Doubts about December parliamentary elections

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Interviews with Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age

Jonotar Chokh (16 October 2008), and weekly Shachitra Shomoy (26 October 2008).

Translations by Rahnuma Ahmed

I have doubts about December’s parliamentary elections: first, whether they will take place — at all — on the 18th. And second, if they do, whether the elections will be such that are acceptable to all sections of society, whether all political parties are able to actively take part in it, and whether the elections, on the whole, are held smoothly – says Nurul Kabir.

Nurul Kabir. Editor New Age. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Nurul Kabir, Editor New Age, at a media roundtable on "Building Tolerance and Unity through Media" organised by IFJ and DrikNEWS at Drik Gallery. 7th January 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Jonotar Chokh: You often express doubts about whether parliamentary elections will be held on December 18th. Why?

Nurul Kabir I have doubts about December’s parliamentary elections: first, whether they will take place — at all — on the 18th. And second, if they do, whether the elections will be such that are acceptable to all sections of society, whether all political parties are able to actively take part in it, and whether the elections, on the whole, are held smoothly.

When national elections are held under a non-party based caretaker government, the main task is to create an equitable political atmosphere where parties can contest equally, and of course there are pre-conditions to this: conducting constructive discussions with all political parties, big or small, framing democratic norms and rules that are acceptable to all. But the present government and its nominated Election Commission has never been seen to have engaged in constructive discussions with all concerned political parties, with similar sincerity, or an attitude of dealing with them equitably. On the contrary, sometimes this government and it’s Commission have attempted to divide the political parties. Sometimes it has extended state patronage to the people it prefers so as to enable them to form new political parties. Sometimes it has tried to stoke up mutual distrust and suspicion between the mainstream political parties. As a result, the relationship which has developed between the political parties, and the government and its Election Commission, is one based on a kind of distrust. This is not congenial to the holding of elections.

On the other hand, the government has taken advantage of the state of emergency to create and implement policies which are extraneous to its constitutional mandate and its legal powers. Most of these are anti-people. For instance, shutting down nationalised factories, industries and banks, tele-communications, gas, airlines etc., handing over government service sectors to private limited companies in order to strengthen private ownership etc. etc. These actions have further embedded Bangladesh economy into the US-led ‘new liberal economic order,’ which is bound to have a negative impact on the economic lives of most people. These decisions were taken and implemented by using the state of emergency as a shield, by disallowing popular protests through armed means. In this context, it is difficult to be certain about whether those who have strangled peoples’ fundamental rights will leave the shelter of emergency powers and hold elections. On the other hand, the major political parties have clearly spoken of their unwillingness to take part in the elections under emergency. And, of course, none of the major political parties can agree to take part in the elections under a state of emergency, without sacrificing their obligation to struggle for the restoration of peoples’ constitutional rights. Besides, the government might take advantage of the state of emergency, it might try to legitimise election results that have been decided beforehand.

And then again, if we look at it from another angle, it is not possible to be absolutely certain that any of the political parties will not betray the people and their aspirations for the restoration of democratic rights. Elections, whether held under a state of emergency, or after the withdrawal of emergency, generally enable a political party to assume power, to take on the reins of government. Any political party coveting power can disavow their commitment to restoring peoples’ fundamental rights, and can singly begin to, let’s say, walk towards the throne. Such things have happened before. But then, even in such a case, given the current stalemated political situation, I do not think that the military-backed caretaker government will welcome the idea of holding elections without having worked out beforehand, an effective understanding about post-electoral politics with one of the major political parties — at the very least. And elections based on pre-election understandings of this sort, are bound to be flawed.

We can see that the government is engaging in dialogues with the political parties, but we also hear that the government is attempting to arrive at secret understandings with them. The results of direct discussions are not very positive, whereas, on the other hand, we do not know what is taking place behind the scenes. And it is for these reasons, that I express concern about whether elections will be held on December 18th, and that, even if these are held, I express concerns about the quality of elections that will be held under a state of emergency.

