Recent events have made me realise that I have trafficked in hope for too long. I had until recently deluded myself into thinking that I did not need to participate in the public sphere, and I hoped and believed that my individual efforts to help others, along with the efforts of other individuals and groups with similar intentions and values, would stem the decay in our country’s political life and fill the gaping holes in the public services left by those who lead us.
While others baked in the sun collectively making their voices heard, I silently watched and waited on the sidelines, justifying to myself that my time was better spent on my individual activities, and hoping that my contributions were enough to somehow make a difference. I believed that individual actions and good deeds, aggregated household to household, private enterprise to private enterprise, could balance if not outweigh the ruinous effects of the public sector’s inefficiencies and inequities. I created an optimist’s bubble; until recently, it shielded me from the onslaught of negative news leaping blood-eyed and sharp weapons in hand out of the papers every morning.
In the last few weeks and months, however, my bubble burst; hope took a sabbatical, and my high expectations of the future were all but dashed and broken — like a tsunami battered Crusoeraft — on the jagged rocks of political violence, extortion, corruption and ineptitude that is rendering Bangladeshis hapless, hopeless and helpless (whenever I now think about the state of our country and its citizens’ plight, I often flashback to the time I was 6 or 7 years old and crying in my mother’s kitchen watching a maghur maach/catfish thrashing around on the floor in its death throes). I feel this intense level of insecurity and distress at our country’s dysfunction even though I, living in my elite-verse, am relatively cushioned against the daily indignities faced by the average citizen; I can only imagine the fear and loathing that haunts the average citizen’s life as she navigates her way through her day.
The rot in our system goes deeper than the apparent dysfunction in our public space; the rot starts with our day to day actions, and deepens each time we give in to short-term temptations and cut corners, bend the rules, bribe someone or do the various ethically dubious activities we justify as things we “need” to do to survive in Bangladesh or “because everyone else is doing it”. The stench of the putrefaction exudes out of our hierarchical system that rewards chamchagiri where the “yes sir, yes sirs” of the entourage surrounding our political, business and thought leaders shut out any dissenting opinion; the puss from this rot seeps out of our past connivance in executing short term, extra-constitutional and undemocratic solutions which have stunted the maturing of our democracy and deepened our country’s scars; the gangrene yellowing of our collective skin intensifies each time we malign due process and silently cheer the deaths of those killed in “encounters”; and the slow dying of our collective souls continue as we clamour for more hangings, more vengeance, more eye for an eye justice in a land already darkened with the blood of innocents.
Just when these feelings of disillusionment started making me feel unanchored, providence brought to me a different kind of optimism, one that thrives on action as opposed to my previous arm chair variety, in the form of my eldest Chacha who has been sharing his insights and activism with me in our recent morning coffee fuelled discussions (at 82, my Chacha writes a number of weekly columns, is politically active and wholeheartedly believes that participation in the public sphere by effective and honest people will catalyze good governance over time; I may be agnostic towards my Chacha’s political views, but his attitude towards activism and his intellectual heft inspires me). If after witnessing all that has gone wrong in our land in his many decades my Chacha can remain optimistic, I understood that my surrender to despair for our future was a weak response to the events of the day.
From my discussions with my Chacha and many other like minded people, I now understand that watching the political process from the sidelines is no longer an acceptable choice, and that affecting change in our political landscape, even if that change is a generation or two away, will require the active participation of people who have the values, education, positive intentions and fortitude to effectuate such change. I now believe that it is we, the silent majority, who need to actively participate in the political process to steer our country away from the clutches of those who view this land as their personal fief, from the stranglehold of those who believe that their right to lead is their birthright and does not need to be earned. It is we, the until now mostly apolitical citizens, who need to intrude ourselves into the democratic process and ease the reins of political control away from those who believe in the inevitability of coming to power every 5 years; it is we who must step in the political fray to take away the control of our country’s future from the political monoliths who hold us hostage to the illusion of choice and whose politics look only backwards in complete disregard to the future aspirations of the people.
As a political conservative and realist, I oppose any short-cuts to reaching democratic maturity; I pray that we refrain from violent protests, I request that we reject calls to minus anything or anyone, I implore that we do not romanticize an Arab Spring in our country for, in my limited knowledge of history, any such short-cuts may leave a power vacuum to be filled by even darker forces of imperialists, opportunists and extremists, possibly leading to a long and sun-shuttered Winter. We do not need any more short cuts or uniformed interventions, for our country’s short and violent history is a testament to the folly of such measures.
What we need, in my humble opinion, is the active participation of the silent majority in the political process. This is the silent majority of the hard working farmers and labourers, of the honest people in and out of government who sometimes stagnate because they eschew corruption, of the dedicated NGO workers, entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, lawyers, jurists and doctors who have contributed to Bangladesh in surpassing our neighbours in development milestones and achieving respectable economic growth, in spite of the country’s misgovernance. We, this until now silent majority, must participate in the political process and, over time, build, improve and strengthen the skeletal structure of our democratic system.
In order to do so, we must first look at ourselves and align our behaviours to accomplish long-term goals and benefits; thus we must avoid those behaviours birthed by short-term temptations and “everyone does it” justifications. We must all become a nation of whistleblowers and unmask those who are breaking the law, and shame those who are engaging in unethical activities that hurt the public good or are using the public coffers to enrich themselves. We must use our judicial system to stem illegal activities of the powerful (to whatever extent we can) and challenge those who sideline the law and the public procurement procedures to obtain an unfair advantage.
For those of us who can, we must involve ourselves in our professional associations and neighbourhoods, or go back to our villages and leverage our good deeds and contributions to build a political base. We can use our efforts and political base to form new political parties, or to join existing parties so that we may demand democratization of these parties. We need to aggregate our voices using the national and international media and public gatherings so that our clarion call for change can be heard over the “yes sir-isms” of the entourage feasting on the largesse of our leaders. We must explore new avenues of campaign financing, and help raise funds for independent candidates through calls for small donations from our citizens (e.g., small donations can be collected using mobile money or even through flexi load payments). We need to use group SMS services and the Internet and build a platform through which we can connect with citizens, group ourselves into a sizable vote bank and vet, find and nominate for any upcoming elections capable and credible candidates dedicated to public service. We must present our platform, organization, funds and services as a credible alternative to the big political parties so that the honest, dedicated and very likely disaffected politicians who are currently bound to existing political parties or alliances can regain their dignity and exit these parties or alliances, but still be competitive in elections using the platform we provide. Dear reader, we must shed our fears and act now!
The above are just a few of my thoughts on how we can become more effective in participating in our political process. These thoughts are borne out of my own limited knowledge and experience and therefore I welcome, dear reader, your effective and specific ideas. I also welcome and appreciate any examples of individuals or organizations in Bangladesh that you know of who have bucked the status quo, so that we may learn from them. Please send those ideas and examples to [editor’s e-mail] so that we may incorporate those in our future columns.
Masud Khan Shujon is an aspiring writer, social entrepreneur and a lawyer.