Democracy In Bangladesh: Reality Vs. Utopia

Manirul Islam

Manirul Islam

From the very beginning in post-liberation Bangladesh, the political progress had been murky and was marred with violent rivalry and blood spilling strife. Pro-liberation forces splintered into hostile camps which helped mighty resurrection of just defeated anti-liberation forces. Theory of conspiracies, both within and beyond the boundary, against the new nation was abound.

The obvious difference surfaced among the freedom fighters in Indian training camps, mostly between Bhasani loyalist ultra left and other group loosely under the command of exile government. After liberation this difference widened and transformed into armed hostility between pro-government and ultra left insurgency. While war was raging, Mao followers defined our liberation war as ‘fight between two dogs’. Bhasani followers like Haq, Toaha, Matin, Alauddin, Siraj Sikder were initially building a ‘Jana Juddho’ in occupied territory against invading army. But Mao’s theory immediately inspired them to change their war strategy and instead of Pakistani army, they started killing Muktijoddhas allegedly to fight Indian grand plan of colonizing Bangladesh. After liberation Bhasani’s foot soldiers, for nine months maintaining surreptitious liaison with Maoist ‘Naxalite’ insurgents in West Bengal, crossed the border and joined the comrades in arm right away.

During this time frame a dramatic development took place in international politics which shook the world – US China Détente. This alliance had immediate and far-reaching adverse impact on anti-imperialist struggles and national liberation movements in Asia, Latin America and Africa. In Bangladesh, the immediate effect was devastating and it has been lingering since. Unity forged by liberation war started crumbling down and the war-ravaged nation started drifting into an ominous unsettling political future. Ultra left camps, now having no ideological inhibition, generously opened the door to recruit ultra right defeated armed collaborators of Pakistani army. This alliance eventually germinated a new formidable political force in Bangladesh which would reverse the course of the nation including it’s ‘Bangalee’ identity.

Soon after returning to free country dissension within pro-liberation mainstream power base became conspicuous between left-of-center leadership and simmering far left young radicals. Sirajul Alam Khan with enigmatic political shadow, allegedly having past liaison with external power which started in 1962 in forming ‘Nucleus’, emerged as the leader of left radicals. In 60s, Ayub Khan, the martial law dictator of Pakistan, under the influence of his nationalist, young and vibrant Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was rapidly inclining toward China and other socialist countries for cooperation and national development. USA wanted to punish this misdemeanor of old ally by fueling political unrest in Pakistan, with main focus in East Pakistan. Political facts and equations logically suggest that ‘Nucleus’ was the proliferation of that American strategy and was created under supervision of CIA. In 1972 the congregation of the large mainstream renegades led by Khan formed military alliance with existing far left extremists and far right collaborators of Pakistan and declared armed struggle against the nascent government. The government was overwhelmed by the magnitude of national reconstruction and significantly weakened by the wave of conspiracy, corruption, betrayal of bureaucrats and explosive situation in the army. ‘Red to oppose red’ adopting this theory ‘Gano Bahini’ the armed wing of Khan later worked as a tool to kill indiscriminately freedom fighters in Bangladesh army through series of mutiny and coup d’état.

Political government’s one of the most fatal errors was to reinstate civil and military bureaucrats repatriated from Pakistan. In Pakistan, bureaucracy is groomed and honed as a sophisticated tool to kill democracy and as a vehicle of military rule. Military staffs are trained to grab state power and perpetuate martial law. Soon all the important top slots of the civil services were filled up by the repatriated bureaucrats. By the end of 1973, the picture of the Bangladesh Army became utterly dreadful. With the reinstatement of about 20,000 repatriated army in every layer of our armed forces, the poorly trained military recruits of liberation war became struck minority, isolated and misguided. The rumor mill started churning inflammable rumors in army barracks on issues like privileged Rakkhi Bahini and neglected army, Islam replaced by secularism and Hinduism, India is plundering natural resources, etc.

