Feature Img
<p>Dhaka Parliament Building.</p>
Dhaka Parliament Building.

Everyone in Bangladesh claims that they need democracy. Even a party like Jamaat, which believes in theocracy, want to see democracy in Bangladesh. BNP joined the bandwagon too, despite having military origins, and they themselves ruled using undemocratic methods while in power. The most vocal section of our populace, the civil society, criticises how Bangladesh lacks democratic rule even under Awami League.

In the absence of proper democracy, corruption is rampant and muscle-men rule society. Now the question is what type of democracy we require. Whether we need Westminster-style democracy or other forms of democracies prevalent in various Asian and African countries is not yet clear.

Democracy has a long history that has evolved with the progress of human civilisation. The Greek city-states enjoyed a rudimentary form of democracy where all citizens gathered in a public place and decided the fate of their society. Gradually they realised that this was not a viable system, and that the entire population cannot assemble and make decisions on every affair of the state.

People were then elected among the masses as their representatives, who would make decisions on their behalf in different affairs of the state, and a parliament was formed.

After signing the Magna Carta, England adopted a parliamentary system which became the symbol of democracy, and the system was spread elsewhere.

But democracy did not remain limited to a parliamentary system. A presidential system evolved in the USA with a strong bicameral legislature. With the passing of time, democracy did not have just a single form.

With the collapse of feudalism in Europe, the rise of capitalism helped bring about the acceptability of democracy in other continents. Democracy took different shapes as it travelled.

Feudalism survived in Europe by taking a subservient role to capitalism. Kings and Queens were ousted from their thrones during wars and revolutions, and parliaments became sovereign.

In the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, parliamentary democracy was also adopted. But their under-developed social and economic reality could not sustain democracy. In the place of foreign rulers, native dictators took power and modelled the pattern of democracy that favoured them to rule permanently. Some of them introduced a presidential form of government conferring more power to presidents than a king, and others renamed democracy to make it suitable for their totalitarianism.

President Sukarno changed the parliamentary democratic form and called it ‘controlled democracy’ to consolidate his own power after Indonesia became independent.

In Turkey, General Garsel declared himself the president of Turkey with a parliament under the dominance of the military. He declared it a ‘limited democracy’ after overthrowing the parliamentary government under Menderez.

In Pakistan, General Ayub Khan abolished parliamentary democracy and introduced a system called ‘basic democracy’. According to late Justice Kayani of Pakistan, Ayub’s system was neither anything basic nor democratic. Under this system the parliament has no power and the president is the supreme authority.

Bangladesh was the first colony of the British Raj. With modern English education, a strong middle-class had emerged in the region among Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims. The democratic practice that Bengalis learned from their ruler was the Westminster-style of democracy.

After the independence of the subcontinent from British rule, both India and Pakistan introduced parliamentary systems in their respective nations. Democracy was much deep-rooted in Indian politics but not so in Pakistan. Especially in the then West Pakistan, feudal lords were very influential and prioritised religion over democracy.

They were the real rulers of Pakistan, with conflicts between them and the middle-class Bengalis of former East Pakistan. The latter were liberal and less communal, and their language and culture were different from the former. The consequence was separation between the two wings of Pakistan. Bangladesh became a secular state with parliamentary democracy and Pakistan became an almost Sharia state under a military rule.

Parliamentary democracy did not survive in Bangladesh for long. It turned out that social division and the old communal legacy of politics cannot build a firm structure of democracy. Long ago, a British judge, Justice Ellis, who was chief justice of the former East Pakistan High Court, made a controversial remark.

He said, if you bring the seeds of democracy from the bank of Thames and sow them in the bank of Meghna, the plant may not grow because of the difference of climates and social atmosphere of the two places.

The founder of the new nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, did not agree with this comment fully, but realised that true Westminster-style of democracy was not introduced in the subcontinent by British Raj. The British Raj introduced a system which may be termed ‘colonial democracy’, where power lies in the hands of bureaucracy and not in that of the people.

