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