Home > 2016 > Debates on the Direction of Democracy in Bangladesh

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 21 New Delhi May 14, 2016

Debates on the Direction of Democracy in Bangladesh

Monday 16 May 2016

by Anindita Ghoshal

Bangladesh was the third country in a row to come out of a nation-making process from a colonial state to an independent one (1947-71). Nationalism played a major role in the fight against colonialism and in shaping up the political boundaries of these states, India- Pakistan-Bangladesh. Yet, the nature of conflicts as well as issues of negotiations and necessities behind the creation of separate states in this geographical area of unified India had changed time and again. In the journey from a colonial structure to several independent states, commu-nity-identity and religion had initially played crucial roles. These were also taken as essential factors in defining the aspirations for the ‘other’ by demarcation of lands for two major religious communities, Hindus and Muslims (1947).1 Pakistan had born out of a single trajectory towards Islam, based on Muslim identity as the ‘only positive bond’.2 But, after a brief period of romance and reconciliation, its eastern wing started experiencing a kind of second colonia-lism.3 Differences were seen in many layers between both the wings of Pakistan. But, problems related to language issues and ethnic identities of communities had created hindrances in the provincial, regional and local levels.4 Amidst such complexities and confusions, the masses were at the receiving end. Their idea of freedom, alternative voices in defining the spirit of nationalism, and the notion about an ideal state often failed to attract the attention of the policy-makers, who were largely based at the Centre (in West Pakistan).5 Thus, apart from ‘geographical absurdity’, factors like differences in the value-system, morals, practice of culture, food habits, problems of various identities and questions of mother tongue led to another split.6

Since the War of Liberation (1971), the concept of ‘Bengali nationalism’ became the strength of the newborn nation named Bangladesh. It indeed emerged as the weapon to fight against the economic exploitation and other policies practised by the Centre and the bureaucrats of semi-feudal-military structure of Pakistan.7 The then National Avami Party and Awami League, under the able leaderships of Maulana Bhasani and Mujibur Rahman respectively, could successfully float their idea of freedom with the right of expression in their mother tongue.8 This was gradually successful in earning recognition from many countries across the globe, including India, and respect from a few international organisations. Bangladesh established as an independent state in the map of South Asia, based on the idea of ‘Bengali identity’ over and above the ‘Muslim identity’.9 Yet, the state could never separate its existence from the crisis related to its ‘Islamic identity’ or smoothen its relationship with the extremist forces of the mother country, Pakistan.10 Hence, the idea of state, role of bureaucracy and the nature of democracy were nurtured differently in Bangladesh during the reign of the two leading political parties, Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and in between the phases of military rule or under the caretaker government. The treatment of citizens, minority communities and ethnic tribals had altered as per their ideology and rule of law over the decades.

Still, the year 2015 was remarkable in the history of Bangladesh in respect to the overall happenings, experiences of the mass of Bangladeshis and foreign visitors who came to that declared independent democratic country for diverse reasons. The year saw the brutal killing of five atheist bloggers, writers and publishers by the Islamic extremists, deadly attacks on foreign volunteers, Shia Muslims, religious minorities, including barbaric child killings.11 The world first came know about the attack on mukto-mon (idea of freedom of expression and liberal thinking) in the beginning of 2015. It was alarming that the blow was first felt during the Ekushe February-Bhasha Shahid Dibas celebration. This occasion has always been considered as the most auspicious and momen-tous occasion for the Bangladeshis in each and every corner of the country irrespective of the other numerous issues of conflict or confusion. It became a continuous topic of debates and discussions.

