When politics and politicians become abusive, it is a clear sign that democracy is not working, for one of the preconditions of democracy is a minimum sense of decency in how we conduct ourselves.
Alas, we have lost that “sense of decency” in the AL-BNP confrontational politics of the last two decades whose most disgusting demonstration was given by a few BNP and AL women MPs in the last parliament.
However, when similar abusive language starts being flung at foreign diplomats, we need to ask — is that a sign of ignorance, immaturity, delusion of power or sheer arrogance?
Bangladesh has been an independent country for too long to be ignorant about diplomatic etiquettes. Therefore, it is our view that the abusive language that Syed Ashraf, general secretary of the ruling Awami League and minister for the LGRD, used while referring to Nisha Desai Biswal, US assistant secretary of state, and Dan Mozena, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, is a result of immaturity, produced by a delusion of power, triggered by unthinking arrogance.
In the world of diplomacy, you can be firm, stern and even politely rebuff your counterpart. But you can never insult and that too in public, unless you have already decided to downgrade diplomatic relations with the country concerned.
We believe that Bangladesh wants the best of relationship with the US. If so, then what are we to make of what Syed Ashraf said? Our LGRD minister termed Nisha Biswal as a “two penny worth of a minister”. He referred to her ethnic origin, her age, her sex, and to the fact that she was not married.
Doesn’t the minister know, as he had spent a long time in England and is quite modern in many ways, that such references to a career woman, leave aside a professional diplomat, can easily be construed as racist and his reference to her marital status as downright sexist.
For the love of God, doesn’t Syed Ashraf know that nothing about Nisha Biswal matters — her ethnicity, sex and age, or whether she was “two penny” or “twenty penny” minister — except the singular fact that she was representing the government of the United States of America while visiting Bangladesh.
Whatever she did, whatever she said and whom so ever she met, it was all on behalf the government she serves. Nothing was done in her personal capacity.
Ashraf’s reference to the US ambassador was even more hurtful. While talking about Dan Mozena, he told his audience in Khulna Saturday last that he has a domestic servant called “Morzina” who now wants to change her name after the minister told his servant that Dan Mozena was trying to remove the AL from power.
The reference to Ashraf’s domestic servant while talking about the US ambassador leaves no doubt in anybody’s mind as to his intentions, and how demeaning it is in our cultural context. Why say all this when the person concerned was leaving anyway unless, as we said, the intention was to insult.
This is no way to conduct foreign relations. It is inconceivable that two sovereign countries will not have, on occasions, serious differences on policies and in assessment of situations. The more globalised the world becomes the more intricate will be the mutual dependencies and the resultant interstate relations. The more we will be bound to each other the more will our differences surface and more will be the need to navigate our way through them.
The future will have to be one of delicate firmness and intelligent flexibility. In none of it there is even the smallest of space for abuse and insult.
What is perhaps more shocking than Syed Ashraf’s self-defeating remarks is the absence of any attempt to minimise the obvious damage that has resulted from it. In similar situations, more sober minds and people in higher echelons of power make public statements and private efforts to minimise the damage. To the best of our knowledge, nothing remotely so has been undertaken.
There has been neither a withdrawal, nor an explanation or an apology. An insult can be a product of an unthinking moment or a momentary slip. But if nothing is done to explain the situation even after considerable time elapses then one has to conclude that the “insult” was not as unthinking as we had hoped it was or are making it out to be.
That is a conclusion we are still not ready to arrive at. But further silence will leave us no option. Then we will need to ask what national interest, if any, has been served by Syed Ashraf’s remarks. If, on the contrary, damage has been caused to our bilateral relations with the US then what steps are we ready to take to mend it?
On a different note, for us away from the world of power and diplomacy, the sad feeling lingers on as to whatever has happened to our everyday sense of decency. It is still not too late to extend an apology. In apologising for a mistake, one’s stature is never compromised but only enhanced.