Escalation of political violence and fear of ‘power-politics’ in Bangladesh

by Naseem Akhter Hussain

spc06IT IS very urgent that the leaders of the two major political parties in Bangladesh answer to the genuine questions raised by the people living in extreme fear, insecurity and frustration because of the current political crisis. Will the   political deadlock lead to more destruction? Is Bangladesh on the brink of a civil war? Will violence turn into constant terrorism as witnessed in Syria or Lebanon?
With complete faith on the agency of the people of Bangladesh who have the strength to launch resistance against all kinds of oppression and their capabilities for social entity, my answer is in the negative. It is not difficult to affirm that people of Bangladesh and their culture do not support such activities of the rulers who aspire to self-seeking political ambition and conduct public affairs for private gains. But substantial questions are difficult to answer. Why people of Bangladesh are being punished by destructive politics? Why people have to pay for the mistakes of their leaders? People experience every day death, burn, fire, destruction of property, loss of economy, abduction, arrest, crossfire, extra-judicial punishments. People observe that neither the government and ruling Awami League nor the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islam alliance is willing to back down while the political crisis in Bangladesh is worsening. Is Bangladesh crisis fast approaching towards a point of No Return?
When the country is ready for celebrating its 44th independence day it is even more important to address these questions and locate the relevance of present crisis with some historical events in the War of Liberation in 1971.
Firstly, it can be mentioned that people of Bangladesh fought for democratic rights under Pakistani autocratic rulers. When AL as representative of the people of Bangladesh won majority of the seats in the parliamentary elections in 1970, the Pakistani rulers did not accept people’s verdict in democracy. Peaceful solutions could be achieved through respecting election results but the rulers were blinded by power and as a result Pakistan was disintegrated. After winning the War of Liberation Bangladesh declared democracy as one of the fundamental principles of the state.
One aspect of democratization is regular holding of elections and the introduction of basic electoral norms like absence of intimidation, competition from at least two political parties and inclusive suffrage. Above all elections need to be free and fair. Since 1991 holding elections has become a model because it gives rulers a veneer of legitimacy. On the surface therefore elections have become a norm for democratization in Bangladesh. But the problem is that in most cases elections are held only to confirm the status of those in power and to offer a blank cheque for their policies. Although elections of the past decades resulted in changes of government, the changes took place within narrow ruling elites. In Bangladesh elections serve as a mechanism for alteration between two major political parties along with their allies. So far democracy here has remained procedural.
When the country approached 10th parliamentary elections in 5 January, 1914, various socio-political issues were on the surface like violence, terror, rising religious extremism, corruption, criminalization of politics. There were also people’s agenda on unemployment, health care, electricity, security, water, transport, good governance. Without an organizing principle around which a normal political system might be built, the country is perhaps left with a choice between despotism and chaos. The last such organizing principle is electoral democracy which is also discredited. Holding a free and fair election is essential for keeping social order. Still the Election Commission Caretaker Government, Election Engineering was all questioned to be manipulated by the ruling elites. Those organizing the election failed to realize that while one can not have democracy without elections, one can have elections without democracy.
The present cycle of violence began when BNP celebrated 5 January 2015 as “democracy killing day” which is a continuation of political violence surrounding 10th parliamentary Elections in 5 January 2014 which was boycotted by BNP. The current violence which includes deadly arson attacks is following the same pattern it documented one year ago when as a result of electoral violence people were killed, fear was created and voter turn out was low as a result. Government and ruling party AL reacted by being oppressive against the opposition whose demand was free, fair and impartial election. Hundreds of opposition leaders and workers were arbitrarily arrested and some were abducted. BNP was denied any democratic space for public meeting and demonstration which was responded by revenge violence declaring non stop hartal and aborodh. These long lasting strikes and traffic blockade along with petrol bomb attacks have taken a turn for the worse. As casualties are continuously rising, economic progress is going down and poor people are falling into deeper poverty trap in large number. Most of all Bangladesh is thrown further off the democratic path. The end result is human tragedy being inflicted on people for over two months. The unaccounted lesson is that the root cause of political violence is political and it grows when government takes a recourse to violence by extra-judicial killings as a reaction to political violence.