Since February 2015, the religious extremists and Islamic fundamentalists have tightened their network around the atheists and supporters of secular thoughts in Bangladesh. Thus, a strange but strong sense of sectarian terror has inflicted an added fear among the progressive people and minorities. The tradition of the co-existence of four major religious communities (Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians) was declining, especially when the ruling government officially failed to identify the agents behind the violence.12 The Intelligence Bureau reports and international media high-lighted on the responsibility of the international terrorist groups, especially the ISIS, in this regard; yet the government neither accepted/admitted it, nor did they categorically deny the claim. They rather opted to blame the Opposition parties, though they failed to prove their claim in this regard as well. There were active local militant groups working for the ISIS and other such groups to accomplish their agenda in Bangladesh. The government could not actually resist any of these attacks. They were also not in a position to negotiate with the different layers of political and societal agents to come out with a viable solution. They were rather seen determined to place some alternative explanations every time, and these were frustrating and even more frightening.13

On the contrary, the government banned a few popular social networking sites like Facebook and other services like Viber and Whatsapp for a limited period in the last half of 2015, as a measure to control such atrocities. They claimed that these service-providers became popular communication mediums for anti-government protests.14 Interestingly, though a shift from the composite culture of ‘staying together of communities’ had started long back in Bangladesh, the introduction of the modern push-and-pull techniques between the secular and Islamist camps began to build up only in recent years, in which the idea of ‘free thinking’ was often targeted in the officially ‘secular’ Bangladesh.15 Violence spiked drama-tically with some brand new ideas like making hit lists, giving threat calls to the elite and educated ‘progressive people’.16 So, discussions on the reasons behind the attacks on the atheists and the future direction of democracy in Bangladesh naturally became the topic of debates among the social and political scientists, even in the media.

But, if we look at the history of the major political parties in this particular country, it is fascinating to notice the changing nature of the political processes, strategies and their practices of corroboration or collaboration at many levels in different decades. The Awami League officially declared its support for secularism and freedom of religion in 1955, when it preferred to omit ‘Muslim’ in between Awami and Party.17 The issue of ‘Bengali identity’ was deeply embedded in their idea of nationalism and amidst the cultural ethos of the Awami League. They also tried hard to establish their exclusive and own ‘regional identity’.18 Yet, after Bangladesh emerged as a separate nation based on the ideology of secular nationalism in 1971, some ‘Islam-pasand’ parties, backed by Pakistan, continued to threaten the country’s ideological moorings. Bangladesh’s tryst with democracy introduced a new chapter when this independent country finally adopted a Constitution in 1972 with the tenets of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism.19 But, the political environment of the then Bangladesh probably was not conducive to these principles of democracy.

From 1973, the Marxist-Leninist Communist movements started posing threats to the Awami League Government. Yet, after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975, the country started experiencing military dictatorship and fell into a severe political turmoil. Parliamentary democracy was replaced by a presidential one and an extended period of ‘junta rule’ lasted for the next two decades. In effect, the middle class and urban elite, who formed a kind of civil society in Dhaka and other culturally rich muffosil towns, stood completely alienated.20 Army General Ziaur Rahman consolidated his power after wiping out the radical Left elements, with whose support he could ascend to the topmost position. He indeed formed his own political party, named the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and fundamental changes were incorporated immediately in the Constitution. He introduced a policy of complete Islamisation and the Islamic preamble, which acknowledges the primacy of Islam, was essentially added and naturally the imposition of the ‘Muslim identity’ over and above the ‘cultural identity’ became prominent. This was just the beginning of a phase of constant discrimination of the minorities and ethnic tribals, as well as imposition of the undemocratic policies on them. The Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist parties gained a significant role during Zia’s reign, and they were allowed to function officially in Bangladesh. The BNP has traditionally been closer to religious conservatives and it was more concerned to establish a religious identity.21

