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Current Affairs

The Struggle for a Meaningful Democracy in Bangladesh

The struggle for meaningful democracy in Bangladesh
William Gomes
November 2, 2013

In Bangladesh, people have been continuing their struggle for democracy through electoral processes since before ‘Independence’. Once again they wait for a peaceful change of power in the next general election pencilled in for January 2014, under conditions in which it is difficult to have any confidence. The Bangladeshi people’s politicians have crippled the democratic electoral system, which has made the next general election very uncertain. Even with this very dysfunctional electoral system, people dream of a functioning, dignified democratic government. Yet whether and when this controversial election will actually take place are issues of great uncertainty. Who will take part if they do, who will win, and what will happen if this party wins or that party loses remain subjects of intense speculation.

The electorate has voted for different parties at different times, but they have all failed to fulfil their electoral promises. Ordinary people outside political groupings see no hope with these sets of leaders and parties. They want real and radical change in the system and leadership. However, the question remains as to who will bring about change, as the current politicians will not.

Continuity of Family Dynasties

The politician most likely to rule after the next election is Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia, and in near future, the son of Sheikh Hasina, Sajeeb Wazed or the son of Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman. Many predict that close family relatives from both political families will rule the future Bangladesh as this is what happened after the assassinations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman. These political families have left few chances for others and muddied political platforms by creating the impression that politics is not for ordinary people. Sajeeb Wazed and Tareq Rahman have been criticised for their roles at different times and both stand accused of abusing state power. Needless to say, people are looking forward to the end of dynasty politics.

Mujibur Rahman was dependent on New Delhi. He believed that he was good for the country and that it could not manage without him. The same pattern of thought and self has been demonstrated by Hasina’s leadership. Mujib’s bitter struggle with the army high command is illustrated by the decision to form the ultra loyalist Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini (National Defence Force). That struggle continues to date and many speculate that the 2009 Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) Mutiny was Hasina’s vengeful continuation of that struggle. Mujib’s fatal mistake was the fashioning of the single-party state run by the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), thereby abandoning the idea of pluralism by unilaterally transforming democratic provisions in the constitution (Ziring, 1992). Hasina’s most recent amendment of the constitution is against the spirit of democracy. It has pushed the country towards violence and many argue that it is one of the Prime Minister’s biggest mistakes. Slowly but surely, democracy is being washed out of the existing system, and the rule of law has been replaced by lawlessness as the years unfold.

Zia is praised by many as a ‘people’s leader’ for saving the country from further violence and repression and promoting a pro-people state system. But many also hold him responsible for guiding Bangladesh straight into the army cantonment. Following the assassination of Mujib, an estimated 2,000 persons were imprisoned on charges ranging from criticism of the government to high treason. By the end of 1976, jails in Bangladesh held an estimated 25,000 political prisoners. Zia instituted a stern system of military justice that meted out harsh penalties for acts deemed to be ‘treasonous’. He is alleged to have sentenced thousands of officers and civilians to death for actions judged to be a mortal threat to the army as well as the nation (Ziring, 1992). Following the assassination Ziaur Rahman, his wife Khaleda Zia rose to become the country’s first woman Prime Minister. Twice Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia, like her long-term rival Sheikh Hasina, has battled back from claims of extortion and corruption to challenge the incumbent again for the top office. As head of the party formed by her husband, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), she became a powerful opposition figure and played a vital role in fighting the military rule of Hussain Muhammad Ershad. However, many observe her to lack the farsightedness and political understanding of her late husband.

During her years in power, Khaleda Zia notably failed to fulfil her electoral promises, continuing the path of her predecessors and failing to mitigate the rampant corruption in her party ranks. It was during her most recent tenure that Bangladesh was ranked the most corrupt country on earth. Critics have criticised Khaleda for her lack of maturity in politics. Recently her letter asking the US to intervene in Bangladesh has provided more evidence of her nearsightedness and intellectual redundancy. This raises the question of how safe Bangladesh is with her and her advisors’ hands on the steering wheel.

Political Alternatives: Jamaat-e-Islami

In Bangladesh there are people who view Jamaat-e-Islami as an alternative political force that will replace the current dysfunctional system by introducing a just and functioning state mechanism. Over the years, however, the Jamaat has failed to stand as an independent political party; instead it aligns with other parties. It claims this to be part of a political strategy, but critics see these alliances as against the greater interest of people and as tactics which have only served its narrow interests. Many also argue that the party will lose its identity if it continues this strategy. Analysts observe that the Jamaat could be a key player in the country’s parliamentary politics in the near future if it contests elections alone and advocates an Islamic understanding of the democratic system.

