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Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

It is sad to see how political violence is squandering the promise of Bangladesh. Streets across the country have become the cancerous veins of a lawless society. Marauding party cadres, arson, road blockades, killing, vandalism, destruction of public and private properties, disruption of daily life, postponement of examinations — all portray a society deeply mired in existential crisis.

Some feel that it is no less a miracle that the country continues to experience economic growth despite all odds. But many also wonder about how long this growth would be sustainable under perpetually adverse political conditions. Besides, what is the point of economic growth if it doesn’t translate into broader social well-being?

Bangladesh is creaking dangerously along its collective seams, even though many social indicators compel figures like Amartya Sen to place Bangladesh above India in certain areas of national advancement. A very dangerous thing is happening to Bangladesh. People are getting used to extreme violence as a normal, and necessary, part of the political landscape.

A casual survey of newspapers, television channels, and social media suggests that a pall of gloom has descended upon Bangladesh. This, in turn, has provoked a growing wishful conversation on a post-Hasina-Khaleda Bangladesh. If the two “begums” go away, politics as usual will change.

Will it?

What about the entrenched political culture that has long spawned mindless cadre loyalty? Cutting the head will not heal the disease of the body. Political foot soldiers, who burn down CNG taxis while terrified passengers inside it plead for their lives, cannot be wished away by simply removing their generals. Even if a credible and inclusive election takes place in January, will the culture that breeds self-destructive, blind party loyalty go away? It is time to think about the problem a bit anthropologically.

In other words, culture matters. A political cleansing would require a cultural sea change. By culture, I mean a people’s shared values, attitudes, and their ability to think in their own terms, their moral horizon and public behaviour, how they view themselves, their self-esteem and sense of the future, their own agency in realising a good society, etc.

It is hard to change cultural patterns, unless there are long-term, conscious social mobilisations. Certain types of cultural attitudes can inhibit social and economic progress. This is a growing field of research, as shown in an important book titled Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (2000).

If the Awami League continues another term, the BNP and its allies will continue the politics of blockades and terrorism. If the BNP manages to regain power, the Awami League will unleash new furies of non-cooperation. In short, the cycle of retribution and violence will continue unabated. Unfortunately, there is no short-term solution to this problem.

So, what the country needs is a bottom-up, organic change of the public mindset, so that a few political leaders could no longer manipulate the masses in believing that the party’s interests are their default interests.

Is the young picketer, who risks his life in carrying out a deadly blockade of the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, driven by any political ideology? Hardly. Economic determinists would say that because he most likely comes from an impoverished background he could be easily manipulated in doing what fulfils his party’s selfish goals. Is he religiously so indoctrinated that he would go any length to break down the system he opposes?

Poverty and ideological indoctrination are nothing unique to Bangladesh. They are common to most nations. But just because people are poor or ideologically driven, they don’t set a bus, filled with passengers, on fire or hurl a bomb at a mother returning home to her children, at least in a rational society. It is not just the rule of law that prohibits irrational actions. It is also a basic ethical meditation on what is right and what is wrong (the same ethical argument could be applied to unjust civilian casualties of drone attacks.)

Bangladesh has been experiencing in the past two decades or so a dangerous escalation of violence as a spectacle of political agitation. Nobody knows for sure whether the picketers consciously set the mini-truck on fire that sent Monir to an excruciating death. But it is most likely that those picketers were expected to create anarchy as a terrifying scene.

This is when, unfortunately, the contentious debate of cultural relativism comes in. Some societies demonstrate a dangerously high threshold for violence or morbidly low sensitivity toward casual death on the political street. Why they do eludes an easy answer. Bengal is an ancient civilisation with cherished traditions in music, dance, and intellectual freedom. But a pedigreed civilisation doesn’t always mean a rational and orderly everyday life.

So, coming back to the original contention, how would cultural change come? Is it possible to inspire people to develop some kind of moral civility that it is utterly barbarous to derail a train filled with passengers or set fire on a rickshaw that is the sole livelihood of a poor father who needs to feed three children?

An ancient Greek example is instructive. Around 600 BC, Athens was hanging precariously at the precipice of civil war. The tension between the ruling elite and the people had reached breaking point. The key point of conflict was the widening divisions of wealth and power, the rich and the poor, landholders and farmers. To avoid a potential bloodbath, both feuding parties agreed to allow an acceptable mediator named Solon to change course of the polis. Solon saw his task as being greater than a short-term resolution. He pursued what the Greeks called eunomia, or “good order,” a strategic way of not only ensuring good governance of the polis, but also instilling in citizens a consciousness of self-ordering, a code of conduct for everyday life. Solon didn’t need to enforce eunomia. Rather, his challenge was to motivate Athenians to contemplate what should be in their best interest. All parties began to see that eunomia was in everybody’s best interest.

