Another sad experience of our decade of
democracy was that both our major parties promised one thing while
in the opposition but did the exact opposite while in power. Both
parties promised big role for the opposition while out of power
but reneged on it after winning the elections.
Criminalisation of politics remained the
saddest chapter in the history of our nascent democracy. In a
mindless struggle for power both sides patronised criminal
elements that, in time, rose to become important members of the
high command. As time passed the ordinary citizens got more and
more disillusioned with the political parties
However, we will have to hold on to democracy
because that's what is best for the country. We have to take all
sorts of initiative to bring up before the public how democracy is
our only way to move forward regardless of challenges. It is with
such a purpose in mind that we in The Daily Star decided to
organise this dialogue. We are confident that with your thoughtful
and thought provoking deliberations we are likely to find ways to
further strengthen democracy.
Mahfuz Anam: Thank you all for
responding to our invitation to attend this important roundtable.
We have decided to take a look back over the last ten years of our
democracy and see what lessons we can learn from it. During this
period we have been able to hold three elections, see the peaceful
transfer of power, and the formation of three new elected
governments. However serious questions remain in the public mind
as to how effectively our democracy was able to address the
fundamental issues that confront our people. What we have seen is
mere changing of power from BNP to AL and then again to BNP, but
did we see any change in the lot of our people? This is what we
want to assess today. We hope that through your discussion we will
be able to get a clear picture on the health of our democracy and
how we can forge forward to make it more meaningful for our people
Hafiz Siddiqui: Mere holding of free and
fair elections is not sufficient for adherence to democracy. The
political parties should change the 'if I win, the polls were fair
but if I lose, the polls were rigged' attitude. And once elected,
a government should be allowed to run its full term.
Political parties must learn to respect each
other's views and develop the culture of tolerance in relation to
each other. We talk about participatory democracy but it has to be
effectively so. Only the opportunity to vote does not guarantee
the opportunity to participate in the socio-economic
Monowarul Islam: Any citizen who dares
to go against the policy of the state may find himself ensnared in
many bureaucratic controls. What does this mean for the future if
our lofty social ideals of the fifties or sixties cannot be
achieved within the current state machinery? Particularly in the
area of services, the private sector has been given prominence. I
am aware of the role of the private sector and that the government
cannot take it all on. But there has been a solution in
development countries in the form of regulatory commissions.
I believe that, in the area of democracy and
politics, the short-term problems are well known. But we should
think of some long-term options. I mean, perhaps, the study of
democracy, democratic principles, democratic values should be
introduced in our schools, colleges and universities. Our
educational institutions should start practicing democracy. The
institutions should be freed from political activism. Then we can
build up generations who at least would be aware of policies and
practices so that democratic spirit can grow.
Shamsul Bari: Democracy is a constantly
evolving system: It is not static. There is not just one standard
of democracy. While there are universal principles of democratic
systems, their manifestations can be varied.
Since democracy is evolving, it is important to
see its changes. The first transformation took place when we moved
from rule of king to rule of man. Previously there was oligarchy,
tyranny, etc. then with the Greeks and then the Romans, it moved
to the city-state type of democracy where many could participate.
This rule of many then transformed and this is what I call the
second transformation. City-state changed to the nation state. The
structures changed. I mention this because it may be important for
us to see whether or not we have come to a time when perhaps we
are on the threshold of a third transformation. That is important
to remember. If we are on the threshold of a third transformation
which is from the nation state to the supra nation forces, players
and politics and it is happening.
I would like to look at some indicators of a
democratic system. If we look at the conditionalities and then
look at Bangladesh and see if the conditionalities exist, that may
be a good starting point for discussion. One of the first
indicators to see whether democracy has been in place is whether
control of government decision about policy is constitutionally
vested. In Bangladesh it is constitutionally vested, but the test
will be whether it is really an effective system. Yes, it is
vested, but is it being practiced?
The second indicator would be, elected
officials are chosen and peacefully removed in fair elections. We
have this in Bangladesh, but can discuss how free and fair these
are. Practically all adults have the right to vote in the
election. I am saying practically all adults, because in some
countries, not all adults have the right. In Bangladesh there is
Citizens have freedom of expression, including
criticism of officials, the conduct of the government, the
prevailing social and economic system, the dominant theology. Most
of these are in place, but I question whether the dominant
theology aspect enjoys the kind of freedom that one would expect
in a good, well-working democracy. We need to see whether that
indicator is present in Bangladesh in order to decide the level of
democracy in Bangladesh.
The next indicator is that they have access to
alternative sources of information that does not monopolise. I
think here Bangladesh has made good progress. We do have
alternative sources of information. It's not controlled as it used
to be in the past. The media is not controlled as it used to be in
And finally, most importantly, the people have
the right to form and join associations including political
associations such as political parties, etc. Here also, I think we
can say Bangladesh has made good progress in the last 10 years. So
if you look at democracy in this perspective and you look at
Bangladesh, you will see many of the systems are in place,
excepting some key aspects where we pay attention. This is
particularly governmental control over decision making about
policy. That is an aspect that needs attention. And freedom to
discuss, criticise dominant theology and there I think if we are
talking about democracy being the rule of the people, then how
free are some of our people to criticise this dominant theology
which is becoming more and more predominant.
Let's come to favourable conditions that must
exist for a good working democracy. One is that leaders do not
employ instruments for violent activities, the police, etc. We
have to see whether this exists in Bangladesh. A modern dynamic
pluralistic society. This I emphasise for the success of
democracy. If we look at the working democracies in the world
where it has worked well, we will find this. More important than
this is if it is a pluralistic society then the conflicting
sub-cultural aspects of pluralism are maintained at tolerable
levels. In Bangladesh we have many sub-cultures. It is not only
ethnic, religious sub-cultures, but is becoming more and more
political. Is there any effective way of dealing with these
sub-cultures? This can be a good message for discussion. Another
condition is among the people of the country, particularly the
politically active strata, the political culture in a system that
is favourable to the idea of democracy and the institution of
democracy. Do we have that culture? If not what is the role for
anyone in the country to play? The fifth conditionality is
influence of foreign countries, negatively or positively. I would
think from my experience in Bangladesh over the last 10 years,
this is an area where I believe we have been able to move away
from influence. The conditionalities that make a viable democracy
is for us to see. It is important that we recognise the third
transformation that we were talking about. What are the conditions
that are required?