However, for many, this is an impractical dream while they are fighting for their very survival. Not to mention the fact that the nation is presently divided, and confused, on the issues of religion and politics. Historians remind us that dynamic religion has always been the key to progressive social change. ‘Islamic Socialism’, where a welfare state inspired by Islamic dictates would be established, has been proposed by many over the past half century, from Ali Shariati to Abul Hashem, though more recently by Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee. To this end, I feel – and I am not alone in this – that Bangladesh is badly in need of another selfless, integrating and challenging figure like the ‘Red Maulana’ Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, who is regarded as a proponent of anti-imperialist, non-communal and left-leaning politics.

It has been suggested that there do exist activist leaders whose political values and practices resemble the Red Maulana’s. For instance, Farhad Mazhar, who has continuously battled against the current regime which tolerates no dissent. He stood up against the massacre in Dhaka, where unarmed protesters were extrajudicially killed by law enforcement agencies on 6 May 2013.

The Fatal Attraction of the Military Option

While autocracy has become self-reinforcing, democracy remains absent in political institutions and state mechanisms. The state has increasingly become the source of abuses of power.

Ordinary people believe that politicians will not change until they are forced to. That only a more demanding and responsible elite can compel the present ruling one. It is unfortunate when a peaceful change of power does not take place, but who is responsible? If politicians do not want elections to take place and there are no possibilities of dialogue, the only traditional alternative is an unconstitutional takeover of power.

Although some argue that the present setup of government is undemocratic and is itself creating space for a military takeover of power, we need to look more closely at the incidents when the military has taken over in recent history. The role of the military in attempting to pursue radical change has been widely criticised by many and welcomed by some. Some see their interventions as a glorious part of history, and many others as political disasters. The 15 August coup in 1975 resulted in the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the 30 May 1981 coup in the killing of Ziaur Rahman. However, progressive people in Bangladesh express concern about the outcome of any radical attempt of the military.

Rhetoric and Reality

Frustrated voters and critical analysts see Bangladesh differently from the people who have benefitted from the present political setup. For them, endemic social injustice, lawlessness, deeply rooted socio-economic inequality are certainties in Bangladesh. All the main political parties claim that they are the protectors and promoters of the legacy of the 1971 Independence struggle. However, the reality differs from their rhetoric: liberty of thought, expression, and worship; justice in social, economic and political sectors; and equality of status and of opportunity remain only for the selected few.

People feel that this is not the the democracy they once aspired for. No matter which party they vote for, there is little change. For years, voters have focused on throwing out the incumbent party and bringing in the other party. In our society, there is an impression that elections are all that there is to democracy. In Bangladesh, class conflicts have traditionally played an important role in the political culture, whether superficially expressed as religious, or ethno-racial separatism, or through social movements and uprisings against landowners and factory barons. As a consequence, the general elections have become the site of registering these struggles.

It is also evident that politicians are not keen on any fruitful dialogue. The recent telephone conversation between Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina is an example of this. However, they are very keen to meet western diplomats and mouth fake commitments to the international community regarding the promotion and protection of democracy and the rule of law.

Uncomfortably Numb: The Political Role of Education, Media and the Judiciary

Let us assume that people have understood that all political parties have failed to fulfill their electoral promises and that there is need for a change in the system and that there are urgent issues to address. Why then are voters not noticing these failures when they make decisions? Are the voters themselves failures or is there some mechanism ensuring that change does not come.

English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, George Orwell said,

“Whoever controls the image and information of the past determines what and how future generations will think; whoever controls the information and images of the present determines how those same people will view the past.”

In the country, the education system has been designed and maintained in such a way that it keeps people uninformed about contemporary politics. The learning population learns the history of the ruling elites, but the people’s class struggle and history remains unheard. The mass media is politically polarised and owned by partisan business interests.

Critics have blamed the ‘Daily Amar Desh’ for talking favorably of the opposition BNP and presenting false news which has harmed the reputation of Bangladesh’s ‘War Crimes Tribunals’ and increased religious fervour leading to rioting and violence. However, many praise the newspaper for exposing some uncomfortable truths. This is not a novel scenario – some years ago the Daily Janakantha was also blamed by critics for presenting politically biased news. There are media outlets which claim to be neutral, but are owned by politically motivated businessmen.

Politicians keep the judiciary weak and make sure that appointees are chosen by them. This cleverly cripples the very instrument that should hold them accountable. In fact, politicians use every state instrument to create an anesthetising sense of fear and hopelessness in which people are unable to bring about change and demand accountability.

Commentators remind us that sooner or later an election will happen, and that either the ruling party or the opposition will win. However, does that mean that Bangladesh is a democracy? Many ask whether the present system is a democracy or if democracy is yet to come. How long will they have to wait to see a democracy? Will it be the next election or the one after? Who will bring democracy? Or will we need another 1971?

(William Nicholas Gomes is a Bangladeshi human rights activist and freelance journalist based in Britain. He is a former fellow at the Center for Applied Human Rights in the University Of York. He has also worked with the Asian Human Rights Commission)

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

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