The Hay Festival Dhaka: The Potemkin Village of the Secular Liberal Elite in Bangladesh


Nuraldeen  argued that our ‘illiberal’ cultural elites and their supportbase are comfortably numb and vulgarly civil when it comes to the celebration of ‘culture’ as they ignore the  turbulent political context  and questionable political process behind the formation of a cultural event. With a special request from a guest writer Jamuna we’re running this article that critically examines the political context of Hay Festival Dhaka and the role of our cultural elites. The Blog was originally published in Khichuri on 15th November,2013.

By Jamuna

In the next few days, Bangladesh’s ‘liberal’ ‘secular’ establishment will convene at the Hay Festival Dhaka. Just like the original  Hay Festival in Wales, the event will assemble a bevy of personalities who dominate the English-speaking public sphere. It is a time for publics to explore, for a chosen few new writers to gain exposure and approval, established columnists to issue compilations, publishers to push their wares and agendas, and intercultural interpretation.

Big names such as Pankaj Mishra, Ahdaf Soueif and Tariq Ali will be joined by more local figures such as Tahmina Anam, who is a co-organiser and a rather dull novelist as well as a key gatekeeper between literary establishments in Bangladesh and Britain. Ms Anam’s father, Mahfuz Anam is the editor of the Transcomm Group associated Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest English language daily, on-and-off cheerleader of the Awami League regime and – wait for it – the title sponsor.

Cultural inbreeding and nepotism are not a new phenomenon in any society, after all The Krays were brothers and the Redgraves are fabulous, but it makes Hay Dhaka intriguing, worrying and important not to take at face value given Anam Snr’s recent warning that The Sons are Coming. It is intriguing because we can read into its inclusions and silences about Bangladesh’s contested cultural frames, and concerning because – like the debate around the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in nearby Sri Lanka – one questions the wisdom of organising such an event in a country that is in the midst of such tumultuous transition, and crackdown on dissent.

Granted, the level and nature of state violence and suppression witnessed this year could hardly have been foreseen in the festival’s planning horizon. But what is concerning is that the festival is in collaboration with the cheerleaders and PR men of the Awami League regime: people who have covered up, justified and even applauded their violent actions. This regime and its client intelligentsia have serious questions to answer for gross human rights abuses, including: the mass killing of unarmed demonstrators in May; the internationally discredited war crimes tribunals; the illegal closure of opposition media; and detention of human rights defenders.

Freedom of (who’s) expression?

One might also ask: why have state censors granted permission for this festival to go ahead while other, more indigenous, non-elite cultural expressions remain suppressed? The annual Mela in honour of the legendary political leader, renowned as the Red Maulana and Father of the Oppressed, Moulana Bhashani in Tangail that was due to commence on his 37th death anniversary next week has been refused permission. Furthermore a demonstration by the community-based religious establishment, demanding investigation of the killings of 6th May in Dhaka, was pencilled in for Friday 15th. But this has been challenged by the government’s own religious puppets hungry for coalition seats in the next parliament.


We might conclude that Hay Dhaka is more than a legitimising PR exercise, but that thought control, patrol and presentation are key functions of it. Indeed, such bread and circuses have their place and provide some relief for the world-weary, but in Bangladesh’s climate of fear, massacre and political illegitimacy, they also need to be read as they are and through the sycophancy, flattery and pretentiousness upon which they are based.

Assembling a Potemkin Village

Legend has it that the aristocrat Grigory Potemkin erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress his lover, the Russian Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. This ruse is now known as the ‘Potemkin village’, a phrase to describe literal and figurative constructs whose sole purpose is to dupe observers with an agreeable depiction of affairs. So keen was Potemkin to influence his lover, his villages became mobile, were demolished and then rebuilt downstream to keep up with Catherine’s barge, with his own men pretending to be the local peasant population.

Fast forward to two and a half centuries to Dhaka in November 2013 and we see another Potemkin village reassembled by the Dhaka Metropolitan elite for its literary development partners in front of the hallowed grounds of the Bangla Academy. Just like an end of year review put on for parents and school governors, we have the usual assemblage of actors, wealth, echo chambers, clichés, and cronies, courtesy of The Daily Star. No mention of massacres by security forces,  kidnapping and detentions of political opponents, the hounding of dissent and the muzzling of the opposition press, or the controversial war crimes tribunals. Instead, visitors will be treated to the airbrushed Never Never Land of Golden Bengal, the land of tolerance and sophistication, with a smattering of Nazrul Islam, Tagore and Lalon.

