Muhammad Nurul Huda

Decades ago George Orwell said: "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues." Looking at the depth and vibrancy of the protests of the young at Shahbagh Square one might wonder as to how long the movement that has galvanised the nation will remain seemingly apolitical. Such thoughts arise because Bengalis are obsessed with politics and politics indeed is too much with them.

The generation that fought the Liberation War in 1971 may have been at pains to discover that old ties were shattered and that former passions were almost extinct. Many of them were obliged to content themselves with their own survival; yet others doubted if our liberation struggle was really a shared enterprise directed towards common purposes.

The question is, are we really coming to grips with our real national identity by discarding the ambivalence and contradictions? What prevents us from realising the liberation spirit of 1971? Some thinkers have said that if we succeed in retaining the 'Shahbagh' spirit in our respective work places we will have internalised the essence of the protest of the young generation. The cynics would say that despite the lofty goals the nation would achieve little by remaining in separate compartments without venturing to achieve political unity. The pragmatists would say that we may revile politics and politicians but we cannot do without them.

The protest at Shahbagh Square is apparently uni-focused in that it only demands a fair and speedy trial of those elements that committed atrocities on Bangladeshis in 1971. The discerning mind has to ask why such trial did not take place earlier. In venturing to find an answer one would find that in fact political expediency stood in the way of taking the morally and legally correct steps and that by wavering we have failed to display the national resolve necessary to punish the guilty and place events in their true historical perspective.

While not punishing the war criminals was one big deficit, there are other deficiencies that need to be looked into at this time when Bangladeshi politics might experience a paradigm shift. Put differently do we need to redefine our politics?

Every nation has its obsessions, every individual his idiosyncrasies. But the intriguing part is the narrow view we take of our favourite subject. Politics in Bangladesh means the comings and goings of governments and the indiscretions connected with politicians.

One can clearly see that almost all our leaders are rhetorical to the core and their politics is largely based on worn-out cliches and inanities. They hardly talk in terms of issues, blueprints, action plans and targets. Issues which affect the day-to-day life of ordinary Bangladeshis rarely get any attention even from our educated classes.

During the last two decades, most of our medium sized cities have suffered badly. Once well-managed, neat and clean towns have become virtual garbage dumps. Broken roads, lack of basic utilities like sewerage, potable water and affordable housing pose major problems for the people.

The deterioration has been so pervasive that some towns have changed beyond recognition. Living conditions in low-income areas have become abysmal. In large cities, over-densification and congestion caused by rapid urbanisation and a high population growth rate has created a number of problems including massive unemployment and a high crime rate. But these issues are hardly ever discussed by our intelligentsia; leave aside the task or the solutions.

Let us admit that we cannot get rid of our obsession with politics. But should politics be restricted to formation of governments, their dismissals, press conferences, statements of political leaders of all hues and colours, representing parties of all sizes -- big, medium, small, and even those that are known as "drawing room" parties?

Politics should not only mean reporting the comings and goings of ministers, on government-owned radio and television. It should touch our daily lives. For example, the people of Dhaka face four major problems; law and order, shortage of water and electricity, lack of an efficient public transport system, and unemployment. Should these problems not be the focal points of our politics?

As a matter of fact, all development activity, either by the government or the people themselves; all small acts of social organisation and attempts to find solutions by CBOs, NGOs and professional groups should be the focal point of our politics. All issues which concern our lives are political issues.

It is very strange that we tend to emulate everything which is British or American, but we do not look at their local government system, its powers, functions, taxation system and the level of citizens' participation in the whole process. Instead of focusing all our attention on national and international politics, we should try and find out what is happening in our city and the neighbourhood.

In a democracy based on adult suffrage -- which means the nose-counting method -- the only way to achieve progress is to "educate our masters," to borrow the historic phrase of Disraeli. There must be a nationwide campaign to disseminate correct facts and right ideas among the public at large. The best charity which one can do in Bangladesh today is to carry knowledge to the people.

The duty of the citizen is not merely to vote but to vote wisely. He must be guided by reason, and by reason alone. He must vote for the best man, irrespective of any other consideration and irrespective of the party label. The right man in the wrong party is any day preferable to the wrong man in the right party.

It seems doubtful whether in the immediate future we shall attain stability and rapid progress through the democratic setup. However, what is more valuable and easier to save is the more distant future of this resilient nation. Years of intensive mass education will be needed if the standards of rationality and fair dealing, of social justice and individual freedom, which are enshrined in our Constitution, are to be bred in the bones of our young men and women who are in their formative years and to whom the future belongs.

The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.

Published: The Daily Star, 16 Feb 2013