Two very recent events of international political commerce must have drawn your attention dear reader: i) French President Emmanuel Macron, at the invitation of Premier Sheikh Hasina, came to Dhaka among other intents of his, to sell airbuses, and ii) Joe Biden, President of the United States, flew to Hanoi mainly to sell his Boings.
No friendship or hostility has been seen to be permanent in international politics since at least the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) or since the very emergence of the idea of nation-states in the eighteenth century after the so-called French Revolution. Hence the United States, once the fierce enemy of Vietnam has now become one of her honeymoon allies.
Most of the then world in 1971 was pro-Pakistan and obviously anti-Bangladesh except a few countries, including India of course, but also the then Soviet Union, Japan, and France. A friend in need is a friend indeed would be an adage the Awami League government follows as the basis of its international policy. Such a policy may not always be the best one, but at least an honest one. Alas! who values honesty in politics nowadays!
From a geographical point of view, Bangladesh may seem to be a small country, but it's almost a continent from a demographic point of view. With about 130 million population, Bangladesh has one of the biggest workforces on earth, and therefore, an adequate site to invest. It's also a huge market, and hence an excellent site to incubate the capital. As a whole, this country, like Afghanistan, situated on the frontiers of two ancient civilizations, India and China, has a huge potential.
The proof France also values Bangladesh is that since her independence, two French Presidents visited Dacca, as they rightly spell it, I think, as a professional linguist. It all started in 1973 with the visit of André Malraux as a personal guest of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. André Malraux was the cabinet minister of President Charles de Gaulle, a writer, thinker, and also a connoisseur of art who made an appeal in 1971 to the youth of the world to join Muktibahini in their fight against the fierce demon of Pakistan. Malraux who considered Bangabandhu a hero, said in one of his lectures that Sheikh Mujib and Gandhi should be the idols rather than Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Ze Dong.
Let's compare the itinerary of Malraux with that of the two Presidents of France. Malraux was attributed a Ph.D. honoris causa at the University of Rajshahi, gave a famous lecture at the University of Dhaka, and visited and lectured at both Alliance Française of the country, in Dhaka and Chittagong, and hence he could meet and exchange ideas with the academics and intellectuals of the country. His visit was intellectually so copious that fifty years later, in 2021, Michael de Saint Cheron could write a whole book on it. A Bengali translation of this book is ready to be published by the Cosmos Foundation.
Neither Mitterand nor Macron did any of this, due to, probably, either they did not want a Malraux-type trip, or the bureaucrats of Bangladesh as well as those of France wanted something different. Statesmen in the seventies, Bangabandhu for instance, as well as their state guests, Malraux for example, and also the then public servants under their control, had some 'class'. Malraux, although not a president, was a superior personality on both intellectual and humanitarian grounds. Thank you, President Macron, for having evoked the memory of our friend Malraux, in your lecture.
Unlike Malraux, and much to our dismay, Macron did not meet writers, poets, academics and intellectuals of the county. He rather i) spent hours with a musician; ii) walked around (on purpose cleaned) Dhanmondi Lake where banners bearing the message Long live Macron were written in English and to our surprise, not in French, as if nobody in this country could have translated those three words into Macron's language; iii) appreciated an orchestrated boat race and music by some musicians dressed like Sufi Bauls dancing ridiculously in another boat nearby; iv) entertained with samosa by a restaurant owner (a real one, I hope!) on the bank of the river Turag, and finally, v) got 'selfied' with some socialites.
Probably neither the President nor the organizers of his official visit, consider the academia of this country up to their mark. President could be made aware of the fact that the French language has been being taught at the University of Dhaka since the fifties, and since 2015, there is, in the Institute of Modern Languages, a full-fledged department of French language and culture. None but the graduates of this department shall cement in the decades and centuries to come, the Franco-Bengali alliance that the President evokes so confidently in his joint declaration with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina.
The opposition leader Fakrul Islam Alamgir sniffs corruption in the whole affair of Airbuses, but let's not take his words seriously for the time being. Some think and probably right they are, that buying airbuses, despite their high price, technical complications consisting of getting used to a new set of machines and the huge and in-depth training of the personnel including staff and pilots, would be a good decision for pushing up the balance of trade between France and Bangladesh to an acceptable as well as honorable level.
But at the same time, how can we forget that Biman has always been a losing concern due to corruption and mismanagement? Buying airbuses could be like, to use a metaphor, marrying one's spoiled drug-addicted son with a beautiful and smart girl in order to cure him, a malpractice in vogue in Bangladesh.
The money Bangladesh spends each year for higher education in Anglo-Saxon countries equals the budget of a Padma bridge. We can hardly avoid such a neocolonial hangover, but could I ask the nation to choose France and Francophone countries for the higher education of her children? I personally studied in France, Canada, and Japan and I can assure you that one can get a much cheaper but excellent education in France.
France could establish branches of some of its universities and Research institutes, Ecole des Hautes Etudes Supérieures, for example, in Bangladesh. Bangladesh could open a Bangabandhu center in Paris where French people as well as the Bengali diaspora generation would learn and study the Bengali language and would probably translate Bengali texts into French and vice-versa.
No device of hard power such as a fighter jet or an airbus would be in fact effective unless it goes hand in hand with soft power devices such as Language, Education, and Culture.
A stitch in times saves always nine. If, unlike China with her Confucius Institutes, France or Bangladesh naively avoids investing in the propagation of their respective language and culture, I am sure, they have to pay for it, as did the Eastern Roman Empire, unlike Seljuk Turks, by not investing in gunpowder technology in the early 15th century. Mostly this blunder of theirs established the Ottomans on the ashes of the holy Roman Empire and subsequently initiated the Renaissance in Italy, which was not a bad thing though.
Shishir Bhattacharja, Professor, Institute of Modern Languages, University of Dhaka.
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