Political culture in contemporary Bangladesh

by Dina M Siddiqi
March 26, 2010

S34Anniversaries provide opportune moments for pause and retrospection. Independence days are exceptionally significant for the nation-state. They demand collective as well as individual stock-taking – of expectations and ideals at the moment of ‘birth’ and trajectories taken in practice. I use this opportunity to reflect on the contours of Bangladesh’s political culture over the last three and a half decades, primarily as they have shaped spaces and struggles for social justice.
A number of interlocking themes characterise political culture common across elected and military governments. They include a reliance on authoritarianism in times of crisis and the resolution of political differences through extra-parliamentary means. Such steps are invariably accompanied by constructions of an Enemy Other and the portrayal of any political dissent as anti-patriotic.

History, memory and politics
Struggles over history and memory have intimately shaped the structure of political rhetoric and practice – that is, problems of statecraft and of history writing have been deeply intertwined. Almost from its inception, the politics of memory has haunted the national project, the outcome of tensions embedded in the rhetorical structure of nationalism. Bangladesh is especially ‘sovereignty challenged’ as a territorial entity. The war in 1971 was formally articulated in terms of a struggle for a secular state based on the existence of a unified Bengali cultural identity that superseded religious identity. Yet, Bengali nationalism as articulated in 1971 was limited to the inhabitants of the territory of East Pakistan; it could not be extended to the Bengalis of India without undermining the essence of the new nation. Territorial anxieties are frequently generated by the unspoken need to justify the nation-state’s existence in relation to West Bengal’s cultural and geographical borders. At particular political conjunctures, this has generated particular kinds of ‘cartographic anxiety’.1
The contradictions embedded in defining a secular syncretised Bengali culture, one was specific to the new nation-state left nationalist rhetoric open to multiple appropriations. One of the most enduring sites of contestation turns on the place of religion in national identity and the historically constructed Bengali/Muslim dichotomy. Recent historical and anthropological studies have historicised and contextualised categories such as Bengali, Muslim and Hindu. These are not monolithic and timeless; they are mutually constitutive, historically mutable and culturally contested. Indeed the supposed opposition between Bengali and Muslim emerged through the conditions of 19th century British colonialism. It is only when we think of each of these categories as self-contained and discrete that the dichotomy between Bengali and Muslim emerges. Nevertheless, highly charged ideological debates about nationalism and persistent ‘culture wars’ have allowed for a deepening polarisation of the political landscape; the overall effect is a progressive hollowing out of political ideology and practice. By acquiescing to rather than challenging ever narrowing battles over national identity based on the religious/secular dichotomy – especially in the context of the long-term suppression of left political alternatives – mainstream political parties closed off other available terms of debate. Among other things, the focus on Bengali nationalism as the means to secure a democratic secular polity undermined the claims to citizenship of all non-Bengali populations within the borders of the new country.
From socialism to neo-liberalism: continuities and ruptures in state practice
At first glance, the Bangladeshi state today appears radically different from its precursor at independence. Underlying the radical transformations from socialism to neo-liberalism, secularism to Islam as official language and so on, one can discern specific continuities in state structures and practices of ruling. Both military and democratic governments have tried to secure political support through the use of patronage politics, as well as through playing up the national identity question. The explicit politicisation of the bureaucracy, the invocation of a discourse of the Enemy Other, and unabashed state patronage of party loyalists in the early years of the nation set the stage for later developments.
These features show a remarkable continuity with earlier developments in the state of East Pakistan. Willem van Schendel states that the Ayub regime provided a crucial model for successive military rulers in Bangladesh seeking non-democratic means of securing legitimacy. Indeed, Van Schendel argues that the 1958 coup was as critical an event as the 1952 Language Movement for understanding contemporary Bangladesh.2

