Democracy culture in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi Democracy: A Culture Shock!

Even though most Bangladeshis have no clue how to feel for it, Bangladeshi democracy or democracy in Bangladesh is a popular talking point for two groups – those who do politics and those who think politics. The desire to talk about democracy, dispense democracy, and take control of democracy is so intense that they would not hesitate to eliminate any civil discourse about the issue, if necessary! It seems like democracy in Bangladesh is so valuable, so demanding and so in short supply that many times it is exercised by Bangladesh’s state-of-the-art yelling, blaming, shouting, name-calling, method.

The impression of democracy in Bangladesh was in full display recently at a conference in New York City. Club Bangla, a Bangladeshi students association at Columbia University, organized a conference on Bangladesh democracy on March 29, 2017 in cooperation with Archer K Blood Center for Democracy. It was an experience they and some audience will perhaps not forget soon! The meeting displayed the state of Bangladesh democratic culture among the Bangladeshi community abroad in action!

The event was organized to discuss many issues in one session – quality of democracy and development in Bangladesh, human rights, labor rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom from all kinds of extremism, right to life, right to vote without fear in a peaceful environment; and how to achieve a free, fair and an internationally accepted inclusive parliamentary election in Bangladesh due in 2019 with participation from all political parties in Bangladesh. The event itself was poorly organized compared to Columbia University’s standard – absentee speakers, last minute time and venue change, no sound system, delay without explanation, etc. However, the two and half hour conference was on.

Bangladesh democracy conference attendees in New York
Bangladesh democracy conference attendees in New York

At the event three speakers talked about democracy in Bangladesh. Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation, talked about the root and the rise of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh. She praised Bangladesh Government’s quick and cautious response to stem some recent terrorist activities. However, she stressed on the need for a strong opposition party in Bangladesh, which she noticed, is absent due to Bangladesh Government’s position on opposition party (especially BNP) that they are the supporters of terrorism. Lisa recommended that US government should take a proactive role to ensure democratic processes in Bangladesh which may include all major political parties.

The second speaker, Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a Fellow with ORF’s Neighborhood Regional Studies Initiative, told the audience that India has a policy of no interfere in any country’s internal affair, including Bangladesh. Democracy has two extremes: in one hand, democracy represents the government of the people, by the people, for the people and on the other hand, democracy has also been seen as an oppressive form of government. Where Bangladeshi people will stand in this spectrum, it is theirs to decide. According to her, democracy came to Bangladesh 1991 but since then both parties – Awami League and BNP have their fair share of credit and blame to carry on the process.

The last speaker, Chaumtoli Huq, a Bangladeshi-American Human Rights Lawyer and Founder, Editor-in-Chief and Curator of Law@theMargins, told the audience that the people of Bangladesh are still waiting for democracy that has been promised to them. From the point of human rights, labor rights, marginalized community, environmental justice, indigenous rights, civil and political rights, forced disappearance of the opposition party, Bangladesh has a long way to go. Especially Government of Bangladesh’s depiction of the opposition party as a terrorist entity has a long repercussion. One of the them that the people who are seeking political asylum in USA from Bangladesh, they are kept imprisoned longer and sent back to Bangladesh because their political party in Bangladesh has been painted as supporters of terrorism.

After the last speaker, the moderator, Dina Siddiqi, a fellow of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University and a Professor of Anthropology at BRAC University in Dhaka, invited questions from the audience and due to time constraint, she wanted to take four questions. The moderator invited questions from audiences as they raised their hands. She requested to keep their question short.

Now, on a side note, seeing a politically motivated Bangladeshi with strong party affiliation asking a question is an art by itself. The questioner will generally start with a long history of Bangladesh and his own role in it! Here is a hypothetical scenario:

Conventional WayBangladeshi Way
Moderator 〉 Please introduce yourself and ask your question?

Questioner 〉 Yes, Hi, my name is…… I am the member of…… My question is……

Moderator 〉 Please introduce yourself and ask your question?

