Will Bangladeshis Ever Learn?  

Prof Mahfuz R Chowdhury

Robindra Nath Togore, the great poet-philosopher and Nobel laureate of Bengal once said ‘Hey mother Bengal, you gave birth to your 70 million children but forgot to educate or teach them dignity’. Are Bangladeshis victim of this curse?

At the time Tagore made the above comment, Bengal was a united province of British India. Besides multiplying the population more than three folds, Bengal is now divided on religious lines. The Hindu dominated western third remained a part of India, and the Muslim dominated two thirds came to form the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971 after twenty four years of bizarre rendezvous with Pakistan. Today Bangladesh is the eighth largest country in population.

Bangladeshi-crowd-300Bengal had a rich history in the Indian sub-continent. The contributing factors are the most fertile land and equally creative labor force – the two key ingredients for economic growth. Foreign powers, such as the Moghuls and the British, were attracted to Bengal for its vast resources. These powers, and also Pakistan in the case of Bangladesh, have exploited Bengal’s resources for hundreds of years.

Yet, as Bangladesh’s economic progress confirms, the resiliency of the people overcame all odds and proved their foreign critics to be wrong. The economy withstood the recent global recession and sustained over 5 per cent annual growth, and its human development index is also up despite its volatile and self-destructive domestic politics.

However, the ongoing political instability with a negative impact on foreign investments is slowing economic progress and turning the country into a rogue state like Pakistan. The anticipated effect on the garment industry would be especially devastating.

It’s no secret that Bangladesh has no functioning democracy even after forty years of independence. Following independence, the country’s paramount leader, who clearly lacked foresightedness, went on to form his personal army and singlehandedly killed democracy by declaring Bangladesh a one party state. After his assassination in 1975 – which was followed by other massacres – the country experienced 15 years of military rule.

Though democracy was supposedly re-established in 1991, the process gave rise to two rival family dynasties currently headed by their female members. One is the family of the founding father and the other is the family of the first military ruler, also assassinated in 1981, who achieved fame in the freedom fight with Pakistan. Both families built their reputation by promoting their kleptocracy, and succeeded in rotating their rule through a democratic process until 2007, when the system totally fell apart as rivalry between them climaxed.

After a two year hiatus, with another period of military backed rule, India helped the founding father’s family to assume power in 2009. But then all hell broke loose. It began with the government using its parliamentary majority to change the election rule to prevent the rival family from taking power and continuing with other malicious acts. The opposition alliance refused to participate in the entrapped general election of January 5, 2014, yet failed to stop the process. The ruling party declared itself winner in the uncontested sham election defying every democratic norm, and appeals from the United States, the United Nations, as well as the European Union for reconciliation.

With no opposition in power, the administration transformed the judiciary into its puppet and engaged in spreading its reign of terror everywhere, including educational institutions where its student wing commits heinous acts, such as dismembering body parts or cutting veins of opponents, with impunity. It turned the country’s prisons into a revolving door for every opposition member who dares to criticize the government. The axe also fell on a number of print and electronic media while the crime rate in the country shot up to an unprecedented scale as the law and order situation broke down.

Even Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate who established Grameen Bank, and Kamal Hossain, an international legal expert and former Foreign Minister who drafted the country’s constitution haven’t escaped the administration’s ominous wrath because they opposed the government’s policies.

Atrocities such as disappearances, killings and kidnappings have become a routine occurrence in the country. Well known political personalities like Iliyas Ali, labor leader Aminul Islam, and media couple Sagar-Runi and many others like them became victims. Administration cronies who commit these crimes get protection from justice. As foreign visitors were also being targeted, the likes of British High Commissioner (Ambassador) felt obliged to recently issue open warning to its citizens against visiting Bangladesh.

The gruesome facts on the two most recent events that made international headlines – the death by burning of ten Bihari members in their trapped camp in Dhaka and the killings of seven political activists in Narayangonj – give credence on how the ruling party is committing various atrocities either in police presence or with their direct help.

Additionally, the incidences of well publicized massive looting of banks, stock exchanges, and government institutions such as the department of railways, transportation and police exemplify the extent of corruption within the government. The offenders escape justice and are permitted to transform their ‘black money’ into ‘white money’. A recent media story revealed how the looted money also finds its way to Swiss banks.

Yet, the administration isn’t deterred by any of these reports. It continues to paint a rosy picture of the country by spreading lies and even blaming the opposition for their failure and misdeeds. In the current geo-political rift, the government’s alignment with China and Russia is clearly intended to deflect the western pressure to negotiate with the opposition for a fair and an early election. Ultimately, India stands to benefit most by extracting long sought concessions from Bangladesh.

Where Bangladesh is heading? If history is any guide, every episode of authoritarian rule ends in violence. Bangladesh would be no exception. How the present political impasse would be resolved remains to be seen.

 (The Writer Currently Teaches Economics At Farmingdale State College, New York)