Secondly, it is argued that militant fundamentalism began during the war of Liberation in 1971. Some people from different sections of society did not support this mass movement who stated such act of rising against Pakistan as ‘un-Islamic’. They condemned the freedom fighters as ‘kafirs’ or unbelievers and themselves joined Pakistani forces to conduct holy war against infidels. These pro-Pakistani Islamists were called razakar, albadar who committed crimes like mass-rape, genocide, mass killing of intellectuals, massacres in the name of religion. Although they were defeated in 1971, they waited to take revenge and organize a counter attack. During Pakistani colonial era AL was successful in manipulating Bengali nationalism over religious nationalism, Bengali identity over Pakistani identity while the Pakistani rulers failed to do it otherwise. The military autocracy raised a slogan like “Islam in danger”. However the objective condition of colonial exploitation made it possible for AL to manipulate cultural symbols of Bengali nationalism to their advantage. When Pakistani rulers lost legitimacy, Bengalis demanded cancellation of colonial rule.
In post independence era the objective conditions changed and the ideology of Bengali nationalism lost its appeal. The leaders needed to establish a new social order according to the spirit of Liberation War (muktijuddher chetona). AL tried to manipulate through four fundamental principles of the state-nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism. But it soon lost legitimacy for being unable to build exploitation free just society. The basic objectives of independence were not achieved. When gaps between people’s expectations and objective reality widened the regime lost its legitimacy. War criminals of 1971 were not trialed. Moreover general pardon was given to the collaborators.
Relationship between Islam and the polity served the purpose of legitimizing the civilianizing process of Ziaur Rahman’s rule as state power was captured through military coups. Thus religion was used as a means not as an end. Secularism was omitted from the constitution and “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” was inserted. Islamic political parties including JI were permitted to participate in political activities and some of them were included in the cabinet. Collaborators of 1971 were rehabilitated under state patronization. Next military regime of Hossain Md. Ershad also continued Islamization for legitimizing its authoritarian rule. Islam was declared state religion of Bangladesh. Its impact is long standing as religious dimension is greatly evidenced in the behavior pattern of the elites. Islamization has influenced the secular parties to change their approach towards religion and religion based political parties. Since 1991 Bangladesh is going through democratization process but by then Islam has acquired a space in political discourse. The vote bank of the Islamic parties is expanding and their position in election equation is gaining strength.
The religious forces and in particular JI led by the defeated forces during Liberation War in 1971 were ready for a counter attack. Since independence the bourgeoisie ruling class could not bring qualitative changes having positive impact on the majority of the people. According to Abul Barkat discriminatory two economy (during Pakistani colonial rule) is back again in Bangladesh. One economy is represented by one million people who are most powerful and the other economy is represented by the un-empowered majority of 139 million people. Culture of plundering by the ruling elites aggravates the situation. Black money, violence, illegal arms, muscle power, corruption, maladministration, oppression, repression push majority of the people off the boundary and deep into destitution. The powerless majority is trapped in the framework of institutionalized criminalization. In the midst of insecurity and alienation people are losing confidence and are gradually becoming dependent on destiny. Therefore naturally people would be demotivated about bourgeoisie leadership. The Islamic political forces are utilizi ng this vacuum. At present they are making good use of the opportunity of participating in democracy. The situation is expressed by Marx that ‘religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people’. According to the Stalinist theory of two stages (1) the national, liberal, secular bourgeoisie carry out national democratic revolution and (2) at a later stage a proletarian revolution can be envisaged. Application of this theory can create further problems if during the period of democratic stagnation, the religious forces exploit the class differences and gain support from wide layers of the backward poor classes.
JI was observed to have used the opportunity to mobilize the violent elements of its base in election related violence in 2013 and 2014. These attacks threatened the law and order situation, the safety of the religious minorities and the state structure of Bangladesh along with its secular political order. One vital reason for JI’s violent reaction in the electoral violence and in the current wave of violence is that JI leaders who opposed the Liberation War in 1971have been tried and are being tried for crimes against humanity. In fact since 1990 the demands for trial of 1971 war criminals resurfaced under the leadership of Ekattorer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee. But BNP and its alliance partner JI did not take any step during 1991-1996 and similarly when AL came to power in 1996 this issue was ignored. After the massacre of Bangladesh Army officers and Bangladesh Rifels clash in 2009, AL changed its strategy. Before that JI was also blamed for grenade attacks for assassination of Shaikh Hasina in 2004 under BNP rule. AL constituted the war crimes tribunals by amending the International Crimes Tribunals Act 1973 to try the leaders of JI for their involvement in war crimes.
