Iftekhar Iqbal

The range of resistance

September 29, 2011

RMGBangladesh public sphere is intellectually vibrant. Issues of public importance are reported, analysed and deliberated upon intensely in the countless print, web, and audio-visual media. And this begets the question of why rulers and governance mechanism haven’t performed according to the high expectations generated in such widespread intellectual exercises. Is there some fault lines in the modes of the public debates?

In most cases, the public debates tend to derive its strength from disconnected empirical evidences and are, therefore, issue-specific, lacking the general or the universal point of reference. In other words, public debaters are apt at analysing the marks of numerous wounds of the social body rather than finding the broader causes and implications of such wounds and decay. This trend is inevitably leading to the lowering of standard of thinking process with moral contents being constantly eroded.

Let’s take just three examples.

Eminent filmmaker Tareque Masud and cinematographer Mishuk Munier died in a car crash this August. This and other issues in the communication sector, including debilitating conditions of the highways, led to a strong demand for resignation of the minister in charge. But one becomes wary of the weight and threat of hunger strikes and all other agitations for the head of a single minister rather than against the institutional framework in place (Anna Hazare directing his struggle precisely against institutional anomalies rather than individuals). Every governing mechanism has a share in all the problems we see in the public life, both in the past and in the present. (Which ministry is responsible when hundreds of poor farmers sell their kidneys and livers: health, agriculture or finance?).

A more fundamental question is why does a minister do what he does? A minister may rationally think he or she has the contractual right to stay at the space brought with a price (for an electoral ticket). Yet, while a transaction can be immoral, the responsibility that such transactions entail could be executed in a moral and ethical way. This is not happening. Yet, most debates focus neither on the institutional failure nor on the immoral faculty of the individual — aiming mere to see a new face. Why don’t we debate this primordial anarchy at the heart of governance?

In the more mundane life than governance and politics, an example of this rushing-out, materialist process can be gleaned from the incident involving the death of a professor of Dhaka University, Dr Mridul Kanti Chakrobarty. He was taken to a well known hospital in the capital in a critical condition but wasn’t admitted or properly treated because of failure to pay in full for the hospital services, which allegedly led to his death. But before we could solve the question of ethical responsibility of the hospital authority at whose mishandling the professor died, a compensation of five million taka aborted the possibility of a fruitful resistance.

No one is on a moral plane. Not certainly those who demanded and secured the money and then stopped demanding the probe of negligence. The silence left the transaction-first-life-second system in the hospital uncorrected, putting other similar potential patient’s life in danger. The hospital authority, on the other hand, washed their hands off by a dose of monetary transaction and not apologising, meaning that their autonomy of unethical practices remain in place, again putting a future patient in danger. (This is exactly what happened with another patient, Elias Tomas, who died there later in September). Instead, the hospital authority said they won’t apologise, but would pay the compensation from their ‘social responsibility’ fund. As the ransom for the arrested conscience was transacted upon, the so-called ‘social responsibility’ devoured grains of moral responsibility. The outcry against the negligence ended as soon as the money was transacted over the dead body. Why must public debates and resistance get itself killed by the audacity of a bank cheque?

Another example, from garments industry, would make the case clearer. From both the left and the liberals, we hear demands for the clearance of arrears and bonus for the workers before the Eid. Why does a transaction need for an Eid to be executed? The moral question is at stake on two counts here. First, the Eid-centric demands of the intellectuals and pressure groups suggest that they have failed to put any effective pressure on the owners of the factories on a legitimate and permanent basis. The seasonal uproar by some is just a timid exercise in self-existence.

On the other hand, most RMG owners bluff the government and the public knowing full well they were out of ethical ground. Of about $10 billion dollars that the RMG sector earns annually, perhaps at least 40 per cent of them are pure profit (meaning $4 billion dollars; a more accurate estimate is welcome from the readers). In addition, owners get concessions and patronage of various kinds from the government. Yet, there is hardly any RMG contribution to the mere 8% of the tax that the government earns annually as a share of the GDP. So the annual figure of $10 billion remains an illusive flagship of the national economy, contributing neither to the government nor directly to its employees. On what moral ground RMG owners keep withholding a humane and rational pay scale to their workers?

