Is our civil society dead?

Whatever is left of the once-great Bangladeshi civil society might have lost its way

After government and commerce, the civil society is sometimes referred to as the third sector and, if it is well mobilized, then this sector usually has the power to influence the first two sectors by impacting the actions of elected policymakers and business enterprises. 

The civil society could generally be a combination of groups of people, labour unions, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, foundations, professional associations, and non-government organizations. This term became especially popular in the 1980s when it started to be associated with non-state movements which were going against authoritarian regimes in Latin America and parts of eastern and central Europe. 

Due to massive developments in technology, social media, and wide access to information, the term is once again going through a major evolutionary phase since it is adapting and reshaping the way in which it acts towards the improvement of society. 

In developed progressive settings, the civil society tends to be a very powerful force that is highly feared by those in power because the civil society is equipped with the supremacy and control to remove those in power if they are not content. 

As a result, policy makers and the authorities in more developed nations are very cautious not to intimidate or anger the civil society, because such a society is capable of uniting against an unjust cause very quickly and with major effect. 

What happened to the once noble civil society in Bangladesh? Has it decayed and eroded? The civil society which appears to exist today is barely a fraction of what it once used to be in the past when there were bold and valiant members who were not afraid to speak up and act at the slightest amount of injustice. 

One could argue that, whatever is left of the once-great Bangladeshi civil society might have lost its way, its will, and its influence, and has become complacent. 

Why has this social erosion taken place?

A possible reason is our civil society has become much more focused on attaining personal wealth and therefore greed and superficial objectives have taken over their moral compass. 

Even though Bangladesh has accomplished a lot during the last five decades of independence in terms of economic prosperity and progress, there are still plenty of wrongs, inequalities, and injustices occurring in front of our very eyes. Nowadays, unfortunately, the once mighty or at least strong civil society seems to have decided that it is best to not act, but rather focus on personal goals rather than the betterment of the overall nation. 

Newly-found higher disposable income and the abundant availability of both comfort and the capability to enjoy the many luxuries that were once scarce have perhaps made the members of Bangladesh’s civil society happy to accept any kind of unfairness or injustice which may not impact them directly. 

The attitude seems to have become such that “if it doesn’t impact me, then it is not really my concern.” However, history has taught us again and again that when the values of society start to diminish, and moral obligations are worn out, it eventually has a highly detrimental effect on the entire population. This is because one wrong most certainly leads to more wrongs because it becomes okay and acceptable. No one speaks out. No one protests. 

The fear factor

Another reason for the constant erosion of our civil society could also be fear. That is, they choose to stay silent because those who are in power may punish and seek harsh and vindictive retribution against any and all members of society who may voice any kind of opposition to them. 

Such opposition from the civil society may be viewed as a threat to their power and influence, and therefore, it must be dealt with in the most severe manner to make examples -- so that no one else shall ever dare to rise up. 

However, this is not the Bangladesh that we want to become. It is definitely not what we once were during our Liberation War era when many righteous members of the civil society, under the courageous leadership of our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, boldly stood up against a very powerful and superior oppressive force. 

So, what happened to that once-great generation, and why is it that the following generations, especially the ones in charge today, have yet to show such courage?

It could also be argued that we no longer have that many great teachers and motivators in our educational institutions. The once highly-esteemed faculties of the best educational institutions of the country may have also become more focused on personally-enriching agendas rather than selflessly guiding, motivating, and encouraging change-focused civil participation, like the great educators of our past once used to. 

Too many of our teachers and professors nowadays seem to have become much more involved in politically-driven schemes rather than being a positive inspiration for the younger generation. Such a degradation in the very foundation and root for the creation of a strong and just civil society, ie, the education system, is possibly a major contributor towards the weakening of the Bangladeshi civil society. 

Bangladesh’s civil society must once again be reignited and empowered to act. It needs to be able to speak up when the dignity and basic rights of fellow humans are deprived. It has to raise its voice when it cannot accept the rights of certain groups being taken away. 

It has to defend essential principles of democracy such as equal rights and equal value of every person, and it has to insist on defending the systems that guarantee those rights. This is absolutely critical if we are to provide a compassionate and humane future for this nation and its inheritors. 

For a strong civil society to flourish and exist, there are certain factors which must also be ensured. Those who are in positions of influence have to make strong public statements, recognizing the important and genuine role of human rights defenders, including journalists, and steps have to be taken to hold public and private members accountable for denouncing the work of such defenders. 

All alleged attacks against the defenders have to be promptly and fully investigated, such that those perpetrators are held accountable, and their victims are provided with the required remedies. There has to be a legislative framework in place as well as a guarantee from the law enforcement that they are dedicated towards the protection of expression and opinion, and they should not intimidate or arrest journalists and defenders for their legitimate actions. 

Mamun Rashid is a regular contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.

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