Within government growing influence of conservative rightists and distance with patriotic leaders of liberation war was another indicator that Government was plunging into the web of conspiracy. As the events were spiraling out of control, in desperation Government formed BAKSAL with unanimous participation of pro-liberation political forces and other professional organizations. Under BAKSAL, government interfered into democratic rights of the opposition forces and clamped control over press and publication. Kissinger’s infamous definition about Bangladesh as ‘A bottomless basket’ became sacred mantra to the opposition forces to turn public opinion toxic against the government.

Project was finalized to topple political government. Military would lead the team with famous sector commander of liberation war, after liberation superseded by a junior officer for prestige army chief position, General Zia would be behind-the-scene moral guardian of the operation. Colonel Rashid with right wing Awami League leader and a close confidant of Mujib, Mushtaq would spearhead execution of the project. In the wee hours, considered to be the sacred time to the Muslim faithfuls, on 15th August 1975 Bangladesh military achieved success through unprecedented mayhem and reached President’s palace ‘Bangabhaban’ wading through blood of revered leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and members of his family including handicapped brother, women and child. An unsettling chapter of post-war politics closed to open a new chapter in the dark of the night.

Zia emerged on the center stage and took control of leash of power soon to change the course of politics. He legalized 15th August massacre through constitutional indemnity. Then he changed thousand years old identity of the nation from ‘Bangalee’ to ‘Bangladeshi’. He rehabilitated faith based Islamic politics and welcomed back all the Islamic leaders from exile. He swore to make politics difficult for the politicians. Instant success made him an instant leader as Saudi Arabia and other gulf emirates, Pakistan and China recognized Bangladesh and opened the floodgate of monetary and logistic help for a brand new political start. Ultra left communists and ultra right faith merchants gathered around Zia in the march towards a new political future. Bangladesh Nationalist party BNP was born. Zia has long gone physically and his family has taken over the reign of BNP. Various military rule often stages fresh comeback to power and is always paused by violent popular resistance. But the obstinate enunciation of Zia still resonates in the air as politics is becoming more and more difficult and inaccessible to public.

In the present context, third stake holder of state governance, Bangladesh army has already organized couple of spectacular stage show bringing two leaders of the main feuding parties for photo session followed by exchange of scanty pleasantries. On each occasion ivory-tower intellectuals and talk-show savvy civil society epitomized joint smile of two ladies and sang chorus in unison ‘our democracy sways, spring is not far behind’. In reality, democracy crawls for life in the political wilderness of Bangladesh while third party is busy proving the banality of smiles and in-efficacious democracy.


Manirul Islam is a freelancer, writes from Toronto, Canada.

[Read posts by Manirul Islam]


12 Responses to “Democracy In Bangladesh: Reality Vs. Utopia”

  1. Saugat Lahiri

    Dear Mr.Islam,

    Read your article,and appricate it.Hope that the idea of “Bangalee ” remains in BD and is stronger.I am form Kolkata,and am an Bangalee and wish the best for BD,we also had made a lot of sacrifices for the liberation of BD and hope that secular politics remains in Dhaka.

  2. Dara Shamsuddin

    Thanks for inviting your readers to comment.May I make few comments on the strength of your invitation?

    You deserve justified complements for covering a lot of ground, both in time and in terms of personalities involved in the events of post 1971 Bangladesh.For those who were born during the eighties, would be, I hope, benefited by the amount of information you have in your article. I am sure some of your readers would be interested to know more about the persons you mentioned.

    Being an old man, I was interested to to know your views on the title of the article: i.e. Democracy in Bangladesh, Reality Vs. Utopia No state I know of is ideal and perfect, neither in its social and political aspects nor in its moral aspects.A state in the formative stage of its life is the last place one would expect to see an utopian situation. However, the concept of “perfection” and “ideal” are both value-laden and is full of controversy to begin with.

    The word “reality” is also controversial, especially when one is describing societies in conflict. Reality in the eye of the beholder is one, and the reality of the actors on the stage of history is another.One could give plenty of examples to show that reality is very much relative, depends on a person’s point of view, what the person wishes to hear and see, feel and think, and interpret.

