Last week, I queued for an hour at the Airport train station, looking for tickets to Cox’s Bazar. Hundreds of people were pressed into five or six lines which crumpled together in a fine example of the concertina effect as you got closer to the ticket counters. Each line was patrolled by child beggars, who quickly singled out the only white person in the place and tapped incessantly on my elbow, lifting their hands to their mouths when I looked towards them. Occasionally, a guard with a khaki uniform and a whistle stormed forward to address a disturbance at the front of the line, prompting a few minutes of angry yells followed by desperate jostling for position as the line reformed. On a hot and humid day, the ceiling fans were practically useless, and everywhere you looked shirts clung to skin and beads of sweat coursed down the philtrum from nose to mouth.
Inevitably, after an hour and a half in the queue, we were told that it was impossible to buy the tickets we wanted. A thin, bearded man behind a pane of glass advised us to try again four days before the day of departure, although he couldn’t offer any guarantees. Thanks to a friend of a friend, we found a loophole: he knew someone with connections in the Railway Department who could secure the tickets for us.
Unless you have a ‘link’ here, navigating the tortuous paths of bureaucracy is somewhere between inconvenient and impossible. Government ministers dole out privileges to friends and ignore the vast majority of the population without fear of reprisal. Corruption is endemic: last month, the Railway Minister, Suranjit Sengupta, resigned after more than £50,000 (70 lakh Taka) was found in his personal secretary’s car. The driver, Ali Azam Khan, alerted the BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh), steering towards their headquarters and informing guards that bribe money was in the back of the car. Since then (9th April), Azam has mysteriously ‘gone missing’. Suranjit waited a week to offer his resignation and has now returned to the government as a minister without portfolio.
Most Bangladeshis treat corruption as a fact of life, tacitly accepting that the people in power are more or less above the law. Why? Any disinterested observer would note that the population is around 150 million, calculate that fewer than a million of those will have the slightest connection to politics or power, and wonder why sheer force of numbers doesn’t overwhelm the status quo. The same question could be asked of numerous countries around the world, some of which make Bangladesh look positively utopian by comparison.
Here, potential overthrowers of the government tend to fall into two broad categories. The first, and smallest, of those categories comprises a group of urban professionals who live in comfort rather than wealth — Bangladesh’s equivalent of the middle-class. Three things help to restrain any rebellious instincts this group possesses:
- An intuitive respect for authority in a country where most children are inculcated with the idea that discipline and obedience are vital for success.
- A rather irrational propensity to keep on hoping. Many people would be reluctant to overturn the status quo because they have ambitions of hauling themselves far enough up the social ladder to join the fringes of the elite. Equality is not in the best interests of the man or woman who dreams of becoming a millionaire.
- Fear. As a friend pointed out, there are plenty of men and women who would ‘die for Sheikh Hasina’. This sounds like hyperbole, but has been proved in countless countries across the centuries: consider what’s happening in Homs today.
The second, and by far the largest, category of people with the potential to spark a revolution consists of ordinary Bangladeshis, most of whom live in poverty. According to this CIDA report, the gross national income per capita is just $590. Almost half the population remains below the poverty line. It is clearly in the interests of those people, and anyone who cares about them, to overturn a system where a government minister can accept £50,000 in bribes and get away with it, where men like Musa Bin Shamsher can store billions in Swiss bank accounts. Why, for the foreseeable future, will they do absolutely nothing to force change?
A passage from Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man seems to hold the answer. Levi writes with clarity and courage about his experience in Auschwitz: quite simply, his book will be life-changing for anyone who reads it. Not life-changing in the sense that self-help books can be life-changing, but in the sense that books such as Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil are life-changing: they force you to confront truths you would rather have ignored. In a particularly disturbing section, Levi identifies two categories of prisoner, ‘the Drowned and the Saved’ (used again as the title for his collection of essays nearly forty years later).
The ‘Saved’ come to the camps prepared to fight for the survival, often at the expense of others. They are the prisoners who are prepared to collude with guards, to steal more than their meagre share of rations, to condemn others to death rather than be condemned themselves. The survivors of the camps, says Levi, were usually ‘the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators…’ This is the hideous truth.
The ‘Drowned’ come to the camps already half-dead. Crushed by the weight of oppression, they no longer have the will to fight and are abandoned to drift towards the inevitable ending. Rather than resisting the horrors of the camps, the ‘Drowned’ — the majority of the inmates — reacted by becoming increasingly compliant. ‘The harsher the oppression, the more widespread among the oppressed is the willingness, with all its infinite nuances and motivations, to collaborate: terror, ideological seduction, servile imitation of the victor, myopic desire for any power whatsoever…’ writes Levi in The Drowned and the Saved.
Earlier, in If This Is A Man, he explored this compliance in more detail. Viewed at a superficial level, it seems inexplicable that the prisoners who receive the worst treatment are the most submissive towards their oppressors. In Levi’s words ‘only at first glance does it seem paradoxical that people who rebel are those who suffer the least. Even outside the camps, struggles are rarely waged by Lumpenproletariat. People in rags do not revolt.’
‘People in rags do not revolt.’ The beggar who waits outside a garage containing twenty top-of-the-range cars does not revolt. The slum dwellers forcibly evicted by the government move on after a token protest. The 150 million can be crushed into submission by the few thousand. ‘In history and in life, one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away.’