Challenges of civil society intellectuals

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley | Published: 18:25, Oct 26,2017 | Updated: 18:03, Oct 27,2017


‘IN THE beginning there was the word’. The word at the very heart of the revolutionary liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 was ‘democracy’. There were other vital concepts as basic ingredients of the new society such as nationalism, secularism and socialism. These, however, underwent significant modifications and change because of undeniable social dynamics. Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan primarily because the latter had no democracy.

The postcolonial state of Pakistan emerged in 1947 principally because of a democratic assertion of the majority of East Bengalis. This predominantly Muslim majority was inspired by intellectuals. They worked effectively to underscore the injustice meted out to this economically and educationally backward segment of the Bengali society in British India. History bears witness to the fact that it was the denial of democracy in 24 years of undivided Pakistan which eventually led to the Bangali war of liberation. Bengalis formed a majority in post-1947 Pakistan. Intrigues, conspiracies and coups cornered the Bengalis and deprived them of the just share in politics and economy.


Democracy and institutions

THE core of democracy is its institutions. Well-built and functioning state institutions make a democracy work. Such a democracy facilitates the emergence of a thriving society.

Pluralistic and multi-party democracy succeeds in smoothly running and meaningfully developing a society. Such a democracy has to be accompanied by well organised, competent and autonomous institutions. These must be unhampered by arbitrary and disorderly political interference. True democracy like genuine freedom does not mean licence. The heart of pure democracy lies in good governance which builds, promotes and sustains order under rule of law.


Intellectuals and renewal of democracy

IN LESS developed societies, democracy faces onerous challenges. There are many postcolonial states in which this situation prevails and Bangladesh is one among such polities. The problem in Bangladesh is not creating institutions but restoring them. Bangladesh, even at its sanguinary birth, inherited a copying set of state institutions. Polluted and chaotic politics dominated by myopic personal leadership damaged and dwarfed these institutions. Democracy was made uncertain by politics of division and confrontation. This has handicapped political development and slowed down the pace of socio-economic progress. In the case of Bangladesh as in other such societies, the malady is rooted in deeper socio-political ground realities.

Intellectuals can play a significant role in reshaping these realities. They can contribute to the reversing of political decay by vigorously urging democratic transformation. They have done so in varied and different societies through untold centuries. Earlier in history the ‘Ancient Regime’ was brought down in Imperial France in 1789 by the historic French Revolution. It has been rightly remarked as a tribute to the epoch-making work of Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot and the Encyclopaedists that ‘the Republic of Men was preceded by the Republic of Letters.’

Intellectuals played a vital and historic role in building the intellectual case for Pakistan before 1947. They played even a more vigorous role during 1950s and 1960s in creating the intellectual basis and justification for a sovereign and independent Bangladesh.

The question today is why the intellectuals in recent years seem to have been playing a mute or even collaborative role in the reduction of democracy? In Bangladesh and in other similar polities, democracy has been systemically dwarfed during recent decades. A grave democratic deficit marks the avowedly democratic political system. How did this degrading degeneration take place in a society which tore itself from an autocratic and exploitative state to live in democracy and justice? Why did and how did the intellectuals fail in arresting the down side?


Vital vole of thinkers in society

EACH society has to find the way out of its own predicament. The economic and social ills plaguing a community need to be clearly identified by the leading thinkers of that community. Devising solutions and alternative strategies can only follow the rigorous process of appropriate identification. Each society has its talented thinkers though geniuses are few and far between. As a character in ‘Childhood’s End’ succinctly put it: ‘We can be sure of talent: we can only pray for genius. And talents need to interact, for few artists thrive in solitude, and nothing is more stimulating than the conflict of minds with similar interests.’ Such a lively and fruitful conflict of minds is not likely in a society lacking freedom.

Consequently, a community which does not allow discussion remains condemned to walk the cul-de-sac of impotent. In such a society, the thinking men think but do not really articulate: they frequently say what they do not mean and often mean what they do not say. As a result the society is compelled to mark time in a blind lane. The baffle walls at the far end do not permit forward march.

In a dictatorial and regimented community discussion as a meaningful process does not exist. Bernard Crick truthfully writes in his book In Defence of Politics: ‘… discussion demands, in the original Greek sense, dialectic. For discussion to be genuine and fruitful when something is maintained, the opposite of some contrary case must be considered or better… maintained by someone who believes it. The hallmark of free government everywhere, it is an old but clear enough test, whether public criticism is allowed in a manner conceivably effective — in other words, whether opposition is tolerated.’ Where such freedom does not exist freethinking tends to wither. And when the process of thought is stunted, the society is often left defencelessly exposed to the yet-unidentified forces of decay, destruction and doom. Mistakes on the socio-economic fronts soon become blunders for no one points out the flaws in the dictated plan of action. In time, the blunders snowball into an avalanche and a community compelled to maintain cowed silence collapses under the weight of its own follies. The problem with authority-oriented communities which succumbs to a cessation of discussion is that these do not have any dependable way of finding out the actual state of affairs. Sycophants and hangers-on, servants and supplicants surround the leaders of such a society from dawn to dusk, from the first hour of awakening to the final hour of fatigued sleep. The real world or at least a very important part of it, as it were, is closed to them by those around them. With all their good intention and sincerity, they remain pitifully unaware of the complex changes that society continues to undergo in the social, economic and technological fields. Consequently, they also remain unable to maintain that ‘continuous process of adaptation’ which is an important part of survival not only for the leaders alone but also for society as a whole. As Abraham Lincoln stated: ‘It has long been a grave question whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its liberties in great emergencies.’ (Dr MR Shelley, The Windmills of Your Mind, Dhaka: APPL, 2006, pp 30–31).

