Tulip Siddiq: A heritage in Bangadeshi politics, a future in British?

The grandfather of Tulip Siddiq founded Bangladesh. Ms Siddiq's progress in her run for parliament is worth watching carefully

Philip Hensher
Friday 19 July 2013 17:00
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Bangladesh army soldiers stand at the wreckage of a Bangladeshi garment factory building to offer prayers for the souls of the 1,127 people who died in the structure's collapse last month (AP)
Bangladesh army soldiers stand at the wreckage of a Bangladeshi garment factory building to offer prayers for the souls of the 1,127 people who died in the structure's collapse last month (AP)

The Camden New Journal, talking about the selection of a new Labour candidate for Hampstead and Highgate to succeed Glenda Jackson, said “there was, and it sounds disrespectful… no star name or high-profile voice.” I suppose it depends on your definition of “star” and “high-profile”. The selection of councillor Tulip Siddiq as the candidate for this constituency raised an enormous amount of interest in some parts of the world, and certainly among a substantial community in the UK.

Although she, wisely, did not stress it in her campaign, she comes from an extraordinarily distinguished political dynasty in Asia. Her grandfather, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the founder of Bangladesh, a brave though flawed idealist, who is to this day revered in the region. He, and most of his family, were massacred in 1975, leaving only two daughters. One of those daughters, Sheikh Hasina, is now the leader of the country, and has done her best to sustain a secular culture against growing Islamist pressure. Though Ms Siddiq, who is Ms Hasina’s neice, was born here, in London, because of the tumultuous history of Bangladesh, her links to and prestige in the country her grandfather founded remain very strong.

Bangladesh has immense problems, and we tend to hear about it as a problem area, but it has made some unheralded steps forward, too. As the economist Amartya Sen was pointing out this week, it has overtaken India, with twice its GDP per head, in many issues of daily life. Strikingly, for a predominantly Islamic country, it does better on gender-based equality issues than India. Sen went on to make the key point that whereas 50 per cent of Indians have no access to toilets, this is the case for only 9-10 per cent of Bangladeshis in a much poorer country.

This is a culture that reveres political dynasties, and votes for widows, daughters, grandchildren, who are brought up in an intense atmosphere of public service. There are only four grandchildren of Mujibur, still generally known as Bangabandhu, or the Friend of Bengal. The pressure on those grandchildren to act in their ancestral national arena must be very strong.

I met another of the grandchildren, Ms Siddiq’s charming brother, known universally as Bobby, in Dhaka last year, and had an unexpected insight into the world of such people. The manners of Dhaka among the elite are often open and relaxed compared to India; still, there was no mistaking the atmosphere of respect and repressed excitement as the grandson of Bangabandhu entered the room. It’s interesting that Ms Siddiq, with a natural bent towards politics, has chosen to exercise it not in the nation of her grandfather and aunt, but here in the UK.

British politics can gain immensely from someone of this background, whose name opens doors, and whose connections to a secular culture within the Islamic world could build bridges where few possibilities sometimes seem to exist. To take a single example: it is very easy to imagine someone like this playing a very important role in establishing lasting and committed links between western businesses and Bangladeshi manufacturers in the wake of the tragic factory collapses.

If Ms Siddiq proves to be a capable and upright politician, she could bring considerable benefits to the relatively enclosed world of Westminster and the Labour party. The gains, I think, might well prove to be all on that side, and we should observe Ms Siddiq’s capacities and career with close interest.

Thank you, and you, and you...

I’m a connoisseur on that growing, macabre phenomenon, the Acknowledgements Page in American fiction, and this week turned up a doozy. Simon Rich, at the end of a slight collection of New Yorker-type comic sketches, thanked all of 42 people. The book is quite amusing, but nothing is as funny as the acknowledgements. When did this start as an adjunct to fiction? It used to be limited to sentimental novels. The curious thing is that it destroys the comic potential of the pages that precede it. Try as one might, one just can’t imagine James Thurber writing a three-page Acknowledgements.

Keeping things civil

My husband was trying to get my attention. “Phil. Phil. Are we going to upgrade?” he was asking. “What? When? On British Airways next week?” “No – to marriage. Now the Queen’s agreed, we can upgrade from civil partnership. And can we have a party?” “Ah. Oh. OK then,” I said. Well, it would be nice to have another wedding, and at least it would allow one to give a sharper reply to the surprising number of strangers who correct you when you say “my husband” rather than “my civil partner.” Still, there is a part of me that is tempted to stick to the Civil Partnership option. In 20 years’ time, it will have a wonderfully period flavour, like the last Jacobite in Oxford, or the 41 people who were, in 2008, still obstinately backing the SDP against that breakaway Liberal Democrat thing. “Have you met my Civil Partner?” How lovely and odd that will sound in 2033.

Froth over the Führer

A Henry Mulyana has been running a Nazi-themed restaurant in Bandung, West Java, until attention was drawn to this outrage. He has been required to close it down, saying plaintively that he didn’t want his staff to lose their jobs. Well, I wouldn’t drink a cup of coffee under a portrait of Hitler, but it’s surprising how other mass-murderers get a green card in this respect. I was once startled in a Soho restaurant to see, among a wall of photographs of film stars, singers and boxers, the face of Mussolini. Thanks to Andy Warhol, the features of Chairman Mao are considered highly suitable to decorate parasols, handbags and other fashionable kitsch. I really don’t see the difference between using Hitler’s portrait on a café wall and buying T-shirts and baseball caps with Chairman Mao’s face amusingly printed on them.

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