The Athenian example seems historically remote, and even too abstract. But there is a lesson to be learned. At some point during their evolution, societies must collectively begin to think how things should be. It is that time for Bangladesh.

Adnan Morshed teaches in Washington, DC, and is currently writing a book on the urban past and future of Dhaka.

19 Responses to “Political chaos, cultural change”

  1. Shera

    Very true that BD needs a cultural change.I think “cutting the head will not heal the disease of the body” but this minus two theory will bring some changes and starts some new ideas with young new breed of politicians
    I hope this’Concern Citizens Group’come forward and organize a group and take part in election; so shadharon jonogon will have a choice to vote for; also business groups like Garment Industries and others who has hand in economic advancement for the country should do something couragious to protect their and countries greater interest

  2. Anwar A. Khan

    I had been to DMCH burn unit three times during the last last week. I don’t think I have ever seen a more depressing, awful scene in my life after our liberation war of 1971. I experienced people with massive burn injuries, groaning there and I don’t know how long its ghastly effect will pervade over there. I also don’t have the words to describe the horror, to describe the dreadful, ghastly, gruesome scene. If you see the burn injured people there, I am certain you will not be able to restrain yourselves from crying.

    Curse upon those mischief-mongers! Oh Lord, perish them.

    Their principal leader, that lady, is a voyeur because she loves to enjoy watching other people’s sufferings; otherwise those dreadful occurrences would not have happened.

    The government should act faster with brute force so that these evil forces can be laid down soon to put an end to this horrible situation.

  3. Akhtar Shah

    You’ve hit the issues spot on. Well done. We know what to do, the big but is , who’s going to do it with a genuine will? But without wanting to sound polyannaish , I reckon a time going to come when, a) the futility of it all will be blatantly obvious and b) the silent majority will say ,enough is enough!

  4. Akteruzzaman

    Politicians of Bangladesh can serve the citizens and the country even when they are in the ‘Birodhi Dal’. But they are interested only in ‘Power’ and ‘money’ and they dont mind killing a few hundred citizens and ruining the economy. They must be in the government seat. The only way to reduce the violence and killing is to share the ‘power’ and ‘money’ between the government and opposition. Give seats of parliament to the opposition in proportion to the total votes; give some ministries to the opposition. Share the ‘power’ and the ‘money’. Let the citizens live in peace. ‘Money’ and corruption cannot be stopped by the current election and democratic process. Beware patriots in the ‘uttar para’ dont have an infinite store of patience.

    • russel

      you said right. Share the power and let us live a peaceful and scare free life.
      Please please please

  5. russel

    We would like to leave this country rather than be burned in the bus.
    But we can’t, we are so called poor people.:(

  6. Golam Arshad

    I still HOPE, in this tense and terse cesspool of MAYHEM AND VIOLENCE, we will achieve SOME GOOD in transition! Let there be a DIALOG between BNP and BAL. The NATION and its beleaguered PEOPLE LOOK FORWARD for PEACE!

  7. a citizen

    Washington e boshe boro boro kotha lekha khub shoja kaaj. come and live in Bangladesh and then we are ready to read your stuff. you have taken the easy way out by living in the usa and write books on Bangladesh and all the while thinking that you are doing a great service to our country. not so! you are not one of us as long as you live elsewhere but Bangladesh. you have no understanding of the suffering of the people and therefore all your tears are crocodile tears.

    • Adnan Morshed

      Thank you for your very insightful observations. So, your argument is that because I live abroad I have no right to talk about, and criticize conditions in, Bangladesh! You’d read my stuff only when I begin living in Bangladesh. “You are not one of us as long as you live elsewhere but Bangladesh. You have no understanding of the suffering of the people…” Who is this “us”? What makes you believe that there exists this uniform “us”? And how do you comfortably represent this “us”? And what gives you this divine power to decide who is in and who is out? Hello “Citizen,” you live in Bangladesh and your statement implies that you understand the suffering of people! Please, enlighten us! How are people suffering? You may not like to read me, but I am more than happy to listen to whatever you have to say. Instead of your pathological, mean-spirited personal attacks, why don’t you tell us what your thoughts are on the suffering of the people that you claim to understand so thoroughly? I am waiting.

  8. Halter

    Those who burn people to death just for political gains are worse than animals. They will be paid by their own coin one day.

  9. bd man

    I don’t understand why AL is acting so stubborn. Why can’t they accept BNP’s demands?

    • Jahangir

      We experienced a lot with this type of democracy. The same thing is happening every five years after since last 20 years. These parties are no good for the people. They are there only for the power. Nobody raises any voice even any decision goes against the interest of the country. Did the time not come yet to learn from the experience? When the people will start boycotting them, refrain from casting their votes in favor of any of these vested political parties? When the time will come for the people to think otherwise? Where are all those intellectuals?

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