Dacca: A Lingering Illness

Lewis M. Simons, Washington Post (November 19, 1975)

`Terminally sick nations, unlike sick people, don’t die,” a Bengali newspaper editor said mournfully one recent evening. “But they linger and linger and linger. That’s what’s happening to our Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh most certainly is very sick. Its leaders have been murdered, its political parties ground into extinction, its judiciary emasculated, its Parliament dissolved, its once-enthusiastic youth frustrated and its armed forces turned rebellious.

But the country of 80 million people has not collapsed. Just a week after Dacca had been racked by a murderous chain of coups, counter-coups and a military mutiny, life in this decrepit capital was going on normally —or what has come to pass for normally here.

“Why talk about whether anarchy is coming?” a Western diplomat asked bitterly. “It’s here, man. It’s here right now.”

And an official for an international assistance agency said:, “You’ve heard all the complaints like It’s like pouring money down a ‘rat-hole,’ or ‘Bangladesh is an international basket case,’ and all the rest of it. Well, I’m afraid it’s all true.”

Nonetheless, the only obvious signs of turmoil were three battered Soviet-built tanks blocking access to the vital government radio station, which sits between the expensive Intercontinental hotel and the crumbling Dacca Club.

Not far from the club, a temporary archway strung with twinkling pink and yellow electric lights marked a camp where faithful Moslems assemble for the annual air pilgrimage to Mecca. Thousands of Bengalis who could scrape together the price of a ticket were streaming into the camp.

Bearded policemen in fraying white uniforms and pith helmets made token efforts at waving along the usual traffic of clattering, overloaded buses, the cars of the rich and the middle class, ornately painted cycle rickshaws and lumbering, wooden-wheeled handcarts pushed by heaving human draft animals.

Along the broken sidewalks, and on overgrown traffic islands, the beggars, the maimed and twisted refuse of the Subcontinent plied their profession, seeking aims in the name of Allah.

Shops, many of them with shelves full of costly goods, were open, although customers were scarce. In the drab grey halls of the Secretariat the center of government apparatus. peons and clerks dozed and gossiped outside their masters’ offices.

Telegraph and telephone services were operating —not terribly efficiently, but they never did. In short, Dacca life appeared normal.

To a frequent visitor, all this seemed a chilling indicator of just how severely the people of Bangladesh have been punished in the four years since they won their hard-fought independence from Pakistan.

The abnormal has become normal.

“It’s true,” said a Westernized Bengali professional man who only recently was released from jail, where he’d been held for alleged opposition to former President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Since then, he said, his telephone line has been cut and security officers have kept a constant watch at his office and home. “We’ve been beaten down so badly and so often, we no longer know what normal life should be.”

The professionals, the intellectuals, the newspaper editors and the wealthy know and understand. But the great masses of Bengalis no longer do, assuming they once did. Hope still breathes, but it’s a hope founded on innocence and, all too often, ignorance.

“What do you think?” a waiter anxiously asked. “How does the situation look to you?”

“I’m afraid for you,” the visitor answered. “For all of you.”

“Oh, no,” he replied with a quick smile. “Everything will be all right now. Prices will come down.”

That is the one basic hope most Bengalis have in the new three-man military dictatorship, that with martial law will come price controls and they will be able to feed themselves. Beyond that, there’s little else that concerns most people. Of course, they don’t know very much of what has happened. For those few who are literate, newspapers contain local news of substance. When ‘ thousands of armed troops ran wild Nov. 7, killing at least 34 officers and their families, the censored press reported only that the soldiers had installed Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman as their new leader.

There is virtually no flow of public information between Dacca and other towns and cities. Instead, news has been replaced by rumors. There have been rumors of soldiers shooting, looting and raping in the cities of Chittagong, Rangpur and Syedpur.

Is it true? Everyone seems to know someone who saw it or heard it, but no one seems to have been there himself.

A top-ranking official linked directly to the military high command summoned me to his office a few days ago and disclosed details of a siege by Indian forces and Indian-armed Bengali guerrillas on northern border outposts near Haluaghat. “Why don’t you have this printed in your own papers?” I asked him. “Oh, our people are simple,” he replied. “There would be uncontrolled rioting against Indians here and against Hindu Bengalis. It would provoke India Into direct confrontation.”

By now, with international radio reports carrying the news to Bangladesh, word of the border attack is probably circulating. It’s too soon to know what the repercussions may be, but the three military officers running Bangladesh today know their grip is tenuous at best.

“All of us would give up our jobs and walk the hell out of here at the drop of a hat,” one of the three told a foreign visitor recently. “These jobs have been forced on us, and there’s precious little in it for us.”

With leaders as seemingly reluctant as those, what chance does Bangladesh have to get through the current crisis and, perhaps, one day regain a normal way of life—at least normal by the measurements applied elsewhere in South Asia?

“I’m afraid there’s no salvation for us,” said a Bengali I’ve known for the last four years, one of the few friends who were willing to risk being seen with a foreign journalist.

“All our institutions are gone. Everyone is afraid he’s on someone’s revenge list. We don’t sleep anymore. My God, what is to become of us?”


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