Colonial democracy was corrupt and against the colonised. With such a system, real democracy will never be established in the country. We evolved a new system, the democracy of the exploited, where power will be transferred to the grass roots, old bureaucratic-administrative structure will be replaced by elected people’s representatives, and secular nationalism will be the main pillar of the statecraft.

Bangabandhu could not succeed in his second revolution for the emancipation of the people. The bureaucracy, the new-rich class, the communal forces, and the civil society which guarded vested interests, all stood together against the newly proposed system. Consequently, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed and the new system was nipped in the bud. In the name of returning to democracy, a military dictatorship captured power and the democratic base of Bangladesh was weakened. Bangladesh was plunged into corruption and anarchy, and the rule of the law was all but ignored. Communalism grew further and eventually took the form of violent fundamentalism.

Just like the fight between parliament and the crown in medieval Britain, a fight went on for two decades in Bangladesh between military rulers and the political parties which believed in democracy. Under military and autocratic rule, democratic institutions in Bangladesh were weakened and almost dilapidated.

At last, democracy returned sometimes under the Presidential system and sometimes under the Parliamentary system, which structurally remains too weak. Fragile democracy is now in a constant struggle with socially divisive forces including extremism and is trying to survive under the present Hasina government, which has resorted to a way not fully endorsed by democracy.

Some political pundits say that democracy in Bangladesh should take a strong position which may not be a true Westminster model. Bangladesh’s democracy should face the combined onslaught of anti-democratic forces. To bring political stability and economic prosperity, Lee Kwan of Singapore and Mahathir of Malaysia followed the Westminster model, but in a stronger and coercive manner. Some people say it was elected dictatorship.

These pundits are of the opinion that democracy in Bangladesh needs to be strong, and if necessary, coercive. This would strongly confront the combined aggression of anti-people forces and wipe out the enemies of democracy with a strong hand.

So, when we say we want democracy and our civil society demands for pure democracy, we must realise that democracy exists in different forms. We must be clear in our minds what style of democracy we need and what is suitable for our people in our present socio-economic situation.

The cry for democracy by our civil society is nothing but useless rhetoric. They should discuss in their seminars and round-table conferences, the basic ills of society, and which form of democracy can remove it. Most of them condemn Sheikh Mujib’s ‘democracy for the exploited’ system, but they have been unable to offer a better solution for the people even until now.

The country is still at the crossroads in search of a real democratic path.

Abdul Gaffar Choudhury is a bdnews24.com columnist.

14 Responses to “Bangladesh and its confusion on democracy”

  1. Matiur Rahman

    Decency and tolerance toward differing views are missing in some of the above comments. How can they even aspire for democracy? Workable democracy evolves uniquely in a society through indigenous experimentation over ages. We are going through this process. Democracy may still be foggy in Bangladesh, not necessarily confusing.However, we may disagree on what we have been observing over last forty four years. But we should lose no respect for others. Disrespect and hostility will destroy evolving democracy. Experimentation for democracy must go on even if it gets chaotic from time to time.

  2. Mannan

    A big chunk of people in this country fell in love with CTG. Nothing wrong in that. But never bother to find the answer the question who destroyed the system. For example Latifur Rahman. How can a person who would become the next CTG Chief dig into the files of government in clandestine manner even before he took oath? Or move into the State Guest House. Before the oath taking ceremony was over 17 secretaries were transferred and all the land telephone lines of Sk. Hasina, who the Prime Minister just an hour back and handed over the power peacefully disconnected? How about Iazuddin crowning himself as the Chief of CTG. BAKSAL was never given a chance. Mahatir would not tolerate any opposition. How is that better than one party rule? In a country where one party kills innocent people with deadly petrol bombs and then talks about democracy, we have problem. The ghosts of the Pakistani Military Junta sill manages to hypnotize at least 30% of our population. May be it was a mistake for us going to fight for an independent nation back in 1971.

