IN THE year 1971, through a tumultuous war, Bangladesh won its independence. The nine months of war between the highly-equipped regular armed forces of Pakistan and a small cadre of trained officers of the armed forces who defected to join, train, and lead a motley but very large group of students, workers, peasants, cultural activists, performers, artists, and bureaucrats to form what came to be known as the Mukti Bahini or freedom fighters resulted, with the help of the Indian government, in the birth of Bangladesh. The war began as the natural aftermath of the populist uprising against the authoritarian regime in Pakistan, eventually resulting in a general election where the Bengali nationalist, democratic, secular, and socialist mandate won with a clear majority (East Pakistan having the majority seats in the Parliament). The autocratic government of Pakistan responded with a brutal massacre in its eastern wing, starting with the University teachers, students, the paramilitary force manning the borders, the police force and the general population, especially those who were homeless. The Bengali officers in the army stationed in the then East Pakistan were disarmed. The intention was to scare the people into submission as is the wont of autocratic regimes. The populist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose party single-handedly won the majority seats, was immediately removed and jailed in West Pakistan, with the imminent threat of his death looming large. The effect was the reverse of what was intended. The people rose in unison to join and support the war of liberation; there was no longer any doubt that the only way this land would enjoy democratic rights was through full independence.
I mention this, as it sets the tone of what this piece is about. How did a nation whose people actively participated to create their own state — founded on the four principles incorporated in Bangladesh’s first constitution, of democracy, nationalism (basically Bengali nationalism, the concept of multiculturalism, pluralism and rights of indigenous communities being quite absent in the minds of the majority), secularism, and socialism — allow itself in its forty-eight years of existence to be ruled for the most part by a series of authoritarian regimes? Though Bangladesh has seen popular movements overthrow dictatorships and usher in democracy in the past, they were never sustained for long. Where does the malaise lie? What about the current situation? Are the people able to speak out, to resist and ensure that their rights are not trampled upon? This also forms the title of my piece. I have tried to describe briefly the current phenomena in the hope that this short piece may jog us from what seems to be our apparent apathy, to revive our right to our dreams to relive that which was positive in our past and towards what is needed for the future.
Though officially, the present government of Bangladesh is a ‘democratically elected’ government, the reality shows the farce of a staged and badly scripted scenario passing off as an election. Was it absolutely necessary to go through this? Since no opposition candidate, apart from those who were given the ‘blessings’ of the party in power, were given any space and scope to campaign; people too, were not interested in casting their ballots. Polling officers stated that they were forced to sign ballot papers the night before and fill up half the ballot box. The other half was left for people to fill as they wished. This way the party would ensure a ‘win’. However, overenthusiastic party workers went overboard and, in many cases, forced those who did turn up, to cast their votes for the ruling party candidate. The few who dared do otherwise had to face grievous consequences, including gang rape, for having the gall to cast her vote against their dictates. That the main opposition party, facing a myriad of cases, seems to have lost their ability to even campaign, let alone build up a credible movement and support base to reject the farce of an election, shows the current state of impoverishment in the political sphere. They took an oath as MPs, after having at first given a statement rejecting the election results. There were certain voting centres where voting did take place as per rules, efficiently, and with no false votes whatsoever. These are a part of a window-dressing needed for authoritarianism to flourish, when held up to scrutiny honestly state, ‘Yes people were allowed to vote unhindered.’ The election monitors were skilfully veered to visit only such centres, both in Dhaka as well as in outlying areas.
All this leads to the party in power being all powerful. They do not need the people’s support. All that is needed is to be able to ‘buy’ off any semblance of disgruntlement, keep certain thugs happy, to ensure that their control is total. In return, these goons and thugs can continue to do what they wish with total impunity. Authoritarianism then becomes the only mode of control and means to govern the nation. Those who voice their concerns are either ignored, or if they need to be curbed, are intimidated — if lucky, jailed, but often picked up without following legal procedure, leading to missing persons that are unaccounted for, and sometimes extrajudicial killings. This is a scenario created to instil a culture of fear and submission in the minds of the people.
Additionally, the neoliberal economic paradigm that exists is totally unconcerned with internal politics of any state. In fact, I would venture to state that it thrives in such autocratic regimes, where social or environmental impacts can be skimmed over, while the state is put forward as the only guarantee of rights and prosperity. The various arms of the United Nations may issue new conventions, ask nation states to follow certain treaties, etc., but as can be clearly seen, they are totally toothless in their efforts to ensure implementation. Bilateral, regional, or even institutions that emerged through the Bretton Woods feel no obligation to ensure that the basic tenets of democratic accountability are followed. Most important is economic growth, where, on the one hand, the state provides financial or technical assistance, while on the receiving end, the state can look towards monetary gains, quite often linked to personal interests too. Thus, authoritarianism is the current trend for governance not just in Bangladesh but all over.
