By Seema Amin
As the country broke out into camps protecting sentiments, religious and nationalist, the last few weeks, two words stole into my orifices like some perfumed incense, flavored femme fatale, and I followed it, to this public domain where one is still able to speak or squeak. The two words constitute a single idea. Sentimental education— something I rather arbitrarily associate with the garden-inscribed, Manor-library sensibilities of characters in Jane Austen novels, although it originates in French literature, in Gustave Flaubert’s book of the same name. So what is a sentimental education, a mere education in literature? Ah, less than that, an education that arouses an inactive passion, one that remains suspended in that image-world of dreams. At times when I discuss the never mirthless politics of Bangladesh with my art critic colleagues, I often get a feeling they think politics is a sentimental vocation, a creature of ‘abeg.’ None of these alternative words to sentiments—passion and ‘abeg’– adequately describe the distance between a trigger-happy sentimentality, swift to offer others as lambs to the slaughter, and the wild, white terrain of dispassionate justice (think Anna Akmatova) that I associate with conscience: a kind of antithesis of the lynch mob justice of the kind that took place on October 6th, when Sundarban villagers and police beat robbers mercilessly until they could not walk in what was reported later as shootouts and gunfights…But let me describe the distance through the window of an event that has almost disappeared from collective memory.
The day the police locked the gates of the worker-occupied Tuba factory in Hossain market (August 6th), many of the female workers had been on hunger strike for a week, many were lying beside Sramik Oikya Forum leader Moshrefa Mishu while others were sitting on the table tops where clothes are made. The day they broke in, August 7th, these men in blue found the girls protecting Mishu and others in an unbreakable outer circle. One particular officer, demanding the leaders of the movement come forward, threatened to ‘Rape all of them’, and hurled other names…police literacy in such slang seems remarkably high. The girls, they refused to budge. Finally, as they pushed into the inner circle, the girls and their male co-workers were forced forward, moving in ripples, some falling down the stairs…taking beatings, but never quite giving up the protective space. Outside loitered what remained of the mixed bag of League goons, police women and dalal workers (as we called them) who had already fought skirmishes with workers, injuring solidarity activists, the day before. Not much remained in the form of a human chain outside…Buses were ready to pick up the workers and take them to receive diminished pay and benefits months late.
In my piece in New Age that came out the day before the police broke into the factory, I heralded superlative new worlds, a ‘paradigm shift.’ On hindsight, it appears to me as perfectly obtuse, but, I knew it was some kind of delirious hope that was working in the midst of things. But I’ve never had the misgiving– even after Delwar Hossian got his way, using workers’ salaries and bonus as a bargaining chip for his bail, and we walked not blindly but rather wide-eyed into his trap—that what we or they were doing was ‘sentimental’. Everyone present at was moved by something more akin to ‘following a truth to its logical conclusion.’ They would not be blackmailed. Yes, some vanguardism, but again, hardly sentimental.
And it is this distance between venturing a notion of justice and approximating it—that journey between a principle and its actualization in struggle (admittedly a fetishized word of the left) — that distinguishes this ‘un-sentimental’ world from the world where sentiments are protected by law, the mob or by the self-proclaimed guardians of the sentiments or the ideology of the language movement and liberation war, a world where there is not a split-second between a trigger and its target. The ‘students’ of a sentimental education did not stop to consider the pages of history books, nor offer a reason why suddenly nine others were also blacklisted from Shahid Minar without having any association whatsoever with a dangerously ubiquitous term, ‘Razakar.’ And yet, it is hard to tell off these madmen pursuing the injury to ‘sentiments.’ Not too long ago much more historically literate students and activists were running here and there, their sentiments also hurt, almost before a thought could be formulated…Thus this tendency is not limited to these few young men, to mobs in villages or to guardians of the faith. Some run to embassies, some to mosques, some, now, unfortunately, to the Minar. I venture the liberation war was not fought over sentiments but deep structural issues and a profound sense of injustice. The Shabagh movement certainly had more than sentiments to begin with; it had a profound sense of injustice. And the equations were not quite so arbitrary, generalized and simple, in the beginning. But the distance from there to here…warrants some introspection regarding the limitations of a sentimental education, which is all they seemed to have to rely on once the blacklisting began.
If tomorrow, the police who screamed ‘Rape to all of you’ sat on the TV screen and grinned unrepentant, I have a feeling in my gut that sentiments would not run very deep.
We would forgive him, as though he had said a faux-pas as children do. After all, he too got his sentimental education and it taught him nothing about the dignity of women, much the less workers. One need only read the headlines in the back pages…
Our passions are like our reasons for our actions: not principled, humane or deep, but sentimental, superficial and within our comfort zone. No white nights charting the immense, dark seas of human action with a moral compass… who cares about ethics when there are Sentiments. And when good and bad are pre-determined, in moral equations that do not even need a child’s exegesis of the assumed Word, a conscience– active, alive, non sentimental– is a luxury.