Now is the time for politics through policy
Where all see a reason for despair, I see hope.
The quota movement has brought a lot of uglinesses of Bangladeshi politics to the fore. Professors have been harassed, students have been beaten up, activists have been injured, and bones have been broken with hammers.
People have finally come to see what political dissenters had long been complaining about: Freedom of expression in the country is withering.
People are finally observing the ungodly things that happen when someone demands reform and justice that may inconvenience the rulers. One becomes tagged as an enemy of the state, or a mercenary operative of the opposition, or a war crimes sympathizer.
To the Bangladeshi civil society members who have avoided dissenting the state so far, this comes as a shocker. They are in distress and despair as they see the ideals of a free society in shambles.
But to me, this is no news. Having been a part (albeit minor) of the anti-Rampal power plant movement, I have observed the wrath of the state and ruling party operatives upon dissenters and reformers for a long time.
To me, violence and smear campaigns against reformers is normal. So, when BCL men raise their fingers on their own professors, I am not so shocked. Rather, I am hopeful.
Because from my vantage point, the people seem to be noticing the injustice after a long time. Even those who had justified all the past violence, in one way or the other, are now frustrated and angered by what is going on in their country.
Even those who have always tried to stay out of politics have come out on the streets under the threat of being brutally attacked. This is change, this is hope. And hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
The reason I am hopeful is not just the participatory resurgence, however. I am rather intrigued by the nature of discontents brought up by the resurgence instead.
To me, it feels like the questions this movement is raising are unique. While much of our past movements have dealt with historical questions of justice for war crimes and place of religion in the constitution, this one deals with a more concrete concern of the contemporary polity.
It has raised questions about the policy structure of the state that has led to inadequate employment opportunities for its people. No matter how you look at it, it’s hard to not see this movement as one that has grown out of discontents with the nation’s development model that has left a lot of people out.
This is a movement of the educated surplus labour that has emerged as its own army of the unemployed. Even when BCL men have repeatedly attacked these movements, we still see some of them sympathizing with it, because they find their future employment tied with the questions raised by this movement.
That is why I believe that this movement will not die, even if it is killed. Its grievances will live on, and imprint a long, lasting legacy on Bangladesh’s electoral politics.
This movement has successfully denied a strong attempt to mire it with the conflicts of the olden days and situated itself at the centre of civil society as a harbinger of a new policy question that the parties must now answer.
Consequently, AL has promised to reform or replace the quota, even though the follow-through has been lacking, and even BNP has repeatedly promised reform as well.
Although their policy proposal seems to be rather aimless, without a specific declaration of the percentages that would be assigned to each of these categories, it is refreshing to see that the political parties of our country are at least contemplating policy, rather than fighting over who first declared independence.
If the parties are to win the votes of the new electorate, they must answer the concerns it has raised, and that cannot be done by simply asserting how great their founding leaders were.
Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of India’s firebrand third-party AAP, recently spoke at a public meeting in Indore, and said that the Indian people were tired of Modi’s tirades on Hindu-Muslim divides. The Indian people don’t want Hindu-Muslim, Kejriwal said, they want “roti.”
The sentiment that Kejriwal expressed is being raised by our own third force, the quota movement, as well. The polity has clearly asserted that they would rather have answers to policy problems that directly affect their livelihood over squabbles around the historical record.
Maybe I am being too optimistic in expecting this, but the quota movement could be an inflection point in Bangladesh that would require mainstream politicians to at least think of reformation policies to win the popular support, and harkening back to legacies of founding leaders may not be enough anymore.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that questions about war crimes or the status of religion in the state are unimportant. In fact, as the 2013 populist episode has shown, these questions are still open and sensitive. However, these long-term questions often give our politicians a chance to overlook the immediate plight of the common people who can’t find a good job to feed their families.
In truth, it matters little to a starving kid or a desperate young graduate what the state religion is. Issues like that matter more to us, the cushy upper classes who don’t have to worry about their next meals. But, while answering these ideological questions are necessary for our leaders, it is also important for them to act as policy-makers and answer the queries of the unemployed and the unfed.
Too long have our politicians hidden their policy responsibilities behind ideological squabbles. Now they must answer the tough questions that the ones going hungry demand.
Now is the time for politics through policy, rather than the divided polity, because the polity has united in favour of reform.
Anupam Debashis Roy is the Editor of Muktiforum.