The way people democratise

Farooque Chowdhury

PEOPLE democratise their spheres with own momentum, velocity and force manifested in its leadership, organisation and politics. Trajectory of people’s democratisation process that gets generated from contradictions in the realm of production relation ultimately frees itself from influence and control of dominant interests.
Dominant interest, because of its prevailing paramount position in economy and politics, influences, manipulates, distorts and deactivates people’s democratisation process. The attempts persist temporarily, depending on reality but the power equation changes as people turn matured in terms of experience, theory, leadership, organisation and ways of initiatives/struggles, and a seemingly frustrating, sometimes hopeless, situation gives way to a new dawn of hope.
An example, in brief, elaborates the way.

In retrospect
ON MARCH 9, 1944, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Muslim League leader in the British colony of India, said: ‘At present you should just stand by Pakistan. It means that first of all you have to take possession of a territory. …When you have once taken possession of your homelands the question will then arise as to what form of government you are going to establish’ (Some Recent Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah, collected and edited by Jamil-Ud-Din Ahmad, lecturer, Muslim University, Aligarh, and member, All-India Muslim League council, 1947, Lahore). He was delivering speech at the Aligarh Muslim University Union. Jinnah was unwilling to enter into detail of type of government at that moment as that would have raised questions among a portion of his followers.
But Jinnah’s statement was an irrational one coated with emotion and apparent rationality. His audience, the Muslims of this subcontinent, accepted the statement. Their allegiance to and trust on him encouraged Jinnah to say arrogantly: ‘Fortunately, I came to the rescue of the Musalmans and prevented them from committing suicide’ (ibid). Jinnah was addressing the All-India Railway Muslim Employees’ Association in Delhi on February 27, 1944. The Muslim League leader successfully hoodwinked analytical capacity of his audience that allowed him to make the boastful claim. It highlights the level of his influence at that time.
On August 14, 1947, the day Pakistan emerged as a dominion of the British Empire, the sentiment among the Muslim residents in Dhaka (then, spelled as Dacca) was of jubilation. Jinnah was then unchallenged leader in both wings of Pakistan.
But, within months, there was a voice of opposition. Courageous Bengali students steadfastly opposed Jinnah’s stand on language question. The voice of protest was unimaginable to many Jinnah disciples. The defiant students, inexperienced in comparison to Jinnah, were standing against the Pakistani establishment leadership heavily loaded with Nazimuddin, Akram Khan, and similar others in a bundle. Even, in 1948, a portion of Dhaka residents was opposed to the students standing for Bangla language.
In terms of political resistance, those were desolate days for Bangladesh, at that time it was East Bengal/East Pakistan. The rebel Maulana, Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, was passing hard days in Dhaka. Even, it took courage to visit him as there were always the blood-red eyes of the Muslim League as the arch rightist party in the seat of governance knew the firebrand Maulana, a leader with rebellious peasant background. Communists in East Bengal were compelled to close down the bookstore, a single one, they initiated in Dhaka. At day time, Bareen Datta, a communist leader in East Bengal, as he conveyed in his memoirs Sangraammookhar Deengoolee, had to float in boats in guise of a floating hawker in haor, a vast seasonal water body in the north-central part of Bangladesh, as it was difficult for him to have a safe shelter in Sunamganj. His sister Hena Das and their comrades had the same ‘fate’ in varying forms as their memoirs/autobiographies describe. Hired hoodlums, as Tajuddin Ahmad, the first prime minister of the provisional government of Bangladesh, narrated in his youth days diary (now available in book form), assaulted students belonging to non-Muslim League camp. The hirelings used a government vehicle, the number of which Tajuddin noted in the diary. The lumpens went scot-free as Muslim League leaders were their political fathers. Ila Mitra, the Raanee Maa as the rebel East Bengal Santals used to address her with love and respect, had to face torture in untold term. The Santals had their narration of facing barbarity and brutality unleashed by the Muslim League/Pakistan leadership. The fishers of Sunamganj, the sharecroppers of north-western part of East Bengal waging Tebhaga Andolan or Tebhagar Larai, movement for a fair share of produce, the port and railways workers, the beeree (also spelled bidi), hand-made cigarette, workers and many others from the East Bengal working classes had to face police assault, detention, torture, jail and bullets. Killing of political prisoners in Khaapraa ward, a cell in Rajshahi jail, and death of hunger striking prisoners are only two of many such incidents.
But the days of the torturers were going to their dusk. Shamsul Haque, a young man from an ordinary peasant family, awarded an election-defeat to a Muslim League leader. That was unimaginable to the League leaders, aristocrat, in terms of East Bengal society, and powerful. In the election held in 1954, the Bengali people delivered a verdict: the mighty League was wiped out from the face of East Bengal. Only through conspiracy, riot, buy-in, horse-trading, and other dirty machinations the rulers prevailed, up to the people’s upsurge in 1969, politically. Only a few months before the upsurge, in 1968, Ayub, the ruler at that time, jubilantly celebrated his decade of tyranny, termed ‘decade of development’.
Long before the 1969 upsurge, there were initiatives, in commoners’ ghettoes, to organise struggle for democracy. A booklet, part of those initiatives, said: ‘None has the power to push back time. History doesn’t cease moving forward. History is the witness: The flag of freedom shall fly high forever over this land of rivers, the land where swords of Harsavardhana and Man Singh broke down into pieces.’ The Bangla booklet was published in 1949.
How many people did actually imagine that the statement made in the booklet would come true within only 22 years?
Jinnah’s Pakistan was rejected by the majority of its population. At least Muslim League leadership of all shades including Ayub, leading a faction of Muslim League, his East Pakistani quisling Monaem, their bureaucrat advisers and industrialist supporters that included Adamjee, Bawani and co, Ayub’s vagabond-appearing local government wagon riders declined to listen to the murmurs the movement of the Bengali people made throughout the period. But their denial was not all powerful. Rather, the denial was standing on a hollow ground. People rose up in rebellion, and threw away the tyranny, and then, the glorious Bangladesh war of liberation followed.
This dynamic — a population’s rejection of an ideology upheld by a group of elites, and the population tearing down the elites’ state to half — is difficult, sometimes impossible, to perceive by elite-brain.
Similar ‘people reject elite ideology or politics or rule while ruling elites fail to gauge people’s discontent/difficulty/failure’ was found in other lands also. It was found in Tehran during the last days of Shah. The failure was also present in Manila since the assassination of Benigno Aquino.
Shah, his dreaded and elaborate intelligence network, his political allies, scores of journalists from important Shah-ally countries, Marcos, his politically active wife Imelda and their cronies failed to hear ‘mutter’ below the surface under their heavy feet that encroached all spaces for dissent and democracy. Even Marcos and his cronies failed to ‘smell’ changing position — tact in the name ‘democracy’ — of their closest ally. King Farook in Egypt, King Idris in Libya, Samoza in Nicaragua and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in Haiti, Mubarak in Egypt, and their ruling machines and external master also failed to perceive the dynamic. Erdogan, the backward looking neo-Sultan in Turkey upholding repressive ideas, failed to perceive the Taksim protest threatening his dream for further dictatorial power.
It’s a dynamic people initiate to democratise their life — economy, society, politics and culture. Setbacks and defeats that follow very often only reinvigorate people’s initiative to achieve victory, a long, arduous process.