Democracy since the 1990s: the partisan practice of citizenship
Paradoxically, the reinstatement of democratic politics in 1990 opened up old ideological fissures between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which soon became the two major actors in the political arena. Polarities constructed in earlier regimes came back to haunt the polity. The polemics around identity politics set the tone and framework for future political debates. In the years following Ershad’s fall, the AL-BNP, Bangladeshi-Bengali divide deepened, becoming firmly entrenched in the social fabric of everyday life. The extent to which polarisation was naturalised and institutionalised can be gauged from the fact that nearly all public and professional association openly declared their political affiliation. Public universities and medical colleges, even bar councils and lawyers associations came to be identified by their allegiance to one side or the other. Those affiliated with the party in power gained maximum advantage, not unexpectedly. In this situation, the framework for political debate – pro- or anti-AL, pro-anti liberation – remained essentially frozen. At some level, such questions have been reduced to ownership – of who owns the war of liberation and who can rightly claim to name the nation’s identity. Extraordinary though it may seem, even the Jamaat-e-Islami now wants to stake a claim on 1971. History and the war have been thoroughly commoditised!

Right by might? Symbolic violence as political practice
Curiously, political polarisation rarely transgresses or threatens class boundaries. That is, the Bengali/Bangladeshi divide provides a cross-class axis of polarisation. Indeed, there is striking congruence in the economic and social ideologies of rule of both parties, which have embraced without reservation the neo-liberal logic of development through the ‘free’ market. By extension, neither party directly addresses questions of inequality or redistributive justice.
On one level then, the BNP/AL polarisation after 1990 can be read as conflicts over power sharing and access to resources rather than as ideological struggles. Changes in the structure and direction of student politics in universities illustrate this vividly. In an evocative metaphor, Meghna Guhathakurta has likened this kind of political manoeuvring to that of char dakhal – the forcible and frequently violent occupation of newly emerged char land.3 A striking feature of char dakhal is that it does not involve moral claims; symbolic and real displays of power determine winners and losers. The act of claiming char lands contains within it a double movement. The significance goes beyond actual physical possession. It is part of the symbolic enactment of power. That is, the act of physical possession constitutes and reinforces other forms of power and hierarchy. In this ‘feudal’ landscape, the rest of the peasantry is forced to go with the more powerful party if they wish to participate in and receive benefits from the system. Force and patronage politics trump ideology and political predilections in this instance. Crucially, winning implies a monopoly on power.
In the electoral system based on this logic, voters are compelled to support the stronger candidate, to ensure access to resources as well as to gain symbolic and real protection. The system enables and is enabled by patronage politics. If we extend the dynamics of char occupation to the realm of electoral democracy, we see that the promise of access and protection, rather than the contents of election manifestos, tends to determine voting patterns.
By implication, the politics of ‘might is right’ does not require building up constituencies in the long run. The circularity of the system entraps ordinary citizens who may see through it but have obvious means for escaping it. This accounts for the ease with which opposition parties have been able to absent themselves from parliament for prolonged periods. The system encourages the resolution of political disputes through confrontation in public spaces. The façade of parliamentary democracy is actually compatible with this kind of politics. An explicit disregard for the formal rules of parliamentary democracy has normalised conflict resolution through violence and extra-legal means.
Civil society, arguably, has lost much of its political edge in the process. Paradoxically, the re-introduction of formal democratic politics after 1990 further blurred the lines between civil society and the state, thereby undermining the possibility of meaningful contestation or mediation.4 In these circumstances, the practice of citizenship has been intermittent, unpredictable and mostly muted. The most effective way for citizens to even be heard is through spontaneous and often violent protest, even though historically the Bangladeshi state, military and civil, has brutally repressed such protests.5
Two well-known cases illustrate this vividly. In 2006, a group of citizens in Kansat, northern Bangladesh, formed ‘The Action Committee for Rural Power Development’ to protest persistent shortages and blatant corruption in the provision of electricity. An initially peaceful protest turned bloody after law enforcement authorities opened fire, killing seventeen people. Further intimidation and harassment followed; police ransacked the houses of demonstrators, arrested people indiscriminately and initially refused to file charges against those responsible for the seventeen deaths. 6
Similarly, in 2007, police fired on demonstrators demanding an end to acute water and electricity shortages in Shanir Akhra outside Dhaka city, leaving at least 100 people injured. In their fury, protesters had apparently damaged vehicles, vandalised two petrol pumps and placed barricades on a major highway. The protestors pelted the local member of parliament with stones since he had apparently instigated the police action.7 Both these instances are reminiscent of an earlier episode in 1995, when an acute fertiliser crisis, led to violent protests which resulted in the death of a dozen farmers by police fire.
My argument here converges with Stanley Kochanek’s assessment that most social forces and demand groups find direct action and violence to be the only effective devices available for calling attention to their demands, redressing grievances, or forcing some degree of accountability. However, my reasoning for this state of affairs differs from his.