The Usual Suspects

Providing media promotion and a fair chunk of economic capital is the aforementioned Mahfuz Anam, school master of ‘right thinking’ secular liberals everywhere and a media baron popular in diplomatic quarters. Another Daily Star luminary, Syed Badrul Ahsan, The Oracle and Keeper of the True Historical Record, makes a cameo appearance, ironically in a session on short stories. His adulation of the Prime Minister and applause for her government’s brutality grows more deranged with every passing day. The model student, co-organiser and schoolmaster’s daughter, Tahmima Anam, graces the stage twice over the festival, including once in a cringingly titled ‘Best Young Novelist’ session. Nepotism? Who? Us?

In a set up whose geopoetics could not be made up, we see Zafar Sobhan, understudy to the school master for so many years, currently trying to edit pro government propaganda sheet, the Dhaka Tribune. At the festival he is moderating a conversation about ‘Egypt and Beyond’ with Ahdaf Soueif and a random Etonian. Soueif’s justification, then tepid explanations of the Egyptian coup and the violence against those deposed – together with Sobhan’s participation in the government disinformation campaign regarding this May’s Dhaka Massacre – are interesting parallels to explore from the point of view of reputational risk management at home and abroad in a time of massacre and injustice. It has been a bloody year in both the Bengal and Nile delta’s, with the origin of fascistic violence clearly emanating from the purportedly secular liberal quarter in both cases. #Tamarod and #Shahbag, in polite and less polite forms, have much in common with each other for those who reflect.

From a technocratic point of view, the programme has much to praise, official diversity guidelines and feedback from the previous festival have been responded to, there are sessions in Bengali, coverage of other languages and dialects, Zafar Iqbal has been let loose on the children and the country’s Shi’i Muslim literary heritage even gets a look in. The highlights promise to be Pankaj Mishra’s interventions, his recent book ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia’ offers – ironically – the most interconnected and sympathetic perspectives on pan-Islamism in the subcontinent permitted at the event, and may serve as a safe portal for alternate political imaginaries.

Conclusion: Last Days of Empire

The Hay Festival in Dhaka represents the completion of a narrative which began with Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education and terminates with the internalisation of Anglo-Saxon culture by the hegemonic establishment elites of Dhaka, as exemplified by the festival’s corporate media backers. This is a process whose ramifications on Bangladesh have been covered extensively by Nurul Kabir, the editor of the New Age newspaper.

However, as any student of Hindu theology will explain, the completion of a cycle or narrative results in its Shiva-like destruction and the creation of new cycle. This dance of Shiva has been and is continuously being played out in the streets of Dhaka, and in the many mufassil towns and villages dotted across the country. Starting with the police firings of 28th Februarythe Long March on 5th April and the 5/6th of May Massacre, the political chemistry and discourse of the country is being transformed by a resurgent expressions of Muslimness, deriving inspiration not just from Westminster, but the hallowed and sacred grounds of Mecca and Medina and the Bengal Muslim’s own heritage. This is visible in the  Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s own recent claim that her government would be run according to the Medinan charter of the Prophet Muhammad. These trajectories of Political Islams in the country have not been set in stone, as all the major political players, from the Awami League, BNP, Jamaat to the ‘new kids on the block’, Hefazot-e-Islam and Tariqat Federation are all trying to capture, fashion and benefit from them.

Hay Dhaka 2013 presents a largely besieged mentality, of an elite trying to hang onto illusory certainties in turbulent times and an absolute failure to connect with the masses in whose names they claim to speak, as epitomised by the program of the festival and its Potemkin-like objectives. We have been here before, several times. The medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun gave the average empire/dynasty the lifespan of 150 years. Time travelling back from Dhaka to Delhi just over 150 years, and one might perceive a resemblance with a scene of a decadent outdated elite being replaced by a more contemporary vigorous movement.

The scene is that of 1857, and the last day of the Mughal Empire after the failed Indian Independence War. There is an apocryphal story that the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, called one final session of the court. In full knowledge of the failure of the uprising against the British which he symbolically led, the Last Emperor invited the poet Ghalib to the Empire’s last supper. Amidst the backdrop of a burning city besieged by the British, the Emperor and his courtiers sought solace in their wine cups and each other’s company in the Red Fort. They listened attentively to Ghalib and his panegyrics, reminiscing the past glories.

History has cyclical, linear, multidirectional and cosmic qualities. In 2013 the besiegers have now become the besieged.  In this historical loop in Dhaka, the metropolitan elite, the descendants of earlier besiegers the British Raj, are themselves besieged in the Hay Festival, their version of the Red Fort by the descendants of those who lay besieged in an earlier age. One historical cycle was representing an aggressive Europe, the other a resurgent and ever increasingly confident Muslim identity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s