One fearsome aspect of current violence in Bangladesh is created by the involvement of Islamic forces and the experience of their emergence as religious extremism in recent past. The presence of Islamic militant activities was felt with fear in August 2005 when simultaneously explosions of detonators threatened people in 63 districts across Bangladesh. Besides many Islamic militant groups like JMB were identified. The terrorist groups were located on the border areas and the jihadi groups were targeting minority community, left oriented and progressive forces within the country. One major problem of religious terrorism in the present context is the rise of international terrorism which transcends space and time. There is a systematic and world wide network of collaboration among terrorist organizations. This is an issue of concern now because ISIS has recently announced the formulation of wilayah or province in South Asia without specifying the boundaries. Their goal is to establish monotheism of salafism in contrast to polytheism as described by ISIS. Pakistan and Afghanistan may be the targets, but suspicion emerges regarding Bangladesh as most of the people here are Sunni Muslims.
Thirdly, the political history of Bangladesh is characterized by violence after war of Liberation in 1971 when two Prime Ministers were assassinated. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed in 1975 and Ziaur Rahman was killed in 1980. Afterwards the country was governed by military rulers largely under state of emergency of Martial Law. Current two leaders of two major political parties inherited power from these leaders. Not only these two leaders Shaikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia share the tragedy of political history, they experience the legacy differently. Their relationship is characterized by mutual animosity and political rivalry. The present conditions of deadly politics between these two political parties exemplify a political culture steeped in bitterness. Inter party relationship is characterized by intolerance and presently party politics is confrontational in nature. Conflicts have inhibited the process of institutionalizing the parliamentary activities. Parliament is routinely boycotted by the opposition who rejects dialogue in the parliament and places demands from the street.
It is frequently asked in Bangladesh whether opposition’s role in the legislature is to offer constructive suggestions or to protest against ruling party and engage in confrontational politics. This results in minimum discussions and maximum walkouts form the parliament. One common allegation is that the speaker of the parliament is not unbiased to allow opposition members to speak. The system of forming shadow cabinet by the opposition is also not practiced. It is observed that after winning elections in Bangladesh the ruling party feels that they have the ‘mandate’ from the people and are empowered to make decisions without discussions with the opposition. Sometimes the ruling parties execute unprecedented repression against opposition. State machinery of law and order, party cadre and terrorists are deployed for malevolent activities. Thus state terrorism by both the parties is pushing the country towards politics of revenge and counter revenge.
The two major political parties in Bangladesh have shaped their political identities by ‘enemy discourse’. They mobilize their activists, supporters and alliance to formulate identity according to the enemy discourse and thus get divided into rival camps. Thus AL makes its identity on the basis of Bengali nationalism, War of Liberation, Nation state, Secularism, Pluralism, liberalism and Friendly politics for the poor. BNP makes its identity as Bangladeshi nationalism, Pro-free market, Pro-development, Islamic values. On the other hand AL makes a negative image of BNP as authoritarian, cantonment-born, pro-Pakistani, anti-liberation. BNP makes a negative image of AL as fascist, anti-Islamic, pro-Indian. Besides AL makes a propaganda that if BNP goes to power they will destroy the spirit of Liberation War, pluralism of Bengali culture and secularism. In contrast BNP makes a propaganda that AL is incapable of protecting sovereignty of Bangladesh against Indian domination and for upholding Islamic values in social life. By using negative, revengeful discourse and by attacking each other by hate speech they protect the unity within the party and fight against the other party.
Talukdar Moniruzzaman commented that Bangladesh is an ‘unfinished revolution’. Raunaq Jahan thinks that ‘a low intensity cultural civil war is going on’ in Bangladesh. Dichotomies exist on the question of the ideology of nationalism in Bangladesh politics and two major parties along with their supporters are at loggerheads. Recent emergence of Islamic forces has created an ideological fight between Bengali culture and Islamic culture. Therefore it can be commented that democracy is based on weak foundation when nationhood is questioned.
