In the past two years, four young Bangladeshi, including two women, scaled Mount Everest, becoming national heroes. More importantly, these individuals also became powerful political symbols, used on various sides, to disguise the failure of politics in Bangladesh.
Four young Bangladeshi mountaineers made their country proud when they hoisted the national flag at the top of the world—the peak of Mount Everest. This trend began in 2010 when a 30 years old journalist, Musa Ibrahim, became the first Bangladeshi ever to scale the peak of Everest. Another man, M.A. Mohit, and two girls, Nishat Majumder and Wasfia Nazreen, followed in Musa’s footsteps. They also reached the peak of Everest, hoisting the Bangladeshi flag in both 2011 and 2012. Mohit became the first Bangladeshi to scale Everest twice.
The whole country was ecstatic on receiving news of the ‘extraordinary achievements’ by these young Bangladeshis. They were featured on the front pages of newspapers. Television channels gave them extensive airtime. Bangladeshis on Facebook and in blogs went viral congratulating them.
Receptions held by the state, political parties and civil society organizations became a regular occurrence for these mountaineers. Some of them became familiar faces on billboards, TV and newspaper commercials. Even fashion magazines featured the mountaineers’ choice of sunglass, shoes, dress, etc. Through media and the speeches of the Prime Minister, opposition leaders and civil society programmes, these four mountaineers have become a source of inspiration, iconic figures raising Bangladesh’s ‘status’ to a ‘respectable position’ at the global level. Four Bangladeshi sportspeople had become national heroes.
Why have these Everest climbers become such a source of inspiration? What is behind such euphoric celebration? I argue that this nation-wide exhilaration is closely related to two interlinked factors: the failure of politics in Bangladesh, and the lack of interest in politics by a majority of young people. The politics of Bangladesh, which has failed to throw up a widely supported national figurehead in recent times, particularly among the apolitical youth, suddenly latched on to these heroic climbers and has tried to turn them into highly political symbols.
The risky business of climbing Everest
There is a fundamental difference between climbing Everest and other popular sports, like football or cricket. Climbing Everest on any given day can be a risky business. Why, then, did Bangladeshi youth begin to participate in an extremely risky sport that has little relevance to Bangladeshi culture and geography considering the country’s low-lying terrain? Musa, Mohit, Nishat and Wasfi all stated at public events that they wanted to hoist the red and green Bangladeshi flag on the top of the world to make their country proud.
Nishat repeated the claim at a citizen reception held in her honour in Dhaka on July 7, 2012, saying that “[t]here were many moments during my journey when I thought I can’t do it, but our flag and the anticipation of people of Bangladesh pulled me back and I said to myself - yes I can make my country proud.” Similarly, Musa Ibrahim’s conversation with me at a coffee shop in Dhaka a few months ago confirmed the political symbolism of the flag in his climb. He suggested that by hoisting the Bangladeshi flag on top of the world, he not only wanted to take Bangladesh to new heights, but he also wanted to boost people’s confidence. “By accomplishing an apparently impossible task, I wanted Bangladeshis to realize, if we want, we can change our fate, there is no reason even to think we are lagging behind as a nation,” Musa told me.
The case of Nishat and Wasfia deserves special attention considering Bangladesh’s Muslim patriarchal society where women are believed to be physically weak, mentally dependent on men and unfit for outdoor activities. According to Dr. Giti Ara Nasreen, former Chair of the Mass Communication and Journalism Department of Dhaka University and also a pioneer in the civil society movement to stop the stereotypical presentation of women in media advertisements, “such beliefs are no doubt social stereotypes and reinforce the weaker position of women in the society. Therefore, I think, by conquering Everest, Nishat and Wasfia have literally brought down mountains of wrong beliefs about Bangladeshi women.”
The failure of politics
Unfortunately, Bangladesh does not rank at the top or middle positions of most international indices. This is largely due to the failure of politicians who are mired in corruption and nepotism. Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Index places Bangladesh regularly among the most corrupt states in the world. The World Bank (WB) recently cancelled financing of a $1.2 billion loan to construct a bridge over the Padma River because of corruption allegations within the government and the government’s lack of response in countering these charges. It should be noted that the government refutes the WB’s claim. Income disparities are widespread in Bangladesh, according to the International Finance Corporation, where 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The United Nation's 2011 Human Development Index placed Bangladesh near the bottom at 146th out of 187 states. Finally, Bangladesh is regularly criticized by international human rights organizations for suppressing various aspects of civil, political and cultural rights of its citizens.
Hence, it seems that there are many reasons for Musa, Wasfia, Nishat and Mohit to risk their live to reach the top of the world with the aim of hoisting the national flag of a state located at the lower strata of every available global index featuring good governance or human development. This was one achievement Bangladesh could take pride in.
In reality, Bangladeshi youth, aged between 14-30 years old and now constituting nearly 50% of Bangladesh’s 140 million population, do not miss out on the chance to show love for their country. Sports have become a popular platform for their nationalism. For example, every game Bangladesh played in the Asia Cup cricket tournament (held in March 2012 in Dhaka) witnessed the stadium full of thousands of Bangladeshi flags, small and large, and hundreds of men and women who wore t- shirts, bandanas designed after the flag which was even painted on their cheeks.
Realizing young people’s passion for sports, Bangladesh’s major political leaders, all of whom are approaching their mid-60s, suddenly started attending sporting events to show their loyalty. All the heads of the major political parties went to the stadium to watch Bangladesh’s match in the Asia Cup. Not surprisingly, these politicians also celebrated the Everest ‘win’.
The Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on June 21, 2012 at a reception organized in Dhaka to honour the four Everest ‘conquerors’ said that the “achievement of four Bangladeshis would inspire future generations so that the new generations would be confident enough to tackle every hurdle in the nation's march forward.” The prime minister also hoped that “Bangladesh one day would stand amidst the world community keeping its head high.” Such statements from the highest executive of the state not only underscore the political significance of this sport, but also underpin the significance of young voters to politicians.
In reality, however, it will take more than just political rhetoric and stunts to convince the youth who are increasingly becoming critical of politicians’ commitment to the country. It is through the globalization of media and the Internet that Bangladeshi youth can see the strong distinctions between Bangladesh and other countries regarding politics and governance. Large sections of the youth are not happy with politics given the corruption of public servants and the political leadership across different regimes.
These frustrations are palpable in Facebook conversations as well. Against this backdrop of youth frustration, the democratic state is slowly transforming itself into a more authoritarian one. At least three students were either arrested on charges of sedition or face jail terms for criticizing political leaders on Facebook. Young bloggers too were recently arrested and charged with inciting unrest. Such crackdowns only made a large section of Bangladeshi youth even less interested in politics. The current Communication Minister, Obaidul Quader, said on July 7, 2012 that, “most of the younger generation writes on [their] Facebook profile that they hate politics but politics needs people of merit otherwise it will be bankrupt, dominated by dishonest people.”
The Communication Minister, however, might have failed to consider the Everest climb as a political act by the youth. In my opinion, this climb must be considered as a desperate symbolic effort to realize the metaphoric dream of ‘reaching the top of the world’ by Bangladeshi youth, who, by all measures, are members of one of the most backward nation states in the world. By risking their own lives to hoist the national flag on top of the world, these four young Bangladeshis proved their commitment, love and willpower to make sacrifices for their country. The political leaders of Bangladesh, however, have to take responsibility for Bangladesh’s backwardness at the global level.