By Taj Hashmi
February 16, 2015
Enough has already been written, discussed and debated on the ongoing political crisis in Bangladesh, especially with regard to the usefulness of a meaningful dialogue between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia to resolve the crisis, albeit in the short term. However, all the unsolicited advice seems to have gone down the Buriganga, which is also as polluted as Bangladesh politics.
As I have argued through this column, unrestrained political violence could be a prelude to full-blown terrorism, so has the International Crisis Group registered similar apprehensions about Bangladesh:
[T]he political crisis is fast approaching the point of no return and could gravely destabilise Bangladesh unless the sides move urgently to reduce tensions…. Both parties [AL and BNP] would be best served by changing course….Violent Islamist factions are already reviving ….While jihadi forces see both parties as the main hurdle to the establishment of an Islamic order, the AL and the BNP perceive each other as the main adversary.
AL leaders and senior police and Rab officials in Bangladesh (the differences between politicians and public servants seem to have disappeared totally) have publicly stated that the present crisis would be resolved on the street, not through any dialogue. Senior AL leader Amir Hussain Amu believes that since the government is in a “strong position,” there is no need to have any dialogue with the opposition. What other ministers and law enforcers have already said in public in this regard, better not be reproduced here. The DIG police of Dhaka Range has not only asked for shooting saboteurs, but also for “destroying their families”! The irresponsible comments—that entail “OMG (Oh My God!) Moments”—are abhorrently disturbing.
It's time to appraise the turbulent situation in Bangladesh in terms of historical sociology. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh came into being in absolute haste (thanks to the stubbornness of West Pakistani leaders and military), almost without any plan or preparation on the part of the would-be founders. The cumulative effects of the unprecedented brutal killing, rape and torture of tens of thousands of unarmed Bengali civilians by Pakistani troops and their local collaborators, and the destruction of the administrative, business, communication, and industrial infrastructure— during the Liberation War—were simply overpowering for Bangladesh. While thousands of highly educated and well-trained Bengali civil and military officials were stranded in Pakistan (up to 1974), the acute shortage of trained manpower in the public and private sectors in the country further aggravated the situation.
The newly independent country also lacked a powerful middle class, professionals, teachers and entrepreneurs. Highly ambitious, corrupt and incompetent political activists and “freedom fighters”—mostly the pseudo ones, who proliferated after the Liberation—took full advantage of the situation. Strong patron-client-relationship (prevalent in peasant economies), nepotism and favouritism soon infected politics, civil administration, and the nationalised industrial and business sectors. The absence of powerful middle class—and middle class/urban values—and the proliferation of mass-based rural, small town culture of the petty/lumpen bourgeois and lumpen proletariat classes transformed the Bangladesh society into a “Mass Society,” as the late Berkeley sociologist William Kornhauser (1925-2004) used and elaborated the expression.
During the first decade of independence, the country went through several rounds of military takeovers, killing of national leaders and reckless use of political Islam, which simply violated the core principles of state ideology and literally, the “Spirit of Liberation” (in the academic and objective sense of the expression). The widening gap between the rich and the poor, due to the institutionalised corruption through state enterprises, banks, NGO-business, garment factories, bribery, tax evasion, and extortion has posed the biggest security threat to the country. On the one hand, people have become apathetic to politics; and on the other, have accepted corruption as a way of life. Under-employed and unemployed men have swelled the ranks of “armed cadres” or political thugs maintained by local patrons, who are again clients to their patrons at the higher level. The network of the patron-client hierarchy in the country deserves separate discussions and study.
The “Mass Society” of Bangladesh is more of a gemeinschaft or rural community than a gesellschaft or urban society, as German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies (1855-1936) has elaborated the concept. A gemeinschaft promotes “pre-political” culture of violence, anarchy and fatalism, where people don't trust and respect each other; they are primarily factious—only rely on their faction chiefs or patrons—and love to fight members of rival factions (often their neighbours) on phony issues, rumours, and conspiracy theories.
No wonder, flimsy issues and problems seem to be more important than corruption and unaccountability of the ruling elites (irrespective of which party is in power), and the continued violations of the Constitution and the state ideology. The unconstitutional removal of “Secularism” as one of the state-principles without a country-wide referendum; and the introduction of the bizarre and creepy concept of “state religion” (Islam as the “state religion”) by the illegitimate government of General Ershad, may be mentioned in this regard.
As mentioned above, Bangladesh society fits in well into Kornhauser's “Mass Society”, where “widespread readiness to abandon constitutional modes of political activity in favour of uncontrolled mass action” is the norm. Masses are not necessarily working class people, but not integrated to the state or ruling elites, either. Mass societies emerge in the wake of revolutionary movements, such as the French and Russian revolutions, and the fascist/Nazi takeovers of Italy and Germany. Post-revolutionary mass societies also supplant traditional elites, and are subject to “totalitarian elite” manipulation at the cost of democracy and pluralism.
Mass societies represent populist views of the “crowds,” who are “only powerful for destruction;” and defend collective incompetence of the masses. Mass societies do not evolve out of class struggles; and are fractured, atomised and bureaucratic. Most importantly, in mass societies, masses mobilise elites; it is not the other way around. Sections of intellectuals having soft corner for anti-elitist destructive crowds promote mass societies. Rapid influx of people in newly developed urban areas invites mass movements; and sudden rise in the levels of poverty or prosperity are other contributing factors to mass societies. According to Kornhauser, a society experiencing youth bulge—when more than half of the population is in the 18-40 age group—and rise in “religious extremism rather than political extremism is fully compatible with mass theory.” Followers of populist mass-based and Islamist parties have more resemblances to members of mass societies than parties led by slightly more elitist and aristocratic leaders.
Mostly criminal elements, people with no known source of income, are the new patrons in the arena of politics. And since winning elections at any level—local municipalities or the parliament—pays rich dividends, elections have replaced the share market for investment. The apathetic and marginalised middle classes hardly take part in elections, either as voters or as candidates. Thus, half-educated people with dubious character get elected through manipulation and, literally, buying of votes of urban squatters, lumpen elements, and rural hoi polloi.
This is, however, not unique to Bangladesh. Post-colonial states go through cycles of hope, high optimism and euphoria followed by disappointment and pessimism. Bangladesh's African counterparts went through similar fluctuating cycles in the 1960s. It is noteworthy that while post-colonial African states are gradually changing, emerging out of long-lasting ethno-national conflicts (excepting Mali, Chad, Libya and Nigeria) of the 1960s-2000s -- Africa is no longer a place of “forever wars”—unfortunately, Bangladesh is fast going the “Africa way,” as it was till the recent past. However, the process is still reversible. Leaders at every level of society must act now.
Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.