OPINION | Bangladesh Crisis : In the Mirror of Historical Sociology by Taj Hashmi

OPINION | Bangladesh Crisis : In the Mirror of Historical Sociology by Taj Hashmi


By Taj Hashmi 
Enough has already been written, discussed, and debated on the ongoing political crisis in Bangladesh. Most analysts and experts believe that nothing short of a meaningful dialogue between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – the “battling begums”, to paraphrase the Economist – can resolve the crisis, albeit in the short term. However, all these unsolicited advice seems to have gone down the Buriganga, which is also as polluted as Bangladesh politics.
As I have argued through this column, unrestrained political violence could be a prelude to full-blown terrorism, so has the International Crisis Group registered similar apprehensions about Bangladesh:
[T]he political crisis is fast approaching the point of no return and could gravely destabilize Bangladesh unless the sides move urgently to reduce tensions…. Both parties [AL and BNP] would be best served by changing course….Violent Islamist factions are already reviving ….While jihadi forces see both parties as the main hurdle to the establishment of an Islamic order, the AL and the BNP perceive each other as the main adversary.
Awami League leaders and senior police and RAB  (Rapid Action Bangladesh) officials in Bangladesh (the differences between politicians and public servants seem to have disappeared totally) have publicly stated that the present crisis would be resolved on the street, not through any dialogue. Senior AL leader Amir Hussain Amu believes that since the Government is in a “strong position”, there is no need to have any dialogue with the opposition. What other ministers and law enforcers have already said in public in this regard, better not be reproduced here. The DIG police of Dhaka Range has not only asked for shooting saboteurs, but also for “destroying their families”! The irresponsible comments -- that entail “OMG (Oh My God!) Moments” – are abhorrently disturbing.
It’s time to appraise the turbulent situation in Bangladesh in terms of historical sociology. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh came into being in absolute haste (thanks to the stubbornness of West Pakistani leaders and military), almost without any plan or preparation on the part of the would-be founding father. The nation started its journey with lots of uncertainties, any coherent plans and strategy. It lacked mature leadership, middle classes, and technocrats to run the show efficiently. Lower middle class and lower class political activists and “freedom fighters” – mostly the pseudo ones, who proliferated after the Liberation -- who ran the country soon after independence, were highly ambitious, incompetent and corrupt. The upshot was a dysfunctional country, Kissinger’s proverbial “basket case” in the 1970s. The present set of politicians in the treasury bench and opposition are not better than their predecessors.
The widening gap between the rich and the poor, due to the institutionalized corruption through state enterprises, banks, NGO-business, garment factories, bribery, tax evasion, and extortion has adversely affected the polity. On the one hand, people have become apathetic to politics, and on the other, have accepted corruption as a way of life. Many under-employed and unemployed men have swelled the ranks of “armed cadres” or political thugs maintained by local patrons.
It seems, Bangladesh society is more of a gemeinschaft or rural community than agesellschaft or urban society, as German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies (1855-1936) has defined the expressions. A gemeinschaft promotes “pre-political” culture of violence, anarchy and fatalism, where people don’t trust and respect each other; they are primarily factious – only rely on their faction chiefs – and love to fight members of rival factions (often their neighbours) on phony issues, rumours, and conspiracy theories.
No wonder, flimsy issues and problems, such as who declared the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Sheikh Mujib of the Awami League or Ziaur Rahman of the BNP; and who are “war criminals” and who are “freedom fighters” seem to be the most important problems in the country 44 years after its independence. The holding of parliamentary elections with or without a caretaker government is a contentious issue, reflecting the culture of perennial mistrust in a gemeinschaft or rural community. By the way, Dhaka with 15 million people is the largest “rural city” in the world.
Again, Bangladesh society fits in well into Kornhauser’s “Mass Society”. The late Berkeley sociology professor William Kornhauser (1925-2004) believed that in mass societies, there is a “widespread readiness to abandon constitutional modes of political activity in favor of uncontrolled mass action”. Masses are not necessarily working class people, but not integrated to the state or ruling elites, either. Mass societies emerge in the wake of revolutionary movements, such as the French and Russian revolutions, and the fascist/Nazi takeovers of Italy and Germany. Post-revolutionary mass societies also supplant traditional elites, and are subject to “totalitarian elite” manipulation at the cost of democracy and pluralism.
Mass societies represent populist views of the “crowds”, who are “only powerful for destruction”; and defend collective incompetence of the masses. Mass societies do not evolve out of class struggles; and are fractured, atomized and bureaucratic. Most importantly, in mass societies, masses mobilize elites; it is not the other way around. Sections of intellectuals having soft corner for anti-elitist destructive crowds promote mass societies. Rapid influx of people in newly developed urban areas invites mass movements; and sudden rise in the levels of poverty or prosperity are other contributing factors to mass societies.
Kornhauser believed that a society experiencing youth bulge – when more than 50 per cent of the population are in the 18-40 age groups – and rise in “religious extremism rather than political extremism is fully compatible with mass theory”. Followers of populist mass-based and Islamist parties have more resemblances to members of mass societies than parties led by slightly more elitist and aristocratic leaders.
Mostly criminal elements, people with no known source of income, are the new patrons in the arena of politics. And since winning elections at any level -- local municipalities or the parliament -- pays rich dividends, elections have replaced the share market for investment. The apathetic and marginalized middle classes hardly take part in elections, either as voters or as candidates. Thus, half-educated people with dubious character get elected through manipulation and, literally, buying of votes of urban squatters, lumpen elements, and rural hoi polloi. Mass fear of local “election-mongers” in the country, which in the event of loss in an election can resort to violence, has turned democracy farcical.
This is, however, not unique to Bangladesh. Post-colonial states go through cycles of hope, high optimism and euphoria followed by disappointment and pessimism. Bangladesh's African counterparts went through similar fluctuating cycles in the 1960s. It is noteworthy that while post-colonial African states are gradually changing, emerging out of long-lasting ethno-national conflicts (excepting Mali, Chad, Libya and Nigeria) of the 1960s-2000s – Africa is no longer a place of “forever wars” – unfortunately, Bangladesh is fast going the “Africa way”, as it was till the recent past.
How long the state of terror and anarchy can keep the country functional is the question. As rich countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria have become failed/failing states in short spans of time due to one-party-rule, bad governance, corruption and sectarian fighting, Bangladesh has lessons to learn from these examples.
Taj Hashmi, The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
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