Politics and Democracy – the Bangladeshi Style

Published on Friday, January 3, 2014

In my 32 years in the United States, my social life was most pressing during my time in the greater Boston area. That was 1989-1992, when I was a young lecturer at Northeastern University. When my wife and I arrived there, we knew quite a few Bangladeshis from our Dhaka University days in the 1970s and 1980s. Through them we came to know quite a few more. Most of our friends and acquaintances were highly qualified, both professionals and graduate students. Through social interactions with them, I got involved in the Bangladesh Association of New England (BANE), a Boston-centric group.

I remember having to join many meetings concerning the election and selection of the executive committee of BANE. Holding positions in the executive committee was considered so important that there were rival groups that would act like enemies. Inter-group socializations were rare.

One thing that struck me the most was that, even within each group, people could not take a relaxing attitude of serving and of allowing to serve. It felt weird to me, as the organization was really only social and voluntary. It was certainly not like a government, where the responsibilities of making and enforcing laws are involved. Yet, night after night people would meet to try to come up with a consensus on one candidate in cases where more than one aspired to serve in the capacity of the same position. I failed to convince people to let all be candidates for election with a fun attitude, fully willing to serve as volunteers when not elected. I even expressed my feeling that I did not need to thank people for electing me, as I would be spending my time serving them; and I deserved the thanks for doing that.

I gave the Boston example, because Boston is known as the city of universities. There are quite a few highly renowned universities, including Harvard and MIT, in the greater Boston area. Most Bangladeshis there at that time, before the big immigration of lottery visa winners, were high academic achievers. Even for people like them, simple democracy even for positions of no power was too difficult to handle.

In Bangladesh today, we have a situation where 153 members of the parliament out of a total of 300 have been elected uncontested. Obviously it means that more than half of the population of the country would not have any say in the election of the next parliament! It is also obvious that if there is no opponent, the lone candidate would be elected, and it would be totally legal. Of course, so many getting elected uncontested is very unusual. It does not look like democracy, as the voters are not choosing their representatives.

What caused this situation in Bangladesh? The main opposition party in the outgoing parliament is not participating in the election, fearing that the election might be rigged by the party in power. Their demand for a neutral care-taker government run by a number of unelected persons, the so-called civil society, was not met by the governing party. The care-taker government concept can be seen only in countries like Bangladesh that have no credentials in democracy. The countries with a long history of democracy, such as the USA and the UK, have no such thing as a 'care-taker government'. Indeed, some unelected people running a country is contrary to democracy. Besides, who is to decide who is neutral? Choices made by biased people cannot be neutral. Even in Bangladesh, the care-taker government system did not work well; the last one given the responsibility of conducting an election ended up extending its tenure by breaking the spirit, if not the legality, of the care-taker concept.

How were the 153 candidates 'elected' uncontested? Was there really any kind of election? No. The party hierarchies of several parties, including the governing Awami League, selected who would remain the candidates, and who would withdraw candidacy. In many constituencies, the uncontested and the ones that are up for contesting are not the best or most popular personalities. Their favorable positions with the party hierarchy are the basis for their selection. This is not democracy.

There is no intra-party democracy in Bangladesh. Ordinary members of the party do not decide who their party nominees would be. The heads and the elite of the parties are the dictators, and the ordinary party members, and ultimately all voters, have to go by what choices are given to them by the party heads and elite. Bangladesh could certainly learn from the USA, for example. In the USA, there is a considerable amount of electioneering, such as party caucuses and primaries, to nominate candidates that would contest against candidates from other parties. The ordinary party members have a lot of say on who would be their party's candidates.

The party elite dictating or sweating much for selecting candidates is not democracy. Negotiation between parties to elect candidates uncontested is a worse version of undemocratic practices. The present uncontested win by 153 candidates for the parliament of Bangladesh fits quite well with the mentalities of the Boston Bangladeshi elite that I have seen.

What I have discussed above is not the worst of 'democracy' in the Bangladeshi style. Currently, the country is going through an anarchic situation. The principal opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has not only boycotted the January 5, 2014, election that is being conducted under the elected Awami League party government.

In the name of movement on behalf of the people, BNP and its ally Jamat-i-Islami party have been trying to prevent the election by creating a war-like situation in Bangladesh. They are engaged in what is called 'hartals' (blockades) in Bangladesh. Their subversive activities include digging trenches across roads, felling trees on roads, uprooting rail lines, burning and bombing public and private vehicles, including buses, cars, trucks, three wheelers and rickshaws. Their actions have resulted in horribly painful burns and other injuries and deaths to scores of ordinary citizens of the country.

What they are trying to do is to stop the country from functioning. By making public life hell, they wish to earn what they want, an election that is to be conducted by unelected people. There is no evidence that they have any amount of public support. If they had public support, they would have called for non-cooperation with the government, and asked the public to join them voluntarily. Their acts so far have been nothing but barbaric intimidation of the country.

What the BNP-Jamat combine is doing could not be called a democratic movement by any shed of imagination. No civilized nation would tolerate their kind of sabotage of the nation. To be fair about this, it should be noted that forcing and intimidating people to join the causes of political parties is not new in Bangladesh. The present governing party, Awami League, has also done quite a bit of those when they were in the opposition. Although their actions were not as horrific as what are going on in Bangladesh today.

This kind of anarchic behavior is not confined only to national level power-hungry politicians and their field criminals. For example, several months back, a group of Hindus wanted to have a mass funeral for the Hindu victims of war crimes in 1971 in Bangladesh. I personally do not even call those crimes 'war crimes'. They were hate-crimes committed by the Islamist barbarians on absolutely innocent, unarmed and nonviolent people just because they were Hindus. Those victims were mostly non-participants of the war that was imposed on Bangladesh by the Pakistani military. There is no question that Hindus were indiscriminate targets of Pakistani brutality, and a mass remembrance for them was justified to many Hindu and non-Hindu people. To make this story short, there was a group of Hindus who not only boycotted that program, they wanted to stop it, which they did.

Boycotting and non-cooperation are civilized and democratic ways to protest. Forcing and intimating people through anarchy are wrong, and Bangladesh has too much of this kind of wrong-doer psyche.

Clearly, democracy is not in the psyche of the Bangladeshi elite. Looking at the ground reality of Bangladesh, the country needs some good dictators who would not only do good things, but also insist on the next generations of Bangladeshis to grow up to be rational and sensible people. Well, that would need a lot of luck, and I wish my beloved motherland a lot of luck.

======================== About the Writer: Sukhamaya Bain is a US citizen who was born in a place that is a part of today's Bangladesh. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1987, and currently works for the US federal government, evaluating chemistry. While being a scientist by profession, he believes that societal justice is vital for the well-being of mankind. Thus, he occasionally writes on sociopolitical issues.

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