A sustainable solution warrants delving into the roots of the crisis — the formation of post-colonial independent state, the punctured institutions, and the contingent political competition for primitive capital accumulation, which have largely been ignored, Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, who teachers economics at the development studies department in the University of Dhaka, tells Shakhawat Hossain in an interview with New Age
New Age: The ‘proclamation’ of Bangladesh’s independence, made on April 10, 1971, promised citizens ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’. Now, 44 years into the country’s independence, where does Bangladesh stand in terms of ‘equality’ — political, economic and cultural — of the citizens?
Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir: The independent Bangladesh came into being following hundreds of years of people’s struggle, with the promise of becoming a state which ensures equality, human dignity and social justice as articulated in the proclamation of independence. Do we have a social contract — constitution — that translates those cardinal principles into reality? Do we have a system of representation that reflects wishes and the diversity of the citizenry? Do we have an executive that works for a state of the citizens? Do we have functioning bodies that encompass and advances the strategic interest at home and abroad?
These questions require deeper investigations, at least, into the institutional arrangements and organisation structures including the political process, the organs of the sate, the executive, the judiciary, etc.
As regards equality, inequality in terms of income, access to resources, rural-urban divide and male-female discriminations are conspicuous. Most strikingly, there is little discussion on wealth inequality. Thus, advantages gained from birth, for instance, harbour a culture in which hard work and efforts are discouraged.
Ideally, Bangladesh should also have a close-to-zero per cent unemployment rate as there are neither unemployment benefits nor any social security provisions of a welfare state. The latest labour force survey shows that there has been an increase in the unemployment rate with the highest number of the unemployed being the youth.
The educated youth constitute the major portion of the unemployed. Most employment opportunities are in the informal sector where the practice of worker rights violation is rampant. Employment in the formal sector has declined.
Lack of functioning institutions has worsened inequality. Bangladesh is run like other post-colonial countries, by intermediate classes interested only in securing wealth by any means necessary. Broadly, the intermediate classes are comopsed of the rich and middle-class peasants, urban petty bourgeois and the educated middle class, who have a greater degree of organisational ability than those of workers, poor peasants, the unemployed and the uneducated.
This urge to gain wealth by any and all means necessary results in alienation of the incumbents in power from people at large and creates over-dependence on the coercive powers of the state. This form of alienation is fortified through denial of freedom to citizens, civil rights and socio-economic injustice. Over the years, through the actions of successive regimes, aspirations of the war of liberation have been supplanted by a completely different kind of aspirations for the power elite — primitive capital accumulation.
Pluralism is, thus, rejected, and so is creativity. Enterprise making is abandoned for sycophancy, nepotism and systematic misappropriation, subverting productivity. As such, the pace of growth, obtained by the toil of labourers and enterprises that do not benefit them, is largely wasted and becomes unsustainable. The economy, even if it expands, jumps from the frying pan into the fire until a gaping hole in the system becomes too big to cover up with stop-gap measures.
To guarantee equality, the country has to have a new social order to move towards a system of government that ensures all of these.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir: The concept of human dignity of citizens embodies a number of intrinsic meanings, denoting that an individual at least enjoys freedom. Citizenship entails individuals to be active participants, indicating their political, social and economic rights. The liberals have favoured ‘negative freedom’ — the rights of non-interference, absence of obstacles and no harm to others. Therefore, citizenship and rights go hand in hand and are inalienable and sometimes even absolute.
The fundamental crisis of the Bangladesh polity is the disempowerment of citizens. What can be a more disturbing example of the disenfranchisement of citizens than clinging to power by any means, or through a violent regime change, without inclusive elections and without the exercise of people’s right to vote?
Has not the absence of citizenship turned people’s life, at large, to what Hobbes called ‘continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’?
Are the citizens empowered enough that they freely enjoy and practise the freedom of voting, thought and conscience, speech, expression, association, assembly, and movement? More fundamentally, are we able to build positive and cooperative relationships with each other to live together as species-beings? Are we as human beings, essentially as social beings, able to achieve freedom by positively developing our concrete social relations?
As such, the main pillars of the state, namely a functioning judiciary, an effective parliament and a civil administration to implement the political mandate of people, given by the people to the elected representatives of the people, are eroded. The motive of the ruling elite is simply to have a centralised state with the concentration of power. The system becomes authoritarian and cannot withstand even muted dissent and public scrutiny. Such an absence of deliberative democracy can only disservice people at large and cannot by any means even guarantee the minimalistic Lockean formation of ‘the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another’.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir: The concept of social justice denotes liberation from unjust economic, political and social conditions. Are the citizens of Bangladesh receiving justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within society? Does the Bangladesh state provide basic services such as education, health, housing, transportation and social security for all its citizens? Has the state been able to enact progressive taxation and regulation of markets to ensure fair distribution of wealth, equal opportunity and equality of outcome? Has the state been able to guarantee the freedom of thought, liberty of conscience, representative democratic institutions, freedom of assembly and association?
All of these led to the idea of a new social order between citizens and the state. For example, in order for economic growth and social development to be sustainable, the sufficient condition is a democratic public order. Only a democratically accountable system of governance can advance the three core principles of the war of independence.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir: A sustainable solution warrants delving into the roots of the crisis — the formation of a post-colonial independent state, the punctured institutions, and the contingent political competition for primitive capital accumulation. These have largely been ignored and the formation of a citizen state has been held back, with frequent conflicts. The compulsion of citizenship and state building warrants a new social settlement — new democratic constitution — to build institutions for the citizens.
The consequential question is: is it feasible? Bangladesh has a track record. The frequency of elections has increased from only two in British India and two in Pakistan to 10 in Bangladesh. The movements of 11 points, to six points, to an eventual one point gave birth to an independent Bangladesh, the only country in the whole of South Asia that has earned its independence through blood and defeating authoritarian and military governance. Subsequent movements fought against one-party populist authoritarianism and clientelistic military governance, with a positive consequence in which political organisations can be set up and operated to challenge the ruling coalition and a negative unintended consequence of the cyclical pattern of the conflicts ensuing in every fourth year, after elections. The demonstrated resilience of the people only vouches in favour of a struggle for a new democratic order for an empowered citizenry.