The two parties believe quite separate versions of their participation in the War of Liberation in 1971. They create myths over the birth of Bangladesh and articulate the heroic nature of their past. The feudal mentality of the democratic parties is apparent in continuous quarrel over the ownership of particular narrative. This contestation results in dynastic politics and disputed proprietorship not merely of the country’s story but also of its resources. They institutionalize grief and pride and democracy turns into politics of revenge. Neither of the main political parties accepts the legitimacy of its rival after being elected. The party in government uses law against opposition charged with criminal activities and the parties out of power harass the government by indiscriminate violent activities. These feud for identity politics create dissension among the people although such disputes are the last thing people need to eliminate poverty or oppression. During military rule under Ziaur Rahman some amendments were made in the constitution which resulted in the creation of new ideologies. The identity of citizens was shifted from ‘Bengali’ to ‘Bangladeshi’. Thus they were shifted from similar identity of the people of West Bengal. The words ‘historic struggle for national liberation’ was replaced by ‘historic war for national independence’. This minimized the role of the civilian population and highlighted the role of the military. Thus the major political parties were put in pro-liberation, pro-Indian, pro-Pakistani, pro-Islamic camps and they mobilized supporters to be divided into warring camps.
In the end it can be said that with the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 on the basis of cultural nationalism, for the first time in history, a demand was created for culture and politics to coalesce. Although situation demanded, the supra level politics in Bangladesh did not reflect the normative moral, social, economic and political orders of the basic structure. An observation of the traditional Bengali culture depicts that Bengalis idealize power as something arising form human consent that is freely given in an expressed or tacit manner. This is similar to Max Weber’s notion of power who states that rulers have to justify their domination in terms of charisma, tradition and law. The Bengali mode of thought exemplifies a political system characterized by a combination of outwardly authoritarian and inwardly democratic principles but not vice versa. This means that although people here emphasize order, the innate passion is for democracy not autocracy. The democratic slogans of the 1990s naturally attracted the Bengalis. However when politics led to oligarchic tendencies in the supra political level with the emergence of “modern prince” and subsistence crisis at the basic structure, Bengalis are considering them to be violations of the reciprocity ethics highly valued in Bengali culture.
What is visible in Bangladesh now is game of power politics. It is explained by Machiavelli in the later 15th and early 16th century. According to Machiavellian doctrine ‘the end justifies the means’. That means the political actions can be judged through their outcomes. This is rather a ruthless and manipulative approach to political goals. By this deceit, murder, violence, use of force in politics seem to be justified if they bring expected results. Here morals ideals are not considered to be important. Same voice is heard from Morgenthau of the 20th century while defining political realism. Promotion of power is held to be a prime self interest. According to this school power is the basis of survival and hierarchical position of power is over morality. That means application of power for political goal is justified even if it is not morally sound.
It is evident that the ‘modern prince’ of Bangladesh politics has established hegemony of power at the state level. To capture and remain in power the ruling elite enters into patron-client relationship with the business elites and rural landowners who in exchange of political loyalty extract maximum goods and services form the state. As a result corruption, violence, mafia activities increase which further deteriorates socio-economic conditions at mass level. The present system can not provide electricity, water, education, health care, transport, housing, employment and other necessary facilities to bring qualitative changes in people’s lives. In Bangladesh both the party in state power and outside of it use violence as a means to achieve goals.
Although both the parties attack each other but they stay in equilibrium. There as a balance of power as both the parties gain support through establishing patron-client relations, asking for their loyalty and using them in political violence. But in the 10th National Parliamentary Elections BNP fell off the balance as it is staying outside state power for a long time and suffers from leadership crisis. When the equilibrium is distorted BNP made strong alliance with JI which was also losing power because of war crime trials. Guided by threat BNP and JI made strong allies and applied violence together to pose a threat to ruling party AL which gained power by staying in government for a longer time. Thus when balance of power was distorted, it was replaced by balance of threat. What needs to be mentioned is that violence is now used as a means of destruction to determine the end which is gaining and retaining power. However they have to understand that use of violence for power can temporarily bring victory, but the price is very high. Price is not only paid by the vanquished but also paid by the victor. If AL gets absolute victory then absolute power may turn out to be dangerous. Factional fights may emerge within the party. If BNP disappears the vacuum in the equilibrium may be filled by the growing militant forces.
Dr Naseem Akhter Hussain is professor of government and politics, Jahangirnagar University.

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