Oral history interview with Rehman Sobhan

Sobhan, Rehman

Iqbal, Iftekhar


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OK. This is 1st of September, 2010. I am sitting with Professor Rehman Sobhan at his office in Dhanmandi. Um, may I ask you Professor Sobhan about your early childhood, beginning with your date of birth, very briefly, please?
12th of March, 1935.
OK, and you were born in?
I was born in the Elgin Nursing Home in Calcutta.
Ok, and if you allow me to jump a little bit, you went to St. Paul's School. Could you please tell me about your family background, your parents?
Yes, my father was from Murshidabad. Family's quite well known there.
His name was?
His name was Khondker Fazle Sobhan and he had 2 brothers, Khondker Fazle Haider and Khondker Fazle Akbar.
You mean Khondkar or Khondker?
Khondker was the family name and that's how the family is known.
He himself joined the Indian Police Service. He served in different parts of Bengal during that period and I think when I was born, I think he was perhaps S.P. of Faridpur, I think so-- I am not sure. But something like that. And he continued in the service till partition, and then he took early retirement from service and went into business and then came over to then Dhaka.
Ok, so you came along with him?
No, I didn't come along with him because I stayed over in Calcutta -
In Darjeeling?
Till 1952 to complete my Senior Cambridge in Darjeeling, at St. Paul's.
And then from there I went straight to Lahore for my Higher Cambridge School Certificate at Aitchison College in Lahore. And then from there I went to Cambridge in 1953. I only, in fact, came to Dhaka after I finished with Cambridge in 1956. I came to Dhaka in January 1957.
Where did you have your colleges and University, I mean, before Cambridge?
No, I finished my Higher Senior School Certificate at Aitchison, Lahore-- I spent 2 years there and then I went up as an undergraduate to Cambridge in October 1953. I was there till -- when -- till June 1956.
Do you remember any friends or teachers from Lahore?
Yes, I my remember teachers, and I had some friends, some of them are still there.
Ok, do you know some of them, well known or -?
Well, I suppose Aitchison was, mostly you had all these zamindars -- they were part of the ruling elite of the then West Pakistan and, of course, in fact a lot of the Aitchisonians went on to become the political leaders as well because there, the feudal classes tended to dominate politics and continue to dominate politics.
The present Prime Minister of Pakistan, in fact was an Aitchisonian-- his uncle, who was a member of the Ayub Muslim Convention League Party, was in fact my contemporary. He was couple of years junior to me.
May I ask you about your experience of 1947. In '47 you must be in your -
I was then 12 years old.
12 years old. Probably, you then may not have remembered.
No, I have memories but, in fact, none which would be, you may say politically very connected, because being in a boarding school in Darjeeling, you tended to be completely disconnected from the political events which were going around you. So even for that matter the Calcutta riots and so forth, they were going on but we were at Darjeeling.
The only way one could be conscious of riots and civil disturbance was if I happened to be at Calcutta during my vacations.
Darjeeling was not affected by the Partition?
Very little.
You led a very apolitical life even though my mother's side of the family were very -- came from the Nawab family of Dhaka, and, of course, they had very strong Muslim League connection because my mother's mamu -- to say her mother's brother -- was Khawaja Nazimuddin and Khawaja Sahibuddin. So they were very actively engaged in the politics of the Muslim League and were involved presumably in the partition movement, but I must say very little of that registered on me personally.
In '50s, early 50's you were in Lahore, for your education. Did you feel, because you were a Bengali, from India and there was a new state and new country, and what was your feeling as a student there in terms of nation-building, and was there any particular consensus among different political groups, how to go about Pakistan state and what was the memories like?
Well, we were too young to go into that, but I mean my consciousness was that the Punjabis had a very superior notion of themselves and thought of the Bengalis was as a somewhat rather inferior race, in a very remote part, and they knew very little about us. When I first went there because they knew I was a Bengali, they attempted to assert their sense of superiority but I had fairly a well-developed personality and quite a good ability to express myself so I retaliated very strongly.
And then, when they realized that I was not the person who could then be intimidated, they never made an attempt to do that again. So I never faced any personal difficulties with them but I was very conscious of the fact that they thought they were sort of superior race compared to the Bengalis and they had the mentality of a ruling class.