Jonotar Chokh: At times the government is giving some advantages to the Awami League, at other times, to the BNP. And now we see it putting pressure on both political parties. What, in your opinion, is the reason behind this strategy?

Nurul Kabir The reasons behind the strategy of the military-controlled caretaker government for sometimes giving advantages to one party, at other times, to another, are very clear: to evade the responsibilities outlined in the constitution so as to keep open the option of advancing ahead with the political-economic agenda of their western masters. The government’s constitutional obligation was to not award special privileges to any particular party, to ensure equal opportunities for all, and to hold a well-organised general election that will hand over power to the elected representatives. But the present government and its invisible national and foreign partners are stoking up suspicion and distrust between the political parties, whose relationship, as it is, is based on competitiveness. In such a situation, in order to bring a return of normal political processes, the contending political parties and camps should reach a minimum level of understanding on the removal of the state of emergency. If the politicians fail to do this, the unelected government may use excuses to prolong its tenure, and this will be harmful for the country, for its people, for the national economy, and for the political process.

Jonotar Chokh: Two major political parties provide leadership in Bangladesh politics — do you think they will be able to rise above nepotism and corruption in future, and play a positive role with respect to the people?

Nurul Kabir The two major political parties that provide leadership in Bangladesh politics — Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Dal (BNP) and the Awami League (AL) — basically represent the political, economic and cultural interests of the nation’s ruling class. This ruling class, which is of course a small section of the nation’s total population, is authoritarian. It is so for several historical reasons. From the economic point of view, it is corrupt. From the cultural point of view, it is reactionary. Hence, a democratic orientation, economic transparency, and cultural progressiveness is inherently against the nature of this class, it goes against the processes through which this class was constituted, as a ruling class.

The ruling class, which as I said earlier, is anti-people. It has developed an economic system that is consistent with its class-based interests. It has kept intact a state and society that is undemocratic. Nepotism and corruption are its inseparable features. Military and civilian bureaucrats, corrupt businessmen and industrialists, local agents of foreign or multinational companies and opportunistic politicians, have all contributed to this corrupt system. On the other hand, there exists a vast army of compliant intellectuals, teachers, journalists, artists, writers, experts of different colour, who unfailingly keep providing social and cultural legitimacy to this anti-democratic system. On the social level, they produce and reproduce conventional and stereotypical ideas. They do not question the political and economic ideas that exist. There is no realistic reason to believe that in this situation, with this political, economic, and cultural system, and with its unhindered continuance, the mainstream political leadership will rise above nepotism and corruption, and will devote itself — or, that the leaders are capable of devoting themselves — to peoples’ welfare at the first opportune moment. To get the mainstream political leadership to work in the peoples interest, they have to be kept under constant pressure — the members and followers of the political parties have to be much more conscious, they have to shake off the prevalent tradition of extending blind support to their leaders, they have to work hard to get their leadership accustomed to the idea of democratic accountability. In this case, progressive journalists and intellectuals have the opportunity to play a critically significant role — and of course, there is a tremendous need for them to do this. A journalism that is biased towards the people must continuously unearth how the existing political system, how economic philosophy and cultural outlooks produce and reproduce corruption. A journalism that is biased towards the people must necessarily place these facts before the people. What progressivist intellectuals can do, is to analyse the inherent limitations of the existing system, they can present it before the people, they can present positive alternatives to the existing political and economic system. This requires hard work. Not only that, it is also risky. Only those who are committed to the idea of history and to progress, will be willing to take such risks.

The emergence of journalists and intellectuals who are committed to the democratic rights of the people, to fearlessly fighting on behalf of party workers and followers to build an accountable political culture, to greater action-based unity on the part of people, can work to create a situation where the current political leadership rises above corruption and nepotism, and can, or is forced to, work for the welfare of the people.

Jonotar Chokh: How do you assess the role of journalism in Bangladesh in times of emergency?