So, at both governance and the private domain of everyday life, it’s the ethical and the moral issues which are at stake. Why do we need the death of one Tareque Masud to rise up and an Eid festivity to think of garments workers? Yet one Tareque Masud and an Eid day become the signifier, not every other life lost nor every other day gone filled with public suffering and injustice. Was Bangladesh liberated 40 years ago on these ideals?

Why things are like this are questions we need to debate. Taking a thread from what we began with, one feels that there is a visible process of assimilation of journalistic and intellectual inputs in the public discourse. It is true that boundary between journalism and academic and non-academic intellectual practices are fluid. Yet, in general, a journalist reports and analyses, while an intellectual examines the pulses of these reports and put those in wider social, political, economic, cultural and moral contexts. But in our time, both these public agencies in Bangladesh are increasingly becoming indistinguishable.

In other words, the thinking process, speeches and texts of the intellectual are being invaded by that of the journalist. There is nothing wrong in the marriage between fact-finding journalism and rationalist intellectualism. But such marriage has failed to address the enormous anomalies in Bangladeshi public sphere. Is this because such marriage itself hangs on a transaction?

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Iftekhar Iqbal is an Associate Professor, Department of History, Dhaka University.

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3 Responses to “ The range of resistance ”

  1. Dr. Mohammed Abed Hossain on October 1, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    A nicely written article. The logic was very easy while remains very powerful and thought provoking. It does appear that the moral fibre of the entire society has degraded as a whole. Everything has to have a charm so that it fits the media.

    We would not expect to find a group having a sit in on Eid eve on the secular Shaheed Minar 30 years back for mere resignation of an individual (However, secular intellectual do not consider a sit in during the Durga Puja ever so carefully).

    The author rightly puts it on the loss of the thinking process or should we say intellectual bankruptcy?

  2. Jamil Iqbal (CRONEM), UK on October 1, 2011 at 4:23 am

    This is a thought provoking article. It poses right questions within the ambit of the article. I presume due to word constraints in the readers’ opinion section, the writer could not delve more into the cause of his crucial question- “the ethical and the moral issues which are at stake”. One word which is missing is ‘corruption’, although we can judge it reading between the lines of the article. Corruption has infected the fabric of the society to such an extent that the word has become desensitised from the moral compass of ordinary people in Bangladesh.

    In my opinion the root cause of the decomposition of moral and ethical values of our society is due to corruption. The mind boggles at the size of corruption. It is deeply rooted, cancerous, contaminated and it has become impossible to eradicate it. While everyone seems to rant and rage against it, corruption only gets bigger and deeper with each passing year.

    Unfortunately, solutions to corruption have fallen into broadly two categories. The first strategy has been of moral strictures and ethical exhortations by religious heads, by those with moral authority in our societies and by state functionaries. The second strategy has been of enacting laws, establishing rules and framing policies by governments and public authorities to curb corruption. While the first has been a spectacular failure, the latter too has failed miserably in most cases.

    The reason for the relative failure of all measures to fight corruption has to be found, as with all successes and failures in our societies, in a class analysis of the situation by discovering which class is placed where in relation to corruption and who benefits in what manner.

    Corruption at the government level keeps a large part of the economy outside of public scrutiny. It is through a systematic corruption that a clear material interest of the Bangladeshi middle class denies the poor and marginalised the possibility of rising to levels where they can challenge the ruling class’s hegemony. It has been one of the most effective tools of our ruling classes to, one, reduce income distribution to the minimum necessary level, and two, keep a significant part of their capital “private”.

    Unless a significant transformation of social and political power is effected in our societies, it would be impossible to make a dent in corruption as it has entrenched itself as one of the most important ways in which our ruling classes effect accumulation of capital. The working class of Bangladesh are so alienated from their own material well being that they have forgotten the moral values of right and wrong. No wonder it makes sense when Marx mentions “Labour (worker) produces works of wonder for the rich, but nakedness for the worker. It produces palaces, but only hovels for the worker; it produces beauty, but cripples the worker….. It produces culture, but also imbecility and cretinism for the worker”

  3. M A Kawser on October 1, 2011 at 12:34 am

    It’s a scholarly writing. I would like to give a special thanks to the writer.

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