Friday, February 25, 2005

BANGLADESH: Tribal loyalties

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Call it cognitive dissonance. The inability to think or realise something that causes you discomfort or clashes with some of your most cherished beliefs. Most people I come across are from the middle and upper-middle classes and live in the capital. They are, by and large, supportive of the government and so I have a strong suspicion that they simply tune out information that doesn't speak well of the government and that might cause them discomfort. They have internalised the idea that to worry or to voice concern about such things is to speak ill of the country or at the very least to speak ill of the government. Most of these people unfortunately have more or less tribal loyalties when it comes to politics, and nothing -- certainly not anything as inconvenient as the facts -- is going to cause them to rethink their belief system.


Tribal loyalties
Zafar Sobhan

Sometimes I wonder if I am being a little too alarmist when I think that Bangladesh is poised on the edge of a precipice.

But then I am reminded that in the year and a half since I returned to Dhaka that there has been a massive unsolved arms haul in Chittagong, that the British High Commissioner narrowly escaped assassination, that virtually the entire opposition leadership escaped death by seconds on August 21, and that senior opposition leaders Ivy Rahman, Ahsanullah Master, and Shah AMS Kibria, among others, have been killed by assassins.

So, no, on further reflection, I think that it is safe to say that there exists sufficient cause for alarm.

Indeed, I haven't even mentioned the vigilante operations of Bangla Bhai and the JMJB in the North-West of the country or the killing of journalists or the murderous attack on Prof. Humayun Azad or the many other insecurities that we must live with on a daily basis.

The question for me then becomes how come so many of the people I see and interact with on a daily basis are not equally alarmed?

They live in the same country. They read the same newspapers. They watch the same news on television. So why do so few people seem to think that we are facing a serious crisis?

It's an interesting question and I think that the answer lies in our collective national psyche and the pathologies that dwell therein.

One answer might be that they don't believe that anything will happen to them.

But there might be another reason as well. Call it cognitive dissonance. The inability to think or realise something that causes you discomfort or clashes with some of your most cherished beliefs.

Most people I come across are from the middle and upper-middle classes and live in the capital. They are, by and large, supportive of the government and so I have a strong suspicion that they simply tune out information that doesn't speak well of the government and that might cause them discomfort.

They have internalised the idea that to worry or to voice concern about such things is to speak ill of the country or at the very least to speak ill of the government.

Most of these people unfortunately have more or less tribal loyalties when it comes to politics, and nothing -- certainly not anything as inconvenient as the facts -- is going to cause them to rethink their belief system.

Thus they do not necessarily reward good government and punish bad. Performance to a large extent is meaningless. We live in a system of patronage and so the logical thing is to stick by your tribe through thick and thin as that is the only means to ensure one's continued share of the spoils.

Of course this is not true for the many of those who are shut out of the patronage system and thus have no stake in who forms the government other than that of a citizen who wants the most effective and responsive government possible.

This is why both the BNP government of 1991-1996 and the AL government of 1996-2001 were unceremoniously removed from office by the voters at the first opportunity due to their poor records.

But the available statistics indicate that among the more moneyed and privileged classes -- the classes that enjoy the patronage of one party or the other -- there was and is relatively little shifting of allegiances.

But surely the time has finally come for us to move beyond our tribal allegiances and look squarely at the crisis that the country is in and to try to figure out how best to retrieve the situation.

Let's look at the political situation right now and ask the question: what is the pre-eminent problem we are facing right now in the country?

This one is pretty simple really.

It is not corruption. It is not poor governance. It is not higher prices. It is not our balance of payments. It is not unemployment or education or health. It is not our foreign policy or our relationship with India. It is not even law and order though these all remain huge issues.

Don't get me wrong. All of these things are of crucial importance. In a different time these would be exactly the issues on which I think that the people should base their allegiances.

But today in Bangladesh the pre-eminent issue is the fact that someone or some group is systematically trying to subvert the democratic process by targeting the senior opposition leadership for assassination.

Basically, today we no longer enjoy the most fundamental of freedoms -- the freedom from fear. If you cannot even go to campaign in your constituency without fear for your security -- if you cannot hold a political rally for fear of death -- then where can you go and what kind of politics can you engage in?

Meaningful participatory democracy has been stopped in its tracks. We are now in danger of moving from democracy to a system where whoever has the greatest capacity for violence gets to call the shots. That's the real problem we are facing right now as a country.

The second issue is that apart from the bomb and grenade-throwing terrorists -- whose identity remains unclear -- there are other very easily identifiable elements in the country who are also acting undemocratically.

These include Islamists such as Bangla Bhai. These include those who have carried out attacks against the Ahmadiyya community. These include ruling party affiliated goons who have attacked the meetings and rallies of Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury and Dr. Kamal Hossain.

We do not know if there is any connection between the unknown terrorists who have been causing so much fear and insecurity and the known anti-democratic elements who have been equally if less murderously active.

But there can be no question that the main problem this country faces today is the steady unravelling of the democratic consensus.

To my mind there is no greater threat to both our short and long-term stability and security than that the democratic process seems to be breaking down and that the respect for democracy that has sustained and enriched us for the past decade and a half seems to be in retreat.

To my mind this is the prism through which our choices should be viewed. Not the prism of the economy. Not the prism of foreign policy. Certainly not the prism of our tribal loyalties.

We need to be looking at our choices through the prism of democracy.

This should be something everyone can agree on. We all want democracy. We all want democratic space. We all want the freedom from fear. We all want free and fair elections. No one wants to be ruled by the gun.

Establishing democracy in 1991 was the greatest achievement of our recent history. The movement brought out the best in the country and even demonstrated that the different political parties and groupings could cooperate when the stakes were sufficiently high.

For all the ills and discontents of the past decade and a half, democracy has served us well and is the only guarantee we have against tyranny and terror. Let us not be so quick to abandon our fragile democratic heritage.

But my sense is that too many people don't look at the situation through the prism of the threat to democracy any more than they look at politics through the prism of economic issues.

My sense is that too many people look at the political and security situation through the prism of their tribal loyalties and see only what they want to see.

I don't believe as a nation that we can afford such short-sightedness.

I would suggest that it is time to look again. The question I have for every conscientious citizen of the country is: what exactly would it take to reconsider your tribal loyalty to one party or another.

The fate of the nation and the future of democracy lie in the answer.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.