While Mandarins Run Amok in Bangladesh


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 Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen

by Taj Hashmi     27 December 2019

As late as the 16th century, the Chinese indigenised “mandarin”, a variant of Sanskrit “mantri”, Malay “mantiri” via Portuguese “mandarim”, which stands for minister, counsellor, or a very high government official. Chinese mandarins were highly educated, well-groomed, powerful, and influential people having sharp intellect and immaculate mannerism. Their attire, mannerism, and language represented the mainstream of Chinese high culture encompassing the cultural objects of aesthetics, collectively esteemed by society as exemplary. So much so, that since the 16th century, the court language of the Beijing-based central government is also known as Mandarin, which was the standard Chinese used by the mandarins and government officials. Bangladesh also has its mandarins, ministers and advisers of the government. However, the similarity ends there. The Chinese mandarins, with superior intrinsic qualities, qualifications, and finesse, are simply not comparable with their modern counterparts in Bangladesh. 

Unlike their Chinese counterparts before China became a republic in 1911, when mandarins had been very powerful and influential, Bangladeshi mandarins, barring the Chief Mandarin or Prime Minister, are neither influential nor powerful, let alone role models for the people at large. However, of late, almost all the mandarins in the country have come to the limelight, interestingly, mostly for the wrong reasons. Not as role models or inspiring leaders but as not-so-desirable entities for their clumsy – if not clownish – behaviour, demeanour, and assertions made in public! Seemingly, they are competing against each other only to prove two things, their loyalty to the Prime Minister; and their intelligence-cum-foresight to guarantee their indispensability for the Government! 

We may classify this unenviable behaviour of Bangladeshi mandarins both as signs of their job insecurity; and their gross incapability to behave normal, and weigh in each word they speak in public, especially before media, so that neither they themselves, nor the government  and country they represent become objects of ridicule, and “inaudible loud laughter” of intelligent people at home and abroad! We may classify Bangladeshi mandarins’ unintelligent, unnecessary, ridiculous, and laughter-evoking public statements as their “running amok syndrome”. At the outset, I warn my readers that I cannot catalogue all the unbelievably crude, vulgar, and ridiculous assertions Bangladeshi mandarins made in the last ten years or so, because that would well-surpass the word limit of newspaper articles.

One recalls some antics by AM Abdul Muhith, one of the longest surviving Finance Ministers of Bangladesh. He often ridiculed unpalatable facts with his atypical, favourite, and rejective expression, “rubbish”. When some financial institution defrauded the national exchequer to the tune of 4,000 crore taka, his reaction to the news was not only hyper exclamatory garnished with his atypical “rubbish”, but he also explained the whole scam (as if in defence of it!) in the most ridiculous manner. I paraphrase him: “Rubbish! Four thousand crore taka is nothing for the robust economy of Bangladesh”. He once also defended government officials’ resorting to bribery as “speed-money”. Yet another Bangladeshi mandarin, Nurul Islam Nahid, who was in-charge of the Education Department once publicly defended bribery. While addressing employees of his Department, he advised them not to cross the “limit of corruption”, in the most ridiculous manner. To paraphrase him: “Everybody is a thief in Bangladesh, I am also a thief. But please restrain yourself from becoming too greedy. Take bribe, but in moderation!”.

One of Hasina’s most garrulous and not-so-refined mandarins, Obaidul Qader is well-known for his rustic statements and behaviour. Once he publicly humiliated a rickshaw puller for violating some minor traffic rules in front of TV cameras. It was a violation of the law of the land. A minister or any official or citizen of Bangladesh has absolutely no right to behave like a law-enforcer or magistrate. The same minister once slapped a railway clerk in presence of several journalists at a railway station for his alleged acceptance of bribe from someone. The minister committed a criminal offence, and was (and still is) liable to punishment (fine and imprisonment) for physically assaulting someone, in accordance with the Criminal Penal Code (CRPC) of Bangladesh. This prominent minister – who is also the Secretary General of the ruling Awami League party – almost incessantly ridicule the main opposition party (BNP) and its leaders, including the 74-year-old Khaleda Zia (sentenced to 17-year-imprisonment on trumped up charges). He ridicules the BNP for not being able to launch a movement to topple the Hasina Government, which ironically would also unseat him from the privileged position of a minister! Several other ministers and ruling party MPs are included in the list of Awami mandarins who ridicule the opposition for its failure to topple their government. One wonders if some sort of guilt or acceptance of their illegitimacy in their subconscious evokes this sort of ridiculous blabbering, apparently to ridicule the opposition!

One may go on and on in preparing a laundry list of Awami mandarins’ idiosyncratic assertions and behaviour. Not-so-infrequently they violate traffic rules by driving on the wrong side of the road, right in the heart of the Capital city. Late Suranjit Sengupta, who was once the Railway Minister in Hasina’s cabinet, once came in the limelight in the most ridiculous way. His Personal Secretary’s chauffeur was arrested in the wee hours of the night for (literally) carrying a sack-full of money, seven million taka in his car, presumably some bribe meant for the Minister. He just got a slap on his wrist. Hasina simply removed him as her minister but retained him as a “minister without portfolio” – an unheard-of expression in any civilized country – by condoning his gross misconduct! He was also seen driving on the wrong side of the road in front of TV cameras. Interestingly, not only mandarins drive on the wrong side of the roads in Bangladesh, but as seen on TV, even the Prime Minister’s motorcade also did this – at least once – in the past. Bangladeshi mandarins are also very good at inflating the GDP growth rate, the extent of alleviation of poverty, and higher life expectancy of the people and the “phenomenal” rise in their per capita income. So much so, that one of them has said recently that (to paraphrase him) the world “no longer looks at Switzerland but at Bangladesh as the role model of growth and development”! Minister Imran Ahmed has even gone a few steps ahead of his colleague in surmising that Bangladesh would soon surpass the United States in the level of overall development! 