About that time probably the language movement was flaring up, probably you were in Lahore in '52.
I was in Lahore ate that time.
Do you feel any sense of attachment when this political movement was going on and what was the impact, the repercussion in Pakistan, what was the public -?
Very little. They knew very little about it. I knew very little about it because I was clearly disconnected from those events. I had a very little underdeveloped political consciousness even though I was then -- how old would I have been -- I would be 17 years old but I can't claim my political consciousness--
Yes, you were too young to -
Even though my grand uncle was the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin.
Yeah, that brings the interesting -
That's why, I was -- my father in fact was then came over and he was Khawaja Nazimuddin's political secretary while he was Prime Minster but my own level of political consciousness was very underdeveloped.
And did you have any memory of your grandfather, grandparent, I mean Khawaja.
Khawaja Nazimuddin? Yes, very good memory -- he was very decent.
He was from your father's side?
My mother's side. He was my mother's mama.
And he was -- in fact, because my mother's mother died at her childbirth, so he took a very strong responsibility for her upbringing and in fact was probably the main person who was responsible for arranging her marriage and her sister's marriage, so he arranged the marriage to my father, and took very close attention in her development, in her well being. And he was very good to me; in fact he was the person who was probably instrumental in my getting into Cambridge because he went to -
He went to Cambridge himself?
He went to Cambridge and his old college in Cambridge, Trinity Hall, elected him as honorary fellow when he was Prime Minister. So in fact when I applied and I had a letter of recommendation from him, this was probably a very important factor in considering my application, even though I had the academic results to qualify to be admitted, but I applied at a very late stage at that time
And in those days when these sort of letters of recommendation from people who were well-connected were very useful so I have always been very grateful to him because his letter got me into Cambridge.
Also that leads me to one place-- about the relationship between Khawaja Nazimuddin and Suhrawardy, to go a little bit about history. Did you have any idea of what was their kind of--?
Well I got later idea because my late wife was the niece of-
Salma Sobhan?
Yes, she was the niece of Suhrawardy. Her own nana was Hassan Suhrawardy, he was the former Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University
And the poet?
No, the poet was-
The cultural critic, literary critic.
That was Abdullah-, Shahid Suhrawardy, the older brother of Shaheed Suhrawardy. But Hassan Suhrawardy and Shaheed Suhrawardy and Shahid Suhrawardy were first cousins, and they were very close to each other as a family, so I came to know more about that.
But in those days, of course I had limited amount of exposure, I knew that they were rivals in Muslim League politics at that time and naturally all our impressions were from the Khawaja side of the family. I remember my father was the Political Secretary of Khawaja Nazimuddin, attempted to bring about some sort of reconciliation in 1952 between -- because the families were very well known to each other and interacted very closely with each other in those days.
But, of course, the political differences were very strong because the Awami League had emerged as the main challenger to the Muslim League. And the Muslim League, of course, then went through its own political crisis which culminated in the dismissal of Khawaja Nazimuddin by Ghulam Mohammad and Ayub Khan and Iskander Mirza, who were by then getting ready to take over the country.
This means that you were brought up in a very cultivated family, and very politically connected, as well as very culturally advanced.
In a sense it is very cultivated, highly educated family. So that makes me ask you another question: what type of intellectual environment -- I mean what type of books you were given to read, in family circle not in school.
Well, quite frankly, The Khajas were never well known for their scholarship or education.
They were politically active, but not, you may say, in an intellectual way. I suppose the best read of the Khajas at that time… Now, the intellectual environment certainly from the my parental side was never very well developed, intellectually active, or sort of vigorous. There was a lot of political conversation but not a political conversation which would in that sense be reflective of ideas. I mean a lot of the Muslim League politics of that period was driven more by prejudices rather than by any sort of deep insight or understanding of the nature of politics.
And I was myself in that sense --even though I had very good academic results -- I don't really think my full intellectual development really took off, until I went to Cambridge. I used to read, and reach much more then many of my contemporaries, but it was not in that sense politically very structured or cultivated reading, so whatever intellectual development I had until I went to Cambridge, was the average you may say sort of upper class approach to reading. In that sense my family circle didn't encourage my sort of scholastic or intellectual development.
Yeah, so let's go to Cambridge then. I understand Professor Amartya Sen, Manmohan Singh and Mahbub ul Haq, the South Asian stalwarts, were your year mates?