Nurul Kabir The emergency has had a terrible influence on journalism in Bangladesh. After 1990, one had seen the emergence of positive trends in journalism in Bangladesh. Until January 2007, before the promulgation of emergency, journalism in Bangladesh, despite its flaws and limitations, was the most vibrant in the whole of South Asia. But the state of emergency, and the subsequent oppression — which is of course, a part of emergency — and the virtual surrender of most media institutions, has destroyed the proud identity that we had as journalists. At the beginning of emergency, the government had stated that in the absence of a parliament, it would be the media that would express the hopes and aspirations of the people, that the government would conduct its activities on the basis of public opinion which would find its expression in the media. But, in practice we have found the government using the media to implement its own undemocratic agenda. Of course, it is true that some newspapers and televison channels executed the government’s orders voluntarily, falling over backwards in their attempts to do so, but there were others who were forced to do so, in the face of abusive behaviour and threats from members of the military intelligence agencies. We — who are a very small part of the media in Bangladesh — disregarded the emergency government’s unfair demands and threats. We have tried our level best to maintain standards of professional excellence. In doing so, we have had to risk our lives, our honour. I am sure readers remember that the present government, immediately after coming to power, began a sweeping campaign against politicians, saying that they are all corrupt. But actually, the military intelligence agencies handed-out printed information to newspapers on the financial corruption of politicians, that they would publish the following day. The politicians were then in prison. There was no opportunity to get their version of the story, to find out what they had to say for themselves. But we were expected to print the stuff! We [at New Age] didn’t. Most newspapers did, many did so very eagerly, while others had no option. This period is scandalous, it will forever remain so in the history of journalism in Bangladesh. Not all politicians are free of scandalous dealings, this is absolutely true. But the government’s motive in making them scandalous springs not from a desire to rid the country of corrupt politicians, but from the evil intention of de-politicising the nation. Extending support to such a plan of action is anti-people. Extending support to such an idea is against the practices of democratic journalism, regardless of whether it is initiated by the government, or by non-government forces.

A couple of un-elected persons, vastly removed from the people of this country have been in control of state power for almost the last two years, in the name of correcting its faulty political process. This idea is laughable. Democracy can be developed only by extending the democratic rights of people, by removing hindrances to the exercise of these rights. But the rulers claim to be servicing the democratic process by suspending the fundamental democratic rights of the people! Journalism in Bangladesh should have risen up in revolt against such an unreal and absurd idea, but it didn’t. Therefore, generally-speaking, there is nothing about journalism during emergency times that we can be proud of.

Journalism is also a kind of intellectual practice. The duty of democratic journalism, just like democratic intellectual practice, is to ignore the wrath of the ruling class, and to ceaselessly work for upholding the truth in front of the common people, to organise public opinion against all sorts of un-democratic practices, to prepare the cultural soil for a decisive rise of democratic social and political forces. Journalism too, is a kind of political struggle. Practising journalism for the growth of democracy is not separate from the political struggle for the establishment of a democratic state. These are processes that go hand in hand.

Jonotar Chokh: How do you view the role that the army has played in the politics of Bangladesh since 1/11?

Nurul Kabir `Playing a role in politics’ did not begin on 11th January 2007. On the contrary, the army leadership had a determining role in initiating the political changes of 11th January. But one must bear in mind that the army leadership’s involvement in politics was actively instigated by two things: on the one hand, the crass power struggle between the contending political parties that was shorn of any ideals whatsoever, one that led to a conflictual situation. On the other, the incitement provided by a miniscule, but organised, anti-politics group known as ‘civil society’ (shusheel shomaj), several local agents of multinational corporations who are barriers to the development of national capital, and several foreign embassies, both western and non-western. This self-serving clique of national and foreign forces get greater pleasure when unrepresentative and weak governments are installed, since it becomes easier for them to gain business and trade advantages, to secure their own power and influence. The combination of unrepresentative government and a state of emergency creates a politically authoritative system, in such a state of affairs, people do not have the right to protest against the actions of the state and government through constitutional means. As a result, interested quarters are able to realise their own political and economic plans, to do this, in an absolutely unhindered manner.

