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Between Despair and Presumption a Reporter’s Dilemma

Between Despair and Presumption a Reporter’s Dilemma

Friday, 2 April, 2021 - 04:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

“Don’t get emotionally involved!” This is one of the first lessons I was told to learn when as a young reporter in the 1970s I was sent to cover “events” in distant lands.

The euphemism covered wars, revolutions, ethnic-cleansing operations, famines, and in their less harmful version, military coups bringing jackboots with sunglasses to power. One of the first such “events” was the general election in what was then a united Pakistan. I arrived in Dhaka one early evening and was whisked to a hotel on the outskirts of the sprawling capital of what was then East Pakistan. After a brief shower, I came down to the lobby and asked for a taxi to take me to the city. My inquiry caused a sensation. I was told it was “perhaps inadvisable” to visit the city after sunset and that waiting until tomorrow was the best option.

In any case, hotel taxis didn’t operate after evening prayers. My verbal to-and-fro with hotel personnel was interrupted by a tall thin man who offered to give me a ride in his ramshackle rickshaw. That was good enough for me and we set out. As we approached the city I felt as if I were being sucked into a different world. This was a scene of absolute chaos with countless number of people, mostly half-naked, barefoot and obviously undernourished milling around amid rickshaws, tricycles, beasts of burden, beggars, children on the loose and men in sundry military or police uniforms, often dirty.

A couple of hours of that spectacle was enough to make me physically sick and to beat the retreat back to the luxury hotel which now looked like a big lie hiding the truth. I felt as if my youthful optimism about the future of mankind was evaporating. I had thought that even the most abject poverty could be defeated either by technology or by ideology. My first incursion into the heart of Dhaka had punctured that optimism. In a cowardly mood, I contemplated taking the next ‘plane out. Then I remembered that two days later I had an appointment with one Sheikh Mujib ar-Rahman, a man described by East Pakistani leaders I had interviewed a few days earlier as “a dangerous troublemaker.”

Sheikh Mujib, as everyone called him, sent a battered Studebaker, vintage 1951, to fetch me to his home. This was a fairly modest villa by most standards but at that moment looked like an oasis of tranquility and, because of a garden full of flowers, even of beauty. After endless cups of tea and half a dozen delicious but unidentifiable sweets, I concluded that far from being a troublemaker, Sheikh Mujib was a fantasist for he spoke of his people’s desire to assume control of their destiny which meant splitting Pakistan. Who would drive the powerful Pakistani military out? And would “interested powers” including India, China, the United States, the Soviet Union and Iran, under an ambitious Shah, tolerate such a major geopolitical earthquake?

Sheikh Mujib asked if I wished to accompany him on some of his hustings to “get the feel of the place”.

Observing election rallies in Dhaka, Cox’s Bazaar and Chittagong in the following days completely disoriented me. The energy that Mujib generated was truly amazing. The masses of the “walking skeletons” that I had seen were suddenly transformed into sizzling balls of fire. Yet, I had a feeling that all that was going to end in tragedy. And it did. Mujib won a majority in the Pakistan-wide election but was refused the right to form the government for a united Pakistan. The Pakistani leadership decided on a crackdown which included prison for Mujib and martial law in East Pakistan.

I was sent to cover the crackdown led by General Tikka Khan, a man known as the most ruthless member of the Pakistani top brass. I met Tikka twice for lunch and tea and listened to his long harangues while he used a fly swat to kill flies trying to share our chicken biryani. However, I didn’t think he was the ogre he was made to be. He wore high-heel shoes to look taller and dyed his hair black to appear younger. Tikka’s underlings had no qualms about the mass killing of real or imagined rebels. I saw piles of corpses in Dhaka’s streets. Bengali rebels repaid the compliment by organizing killing sprees against Pakistanis and their Bihari sympathizers.

I visited Mujib’s deserted villa which had been ransacked, looted and partially set on fire. I collected the debris left by looters, including family albums and school papers belonging to Mujib’s daughter Hasina. (These I returned years later through Bangladesh ambassador in Tehran Shams ud-Dhuha.) Fast forward, India intervened militarily, defeated the Pakistanis and helped Bangladesh gain independence. Mujib, in prison in East Pakistan, was released by the new Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Mujib ended tragically when Bengali officers who had played almost no role in gaining independence staged a coup and killed the “father of the nation”.

I sent a letter to Khundegar Mushtaq Ahmad, the cleric that the jackboots named president as a façade. He wrote back promising to “bring the perpetrators to justice.” That didn’t happen and Khundegar was soon replaced by General Zia ul-Rahman who was to have his own tragic end. Why am I telling you all this?

The reason is that this week marks the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence, an occasion which I have a personal reason to mark. Bangladesh’s experience has shown that apart from technology and democracy, the two magic elements I idealized in my youth, a third and much more important factor is at play in our human affairs; that is people’s power. Bangladesh has not become a paradise on earth and, perhaps, never will.

Like most “developing nations” it is inflicted by corruption, mismanagement and injustice. But it is feeding its people and, having enjoyed growth rates of over 6 percent since 2005, its economy is now 40 percent larger than that of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. (It was 42 percent smaller before independence.) In fact, Bangladesh is one of only 20 “developing nations” in which all seven indices of human welfare, though still below the global average, are now positive.

Does that mean that all is a bed of roses in that chunk of Bengal? I would rather not speculate. Fifty years ago I despaired and was proven wrong. Now, I fear that if I presume I may also be proved wrong.

So let’s end with the cry that shook Asia half a century ago: Jay Bangla!

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