They were my contemporaries, well-
Department of Economics?
That's right, yes. I mean I went up to Cambridge in '53. Also did Amartya Sen, but Amartya Sen came as a graduate student from Presidency, so he did his tripos in 2 years. He came -- into the prelims of the tripos. I came in from the first year so he graduated a year ahead of me in '55 and I graduated in '56. My contemporary, I mean Mahbub-ul Haq, came in '53. He came in also with a B.A. from Government College in Lahore and so he and Amartya Sen graduated together.
And I graduated the next year-- my immediate contemporaries were Professor Jagadish Baghwati and another well known Sri Lankan economist, Dr. Lal Jayawardena; they were my immediate contemporaries. Manmohan Singh, in fact, came in 1955. He also came in with a B.A. Degree from Punjab and he graduated a year after us. So even though he is older to me in years and is closer to Amartya Sen, his age, he graduated a year after me.
So you were in a new country from the young fellows from South Asia and you were in a setting, intellectually stimulating, of course, and who were your teachers? You remember any teachers?
Yes very well. They were very famous school of teachers in Economics in those days. Mostly they were influenced by Keynesian thinking.
And the principal Keynesians of that time were Professor Joan Robinson, Sir Nicholas Kaldor, Professor R.F. Kahn, Austin Robinson, Professor Dennis Robertson. The person who I was most influenced by was Joan Robinson, because she had a much more left wing oriented perspective on Economics and she was also a very big influence on Amartya Sen. And in fact, in my last year, even though she was not from my college I sought her out and I persuaded her to become my supervisor. And so I did all my tripos supervisions with her-- I had 2 supervisors, she was one of them and so I could benefit from her thinking.
So you did your masters there, double masters?
Well in Cambridge, as you know, you automatically get a Masters after the tripos after a couple of years.
So, it was your friends are mostly, now as we are aware, that these kind of cohorts of liberal thinking and- ?
Well, in those days, of course, everyone was not in that sense active and communicative. Mahbub ul-Haq, for instance, was then very quiet and mostly engaged in his own studies. Manmohan Singh was even more quiet and rarely mixed with the community over there and concentrated entirely on his studies. The person who was very active was Amartya Sen and in a way he became active because I was then active at the Cambridge Majlis and eventually I became its president in the [unclear] of 1955-56 and I brought Amartya Sen in.
So when I was the President he was the Treasurer of the Majlis, and he then became very engaged with us, because basically people who became active in the societies were the ones who engaged in political debate and argument and moved away with just from thinking about the academic side of life over there. And so once we got involved with Majlis, then we could involve Sen and many others who were willing to be engaged with us. That is where we became politically much more active.
Amartya Sen had a very well-developed political consciousness. He came from Presidency College, he was strongly influenced in those days by certain Marxist thinking and he was much more left-wing in his orientation than he is today. And even though he has remained all very committed to distributive justice and issues of poverty and inequity; in that sense he had a much stronger, you may say, Marxist orientation to his thinking but beyond that he was enormously well-read and much more widely read than most of us and with a wide interest in history and culture.
And in that sense he also had a very fertile and creative mind. You could see from that time, that it was totally that he was good in his academic work, which was outstanding, but that he could think very creatively and he had always something interesting to say and would make you think.
How do you think do you believe that there was a kind of exposure to the exposure to South Asian version of Marxism, and then coming to the West in Cambridge-- different environment, different political environment in the immediate setting. Did you feel that there was a kind of transformation taking place in terms of way they were thinking about Marxism - was there a kind of evolution taking place in Cambridge at that time or probably took place later on?
Well, when you came, you came from your own college background. Presidency College was very oriented towards, I suppose, then the versions of Marxism which were orthodox and were associated with the developments in the Soviet Union and then in the post-Maoist revolution, the Maoist Revolution, in China. So they came with baggage of thinking which was sort of much more orthodox -- when you came to a place in Cambridge, you then came into a much more open and fluid intellectual environment, in which it was very difficult to then merely take refuge in dogma.
But also at least the party-oriented Marxist tended to be quite dogmatic at that time, and we had friends who were associated with the Communist party, but then because you were meeting with a wide variety of people-- for instance, Joan Robinson was not a conventional Marxists even though she was those progressive. On the other hand one of Amartya Sen's other teachers was Professor Morris Tom, who was member of the British Communist Party and was much more orthodox in his thinking.
