What’s in a name?

by Syeed Ahamed

Published in the BDnews24 on 22 February 2010.

This piece discusses the lessons from the politics of name-change.

For those who were wondering why the government had to rename the Zia International Airport, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has this answer — “[BNP] needed to be taught a lesson.” What is the lesson exactly? That, when BNP was erasing Bangabandhu’s name from many institutions including the Bangabandhu Bridge and Bangabandhu Conference Centre, “they should have learned from history and seriously considered what might happen after they went out of power”.

One can’t disagree with the prime minister that every incumbent should learn from history and remember that one day they will go out of power too — and this includes the AL, as well as the BNP.

The name-game used to be very subtle until the last decade. For instance, instead of renaming Bangabandhu Avenue, tactful practice was to refer to it as ‘BB Avenue’. It’s mainly during the last decade that we witnessed the all-out indiscreet approach in renaming new and old institutions. Even if we agree that BNP played this name-game quite carelessly, AL’s move to ‘teach BNP in their own language’ needs to be scrutinised from different perspectives.

Back to Mujib-Zia debate?
Until the mid 1990s, any debate between supporters of AL and BNP used to turn into a Mujib vs. Zia debate. For AL-supporters, the debate usually involved defending Mujib, as the political climate during the two decades after the August 15 massacre of the Mujib family was more or less anti-Mujib (or anti-AL). BTV being the only media with access to mass people was under the anti-Mujib governments. Hence every debate would boil down to the 25-years’ treaty with India, 1974 famine, general amnesty of razakars, BKSAL, and occasionally, proclamation of independence.

Comparatively, debates over Zia’s actions, including harsh courts-martial, financing student politics and ‘making politics difficult for the politicians’, rehabilitation of razakars and self-proclaimed assassins of the Mujib family, were not that common. BNP’s continuation as the incumbent after Zia’s assassination played a pivotal role, while Ershad carefully fuelled the Mujib-Zia debate to hide his own misdeeds.

However, that debate is hardly a part of any political discussion these days, partly because voters can compare the immediate past regimes of both parties. The old debate has been replaced by debates over the new and future leadership, particularly by the debates over the children of the two current leaders. One might argue for or against all the allegations that fly, but there is no denying the fact that the current prime minister’s children enjoy a relatively cleaner image at least for having secured their livelihoods outside the country, whereas the children of the current opposition leader were actively ‘involved’ during the tenure of the last elected government. Introduction of a fresh group of leadership in the key party and ministerial positions has also put AL in a better position compared to BNP, which is struggling with its old leaders in settling the party and parliamentary positions. At this point, what is the benefit for AL to go back to the old Mujib-Zia debate in coarse language?

If AL wishes to bring back and respond to thirty-year old anti-Mujib campaigns, they can do so by explaining Mujib’s actions with evidence which shouldn’t be hard for them. But if they want to launch an all out ideological offensive against the BNP and its founder, they must keep it civilised and fact based. The historical text is largely incomplete and vague about the period following August 15, 1975. There can be evidence-based debates on the deeds of the post-August 15 leaderships. The verdict on the 5th amendment case offers a good legal and political opportunity to do so. But without addressing any specific issue, without having evidence-based debates, mere name-calling in the parliament, and name changing outside, will only revive the old Mujib-Zia debate in a very wrong way that will not benefit AL at all.

A place in history
Every person has his/her own place in history and any overstatement or understatement of their contribution usually proves counter-productive. Uncorroborated criticism against a leader can be a boon for the leader as “any publicity is good publicity”, while unsupported attribution to a leader can be a curse as “over publicity is bad publicity”. Both the political parties need to keep that in mind while they overplay or downplay the contributions of a national leader.
Mujib and Zia each had two distinct roles in the history of Bangladesh — one during the making of Bangladesh, and another during the shaping of Bangladesh. Respective supporters argue for and against the contributions of each leader in the shaping of post-independence Bangladesh. However, Mujib’s place in history is indisputable in the making of Bangladesh where he guided the nation through the pre-1971 struggle to the Liberation War. If AL leaders think that it is necessary to put down Zia to highlight Mujib’s relative height in history, they will only show disrespect to Mujib’s absolute height in the same history.

BNP wrongly believed that to put Mujib and Zia at the same plane, Zia’s role in declaration of independence needed to be overplayed. That move only kept the new generation unaware of Zia’s actual role in the Liberation War and in the post-independence Bangladesh. At the same time, there is no need for AL to downplay Zia’s contribution. As a soldier, he earned the second-highest award for individual gallantry –– Bir Uttam respectively in Bangladesh’s Liberation War — and was commander of one of the forces named after his initial — the Z force — which was one of the spearheads of the final assault in 1971. It will be unwise to overplay or downplay his place in the history.

A great lesson
There is no denying the fact that voters are the ultimate authority to give any political party a lesson. But if AL feels compelled to remind BNP of the problems of name-game, what would be the best way?

My favourite quote on teaching comes from William Ward, who said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

Can AL inspire or at least demonstrate how to stay away from name-game? That will be converting naam-bodol into din-bodol. To be precise, AL should show BNP that ‘we could change the name if we wanted to, but here we are revoking the decision… so don’t do it when you come to power’.

AL leadership might argue that ‘not changing the airport’s name in AL’s last tenure did not stop BNP from changing the name of Bangabandhu Bridge in its next term, so how do we make sure that BNP won’t do the same the next time they come to power’?

Well, one cannot ensure that. Voters will find that disturbing and will teach them a lesson in due time. However, changing the name will not only provoke BNP to rename them in its next tenure, but they will also change other names more aggressively and the cycle will go on.
So far our politicians have played the ‘race to the bottom’ game through negative campaigns. But AL showed a rare maturity in its last election campaign by outlining what AL wants to do for the country, instead of just saying why BNP is bad. The result of that positive-politics couldn’t be sweeter for AL while the lesson couldn’t be any bitterer for BNP.

A recent poll published in a daily newspaper showed that 81 percent of the citizens disapprove the name-change politics one way or another. Many of them voted for AL during the last election being attracted by their ‘politics of change’ — din-bodol. Why renege on that promise now?

Aren’t we supposed to learn from history and seriously consider that one day every party will go out of power?

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