January 25, 2020
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Who's Your Begum?

Who's Your Begum?
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I had been invited by the trustees of the Liberation War Museum to spend five days in Dhaka and give their annual lecture. Happily I was put up in the Dhaka Club, not in a five-star hotel. The bar here is one of the most lively of the South Asian bars I have frequented and the smoked Hilsa is to die for. Unfortunately, the fish had not yet been boned the day I had lunch with the economist Rehman Sobhan. We talked about the similarities between the countries of South Asia. Among those Rehman mentioned was "a capacity to misgovern their citizens". That capacity was much discussed while I was in Dhaka where corruption is an even more common topic of conversation than in Delhi. The battle of the begums, Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, appears to have divided every Bangladeshi institution. The party affiliation of everyone from the president down is known to all. The Liberation War Museum had arranged for me to take part in a discussion with young journalists who told me the politicians also divide the press on party lines. The BNP won't allow journalists they regard as pro-Awami League to their press meets, and the Awami League retaliates in the same way. The journalists said resisting political pressure was their greatest challenge. The cover of December's Forum, a news magazine, showed Khaleda holding the strings of a puppet president while Hasina threatened both with a wooden spoon. The message of the cartoon was "Two ladies, one crown, a nation in hostage". That summed up the feeling of almost everyone I talked to.
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