Despondent viewers of politically less developed societies such as SP Huntington undermined the role of intelligentsia and intellectuals in promoting democracy or democratic transformation. Thus, he observes: ‘The major agents of political development in developing societies have been described as (i) political leaders, (ii) political parties, and (iii) the military. In some instances, labour, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia may demand special attention as significant factors.’

The dangers of personal leadership remaining too personal may be overwhelmingly adverse to a democracy. Political institutions may not grow under such a personal system. Legitimacy and legitimising succession may become a challenge that cannot be successfully faced. Uncertainties created by these challenges lead to the throttling of economic development of all kinds especially balanced growth and equitable distribution.

‘Political parties, as instruments of mobilising new groups into politics and as entities not easily controlled by a single leader, may act as useful and effective balance to the shortcomings of personal leadership.

‘Well-established competitive parties with sound organisation and effective spread can successfully aggregate diverse interest, specific groups and bring broad unity. A well-developed party system — whether dominant, multi-party or even single, capable of absorbing new social forces and offering consideration to new demands arising — is an effective component of political stability. Such an arrangement is a safeguard against the weakness produced by instability which invites military intervention.’

Unfortunately, even partisan intellectuals in Bangladesh in their eagerness for sycophancy did not attempt to urge the party to take a true democratic path.


Resurrection rather than creation anew

ONE should ‘begin at the beginning.’ Bangladesh in 1971 did not emerge out of the wilderness of institution-less existence. The territory had experience of quality governance during centuries preceding British colonial-imperial rule. The people of the area had a rich heritage of competent local governments at the grass roots, such as the ‘grams’ (villages). These were built in the context of a society that encouraged and sustained toleration of diverse religious beliefs and customs. Again, during both the British colonial and postcolonial times, it had inherited an elaborate, transparent and well organised system of justice, a fairly competent and well-trained public administration, a coping law and order machinery and legislatures that worked.

Over the years it evolved a strong and articulate civil society, a bold and skilled media and the most active NGO system in the world. In addition, it has a homogeneous population with a millennium-old syncretic culture marked by community of language and heritage. It also has a remarkable record of religious and ethnic tolerance and harmony over hundreds of years. All this has been competently enshrined in the democratic constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.


Institutions, distortion and degeneration

THE constitution of 1972 was the first and the most significant act of institution building undertaken by the founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Like other institutions, this too was modified and amended several times. Some of these amendments starting with the fourth amendment in 1974 distorted it, departing from its essence and spirit.

As with the constitution so with other institutions, distortions and degeneration took place. These were caused by considerations of personal, party and group interest combined with political exigencies. Among the institutions which have been distorted and dwarfed during recent decades are the legislature, the executive, especially the civil service and the public administration, the lower judiciary and the local government.

The legislature even under overtly parliamentary system has been rendered ineffective by a personality-dominated prime ministerial system. It is a virtual continuation of the presidential system that ruled the country from 1975 to 1991.

Although the lower judiciary has been separated from the executive from 2008, its independence is still to be fully realised. Recruitment to and appointments in judicial posts have been influenced by considerations of partisan politics. The centralisation and concentration of power have played havoc with local self government in Bangladesh.

The more-than-four-decades-long history of Bangladesh is, thus, replete with instances of reducing rather than building institutions. The root cause of this damaging process is deviation from and distortion of the political culture of democracy. For historical reasons, Bangladesh from the very beginning has been a haven of personal leadership. Politics and government have been ruled by charismatic leaders who became more dominant than the system. Such dispensations inevitably stand in the way of building and strengthening democratic institutions. What is needed to rectify this undesirable situation is a thorough overhauling of the political culture in favour of true and unalloyed democracy.

The intelligentsia and those who are regarded as public intellectuals in Bangladesh can play a vital role in the process. During earlier times, especially in the undivided Pakistan from the 1950s up to 1971, they did play such a role magnificently. One may ask: what prevents them from doing so in the present? To get an answer, we have to go a little farther.

Democratic political parties practising democracy both within and outside can also arrest the degeneration of the splendid institutions that Bangladesh inherited at its birth.


Distortion of democracy and reduction of intellectuals

‘UNCERTAIN’ or ‘illiberal’ democracies deviate from the universal democratic norms. In these distorted systems, political parties and their leaders do not help build and preserve national consensus on basic issues. Differing viewpoints do not find mutual accommodation. Intolerance vitiates the political and social environment. Dissension and disunity become the order of the day. In consequence, political parties advocating differing ideologies and programmes attempt to draw people’s support not by democratic persuasion but by force, overt or covert. Their political strategies are often a mix of craft and coercion.