Move to democratise
PEOPLE keep on their move to claim democracy despite failures and setbacks as democracy is the only space for organising their life in a decent, dignified way. It’s the only space to get mobilised for resisting encroachers of the space required for organising a peaceful, prosperous life.
Organising political movement is their most important and effective way to claim democracy, people’s democracy. But it takes time, etc to organise such a movement. Instead of spending time in frustration people initiate/can initiate other motions that facilitate their mobilisation and forward movement.
A major part of these motions include producing literature. Pre-1969 Bangladesh years experienced scores of literature mostly produced by students and political activists. Journalists with their political columns played a major role. That was a part of politicisation of the masses of people in Bangladesh. In 1815, John Adams wrote to Jefferson: ‘What do we mean by Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington. The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies.’ Other lands dreaming for democracy are not exceptions.
People’s initiatives/moves for democratising their spheres are entirely and fundamentally different from ‘democratisation’ ‘initiatives’ driven by external actors: other states and their organisations, funds, non-governmental organisations in appearance, banks, etc. …
Aim of the external actors’ ‘initiatives’ is to secure existing world order — the world market system — based on inequality while people’s initiatives aim to have a political system corresponding to economic interests of people — an equitable distribution, restoring people’s ownership on the commons, securing environment and ecology in the interest of people, a fair international trade regime, etc. As the two stand opposed to each other external actors’ ‘initiatives’ aim to secure market, sources of raw materials and labour while the other one can secure its interest only by breaking the chain of market.
Market stands as one of the yardsticks for determining type of democracy: for the people or for the market, or in other words, people’s democracy or market’s democracy. Market and democracy cannot move together.
Jacques Attali, economist, philosopher and former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was special adviser to the president of France for 10 years. He finds ‘inherent conflict between the market economy and democracy’ and says the ‘two concepts are contradictory’ (‘The Crash of Western Civilization: The Limits of the Market and Democracy’, Foreign Policy, Number 107, Summer 1997). He also finds ‘the marriage of democracy and the market economy suffers from three fundamental shortcomings’ and says ‘these two sets of principles [democracy and market economy] often contradict one another and are more likely to go head-to-head than hand in hand’ (ibid).
Attali writes:
In a democratic society, the promotion of the individual is the ultimate goal, while in a market economy the individual is treated as a commodity — one that can be excluded or cast aside for want of the right education, skills, physical characteristics, or upbringing.
The market economy accepts and fosters strong inequalities between economic agents, whereas democracy is based on the equal rights of all citizens. By depriving some people of the ability to meet their basic economic needs, the market economy also leaves them less able to exercise their full political rights. Witness the swelling ranks of unemployed workers in much of the West who can vote but are otherwise increasingly disenfranchised and alienated.
The market economy resists the localization of power, discourages coalitions between participants, and encourages selfishness, while democracy depends upon a clear identification of political responsibility, the coalition of citizens in political parties, and a general appreciation of our common fate. Democracies need political parties that are capable of molding platforms based on compromises between individual points of view, while market economies rely on competing individual centers.
The market economy creates a world of nomads, whereas democracy can apply only to sedentary people.
The market economy assumes that the aggregation of selfish behavior by all economic agents is best for the group, whereas democracy makes the assumption that the best outcome for any given group will result from the acceptance by a minority of the decision of a majority (ibid).
As example he mentions:
[O]ur companies and bureaucracies are organized on the basis of fixed plans and strict hierarchies. Can we imagine a real market relationship between divisions of the same company or between a boss and her assistant? Can we imagine an internal referendum on each decision made by a minister or cabinet secretary? (ibid)
Attali beefs up the argument:
[F]ew Western nations including the United States would appreciate an international community where true democracy prevailed. (Imagine, for example, a United Nations where the most important decisions were made not by the Security Council’s oligarchy of five nuclear powers but by the entire General Assembly on the principle of ‘one citizen, one vote’ or ‘one state, one vote’.) If international financial institutions had followed such a democratic system during the so-called Global Negotiations of the 1980s, there would likely have been a drastic shift in the global distribution of wealth that would have jeopardized the interests of the West in general, and of the United States in particular (ibid).
By further dissection he adds:
[A]pplying the principles of the market economy both within and among nations is problematic and undesirable. I know of no Western nation that seeks a free market in justice, law enforcement, national defense, education, or even telecommunications … Few if any Westerners would want to live in a country where court rulings were for sale, citizenship and passports could be purchased at airline ticket counters, and air waves were auctioned off to the highest bidder without regard to content. And among nations, a free market for nuclear weapons, illegal narcotics, high technology, potable water, and pollution would promote the rapid growth of supranational political bodies and powerful nonstate entities capable of challenging national governments (ibid).
People’s democracy, thus, stands opposite to market as principles and practices of market are opposed to principles and practices of democracy, rule of majority of society. So, people’s democratising initiative opposes market. Otherwise, people cannot establish and consolidate their democracy, and market gets a freehand in dominating, distorting and encroaching democracy.

