Going beyond casinos
Many are left stunned with the news of police raids on casinos at the heart of the capital. The numbers are jaw dropping: There are reports that around 60 casinos are operating in Dhaka.
These are real casinos; these are not any makeshift structures where people hid and gambled. Pictures and videos surfaced on media show how inside the casinos it was as glittering no less than in Las Vegas with gambling machines, liquor, and a lot of cash.
According to reports, Tk120 crore changed hands every night in these casinos.
This information surfaced as law enforcers cracked down on casinos last week in line with government’s drive against corruption and extortion. Yes, it is true that political allies of the government misused their positions and alliances to illegally run these establishments and we all appreciate the actions, however, I seek attention to the fact that these casinos had been operating for a long time -- and to run successfully they needed a lot of gamblers.
Even though gambling is illegal in Bangladesh; people from all walks of life still gamble, and anyone caught gambling could face prison and/or fine as the state is liable to “adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution and gambling” according to the Article 18(2) of the Bangladesh constitution.
But exactly why do people gamble?
Gambling refers to the practice when a person commits any valuable item to the outcome of an event and the result determines a loss or win of the stake agreed beforehand. Gambling today is illegal and punishable by law, but a look into history reveals that gambling existed in the Indian sub-continent far longer than previously believed.
Gambling is mentioned in the Hindu epic Mahabharata and Rakesh Waddha even argued that practices of gambling is mentioned in Hindu Mythologies dating back to 2000BC. In Bangladesh, we usually find a lively and widespread localised repertoire of games associated with gambling.
The curse of gambling
The extent of gambling could be comprehended from a study published in 1996 -- gambling was identified as a cause of violence against women. In rural areas, wives were reportedly beaten by their husbands for trying to prevent them from gambling, who gambled money earned from cultivation or even the money their wives received as micro-credit.
In the book Dynamics of Poverty in Rural Bangladesh, it was revealed that in the case of 11.2% of all households, major reasons for downward mobility between 2004-2009 was “distress sell of land for gambling.” Therefore, the practice of gambling is not new, and indeed varied forms of it are found across the country.
Gambling is now being treated as a problem -- but anthropological literature can lead us beyond our problem-oriented approach and can help us situate gambling within cultures to reveal who gamble on what, and exactly why people gamble at all.
How gambling evolved
For example: Clifford Geertz, in the book The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, analyzes cockfighting in Bali. During the events of a cockfight, the engaged parties set a stake to be lost or won, at the same time individuals who do not possess enough valuables to take part in the centre make bets at the outskirt.
Thus, Geertz argued, gambling in Bali is a microcosm of the social structure with wealth divisions. Gambling and its outcome impact social statuses, and thus infuses a sense of exhilaration into the games. Similarly, Gregory Bateson suggests that gambling is not just a game, that it possesses “meta significance.”
It is set outside the routine of our everyday lives as a form of game, thus filled with excitement. Therefore, gambling is a “form of action” which is valorized by the participants in societal contexts which a more utilitarian approach often overlooks.
One of the detained individuals in the recent raid had claimed that he had lost all his money (Tk60 lakh) and was just visiting the place. Another person claimed that he lost Tk3 lakh just before the raid happened. If we notice the people, their mobile phones, and other items -- such as gold jewelry -- that they had mortgaged to participate in the gambling, it is evident that people from all economic classes are engaged in gambling.
It can be assumed that these people gamble because they expected to win, and ongoing gambling was encouraged by positive memories of smaller wins. “Close-to-winning” experiences forced them to continuously bet for recovering the loss. They tried their luck to get money -- perhaps to pay bills, release mortgages, or meet family needs. In many cases people chose gambling to make ends meet but were caught in a downward spiral.
These features are not unique to Bangladesh, of course. A recent qualitative study funded by Health Research Council of New Zealand, reveals that people start to gamble to ease financial crisis. Furthermore, gambling provides “an escape mechanism from the depressing realities of their lives.”
Professor Peter Harvey of the Flinders Centre for Gambling Research states that gambling is not just winning or losing, it is also about the “uncertainty of wining” which is a reward for the human brain. This reasoning holds true in explaining why gamblers find it hard to quit. But widespread gambling originates from, as anthropologist Knut M Rio argues, people’s “longing in contemporary society for getting close to wealth.”
With this understanding, the people arrested for gambling were trying to achieve something which would give them a sense of “life, health, prosperity, and well being.” They tried to escape, bypass, and get closer to something that they longed for -- ie wealth. These tendencies we can relate with people who invest in multi-level-marketing companies or in the stock market.
Despite the risk of loss, they weighed the possibilities of winning the “lottery.”
Gambling is not an individual act, and it should be analyzed considering the overall social circumstances. Corollaries of capitalistic “inequalities” and “desires” force people towards achieving the excitements of having wealth and its possibilities.
When journalists asked a man as to why he gambles, he replied: “The possibilities or risks in gambling are incomparable, one can win or lose hundreds of thousands in a second.”
In more developed countries, people are hooked into gambling because of the excitement, easy access, and its general allure, which in Bangladesh are accomplished through word of mouth as the testimonies of the people arrested have revealed. Restrictions on the operation of casinos could limit people’s access to gambling and concurrent economic losses, but it will not address the causes of people gambling to begin with.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.