Ibrahim Khaled: Let me argue that
elections and democracy are closely related, but these are quite
different issues. Election is a process of coming to parliament.
Democracy, on the other hand, is a culture. So unless you have a
culture of democracy, elections will not help. It really did not
help here. I am really investigating this issue of the culture of
democracy. We have not arrived there. Of course we are a new
state. But we are a nation. Whether a Bangladeshi or Bengali
nation, we are a nation. It appears to me that we are still
striving with two strong tribes -- an Awami tribe and an anti-Awami
tribe. So from tribehood we have to transcend to nationhood. We
are in the process. That is the positive side. But it is also a
fact that we have not achieved democracy. We achieved freedom, but
the political freedom of the state did not provide freedom to the
We have three parties over the recent past. One
party got two chances and one party got one during this period. No
party could repeat its coming back to power in the next election.
This is a good sign, changing after a term. But if we go a little
deep into it, I find that the first three years of the
governments, there was more tolerance, even towards the
opposition. But the last two years of both the governments were
not as tolerant as the first three years. I had thought that this
time the third year period would be extended to four years at
least. But from the first day it has not been so. That is why I
say Bangladesh is not progressing well.
Friends of the government party say that we'll
do these unpleasant things in the first two years, then we will be
good. But they will forget. Why are these things happening? There
are two reasons: One, for a parliamentary democracy there are
three organs. Administration, judiciary and the legislature. All
three should be equally strong, robust. Legislature, they do make
laws, but they are not quite apparent. The judiciary we do not
believe it is as strong as it should be. So unless we make these
two organs robust and healthy, the administration will overpower
them, which is happening here. That is why democracy weakens. This
is the framework side.
About the cultural side, people are not
conscious, at least reasonably they are not conscious, they don't
resist. They do at times. But if the country belongs to the people
and there is something wrong, then the people should really resist
hard as we did in 1971. But now each time a government comes to
power, there is so much of a tribal attitude. Those in favour of
the government will never resist. They are never going to say,
this is wrong.
So there are two aspects. One is the framework
and the other is changing the culture, transcending to nationhood.
On the framework side, we must see the priority. Initially we will
not be successful in strengthening the legislature because of the
inherent effect of lack of education and other things. The quality
of people elected to parliament at this point is not quite good
enough to strengthen the legislative.
Initially, though, we will be able to reform
the judiciary to make it more vibrant, make it more active, make
it more acceptable. That will make it easier in changing the
framework. All the political parties agree, announce, that they
will provide judicial freedom. When they come to power, they just
leave it like that. It doesn't happen, because they don't believe
it. They say it just to satisfy the voters. They don't really
believe it. So I want to suggest a few steps. If it happens, we
can create an opinion, force the political parties to work for it.
The judiciary will be free only if the
judiciary is administered by the judiciary. Appointment of judges
is very important. Now this is done by the Prime Minister who is
the executive head. I want to take the Prime Minister or any other
Minister away from the process. Let there be such a national,
supreme searching council, or search council, of the judiciary for
appointments. It should be constituted with the Chairmanship of
the Chief Justice with two more members, I mean senior-most
members from the Supreme Court. These three will form the Supreme
Search Committee for appointment of judges. They will search out
the right kind of people from the Bar as well as from the judicial
services. This might eliminate, or at least reduce the possibility
of, political involvement, political appointments within the
Then there is the cultural side. The nominative
side can be changed through the law, but the culture cannot be
developed through law.
Mahfuz Anam: What I don't understand is
saying one thing and doing the exact opposite. For example, the
statements made by Khaleda Zia while in opposition. Or the
statements made by Hasina while in opposition. The moment they go
to power, they do exactly the opposite. How do you handle that? If
today Khaleda Zia does what she asked of the Awami League
government when she was in the opposition, that the government
must do a, b, c, d, if she does that now, I think half of her
problems are solved. Why does this happen? I understand that
people say hartal is bad when they are in power. When they go to
opposition, they call hartal. They say parliament boycott is bad
when they are in power. But they walk out when out of power.
Hasina use to say that the parliament is the heart of all
activities. Now she is boycotting parliament. How do you handle
Dilara Chowdhury: This is a hard
question you have raised. This is a culture of lies.
We have allegations against the army for
certain behaviour, but I would put the blame on civil leadership.
They are happy where they are until their very existence is
Actually there is a struggle between two sets
which a previous speaker called 'tribes'. Money plays a role.
Awami League didn't lose its electorate. It won 40 per cent or so.
BNP won because of the alliance. Money plays a role in nomination.
Look at the representatives in our parliament.
In Bangladesh the struggle of democracy has
been between the government class and the subordinate class. But
the subordinate class did not get the power or the privilege. That
has not happened in Bangladesh. Our representatives in parliament,
look at their socio-economic background. They represent the
interest of the business class, the bureaucracy. The peasants, the
women, the downtrodden are not represented. Until and unless that
happens, it is just a scramble to get power.
Mohd. Farashuddin: I would start by
saying that one decade for a democracy is too little a time. It
needs decades, if not centuries. Having said that, I must say that
in one decade, some of the elements of democracy had been
demonstrated in Bangladesh.
The sense of democracy at this stage in
Bangladesh is in the attitude. Democracy does give freedom, but is
freedom a licence? Doesn't freedom also give a lot of
responsibility? Have all the segments, including ourselves,
demonstrated responsible behaviour as warranted by democracy? I
think one of the failures in our mental framework, mindset, is
that democracy requires tolerance, ability to listen and a mental
makeup to respect others' views. These are some of the things
almost totally absent in our democratic disposition so far. The
other thing that bothers me is the 'I' factor. I think it is in
the Bengali psyche that what 'I' think is the best. Others are
ignorant or they just don't say the right thing. So this is the
acknowledgement of the others' abilities and contributions.