    I would be interested to read an article that makes an analysis of the present state of affairs in Bangladesh in terms of how well the “democracy” is functioning.How far away is Bangladesh from an ideal democratic society. One could cite example of such a society from a country anywhere in the world at present.

    Many thanks again for writing a thought provoking article.

    Yours truly,
    Dara Shamsuddin

  3. Manirul Islam

    Dear Sir,
    To summarize my article, I tried to say that dysfunctional democracy is the reality and in the existing condition wishing democracy healthy long life is utopia.

    I have structured my article in a way to detail out genesis, genetic blending and chemistry of evolution of the main three stake holders of our power politics. First, the nervous journey of Awami League from center to left- of- center and their post-liberation political errors of colossal proportion. Second, the inner-contradictions and connivance to outer conspiracies of our far-left and their immoral merger with far right that percolated down to a coalition of hybrid politics to reverse the course of our history. Third, our narcissist military, evolving into a mirror image of Pakistan army, always lurks around the power center, accelerates and magnifies the failures of the democracy and grabs power by force to save democracy. I also established the fact, two armed adversaries of our liberation war are now two main players of our democracy, none of these parties has renounced their past with reference to 71. Up to this point is the reality part of my article. The utopia part reflects expectation of public, intelligentsia and civil society to see an idyllic democracy (forget past, no cross fire, all party summit for TipaiMukh etc.) fully functional with these players active in the arena.

    Sir, your words are very much inspiring and please ask me if you need further clarification.

    Regards/ Manirul Islam

  4. Dara Shamsuddin

    Dear Manirul,

    Many thanks for your long and illuminating reply.

    I think you have an excellent theoretical underpinning of your article. However, with explicit statement of the theoretical aspects, namely the second paragraph of your reply starting with “I have structured …..” and ending with ” … in the arena” would have supplied the reader with the necessary thread that weaves the whole series of events, associations and interrelationships.

    I am not quite sure about the last sentence of your second para starting “The Utopia part reflects …”. The role played by our “public, intelligentsia, civil society” (I assume includes the mass media), even to this day, or perhaps more so, is dubious at best.Of course we have to carefully define and identify these three groups. In a class-structured society like we have in Bangladesh, the meaning of public might not mean the entire body of people as a whole. The better definition might be, to my understanding, ” a body of people sharing some common interest” If we agree to this defintion the next task is to identify and characterize them!!. The word “intelligentsia” might be a group of people who are “educated” and are considered by others as the “intellectual elite” of the country. Again we have to identify such a group of people !! The words “civil society” might be used for a formal or informal extended social group with similar interests having distinctive cultural and economic organization. Shall we try to identy them in Bangladesh? !!

    I have defined them as I have found them. But trying to identify them would be very tricky, not the least for the reason that these three circles are not mutually exclusive. If I try to draw circles for the three groups, the outcome would be a venn diagram !! I would find quite a number of people in at least in two circles, even if not in all the three, over a period of time.

    Now, about the wishes and expectations of such dubious circles of people !! I have found their expectations moving around in a circle, or better still, in the fashion of a pendulum, going from one extreme to the other. Therefore, if we want to construct an ideal/expected state of democratic scenario we would be falling into a mouse-trap of our own construction.

    I would rather start with a different hypothesis to explain the series of events till to day and the role of various actors, including the “public, the intelligentsia and the civil society” I would characterize hem as interest groups. I would them hypothesize about the stages though which a country that had got her independence through armed struggle must pass.

    Phase I: Period immediately after liberation: All interest groups vying violently with each other to gain control of the state power and the resources.

    Phase II: One group gains control and exterminates, physically and politically, others

    Phase III: Inner contradictions of the group in power (Thesis-antithesis-synthesis)

    Phase IV: Involving people to gain/consolidate/justify/legalize power: journey towards democracy

    Phase V: Democracy by the people, but not of the people and for the people: to my understanding we are passing through this phase now.