But he again, because he was at Cambridge, he had very lively intellectually, fertile mind, he had a much more interesting and a broader perspective on his own thinking.
Yeah, that's great. Now coming back to you again, in terms of your return to Pakistan. When did you return?
I came back to Pakistan in October 1956, and then I had taken a decision that I would not compete for the Civil Services exam. I would not seek job in a British company. I had hoped to come back and become a teacher. So I came back and joined Dhaka University.
In Dhaka University, in 1956?
I joined Dhaka University in October '57-- I got an assignment as a Senior Lecturer in the Economics Department.
And the United Front Government was in place at that time, probably not?
No, by that time Awami League was in place. In fact actually the Awami League at that time had formed the Government at the centre. Hassan Suhrawardy was at that time the Prime Minister and Attaullah Rahman was the Chief Minister of East Pakistan.
Yeah, so two-economy theory, you tried, it occurred to your mind at that time or little later?
No, it didn't occur to me personally. When I came back I immediately joined the Economics Department and you found that a lot of discussions were going on the whole issue of exploitation and disparity in Pakistan, and the generally exploited relationship between East and West Pakistan. So I came in and became a part of that debate. My advantage was that, because I had begun to write for newspapers whereas most academic economists were not inclined to do that, and I was much more articulate in my expression and willing to speak out.
My ideas then became more widely known than others. But others made contributed to the development of the idea of two economies. Professor Nur ul Islam made contributions there, there was a Dr. Habib ul Rahman who was in the Planning Commission, he had made contributions. There had been a Professor Sadiq who had written even before any of us on these issues of disparity.
Professor Nur ul Islam was your colleague in Dhaka University?
That's right; he was then a Reader in the Economics Department. Professor Mirza Nurul Huda was then the Professor and Chairman of the Department.
Yeah, so it was not necessarily that you're looking towards Awami League at that time to subscribe to the economic debates.
Or rather when the debate was well formed, about the two economy thesis, the Awami League came up?
No, The Awami League had already begun to draw on the debates. So they had -- when they took over office in Dhaka in East Pakistan, they bought in Professor Mirza Nurul Huda and Professor Razak, Abdul Razak, to become members of the Planning Commission and then later on Professor AFA Hussein, he had been away I think in Bangkok.
But he was brought back to also become a member of the Planning Commission. So they were contributing: Professor Musharraf Hussain came after his PhD in the LSE, and I think he was a Deputy Chief Economist in the Planning Department of that time. So when I first came back, in fact, I -- because by then I had become much more politically conscious, I was involved in debates and discussions on the situation in Pakistan, when I was in Cambridge.
So one of my goals initially was to join the planning department when I saw all these people were over there, but Professor Huda, who was then one of the members of the Planning Commission, to whom I had gone to see whether he would get me in there, he persuaded me to not join the Planning Department and to in fact join the Dhaka University. And of course actually, by then I think he had gone back from the Planning Commission to become, renew his position as Chairman of the Department. So he took me in to Dhaka University. But all the time it was a very, very intellectually active environment over there where the political debates were going on all the time.
Was there any synthesis between the Planning Commission, the government, bureaucracy and kind of official economies and the political actors?
Well between the political actors-
By early 60's-
They were much more willing than listen to the economists.
Of course, the bureaucracy at that time was dominated by West Pakistanis, so most of the secretaries in the Secretariat were all the CSPs, mostly from West Pakistan. The Bengali CSP officers were then at the level of Deputy Secretary rising to become Joint Secretary in the Provincial Government. So the Awami Leaguers, when they came in, in order to try to escape from the control of the West Pakistani senior civil servants, then bought in these people and were then always, for purposes of getting their intellectual guidance and their policy guidance, were willing to listen to professionals.
When I began speaking out and I was, you know, being read in the newspapers and getting a lot of publicity whenever I spoke, even though I was only 26 or 27 years old at that time. I became known to these people-- of course then when I got married in 1962 and Suhrawardy was then the leader of the Awami League, so when we used to go to his house in Karachi and that's where I could meet a lot of the Awami Leaguers when they were coming in.
