By Taj Hashmi
October 19, 2017
While democracy has become problematic in several countries, on 5th January 2014, Bangladesh crossed the threshold of “illiberal democracy” to enter the domain of “authoritarian dynastic democracy” under Indian tutelage. The symptoms of the disease called “Orwellian State” are already visible here. The fictional Big Brother of Nineteen Eighty-Four is already breathing on the neck of Bangladesh, from across the border. The growing influence and power of India, which wants to turn the country into a subservient entity, devoid of freedom and democracy, is the biggest security threat for Bangladesh, since its inception in 1971.
In the postcolonial world, democracy, development, and freedom go hand in hand; each of them needs the other two to sustain. At the end of the day, there’s no room for any complacency or indifference/disinterest about politics, more so in a Third World country like Bangladesh. Democracy or fully accountable governance, not “benevolent dictatorship” (there has never been one in history), is the panacea for all evils everywhere, including Bangladesh. Those who think democracy is out and out an alien concept; suitable only for rich and literate societies; and not possible in the “East of Suez” as Churchill emphasised with all the arrogance of an imperialist, are wrong.
We may cite famous anthropologist Mancur Olson, who believes that democracy is as natural as human instinct. He thinks “forms of proto-democracy … date back to small bands of hunter gatherers that predate the establishment of agrarian, settled, societies and still exist virtually unchanged in isolated indigenous groups today…. democracy in one form or another arises naturally in any well-bonded group or tribe” [“Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 87, No. 3 Sep., 1993]. So, it’s time not to listen to apologists for civil or military dictatorship, “authoritarian democracy”, or “dynastic democracy”, anywhere, including Bangladesh. Last but not least, although political and business elites in Bangladesh have mostly been vacillating, unscrupulous, and opportunistic, but the ordinary masses and members of the fast disappearing middle classes are still committed to democracy, and the rule of law. Thus, this discussion on declining democracy and elite apathy isn’t futile.
The way ordinary Bangladeshis still despise criminals, especially under political patronage from above, and ridicule those who sided with autocrats like generals Ershad and Moin, there’s still hope for re-generation of the under-privileged classes. They aren’t indifferent to the world around, they’re not in the state of any pathetic contentment, resigned to their miserable fate. They lack leadership. It’s an old problem everywhere for peasants and ordinary masses. As Marx has put it, they need outsiders to lead them. And I believe, when they trust outsiders who lead them, they perform miracles, together.
As Philip Kotler has argued in his latest book, Democracy in Decline (Sage, 2017), democracy is faltering in the US, and elsewhere in West Europe. It’s needless to say democracy in Bangladesh is going through its most difficult phase since the overthrow of dictator Ershad in 1990. Too much money has entered the arena of politics, and billionaires and corporations now virtually run governments in large democracies, for the benefit of the proverbial one per cent. In America one per cent of the population control more than 40 per cent of national wealth. One study revealed in 2014, the average employee in the US “needs to work more than a month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour.” The Indian “one per cent” owns 58 per cent of national wealth; while the situation in Bangladesh isn’t any better.
As President George Bush Sr.’s “New World Order” is said to have begun with the end of communism in Europe, and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War in 1991, American professor Francis Fukuyama wrote a book, The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, which was an expansion of his 1989 essay “The End of History?”. He asserted that Western liberal democracy would be the ultimate destination of humankind in the 21st century. However, we know democracy is in decline. While Donald Trump wants to make America “great again” by promoting the interests of the superrich Americans, some West European countries are gradually transforming themselves into ultra-nationalist nation states. Austria recently elected an ultra-conservative People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurtz as President, who’s an ally of neo-Nazi Freedom Party.
What we learn from Bush Sr.’s political braggadocio, and Fukuyama’s sophomoric academic exercise is that powerbrokers in the East or West never shy away from telling half-truths in praise of democracy to legitimise elite hegemony within the perimeter of countries, or far beyond in the international sphere. Bangladesh is a victim of both external and internal propagandas that legitimise elected, unelected, and fraudulently elected regimes for the benefit of the big and powerful “one per cent”.
As one’s not sure what’s going to happen to liberal democracy in the World, so one has every reason to worry about the fate of democracy (liberal or illiberal) in Bangladesh – which somehow survived there for 16 years from the election of Khaleda Zia as the Prime Minister in 1991 – following the overthrow of dictator Ershad – to the military takeover by General Moin U. Ahmed on 11th January 2007. Prior to 1991, Bangladesh experienced very little democracy in its formative years up to 1975-1976, and afterwards, there was multi-party democracy under Ziaur Rahman from April 1977 to May 1981.