    Phase VI: Looking into the best possible future scenario, everything else remaining constant: Democracy by and of the people but not for the people.

    Utopia, the real Utopia: Democracy by the people, of the people and for the people.

    I don’t think I will live to see anything even near to this in most of the “democratic” countries of the world, not to speak of Bangladesh.Look at Obama’s health insurance bill, how a good plan for the people was thwarted by peoples’ representatives !! If you try you will I am sure find hundreds of cases where “for the people” initiatives have been voted down by the peoples’ representatives all over the world in democratic countries.

    I wish you all the success in your very laudable quest for bringing an understanding of the events in Bangladesh so far.

    Take care and stay well.
    Affectionately,
    Dara Shamsuddin

  5. Manirul Islam

    Sir,

    Your analysis has enriched my perspective and has certainly opened new windows to look at the contour of the issue from different angles. I have used a broad brush and a small canvas for the portrait. Your example of not-so- perfect functioning of democracy in USA perhaps strikes a chord of optimism that our democracy also should work with all it’s limitations. Sir, existing political chasm does not make me feel upbeat on that. But I sincerely believe, if democracy ails, the prescription should be democracy as well. Alternative experiments and expeditions are fatal for the life of a nation.

    I am grateful for your time and care, Sir. Thank you

  6. IC

    I agree with you and i wonder why is this happening over and over again. How an army plays so significant role in power sharing and installing executives in power yet play so humble. Where does the source of that strength come from?

    India, Pakistan, Bangalee remains but the real broker of the corridor of power in Bangladesh remain in the same place where it all started from 15th Aug 1975.
    It is imperative for the nation to ascertain whether or not this need stoping at once.
    Democracy in Bangladesh is a beggars believe. It is more like a dictatorical democracy- A SHOW OF ONE PERSON.

  7. Azimuddin Khan

    I think we have finally entered the phase where democracy has the chance of getting a permanent foothold in Bangladesh. The army’s role in politics has been totally discredited.The last two years of illegitimate army rule has exposed how corrupt and morally defunct military rule is. The army has been behind the brutal assasination of the founding father and then the killing of its own creation Zia-ur Rahman. Then we have seen the army’s intelligence wing in alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami directly getting involved in shipment of arms for terrorists in foreign countries.

    It all began with Zia when he shook the pillars of independence by reinstating the war criminals in politics. His torch of fake democracy has been ably carried on by Khaleda Zia and her crooked sons by sponsoring state sponsored cross border terrorism in neighboring countries and using the defence forces intelligence in assassinating the entire top brasss of the Awami League including Sheikh Hasina. They even managed over one crore falsified voters to rape elections repeatedly. But the irony of fate is that their blueprint to turn Bangladesh into a failed state has been foiled by divine intervention.

  8. The Peoples

    Bangladesh is known as democratic country
    But as per article ( section ) 70 of Bangladesh Constitution , only key person or party chief. can take decision none the else

    Second one is very age old or left over colonial laws and judicial system for ruling the people.
    Due to which billions of hard earned cash money of common people are spend in conducting these pending suits or litigation in the court which may not be settled even in life time nor have any certainty of any specific results

    Now the question- who are direct beneficiaries ?

    Contesting parties are compelled to spend money in addition to valuable times of their active life, year after year

    ARE THESE PRODUCTIVE ACTIVITIES ?

    If not why such colonial laws and legal system are not changes ?

    Peoples are in opinion that Bangladesh can not face the advancement of Science and Technology like other Asian Countries nearby Bangladesh

    Even Bangladesh will not be able to dream the face of digital world with existing colonial laws and legal system .

    But it is good for providing money to a group of people involved in conducting present legal process / system who have no rule in productive activities to change the face of poverty of the country .