Conclusion: rescuing the nation from nationalism?
IN this article, I have tried to map some of the structural continuities, historical contingencies and contradictions in contemporary political culture. Despite the many ruptures of war, one finds striking continuities in both state structure and culturally acceptable modes of political engagement between the pre and post war periods. Bangladeshi inherited from Pakistan a state structure moulded by a military-bureaucratic elite accustomed to non-democratic means of ruling since it derived power from external sources and sponsors. The state was effectively alienated from the community/popular politics. This model of governance has been emulated by military regimes in independent Bangladesh to secure political legitimacy. The challenge for civilian governments has been to establish viable bases for political support without relinquishing the power offered by the existing state structure.
Within this authoritarian mode of ruling, patronage politics and the use of identity politics have been major interlocking modes of securing legitimacy. Indeed, patronage consistently sharpens ideological divides. For Islamist politics flourish when encouraged and enabled by the state and recedes from view at other times. Latent tensions in Bengali nationalism also created the conditions of possibility for the formation and hardening of identities through a religious idiom.
Moreover, state sovereignty is always (imagined to be) in danger, both by external dependencies and by internal dissension. From the outset, then it has been easy to conflate political dissent with disloyalty to the nation, thereby laying the foundations for vicious bipartisan bickering. In addition to the discourse of the Enemy Other, the politics of grievance has provided a unifying ideology at critical times.
The entire process has left deep imprints on political culture, eventually resulting in a ‘hollowing’ out of the ideological bases of political struggles. Rancorous disputes over national identity and heightened political polarisation have narrowed discursive and activist spaces. The current polarisation of politics barely masks a more basic struggle over control and ownership of resources. The structure of politics described above in combination with the polarisation of civil society, results in the suppression of options and venues for citizens to express grievances effectively through formal institutions. Bangladesh’s short history is littered with examples of ordinary people pushed to the brink by the unavailability of responsive and accountable institutions and procedures. The first task of the day may be to rescue ourselves from such parochial nationalism and identity politics.

Dina M Siddiqi is a visiting professor, Centre for Gender, Sexuality and HIV/AIDS, James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University. Excerpted from an article by the author in Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh, edited By Ali Riaz and published by Routledge.

1. See Sankaran Krishna, ‘Cartographic Anxiety: Mapping the Body Politic in India’, in Challenging Boundaries: Global Flows, Territorial Identities, ed. Michael J. Shapiro and Hayward R. Alker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 193-214.
2. Willem van Schendel, Bangladesh: A History (forthcoming Cambridge: University Press), 128-129.
3. Meghna Guhathakurta, ‘The Nature of the Bangladeshi State’, In Human Rights in Bangladesh 2001, ed. Hameeda Hossain (Dhaka: ASK, 2002), 22.
4. As Timothy Mitchell argues, state formation is a continuous process, in which the boundaries of the state are never clearly demarcated. Mitchell shows persuasively that distinctions between state and society (or state and economy) have to be actively produced and maintained. I am interested here in the specific ways in which the border between state and society has been negotiated by successive military and non-military governments. In the Bangladeshi case, patronage politics and kinship obligations appear to be fundamental in connecting state and society. See Timothy Mitchell, ‘Society, Economy and the State Effect’, in State/Culture: State-formation after the Cultural Turn, ed. George Steinmetz (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1999).
5. See Kochanek, ‘The Rise of Interest Politics in Bangladesh’, Asian Survey 36 (1996), 704.
6. ‘Kansat – The Untold Story’ //kansat.wordpress.com/.
7. New Age, Dhaka, May 6, 2006.

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