I must say that the economic growth of
Bangladesh in the nineties has been much more significant, not
enough, but much more significant than the political one. But the
economic growth did not turn into the social development we
expected. I did not say socio-economic development, I just said
One of the pitfalls of democracy in this
country has been indebtedness, too much eagerness to retain the
debt. I will give you a very concrete example. In the last
election the central bank identified 118 defaulters. Some of them
were big fish, very big fish. And by the time the election came,
between the returning officer, the Election Commission and, I
don't know whether I should say this, the judiciary, almost all of
them got away. I think it was 25 or 26 people who have been made
the victims. All the others got away. I personally spoke to some
returning officers, certainly the Election Commission, and I spoke
to a high judiciary official. The people who run the institution,
don't they have a social responsibility? Should they look at the
loopholes of the law and let loose these thugs who were patronized
by the political parties of all dispensations?
I said economic growth has been fast. Press
freedom. That has not been controlled by the government. It has
been controlled by the owners. I think the press has been fairly
free. I would say that press from all segments have played a
significant role in awakening the conscience of the society. I
think it is the social movement, it is the social awareness, it is
the moulding of the public opinion which would, if strong enough,
force the leaders to behave. They would practice what they preach
while in opposition. I think it is the force of public opinion
that has been very strong, as it had been in the nineties. I speak
of the press, but I am not so hopeful about the civil society as
it is today. There is a certain amount of opportunism there. It is
the press which has awakened the conscience of the society.
Judiciary has been spoken about. How many times
did the Supreme Judicial Council sit in the decade of the
nineties? It is a very powerful body. It can really put a notice
on the rulers of any party, but it doesn't sit. There is no
political will. There is no national will to have the judiciary
Now looking ahead, I think the conscious
section of the society should be enthused by the opinion-makers.
It is a pressure on the politicians to behave as they should.
We have done excellent in agriculture because
that is in our culture. We understand agriculture much better. We
should go to a totally agro-based growth process. The technology
is simple. It is participatory and generates income. It is the
best way to alleviate poverty and to ensure social justice. And it
has tremendous market at home and abroad. I would say that in the
democratic process in future we must convince the politicians that
politics and economics cannot be separated. Politicians should
Atiur Rahman: The last speaker
elaborated on the economic aspects of democracy. Indeed we did
much better during the democratic phase. All kinds of economic
parameters are better in the democratic phase. But the problem is,
we are democratic by processes. But are we democratic by
conscience? Do we go by the norms of the civil rights or by the
liberalism embedded in democracy? Some people say we are in
liberal democracy by default. The economic pressure is such that
the ruling class, even if they like, they cannot afford democracy.
I believe many are illiberal. Just to hang onto power could be one
It is hard to see the rightness or wrongness in
this regard. The credibility of the system has been questioned.
The referee has been questioned. There have been questions whether
we will have a referee in the next round. This is a short-term
problem. In the long-term Bangladesh's democracy is such, that we
are questioning history. A fortunate country has a history that
introduces the identity of the country. It does not allow the
nation to be divided. But in our country, the opposite has
happened. Our history is our biggest enemy. We went to war in
1971. To whose call were we responding? We all know. But today
history is being distorted.
Mahfuz Anam: All sides are distorting
Atiur Rahman: This is increasing the
division. If both Zia's and Bangabandhu's role was acknowledged,
then these questions wouldn't arise. I am not blaming any one
particular party. But history is being taken to such a length of
distortion that there had been no non-cooperation movement in
history. Nothing happened in our country, it seems, before 25th
March. Let us put history in the right perspective. Even if it
goes against me, let's put it correct. We must know the truths of
history or the nation will remain tribal, not a nation.
One option is to go back to the 1972
Constitution as it was, where human rights was clearly mentioned.
Let us go into the spirit of the 1972 Constitution. That could be
one way out. That is something we should do.
Secondly, when we come to power, that is when
democracy gets into a problem. Before coming to power, everyone is
for democracy. But once coming to power, we can't remain
democratic. That is one problem. We can't use our power lawfully.
We just want to take everything. I am not talking about any
particular regime. I am talking about all regimes. We just want to
take everything and that is where our democracy faces its largest
The fact that we can't behave lawfully is
proven. Can Ekushey Television play the role that it had played
during the rule of the caretaker government? Don't you feel that
they feel threatened? Why do they feel threatened? Why can't they
play their role normally? I think this too is a problem of
democracy. Authority is not being used properly, lawfully.
If the Supreme Court says that Shahariar
Kabir's arrest was illegal, is the three months of suffering he
faced lawful? Was this a lawful implementation of authority? Who
will ask this question? Will anyone answer? Will anyone apologise
to the nation? I don't think so.
I think the biggest aspect of democracy is not
to use the huge amount of power I have whenever I want against the
opposition. We lack this. A man may be lying helpless in front of
me, I won't beat him up. That day Motia Chowdhury was helpless,
but she was beaten up.
Mahfuz Anam: Similarly Khoka's head was
Atiur Rahman: Yes, that too. That too
was unlawful. I just gave one example. This is the crisis of
Then there is the issue of hartal. I think that
the question raised by Deputy Leader of Parliament Mr. Hamid day
before yesterday demands an answer. He said, fine, you all are
condemning hartal. But when BNP was in opposition for the last
five years, they carried out so many hartals in so many ways. But
when the election came around, it looked like the people rewarded
them for doing the hartal. So, he questioned, if the people are
right, was the election wrong? You may say that the people did not
like hartal. Then, he asked, was the election not credible? Are we
correct? We have to find out the answer for that question. How to
make a credible election? I don't know if there will be a
caretaker government in future or not, we must prepare from now.
There can be electronic voting and other innovations. Can't we use
these to increase the quality of the elections? Can't we make this
more acceptable? In 1991 and 1996 we had elections, but not like
this. Such questions did not arise. How to bring in more
transparency in public life? The opposition is not going to
parliament. It didn't go during the previous government either.
