5 years ago


Martyrs & start-ups: Recreating knowledge power

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Statistics can never fully capture the length, breadth, and depth of intellectual loss. As in the case of the 1971 martyred intellectuals, they become but silent and solemn spectators of sordid 'liberation' leftovers. Banglapedia's laborious compilations inform us how 991 academics, 49 physicians, 42 lawyers, and 13 journalists died in cold blood during the 1971 war, a large cluster of them in Pakistan's own 'final solution' campaign in December. Since Bangladesh's caesarean birth was coupled by a traditional, agricultural stage of economic development, that loss was proportionately far larger than if the country had been more advanced: we would have so many more intellectuals to keep the ball rolling, much as we do now, that our grief would slowly heal (without ever going away). As we look back 47 years, how we lionise every technocrat or software specialist behind the growth of global intellectual capital and the onset of a knowledge society today, cannot obscure the true value of each one of those martyred intellectuals diminishes. They represented a species too rare to forget.

 "In no state-formations in all of human history," Edward Shils observed in a telling 1960 article, "have intellectuals played such a role as they have in these events of the present century," that is, the 20th Century (World Politics, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 329-68). From obeying emperors, humans began to uproot the patronage order before slowly shifting independently towards scraping the frontiers of knowledge. This fact of life is as true within Bangladesh as it has been outside. Our population more than doubled in our 47-year history, but our universities, for example, have multiplied many, many times more. Significantly, they have shifted from the secure (and thus muted) public universities to the far more challenging and costly private counterparts, breeding the kind of competitiveness that was unknown then, but the trigger to exploring the unknown more extensively now. We have more than recreated the intellectual playgrounds, atmosphere, ways of life, and personnel, and in many more knowledge modes too, than ever before. Yet, we still cannot compare with the stature of the original individual stalwarts. It would be unfair to mention any one 1971 intellectual martyr, but every field had them, and they were known to, and revered by, a larger proportion of the people by their name than may be true of any single intellectual today: whether in law, medicine, or philosophy, or as a journalist, linguist, or philanthropist, they were living institutions, and impossible to erase from our collective memories ever since.

Because of the paucity of resources and a sparse population then, converting intellectuals into icons was possible before: they stood out in a bucolic society. As Bangladesh evolved, from the 1980s, into a lower-end manufacturing society, the skill ante was raised; and we note how today this mode keeps intensifying, that is, shifting towards the skill upper-end. Thrust into a knowledge economy, information technologies pop up faster than our absorption capacities, demanding quite different and more upgraded skills. This evolution was unthinkable within Bangladesh in the 1970s (although Shils and other were anticipating this evolution in the 1960s in other locations). The point to be made is simple: we are shifting farther away from the political pangs attending our birth, and deeper into civil society, which, by definition, must operate on a mass of intellectuals, not individual stand-outs. Our intellectually-driven social fabric is not yet picture-perfect, and will not be so within our lifetimes given the many more hurdles we must first cross. Yet, to cross them requires, if not pioneering knowledge, then at least some degree of a robust intellectual pathway. Progress is impossible without the precepts of our peers, but every time we monitor it, we are gently reminded of the giants upon whose shoulders make it possible for us to stand.

We will need those anchors very sorely since 'progress' has now reached the limits of human capacities and can look beyond the human being independently. For any humans to be left behind now would mean he or she did not do his/her homework well, a requisite conspicuous by its absence in our traditional or agricultural hey-days. With artificial intelligence (AI) replacing us, in jobs, classes, hospitals, even such very conscientious tasks as driving, we can perhaps get a better sense of how special our martyred intellectuals were: oftentimes the sole springboard of any given skill, they make us look small, not only by the sheer multiplicity of the skills we supposedly possess, and thereby our shallow expertise of each, but also because no technology could threaten their skills in the way they do to us today. Yet, it would take many more Major General Rao Farman Ali, reputedly the mastermind of the horrendous December 1971 intellectual elimination campaign, to throw us backwards or cripple our intellectual infrastructures.

Be that as it may, today's intellectuals must still guard against becoming too shallow given the rapidity of skill dissemination (such as one software programming supplanting another so fast that we hardly get to understand, let alone master it: how universities must upgrade their computer software illustrates the cost and tediousness). Otherwise they would be automatically disqualified from speaking to the next 47 years of newcomers. Abandoning that same 'progress' could become more fatal than Farman Ali's schemes: education, research and publication remain as crucial today as then, perhaps even more so, yet far more difficult to conduct, even find interest in. After all, one byproduct of that progress alerts us vividly how we may lose it all, and very quickly at that: the Internet speeds our reading and writing skills, supplies much more information, establishes quicker contacts, reaches farther destinations even faster, and enhances those multiple skills, but it also promotes misuse, plagiarism, copy-pasting, information distortion, and individual-level damages through revelations, feeding the 'fake news' industry, and extortions. 'Progress' may have reached the water's edge. To probe further only guarantees entering a 'red-zone', with unpredictable, but unsavoury, outcomes.

These, our intellectual forefathers and martyrs did not have time to ponder. Our luxury to do so can become a nightmare if we do not arrest these vices, the sooner the better. With the Internet making social life more seductive by socialising private life, the will to make those changes also diminishes every day with every generation: if drugs, for example, constituted merely a selective social gossip then, it is on far too many menus today of too many individuals to receive the attention, priority, and remedies today. Yet, it exemplifies how every advance faces a regressive dynamic. Regressive impulses from within us may be far harder to quell than the external impulses our intellectual martyrs faced, and fell to, in 1971.

That is the 47-year difference as we celebrate Martyred Intellectual Day in 2018. We are lucky we have not been dwarfed enough to celebrate that day, but must hope and pray we can leave this particular status quo for another 47 years a number of times. Never underestimating the forces arrayed against our 'progress', as we did in 1971, is but a start.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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