In search of a permanent solution
by Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir
EVERY well-meaning citizen across the globe wants the political paralysis in Bangladesh to end, paving the way for the actualision of her enormous potentials. Yet, there have been little critical engagements in framing the causes-drivers-determinants process of such cyclical outcomes, let alone reaching a permanent solution. The self-styled ‘fixers’ of politics and governance in Bangladesh are either in a state of denial or relegating the impasse to a law and order problem or reducing the deep-rooted predicament to a sexist formulation of personal animosity between the ‘battling begums’ or in sadistic indulgence of finding vindication to their so-called thesis of ‘failed state’ or slashing it to a mere issue of holding elections, depending upon the camps these hawks belong to.
While such intransigence runs havoc, the conflict rages on with nearly 100 people killed, including about 50 in petrol bomb and arson attacks, more than 20 in ‘shootouts’ by law enforcement agencies and some 15 in inter-party clashes. Almost 1,000 vehicles have been torched and rail links disrupted at least 11 times, with the fishplates removed from the tracks. Some 125 arson victims currently languish in the burn unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital while more than 10,000 opposition activists have been arrested, with their leaders mostly in jail or in hiding, facing multiple criminal charges.
A failure in nuanced understanding of the root of the crisis—the crises in state formation and disempowered citizenship—can only multiply human sufferings, and intensify law and order breakdown, leading to the rise of extremism, destabilisation of the country and long-term damage. The present article makes an attempt at public debate by asking three relevant questions: 1. Are the individuals empowered enough to assert their citizenship and claim their rights? 2. Has the Bangladeshi state evolved to a citizens’ state? 3. Is a permanent solution to the political deadlock feasible?
Are the individuals empowered enough to assert their citizenship and claim their rights?
THE media is right in asserting that the political brawl should stop to protect innocent women and children, father and mother from arson and that there should be a sound environment wherein students can pursue their dreams, framers can cultivate, labourers can work, transports can ply, factories can operate, and businesses can function. Such a desirability for a state of normalcy for all but an absence of deliberative democracy on the root cause of the crisis—rights of citizens—can only disservice the people at large and cannot by any means even guarantee the minimalistic Locekan formation of ‘the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another’.
The cyclical pattern of the conflicts ensuing in every fourth year after an election in the past 25 years, arguably non-effectiveness of parliament and regular opposition boycotts in most of the sessions, parliamentarians engaging more outside their realm, etc exhibit the fundamental crisis of the Bangladesh polity — the citizens’ disempowerment.
What can be more disturbing examples of citizens’ disenfranchisement than those of clinging to power, or overthrow of a regime by violence, without any inclusive elections, an exercise of people’s power? Has not the absence of citizenship degenerated the people at large into, what Hobbes calls, ‘continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’?
The word ‘citizen’ embodies a number of intrinsic meanings, denoting that an individual at least enjoys freedom. Citizenship entails an individual to be an active participant, indicating his or her 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.
Are the citizens empowered enough that they are freely enjoying and practising the freedoms of voting, thought and conscience, speech, expression, association, assembly, and movement? More fundamentally, are we being 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, being able to achieve freedom by positively developing our concrete social relations?
Has the Bangladeshi state evolved to a citizens’ state?
THE questions posed above begs the sequential question: Has the Bangladeshi state evolved into a citizens’ state, ensuring elements such as breadth of participation, political equality, protection against state hegemony, and mutually binding consultations between the state and citizens? Setting aside the theoretical complexities, a state is a voluntary association of its citizens, bound through a social contract, the abstract of which is concretised as the constitution. The independent Bangladesh came into being through hundred years of people’s struggles with the promise of becoming a citizens’ state ‘to ensure equality, human dignity and social justice’, as articulated in the Proclamation of Independence. Do we have a social contract—the constitution—that translates those cardinal principles into reality? Do we have a system of representation that reflects the wishes and diversity of the citizenry? Do we have the executives that work for a citizens’ state? Do we have functioning apparatuses that encompass and advance strategic interest at home and abroad? These require deeper investigations, at the least into the institutional arrangements and organisation structures, including the political process, the organs of the state, the executives, the judiciary, etc.