    • Sarker Javed Iqbal

      People in Papua New Guinea fenced the whole country overnight with bamboo as they heard ‘Freedom’ was coming sensing that a wild beast! How different we are? Our politicians should learn the meaning of democracy, practice that in their own territory of professional/business field and then should come to politics.

      Your last point is very dangerous. I do agree that there are many people who still wish to chant the slogan, “Larke lenge Pakistan, khun ka badla lenge haam” (I will fight for Pakistan, will take revenge of the blood). As they are not ethically with our liberation war, it is useless to talk about them.

      Poor governance (Even corrupt) since our independence in 1972 doesn’t justify that we should go back to Pakistani rule. We must not forget some of the good examples of good governance like regime of Justice Abdus Sattar and the CTG later on.

  3. Sarker Javed Iqbal

    “মরার আবার জাত কি?” (What is the question of race of a dead?) – A dialogue from Sharat Chandra’s novel ‘Srikanto’.

    We are dying! As an ordinary people of the country it is not an important question to me what type of democracy I want; my only concern is I want to exercise my voting right and elect my leader I like. I see this as a daydream for us as prevailing culture of democracy is “বিচার মানি, গাছ আমার” (I admit the judgement, but the plant is mine) which is being followed by the political parties whoever in the power.

    In fact, I don’t have faith on most of the politicians as they are corrupt; only invest their money in the election as an investment for financials gains later on; people are only being used as the ladder to grab power.

    I do have due respect to Bangabandhu as father of the nation without whom we could not think of our liberation war and freedom. A simple question to Mr. Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, – when you mention that Bangabandhu “evolved a new system, the democracy of the exploited, ….”, why did you skip the question of killing democracy by Bangabandhu through formation of BAKSAL? At least you could mention that as a faulty decision.

    • Armana Judith Hoque

      When Bangabandhu formed BAKSAL in January, 1975, Mr. Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury wrote a wonderful column titled : “Klanti amai khoma koro probhu” in a Bangla dainik (Dainik Janata or maybe, any other Bangla patrika; I can’t now exactly remember) and made scathing attacks against the formation of BAKSAL. He then made himself self-exiled in UK. After Bangabandhu’s brutal murder in August, 1975, he reviewed the entire gamut of BAKSAL concept and came to the conclusion that he was wrong in his assessment. Thereafter, he wrote several articles strongly supporting BAKSAL and he thought that it was aimed at establishing the peoples’ proletariat for their welfare. And it was one of the reasons for killing of Bangabandhu.

      Whatever criticism or condemnation or scathing attack you wish to make against me, you can do so but I must say BAKSAL was meant for the peoples’ welfare. I don’t think it was a faulty decision made by Bangabandhu.

      • Sarker Javed Iqbal

        No question of attack at all! The thing as I perceive is that, after returning of Bangabandhu from Pakistan we reached him to a status of ‘God’ through our emotional reception and appreciation day after day which was reflected in ‘Times’ or ‘News Week’ when they made the cover story titled as ‘Fall of a God’ after the assassination of Bangabandhu.

        It is easily understandable that a ‘God’ can never expect another ‘God’ to compete him or rule the same territory. And that justifies the formation of BAKSAL. Not only that, Bangabandhu did not like people go on criticizing him for which he banned the daily newspapers one after another snatching away our freedom of speech. All gone against democratic rights of the people. I hope you can remember all those lost histories.

        Please don’t misunderstand me, we all salute Bangabandhu for his glorious role in uniting the nation against Pakistani rule and giving us an independent country.

  4. Robin

    Post the Athenian Democracy, it was reborn with vested interests to legitimize rising capitalism. In current scenario, we do not have democracy with exception of Switzerland and Singapore. The romantic concept of democracy today is a mere excuse to legitimize various forms of supremacies. America, one of the biggest promoter of democracy (surprisingly among developing nations), itself does not practice democracy.

  5. Rubina Sobhan

    Unless there is any justices for ordinary citizen is preval or their life security grants, is a mocking of democracy.

  6. Shahriar

    a couple of factual incorrectness:

    It is incorrect to say that after signing the Magna Carta, England adopted a parliamentary system. Magna carta tried to curb the power of the king in 1215, but actual parliamentary system came into existance 500 years after the signing of Magna carta, when king George the Ist being unable to communicate with his english council of ministers asked the first lord of treasury to conduct the cabinet meeting and aked the first lord to brief him once in a while about the matter of the royal court.

    Secondly, the proposition that the east pakistanis were somewhat more democratic than west pakistanis, nothing but a imaginary thought. the first marlial law in Pakistan was proclaimed in Panjab by Khawja Najimuddin, the great bengalee prime minister of Pakistan. Later, Iskander Mirza, anather prominent figure from east pakistan ousted the governer general to proclaim himself, first, as governor general, and then president of pakistan. he was by the way, the governor of east pakistan when 21st February massacre took place in 1952. he forced another bengalee prime minister, md ali bogra, to resign. this great Son of bengali soil went on to declaire martial law for the second time in pakistan, this time in the east pakistan. whatever his responsibility was to bring martial law to east pakistan, the responsiblity of the elected members of the east pakistan assembly was even greater. This is because the MNAs have killed the speaker of the house by throwing a chair at him. perhaps after julias caesar’s killing within parliament in 44 bc, speaker shahed ali was the first person in 2000 years history of parliament who was killed by the parliamentarians within a house of parliament!! what can be a better display of bengalees’ democratic mentality than this incident. this incident resulted in declaration of martial law, first in east pakistan, and then in the entire country. the infighting of the bengalees resulted in demise of east pakistan, along with the west. while west pakistan, especially the bureaucracy and the military misappropriated the east pakistan, to point finger to the west for failure of democracy is nothing but hypocracy by no other than an erudite person like Mr Chowdhury.

  7. Snr Citizen

    Doctored Democracy. Where is our parliamentary, Westminster style going to go? Where are we going? The election under CTG whereby Awami League came to power, had been the best and fairest one and no one had qualms. What is now served is alien to us.

  8. sundar swapan

    ”Search of real democratic path” is really an arduous,almost an impossible task. Who will decide which one is the correct path? Will the task of selecting the correct path be assigned to politicians,civil society or to the people ? Every group have their own choice and that will never converge.Politicians have not yet been able to decide unanimously a system of peaceful transfer of power. Civil society in this country constitute a purely opportunist community have least regard for common peoples interest. People seldom apply their own minds on any issue they always get swayed by emotional and sentimental provocation. A big chunk of our populace are hell bent to introduce the rule of holy scripture definitely beyond the jurisdiction of democratically elected peoples representatives. And who are those peoples representatives ? The less said about them the better. Democracy in whatever variety will remain a mirage for us. Better will be not to undertake the search at all to avoid the delusion.

  9. Sattar

    Another apologia for BAKSAL. Very little substance, typical Gaffarism.

    • Ahmed Ali Imam

      Mr. AG Chowdhury :

      It is a well written article. Thank you very much. I still recall with highest regards a few articles which you wrote in Bangla during the 2nd regime of heroine Khaleda Zia. Each and every one of them was a masterpiece. My heart-felt panegyric to you! I expect more masterpieces like columns from you in the days to come.

      Mr. Sattar:

      Castigating is of no use. Please write something better than Mr. AGC and prove your worthfulness!

  10. Tell It Like It Is

    What you want to say, Mr Choudhury? We had a working democracy under CTG, flawed as it was. When I am free to exercise my opinion at the ballot box, when my vote counts, that’s the first step. We, as voters, will decide who shall rule us. This is the most basic tenet of democracy. For God’s sake don’t try to justify vote theft as a justification of a new strain of ‘democracy’. Your drivel is insult to the common sense of the average voter.

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