Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Economist And The Orwellian

Journalism which is patronising is as dangerous as reportage draped in absurdity. In these past few weeks, The Economist news magazine has patently been indulging in both. First it leaves its readers, especially in Bangladesh, stunned with its "discovery" that the Awami League won the last general elections through an infusion of Indian money. Just how its reporter, or those who fed him such unsubstantiated information from inside Bangladesh, came by this conclusion is something that is not made clear.

And then comes another bit of wisdom on Bangladesh, this one obviously intended to cancel out the earlier one. The elections of 2008, it has now happily discovered, was a "watershed" for Bangladesh, the "fairest poll in the country's four-decade history." Fair enough. If The Economist has acknowledged the error of its earlier ways, who are we to complain?

But, yes, our complaint is and for long will be one: why did The Economist have to humiliate the people of Bangladesh in the first place by initially suggesting that it was not their votes but Indian money which lifted the Awami League to power? No one argues about the failures of this government, about the systematic ineptitude it has demonstrated in these nearly three years in office. But this administration is there because the people, back in December 2008, wanted it to be there.

The Economist has now corrected its original assessment. Even so, we ask, why must a journal resting on such strong global credibility suffer from bouts of amnesia? It now remembers reality, which is good, for it and for everyone else. But must journalism lapse into forgetfulness, ever?

There are some other points The Economist raises and which must be responded to. Note that a rebuttal of the arguments made by the news magazine is not and cannot be a defence of the Bangladesh government. But a rebuttal must be made because there seems to be an effort underway, consciously or unconsciously within and outside Bangladesh today, at playing truant with our history.

The Economist is riled that Sheikh Hasina's government is busy trying to build a personality cult around her father. There are two points to be made in response to that argument. In the first place, it is the considered belief among very large numbers of Bengalis that not every place and every institution must be named after the Father of the Nation. That only does posthumous damage to his reputation. In the second, and this is for The Economist to hear, we in Bangladesh have always held Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in deep reverence. We do not build a cult of personality around him. His place is in our lives, in our collective memory, is already there because he shaped history for us. Which is why we keep him on heights far above those claimed or attained by other political figures in this country.

The Economist makes another faux pas when it seeks to pit our very distinguished Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus against Bangabandhu. The absurdity is stunning. Its belief that Sheikh Hasina's ire against Professor Yunus is rooted in her conviction that the international profile of the founder of Grameen threatens to eclipse Bangabandhu's "sacred memory" leaves you wondering who it is trying to embarrass more -- the Nobel laureate, the soul of the Father of the Nation or Sheikh Hasina.

You are tempted to ask The Economist if Amartya Sen's Nobel credentials have eclipsed Mahatma Gandhi's reputation as the father of the Indian nation or if Professor Abdus Salam's coming by the Nobel has rubbed Pakistan's Mohammad Ali Jinnah's historical significance in the dust. Sheikh Hasina, notes the news magazine, wants her father to be revered. The facts escape its reporters or its editorial board: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has always been a revered figure in Bangladesh. And Muhammad Yunus is one individual who has done us proud in our times.

The Economist injects something of the sarcastic into its observation of Sheikh Hasina's hopes for this country. Journalism is not literature. And political commentary dwindles into the laughable when it seeks to ridicule a politician, any politician, who may have perfectly good reasons for articulating her vision the way she would like it to. The journal writes: "She (Hasina) hopes to emulate not Indonesia or India today, but the country imagined by her father before his murder in 1975."

Bangabandhu was not given to the wishful. His creative political imagination was what mattered. He simply envisioned a happy, democratic, exploitation-free, prosperous society in the country he had led to freedom in 1971 before he was cut down in 1975. So where is the problem here, for The Economist? Why does it see Don Quixote and his windmills here?

Yes, our politics is in disarray, even "poisonous" as The Economist would have it. We do have problems with our dysfunctional democracy, with our efforts to hold the war criminals of 1971 to account, indeed with life as a whole. But we still write freely, we read books, we argue vociferously amongst ourselves, we believe in ourselves, we understand the world beyond our frontiers, we hold fast to our history. And, yes, we keep hope burning bright in our little hamlets and villages.

Does that look Orwellian to The Economist? If it does, it has a huge problem on its hands.