Democracy in Bangladesh – 1
পাকিস্তানের সংবিধানের বেলায় ‘ইসলাম’ ও বাংলাদেশের সংবিধানের বেলায় ‘সমাজতন্ত্র, জাতীয়তা ও ধর্র্ম-নিরপেক্ষতাও’ তেমনি অনাবস্যক্ভাবে উল্লিখিত হইয়া আমাদের অনিষ্ট করিয়াছে . আমাদের জাতীয় ও রাষ্ট্রীয় জীবনে বহু জটিলতার সৃষ্ঠি করিয়াছে. এসব জটিলতার গিরো খুলিতে আমাদের রাষ্ট্রনায়কদের অনেক বেগ পাইতে হবে .
That’s from Abul Mansur Ahmed’s memoir. I’ve translated the relevant section of the book here. I leave it to the reader to judge whether Ahmed’s concerns have come true or not.
Ahmed also tells us his preferred solution to our political problems:
দেশে ঠিকমত গণতন্ত্র প্রতিষ্ঠিত হইলেই আর সব ভালো কাজ নিশ্চিত হইয়া যায়.
Of course, no one is against democracy. So we seldom have a discussion about it. But the operative word here is ‘ঠিকমত’ (my dictionary translates it as ‘proper’). Surely the definition of ‘properly established democracy’ deserves at least as much debate as the ones on, say, nationalism (well over hundred comments in 4 posts in UV).
And yet, there is little discussion about. We will soon see the 15th amendment to our constitution, and one would have thought this would be a good time take stock of our democracy. But no sign of any such stock taking.
In a series, cross-posted in UV, I plan to jot down what I understand to be democracy, the state of Bangladeshi democracy, and some challenges. I don’t have any training in legal matters, and don’t presume to have the right answers (or even ask the right questions). Nor are my thoughts set in stone. Rather, I am interested in a dialectics of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, and hopefully my layperson’s views will be a start.
The series will cover: a Lincolnesque definition of democracy; doctrines of separation of power and checks and balances; civil-military relationships; and the tension between equality and liberty. But before anything else, over the fold, is a restatement of the case for democracy, which draws mostly on one of my first posts in UV.
If we believe that certain rights matter, then it follows that any government that violates these rights loses its legitimacy. We could alter or abolish an illegitimate government through a revolution. And then if the revolutionary government trampled on our cherished rights, we could try a counter-revolution. Alternatively, we could have competitive elections at regular intervals. Any government traducing too many rights could be thrown out by voters. This suggests that democracy, by which I mean a political system where the government is representative of and responsible to those governed, is more likely to respect people’s rights than a non-democracy.
However, rights are not necessarily what most voters care about. In fact, a majority of voters may very well decide to actively persecute some minorities. Democracies can become dictatorships of the majority. From this, it follows that democracy, defined as above, is not sufficient for the preservation of rights. To guarantee that the individual’s inalienable rights are protected from the tyranny of majority, we need measures like the separation of powers between different branches and different layers of the government, independence of the court system and free and inquisitive media. When these measures are present, we have a liberal democracy.
But why this emphasis on rights? One can make a serious argument that human rights as commonly understood are grounded in the European civilization, and other civilizations have different concepts that form the basis of their polity. For example, a declaration with its roots in Islam could very well be based on ‘self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by the Almighty with certain responsibilities, and governments are established to uphold these…’ Or one can argue that to the impoverished ‘wretched of the earth’, rights are irrelevant — faced with acute hunger, can someone be concerned about the right to free speech?
The liberal emphasis on individual rights is by no means the only possible foundation for a political system. There are various types of socialism, nationalism, environmentalism, fundamentalism and all sorts of other isms to choose from.
‘To choose from’, that’s the operative phrase here. So long as there is a choice, we are still in the realm of democracy. One cannot stress enough the freedom of choice here. Every non-liberal ideology imagined anywhere in history, taken to its logical conclusion, would produce a totalitarianism where all other ideas are banished. To the believer, such a pure world is paradise, but to everyone else it is hell. Therefore, even those not so keen on rights as an end in itself should still care about rights to choose as a means to the end of their likings. That is, being a socialist or ‘Islamist’ shouldn’t stop one from supporting democracy.
One shouldn’t, however, over sell democracy. There is no guarantee whatsoever that a democracy will produce a stable society. Social stability depends on many factors — technological changes, environmental challenges, economic developments can all destabilize a society. In an already changing society, democracy can create more tensions. But if the society is already changing, an absence of democracy can create even more instability. Revolutions typically happen when democratic reforms are denied.
Some argue that democracy is not conducive to economic development. For example, they argue that ‘benevolent dictatorships’ in Korea or Taiwan have presided over economic growth unparalleled by any democracy. But then again, we have dozens of African or Latin American countries where lack of democracy has meant disaster — for every Mahathir there were many Mobutus and Mugabes.
It is true that with cumbersome decision-making processes, necessary reforms can be more difficult in a democracy. But there is a flipside to this as well. While democracies may take a long time to make the right choice, they typically make less costly errors. For example, China liberalized its economy a decade earlier than India did, and as a result the average Chinese is much richer than the average Indian. However, independent India has never experienced a famine or massive dislocation of people because of economic reasons. Policy experiments like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution killed millions in China during Chairman Mao’s era.
And then there is the question of whether prosperity is all that matters. What about the impact of economic growth on the environment? What about the way the growth process fuels inequality? Might it not be better to have an equal distribution of poverty than a grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth? And what about the way economic changes are tearing down the traditional fabrics of our society?
As it happens, I think that economic growth, managed properly will help the environment or social inequality. And frankly, I am not that concerned about traditional social norms. But it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is what most Bangladeshis think. And I know of only one political system that will reflect the views of what most Bangladeshis think about economic growth, environmental degradation, social inequality or the loss of tradition: democracy.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, trading democracy for stability or development will result in us losing everything.