The Slow Demise of Democracy?

Published on Saturday, April 9, 2016

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." – Samuel Johnson If it is introduced in the Parliament, the proposed legislation to ban criticism of the Liberation War, the martyrs, etc., will be yet another sign that democracy is marching towards slow death in Bangladesh. Both issues are of great emotional interest to most people in Bangladesh and some seem to feel the need to protect (from questioning) these emblems of the struggle for the freedom as patriotic. The irony seem to be lost on folks: it was for democracy all that sacrifice was made, and now we turn around and limit democracy by taking away freedom of speech. Under the most generous assumption, it exposes, as it has done on many occasions in the past, the ambiguous relations Bangladeshis seem to have with democracy: we demand it, fight for it, sacrifice for it, but often don't like its implications. We seem to be fearful of the freedom democracy is supposed to bring. This is not a psychological assessment, but there might be a link between elements of our culture that contributes to what appears to be a propensity to seek the 'comfort' of authoritarian 'protection'. Let me be clear: I am an unconditional defender of the creation of Bangladesh, a historical necessity; the so called two nation theory (TNT) originated in quintessential false ideology. I am convinced that the division of the subcontinent was a grave mistake, and as a community Muslims of the subcontinent lost the most); in the sixties, I have argued with communist party leaders to adopt a proactive policy for independence from West Pakistani proto-colonial economic exploitation and political repression. During the Liberation War, I was outside the country, still, I worked hard along with many Americans to generate public and Congressional support for the emerging country (see: Fighting for homeland away from home; The New Age, December 16, 2006, Op-Ed page). But, just because of that, am I justified in shutting someone up if they believe it was all 'India's doing'? And even if I am able to ban such criticism, can I stop a person from thinking as he/she pleases? One can walk away from such inane characterization of the epochal transformation from 1947 to 1971, but cannot condone suppression of fundamental democratic rights, excluding citizens from participating in the democratic process. You cannot 'like' democracy only when you win; for it to work, you have to do so even when you do not win, as long as the right and opportunity to gain back support is not denied. But that means a political system with freedom of speech, of press. Essential also is regular elections that are fair, open and polling stations are not forcibly occupied by the ruling party, oppositions are not hounded and assaulted to ensure the ruling party wins power and without even a parliamentary opposition! Indeed, a political party that actually cares about the country over and above its narrow self-interest would do everything possible to make the agency responsible for conducting the election as non-partisan as humanly possible. Whenever a political system enables a party to remain in power term after term, that system is nothing but an autocracy, giving the ruling party absolute power. Treating the country like one's zamindary is a far cry from a society that is democratic. Isn't undermining democracy a more egregious offense against the Liberation War and the Martyrs? Our difficulty with democracy is reflected in our history, in the opportunism of our attitude that democracy is possible only when our community is in the majority, the subtext of TNT. Underlying all of these is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of democracy as a system and why it is desired by almost everyone for managing our collective affairs in-spite of many of its imperfections. Even a cursory survey of the origins of formal democracy in Greek society would reveal that it emerged as the better of available alternatives to manage our collective existence given the inherent heterogeneity of all human societies (as opposed to assumed homogeneity based on faith subsumed in TNT), for facing seemingly irreconcilable contradiction: one the one hand ensuring our existence and security requires living in some form of collective, yet the same need compels us to pursue our individual interests at the expense of the collective. Without getting into an elaborate discussion, suffice it to say that the underlying drive – 'ensuring our existence & security' has been a concern because of inadequacy of the necessities for existence & security – i.e., insufficiency of the mode of production that would provide for our necessities. Making some adjustment to the consumerist habit we have acquired, if we are able to produce sufficiently for our collective needs, i.e., existence and security are guaranteed, this fundamental contradiction can be resolved. There are indications already that it might be achievable in practice as well (compare, for example world's population and global food production – see World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics, World Hunger Education Service, available on the internet). It should be clear that in the prospectus of 'communist society', 'class contradiction' is expected to be eliminated, but not all human foibles; 'democracy' practiced in an environment free of want of necessities and insecurity will allow us to overcome the limitations of democracy of class divided society, and enable us to live collectively more harmoniously in spite of our imperfections. The arguments against prohibition of criticism of the Liberation War are simply inane. Just because someone (probably with hostile intentions) tries to refute the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the enemy does not make it true nor does it diminish the sacrifices required to free the country, and definitely does not negate the need for liberation from Pakistan. Simply because in 1952 (only) four people died in the protest demanding Bengali to be accepted as one of the national languages of Pakistan surely did not stop it from being the revolutionary event that changed the direction of this country. The 'argument' that ours is a new democracy and 'it will take time for our people to get used to democracy', has gotten stale; we have been at it nearly seven decades; let us stop making excuses. It is also a fact that a lot of people did not like the idea of 'breaking up Pakistan;' and that was made clear by their presence in huge numbers to receive Bhutto when he showed up after the liberation. Their minds can be changed, if at all, through education and persuasion; and some will remain unchanged. Society is never free of those with false ideology; let them speak but not act. Criticism allowed in a democracy is not a rational reason to outlaw democracy of criticism. The progressive community in Bangladesh must not subscribe to the fear of democracy, while they legitimately criticize the regime in power for being anti-democratic. I am not advocating absolute freedom; but it is more protective of democracy if the democratic process itself is able to confront lies and falsehoods in a legitimate battle for the heart & truth conducted openly and freely. The entire premise of human progress is imbedded in the conviction that people will (ultimately) choose correctly, and those who are leaders among us can lead the fight for truth the best only in a democracy. The draconian measures being contemplated are indication of the mistrust of the voters, unspoken assumption that people are dumb, while politicians, even though many of them display more Neanderthal than human attributes, know 'what is good for the people' – in typical feudal arrogance. Voters do make 'bad' choices (e.g., electing in US George W. Bush twice), but if they are allowed to do so freely as is promised, people will make corrections if it is in their interest (electing an African-American as the President of the USA). If Left are true to democracy, they ought to declare that they will not restrict people's freedom of speech when in power; that they do not assume they will be in power forever once/if they get there; they will ensure free and fair election even if they are projected to lose the election; that people have the right to disagree, yet they can agree on a set of terms and conditions that makes collective, social life possible. Especially those who claim to represent the working class, it often falls upon the vanguard to pick up the mantel of democracy. And it is essential to understand that democracy is a process, and only way to improve democracy is to practice it, not make excuses to prevent its continued improvement, as did the military dictators and some civilian leaders in Pakistan, West & East. 'Development before democracy' is just as lousy an excuse to stifle democracy, just as naked an attempt at hang on to power, and as obvious an indication of insecurity of the regime as has been in the case of Pakistani dictators who tried the same trick again and again. Scoundrels in the end do pay a price for their skullduggery!

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