This is the unhealthy state of affairs that has existed in our country under the current military-backed caretaker government for the last twenty months. Many factories and industries have closed down during this period, employment opportunities have greatly lessened, the national economy is in a critical state. As I said earlier, Bangladesh has become further embedded in the western-dominated global economic order, the nationalised service sector has moved further away from the common people, the state’s education and health sector has become more antagonistic to public interest, the purchasing power of people has further lessened etc. etc.

Since the army leadership was directly associated with the changes of 11th January, people equate the illegal and anti-people actions taken by the caretaker government — as it was formed under the army’s direct supervision — with the army as a whole, rather simply, in a lineal manner. The army is regarded to be partly responsible for the caretaker government’s visible role in the political sphere, particularly within the political parties; it is regarded to be partly responsible for the never-ending creation of instabilities, for the government’s unlimited failure in solving everyday problems of the common people.

I think that, being a nation state, it was inappropriate for the national armed forces to have attained such an image. It is not beneficial for the country, in other words, it is not beneficial either for our people, nor for our army.

Jonotar Chokh: Barrister Rafiqul Huq recently took initiatives to organise private meetings between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, how do you view this?

Nurul Kabir From what I can tell, Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s initiative of arranging a private meeting between Khaleda Zia (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina (AL) has been welcomed by the common people. Khaleda immediately responded. Hasina too, did not oppose the idea, she said, she would decide after she had discussed the matter with her party members.

It is not possible to say whether this meeting will take place, and if it does, whether it’ll bear any results. That depends on the circumstances in which it occurs, the agenda of the meeting, etc. etc. But what we need to understand and appreciate is why such initiatives receive popular support. First of all, Bangladeshis want to be rid of this state of emergency that is throttling us, right at this moment. And I think, the people understand very well that in order to be free of this state of emergency the two top leaders of the two most influential political parties need to arrive at a minimum consensus against this military-backed caretaker government. Second, once the state of emergency is withdrawn and a political process is re-initiated, people do not want a return to the warring relationship that had existed between the two parties prior to its imposition. The BNP and AL’s crass struggle for political power, one that is shorn of any ideals whatsoever, inflicts miseries on the everyday struggles of common people, it obstructs the conduct of normal economic activities. Therefore, what the people want is that these two leaders, who wield paramount power within their own parties, should, of their own accord, reach an understanding on the basic issue that the lives and means of living of the people of this country will not be hampered in future because of their own struggles for state power.

Besides, people want that the two top leaders should sit and discuss, and mutually agree on the need for effecting a positive transformation in our whole political culture, on issues that were being discussed in Bangladesh society over the last couple of years, such as, the growth of a democratic culture within the political parties, ensuring transparency in the party’s financial dealings, building habits of tolerance among party leaders and followers, orienting the parties towards being effectively accountable to the people etc. etc. and that they should receive a clear assurance about these essential matters.

At the present stage in the history of our political development, no other leader exists who is as popular, as successful, or as influential as Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Therefore, people have no other recourse but to demand that they behave properly. Hence, I think that there is popular support for Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s initiative. And I think that the leaders should respond towards the love, affection and trust that the people bestow on them.

But the government immediately swooped down on the idea of a consensual meeting taking place between the two leaders. This gave rise to a complex situation. Those who are politically-conscious realise that the military-backed caretaker government, which is far removed from the common people, wants to forcibly extract commitments. I don’t think that people support the idea of a quasi-military system extracting these commitments forcibly. I don’t think that Bangladeshis want to see their leaders humiliated. I think that the common people want to see their leaders make these commitments, of their own free will.

Jonotar Chokh: There are many among the educated sections who blame the political leadership for Bangladesh not having progressed as a nation. What is your opinion?

Nurul Kabir The extent to which a nation, or the people of a country — who belong both to big and small nationalities — can make progress in the world system as a whole, depends to a large extent on the nation’s political leadership, I admit that this is true. If political leadership is progressive, is educated, is democratically-inclined, is committed to the progress of the nation and its people, the people and the country as a whole are bound to make advancements.

