View from Bangladesh

Outrage in Bangladesh about a viral photo of Pranab Mukherjee should give India cause for concern

What does the image of the former Indian president sitting in front of a row of Bangladeshi delegates say?

The potency of a recent social media firestorm in Bangladesh over a photograph that went viral – where former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee is seen sitting on a chair by himself with dignitaries from Bangladesh’s civil and political leadership standing behind him – is a matter that Indian foreign policy brass should take seriously.

Given that Bangladesh has no credible opinion polls, public reactions available via social media is one of the few data-driven indicators of popular sentiment. On that front, the homogeneous nature of the public outburst against the photo, and the lack of public defence coming from the most ardent of pro-India sections of Bangladeshi civil society, is indeed a point to note.

Indications are already there that someone somewhere in the Indian hierarchy took note of the outburst, as the official Facebook page of the Indian High Commission no longer carries photos of the meet and greet session for Mukherjee, who was in Bangladesh last week on a five-day private visit.

A point to note here is that the Bangladeshi mainstream media remained mostly quiet around this issue. Therefore, it must have been the social media alone that the Indian officials took into account when deciding to take down the photos. This is pretty impressive, to say the least.

Why so much fuss over one photo?

Having been ruled by exterior forces, lords, and rulers for thousands of years, Bangladeshis remain highly class conscious. Who is touching whose feet, who is bowing to whom, who gets to sit where, and as evidenced in the latest controversy, who sits and who stands behind whom.

Some had legitimate grounds to be upset about the fact that a former Bangladeshi President HM Ershad was made to stand along with the current Bangladeshi Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury behind a former Indian president in Bangladesh.

The age argument – which is also a typical Bengali consideration capable of superseding potent class-based protocols – did not hold in this case either because Ershad is 89 years young versus Mukherjee, who is 82.

The timing of the release and subsequent withdrawal of the photographs was also befitting the popular outburst. The last time Pranab Mukherjee came to Bangladesh was just before the 2014 general election.

Four years later, Bangladesh is once again preparing for another election with another round of customary election-related turbulence, with pretty much identical uncertainties that prevailed four years ago.

Many in the political story-telling business have posited that Begum Khaleda Zia’s whimsical last-minute denial to meet Mukherjee during his last visit was one of the key factors behind India’s quick and forceful support behind the current government, while many Westerners were hesitant and some were outright opposed to the Indian position back then.

Mukherjee’s visit to Bangladesh is also his first after the recent publication of his memoir, where he candidly wrote how he ensured the release of Bangladesh’s top political leadership from jail in 2008 and how he provided job security to Bangladesh’s former army chief Moin U Ahmed upon an implied or impending assumption of power by Sheikh Hasina at that time.

The memoir was the talk of the town upon its release in Bangladesh, as key excerpts from the book made thousands of rounds on social and print media.

Mukherjee’s extremely candid assertions in that memoir fueled and confirmed the speculation that he was indeed the key figure that enabled and abetted the controversial nature of Bangladesh’s 2014 general election.

Given the timing and the political backdrop discussed above, it is not a stretch for at least those Bangladeshis who stayed home on the election day of 2014, to think that he was back in Dhaka to showcase the lasting nature of his exploits.

Could this be just poor event-management?

It is obviously possible that the entire photo controversy was a colossal event mismanagement on the part of the Indian High Commission.

It is true that foreign policy is as much a craft of non-verbal signals and nuances as it is the craft of written protocols and treaties. That is why serious negotiations take place beforehand regarding any photo-ops where state dignitaries are present.

Who stands where next to whom, who enters first, who gives the concluding speech, who sits next to whom on a dinner table – all are pre-negotiated and choreographed by a class of experts known as the “protocol officers”.

The Indian dignitary and the highest-ranking Bangladeshi in the photograph were both former presidents, not the current ones. Therefore, it is possible that such negotiations were not as stringent. As a result, when a former Bangladeshi president found himself standing behind his Indian counterpart in an Indian embassy event, the Bangladeshi gentleman may have just gone with the flow, simply not to create a scene.

However, given the fact that Mukherjee is from West Bengal, and that his wife has a Bangladeshi heritage, he must be aware of the local sensitivities around sitting and standing.

It may sound silly to any laymen, but having been India’s president and having visited many countries as such, Pranab Mukherjee must have heard about detailed discussions taking place among his own protocol officers and the ones from the countries he visited regarding diplomatic sensitivities around such photo sessions.

Therefore, even if one agrees that it was a mere event mismanagement by some lower-level embassy staff, to the eyes of the many Bangladeshis, Mukherjee ended up being perceived as the face of Indian arrogance at yet another sensitive juncture in Bangladesh’s political cycles.

Anti-Indianism on the rise?

Four years ago, right after the January 2014 general election, I urged the Indian leadership to re-calibrate their posture in Bangladesh in an op-ed published in Dhaka Tribune. India’s The Hindu quoted my words in its own op-ed, with apparent retrospection at that time.

Citing the ascending level of anti-Indianism in the wake of the 2014 elections, I wrote: “Anti-Indianism of historic proportions is on the rise in Bangladesh. This cannot be, by any standard, welcome news for Indian business policy, geo-strategy, or for that matter, counter-terrorism matters related to Bangladesh.”

Seeing the aftermath of the latest photo fiasco four years later, I would repeat those same words to our friends in India.

Having made some large investments and having established several favorable trade deals in Bangladesh, India now has more to lose in 2018 than it did in 2014.

Having firmly stood behind a dubious election in 2014, and with some loose indications of its willingness to stand behind yet another one, India will only fuel the further rise of anti-Indianism in Bangladesh, which may someday turn into a pressure cooker waiting to explode from the viewpoint of India’s larger foreign policy objectives in South Asia.

Bangladeshis, in general, continue to be a friendly bunch for Indians due to India’s support during the 1971 Liberation War and strong penetration of Indian culture in Bangladesh.

Aside from the fringe elements of Bangladesh’s political spectrum, two of our major political parties with about 90% of the vote no longer have any semblance of anti-Indianism in their official political posture. Therefore, India has the room to be much more generous, respectful, and accommodating to a wider spectrum of Bangladeshi political class than it has been inclined to be.

Unlike 40 other Muslim countries in the world, Bangladeshis had electoral democracy and gave their blood for their right to vote. India, for the last four years, stands accused of tinkering with that much-coveted right cherished by the Bangladeshis.

Therefore, if there is a true security threat emanating from Bangladesh for India, it should be a sudden outburst of popular anti-Indian sentiment owing to a perceived or real arrogant exercise of power shown by Indian officials regarding Bangladesh’s domestic affairs.

Quick removal of the questionable photographs from the Indian HC’s Facebook page is a praise-worthy start in tempering down the current outcry, but India must know it has much more to do over the next 12 months.

Shafquat Rabbee is a finance professional who writes on global finance and geopolitics. He spent over a decade working for some of the largest global banks, ratings agencies, and management consulting firms. He is an alumnus of Cornell University and University of Miami.

This article first appeared in the Dhaka Tribune.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.