Although officially Bangladesh is under an elected government, elections alone doesn’t guarantee flawless democracy. We know Hitler came to power through an election. There are multiple questions about the legitimacy of the two successive rounds of elections in the country, in 2008 and 2014. In view of what we learnt soon after the 2008 “elections”, there’s no reason to believe it was free and fair; it was rigged from the very inception of the military takeover of 2007, which came to power with the sole purpose of turning Bangladesh into an Indian satellite. And any neutral person having some ideas about democracy and elections knows well what happened in January 2014 was anything but an election. It was at best “farcical”, and at worst a thoroughly illegitimate exercise of power game by India in collusion with its local surrogates to perpetuate its hegemony in Bangladesh.
For the overwhelming majority of East Bengalis in March 1971, establishing the popular will of the people or democracy was the main rationale behind their demand for independent Bangladesh. Had General Yahya Khan respected democracy by transferring power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the majority party Awami League, there would have been no Bangladesh, definitely not in 1971. However, Bangladesh has enjoyed very little democracy since emergence, even under elected civilian governments. The country under charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had the aura of unchallenged power, authority, influence, and legitimacy, was under patriarchy, not democracy.
In a nutshell, the whole political system that came into being in Bangladesh in January 1972 under Prime Minister Mujib’s supervision – rather command and control – was patriarchal, unaccountable, and undemocratic by nature. The first government of post-independence Bangladesh shelved the practice and spirit of democracy, which the successive regimes – possibly with the exception of Ziaur Rahman’s – have been blindly following since 1972. The whole system of governance, including the way the Parliament evolved in 1971 and continued after independence, and the way the Constitution was framed, were problematic. There’s no denying that the situation was something unprecedented and extraordinary due to the short and bloody Liberation War, yet Awami League leaders should have respected certain legal principles in the formation of the Parliament. Even the Constituent Assembly that framed the Constitution of the country, wasn’t free from controversies.
Firstly, the 160 members of the new constituent assembly of Bangladesh – from the Awami League party – who after the enactment of the Constitution, became the members of the Parliament, didn’t have the mandate to legislate any law in Bangladesh Parliament, let alone frame a constitution for the country. In December 1970, they were elected as members of the National Assembly (MNA) of Pakistan, which they participated on the basis of the Legal Framework Order (LFO) issued by President Yahya Khan of Pakistan. The MNAs from East Pakistan also had to agree (in writing) to abide by the LFO, to formulate a constitution – in 120 days – for Pakistan, which would be in accordance with the spirit and ideology of Islam. Secondly, the rest of the legislators were members of the erstwhile Provincial Assembly of East Pakistan (MPAs), who very similar to the Bengali MNAs were also inducted into the new Constituent Assembly of Bangladesh. Surprisingly, the MPAs having no mandate from the people to frame any constitution for any country, also sat in the National Assembly, and took part in the formulation of the Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972.
The first Parliamentary Elections of independent Bangladesh in 1973 were not free from controversies. There were wide allegations of fraudulent polling, and organized rigging of the election results by the ruling party. To their utter surprise and dismay, many voters discovered at polling stations that their votes had already been cast! Ghost-voting simply made democracy a joke, and tarnished the image of the Government, in Bangladesh. This writer as a lecturer witnessed the blatant hijacking of ballot boxes at gun point at the student union elections at Dhaka University in 1973, presumably by pro-Government students or hoodlums, as pro-Government Student League candidates were trailing behind opposition candidates.
Not long after his ascendancy to power in early 1972, there was a rapid erosion in the base of Mujib’s popularity, and the system he ran became corrosive. So much so that in early 1975, he discarded the concept of multi-party democracy and opted for one-party dictatorship in the name of socialism, under the influence of the pro-Moscow Communist party of Bangladesh. Meanwhile, police, ruling party supporters, and troops of the para-military Rakkhi Bahini killed 20 to 30 thousand opposition activists – mostly supporters of the nouveau-left JSD, which emerged out of the Awami League, and underground activists of the communist Sarbahara Party of Siraj Sikdar. In January 1975, Sikdar got killed in police custody. And the Government lied about the whole thing, right and left! He was the first prominent victim of extra-judicial killing, aka “cross-fire”, in Bangladesh.