Yet another minister has come up with the absurd claim that the Bangladeshis are so well-off that now-a-days they take chicken curry and rice on a regular basis. Last but not least, the Information Minister Hasan Mahmud’s latest antics could be an eyeopener to see how Bangladeshi mandarins hurl insults and vitriols at their political rivals. Soon after a massive fire destroyed a large slum or shantytown at Mirpur (Dhaka) on 26th December 2019, he said the BNP had been behind the fire as it wanted to disrupt the forthcoming city council elections in Dhaka city. Meanwhile, on 23rd December 2019, the day after the severe thrashing of the DUCSU VP Nurul Haque Nur, presumably by pro-Government Chhatro League members, instead of condemning the attack the Minister took the victim to task for condemning the Modi Government of India for its discriminatory anti-Muslim policies. Very shocking indeed! In sum, mandarins, with few exceptions, blame the “untamed” opposition parties (BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami) on a regular basis for “hatching up conspiracies against Bangladesh” as being “foreign agents” and “anti-Liberation” forces are linked with Islamist terrorist groups, mainly based in Pakistan! Of late, defending the Modi Government’s high-handed policies towards Muslims and Bangladesh has become a favourite pastime of Bangladeshi mandarins.

It is unbelievable but true that Hasina’s Foreign Minister Abdul Momin – who holds a Ph.D from a prestigious US university – has been the leading proponent of giving as much concessions as possible to India, which has always been intrusive and unfriendly towards Bangladesh since its emergence in 1971. Recently, he compared the un-even Indo-Bangladesh relationship as one that exists between a husband and his wife. He has, however, for some known or unknown reasons refrained from even hinting at the husband’s (India’s) chauvinistic, intrusive, and exploitative behaviour with the wife (Bangladesh). Recently, he publicly asserted that friendship with India had been the best thing that has ever happened to Bangladesh. Another highly educated mandarin, Hasina’s International Affairs Adviser Gowher Rizvi, who holds a Ph.D from Oxford and long teaching experience at Oxford and Harvard, said something in Kolkata on 17th December, which grossly ridicules and undermines the Liberation War of Bangladesh. He said without Indira Gandhi’s active support, Bangladesh would not have been liberated even today, 48 years after Bengalis had started their Liberation War in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

There is not much to ad here in conclusion of this article. One only wonders why people – even highly educated, apparently urbane and self-respecting people like Momin and Rizvi – could be so partisan, biased, subjective, sycophantic, and power hungry, while they have had multiple opportunities to lead a comfortable life without stooping so low! And, what is even more surprising that being more intelligent than the hoi polloi, these mandarins know the bulk of Bangladeshis laugh behind their back, they relentlessly defend what is not defendable, and justify what are most unjustified, and malignant to the best interests of Bangladesh. In sum, one may impute why Bangladeshi mandarins have run amok to the following factors: a) Low-level of intelligence and education; b) Extreme political bias; c) Machiavellian love power and wealth, which neutralizes high-level of intelligence and education.

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Dr. Taj Hashmi is a Research Associate at the York Centre for Asian Research at York University, Toronto, and Retired Professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was born in 1948 in Assam, India, and was raised in Bangladesh. He holds a Ph.D. in modern South Asian History from the University of Western Australia, and a Masters and BA (Hons) in Islamic History & Culture from Dhaka University. He did his post-doctoral research at the Centre for International Studies (CIS), Oxford, and Monash University (Australia). Since 1987, he is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS). He is a reviewer of manuscripts for several publishers, including Oxford, Sage, and Routledge. He has authored scores of academic papers, and more than a couple of hundred popular essays and newspaper articles/op-eds on various aspects of history, politics, society, politics, culture, Islam, terrorism, counter terrorism and security issues in South Asia, Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, and North America. He is a regular commentator on current world affairs on the BBC, Voice of America, and some other media outlets.- His major publications include Global Jihad and America (SAGE, 2014); Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Palgrave-Macmillan 2000); Islam, Muslims, and the Modern State (co-ed) (Palgrave-Macmillan, 1994); Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia (Westview Press, 1992); and Colonial Bengal (in Bengali) (Papyrus, Kolkata 1985). His Global Jihad has been translated into Hindi and Marathi. His Women and Islam was a best-seller in Asian Studies and was awarded the Justice Ibrahim Gold Medal by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. He is working on his next book, A Historical Sociology of Bangladesh. His immediate past assignment was at Austin Peay State University at Clarksville, Tennessee, where he taught Criminal Justice & Security Studies (2011-2018). Prior to that, he was Professor of Security Studies at the US Department of Defense, College of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, Hawaii (2007-2011). He started his teaching career in 1972 as a lecturer in History at Chittagong University, and after a year joined Dhaka University (Bangladesh) and taught Islamic History & Culture (1973-1981) before moving to Australia for his Ph.D. Afterwards he taught History (South Asia and Middle East) at the National University of Singapore (1989-1998) before joining Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) as Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences (1998-2002). Then he joined the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver (Canada) as a Visiting Professor in Asian Studies for two years (2003-2005), and worked as an adjunct professor of History for a year at Simon Fraser University in Canada (2005-2006). Tel: (1) 647 447 2609. Email: tjhashmi@gmail.com and hashmit@apsu.edu