Bangladesh: The crisis of the state

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley
As 2006 draws to its close Bangladesh once more finds itself in the iron grip of a crisis of the state. Thirty-five years after its sanguinary inception the country is in the throes of a great convulsion. The turmoil is evidently political. The visible part of the trouble is literally the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it lies submerged the basic causes of the relentless unrest.

These causes are many and varied. The principle one relates to the inability of the politico-social elite to achieve consensus on core political issues. Divergent and apparently contradictory ideas about the nature of nationalism haunt the land. The political elite remains unable to agree on a consensual concept of nationalism. The Awami League and its allies are staunch advocates of “Bengali Nationalism”. According to their view this nationalism emanates from the unity forged among the Bengalis by the glorious war of liberation in 1971. By implication it is based on unity of language, culture, heritage and territory. The reference to the war of liberation confines, at least in political terms, this feeling of national unity to the people of Bangladesh. It leaves no scope for irredentist aspirations and does not toy with the idea of spreading Bengali nationalism beyond the frontiers of Bangladesh.

By contrast Bangladesh Nationalist party, BNP and those political parties which share its ideas are avowed adherence of “Bangladeshi nationalism”. This concept while recognizing the essential Bengali core of national unity builds itself on direct and clear exclusion of those Bengali speaking people who are citizens of other countries. Its exclusive nature on this count does not prevent it from being inclusive on another plane. “Bangladeshi Nationalism” thus easily contains those communities of Bangladesh who are not Bengalis. These include the hill people of the Chittagong hill tracts and of the territories in the North East of the Country.

Although the advocates of this brand of nationalism do not overtly proclaim any religious component in the composition of this nationalism there is, a feeling among its critics that it tends to promote the Muslim Characteristics of the majority of the people of Bangladesh.

Basically both the concepts centre round the people of Bangladesh. In essence, therefore, there may be more of convergence than of divergence and contradiction between the two. However, the differing concepts of nationalism espoused by the two major organized political forces in the country seem to have driven a wedge between the two. Over the years the gap has widened and the differences have sharpened. In consequence in recent times the nation at least its political, intellectual and professional elites have become dangerously polarized. This is the epicenter of the present crisis of the state.

The other causes of the crisis also issue from and are related to this core of the problem. The unhealthy and basically “unreal” disputes relating to the historical place of national leaders belonging to the two camps is the result of the divide in thoughts on and approaches to the question of Nationalism.

Similarly these differing mind-sets also issue in difference of approach towards important matters of foreign policy. Bipartisanship in foreign affairs has not grown to desirable extent. Fortunately for the country global and regional developments since the end of the bipolar world order in early 1990s, have led to a convergence of approach to economic affairs. The manifesto of both major parties now reflect avowed adherence to open market economy despite the differences of style. Thus while the BNP speaks of social justice, the Awami League stresses welfare of the society while committing themselves to market economy.

The major political forces also have evolved a consensus on the form of desirable pluralist multiparty democracy. In the wake of the end of autocratic dispensation in 1990 the fifth parliament unanimously resurrected the parliamentary cabinet type of democracy in Bangladesh. It is another matter that in practice the system tended to remain dominated by the chief executive, the prime minister.

Subsequently in 1996 there was also agreement on creating a level playing field for elections by the constitutional provision of a non partisan caretaker government whose task is to hold fair and free elections untainted by partisan considerations. It should be noted however, that this new amendment to the constitution was the product of intense and widespread civil agitation by parties outside power but not within.

The pity is that despite consensus on these matters of economy and political procedures the basic political divide on matters of substance has prevented the nation from effectively resolving the crises of the state.

The caretaker government, it is now alleged, does not adequately serve the purpose for which it was created. The very forces which led the movement for designing the caretaker system now complain that those in power in recent times have engineered to load the system against others. There is at present widespread agitation demanding the reform and recasting of the caretaker government. The present Carekater government is under severe pressure to set matters right to ensure a level playing field for all the participants in the national elections scheduled for January 2007.

Meanwhile, the nation, especially its upper crusts remain captive of a dreadful division. Politics of division and polarization permeates the leading strata of intellectual and professional arena. The bureaucracy has been politicized and polarized to such an extent that it is difficult to find neutral and objective elements. Same is the case with the professionals: lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers, economists, journalists and agricultural experts. This is a sad spectacle. . A more sordid scenario feature the student communities especially in the universities and colleges. Polarized and divided educated youth adds to the danger facing the nation.

While all this takes place at the upper echelons, relatively better off and more educated elements of the society, the people at large remain one and united in their misery and desperation. The political conflicts sap national vitality. The economy, though growing despite inept governments inadequate governance and seemingly endless political feuds, is prevented from achieving what it could. International analysts and critics see great hope in the vibrant and hard working people of Bangladesh. Some see the country among the next ‘Eleven’ to rise. Others forecast a growing developed and vibrant economic future for Bangladesh. The vast majority of the people who continue to work and add to the productivity of the land know what they are: Bengalis of Bangladesh. They do not find any contradiction between being Bengalis and Muslims or Bengalis and Hindus, Christians or Buddhist at the same time.

The division and polarization created by distorted and confused politics, itself the victim of system-capture by greedy and myopic plunderers and robber Barons, is in the eyes of the people not only undesirable but totally unnecessary.

The sooner farsighted, competent and committed leaders put an end to this state of affairs the better. If the political leaders do not act now to make democracy and economic development real the new generations will out-flank and cast them to the fore winds.

The author, a noted thinker and social scientist, is the founder Chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor, quarterly “ASIAN AFFAIRS”. He was member of the erstwhile civil service of Pakistan CSP and a technocrat (non partisan) Minister for Information and Irrigation, Flood Control and Water Resources Development of the Government of Bangladesh.

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