But what kind of politics will emerge, the extent to which political leadership will be progressivist and democratically-inclined, the purposiveness and accountability of its actions — these do not depend on political leadership alone. They also depend on the particular political party’s members and its followers, and also on the political consciousness and cultural norms, as a whole.

If the political leadership is truly democratically-inclined, if it really believes in transparency and accountability, if it is committed, then people’s political consciousness and cultural values as a whole, are bound to be more progressive. Further, if the political consciousness of party workers, supporters and common people is democratically-oriented, the political leadership is forced to behave democratically.

And therefore, I do not agree with those among the educated sections who blame only the politicians for Bangladesh’s lack of progress. Among these educated sections are people who have generally gained disrepute over the last two years, who are known as the ‘civil society,’ who have laid the blame on politicians in a most sweeping manner, who have thereby cleared the way for a situation that led to the emergence of this military-backed, undemocratic regime. They have extended the rein of this government, they continue to do so. But it is common knowledge that many of them received favours from the very political leadership, and the political regimes, of which they are now so critical. This is downright monafiqi.

A certain class of educated people look at politics as a homogeneous phenomenon, they fail to grasp the fact that political ideals and programmes can be different, that these can be loyal to different class interests of society.

It was the duty of our educated classes — it still is — to minutely examine and analyse different political ideologies, to present these before the people, so as to assist general party workers and common people understand better the distinctions, to make them politically more aware, to play a role towards constructing a democratic ethos. It is public consciousness against the undemocratic behaviour of the political leadership, its acceptance of an anti-people economic programme, that plays a decisive role in the growth and development of a democratic culture. There is no shortcut route to effecting positive changes in politics.

Jonotar Chokh: The current stream of politics and its leadership has repeatedly failed us in the past. A truly democratic current was much needed, but it failed to emerge. In your opinion, what are the reasons?

Nurul Kabir The two major mainstream political parties, the BNP and the AL, have not at all failed to protect the interests of the class that they represent. Both parties have made tremendous misuse of state power, they have built a huge army of very wealthy people among the ruling class. This wealthy group of people control the major part of our national resources, they hardly-ever abide by the law, their very visible indifference towards the plight of the many crores of poor people, towards their political and economic rights, their rights to education and health, is horrific.

Both the Jatiyatabadi Dal and the Awami League through their contribution to the growth of this inhuman and affluent class have proved that their political and economic ideals and policies when put into practice, are basically neither nationalistic (jatiyatabadi), nor pro-people (awami). If you seek answers to their failures in the fact that they have not served the interests of the majority, you would be making a serious mistake because that is not, and never was, their political programme. They have, very visibly, in front of everyone, churned out economic policies that favour the privileged, they have executed them, they have followed the prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF which are clearly against the interests of the poor, they have imposed these on our national economy. These policies have led to economic growth, but they have also led to proportionately increased disparities between the rich and the poor. Therefore I am not willing to say that the mainstream political parties have failed to serve the interests of the common people, because that is their politics. One just needs to read their party manifesto a bit attentively to realise that their policies are anti-people, that it is these policies that they implement when they are in power.

It is the failure of those who call themselves progressivists but have not practised progressive politics. They are not doing this, not even now. It is the failure of those who put their signature to mild press statements against the imperialist global capitalist system, but in practise, continuously cling to the coat-tails of a mainstream politics that prevents the furtherance of progressive politics. It is the failure of those intellectuals, artists and writers who prefer to present a progressive public image but do not make use of their intellect and labour to unmask the reactionary character of mainstream politics and economics.

If we are unable to pull Bangladesh out of the path of conventional politics and economics, the future of the majority of the people will slide into a dark, abysmal hole — this is undeniable. But, in order to move forward, towards better futures, we need to build a progressive politics, one which is in tune with the times. In order to take that politics forward we need women and men who are politically united, who are imbued with democratic cultural aspirations. There is no other alternative.