Ershad and his Jatiyo Party (1983), however, had initially included many Leftist and Rightist political parties in order to extend the support-base of his regime. But, after the Martial Law had ensured the single largest majority for his party, Ershad permitted the rise of other splinter Islamic parties, chiefly to counter the growth of the Jamaat. He indeed declared Islam as the ‘state religion of Bangladesh’.22 The process of unequal distribution of power, centralised administration and marginalisation of minority communities became more prominent in the reign of General Ershad. From that time onwards, Bangladesh, as an independent nation-state, could never cut off its lineage from the West Pakistani hierarchical roots and extremist Islamic groups. Both the Army Generals, Ziaur Rahman and Ershad, were firmly against the ideology of secular nationalism of 1971. Ershad was forced to resign in 1990, but by then the BNP had become the Centre-Right party, whereas the Awami League occupied the Centre-Left position. Bangladesh again aspired to reinstate parliamentary democracy in 1991. But, a continuous and consistent enmity developed between the two leading parties, the Awami League and BNP, from this time onwards. It primarily revolved around the ideological fault-lines, question of secularisation and the role of Islam. But, they had major disagreements regarding the role of the party leaders during the Liberation War (1971). Bangladesh thereafter witnessed a culture of political violence in the form of hartals, boycotts and politics of intransigence.23 Bangladesh has a long history of pre-election violence too. However, there was hardly any firm stand on punishments.24 The minorities were generally the worst sufferers.25 In most cases, conflicting issues were taken straight to the streets, instead of the parliament. Vengeance and violence have, since then, remained very much the core characteristics of Bangladeshi politics.26

When the tensions between the two leading political parties were already there, the Awami League’s initiative to constitute the War Crimes Tribunal in 2009 became another major factor in accelerating conflicts and complicated the existing undercurrents. The guilty verdict was declared in 2013, and thus began tussles between several groups, political parties, and within human right activists and their organisations. The initial announcement of death sentences and the later version of life imprisonment to death was met with severe protests from the pre-liberation forces, which culminated in the rise of the Shahbag Movement in 2013.27 It had taken the character of a social-reformist kind of movement with vital issues. The bloggers, young technology-savvy students, political activists, intellectuals and educated girls came out as the ‘face of the movement’ and a ‘cultural front’ was created to identify the major political issues of conflicts, which they again portrayed and termed as the ‘agents of social evil’.28 Despite serious legal flaws, 74 per cent of the Bangladeshis continued to support the War Crimes Trial. The Shahbag activists demanded that the Jamaat should be completely outlawed for its affiliation with the non-democratic and non-secular stand. In effect as a consequence of these vibrant protest movements, which could grab the international media attention overnight, the Election Commission officially cancelled the registration of the Jamaat. But still the party exists with huge followers in Bangladesh and is quite actively involved in politics. The BNP’s firm belief in the role of Islam in unifying the country helped both the parties to fight against those pledged to the evolution of a liberal, secular and democratic Bangladesh, especially those who were avowedly against the establishment of ‘political Islam’ within the political structure of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is suffering from a dysfunctional two-party system, in which the two chief party leaders, the ‘battling Begums’, are fighting hard at the country’s expense. It has turned in recent years into a ‘fragile democracy’ with an ‘expanding economy’.29 Amidst huge political turmoil from 2013, the BNP’s chief decided to boycott the general elections of January 2014 as an essential strategy, for not meeting their demand to form a caretaker government for conducting the elections, even when they had a strong base of supporters. Their design went in vain and the Awami League came to power for the second time with a landslide victory. The government led by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, decided to take an even stronger stand on the ongoing War Crimes Trial, punishment and conviction of war criminals of 1971. The BNP-Jamaat (the BNP’s coalition partner) nexus realised that they had lost their constitutional power and position even as the Opposition. They started protesting and creating problems, from the first anniversary of the disputed election on January 5, 2014, against the new agendas adopted by the ruling government.30 An overall situation of political unrest was created in Bangladesh, as they (the BNP-Jamaat) mounted mass protests demanding fresh parliamentary elections. The BNP along with 19 other allied parties called for general strikes while officially staging a nationwide blockade of roads, waterways and railways. Selima Rahman, the Vice-Chairperson of the BNP, declared that the blockade was organised as the government was responsible to put them on the edge by opting for this method, as they ‘did not allow any democratic space for the Opposition’.31