Mahfuz Anam: Is this election really
being questioned? Or is the defeated party only questioning it? Or
is this a question in your mind?
Atiur Rahman: The question is very much
in my mind. If the Election Commission gave me a credible answer,
if it posted centre-by-centre results, if I could see the results
of each centre, if they could say they followed every stage, the
results were sent in time, the results were countersigned, then I
wouldn't have questioned them. That credibility has not been
Hossain Zillur Rahman: Tribal
orientation in politics is a big problem. One problem I see for
democratic transition, the discourse that we run, should it
reflect on that? Does it further fuel the tribal orientation or
does it create rational spaces. I am afraid that the way arguments
were issued, this is part of the problem perhaps, that with merit
to the specific points that he has made, the method of discourse
had become itself very important. If tribal orientation becomes a
factor willingly, then the purpose is defeated. Let's take the
example of Shahariar Kabir's issue. I would be aghast at the idea
of individual rights being trampled and all, but the way politics
draws lessons from this is to be seen.
Everyday rights are not guaranteed. The poor
villager, he may for some reason get involved in a police case.
His whole family goes down the poverty straits. He has loss of
income, loss of earning, of power. He uses all he has to deal with
the courts, etc. So that is a vital point. Can we develop more
spaces for discussion from which we can seek rational answers, not
fuel this strife? The elite domination of the discourse is a
problem, this tribal orientation.
Let's take a record of the achievements. I
think there are three major ones if we look at the nineties. One
is regular elections, ideal or flawed, whatever it is. The
withdrawal of military from politics. Compared to third world
countries, this is a major achievement. Third is the economic
achievement. Famine has become a distant reality in Bangladesh. It
will not happen very easily. Then there is the achievement of
Mr. Farashuddin was saying that economic growth
may be more prominent than political growth in Bangladesh. The
lesson I have learnt there is that we are reading the records only
through the lenses of the elite. I agree with that, but there are
other lessons to learn. For example, an important achievement of
democracy is that throughout the three decades of nationhood,
local government elections has never faltered. There has not been
a single case where the schedule of local government elections
have been forfeited. A quiet nurturing of democracy has been going
on even though at the macro level it was all blood and gore. These
things aren't caught in the radar of the elite. It is not
important enough. The discourse has also tended to ignore this.
When we talk of democracy and freedom,
interesting levels of freedom have come which are not recorded. We
can look at the economics of it. Monopolistic tendencies in the
market as such have tended to recede. Look at the rice market. One
of the reasons why famines would occur in the past is that
Badamtali would control the market. If Badamtali faltered there
would be famine. Now a young trader in Chittagong can link up with
Dinajpur directly. Markets have become much more decentralized. We
have not recorded those features. We don't tend to take them on
board as important evidence of the way society is progressing.
About hartal, yes, it is true. BNP did lots of
hartals. They won. Awami League is doing it now. They may win.
What is the message there? Does it mean that people condone hartal?
They don't. I think that there is a two-step message here. At one
level people are trying to impress upon the full range of
political parties, please get away from this, from this
instrument. Even if Awami League wants to do a hartal now, they
have to go through a lot of motions of explaining to people, why
it is necessary. You can't do it so easily as before, as if it is
your God-given right. At the same time, hartal is not the only
instrument by which people are assessing political records. In
that sense, this winner takes all philosophy is also changing. I
see an interesting transition in Bangladesh with its British
colonial history. In Britain bureaucracy is a permanent feature of
democracy. It is much more independent, away from the party
system. We have that tradition. But in this one decade of
democracy, I feel we have moved somewhat to the American system.
This is more like a system where, if I win, I have the right to
appoint. In America this is not a problem because America is a
functioning democracy. Even here in terms of drawing appropriate
political lessons, the move towards this system is, I feel, more
like a political transition. The important point is to find this
transition in notions of standards and merits. Because in USA also
you have this system, but there are processes through which we go.
This system is unlikely to be reversed easily. We need to bring in
notions of standards. I think this is the other issue. When we
discuss freedom, the notion of standards is a vital issue. In
media, for example, press freedom is a vital issue. But as for
standards, journalistic standards, these must be there.
In general, standards as particular aspect, as
a particular quality, that needs to be seen as the core of the
whole democratic system. There has to be check and balance. We
have seen terrible examples where the inclusion of the elected
personality has produced negative results. I would even question
the idea of how the judiciary is to be. The idea is of check and
balance. We inculcate a sense of the autocrat in this elected
personality. The idea of check and balance is vital, a key
Salehuddin Ahmed: I have learnt a lot
from the last election. I visited the grassroots people. I
sometimes feel these grassroots people are way ahead than the
leaders. I may be wrong, but that is the feeling I get. The people
speak, perhaps not of democracy, but of their problems and of the
solutions. If everyone would listen carefully and take steps
accordingly, then democracy would be there. There is a great gap
between the elite and the people. When the people of the slum
talk, they are talking from the experience of their lives, from
reality. They are identifying their problems. They are also giving
solutions. As you said, there is a lack of listening culture.
Sometimes it is frustrating as to whether the
problems will ever be solved. If we study the composition of the
parliament, you will see that most of these people have been the
same people for years. They have changed parties, changed
allegiance, so what kind of balance can you expect?
The problem lies in the fact that the next
generation that will take over is also not being prepared. Or they
are being wrongly prepared. We are all making an effort. When I
visit the children's schools, the non-formal education schools,
the values we are trying to create there, you see a girl of 10 to
15 years of age seeing eye to eye with us. It is a change of
culture. This is a departure. This makes us have hope. Then we see
frustration too on the other side, among the young who are
resorting to hooliganism.
I believe that the majority of people in this
country are very intelligent, very democratic and they want to do
something good for the country. There is a big gap between the
people who are running the country and the people at the
grassroots. I sometimes feel that if we bifurcated the budget,
then we could see what is actually happening to the poor people
who make up 60 to 70 per cent of the population.
