Quest for immortality

Mozammel H. Khan

Published on February 13, 2007

Attaining immortality is a never ending quest for mortal human being at all ages. Naming of institutions to commemorate persons for their everlasting contribution to a society in particular and mankind in general, is a well accepted practice followed in every society. Kings, queens, politicians, scientists, philosophers, artists and others those who, one way or the others made some long run differences through their contributions to any specific arena of the society are usually honoured affixing their names to institutions that closely identify their fields of bestowals. In all societies, donors also occupy an important place among the icons whose names glorify the institutions so named after them. However, if any name, especially if the person is still actively living, becomes reminiscence of any negative correlation with any positive virtue that undeniably creates a very faltering image of the institution that labels his name.  Max Planck Institute certainly speaks volumes of the scientific standing of the organization while the Rabindra Bharati University amplifies manifolds the glory appended to that particular institution.


In every society where ethics has not been totally made a repugnant probity, a few norms are being practiced in naming the organs of the body of national importance; especially when dealing with the names of the politicians who still occupy the helm of power. In Western democracies, no institution is ever carried the name of a sitting President or a Prime Minister and for that matter, they are rare instances to honour even a living former President or Prime Minister (PM) by affixing their names with any institution, no matter how much their efforts were effective in bringing out or flourishing of the body in question. A rare exception is only exhibited in the United States where, as a traditional practice, a library is set up in his home town, mostly with private donations, bearing the name of the outgoing chief executive. The most illustrious Canadian Statesman Pierre Elliot Trudeauís name was never exhibited to any roads, public buildings or organs of any academic institutions not only during his tenure as one of the longest serving Prime Ministers of Canada or even thereafter as a retired ombudsman of this great democracy, albeit his popularity as the principal architect of the legendary Charter of Rights and Freedom, was never surpassed. Only after his death a few years ago, a Montreal airport was named after him and recently, University of Toronto, Canadaís largest university, has glorified itself by naming an academic building after him.


Closer to home, there is not a single establishment in Singapore that carries the name of Lee Kwan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore. There was a proposal to name the Changi Airport of Singapore, incidentally the best airport of the world for more than a decade and that boastfully hangs the portrait a few Asian makers of history such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Min and Bangabandhu, after him which was immediately turned down Mr. Lee himself. No government office or institution ever carried the picture of Mr. Lee even when he was the PM. The pictures of the President, no matter how titular the position is, always glorify the walls of the government offices and its missions overseas. In Canada as well, no one has ever seen the picture of the PM glorifying the walls of any office or institutions. Turkey, a country which, like Bangladesh, has also seen a lot of ups and downs in democratic practices, has an exemplary tradition of hanging only the portrait of Mustafa Kamal, the father of modern Turkey; while naming an institution after an activate political leader is a far cry. Bangladesh is probably the only country among the Westminster democracies where the current parliament has passed a law making it mandatory for the government offices to hang the portrait of the PM, lest people dishonour their elected leader! Incidentally, Sheikh Hasina deserves the distinct honour among our PMs and Presidents whose portrait did not dangle on the office buildings, nor did any institution bear her name, during her tenure as the PM. In fact, her governmentís decision to hang only the portrait of Bangabandhu, the father of our nation, was a very prudent one to bestow the long-deserved honour to the greatest national hero of the land.


During the Presidency of Late Ziaur Rahman, in addition to two other widely-acclaimed virtues, namely the personal honesty and non- adherence to nepotism, he strictly maintained the policy of not allowing any one to honour him by naming any institution after him. Soon after his tragic death, the government of the day went on a naming spree and according to a statistics by early 1996, just before the fall of the BNP government, there were around 500 institutions that carried Ziaur Rahmanís name. It was not only the name of Ziaur Rahman, who must have been turning in his grave to feel how all these cherished virtues, for which he is highly regarded, have been nullified by his successors, his widow as the PM did not spare any opportunity to inaugurate the institutions exhibiting her name. Most of the universities, including the Rajshahi and the Islamic, which have a female dormitory constructed during her tenure, brooked her name. Many of her ministers were not lagging behind her either to glorify themselves by ascribing their names to anything that was built during their rule. In my visit to Dhaka in early nineties, I watched on BTV news that a minister was inaugurating an auditorium bearing his name in his home town, notwithstanding the minister was miserably defeated in the election in both of his home ridings. Two years ago, in my journey through Dhaka city, I came across a College bearing the name of a current cabinet minister whose name in any way never rekindles even the minimum probity expected from a human soul.


The current controversy emanated from the proposed naming of a female dormitory of Dhaka University after the name of the current PM defying the long and highly acclaimed tradition of not naming any element of this great university after the name of any living human being. The said dormitory was allegedly proposed to be named during the tenure of the erstwhile government after late Begum Sufia Kamal, an imminent female icon of our nation. There are ongoing arguments and counter arguments, in which who donated the state property for the dormitory, either the present PM or the former PM came into play, as if it was their personal property. The PM must be enjoying the debates since majority of the senate members are in favour of her name; a great quest to reach immortality indeed! 


During the tenure of the last AL government, neither of the names given by the preceding BNP government was renamed, although the BNP government was once overthrown through a mass upsurge. The current alliance government did not reciprocate that civilized norm practiced by the AL government which went out of the helm only through a normal democratic exercise. Even the M A Hannan airport and the Syed Nazul Islam (who was he?) bridge were renamed. If the BNP ever has to evacuate the helm of authority and if a non-BNP government pays them back in the same coin, what would be BNPís option to counter that tit for tat move? It might call hartal, as it did when a pontoon bridge linking Ziaur Rahmanís mausoleum was removed from the lake, or resort to a few street demonstrations. However, would it help it to regain the lost moral ground? People in the helm of power seldom address that question.      


Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh. He writes from Toronto, Canada.