Conventional politics is innately loyal to the existing undemocratic state. It is the act of unmasking the ruling class’ material interests — ones that are intertwined in an unholy alliance with the expansion of the state — that a picture of a truly democratic state will emerge in clearer outlines in front of the people, a state in which women and men, Hindus and Muslims, workers and all other citizens will be able to enjoy equal rights in all spheres of the state. It is the act of analysing the warped capitalist economic programmes and policies followed by the mainstream political parties, that the central principles of a truly nationalist or awami economy will emerge before the people, that will, if applied, ensure equitable rights of all citizens over the nation’s resources, and ensure that the results of economic growth will be equally beneficial for all citizens.

But in order to take these political and economic ideas forward, as I have stressed earlier, we need political organisations. We need a group of people who are intellectually bright, culturally aware, courageous and committed toward democracy, who can initiate the process and can begin to walk toward this road with a firm belief that people are innately capable of enforcing democracy. It is a difficult task. It is a painful task, but if one avoids it, it will be impossible to create positive alternatives to the anti-people politics that are prevalent.

And therefore, I wait for the emergence of a group of men and women who have faith in the people’s innate democratic capacity. Surely, history will not betray us.

________________________________________________________________________

Shachitra Shomoy: Nearly all political parties have applied for registration. In this context, the government has claimed that the country has now risen on the highway to elections, that no doubts should exist any longer on whether elections will be held as scheduled, on Dec 18th. What do you think?

Nurul Kabir Whether elections will take place on Dec 18th or not, depends primarily on the government, the Election Commission, and on the army administration. It does not depend on the political parties. Some of the political parties have willingly applied for registration, others have done so unwillingly. This means that they are eager to take part in the elections. But the creation of an environment that is congenial to the holding of elections, taking preparatory steps that are necessary for it to take place, is chiefly the responsibility of the government and the Election Commission. I am afraid that doubts will continue to exist if the government is busy mouthing words instead of carrying out its responsibilities.

For the parliamentary elections to take place, the very first requirement is an electoral constituency based voter list. The electoral schedule cannot be announced without this. But the government and its Election Commission have not yet been able to fix the boundaries of the newly-proposed electoral areas. And therefore, they have not yet been able to take up the task of determining the electoral constituency based voter list. The Attorney General who is the the chief law officer of the state, and who, by the way, is an appointee of this government, has recently said that if court cases over the newly-proposed electoral areas are not quickly resolved, uncertainties are likely to arise over whether elections will be held on Dec 18th or not. If the Attorney General himself has doubts, how can ordinary folks like us not have any?

Secondly, the larger political parties have been saying for quite some time now — as a matter of fact, they have put forward reasonable arguments — that the local elections should not be held so soon after the national elections, after a period of only six days. But the government has ignored this demand of theirs, one that is unitedly held by nearly all political parties.

And most of all, all political parties and people who are intelligent, have repeatedly asked that the emergency should be withdrawn prior to the holding of national elections. But the government has remained committed to holding elections under a state of emergency, it has put forward lame excuses in defense of its wish.

Clearly, in terms of the time frame, the government is lagging behind in taking necessary steps for holding the elections, and in creating a suitable environment. But the fact that it is lagging behind cannot be explained away by saying that it is inefficient, or that it is unqualified. I think what is particularly important is its non-commitment toward holding the elections, and toward democracy.

Shachitra Shomoy: Why do you repeatedly stress the need for lifting the `state of emergency’?

Nurul Kabir I put the greatest stress on lifting the state of emergency because it is the most important issue for democracy; because it is the most important issue for the common people.

Let me explain: the political significance of a state of emergency is that it is disastrous for peoples’ lives. The essence of emergency lies in wresting away all basic democratic rights of the people.

It is true that the constitution makes provisions for the declaration of emergency, either in a particular area, or in the country as a whole. But the kind of disorder that requires a declaration of emergency was not prevalent in the country as a whole, in January 2007. But even if we are to assume — for argument’s sake — that it did exist, that the frightening political conflict that had been created in the capital city could spread to other parts of the country, that the declaration of emergency by the President was necessary to prevent it from spreading, the fact remains that there is no political rationale for its continuation, for it having existed for the last 19 months. Notwithstanding this, the government has usurped the individual’s right to free speech, the freedom of the press, the right of people to conduct meetings and rallies, to bring out processions protesting against the government’s unjust actions, the right to seek justice in a court of law etc. etc. by dint of emergency powers.