While more democracy could have saved his quasi-democratic rule, Mujib in early 1975 stopped the democratic experiment unceremoniously, and opted for one-party dictatorship. His one-party rule under the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) struck the last nail into the coffin of budding democracy in Bangladesh. Mujib’s surrogates and cronies – who he publicly despised as Chatar Dal or the horde of corrupt sycophants – seemed to have staged a silent “civilian coup” against him, by somehow convincing him about the efficacy of the Soviet-style one-party rule in the name of BAKSAL or peasants’ and workers’ democracy. On 24th February 1975, Sheikh Mujib made the BAKSAL pronouncement in the name of the so-called Second Revolution or Ditiyo Biplab, which was a mouthful of rhetoric signifying nothing but dictatorship. Meanwhile, on 25th January 1975, Mujib declared on the floors of the Parliament, in his atypical authoritarian, narcissist manner – which was extremely unbecoming for a democratic ruler – about the impending Fourth Amendment of the Bangladesh Constitution. The Amendment was made in minutes, without any discussion, let alone any debate.
This signalled the end of parliamentary democracy, or whatever had existed in the name of democracy in Bangladesh. While BAKSAL became the only lawful political party, all other political parties just ceased to exist in the name of peasants’ and workers’ democracy. Mujib became the President of the Republic. All newspapers ceased to exist except two Bengali and two English dailies, under heavy censorship. While press freedom was gone, leading journalists formally joined the BAKSAL party, university teachers, bureaucrats, police, and even military officers were forced to join the State Party, which was committed to establish state socialism or another institution of economic unaccountability, nepotism and favouritism, and state-sponsored corruption and plunder of national wealth.
BAKSAL was a political front of the ruling Awami League party along with its so-called coalition partners, the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) under “Comrade” Moni Singh, and the National Awami Party (NAP) of “Professor” Muzaffar Ahmed, and the Jatiyo League (National League) of Ataur Rahman Khan. While the CPB and NAP were pro-Moscow by ideology and pro-Indian by expediency, the Jatiya League was an “one-man show”. Ataur Rahman Khan was a former Awami League Chief Minister of East Pakistan in 1956-1958. Having no ideological commitment or loyalty to any lofty ideals, Khan later joined the corrupt military dictator General Ershad as his “Prime Minister”. It’s noteworthy that till his taking the oath as Ershad’s Prime Minister, he was the convener of a seven-party anti-Ershad alliance aimed at restoring democracy in Bangladesh. Several other politicians – from the Left and Right – who also wanted the “restoration of democracy” joined Ershad. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has too many uncommitted opportunists, who are also very corrupt in the extreme sense of the expression, for any smooth transition to democracy or accountable governance.
Meanwhile, various internal and external factors almost totally detached Sheikh Mujib from the grassroots. By 1974, especially after the Famine, his popularity dropped like anything. His lopsided “socialism”, which bred corruption, inefficiency, and bad governance; and his imprudent foreign policy of putting all the eggs into the Indo-Soviet basket were the main factors behind his fall. The most popular and beloved leader Bangladeshis ever had – his popularity was at its peak during 1966 and 1972 – died almost unlamented in August 1975. Moments after his brutal death at the hands of some Army officers, top Awami League leaders – who were behind the military-backed Mushtaq Government – and ordinary supporters of the Party were too embarrassed to identify themselves with Awami League. Barring five, all of Mujib’s Cabinet Members joined the military-backed Mushtaq government.
Mujib’s death followed several coups and counter-coups, and finally General Ziaur Rahman – a valiant, gallantry award recipient freedom fighter, who on 27th March 1971, first officially declared the Independence of Bangladesh on radio, on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – became the Chief Martial Law Administrator, and eventually the President of Bangladesh. It is strange but true, General Zia was far more democratic, civil, honest, and nationalist than all his predecessors and successors, so far. While Sheikh Mujib’s introduction of BAKSAL signalled the beginning of one-party dictatorship, Ziaur Rahman re-introduced multi-party democracy in Bangladesh. Recently, the Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda affirmed this in a public statement. Paradoxically, the country enjoyed more freedom and democracy under the presidency of General Ziaur Rahman than under any civilian ruler, before and after his short tenure as President, from 21st April 1977 to 30th May 1981.
