Bangladesh: A state of failed politics

For a country born out of political upheavals, the continuing state of affairs in Bangladesh has shrunk the space for the actual practice of politics

Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka 

It’s not unusual to hear about the failure of the Bangladesh state. Yet, mounting evidence shows that though Bangladesh as a corporate entity has done quite well, its politics have fared poorly. Both national and international media have targeted the sheer failure of its political machinery. Even the tales of horror emanating from the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector are about the failed regulatory responsibility of the government. But the state is a more complex entity and, in Bangladesh, the gap between the government and the state is widening.

Bangladesh’s political system is miserable but the social service delivery system— particularly for the poor-—is doing well. Prof Amartya Sen has said, “On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy, child immunization and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India despite being poorer.”

He said that what makes this comparison so powerful is that Bangladesh has targeted the position of women, not just through government policy, but also through the work of non-governmental organizations, such as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the Grameen Bank. As a result, “there have been astonishing successes, such as a dramatic fall in fertility rate and girls now outnumbering boys in education. All this has been achieved despite having half the per capita income of India”.

One explanation for why this works in Bangladesh, despite low public health spending is that both non-state actors and the community play a much bigger role, compared to neighbours. Few in Bangladesh wait for the government to act.

On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India despite being poorer

This may be because politics in Bangladesh have been unstable from its very inception. When Bangladesh’s founding President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, took over, he didn’t succeed in ensuring stability. Post-war reconstruction was a gigantic task, made worse by nepotism and instabilities generated by the new aspirations of an entire people. The Left in various shapes and forms emerged to contest the state and the law and order situation was terrible.

One way to handle this crisis was to repeatedly deploy the military in combing operations, both against ‘criminals’ and the ‘Naxals’. Meanwhile, a paramilitary force known as ‘Rakkhi Bahini’, and directly loyal to Rahman, was constituted with technical assistance from India. It formalized extrajudicial arrests, interrogations and disappearances, which have now become traditions upheld by both ruling parties. More important, the regular army saw Rakkhi Bahini as a rival, creating further resentment.

By 1974, Mujibur Rahman had declared emergency, barely two years after a Constitution promising democracy, secularism, socialism and nationalism was enacted. Within a year of this one-party move, a rogue group of army personnel aided by a section of Rahman’s colleagues slew him and his family members and took over power. This takeover was supported by the US and China.

This group lasted barely three months before another group from the mainstream army, led by a war hero, Col. Khaled Musharraf, threw them out and took over. But their rule lasted barely three days before another group led by Col. Abu Taher, a retired war hero, led another coup on September 7. Taher was linked to the Leftist Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) party and relied on the non-commissioned officers. It was partly fueled by rage against the army brass, and in the ensuing chaos many officers were killed.


However, this takeover barely lasted a night. Col. Taher released the chief of army staff, General Ziaur Rahman, from army jail— who had by then become very popular for not joining Musharraf’s coup, which many thought was pro-Indian. He promptly arrested Taher and his coup colleagues, thus beginning the
Zia era.

In 1981, Zia was killed in the port city of Chittagong by a group of officers who were unhappy with his rule. Another war hero, General Abul Manzur was responsible for the assassination. Then army chief Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad mobilized his troops against them, sending the rebels on the run.

Ershad, too, came to power by pushing out President Justice Abdus Sattar in 1982, on a plank of ‘jihad against corruption’. Later, Ershad himself was to be known as a symbol of corruption to most. He ruled from 1982 to 1990, when a mass movement finally dislodged him from power, after all political parties rallied against him. However, since no power transfer occured, the political parties decided to set up a “caretaker government system”—led by then Supreme Court chief Justice Shahbuddin Ahmee—to oversee the elections. Subsequently, this became the system—a caretaker government headed by a SC Justice with members drawn from non-politicians—when elections were to be held. Basically, no party trusts any other, and the Election Commission’s power, rather than its integrity, is held in question. The practice of normal political democracy has no history in Bangladesh.

Several coup leaders of the 1975 takeover were hanged by the Awami League government. Khaled Musharraf was killed while fleeing from soldiers after his coup collapsed, while Col. Taher was tried and hanged by Zia. Gen. Zia was killed by his soldier colleagues and later the killers were tried and hanged by Gen. Ershad. Gen. Manzur was mysteriously killed as he tried to escape with his family when the coup failed.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013