It is no wonder that in such a context well-meaning intellectuals retreat and self-seeking ones joined the bandwagon of the political winners. In this situation, power becomes a vital instrument to be used not necessarily to achieve people’s freedom, welfare and development but to attain dominance of the winning side. Consequently, elections, even when apparently free and fair, become transformed into a ‘zero sum game’ where the winner takes all. Needless to say, elections in these circumstances weaken, rather than strengthen, democracy. Further, these also pave the way to the establishment of elective autocracies.


Democracy and capitalism

DEMOCRATIC governance involves political mobilisation on the basis of class and economic interests, fair political contestation for the legitimacy of control over state institutions. It derives its origin mainly from Weberian concept of bureaucratic rationality in which formal institutions and well-defined procedures work. Close and symbiotic relations are visualised between the political process of democracy and the economic process of capitalism. Political process in a democratic or democratising country has great stake in the health of the capitalist economy. What about the developing societies such as Bangladesh where capitalism is yet to become mature and democratic governance still unrealised? Weberian discourse recognises the concept of patrimonialism as a pre-capitalist mode of political and economic organisations, where authority and legitimacy flow from traditional bondages, kinship, clans, etc. But what we observe in the developing parts of the world is the prevalence of patrons and followers brought together not necessarily by traditional bonds but inevitably by exchange relationship in which the dependents, clients or followers exchange their loyalty, support, and if necessary, muscle power in lieu of patronage and booties. In essence, consent and legitimacy do not flow from primordial values, as in patrimonialism but from money, opportunities and protection. Some analysts call it neo-patrimonialism because there may be a façade of deference and consent. The essence of patron-client relationship is personalised control over resources, opportunities and decisions, factional mobilisation and contestation. Politics in states such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and several African countries is characteriszed by patron-client networks which have been enhanced by the expanse and strength of informal governance.


Patron-client relationship old and new

THE contenders, both winners and losers, in national elections, do not seem to have confidence in normal politics and in the effectiveness of their respective party in maintaining or acquiring power. In consequence, the competition for power becomes distorted and polluted.

Leaders of the ruling party try to secure their positions and ensure victory in the subsequent elections by arrogating to themselves a monopoly of state resources. Important institutions of the state are brought under the overpowering control and domination of the ruling party. This enables the government party to distribute favours to its clients who as beneficiaries in key positions in bureaucracy, business and professions are expected to help the patron, ie, the ruling party in maintaining and prolonging its rule. This unfortunate experience predated the resurrection of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh in 1991. Nevertheless, this phenomenon became more intense and widespread during more than two decades and a half of parliamentary rule in which the two major parties alternated in forming the government.


Intellectuals: need for a season of defiant renewal

THE excessive spread and intensification of patron-client relationship between the rulers and loyal segments of society created a negative impact on the nation. Patron-client relationship contributed to the weakening of the state, instead of strengthening it. Important state institutions such as the civil bureaucracy, the local government, the legislature and the judiciary, the very pillars of democracy, were politicised as part of expanding network of patron-client relationship. This harmful process led inevitably to the dwarfing of society’s intellect. The intellectuals who opted to become clients of the powers that be lost their creativity and critical abilities. In terms of consciousness, they become the walking dead. On the other hand, those who have the courage to defy dictatorial dictates are thrown out of favours. They are robbed of their just role and recognition in society. In many cases, they are harassed, persecuted and punished.

One sadly remembers the words of Edward Shils, ‘the gestation, birth and continuing life of the new states of Asia and Africa, through all of their vicissitudes, are in large measure, the work of intellectuals’ (Edward Shils, ‘The Intellectuals and the Political Development of the New States’, World Politics 12 (1960): 329–330). If this be so, it is a pity that a segment of Bangladeshi intellectuals have lost sight of their ennobling responsibilities. Many of them have surrendered to the plenitude of patronage that power and wealth can bestow. Some of them often sell themselves at a very low price. Many others are lured by the limelight offered by the mighty and the rich. In Bangladesh today, if the intellectuals could really close ranks in the essential task of building consensus on basic national and foreign policy issues, the disaster of democracy could still be averted. A new and meaningful democratic transformation will then be possible. For a society as for an individual the rot starts at the head. So does the cure.

Action is important. Marx rightly said, ‘Philosophers have long interpreted the world. What is important now is to change it.’ Nevertheless, interpretation precedes action. The great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, tersely stated the majestic truth, ‘Our world is what our thoughts make it.’ Centuries later, a revolutionary South African leader echoed the essence of the statement of emperor Aurelius.

Nelson Mandela’s worthy lieutenant Steven Biko (who died during the struggle for freedom) rightly said, ‘If you can change the way people think about things you have changed the world.’ Is it too much to ask the intellectuals of Bangladesh to change people’s thinking about things and play a historic role in the democratic transformation of Bangladesh?


Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a noted thinker and social scientist, is the founder Chairman, Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB), Editor, quarterly “ASIAN AFFAIRS”. He was member of the erstwhile civil service of Pakistan (CSP) and a technocrat (non partisan) minister for information, government of Bangladesh.

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