To tomorrow
DEMOCRACY ultimately stands on force, the force of majority. People in their struggle for democracy develop force of their own. The force initially, at a stage and as intermediate phase, gets manifested sometimes in Bangladesh (erstwhile E. Pak.) 1969-people’s upsurge, sometimes in Bangladesh 1990-urban upsurge, sometimes with yellow colour in Manila, sometimes at Tahrir Square and sometimes at Taksim Square. In short, it’s the Tahrir-way, the Taksim-way or the Turkish summer-way, now at Taksim.
People’s democratising initiative can begin as a demand to have bread or an effort to save a commons, a few trees on a small piece of land, and can act as a spark igniting people’s aspiration and yearning against authoritarian archaic ruler/ruling elites, and can shatter the ruler’s/ruling elites’ seeming invincibility, and can spread like wildfire. The outcome depends on other factors and conditions.
Despite similarities to many extents Tahrir is not Taksim, and Taksim can’t be copied elsewhere as conditions that generated Tahrir and Taksim are different. No imagination should be entertained to copy either of the two. However, the two, and similar others provide lessons, which are, broadly: educate, mobilise, avoid adventurism, find out areas for democratic initiatives by the masses of people.
At initial stage, people develop it through awareness, exchange of experiences. In the process, the democracy of minority social classes propagated as democracy-universal, a myth, gets exposed. Gradually, the development rises to the stage of effective organization. People, in their process to democratize, gradually exercise authority – people’s sovereignty – spanning spheres of culture, society, politics and economy.
In a journey towards a democratised tomorrow, initiating motions for democratizing spheres around include: (1) producing literature; (2) expanding publicity; (3) organising exchange of experiences; (4) making demand for fair price shop; (5) organising cooperatives; (6) planning and implementing environmental programs; (7) organising programs for mitigating effects of climate crisis; (8) formulating demands to democratize credit giving societies/groups, re-/construction work groups, bodies managing educational institutions, storage facilities, health facilities, local government and projects; (9) claiming other commons.
Taksim revolt shows that simple trees can mobilise people in a mass-based way shunning irresponsible comments hurting people’s sentiment, adventurous slogans and childish incoherent acts. In places and at times, it may be a river, a water body, a flood plain, an encroacher’s acts and connections.
These and similar other activities, people identify as they proceed, facilitate forward movement for democratising spheres around people, enrich people’s experience, build up leadership, and space for further move. It’s a continuous process with more and more democratising demands of people.

Farooque Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance writer.

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