Mahfuz Anam: We need decentralization.
Salehuddin Ahmed: If we see the women we
work with, they are so dynamic. The grassroots persons are so
dynamic. It is amazing to see the way they manage their resources.
Fifty per cent of the people are women. The men dominate over them
and this must be changed.
I am very optimistic about this country because
I feel a lot of things are happening at a grassroots level. When
we go to the village, we speak face to face with the men and
women. But when the policy makers go to the village, they are
Mahfuz Anam: Let us look at the
immediate problems. Look at the political parties. Bangladesh is
the only country in the world where the political parties do not
have registration. Anyone can form a political party. Just issue a
press statement, you don't need anything else. Where do these
parties get money from, where do they spend the money? I have no
scope to know. So you have non-legal entities having huge amount
of resources. We are spending crores of taka on them, making all
sorts of laws and having elections for them. We are like taking
them and placing them on a pile of treasure, that too in a
democratic way. Why don't we citizens decide to demand more
transparency from the political parties? I want to know the number
of your members. I want to know the source of your funds. The
Election Commission wanted the registration of political parties,
but everyone refused. They will refuse. BNP will refuse. Awami
League will refuse. That is their freedom. They will never accept
legislation for registration. But we have to come forward with
Can we define at least five or six issues which
we can demand from the political parties?
Atiur Rahman: Let The Daily Star play a
role by regularly publishing in your papers what the parties said
in the past and what they are saying now. It should be
issue-based. Just publish this regularly and I think that will
create some awareness.
Monowarul Islam: Unfortunately I think
that there is only one factor guiding democracy in this country.
That factor is the ability to abuse and misuse power. The
political parties are taking money from business people. They say
unless you give the money, we will do this or that. This is not on
the basis of culture. It is on the basis of economic interests.
That is why they are investing so much money. They are expecting a
return. There is no transparency or accountability. Let the
function of the government be confined to policy making and
facilitating. You will see that 80 per cent of them haven't come
to serve the nation, but to make money.
Mahfuz Anam: It is very frustrating. We
had an election, a new government came to power. But what we have
been seeing over the past two months is frustrating. Where will I
go with my dreams?
Imtiyaz Ahmed: At a universal level,
there is a tendency of democracy being very militant. This is very
structural. The structure that we have is near to neo-fascism. I
am making a very intellectual use of the word fascism, not taking
a distorted view.
The leaders take decisions in all the political
parties. There are one or two political parties which are an
exception, but even in left political parties, the leader takes
the decisions. The second thing which we are not taking very
seriously is the mastaan. Then the third thing is the street. The
people think if we go to the streets, not the parliament, the
media will cover it and people will see and it will have some
reflection of what they are saying. The last one is
government-centered. Once you are in government, you do things.
Abroad, certain politicians not in the government play a role.
They go and teach in universities, etc. In Bangladesh we don't
have that. Enlightened politicians are not invited to the
universities to teach. So what they do is they continue doing
politics so that they can again capture the government. So that is
the factual problems.
If you look at the bureaucracy, you will see
that at one time the retirement of a bureaucrat was a very sad
thing. When my father retired, it was not very glorious. Now
retirement is lucrative. You retire a year early, have an NGO and
so on. So the bureaucracy is no longer threatened by this concept
of retirement. But what of politicians? They don't have that. They
continue for 30 years, 40 years. You can't say that if Sheikh
Hasina retires today she is going to get a fascinating job with a
six-digit salary. It's not there.
Tasnim Siddiqui: I will start with a
story. I was doing some work with Shakti Foundation at the time.
One of the women was involved in lipstick making at a factory
there. At that time hartal was going on. The woman made a
statement, a rather profound statement. She pointed out that we
got nothing from the state water, sanitation, nothing. But we are
making our lives viable and we are very much in the spirit of
doing things, changing things. We are making that possible through
our own efforts. The only thing we ask from the state is law and
order so that I can move, so that my movement is not restricted
anyhow. And that is my notion about democracy. I want to see
democracy. I don't want anything from the state. I want to do my
job. I just want the state to be in their policy making role, in
the law and order situation so that I can do my job and enjoy
freedom of expression, freedom of speech, social and political
rights, everything I feel gradually will be in its own place.
Then I have another story about a woman migrant
worker who was actually working in the Middle East. She couldn't
go to the Middle East legally. So she was an illegal, undocumented
female worker because of state policy of not allowing women to
migrate for a job, independently, without her man. Her statement
was, I don't care about the state. What I care about is that I see
opportunities there and I will go there and I have that sort of
empowerment maybe through NGOs, maybe through violence, whatever.
I have realised my place in the world and I will go wherever I
want to. I don't like the state to restrict my movement to those
countries and you people who come up to us and talk about research
and other things, portray a completely different story to the
state when you say that these women are being raped in Middle
Eastern countries and that they are trafficked and everything --
so try to stop them from going. So her version was, would you stop
me from being raped by being in Bangladesh? You don't care that
much. You stop me from being rich. We want to be rich. So from
these two persons, which is very much my opinion too, I don't want
much from the state. Democracy is enough.
We were talking about proportionate
representation, definition of democracy, winner takes all. All
these things are debated into western democratic models as well.
We think about British democracy. What we are following today is
very much debated by professors, about how this winner takes all
policy is gradually taking over. Democracy has to go into
proportionate representation-oriented democracy to make it more
democratic. But where we are, we are in a state that has only
started. If we think that 15 years is a long time, I would ask,
Mahfuz Anam in particular, not to be very optimistic, then again,
not to get very disheartened by seeing two or three months. The
change is a long drawnout process which will take if not 50 years,
at least 20 to 30 years. So we have to be patient and see the
positive sides. If we see the last 10 years, we talked about so
many things, but we didn't talk about so many positive
developments. Those things that inspire me include, if you think
about the Election Commission, its role, if you think about
political parties and their behaviour, of course we can find a lot
of negative things, but we can also find positive things.