So the more I then became vocal and articulate, the more I was then listened to by the politicians, by the Awami Leaguers and by other anti-government politicians. So in 1964, for instance, when the Awami League was drawing up its manifesto for the coming elections then I was invited by Tajuddin and Bongobondhu to come and sit with them and help them to, you know, draw up their manifesto.
So that was the time when you met first Bongobondhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman?
Well, I had met Bongobondhu before that during when he used to come to meet Suhrawardy, because when Suhrawardy was there since he was my wife's uncle, we would naturally go there and then at that time we would meet Bongobondhu and all the Awami League leaders would automatically come to call on him.
So through that link, I developed. But then they also had come to know me; at least they read some of my writings, because as I said I was the one economist who wrote in the popular media. So even though I was by no means senior or even the person who had the most developed views of the subject, I was the one-
Yeah, of course.
Whose voice was heard. So-
But in terms of popular medium you were editor of Forum?
That was much later, but in the early years I used to writing regularly for the "Pakistan Observer" and then they had this "Dhaka Times" when it came out, I used to be writing over there.
And then when we established Forum only in 1969, about 2 years-
Yeah, Dr. Kamal Hossain and-
Kamal Hossain, Hameeda Hossain and myself and Zia ul Haq-- we set up Forum.
Yeah, I think that lasted for about 2 years.
2 years, it was closed down by the Tikka Khan regime in March 1971.
By '60, by the mid 60's, did you have a sense that the Awami League was kind of thinking about Independence? Probably not.
Well no, by then they were still -- the debate was still being concentrated on regional autonomy.
The basic argument which I had given in a widely publicized lecture on two economies in 1961, October had made the point unless-
You made that at Dhaka?
No, I gave that at Lahore, even though then it was martial law.
How was it taken?
It was then, as I said the Pakistanis got very alarmed and they took me very seriously because they thought I was an old man, an elder, senior economist. They did not know I was only 26 years old. And they had never heard of me. And this was given headlines in all the newspapers when I made the presentation.
Our main argument then was that unless you gave complete autonomy to East Pakistan, this may lead to the breakup of Pakistan. So when you attempt to treat the country as integrated economic entity, you would to create a long term political crisis-- this was the centre of my thesis. And so we continued then to point out the nature of the exploitation. The students by then had become very attentitive; Rashed Khan Menon was my student. And all the people who were politically involved at that time, they would come and get ideas from some of us teachers, who were more vocal and articulate.
So some of your students have now become left-wing politicians, have grown left-wing politicians.
Some of them have become, some of them were -- as I said Farashudin $[name unclear - 13:36] was then the President of -
Daksu? $[name unclear - 13:42]
No, he was the President of Salimul Lahore $[unclear - 13:48], that's right. But they were all Chhatra Union boys at that time.
Yeah, all kind of Marxist.
Yes, that's right
What was your view of the Chinese forms of pro-Chinese left like Bhashani. Bhashani was also already saying, "As-Salamu Alaykum" to the Pakistanis.
No, but at that time the division of -- you see, we had set up, Kamal Hossain, myself, Professor Musharraf Hossain, early in 1961-62, we had set up a think tank called "National Association of Social and Economic Progress" to try and get into body of ideas and policies which could be used by the politicians.
Actually one of the, one of the few think tanks in Pakistan then.
At that time, it was then. We were then bringing in the "Buddi Jibis" from discussing different policy issues. So within our discussion groups we found that division was emerging between the pro-Peking and the pro-Moscow elements over there. Anwar Zahid used to come but then he was becoming associated with the Bhashani group and then others like Ahmad ul Rahman, Mouidul Hassan and others remained with the Muzaffar [unclear].
So these divisions were really emerging in that time. The Maoists of course then took the wrong turning in their politics because they believed that the Awami League was a reactionary party and it is reported that Mao Zedong, when Maulana Bhashani went to China, they told him that they should treat Ayub Khan's government as a anti-imperialist force. So we were very critical of those positions and since we were at that time were strongly identified with the nationalistic cause and the six points by then had been quoted on the table, we saw the Awami League emerging as the most vocal expression of the democratic opinion in the country.
