William B. Milam served as America's top diplomat in Bangladesh and Pakistan at points of critical and crucial significance for the two countries. You can call that a most opportune happening or a mere coincidence. But the fact that the United States government thought it proper to have Milam serve in countries which once were linked through politics, indeed were a single state, is a rarity. And rare too is something else: Milam witnessed the fall of General Ershad in late 1990 and the beginning of a move back toward democracy; and then, in October 1999, as US ambassador to Islamabad and away in California, he heard about the coup that brough General Pervez Musharraf to power in Pakistan. And over the years since then, Milam has clearly made it his preoccupation to study politics in the two countries, which again would be regarded as analyses of the similarities that have characterized their political landscapes. Milam's subtitle, Flirting With Failure in South Asia, is a pointer to the questions he has before him.
And those questions all relate to the problems of governance that Pakistan and Bangladesh have experienced since the partition of 1947 and, more specifically, since the break-up of pre-1971 Pakistan. Milam does not stay confined to the time frame in which he served as American envoy in Dhaka and Islamabad but makes it a point to go beyond that and indeed into the political background against which the two countries have shaped up since the departure of the British colonial power in India. You can detect a note of disappointment in him, which again is not surprising given the slide Bangladesh and Pakistan have been on, where a failure to build democratic institutions have always been a raw wound in the body politic of the two nations. Milam's disappointment originates with 1971. Under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's New Pakistan, the flawed state crafted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah ought to have reinvented itself in light of the new realities emerging from the Bangladesh war of 1971. That clearly did not happen, owing fundamentally to Bhutto's inability to forge a consensus on the democratic path his country needed to take. In essence, it was Bhutto's political make-up, as it was shaped in the years prior to his assumption of power in Pakistan, that prevented him from inaugurating the pluralistic process necessary for Pakistan to find a new path for itself. A singular irony of the Bhutto years is that while he believed 1971 had handed him a rare chance to place the military under civilian control, he also did not feel averse to employing it to quell rebellions in such restive provinces as Baluchistan. As opposition mounted to his increasingly autocratic rule, he hit back in the only way he could: he saw conspiracy at work.
Milam is equally harsh on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman where governance in Bangladesh is concerned in the early years of its independent statehood. He traces the varied patterns of his period of administration and implies at every point that ineptitude and corruption undermined the ideals for which Bengalis had gone to war against Pakistan in 1971. The very weaknesses he witnesses in Bhutto are also what finds resonance in his assessment of Bangladesh's founding father. As his problems piled up, Mujib went for increasingly harsh measures in the clear belief that an accumulation of more power would set matters right. That did not happen, of course, and the Bengali leader went to his doom in August 1975 when some mid-level army officers gunned him and his family down. It is at this point that Milam's point of view regarding the 1975 coup becomes suspect. In his words. 'popular esteem for Mujib had fallen so low that few lamented this brutal fact …' Obviously, he ignores the element of terror which descended on 15 August when the officers and then an entire army took charge under a brutal regime led by Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed. Milam's assessment of August 1975, as it is of subsequent Awami League politics, unfortunately does not go beyond the simplistic. He notes, at a quite a few turns in his work, the Awami League's propensity to describe the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as an anti-liberation force. He quite glosses over the truth of the brand of politics General Ziaur Rahman set in motion in Bangladesh after November 1975. That the communalism which defined post-1975 politics was a negation of the secular principles enunciated through the War of Liberation in 1971 is a reality the US diplomat does not probe deeply enough for us to be convinced by some of the arguments he puts across.
Beyond these flaws, however, Milam certainly provides a brilliant study of the modes of dictatorial rule which have at critical moments marred the chances for democracy in Bangladesh and Pakistan. He is not kind to Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. He is not sympathetic to Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad. Then again, he does give readers an idea of the differences that some of these dictatorial phases clearly have had with one another. An important instance is his study of the two Zias: while Pakistan's Zia systematically went for a consolidation of power through a marginalistaion of the political classes, Bangladesh's Zia opted, in however questionable a manner, for a re-inauguration of the democratic process through shedding the one-party structure put in place by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in early 1975. If Milam holds military rule to account for the failure of democratic institutions to take deeper roots in Pakistan and Bangladesh, he also notes the inability and sheer incompetence of politicians to add substance to democracy when they have had the chance to do so. Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia have not been able to emerge free of the peculiar limitations that shaped their perceptions of politics in the early stages. Without saying as much, Milam seems to be pointing at the insistent demagoguery which continues to stultify politics in the two countries. The rest of the world goes by but Bangladesh and Pakistan, with their politics in a state if fragility, with religion making bigger inroads into their social structures, seem caught in a time warp.
There is, however, reason to be happy if you happen to be a Bengali. Observe the many indicators of social progress in the two countries. Bangladesh has clearly edged Pakistan out, through greater numbers of its citizens finding their way to better living where the bare necessities of life matter. That is encouraging, but it is not something to be complacent about.
William Milam's work is an opportunity for a fresh new look at the ailments which have kept Pakistan and Bangladesh tied to the past, to the point of almost reducing them to being the backwaters of the region. Reading the work could have been somewhat more satisfying and less irritable if the author had double checked some of the historical information he comes forth with. He tells us the Muslim League was established in Dhaka in 1905 (it was 1952), that Jinnah made his defence of Urdu in Dhaka in January 1948 (it was March), that the Bengali language movement took place in 1951 (it was 1952). There are other gaping holes. He notes in a footnote that Dhaka fell to the Indian army on 16 December and so conveniently ignores the factor of the Mukti Bahini and the Joint Command. Milam's assessment that Mujib distrusted the Bengali military officers repatriated from Pakistan is not supported by arguments. He makes a spurious statement about the Bengali leader nationalizing one major Bengali language newspaper. Mujib, says he, 'threatened others that might have the temerity to criticize him or his government.'
But read the book for the western point of view it attempts to put across. Do not be surprised if William B. Milam does not go into the finer details of what led Bangladesh to break away from Pakistan, of the genocide that speeded up the process of Pakistan's dismemberment in 1971. (Reprinted)
Syed Badrul Ahsan is with The Daily Star.