On 30th May 1981, Zia got killed at the hands of some Army officers, who staged a short-lived military takeover, presumably under General Manzur. However, circumstantial evidences suggest Zia’s Army Chief, General Hossain Mohammad Ershad orchestrated the killing and the “abortive coup”, from behind the curtain. Soon after the election of Justice Abdus Sattar as the new President in November 1981, on 24th March 1982, Ershad formally staged a military takeover with the flimsiest excuses, and ran one of the most corrupt regimes in the world, almost for nine years, which is comparable with Suharto’s and Marcos’s corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
Ershad was not only personally corrupt, but he also destroyed the social fabric of Bangladesh at every layer of society. If one single individual is to be singled out for the absolute degeneration and immorality of the nation of Bangladesh, then one has to name this General. Very similar to some other military dictators, Ershad also held a so-called Parliamentary Elections in 1986, and a handful of political opportunists, and Sheikh Hasina participated in the farcical elections to put a stamp of legitimacy on Ershad’s quasi-military autocracy, albeit to the detriment of democracy in Bangladesh.
Another controversial politician of Bangladesh, ASM Abdur Rab, who was a student leader at Dhaka University on the eve of the Liberation War, and who once opposed the not-so-democratic regime of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the Secretary of “leftist” National Socialist Party (JSD), also legitimized the illegitimate Ershad regime by participating in the farcical parliamentary elections in 1986. He became the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament. Witty Bangladeshis still remember him as Ershad’s “Domesticated Opposition Leader” (Grihopalito Birodhi Dal Neta). Average Bangladeshis’ aversion to people like Rab is a silver lining of the dark cloud of autocracy. It seems, not people but their leaders are opportunistic, having no qualms about being sold to autocrats, to the detriment of democracy. Scores of prominent politicians joined Ershad’s cabinet and served him loyally.
The following names may be mentioned in this regard: Ataur Rahman Khan, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, Moudud Ahmed, and Kazi Zafar Ahmed served the dictator as his Prime Minster; Barrister Anisul Islam Mahmud was in-charge of the Foreign Affairs; and University of Toronto Professor Wahidul Haque was in-charge of the Ministry of Finance. They and scores of other prominent people had no qualms about serving him an illegitimate and corrupt rule.
Let’s look at the events that followed Ershad’s unceremonious departure from power, following a mass upsurge in December 1990. Ershad had to nominate the Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed as the interim President of a caretaker government to hold the next parliamentary elections in 1991. Despite lots of speculation, Khaleda Zia – widow and political successor of Zia – got the majority of seats in the Parliament, and formed the BNP-led government to the utter dismay and frustration of Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League. The 1991 elections signalled something very ominous for democracy in Bangladesh. Hasina not only refused to concede defeat at the polls, but she also publicly declared that since there had been a “subtle rigging” in the Elections in favour of Khaleda and her party, she wouldn’t allow Khaleda to have any smooth sailing or mental peace for a day. She also blamed President Shahabuddin, the Chief Election Commissioner, and others involved in the holding of the polls as biased, corrupt, and totally untrustworthy.
This further accentuated the polarization of the polity of Bangladesh, which since the 1991 elections is divided into two camps of sworn enemies, who seem determined not to accept the other party as legitimate, patriotic, and hence worth any political support. To Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League is the main – if not the only – patriotic and “pro-Liberation” party in Bangladesh, while the BNP and other Islam-oriented parties are “anti-Liberation” and Pakistani agents. The BNP and its allies consider the Awami League and its allies “pro-Indian”, anti-Bangladesh, and anti-Islamic. Leaders belonging to these rival camps frequently call names, and hurl extremely derogatory epithets – such as “thieves”, “looters” and “killers” – at each other.
Sheikh Hasina was true to her words. She didn’t lend any support to the BNP Government. And on the premise of alleged rigging at a by-election at Magura (in southwest Bangladesh) in March 1994, the Awami League along with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party started a vitriolic campaign against the BNP Government. Sporadic clashes between BNP and Awami League supporters were followed by massive general strikes. Some pro-Awami League civil servants under the leadership of Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir crossed all limits and taboos by openly joining the bandwagon of “Janatar Mancha” (people’s platform) to remove BNP and Khaleda from power. Awami league boycotted the polls of 1996, and forced Khaleda Zia to hold another round of polls under a “neutral” caretaker government, manned by members of the civil society. The second round of polls in 1996 led to the victory of Awami league, and Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister.