    Third point which is most significant and important are the lack of accountability in every stage of life for people or Government Personal / Officials

    It is wise to reform / replace the concerned ministry with expert of political sciences / social welfares and expert from relevant subjects of science and technology. like medicine , engineering , agricultural sciences , business and commerce etc ?

  9. The Peoples

    Bangladesh is known as democratic country
    But as per article (section) 70 of Bangladesh Constitution, only key person or party chief. can take decision none the else

    Second one is very age old or left over colonial laws and legal system for ruling the people.
    Due to which billions of hard earned cash money of common people are spend in conducting these pending suits or litigation in the court which may not be settled even in life time nor have any certainty of any specific results

    Now the question- who are direct beneficiaries ?

    Contesting parties are compelled to spend money in addition to valuable times of their active life, year after year

    ARE THESE PRODUCTIVE ACTIVITIES ?

    If not why such colonial laws and legal system are not changes ?

    Peoples are in opinion that Bangladesh can not face the advancement of Science and Technology like other Asian Countries nearby Bangladesh

    Even Bangladesh will not be able to dream the face of digital world with existing colonial laws and legal system.

    But it is good for providing money to a group of people involved in conducting present legal process / system who have no rule in productive activities to change the face of poverty of the country .

    Third point which is most significant and important are the lack of accountability in every stage of life for people or Government Personal / Officials

    It will be wise to reform / replace the concerned ministry with expert of political sciences / social welfares and expert from relevant subjects of science and technology. Like medicine, engineering, agricultural sciences, business and commerce etc ?

  10. Abid Bahar

    Sir,
    It is worth quoting you. You said “…if democracy ails, the prescription should be democracy as well. Alternative experiments and expeditions are fatal for the life of a nation.” But I see your analysis you are negating when it is appllid in Bangladesh context.
    In your analysis there is no mention of Mujib’s installation of one party rule and closing all the opposition newspapers,and extrajudicial killings making mujib an undemocratic and authoratorian leader. Mujib’s cadre politics which still lingers in Hasina’s second term. Mujib’s man-made 1974 femine. Despite all that Mujib like mamy authoritarian leaders would still be alive if he didn’t live in Dhanmondhi. And a single event Dalim’ and his wife were kidnapped by Golam Mostofa who took them to Mujib in Dhanmondhi.
    If you read the Fifth Amendmend by Zia you will see it opened multiparty democracy and market economy over Mujib’s North Korea style Socialist backward-looking authoritarian rule. Mujib’s Fourth Amendmend was banned by Zia because as you said in your premise “…if democracy ails, the prescription should be democracy as well [not the BKSAL.] Again you are right in your premise: “Alternative experiments and expeditions are fatal for the life of a nation.” Just because Zia came from military is not a sufficient condition for him you said obstructing the development of democracy in Bangladesh. Again I am quoting you, “Alternative experiments and expeditions are fatal for the life of a nation.”

  11. Mushfiqur Rahman

    Thank you Abid vai, for bringing up the core agenda. Infact, it has become fashionable to criticize Zia, his regime and his development ideologies of which AL is a failure in vain. To my satisfaction and confidence, i can assure you that everywhere ppl around are frustrated with Hasina regime, no doubt. Economic developments has come to a standstill when govt doesnt know where it ca actually lead us to. All they are concerned is that they should keep stick to power and overthrow anybody that has a different perspectives. The recent case with Dr. Younus gives the clear evidence of such. I fear when Bangladesh alone will overthrow them out of politics, it will be hard for them to accept defeat. In the political history, their greed for power has restrained them aback from politics and power. Never did ppl had concern about AL. Exception were aristocratic rule by Ershad when ppl broke out for democracy. She (Sheikh Hasina) is the one when failed to be in power in 1991 vowed not to give peace to Bangladesh in public and media. Now, she is the prime minister and she has got Ershad on her left hand wing to meet her thirst in political power.

  12. md. Arfin shuvo Shuvo

    sir i need ..elected representative..franchise universal..responsibility..responsive.. Transparency and accountableity..rule of law…of democracy in bd.,,plz help

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