If you think about the Election Commission, I
think that 10 years ago these things like the poster has to be
this size, it has to be black and white, or you cannot make a big
sort of gate everywhere, or defaulters being questioned whether
they should be allowed to participate in the election, I think
these are major, major developments really making the political
parties accountable in the process. Then again, here if we think,
even in the Election Commission context, we undermine their role.
We always tend to look at the negative side, but if we look at the
first election in 1991 and then in 1996, the way NGOs got involved
in election monitoring and the questioning of the legitimacy of
NGOs in this whole act, because the y were becoming more and more
partisan in the whole process. If you see the last election how
the whole thing was standardized. Of course donor funding and
everything was there, but the Election Commission had come up with
a Code of Conduct which the political parties and the NGOs had to
abide by. So I think this has been also a major learning process.
When you don't have an independent Election
Commission, there is no alternative. Those who have talked about
the legitimacy of the Election Commission, I would say to them
that at least the intelligentsia or the academics or the
newspapers have to come out from their party line and then have to
talk openly from their heart and say that from these three
elections, definitely we have progressed. Even governance, the
institutionalization of the whole process of entering government,
we can say maybe this one was more close to that party and so on,
but if the election was under a political party, it would be so.
If an independent Election Commission can emerge, maybe we won't
need this institution, but if we talk about institutionalization,
we have seen, particularly in the last election, that it is
What has disheartened us in party politics is
seeing how they behave after coming to power. At the same time, if
we look into small things, we will be very happy that in the party
political process, nomination and everything, it was very much apa
and madam who decided everything. Although maybe even now there is
that type of nomination process, but due to media and other
things, you are seeing everyday on TV, that this particular person
was interviewed, that particular person was interviewed, giving
credibility that this is a participatory process. This is where
you see other party people talking on those issues. So these are
small things, but to me these are very big. This is how you
proceed towards institutionaliza-tion.
What type of change do we want? If we go to the
traditional concept of democracy and try to establish that, even
that will take time. First thing about democracy is the rule of
law. Where do we lack in the rule of law. If we try to find an
answer, I think we can go ahead with small steps, but get big
results. So what is lacking in the rule of law? We know we have a
lot of extra-legal laws like the Special Power Act, Section 54
within the Constitution, Women Repression Act and other acts.
Debapriya Bhattacharya: Do you think
that the eighth amendment to the Constitution is also an
undemocratic and repressive law?
Tasnim Siddiqui: Exactly. Both the
political parties have to look into these things because it is
going to be a two-party system in Bangladesh for a long time. From
there if we come to all of these bodies DFI, NSI, SB, DB and think
about their role, where we should reform them and see where are
they accountable and how to make them accountable. I think that is
where the crux of our attention should be rather than dividing
ourselves into party political divides.
From there we come to freedom of expression
because it is very much here. Since a large part of the population
is Muslim, we think it is very representative and everything, but
if we look at the minority issue and look into Bangladesh
politics, definitely we have to do a lot. That is where we have to
look into. Now 88 per cent of the population is Muslim whereas in
1962 it was only 82 per cent, because they have not participated
within the system. What type of avenues has to be created of that
they can participate in the system?
Then we can come to sectarian and religious
politics. We have to think about how, within the Muslim community,
how kadianis and others communities are being treated politically
and otherwise. So if we talk about freedom of expression, it has
also to be the freedom of expression of the minority communities,
religious minorities, sectarian minorities, all kinds. If we look
into these things, I think we can be optimistic rather than being
pessimistic about the political developments in Bangladesh.
We talked a lot about economic development.
There was my story about the woman. This shows that women will
participate in the system. They will bring out whatever economic
benefit they want to bring out from the system and particularly if
you think about the whole class, they will act thus. Then again,
it is the general mass who are going for development. It is the
political leaders and civil society members who are hindering the
process. So we have to come out from that.
Debapriya Bhattacharya: I cannot agree
more with what you have said. The democratic experience in
politics and the development experience has been by now very well
discussed. The causal association between democracy and
development, and economic development, has been more or less been
But by nature since we are social scientists,
we go on talking about the shortcomings. As good news doesn't sell
newspapers, also good analysis and talking about achievements
only, also doesn't make you a very successful social scientist.
You will be totally out of business if there are no problems. So
let me talk about the pitfalls that have been there on the way.
Mahfuz Anam: I think that there should
be a demand for reforms. If I am not going to talk about
criticism, then I am not going to create the demand for change.
Now, the changes you have mentioned have come about because people
have criticized. There is a very strong logic to look at what is
Tasnim Siddiqui: The demand should be
against Special Powers Act. The demands should be against those
type of things, rather than party political things.
Debapriya Bhattacharya: Regarding the
pitfalls, I think the reason why Dr. Farashuddin didn't call the
economic growth economic development, was obviously because of the
slow pace of poverty alleviation. Definitely that was there. Also
further accentuation of the differentiation process within the
economy. We look around and see that per capital income has
definitely gone up, but the two poles of accruals and poverty has
also distanced. That is also something we have to take into
cognizance. This has also led to, in spite of all the good
inspiring things that Dr. Salehuddin talked about, the
marginalisation and the lack of participation which is still very
prominent. We have seen the differential access to public
resources has become also very prominent in that way.
The reflection of democracy in the economic
field had been under the aegis of the introduction of the market
forces. Basically we thought that if we gave more right to
economic activities, private sector development, and withdrawal of
the state would essentially bring more democracy within the
economy which was essentially right but we also concentrated on
the new institutions instead of strengthening the old ones which
was necessary. As a result we have seen a perverse economic
process in that way which is a reflection of politics in the
economy. We have seen a very distorted process of privatization.
We have seen the loan default culture. We have seen the system
losses within the public utility system. Even in one of our
success areas, micro-credit, we have failed to reach the poorest
of the poor.
So all the economic achievements, we can go on
listing from GDP growth to export expansion, food
self-sufficiency, rural infrastructure, al these things can be
elaborated, but we have to see the other side as well. We have to
see why these things have happened and whether these things are
going to continue in the coming years.