So far so good! Then after another five years, another round of elections under another caretaker government took place in 2001, and to the dismay of Sheikh Hasina and her party, Khaleda Zia became the Prime Minister for the second time. Hasina again imputed her defeat to the “biased” caretaker government and the Election Commission. Another round of five-year-long vitriolic campaigns against the BNP and its allies by the Awami League was followed not by another round of elections in 2006, but eventually by a military takeover in early 2007.
Soon after President Iajuddin Ahmed had decided to head the caretaker government instead of appointing a “neutral” person (there was no constitutional prohibition against the President’s becoming the chief executive of the Caretaker Government), the Awami league and its allies came out on the street, and the country almost reached the threshold of a civil war. The pitch street battles between BNP-Jamaat and Awami League supporters was followed by another military takeover on 11th January 2007 under General Moin U. Ahmed. What followed the “unique” coup d’état of 2007, also known as “1/11” in popular parlance in Bangladesh – which Sheikh Hasina publicly welcomed as the outcome of her anti-BNP movement, “Amader Andoloner Phoshol” (“a yield or harvest of our movement”) – was the installation of Hasina as the PM for the second time in 2008. If her becoming the PM was a victory for democracy is an open-ended question. She assured the Moin/Fakhruddin regime that once elected to power, she would legitimise the illegal takeover and all actions taken by the military-backed regime.
Seemingly, the so-called elections of 2008 was a pre-arranged game to bring back Awami League to power, through the backdoor. Late Abdul Jalil, who was Awami League’s Secretary-General at that time, publicly confessed that Awami League victory had been the outcome of a “deal” between his party and General Moin. No wonder, despite her being incarcerated by General Moin after his takeover in 2007, after becoming the PM, Sheikh Hasina retained him as the Army Chief till his retirement in late 2009! So much for the neutrality of the Army-led caretaker government! In hindsight, it appears that the military takeover in 2007 and the so-called 2008 elections were all parts of the “great game” India is playing in South Asia to emerge as the Big Brother across the region. Let’s find out if Bangladesh today is an “authoritarian dynastic democracy”; and/or a bad example of “illiberal democracy” under Indian hegemony!
What followed the 2008 “elections” was even more surprising. In June 2011, Sheikh Hasina abruptly amended the Caretaker Government Act of 1996 through the 15th Amendment of the Constitution. It came as a shock, because it was Sheikh Hasina (along with her political ally Jamaat-e-Islami’s Moti ur Rahman Nizami) who in 1994-1996 had championed the cause of caretaker government. Nizami and Hasina, among others, had demanded the provision of having a neutral caretaker government in the Constitution, to hold all parliamentary elections in the country subsequently, for the sake of free, fair, and credible elections.
What was even more shocking that Chief Justice ABM Khairul Haque, who had delivered a brief judgment cancelling the 13th amendment to the Constitution (that provided the caretaker system) on 17th May 2011 – a week before his retirement – revised the judgment 16 months after his retirement in September 2012. It wasn’t only unethical, and a politically motivated judgment, but it was also grossly illegal. A retired judge is simply a retired judge, can’t right any judgment in retirement, retrospectively. Sadly, what’s unethical, politically motivated, and illegal have got the stamp of legitimacy in Bangladesh. The state of lawlessness has destroyed all institutions of governance – in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. The country is on the verge of a total chaos and anarchy, where democracy has virtually ceased to exist, even in the rudimentary sense of the expression. The biggest challenge Bangladesh will face eventually will be in the area of re-building the institutions, destroyed ruthlessly by civil and military, authoritarian and illegitimate regimes since 1972.
The unconstitutional abolition of the provision for caretaker government with the help of a compliant retired justice has posed the biggest threat to democracy and the rule of law in Bangladesh. We know the BNP and other major political parties boycotted the parliamentary elections held arbitrarily on 5th January 2014 by the Awami League-led Government. And this has eroded the present regime’s legitimacy; and democracy is virtually dead in present Bangladesh. It’s time the present regime pay heed to what intellectuals, professionals, the main opposition parties, ordinary masses, and the world at large think about the voter-less elections of 2014. The Government should have respected the legal opinion of the majority members of amici curiae in Banglaesh, who wanted the continuation of the caretaker system for free and fair elections in the country [Daily Star, May 11, 2011]. A research conducted by Centre for Strategic Research (CSR) under the auspices of Daily Star, found, around 67% people did not support the cancellation of the neutral caretaker government and believed that election under partisan government would not be free and acceptable to all [Daily Star, January 04, 2013].
