The political situation in Bangladesh is complex and confusing. A range of political agendas and actions converge and collide and analytical predictions and expectations are rarely met or accurate. Information is scarce, fragmented, and always questioned as rumors, biased propaganda, or purposeful distraction.
The media and public debate, once prominent and widespread, is challenged from one side by the targeted killings and from the other by the governments security measures of control. It is not surprising that safety and security dominates the agenda in light of recent events, similar to the developments in France.
But the difference is, Bangladesh police appear to randomly arrest and detain suspects for weeks and months, forcing inconsistent declarations of guilt, often in secret locations. This do not enhance public trust in law enforcement, not even as a provider of safety.
The public debate is naturally preoccupied with discussions on present insecurities and uncertainties. However, this preoccupation with the present risks might shade, question, and turn us away from the fundamental principles of rule of law and democracy.
Instead of looking into the events of today and tomorrow, I will take a step back and give a brief interpretation of some of the events that went before and maybe paved the way for the present situation.
Not so long ago, many young people of Bangladesh fought for the nation and the state as a democratic ideal. In 2008 the country saw a renewed call for democracy and rule of law. These demands today remain unfulfilled, and the country has been unable to realise its full potential, as the spirit of change faded off and traditional bipartisan antagonistic politics kicked in.
There was a moment of real change and disruption of old forms of politics in the air, especially amongst the student youth who took to the streets to protest and challenge the military. It was based on a dream and an ideal, though distant and unfulfilled, of a just democracy. Not very different from the ideas that initiated and motivated the movement against the Ershad regime in 1990-91, I recall from conversations with activists of both movements.
When the Awami league government was elected into office on a platform of modernity and prosperity that was framed around a slogan of Digital Bangladesh based on a plan of economic development for 2020, it soon after disappointed the party’s own postulated ambitions. Political favouritism and corruption, in the form of biased nominations for state positions and distribution of state resources was increasingly reported in the media and known in the public.
This was not new. Rather it was a representation of the old and traditional forms of “iconomic” politics -- a contraction of icon and economy -- that have marred Bangladesh since independence.
After the government reinvigorated Bangabandhu’s murder trial process, people were sentenced and executed. It initiated court processes for crimes committed during the Liberation War. People continue to be sentenced and executed. These processes were long overdue. However, they did not just settle outstanding historical issues, but re-produced longstanding fault lines that were recast and co-opted by global discourses.
One such an example was the Shahbagh movement that paved the way for the popularisation of the blogger community and discussions about critical thinking, critique, respect and responsibility, and freedom of speech. It was somewhat of a contradictory movement calling for justice and death as well as for a modern secular democracy.
Like many similar popular movements around the world, the activists occupied a central part of the city and through endurance and stamina, pushed their demands through and circumvented the ruling of the court. Over time, the movement lost its impetus. It became co-opted by traditional politics and the trials lost popular interest but it did provoke a reaction.
The Hefazat movement was the local response. It was based on traditional confrontational street politics of crowds, masses, and numbers as the tool through which to attain public attention, political leverage, and bargaining position. The government effectively stopped it, recognising the political practice and potential, ending in death and injury.
When civil society and intellectuals cannot voice critical thoughts and analysis, one-sided partisan language becomes the political reality -- a reality within which people have to act. This decreases ideas and limits solutions
The other response was direct and lethal. Resembling similar attacks happening in the world, it appeared as another example of the impetus of global discourses. The hacking to death of known bloggers followed by killings of Christian and Hindu priests, and random foreigners, marked a substantial change in political language and practices in Bangladesh.
Claiming to be part of IS and al-Qaeda, they look for global links and attention. Regardless, whether this claim is real or not, they manage to bring, sustain, and situate global discourses in national politics. The horrendous attack on the Gulshan restaurant is the most recent example.
However, the use of draconian laws such as the Special Powers Act of 1974 (SPA) and of paramilitary forces such as RAB, established to combat organised crime, have increased since the early 2000s, leaving thousands of people dead, disappeared, and injured.
An anti-terrorism ordinance was approved in early 2009, without public consultation and scrutiny. The vague definition of “terrorist activities” was open to include all sorts of political activities.
An amendment of the ICT Act increased the punishment to seven to 14 years in jail, if any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that causes the deterioration of law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person, or hurt religious belief. Furthermore, a broadcasting policy along similar lines was introduced, again without any public consultation.
The government wanted to bring justice to the victims of the Liberation War, which brought some form of closure to these dramatic events. However, at the same time, it began undermining the very same principles of democratic plurality and human respect they were defending.
The active undermining of the rule of law, exemplified by the acts and laws that have followed the SPA of 1974, testifies to the hollowing out of the state as a democratic ideal and practice. However, regardless of the legal and institutional deficiencies, the real threat to any democracy and to development is the negation of voice and criticism.
It leads to exclusion, discontent, and potential conflict. When civil society and intellectuals cannot voice critical thoughts and analysis, one-sided partisan language becomes the political reality -- a reality within which people have to act. This decreases ideas and limits solutions to those with definitional authority and institutional power to enforce it.
The government had all opportunities including general popular support to choose a new path for the country. However, they were not able to fulfill their potential and further develop and sustain a sincere democratic culture, at the same time dealing with historical issues of guilt, suffering, and justice.
The processes are on-going, but seem to somehow have lost public interest. Institutional collapse, impunity, corruption, and especially safety, in light of the recent attacks, appear to dominate the public agenda.
In the present situation, the ideals of the young activists appear to have lost, challenged and swayed away by a dual and interconnected discourse of violent extremism, on one side, and security, on the other. The question is: Could this have been avoided?
Morten Koch Andersen is a post-doctoral researcher on urban violence at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture.