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.
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.