The present Bangladesh regime, despite plunder-friendly policies and high corruption and grabbing, uses rhetoric of ‘the spirit of the liberation war’ as its shield. The spirit of liberation war means people’s power, equality, democratic institutions, sovereign authority of people over the country’s resources and decision-making process, democratic practices within party and society, writes Anu Muhammad
WE ARE talking about democracy and development, and justice and security in the time of global and local disorder. Therefore, while we want to talk about these issues, it turned into a discussion on demo(n)cracy and (mal)development, (in)justice and (in)security. Rulers do not hesitate to say big words on democracy, justice and development. But at the end, people find hidden words between the lines with daily sufferings and shocks.
We are living in the digital age of growth with deprivation, affluence with poverty, globalisation with high inequality and vulnerability. We are witnessing unprecedented wastage of human and material resources on war and surveillance, expansion of repressive machine, and high growth of private (in)security business. Most alarmingly, invisible government has taken over areas of vital importance. The big brother’s fascist sermon, war (of)on terror, is shaping the global (dis)order: ‘either with us or against us’. The US exercises its right to bomb any country and kill innocent people if they unilaterally like to brand them as terrorist. This model of democracy trickle down well in different corners of the globe, very much liked by the regimes fearful of people’s power and democracy. Intolerance and hatred appear as guiding principle of today’s ‘rule of law’ in global scale. All these things are happening in the name of democracy, development and security.
In today’s world, peripheral states have been pushed to ‘enjoy’ limited sovereignty while people are given limited designated space in so-called developed democracy. In a recent interview with RT, Slavoj Zižek correctly said about the nature of democracy in countries such as the US: ‘We are free to choose food, to make personal choice about many options of tea or watch movies. But we do not have any power to influence state policies that shape our lives’. Obviously, things are taking much worse a shape in countries such as Bangladesh with local and global lords on the shoulder.
Democracy cannot be reduced to periodic (whatever) election, development cannot be reduced to (whatever) GDP growth. These are much more. ‘Democracy needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve development goal’ very common to hear from ruling elites. In Bangladesh, we see that the nature of development depends highly on primitive forms of accumulation that include widespread corruption, rent seeking, illicit business of arms, drug and human trafficking, grabbing of common property, commission based bad deals with foreign and local big companies, bank loan default and resource outflow and so on. All these forms of accumulation can contribute to the growth of the GDP but put long-term development potential of the country in danger. Moreover this nature of ‘development’ asks for squeezing democratic rights, replacing institutions with vested interests. Law and the state become crude instruments for capital accumulation. Demoncracy rises. Therefore, maldevelopment and demoncracy grow together.
A few years ago, UNESCO, the only organisation in the United Nations system the constitution of which refers to democratic principles, set up an ‘International Panel on Democracy and Development’ in order to examine and study the debates on relationship between democracy and development taking representatives from all regions of the world. The committee inquired about international democracy as well as domestic democracy as these two are very much interlinked.
The report defined democracy as a system where
1. ‘The whole of society can participate, at every level, in the decision-making process and keep control of it’;
2. ‘Full observance of human rights, as defined by both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Pacts and Declaration of 1993’;
3. ‘Rights and the respect of differences and of freedom of speech and thought’;
4. ‘An independent judicial system, freedom of expression and the existence of free media’; and finally,
5. ‘Power to legislate exercised by representatives of the people who have been elected by the people. The holding of free and fair elections by universal suffrage is a necessary, though not in itself sufficient, precondition for the existence of a democratic regime’.
The report therefore stated democracy ‘as a political system that is capable of correcting its own dysfunctions’… that also ‘needs to be embodied in a culture, a state of mind that fosters tolerance and respect for other people, as well as pluralism, equilibrium and dialogue between the forces that make up a society’.
On the analysis of development, panel members were unanimous in asserting that development should be understood to mean the whole range of economic, social and cultural progress which was marked by a series of major international conferences on the Environment (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), Population (Cairo, 1994), Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), Women (Beijing, 1995) and Habitat (Istanbul, 1996). Development cannot be sustained by pushing up GDP alone.
In another study, Pranab Bardhan of University of California at Berkeley examined the complex relationship of democracy and development. He pointed out that democracy cannot make its way only by ensuring property rights because ‘if the majority are poor and the democratic processes work, the property rights of the rich minority may always be under a threat’. Professor Bardhan discussed in details experiences of ‘authoritarian states’ and its achievement in development goals. The East Asian success story in development over the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s has been referred to by many as case studies for putting development against democracy. The role played by powerful semi-autonomous technocratic organisations such as the Economic Planning Bureau in South Korea and the Industrial Development Bureau in Taiwan has also been referred to in textbooks. It is claimed that authoritarianism made it less difficult for the regimes in East Asia to implement necessary policies.
Bardhan, however, pointed out that ‘authoritarianism is neither necessary (even in East Asia, post-war Japan has successfully insulated parts of the bureaucracy without giving up on democracy) nor sufficient (even in East Asia, the dictatorship of Marcos in the Philippines is an uncertain prospect of a share in a larger pie)’. He also referred to other instances of ‘authoritarian regimes like the Duvaliers in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza in Nicaragua, Mobutu in Zaire, and so on, ‘who systematically plundered and wrecked their economies for excruciatingly long periods’. In contrast, he insisted, in South Korea and Taiwan, initial conditions were much more favourable to the ruled (with land reforms and expansion of mass education).
The present Bangladesh regime, despite plunder-friendly policies and high corruption and grabbing, uses rhetoric of ‘the spirit of the liberation war’ as its shield. The spirit of liberation war means people’s power, equality, democratic institutions, sovereign authority of people over the country’s resources and decision-making process, democratic practices within party and society. Other than bringing some Bengali war criminals to justice, the present Awami League (and alliance) does not hold a different record than the other face of the ruling class, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (and alliance). Both have similar records in plunder, grabbing common property and land of religious and ethnic minorities, also in corruption, violence, extrajudicial killing and so on. Both the parties follow the same neo-liberal economic ideology, both aim to enjoy absolute power, both use their student and other organisations to create armed hooligans, and both have the records to destroy institutions and create feudal or tribal rule. The relay race now reached to its worst scenario in areas of both ‘democracy’ and ‘development’. At this point people are even deprived of their voting rights.
Therefore, we have many reasons to be worried for our present and future. Our major concern include the following:
1. Grabber-friendly state. The state is visibly becoming an instrument of power and accumulation for an oligarchy.
2. Increasing militarisation, expansion of surveillance, invisible machine to rule.
3. Media and intelligentsia embedded to illicit money and power.
4. Erosion of institutional capability in favour of corporate and group interest.
5. Corporatisation of NGOs and civil society.
6. A form of privatisation of law enforcement agencies and administration.
7. Commercialisation of security system.
8. Irreparable damage or destruction of environment, grabbing rivers wetland and open space in the name of development. Violence follows.
9. Manufacturing of consent for repression, torture, harassment and even killing.
10. State-sponsored killing in the name of crossfire, disappearances, illegal arrest and harassment becomes everyday news. Law and legal process has become a hostage to mafia groups.
At this moment, we have nothing to do but to raise our voices for both development and democracy, against fear of terror, against plunder, against monopolisation of power and grabbing of people’s resources to bring people’s political and economic rights in the centre of politics.
Anu Muhammad is a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.