Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reading Around the World: Bangladesh

Bangldesh sbāgatama!

This week we travel from the least populated country in the world (Mongolia) to the most – Bangladesh is the world's 8th most populace country and the 92nd largest. This makes it the most densely populated large country – the capitol city of Dahka alone is home to 15 Million people.

I tried making Bangladeshi food this week to some success. I made a delicious and easy fried cabbage dish, which you can try for yourself here

Cabbage with Raita and Chipate! A great lunch 

My reading this week explores a principle which may be a reoccurring theme of this blog: white people ruin everything. Bangladesh's short history is a tortured one. The ominous title of the book I read for this week, "The Blood Telegram", foreshadows the deeply tragic story of Bangladesh's fight or independence, and America's nefarious role in this history.

As many tragic histories do, this story begins with the stoke of a colonial administers pen, a stroke which made one country of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh – East and West Pakistan. This country shared a majority faith (Islam), but was separated by language, culture, and hundreds of miles. Such a flimsy arrangement could hardly last under the best governance, and the West Pakistani government did nothing to stabilize the precarious situation. In 1970, a Tsunami devastated the low-lying country and killed 50,000 people. To this disaster, the central government in West Pakistan responded at a snail's pace. Rotting bodies, human and animal, lingered in the open for weeks. Those who survived were left without homes or food while international agencies came to their aid faster than their own government. The president of Pakistan, Yehya Khan, made one curtailed visit several weeks after the Tsunami struck.

Colonial division of Pakistan  

So it was in a setting of grief and rage that the 1971 election occurred. Not surprisingly, the Bangladeshi nationalist party the Awami League won by a landslide. The Western Pakistani government refused to acknowledge the Bangladesh's push towards independence and arrested the Awami league's leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This broke the precarious balance between the unhappily married two halves of Pakistan. Dahka erupted into protests – until troops arrived. The West Pakistani army did far more than suppress political decent. They set out to suppress the possibility of any future descent in a systematic slaughter of intellectuals, the upper class, and the Hindu minority. American observers witnessed university students gunned down in droves. Again, bodies piled the streets of Dahka, left in the open as a warning to anyone who might resist. They were murdered with American bullets.

In this battle for democratic independence, America took the curious position of opposing election results to prop up a dictator, meanwhile aggressively cutting the democratic India off of aid for supporting the people of Bangladesh. This backward policy was primarily determined by Cold War political maneuvering and Nixon's personal relationship with the president of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, a brutish military general whom he liked for his tough straightforwardness. This fond personal relationship contributed to the death of 3 million Bangladeshis. Pakistan was a poor country, dependent on America for military aid to maintain the slaughter in East Pakistan. This, despite the repeated and desperate pleas of diplomats stationed in East Pakistan, continued throughout the war. When congress at last capitulated to public opinion and attempted to stop the flow of guns, bullets and aircrafts destined for use against civilians, Kissenger and Nixon intentionally and knowingly broke the law to smuggle aircrafts through Jordan to maintain Yahya's doomed attempt to slaughter his way to security. Never once did Nixon use his considerable influence to suggest Yahya should temper his violence. This went beyond the non-intervention that later doomed Rwanda – Nixon actively contributed to the genocide of the Bangladeshi Hindus. As is proved again and again throughout history, American values stretch no further than American interests.

Nixon and Yahya

Even American power could not prevent the course of history from bending towards justice, however. India intervened on the part of the Bangladeshis, partly out of moral duty, and partly out of desperation to hid themselves of the 10 million refugees, mostly children, who crowded the poorest regions of their country. India was too poor to support even its own people, and the refugees were primarily left to die in their own filth in India or return to East Pakistan and its hail of American bullets. Eventually though, despite their better arms, the Pakistani army had to admit defeat. All the blood finally bought Bangladesh freedom.

Recent history fares little better. BBC's short Bangladesh time line is scattered with military coups, corruption, stolen elections and conflict. Today Bangladesh is one of the world's many invisible victims of terrorism – Islamic extremists have begun to pick off secular writers, and foreign visitors. The Fulbright English teachers for Bangladesh were sent to Sri Lanka this year.

It is, however, a dangerous trap to focus too much on the sorrow of history. As I have learned traveling in the wake of genocide, there is always more to a country than pain. For this week I also read Gitanjali, a book of poetry by the great Bangladeshi writer Rabindranath Tagore, the first non white man to win a Nobel prize for literature. His words speak to the hope and beauty of Bangladesh, a universal prayer as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. I will let his wisdom and hope conclude this blog.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

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