Authoritarianism has many facets. The blatant one is where authoritarian domination is established without having to go through the farce of democratic practice. The other is that of actually getting people to believe that electing dictators who bring in autocracy and authoritarianism is good for the nation. They can deliver. A few obvious current examples are India, Philippines, Brazil, and the United States. The most glaring example from the past is Germany during the Third Reich after the election of Adolf Hitler. Call it brainwashing or call it lack of political acumen, the result is the same. The consequences too can be chilling. This brings me to the question: does democracy, in the very faulty and manipulative way it is practiced in most countries of the world, pave the way for authoritarian regimes? Is now the time to start thinking how democratic systems could take the average citizens’ concerns as their guiding principles for change, for development, for ensuring well-being? The next question that this forum could start discussing, if it has not done so already, is what forms of governments and governance could ensure true democracy?
Let me give two recent examples about what happens when the average citizen tries to express their views and opinions on matters that are of their immediate concern — of how a simple expression can be perceived as threatening to one’s powerbase if the average citizens’ actions were made spontaneously and without the support or leadership of any obvious political organisation. The examples are of two movements from one year back, both spontaneously and rapidly have taken shape and form across the nation, and unrelated to each other in terms of leadership and actors. Yet the way these movements were ‘controlled,’ were crushed, follow a strikingly similar process.
The first is what is popularly known as the ‘quota reform movement.’ Since Bangladesh became independent, a system of quotas to ensure that certain sections of the population are given scope and space in the highly valued government jobs has been followed. A category of quotas was for freedom fighters who took part in our liberation war. Concern about this was raised many years back, when the certificates as to who was a freedom fighter were misused. With each successive government, a new set of freedom fighter certificates was distributed, along with demands for increased quotas. After forty-seven years, when the freedom fighters themselves had already passed the age of retirement, and their children too had passed the age of joining, it was now their grandchildren who wished to have quotas for themselves. Quotas also existed for women as per the CEDAW and other UN declarations, for indigenous communities — who the government chose not to recognise as indigenous — and for other marginalised groups. As such, over fifty per cent of government jobs were reserved under quotas. Thus, a movement began demanding a reform of the quota system and making it more representative, so that merit was given preference. Questions were raised about the rationale behind retaining quotas for families of freedom fighters after 47 years, given that this quota was the highest, and whether to decrease this percentage. The movement consisted mainly of final-year university students and spread like wildfire across the country. Once the government felt they had no control over the movement, the movement was ‘dealt’ with violently: through arrests and picking up protestors from their homes, many students and supporters were jailed or went ‘missing’. For family members, knowing that a protestor was in jail was reassuring; at least they would not become another victim of extrajudicial killings. The brutality of these actions completely suppressed the movement.
Soon after, when Dhaka University had its student body elections after 28 years, a situation similar to the national elections took place. Two leaders of the quota reform movement, including Nurul Huq, were elected from among its leaders, while all the other posts went to the pro-government students’ wing, the Chhatra League. In many of the women’s halls, where women students put up a fight to ensure proper votes were cast and counted, independent candidates won. Nurul Huq, the elected vice president of the DUCSU was brutally beaten up several times. None of the perpetrators, all of whom had affiliations with the ruling party, were arrested.
The second example was even more brutal, tragic and demoralising. It showed the government’s authoritarianism at its height. For many years, road accidents have been the major cause of unnatural deaths in Bangladesh. Most of the accidents are caused by the public transport sector. Yet, no actions are taken against the vehicle owners or drivers. In August 2018, after two students were run down by a bus, school students, mostly in their eleventh and twelfth year of schooling, took over control of the city roads, checking licences, maintaining lanes and other traffic laws — with a set of demands for the government to make roads safe. This spread to all cities and towns of the country. Within a few days, similar to the earlier movement, the government cracked down on young students. Police and goons of the ruling party brutally beat up students. The level of brutality far exceeded the very peaceful nature of the movement. The message was clear: the government will not tolerate questions or attempts to ask for accountability. The government will not tolerate people taking to the streets to express their sentiments. The government is in control and will defeat any attempts made by people that appear to question its authority. Giving the message that authoritarianism is in force ensured that no one else dared to protest. Arresting a globally renowned photojournalist for speaking out during the movement only went to show how ‘strong’ the government was. Though the government gave out assurances that tough measures would be taken to ensure road safety, this lasted for just a week. Meanwhile, the movement died down, and matters went back to business as usual.
These examples are two of many. The ending is always the same. In the end, the government manages to buy time, and then returns to its own authoritarian rule. Public actions and international outcries may make headlines for a short span of time. But in the end, it is business interests that show that no matter what, the Modis, the Dutertes, the Putins, the Trumps, will rule on … until such a time when the tide changes. How long does this world need to wait for that, is the question?
The last question to be raised is why there is such a total absence of the kind of political movement that grew and became stronger, during the days of official martial law and military rule. Where and what are the roles of opposition parties? Are they totally uninterested in the well-being of the people? Are they such a spent and compromised force that has lost their ability to garner the support of the average citizen? People will only support when they know that their concerns will be heard, will be taken into consideration, when they are counted upon. Without people’s support no one can last too long. The question remains, how long is too long?
Khushi Kabir is a human rights activist.
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