Bangladeshi Democracy: A Culture Shock!

Even though most Bangladeshis have no clue how to feel about it, Bangladeshi democracy, or democracy in Bangladesh is a popular talking point for two groups – those who do politics and 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 on 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’s democratic culture among the Bangladeshi community abroad in action!

The event was organized to discuss many issues in one session – the 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-a-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, spoke about the root and the rise of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh. She praised the Bangladesh Government’s quick and cautious response to stem some recent terrorist activities. However, she stressed the need for a strong opposition party in Bangladesh, which she noticed, is absent due to the Bangladesh Government’s position on the opposition party (especially BNP) that they are the supporters of terrorism. Lisa recommended that the US government take a proactive role to ensure democratic processes in Bangladesh, including 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 interference in any country’s internal affairs in Bangladesh. Democracy has two extremes: on the 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 in 1991, but 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, Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Curator of Law@theMargins, told the audience that the people of Bangladesh are still waiting for the democracy that has been promised to them. From the point of human rights, labor rights, marginalized communities, environmental justice, indigenous rights, civil and political rights, and the forced disappearance of the opposition party, Bangladesh has a long way to go. The government of Bangladesh’s depiction of the opposition party as a terrorist entity has a long repercussion. One of them is that the people seeking political asylum in the USA from Bangladesh 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, was invited by the audience, and due to time constraints, she wanted to take four questions. The moderator invited questions from the audience 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 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 a 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 to 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 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 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 worldwide 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 questions.

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

However, the event’s time limitation and some politically activist audiences’ intentions 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. The last speaker’s blunt criticism of Bangladesh’s current political climate was especially opposed vehemently by blaming her as an agent and anti-collaborating force of Bangladesh. “How much money did you get 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 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 with Lisa and Joyeeta leaving the room in a hurry, perhaps for security reasons. The main coordinator of the event, Kausar Mumin of Archer Blood Center for Democracy, disappeared! Club Bangla members were not sure what to do about this display of Bangladeshi democracy! There was no way anyone could 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 attendees a taste of Bangladeshi cultural practice that they will remember for a while.

Certainly, it was not a good day for Club Bangla members, mostly the second-generation Bangladeshi students at Columbia. They are generally happy with safe and innocent Bangladeshi cultural events on campus. But to introduce and increase awareness of the Bangla language and culture at 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. Still, if people can not participate in civil discourse or some intellectual discussion in a peaceful, respectful, meaningful way, then the resource can prove useless. No matter what, everyone has the right to express their minds. If you do not agree, then disagree respectfully. No one has to make mayhem for some academic talking points in front of a roomful of people at a prestigious university. No one needs a culture shock in the twenty-first century!

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

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

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

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