succession. Macbeth has foreknowledge that it is one of his rivals, and not himself, whose descendants will rule Scotland. Such knowledge fuels his instability, and the instability in turn causes his allies to desert him in droves. Tyrants and despots look to stand tall using their monopoly on violence, but they cannot leave behind durable and stable systems that last for generations.

The current government is like one of those giant mosquitoes that suck on so much blood that it becomes slow and drowsy. One of the government’s tentacles is inserted into the flow of expatriate remittance coming into Bangladesh, and the other tentacle is sucking on the earnings that comes from the garments sector. The current government and its beneficiaries will never tire of the sweet sugar of remittance earnings and garments dollars; it is up to the pro-democracy forces of Bangladesh, led by BNP, to swat this monster mosquito away.

Macbeth, as we know, eventually does meet his end. An invading army cuts off the breaches of the forest and uses those branches as camouflage. But to Macbeth, standing on his castle rampart, the countless swaying branches appear as if the entire forest is marching towards him, and he knows that the prophecy is fulfilled and his defeat is imminent. Another illustration, if you will, is that resolute and sustained actions on the ground can affect and bring fulfillment to prophecies and other forces that seem far beyond the control of mere mortals.

To all those who long for the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh, it is clear that there is no option but to protest, chronicle, and oppose the anti-public and anti-national actions of the Hasina government. We cannot foresee the time and date, but we know that it is inevitable; nature cannot accommodate so much criminality and corruption.

The branches of Birnam wood, gently swaying in the wind, await the brave soldiers. Cut down the branches, lead the waiting army to their destination, and restore justice and morality to the nation. When the facts on the ground are aligned, prophecies and higher powers have a way of bending to such facts.