After major political parties, including Ershad’s Jatiya Party, had decided to boycott the poll, scheduled to be held on 5th January 2014, we noticed something hitherto unheard of happening, which not only coerced Ershad into submission to participate in the election, but another faction of his party under his first wife Rowshan Ershad emerged as the main opposition party in the Parliament. While Ershad was at the Combined Military Hospital for “treatment”, Sheikh Hasina’s External Affairs Adviser Gowher Rizvi went to see him along with his family. India’s Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh came all the way to Dhaka and met Ershad. Rizvi’s and Singh’s meetings worked like magic. Ershad agreed to take part in the polls, and was declared elected, uncontested. While Ershad got the position of a roving ambassador with the rank of a minister, several party members got ministerial positions in the Hasina cabinet. Simultaneously some members of the Jatiya Party sat in the Opposition Bench. Meanwhile, 153 pro-Hasina candidates got “elected uncontested” in the backdrop of a successful poll boycott by political parties and individuals who were opposed to holding the so-called elections.
It was a case of sheer political blackmailing, and an underhand deal by the ruling party. Ershad had to agree with the ruling party, which otherwise would re-open the “closed files” to try him on various charges of wrongdoing during his illegitimate rule. Although the episode – full of drama, lies, and deception – is a blot on the institution of democracy in Bangladesh. It was an unthinkable, grossly indecent, and a shameful act to disgrace the most shameless people in the world, but Sheikh Hasina, her so-called ministers, advisers, MPs, and Awami League supporters in general remained unperturbed, as if nothing happened to worry about, or to be ashamed of collectively, and individually. Last but not least, the Awami League Government under Hasina not only put hundreds of politicians, outspoken journalists, and intellectuals behind bars for long to not-so-long periods, but it also used police, RAB, and party workers/hoodlums to break opposition party meetings, which remind us of what Hitler’s armed “volunteers” used to do to opposition leaders and their supporters in the 1930s, before he was well-entrenched in power. The Awami Government dumped truckloads of sand in front of BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia’s residence, so that she could not go out to address a rally, days before the farcical 5th January elections in 2014. These acts are anything but in accordance with the principles of democracy, even of the “illiberal” variant.
However, every cloud has a silver lining beneath. Not a single independent candidate or “rebel candidate” or defector from political parties, which decided to boycott the polls, took part in 153 out of 300 constituencies to legitimise the farcical elections of January 2014. The successful boycott of the polls in most constituencies indicates one thing, most Bangladeshis didn’t legitimise the so-called parliamentary elections, held without a caretaker government. Most Bangladeshis believe polls without a caretaker government are likely to be rigged in favour of the ruling parties.
The fallout from the farcical January 2014 elections is still around; it’s not over till it’s over. The ongoing political circus over the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Bangladesh tells a thousand tales about the Government’s lack of confidence about its own legitimacy, because it’s well-aware that most Bangladeshis know the way 153 out of the total 300 MPs were declared “uncontested winners” in 2014, as nobody contested them in the farcical polls, held without a caretaker government. The Government also knows the way it scrapped the Caretaker Government Act with the help of a retired justice was grossly irregular and illegal. There might be some credence in the story Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik tells us about what precipitated the Hasina Government’s hyped-up vitriols and “disciplinary” actions against Chief Justice S.K. Sinha. As Afsan Chowdhury has paraphrased Bhaumik, the story goes like this: “Justice Sinha had told his audience at a private party in Japan that he would ‘restore/establish democracy’ to Bangladesh…. the move would be triggered by a writ petition filed by over 150 lawyers urging the chief justice to declare the present parliament illegal and insisting that it should be scrapped. In this effort, Sinha would also be supported by several serving and retired army officers which basically means a civil-military coup” [“Justice Sinha’s exist puzzle”, New Age, Oct 11, 2017].
The Government has been very nervous about the whole thing. So much so that it is giving ambivalent statements, and telling totally unbelievable and contradictory stories about what went wrong with Justice Sinha. First, we were told he was suffering from cancer, and would be taking leave of absence for about a month; then we heard he would be going to Japan; then the Government affirmed the Justice had resorted to various felonies, including money laundering, and that five Supreme Court justices had decided not to work together with Justice Sinha. Some of the stories we heard before he left for Japan and some we heard after his departure. It’s intriguing what Justice Sinha told the reporters in Dhaka before heading to the airport on 13th October. He handed in a signed statement in Bengali, which read: “I’m not sick. I’m not fleeing. I’ll come back” [Daily Star, Oct 14, 2017].