After many such violent and fatal attacks on the public by the alleged BNP protesters and supporters in January 2015, the Awami League branded the BNP as ‘terrorist’ and Khaleda Zia was forcefully confined to her office. Internet connection, along with other connectivity with the outside world, was also banned for some days. Then the BNP asked for the support of the international community; yet their reputation had already been damaged and distorted by resorting to regular violence. Other nations, including the UN, were reluctant to intervene; rather they suggested handling the internal matters peacefully. There were signs of compromise at different levels too. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina tried to open dialogue several times with the BNP. But, in most cases the latter decided to decline the proposal. The country started experiencing and witnessing a new type of motivated politico-religious violence from the last quarter of 2015. Following the method of the radical Islamists, some political groups or parties had started bomb blasts and street violence on random targets to create terror in the country. Against this institutiona-lisation of political violence, the ruling party had allegedly taken some repressive measures to counter it by police or legal repression.32 But finally, the negotiations or bargaining led to further violence or rifts between the leading political parties. Moreover, as the Hasina Government failed to take a firm stand against the violence that occurred in Bangladesh, the Leftists opined that her government too had an understanding with the so-called Opposition.

Democracy in Bangladesh is once again at the crossroads. Despite the government’s tough position and hanging of their leaders, the Jamaat, the country’s largest Islamist party, is still organisationally very strong and has vowed to take revenge by establishing an Islamic dispensation in Bangladesh.33 And, it is not a coincidence that attacks on the secular writers and their publishers have been on the rise soon after the execution of the war criminals began. The position of the government has sharpened a bit through these incidents and contradictions on policies have somewhat reduced. Some communal disturbances occurred in places like Ramu in Cox’s Bazar or Santhia in Pabna and could not be prevented by the government.34 The Leftists were stating continually that the minorities had no other option but to leave Bangladesh.35 Some Leftist organisations like the Sampradayik Sohinsotabirodhi Nagorik Samaj have pointed out that the chief problem lay within the Constitution, as from the beginning it treated the communities differently.36 Although Bangladesh’s legal code is secular, it has played out against the backdrop of rising religious tensions.37 When most people reject violence, there has been a surge of high-profile attacks by extremists, some linked to the Jamaat, an Islamist party associated with the political Opposition.

Actually, the political situation is such in Bangladesh that it can neither be a secular state nor a fundamentalist Islamic state. The law and order situation is further deteriorating and people are suffering under a huge, if vague and indistinct, pressure. Most of them don’t know how to explain what is going on; they wonder what has happened to their folks as the kind of violence they are facing these days is really new. There was lack of trust within the urban educated middle class towards the political parties as well as democratic institutions. The liberal classes and intellectuals were getting threat calls. Some of them informed the police or involved the press to make these threats public and for some sort of societal sympathy, while others preferred to keep mum about it, largely to avoid social scanning of their personal life through the media or they just intended to avoid any kind of political watch. The state did not try to identify the folks who were involved in creating violence or take any action to punish them. Local disenfranchised organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Ansar-al-Islam are taking advantage of the benefits of allying with the ISIS, including the potential expansion of their foreign funding. In reality, Bangladesh is on the way to achieve rapid growth. Yet, the future of this state and its citizens is uncertain.

The opponents of the official establishment and the supporters of the BNP-Jamaat coalition are of the opinion that the Hasina Government actually runs a totalitarian regine, in which no other politician has any say. According to them, this massive consolidation of power is bad for democracy and the democratic system. The Leftists are of the opinion that the bureaucracy gets transformed into a class of touts and looters, who do not attract the attention of the present government. After the brutal killings of the atheists, intellectuals and foreigners throughout 2015, a section of the masses and international media started voicing another theory of negotiations of the present Awami League government with the BNP-Jamaat coalition on some issues. They directly termed these incidents of atrocities as ‘state terrorism’ when others categorised these as a blow to secular thinking and sovereignty. The nation, thus, needs a change in the thought process of governance and the active involvement of the urban educated minds in bringing about systematic changes. Offering common ground to all political parties and opting for secular ideas might lead to the opening of a legal space towards the making of transparent and democratic governance in Bangladesh.

[Acknowledgements:I am grateful to Badruddin Umor, Elisa T. Bertuzzo, Tanvir Mokammel and Arup Rahee for helping me in shaping up the ideas that helped me to write this article by discussing with me the issues of crises and giving their opinions on the current socio-politico-religious situation of Bangladesh.—A.G.]


