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Bangladesh and its confusion on democracy

8By Abdul Gaffar Choudhury

Everyone in Bangladesh claims that they need democracy. Even a party like Jamaat, which believes in theocracy, want to see democracy in Bangladesh. BNP joined the bandwagon too, despite having military origins, and they themselves ruled using undemocratic methods while in power. The most vocal section of our populace, the civil society, criticises how Bangladesh lacks democratic rule even under Awami League.
In the absence of proper democracy, corruption is rampant and muscle-men rule society. Now the question is what type of democracy we require. Whether we need Westminster-style democracy or other forms of democracies prevalent in various Asian and African countries is not yet clear.
Democracy has a long history that has evolved with the progress of human civilisation. The Greek city-states enjoyed a rudimentary form of democracy where all citizens gathered in a public place and decided the fate of their society. Gradually they realised that this was not a viable system, and that the entire population cannot assemble and make decisions on every affair of the state.
People were then elected among the masses as their representatives, who would make decisions on their behalf in different affairs of the state, and a parliament was formed.
After signing the Magna Carta, England adopted a parliamentary system which became the symbol of democracy, and the system was spread elsewhere.
But democracy did not remain limited to a parliamentary system. A presidential system evolved in the USA with a strong bicameral legislature. With the passing of time, democracy did not have just a single form.
With the collapse of feudalism in Europe, the rise of capitalism helped bring about the acceptability of democracy in other continents. Democracy took different shapes as it travelled.
Feudalism survived in Europe by taking a subservient role to capitalism. Kings and Queens were ousted from their thrones during wars and revolutions, and parliaments became sovereign.
In the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, parliamentary democracy was also adopted. But their under-developed social and economic reality could not sustain democracy. In the place of foreign rulers, native dictators took power and modelled the pattern of democracy that favoured them to rule permanently. Some of them introduced a presidential form of government conferring more power to presidents than a king, and others renamed democracy to make it suitable for their totalitarianism.
President Sukarno changed the parliamentary democratic form and called it ‘controlled democracy’ to consolidate his own power after Indonesia became independent.
In Turkey, General Garsel declared himself the president of Turkey with a parliament under the dominance of the military. He declared it a ‘limited democracy’ after overthrowing the parliamentary government under Menderez.
In Pakistan, General Ayub Khan abolished parliamentary democracy and introduced a system called ‘basic democracy’. According to late Justice Kayani of Pakistan, Ayub’s system was neither anything basic nor democratic. Under this system the parliament has no power and the president is the supreme authority.
Bangladesh was the first colony of the British Raj. With modern English education, a strong middle-class had emerged in the region among Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims. The democratic practice that Bengalis learned from their ruler was the Westminster-style of democracy.
After the independence of the subcontinent from British rule, both India and Pakistan introduced parliamentary systems in their respective nations. Democracy was much deep-rooted in Indian politics but not so in Pakistan. Especially in the then West Pakistan, feudal lords were very influential and prioritised religion over democracy.
They were the real rulers of Pakistan, with conflicts between them and the middle-class Bengalis of former East Pakistan. The latter were liberal and less communal, and their language and culture were different from the former. The consequence was separation between the two wings of Pakistan. Bangladesh became a secular state with parliamentary democracy and Pakistan became an almost Sharia state under a military rule.
Parliamentary democracy did not survive in Bangladesh for long. It turned out that social division and the old communal legacy of politics cannot build a firm structure of democracy. Long ago, a British judge, Justice Ellis, who was chief justice of the former East Pakistan High Court, made a controversial remark.
He said, if you bring the seeds of democracy from the bank of Thames and sow them in the bank of Meghna, the plant may not grow because of the difference of climates and social atmosphere of the two places.
The founder of the new nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, did not agree with this comment fully, but realised that true Westminster-style of democracy was not introduced in the subcontinent by British Raj. The British Raj introduced a system which may be termed ‘colonial democracy’, where power lies in the hands of bureaucracy and not in that of the people.
Colonial democracy was corrupt and against the colonised. With such a system, real democracy will never be established in the country. We evolved a new system, the democracy of the exploited, where power will be transferred to the grass roots, old bureaucratic-administrative structure will be replaced by elected people’s representatives, and secular nationalism will be the main pillar of the statecraft.
Bangabandhu could not succeed in his second revolution for the emancipation of the people. The bureaucracy, the new-rich class, the communal forces, and the civil society which guarded vested interests, all stood together against the newly proposed system. Consequently, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed and the new system was nipped in the bud. In the name of returning to democracy, a military dictatorship captured power and the democratic base of Bangladesh was weakened. Bangladesh was plunged into corruption and anarchy, and the rule of the law was all but ignored. Communalism grew further and eventually took the form of violent fundamentalism.
Just like the fight between parliament and the crown in medieval Britain, a fight went on for two decades in Bangladesh between military rulers and the political parties which believed in democracy. Under military and autocratic rule, democratic institutions in Bangladesh were weakened and almost dilapidated.
At last, democracy returned sometimes under the Presidential system and sometimes under the Parliamentary system, which structurally remains too weak. Fragile democracy is now in a constant struggle with socially divisive forces including extremism and is trying to survive under the present Hasina government, which has resorted to a way not fully endorsed by democracy.
Some political pundits say that democracy in Bangladesh should take a strong position which may not be a true Westminster model. Bangladesh’s democracy should face the combined onslaught of anti-democratic forces. To bring political stability and economic prosperity, Lee Kwan of Singapore and Mahathir of Malaysia followed the Westminster model, but in a stronger and coercive manner. Some people say it was elected dictatorship.
These pundits are of the opinion that democracy in Bangladesh needs to be strong, and if necessary, coercive. This would strongly confront the combined aggression of anti-people forces and wipe out the enemies of democracy with a strong hand.
So, when we say we want democracy and our civil society demands for pure democracy, we must realise that democracy exists in different forms. We must be clear in our minds what style of democracy we need and what is suitable for our people in our present socio-economic situation.
The cry for democracy by our civil society is nothing but useless rhetoric. They should discuss in their seminars and round-table conferences, the basic ills of society, and which form of democracy can remove it. Most of them condemn Sheikh Mujib’s ‘democracy for the exploited’ system, but they have been unable to offer a better solution for the people even until now.
The country is still at the crossroads in search of a real democratic path.
Abdul Gaffar Choudhury is a bdnews24.com columnist.