The state of emergency has placed a handful of people, unelected people, in the highest seats of government. This group of people, on the one hand, have been invested with extra-ordinary powers, while the rest of the people, on the other hand, have been made powerless. Not only that, the wrath of emergency powers has given birth to a culture of fear, to a culture that is not easy to be rid of, or easy to overcome. Its negative effects are bound to continue for a long time in peoples’ minds, even after it is lifted. As a result of this, people become afraid of thinking independently, of expressing their thoughts uninhibitedly. As a matter of fact, a chasm grows between a person and her or his sense of dignity, it is something that one is unaware of, that happens unconsciously. The state of emergency oppresses people psychologically, and hence, it is important that we become free of this state of oppressiveness at the earliest possible moment. Otherwise, we are bound to fall behind in our struggle to democratise our state and society.

No society is known to have developed politically without people who are free and who, as thinking people, are politically active, in a positive manner.

Shachitra Shomoy: Does that mean you are claiming that democracy was prevalent in our society before the imposition of emergency?

Nurul Kabir No, neither state nor society was democratic prior to emergency. Bangladesh was never democratic. Definitely not during military rule, not during electoral rule either. But what did exist, what has always existed in this country, is the people’s struggle to make state and society democratic. It is a struggle that is both political and cultural. Military rule, or a quasi-military rule under the cover of a state of emergency has in effect throttled that struggle. An elected government at the earliest is imperative because under the rein of an elected government, under a normal rule of law, people are generally less hindered in their struggle for democracy.

Shachitra Shomoy: Political parties have recently introduced some democratic changes to their party constitution. Do you think this will lead to the growth of democratic practices within the party?

Nurul Kabir It is true that political parties have democratised their constitutions. It is also true, to some extent at least, that they have done this because they have been forced to do so. However, there is no credible reason to think that this process will bring into being limitless opportunities for practising democracy in the political parties of the ruling class.

Through introducing these democratic changes, the only thing that the political parties have admitted to, is the fact that although they had spouted democracy at every opportune moment, they were loath to practise it. I agree that their admission has a certain amount of political value. But the enhancement of democratic practices, whether in a political party, or in any institution, does not depend on the inclusion of good words in its constitution. Rather, it depends on the leadership’s frame of mind, whether that is democratically-inclined or not. What is also important is the political consciousness of people close to that party or institution, and the political consciousness of those who are subordinate to it. If the majority of the people adhere to a personality cult, if the accountability of leaders is not important, well then, the growth of a democratic culture is not an easy task.

This is also true for state institutions. For instance, it is explicitly written in the constitution of Bangladesh that a non-partisan caretaker government will conclude the elections within 90 days, that it will take leave after handing over power to elected representatives of the people, and that during the interim period, the caretaker government will not draw up, or modify principles that are fundamental in any manner whatsoever, that they will conduct only the everyday affairs of governing. But look at what happened in practice. A handful of people with the highest educational degrees, copiously spouting the necessity of introducing democratic changes, flouted the constitution for the last 21 months without any misgivings whatsoever. And they did this by thumbing their nose at the democratic rights of all peoples’ of this land, even though sovereignty belongs to the people, even though the highest law of the republic is the expression of the general will of the people.

From this instance it should be clear that what is written on paper, and in books, is not enough to ensure the enhancement of democracy. What is most important is whether a democratic mental framework has developed in society, and in its organisations, regardless of whether these are state-owned, whether these are political parties. On the other hand, to enable the growth of a democratic mentality, both thoughtful and free discussions need to take place on a variety of issues, such as, what is the essence of democracy, what are its forms and variations, social and historical changes in democratic ideas, the social division of labour in a democratic state etc. etc. To create an environment where free discussions can take place, we need to be rid of the shackles of emergency. This is of utmost importance.

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