It’s generally unhealthy to live in the past, but should you run into any Bangladeshis in the near future, give ’em a pass. For them, the sun probably did shine a bit brighter just two weeks ago.
It was March 9, the day Bangladesh upset England in the World Cup of Cricket and earned themselves a surprise trip to the tournament’s quarter-finals. The BBC summed it up in two grumpy paragraphs:
“Bangladesh knocked England out of the Cricket World Cup with an impressive 15-run victory.”
“The result has been met with anger and dismay amongst the English, but fans in Bangladesh are delighted with their side’s performance.”
But you don’t have to take their word for it. This was the scene in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital:
Taking selfies, lifting grandpas onto your shoulders, waving the flag from the top of an independence statue? Where the party at!?
Sadly, this was a rare day of celebration in Bangladesh. Why? A political grudge match that makes Democrats and Republicans look like two peas in a pod.
Let’s start with the “battling begums,” the two women whose battle for supremacy in Bangladeshi politics spans decades. One of them, Sheikh Hasina, is currently prime minister and head of the ruling party, the Awami League. But her arch-rival, Khaleda Zia, heads the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) and is maneuvering to wedge her party back into power. To get the government’s attention, she’s been organizing regular civil disobedience, blockading the country’s roads, rivers, and rails, and holding general strikes to flex her muscles over city streets.
(The dramatis personae: Hasina on left, Zia on right.)
These general strikes, called hartals, are no joke. Mobs of young men roam about, menacing, beating, or even killing people who make the mistake of trying to get somewhere. That’s why the strikes tend to be broadly announced ahead of time: so most people stay home.
But I still remember that one summer, decades ago, that we had no choice. My family and I had a flight back to the US on the same day as an announced hartal. My uncle, a surgeon, quickly arranged for an ambulance to zip us to the airport, thinking the mob wouldn’t attack an emergency vehicle lightly. But as our car edged onto the eerily empty boulevard, black night thick all around us, I think we all had lumps in our throats. An army of young men passed us, marching the other way with torches.
That’s part of why it was a big deal when Bangladesh beat England. Within hours of the result, the BNP put out a press release saying it’d suspend the hartal for 12 hours to let people celebrate. The statement congratulated the Bangla Tigers on their victory and wished them luck in the future. It also warned that the intermission would be brief: the strike would resume at 6 p.m., then continue for the rest of the work week.
Nine days later, on March 18, the Tigers took the field against India. The roles of underdog and favorite were quite clear; India had won the last World Cup and had three of the world’s top 10 batsmen for this category of match. Bangladesh briefly went off-script, dismissing India’s star hitter Virat Kohli.
Then reality set in. India’s veteran lineup lifted it to a convincing 109-run win over the Tigers. The Guardian called it a “crushing victory.” BBC said Bangladesh was “outclassed.” An Indian station was less restrained. “Bangladesh shown their place,” it crowed. “Bangladesh all bark, no bite.”
The tournament goes on. India will face Australia in the World Cup semifinal on Thursday. The winner will face either New Zealand or South Africa, depending on who wins their semifinal match today in Auckland.
As for Bangladesh, it’s back to business as usual. At home, the strikes are about to enter their third month, hobbling the economy and preventing social functions as basic as letting kids go take their critical exams.
And while Bangladesh’s Battling Begums settle their scores, its citizens remain needlessly indoors. Of course, being a resourceful set, at least a few of them have found a way to make use of that time: some good ol’fashioned trash talk.