So, we wanted all the forces to come together but the pro-China element of the Bhashani group, even though I mean they were talking the language of "As-Salamu Alaykum" but their politics was very different at that time. And, of course, we knew all of them. I met Mateel $[name unclear - 16:45], andI met Salauddin and I had met Abdul Haq and I met [unclear] and Badruddin Umar was very close to us. So these were all people who we were interacting with at that time, and we had our agreements and we had our disagreements.
Yeah. And then the six point then led to further political ramifications?
Well the 6 points, of course, was the main expression of the emergence of the whole independence movement, but it was a demand for autonomy. And, in fact, when the movement against Ayub Khan started and eventually after the big public mobilization, Bongobondhu was released.
By that time the 11-point program had also come in, because the left-wing elements who had become associated with the struggle, wanted their progressive points to be put into that agenda. So when they, of course, when they went to Rawalpindi for the round table conference, the main issue was autonomy and 6 points because the main issue on the table at that time. When they were -- Ayub Khan and the other political parties of West Pakistan were not willing to accept it then eventually this led to Ayub saying, "All right, I can't handle the situation," and he handed over the power to Yahya.
So Yahya had I think come to an understanding, prior to taking over, with Bhutto and Bongobondhu that all right I will give elections. He hoped that the political process would lead to a hung parliament, which would mean that Bongobondhu would make accommodations with them and he thought that he was like any other Bengali politician-- he will be willing to compromise and be bought off with the offer of power. But all sorts of forces had been unleashed, we had been ready.
After, in fact, Bongobondhu was released and Ayub Khan regime had been replaced by Yahya's -- open politics was restored -- and then we became very closely involved with Bongobondhu. Nur ul Islam and Anisur Rahman and myself and Kamal Hossain, we then were interacting with him very closely. I contributed to writing speeches, we were sitting with Bongobondhu and Tajuddin working on policies. We drafted the election manifesto of the Awami League, around which they fought the election at that time.
And after we had won the election, then we had very intensive discussions with the entire leadership on the constitutional draft which would be tabled and which was to incorporate all the demands, all the mandates of the 6 points. So, all these required very intensive political discussions.
And you were one of the discussants in the negotiations with the Pakistani generals?
That's right. Well, we were at the background. The persons who directly conducted the negotiations were Tajuddin, Nasrul Islam and Kamal Hossain. But we were sitting with them, arguing the different issues, because points and counter-points were being put. We were having constant sittings with the leadership on what could be accepted and what could not. But the situation was then being determined on the ground because by then Bongobondhu had launched his non-cooperation movement, he had taken over the Government, and he was effectively now the running the Government of an independent country.
So the negotiation was mostly revolving around 6 points demands?
Well it was more than that, because I think by then, even 6 points had been superseded. So there been a 4-point agenda about the withdrawal of the army and the handing over full power and responsibility to Bongobondhu and his party. And then the convening of the constituent assembly where then the future shape of the constitution would be determined at that time.
So they were more or less making a assertion that we are effectively now already sovereign, and you come and negotiate with us as a sovereign force in this region.
In these debates, the ideological discussions on secularism or what kind of ideological basis on which Bangladesh will stand - did that crop up at that time?
Well I think the whole issue of secularism was not formalized, because at that time the whole lot of politics of the Awami League in the '60s was built around the notion that religion was being used as an political instrument to frustrate the realization of democracy and autonomy. And it was a camouflage by the ruling class of Pakistan, who had no strong religious faith anyway; they just used these slogans. So they developed a secular consciousness because their experience taught them that religion was -- the way in which religion was used for purely instrumental reasons by politicians themselves, who had no real religious faith of their own.
So they they didn't want politics to be made into a variable and they were constantly making this point. But that was still the pre-genocide period because the bringing in of secularism into the constitution was then the follow up on the fact that in the name of religion, you could then massacre large numbers of your co-religionists, not just the minorities, but Muslims as well, and this would all be done in the name of religion.
So the whole political consciousness of post-liberation politics and constitution-making was shaped by the experience of the abuse of religion and politics. And the idea was that you wanted to make sure that this would not happen in an independent Bangladesh. But unfortunately was not the case because after the assassination of Bongobondhu, they once again started playing the fool with religion and all sorts of people with no real religious commitment at all, were willing to collaborate with these fundamentalist parties and use religious slogans in order to cover up their anti-democratic agenda.
Sure, thank you for now.