What is conspicuous is that the political process in Bangladesh has given in to a particular form of primitive accumulation of resources through the use of power and coercion, leading to a system of clientalist political networks. The clientalist resource-dependent networks are symbiotically connected at vertical layers (local, regional, and national) and are horizontally interlinked with corresponding levels of business, administration, law enforcement agencies and judicial system. For example, media plentifully report that political party leaders employ cadres and mastaans (musclemen) to expropriate public resources and loot or deprive soft targets. The police usually do not arrest ruling party leaders and cadres for their wrongdoings because they are backed by the government of the day. The administration dishes away bounty to, and benefit from, the ruling political ring. The businessmen elect supporters of the ruling party to lead the business associations. The hunt for usurpations of assets perpetuates not only divisiveness of all stratums of intermediate classes on political lines but also reproduction of politics of confrontation. Broadly, the intermediate classes comprise rich and middle-class peasants, urban petty bourgeoisies and educated middle classes, who have greater degree of organisational ability than those of workers, poor peasants and the unemployed illiterates. This also brings home an absence, and crisis in formation, of elite or bourgeoisie.
Against the backdrop, the first casualty of the citizenship and the public order is representation, and such disenfranchisement, as has been witnessed in Bangladesh, is exerted with shady logics and ‘monopoly of force’, keeping legitimacy at bay. In such circumstances, ordinary citizens who constitute the silent majority would like to see changes in the system of representation at least on three issues—the process of electing representatives, the jurisdictions of lawmakers, and the organisation conducting the election—to shift away from the concentration of power. There is the need to rethink the current first-past-the-post system which may allow for maximum seats with minimum votes to move towards a system of proportional representation and bicameral houses to entice wider participation and limiting monopolisation. The apparently ineffectual parliament, with lawmakers more keen on fiscal and non-fiscal benefits, may be reversed to a certain degree if the constitution empowers the parliament with authorities of checks and balances and powers of oversights over the executive branch of the government. There is a complete agreement that the election commission requires a constitutional overhaul to ensure inclusive, free and fair elections.
The executives, particularly the bureaucracy and the police, are the relics of the colonial past. The bureaucracy, a creation by the East India Company to collect revenues for it and later for ensuring net outflow to the colonisers, metamorphosed to the central superior service (the notion being that they are superior beings) in Pakistan to perpetuate the hierarchy over the citizens, has hardly transformed to a public service, suiting to the need of an independent state, apart from their decorative name of the ‘civil service’. The police, raised by an oppressive act of 1861 against the backdrop of India’s first war for independence (aka Indian Rebellion of 1857), has remained inherently authoritarian, with people perceiving the constabulary as agents of the party in power while force continues to find itself immune from accountability to the community amidst a sea change transformation the world over into community police.
Bangladesh has remained a centralised state, paving the way for the winners-take-all strategy while the government is conspicuously missing in servicing the citizens in the absence of local government, despite having administrative divisions and several tiers. The local government is not there as it has never been instituted with basic minimum functions of a government such as a legislature or a rule-making body, a police to ensure protection of life and property, and a bureaucracy to provide public utilities such as education, health, housing, transportation, social security and other public services. The country warrants a new social contract for moving towards a system of government that ensures ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’
Bangladesh sits at the heart of a geo-strategic-polity connecting a vast majority of the earth’s nations and population in an increasingly globalised world and changing strategic realignment, but she lacks institutional arrangements to frame policies such as balanced autonomous developmental diplomacy to unleash her potentials. A national security council or an equivalent, not an extra-constitutional body but accountable to parliament, is now essential to formulate well-considered foreign and defence policies for maintaining sovereignty and furthering national interests.
Is a permanent solution to the political deadlock feasible?
THE abovementioned articulation points to writing of a new democratic constitution. 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 her independence shedding 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 an election. The demonstrated resilience of the people only vouches in favour of a struggle for a new democratic constitution for an empowered citizenry.
Source: New Age