In sum, this discussion entails the following conclusions:
Democracy doesn’t falter in Bangladesh because of some inherent defect or problem with the people at large. They have never failed to understand their socio-political, and economic problems, and left no stone unturned to improve their condition. People and their leaders together achieved Pakistan (1947), fought for Bengali language and identity (1948-1952), provincial autonomy, equal rights and opportunity (1954-1969), and Independence (1971). They never shied away from protesting civil and military autocracy since the Liberation. Democracy needs unflinching loyalty of leaders to the concept. People must choose the right leaders to get democracy or the rule of law, and not vice versa.
As mentioned above, political opportunists always strive for self-gratification, are shameless beyond one’s imagination. They can abandon their patrons in a moment, and serve the most de-generated entities like Ershad with no qualms about losing face among friends, admirers, and family members.
In Bangladesh society – which is still a conglomerate of thousands of pre-modern peasant communities, not fully integrated into the weak urban society – changing sides and patrons is as normal as changing one’s food habit, clothes, or profession. The peasant community with its ubiquitous patron-client relationship is the mainstay of the political culture in Bangladesh. This unequal relationship between the patrons and their clients keeps various political factions and parties alive, and is visible both in the parliament and in the posh living rooms of leaders across the country.
The polity of Bangladesh is a mega peasant community, where personal loyalty to leaders and commitment to any political ideology – including democracy, secularism, and socialism – are non-existent. Party chiefs behave like feudal lords, and their followers behave like servants – albeit with no permanent loyalty or commitment, either to the leader or the party. This has been the main problem of lack of democracy in Bangladesh. In sum, the overpowering influence of rural patron-client relationship on the overall political culture is the main factor behind the lack of democracy in any political party in the country. When there’s no democracy within the political parties, one shouldn’t expect the politicians once elected or installed to power respect democracy.
Lack of mutual trust and respect is an old problem in every peasant or rural community. And Bangladesh is still struggling to become urban and will take a few more years to become relatively urban to absorb urban, capitalist, liberal democratic, and secular values. Thanks to two centuries of colonial rule, people still haven’t developed a strond sense of belonging to the state or country. Under alien rule, rulers are always outsiders, and the state is always exploitative, belonging to the ubiquitous “others”. This perennial problem of postcolonial state is still visible in South Asia, including Bangladesh.
So, the weak or non-existent sense of belonging to the state or country – which doesn’t go beyond people’s ancestral village, home, or Desher Bari – is a big hindrance to national unity and democracy. People’s reluctance or unwillingness to pay taxes and duties to the government, and having no qualms about wasting and stealing government property have derived from this negative sense of belonging to the state. Thus, “Sarkar ka maal, Dariya me daal” (Waste as much Government property as you want) is still a popular adage across postcolonial South Asia. Ordinary people’s historical memories remembered collectively through stories are mostly about Colonial Government’s and their Indian collaborators-cum-employees’ extortions and exploitations of the masses. They have moulded the political culture of the hoi polloi. They don’t trust outsiders, political, professional, and business elites. They think elections and democracy are mostly about improving urban elites’ life-style. Unless the masses are integrated as citizens not subjects of the state, democracy will remain elusive, unattainable, or at best “illiberal” and “dynastic”.
Last but not least, it’s time for dedicated and honest politicians to reach the ordinary people – each of them has a vote – not as outsiders, not as their patrons, but as insiders, as their friends. Gandhi, Fazl ul Huq, Bhashanai, Suhrawardy, Sheikh Mujib, and Zia ur Rahman, among others, successfully broke the elite-mass barrier to perform miracles. They attained the unattainable with mass support, or people’s democracy. People at the grassroots know about the farcical elections, massive corruptions, extortions, rape, abductions, so-called cross-fire incidents, illegal detentions, and what police and RAB do in the name of law-enforcement, and student leaders/cadres (euphemism for hoodlums and criminals) do in the name of politics. But they are too disorganized and distant from the world of the detached politicians, many of whom are reclining, either with the blessings of the ruling party, and others in the opposition are in slumber, and hoping against hope that someone, someday will come with a magic wand to take them to the corridors of power and glory.
Dr Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014).