What we have seen to sum up, is short term
expedient politics. We have seen fractured politics. We have also
seen an exclusionary politics. These three have led to a
short-term vision about economy and development which is totally
anathema to whole investment and savings experience of any nation.
It has led to a fractured approach to economy. In the United
States they may be able to afford this because they have the
capacity. But we have so little capacity, if you pursue a
fractured economy, obviously you will not be able to achieve your
full potential. Similarly this has led to an exclusionary economic
I think things have become more problematic
because this whole democratic transition coincided with an era
where the process of globalization was getting accelerated. We
were dealing things which normally not necessarily would maximize
the benefits of the globalization process within the economy one
way or the other. What was happening was that we were trying to
integrate ourselves in the global economy.
Fractured politics, exclusionary politics has
definitely affected out foreign direct investment process. Now you
may have the most liberal regulatory framework. You may have at
this moment all the incentives in place. Even if we get the
infrastructure, with that type of situation on the horizon,
whether foreign direct investment will at all be coming in. Even
if we get market access and all tomorrow, we will have problems in
supply on time and suchlike. There is a major mismatch between
national development and the forces of liberalization.
When the civil society gathers around the
table, it becomes our favourite past time to bash the politicians.
I think that is something which we should be a bit restrained
about. I know as citizens we have all the right to criticize them.
They are our leaders. I think we should also understand how the
constituencies and other sections of the society can also get very
opportunistic as well. I quite often thing, who is manipulating
whom in the situation. Are the politicians manipulating the
business community or the civil society? Or are they being
manipulated? I will urge upon you to have a self-critical analysis
on the civil society and their approach to the leaders and a more
open exchange between the political leaders and the civil society
to understand each other's constraints. Why exactly does a
political party get to that moneymaking? Where exactly do the
risks lie and where is the incentive? This is more like a
prisoner's dilemma in many cases. If I run, will the others run
with me or will they get shot down by the policemen? That has even
been the case when you got almost full consensus on disarming the
student cadres and restraining student politics. If I do it, will
the other party really stick to its word? Where is the guarantee?
Don't they really understand what is a popular decision and what
is an unpopular decision? If I take a popular decision, will I
really be adequately rewarded by the other party? Are we keeping
our side of the bargain or not? I think that part has not always
been adequately discussed.
On the other hand, they should also understand
the civil society constraints. I think civil society exercises a
lot of self-censorship. It wants to expand its domain, but not
lose its current situation. We are quite often very opportunistic.
How much risk is the civil society willing to take? This is in
particular reference to the seminar-walas, at least the
manabbandhan walas. I think that this distinction is coming
through gradually. I think we will see a more activist role of the
civil society down the road somewhere. In the civil society, if
your working relationship with the state collapses, you are no
more functionally useful. So you want to protect your working
relations. So you see the dilemma over here. Politics is such,
exclusionary, that every other day you are threatened by that kind
of breakdown. So civil society self-criticism and mutual dialogue
with the political leaders needs to be done more forcefully.
About social changes, we need to recognize the
new forces of change, whether it is the women coming up in the
rural areas or the new place of the defaulter loanees. They need
to organize themselves in line of their own class interests. It
has proliferated somehow in the class system. You have one group
of Awami businessmen and one group of BNP businessmen which is
also very destructive for the growth of this country. There is a
need for the classes themselves to understand where lies their
long-term interest. How does one do that? They have also become
very opportunistic. They would like to think that well, do we have
a leader in this cabinet? Do we have our leader in another
government's cabinet and so on. So they also do portfolio
management within the House and within the business community as
well. This is regressive.
I appreciate the Daily Star carton that day
which responded to the Prime Minister's call to cut down on
bureaucracy by asking, why not cut down on Cabinet members? That
was very correct. I read yesterday about the new Code of Conduct
being framed for civil servants. I fully appreciate that. I want
rules of conduct that says civil servants having more than one lac
taka of assets have to declare. What about the Ministers? They
don't declare. Till a minister declares his assets, I do not
accept that part. That has to be consistent, politicians will also
have to. The last government promised that, but did not deliver. I
think this government should deliver. They say if a civil servant
accepts a gift of more than five thousand taka, he has to inform
the authorities of this. What about the Minister accepting gifts
worth a lac taka? And, nowadays gifts don't come in terms of
goods, but also in services. One can buy a trip on an airline. One
can pay for children's education. One also has to declare that.
All the MPs who are there, and many come from the business
community, should all declare their business interests. Without
declaration of their business interests in the parliament, there
will be serious scope for conflict in all the legislations. They
may influence the legislation in such a way that their business
interests are protected. A few things can be done and this will
send a strong message throughout the system.
Look at the line in front of the Canadian
Embassy and elsewhere. There is an elite exodus going on in this
country. One must take this very seriously or else we will be a
diminished nation. This is how it is going to happen and this will
further accentuate. The distance between the north and the south
will be further accentuated. We must get a hold on the new
generation. If you got hold of about 50 people from by CPD
recruitment, you would be curious to know that not even 10 per
cent could tell who was the first President of Bangladesh. I got
answers like even Mushtaque Ahmed. But I am very happy to know
that at least 80 per cent could tell who was the first President
of the United States of America. At one point I got disgusted at
somebody and asked him, in which hall did you stay? He said, Surja
Sen Hall. I asked, who was he? He said that he was a shaheed, a
martyr. I asked, where was he a martyr? He said, in 1971. I asked,
how? He said, during the Liberation War. I asked, where did he
fight, in Sector 7? He said, yes. You see, this is the new
generation you are having. This stupid guy stayed in Dhaka
University's Surja Sen Hall for four years and he is telling me
that Surja Sen fought in the Liberation War in Sector 7. Yet 80
per know who the first President of America was. This is the
Ibrahim Khaled: There was a comment from
Dr. Farashuddin that the Supreme Judicial Council did not function
though it was there. Primarily this was because it was not given
importance. That's why I said, make them effective by giving them
the power of recruiting judges. If they could recruit High Court
judges, promote judges to the Supreme Court, they will feel
important and they will function.
