Dark Clouds over Bangladesh

From  Daily Star, January 7, 2014


Beyond the Farcical Elections: The Black Swans of Bangladesh


Taj Hashmi*


The late National Professor Abdur Razzaque once told us in late 1970s in his atypical style: “Shara jibon political science poira ahono Bangladesher politics ki zinish, eida buzte parlam na!” [“After studying political science for so many years, I am still unable to understand what Bangladesh politics is all about”]. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007), might explain the enigma of Bangladesh politics, and most importantly, what the country is going to face in the coming years beyond the 5th January’s “Parliamentary Elections”, which experts and observers have classified as voter-less and rigged.

Only die-hard Awami League supporters and beneficiaries, and dull and dim people think Bangladesh has just crossed another milestone by holding the farcical polls to uphold democracy, and to “save the country” from “Islamist extremism” and “anti-Bangladesh” elements. Fareed Zakaria thinks that illiberal societies cannot run liberal democracy; they only run “illiberal democracies” despite all the fanfares of elections. However, as we cannot wait for an indefinite period for the transformation of the “illiberal” societies into the “liberal” ones to start democratic process, Bangladesh possibly came up with a unique solution to hold fair and acceptable elections under Neutral Caretaker Government in 1996.

The Hasina Government, for known reasons but no justifications (other than the ridiculous and laughable assertion that Caretaker Governments pave the way for military takeover) arbitrarily scrapped the provision for the Caretaker Government in the Constitution in 2011 through a compliant judiciary and parliament. In the backdrop of these flawed elections, now we realize that the Caretaker Government was done away with to perpetuate the “Awami Dynastic Democracy” to the detriment of the rival “BNP Dynasty”. And we know dynasties are not about democracy and human rights; they are all about self-glorification and plunder.

Most Western countries refused to send poll-observers to Bangladesh to rebuff the Hasina government’s obstinacy to hold one-party elections. Since January 2013 more than 500 people got killed at the hands of law-enforcers and political rivals. Twenty-two people got killed on the poll day alone.

The New York Times considers the polls “a bizarre election” due to the lack of competition, and that less than 25 per cent people voted this time against 87 per cent in the previous elections held in 2009. Aljazeera reveals that more than 200 poling stations were set on fire. We learn from the AFP that there were no queues to vote, and that only one person cast his vote in three hours at one poling centre. Interestingly, even the compliant Chief Election Commissioner admits the voter turn out was very low due to the stubborn resistance from the opposition parties. While 153 ruling party candidates were “elected” uncontested before the polls, the flawed polls have guaranteed more than two-third majority to the ruling coterie.

Now, are the ongoing political crises, social unrest, economic down turn, and growing violence – terrorism and state-sponsored killing through death squads – going to usher in the Black Swan era in Bangladesh? “Black Swan”, a common Western expression since the 16th century, denotes a non-existing object or what was considered “non-existing”. All swans must be white became a false premise after the discovery of the black swan in Australia.

The Black Swan syndrome is also about the catastrophic impact of the “highly improbable” phenomenon on society. Bangladesh has already gone through its Black Swan moments in the past. Its liberation in the wake of a short civil-cum-liberation war signalled its first Black Swan moment, followed by other such moments after the killings of Mujib and Zia, and the two military takeovers in 1982 and 2007. Other Black Swan moments for Bangladesh came with the arrests and trial of “war criminals”(one of them has already been executed); the controversial scrapping of the provision of the Caretaker Government; and the holding of the flawed one-party elections.

The collective impact of these Black Swan Moments of our history is going to bring about the Black Swan Era of Bangladesh, which is likely to draw the country into a long-drawn civil war for decades, very similar to Iraq, Afghanistan and what Sri Lanka went through in the recent past for twenty-six years. Unless the Government annuls the results of the so-called elections; restores the provision of the Caretaker Government in the Constitution; releases all political detainees; stops judicial murder through compliant judiciary; and last but not least, disbands death squads by the RAB, police and party cadres to destroy political rivals and to smear their image, Bangladesh is not going to remain a functional democracy, even in the most limited sense of the expression.

The constant cry wolf by the ruling coterie, “Islamists are coming”, is likely to backfire. Closing all democratic outlets to force Islam-oriented people and political rivals to adopt terrorist means is reckless. Sooner the ruling elites realize it, the better. The over-polarized and fractious Bangladesh polity is as unpredictable as a not-so-dormant volcano, which has been erupting on an irregular basis since 1971. As the Black Swan of 1971 was unpredictable, so is the one looming in the corner.

As large-scale pre-poll violent attacks on rival party members, minorities and innocent civilians (many mercilessly burnt alive) indicated that Bangladesh was not at peace with itself, the post-poll attacks on political rivals and hapless non-Muslim communities indicate that the country is on the verge of an all-out civil war, nobody has witnessed after 1971. The organized, frequent and growing spate of political and communal violence indicates that the Bangladesh polity no longer lives in, what Nassim Taleb calls, Mediocristan, but has already moved to Extremistan. While the Black Swans of Mediocristan show up infrequently, and are not that vile and vicious, Extremistan experiences nasty and brutal Black Swans, more frequently.


* Dr Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. He has published four books and Sage is publishing his Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year-War beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, in February 2014.


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