1. Sonia Upreti, Nationalism in Bangladesh: Genesis and Evolution, Kalinga Publication, Delhi, 2004, p. 34.

2. M. R. Akhtar Mukul, Ami Bijay Dekhechhi (in Bengali), Ananya, Dhaka, 2010, Introduction, p. 9.

3. Rounaq Jahan, ‘Political Development’ in A. M. Chowdhury and Fakrul Alam (ed.), Bangladesh on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 2002, p. 43.

4. Niaz Zaman, A Divided Legacy: The Partition in Selected Novels of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, The University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 1999, pp. 12-13.

5. Purbadesh, February 12, 1952.

6. Jatin Sarkar, Pakistaner Jonmomrityu Dorshon (in Bengali), Sahityika, Dhaka, 2005, pp. 50-52.

7. G.W. Choudhury, ‘Bangladesh: Why It Happened’, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs), Vol. 48, No. 2, (April 1972), p. 244.

8. M.R. Akhtar Mukul, Bhasani-Mujiber Rajniti (in Bengali), Sagar Publishers, Dhaka, 2001, pp. 20-26.

9. Humayun Ahmed, Maatal Haowa, Anyaprakash, Dhaka, 2013, pp. 30-31.

10. Philip Oldenburg, ‘A Place Insufficiently Imagined: Language, Belief, and the Pakistan Crisis of 1971’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4 (August, 1985), p. 716.

11. Kathakata, November 5, 2013.

12. Noya Digonta, October 3, 2015.

13. Jugantar, January 12, 2014.

14. The Daily Star, November 20, 2015.

15. Dhiraj Kumar Nath, ‘Vested Property Act and the Minorities’ Tale of Woes’, The Opinion Page, August 23, 2013.

16. A personal discussion with Arup Rahee, November 14, 2016, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

17. Bodruddin Umor, Rachana Sangraha (in Bengali), Vol. 1, Shrabon Prakashani, Dhaka, 2012, p. 349.

18. Ilhan Niaz, The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2010, p. 5.

19. Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh From Mujib to Ershad: An Interpretative Study, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1992, pp. 6-7.

20. John W Hood, The Bleeding Lotus: Notions of Nation in Bangladeshi Cinema, Palimpsest, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 36-38.

21. Masooda Bano, ‘Welfare Work and Politics of Jama ’at-i-Islami in Pakistan and Bangladesh’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, January 7, 2012, p. 91.

22. Badruddin Umor, ‘Sonbidhaner Ponchadosh Sonsodhoni Prasange’ (in Bengali), Jatiya Mukti Council.

23. The estimated annual average cost of the general strikes or hartals was three per cent to four per cent (approx.) of the country’s gross domestic products (GDP), as reported by the Daily Star.

24. Sorbojon, January 11, 2015.

25. Akbar Hossain, ‘Hinduder Opor Hamlar Bichar Hoyna Keno?’ (in Bengali), BBC Bangla, January 9, 2014.

26. Mina Farah, July 12, 2014.

27. Pratham Alo, February 8, 2013.

28. Dr Madhumita Srivastava Balaji, ‘Bangladesh—Politics of Confrontation: Political Deadlock’, VIF-e-journal

29. ‘Fear and Faith in Dhaka: A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous breakdown’, Open, February 22, 2016.

30. Ibid.

31. The Guardian, January 23, 2015.

32. Badruddin Umor, ‘Jamayete Islam o Awami League: Uvoyei Beraderane Islam’ (in Bengali), Jatiya Mukti Council.

33. The Hindu, November 25, 2015.

34. New Age, August 30, 2015.

35. Dhaka Times, August 18, 2015.

36. Prothom Alo, November 29, 2013.

37. Naeem Mahalemen, ‘Our Politics of Dispossession’, Forum—A Monthly Publication of Daily Star, Vol. 4, Issue. 2, February 2009.

Anindita Ghoshal is an Assistant Professor of History, Rishi Bankim Chandra College, Naihati (West Bengal). She can be contacted at ghoshal.anindita@yahoo.com