Questioner 〉 I have a question. The question I am asking is very very important today. Today it is extremely important question because the politics of Bangladesh is extremely divided and poisonous. Is this the reason we liberated our golden Bangladesh from Pakistani hyenas by sacrificing three million people’s fresh chest blood? No, we didn’t fight and gave one ocean-full of blood for bringing the crooked military supported government to the power. Our leader …

Moderator 〉 What is your question? Please ask directly in short.

Questioner 〉 I am coming to the question… yes, we should remain alert and powerful as the only genuine force behind all the good things good in our golden Bangladesh, it is extremely important for the future of Bangladesh otherwise the vultures of independence will eat us alive which we never let that happen. Our honorable, bold, visionary, powerful, wise, knowledgeable world leader who has many admirers all over the world is directing us toward the number one place in the whole world…

Moderator 〉 Sir, what is your question? We have very little time and others want to ask question.

Questioner 〉 Yes, but before that I want to introduce myself… I am the Organizing Secretary of… My father was a freedom fighter and……

However, time limitation of the event and the intention of the some politically activist audience collided when the moderator insisted on questions only. She was not interested in comments or remarks. But the audience had no questions; all they had were counterarguments, remarks, comments, opinions, rhetoric and support for the Bangladesh government policy. Especially, the last speaker’s blunt criticism of Bangladesh’s current political climate was opposed vehemently by blaming her as an agent and anti-collaborating force of Bangladesh. “How much money did you got in commission?”, “Where do you get the information from?”, “Wrong information”, “You were born in Pakistan”, “Bangladesh has more democracy than America” … and other comments were made loudly and openly.

Bangladesh Democracy Meeting in NYC
Bangladeshi style democratic hullabaloo

Anyway, the QA session ended up in shouting, yelling, blaming, interrupting, and then leaving the conference room altogether with the leaders. Half of the room was instantly empty! There were no concluding remarks. The event ended up Lisa and Joyeeta leaving the room in a hurry, perhaps for security reason. The main coordinator of the event, Kausar Mumin of Archer Blood Center for Democracy, simply disappeared! Club Bangla members were not sure what to do about this display of Bangladeshi democracy! There was no way anyone can discuss anything in that climate of intolerance.

It was a bad experience for all. Bangladeshi crowd there gave the guest speakers and a couple of non-Bangladeshi attendee’s the taste of Bangladeshi cultural practice that they will remember for a while.

Certainly it was not a good day for Club Bangla members – who are mostly the second generation Bangladeshi students at Columbia. They are generally happy with safe and innocent Bangladeshi cultural events on the campus. But to introduce and increase awareness of Bangla language and culture at the Columbia University it was their first initiative to organize an event on something political in nature, like a decent academic discussion on Bangladeshi democracy.

Bangla one-party democracy slogan
Repeat after me: one party, one…

Bangladesh is perhaps the most politicized nation in the world! Bangladeshi people love to talk about politics. Their passion for politics can be a great resource for Bangladeshi democracy, but if people can not participate in a civil discourse or some intellectual discussion in a peaceful, respectful, meaningful way then the resource can prove useless. No matter what, everyone has right to express their minds. If you do not agree, then disagree respectfully. No one has to make a mayhem for some academic talking points in front of a roomful of people at a prestigious university. No one need a culture shock in the twenty first century!

Bangladesh has many ingredients to practice democracy in a peaceful manner, especially abroad. If shouting is the way to go for Bangladeshi political culture, then you will lose the respect of young Bangladeshis who are growing up abroad. What kind of country would Bangladesh be if the next generations of Bangladeshis abroad are not proud of the culture you instill in them!

For many, the sport is so serious as if it is a war, and for some, war is so much fun as if it is a sport. When democracy is under the control of a few, then it has less opportunity to be serious, creative, productive and fun. Hope Bangladeshi democracy can be a culture of sports, not a war.

Thanks to Sumya Akkas, Alema Begum and other members of Club Bangla team for their initiative.

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