The nation can succeed in establishing an effective and working democracy and it would require increased tolerance, leading to voluntary national consensus on core national issues such as the definition of nationalism, the place of national leaders in history and an acceptable mode and mechanism for the transfer of power through peaceful changes in government, Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, former university teacher, bureaucrat, and non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister in 1990, tells Mohiuddin Alamgir 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?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: No doubt, there have been substantial achievements in various sectors since our victory in the glorious war of liberation in 1971. Nevertheless, by the yardstick of reality, there are great gaps in our accomplishments. Equality has been elusive, practically in all sectors — political, economical, social and cultural.
In the political field, failure to establish and maintain real democracy has lead to grievous inequalities between rulers and the ruled, governors and the governed.
The mighty have assumed a monopoly of power both politically and economically. Failure to establish democracy occurred because of several historical events — some of them are the transformation of the state into a one-party one in 1975, the subsequent coup d’état and the counter coup d’état leading to a military rule, which was civilised later.
Despite the change from the military rule to the civilian and the constitutional rule between 1975 and 1990, substances of democracy could not be achieved.
Following return to the parliamentary democracy in 1991, Bangladesh has been marked by apparently democratic governments which lacked many of the essential values and components of democracy; thus, tolerance of different and diversified opinions, unwavering respect for human rights and dignity, social justice, the rule of law, good governance, accountability and transparency have been wandering.
The result has been a skewed political system which is described as democracy but lacks the much-needed essentials of a democratic system. The consequences of what can be described as Bangladeshis illiberal on uncertain democracy have been disastrous for the country’s economy, society and culture as African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah said, ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all others things shall be added unto you.’ In Bangladesh, to seek and win political kingdom has caused disasters in the economic, social and cultural spheres.
Thus, the monopoly of political power especially in recent times has led to an increased economic inequality. There is virtually stagnation in investment, domestic and foreign. Idle money lying with banks and financial institutions have amounted to about Tk 1,16,000 crore.
Industry and business are in doldrums. There is tremendous illegal transfer of financial resources abroad and whatever trade, business and industrial activities take place seem to be dominated by crony capitalism. The net result is a distorted and inequitable economy with an uncertain future.
Equality in society could not be achieved in 44 years of Bangladesh because of political and economic inequalities. Balanced growth has never been the fate of Bangladesh.
The poor tend to remain poor or become poorer. The middle class is shaky in its class position.
Patron-client relationship under dominant political governments tended to strengthen socio-economic inequalities between the favourites of the government and the rest of the nation. Under such a politico-socio-economic condition, cultural equality remains a distant dream.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: In an unequal society, the poor, deprived, dispossessed and downtrodden masses inevitably suffer. They cannot make both ends meet with their meagre earnings. Weak economic foundations prevent them from achieving human rights and dignity.
Bangladesh is predominantly poor despite efforts at economic development. Unbalanced growth and inequitable development have alleviated poverty to an insufficient extent.
In such a society, rulers are dominant and influential, institutions of the state tend to be influenced and manipulated by them. Not only the politically strong but also the rich dominate the legislature, the executive and the judicial system and the poor masses usually have only limited access to them. It is often vaunted that in democracy, law does not favour one over the other and that all are equal in the eyes of law. As many say in England, courts of law are equally open to all and so is the Ritz hotel.
Lack of adequate resources prevent the teeming millions from accessing their just rights in an unequal society.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: A society which is not politically egalitarian and economically equitable remains unable to achieve social justice. Underdeveloped and distorted politics and imbalanced economy of Bangladesh stands in the way of establishing social justice.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: Bangladesh acquired independence in blood and fire but during more than four decades of its existence, the country has been unable to materialise the purposes of freedom.
The reasons for the continuing failure are multi-dimensional but the root cause is one — democracy. The directive principles of state policy of Bangladesh were democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism and after 44 years, it appears that the very first and most important objective of our liberation, that is democracy, remains unachieved.
The nation can redeem itself and succeed in establishing an effective and working democracy. Such a system would require increased tolerance, which would lead to voluntary national consensus on core national issues. These issues include the definition of nationalism, the place of national leaders in history, and an acceptable mode and mechanism for the transfer of power through peaceful changes in government, which usually is free and fair elections.
In such a scenario, elections should not and would not become a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all.
A genuine democracy means respect for constitutional opposition, the rule of law, respect for human rights and good governance.
Good governance means state-building and creating institutions of the state on a sound and non-partisan basis. It also includes building the economy, justice and participation.
Bangladesh under dedicated, dynamic and competent leadership can achieve all these. If that happened, it might succeed in getting out of the political underdevelopment and the inequitable social conditions within a relatively short time.