Another important thing in the judiciary is
that political appointments were made in the judiciary. There can
be political sympathizers because all enlightened people are
politically, if not affiliated, interested. There is a distinction
between a political sympathizer and a political member. As long as
political sympathizers are considered on the basis of their
professional ability, when they sit on their chair, they will
perform responsibly. But if a political member will be a member of
the judiciary even if he is a good man, people will not believe
it. That's why there should be a norm that political members
should not be members of the judiciary. If the judiciary really
plays its part in the judicial system, the other two organs are
likely to follow. There will be a check and balance.
The second thing is history. Every nation has a
history. History should be written by the historians, not by
politicians. Books are being revised by politicians, not by
historians. These things should be exposed. The civil society
should do it. History is something which inspires us, something
which fixes our aspirations and goals. That is why civil society
can probably work on this. Restoring the 1972 Constitution was a
good idea. It was a very good Constitution. It can be amended,
updated to suit our modern day circumstances. I am saying this
because this Constitution was not amended by democratically
Tasnim Siddiqui: There were other things
like the Special Powers Act. I think those were the major
hindrances. There is also the independence of the judiciary.
Hossain Zillur Rahman: I agree. Another
important thing in this country is that the winner, even by a
fraction of a vote, becomes the absolute owner of the House. Here
we should bring in the concept of sharing by all winners. This
time I would say even Awami League was the winner, but lesser than
the main party. The winner should share. It is not a matter of
winning. It is a matter of sharing.
Another thing is local government. No
government transferred power to the local government. The local
government, NGOs and civil societies should all be absolutely
vocal. This is very important restoration of local government.
In the USA, the President can be elected only
for two terms. In Bangladesh why can't the Prime Minister be
elected only two terms?
Tasnim Siddiqui: How to make the
parliament more active? Here we need participatory democracy. This
calls for a shadow government. Capacity building has to be there.
All ethnic groups and other groups must be involved.
About gender, the major recommendation is that
women must be allowed to develop their constituency. We don't see
women in mainstream politics. We need this. We can also question
defence policy, defence budget, all these things. This will
actually bring about accountability.
Hossain Zillur Rahman: The National
Curriculum Boards has become a government curriculum board. That
has to be reconsidered. In western countries, they don't have a
national curriculum board.
The governmental power has to be de-governmentalised.
It can be done in x number of areas. Police have to be de-governmentalised.
It has become a governmental force.
We need to decentralize the parliament. We need
to have division parliaments. It is a big country, 130 million
people. It is the eighth largest country in the world. It is not a
small country. In this parliament, 300 people discussing 130
million people doesn't work.
Look at the education center. The national
curriculum should be such that general values are incorporated.
Most students feel that they need to have links with political
parties. Politics has become such. They need to have other
We have been talking about doing away with the
political divide. It is easier said than done. It is so much
ingrained in our psyche, it is hard to do away with. I have seen
families not talking to each other because of the political
divide. Can we put this very contentious issue out of reach and go
ahead with our nation-building and state building?
Mahfuz Anam:What about a second House?
Is that a good idea?
Hossain Zillur Rahman: We have to
balance our focus a bit, not just on the villains. Political
leaders, villains, civil society, villains. But there are heroes
to. There are uneducated entrepreneurs who are handling Tk. 100
crore projects. In Chittagong I came across some. They are never
the focus of discourse. It's time we had a general change of
orientation. Villains we meet too, but heroes also.
Secondly, this talk on Constitution. It sets
certain bells ringing in my head. Let's say the Special Power Act
is withdrawn. All the black laws, let's say, are withdrawn. Is
freedom guaranteed then? From the perspective of a poor person in
the village, is freedom guaranteed under what we call a normal
situation? That's part of the problem. Going back to '72 is not
the thing because '72 never got to grips with creating a new
police station, with creating a new munsif court, with creating a
new structure of administration. There is freedom in the general
sense, but everyday freedoms matter much more for the larger mass
of the people. That needs to be brought into focus.
Third, I feel very strongly that the civil
society in particular has to be more politically intelligent. We
need a more politically styled discussion. Look at local
government. At the end of the day, bureaucrats aren't going to do
anything about local government. How many seminars and how many
articles is Daily Star going to publish? Bureaucrats are
interested in certain segments of the administration. We need to
engage them on that actually otherwise the ideas which are driving
the development agenda are only from the bureaucrats. We need
civil voices as well. This politically intelligent approach is
vital otherwise we are talking to people who, as soon as you go
out of the room, will say, you know what.
Someone was saying about the queues outside the
Canadian High Commission. I wouldn't worry about a brain drain. I
would be worried if the elite sending their children abroad are
wasting state resources to do so. I don't think there is anything
restrictive about going out.
Debapriya Bhattacharya: I didn't say
The courts are full of cases at a local level,
just cases of vengeance, to harass people, to keep them from their
homes and such. I think that focus should be placed there because
the people become embittered. They come back with double
vengeance. And I am not very optimistic about internal democracy
Let me point to five issues. One is women's
representation in parliament. Two, an independent Anti-Corruption
Commission. Three, a human rights commission. Four is separation
of judiciary. The fifth is transparency in public affairs. I
expect these to be implemented as early as possible. I also expect
the opposition, since they share these views, will also extend
adequate support. Everybody benefits from it.
The other day I was watching television and saw
news about Indo-Pakistan relationship in India. Their Cabinet met
and then they came up and briefed the opposition about their
discussion on Indo-Pakistan relationship. From there they went on
to the press.
You see the sequence of events. I expect in the
near future the one issue which I see very much at hand is
Bangladesh's participation in the peace-keeping force in
Afghanistan. I expect the Prime Minister to call the Leader of the
Opposition, have a discussion on that because this is a very
sensitive issue. Again this is a challenge of globalisation. We
must rise up to it. The Prime Minister should consult the Leader
of the Opposition