Published:  01:36 AM, 18 January 2020

In defence of secular pluralism

There is little question that the economy has been doing very well under this government. On the social scale, the country has beaten a number of other countries to reach a state that is enviable for those who observe Bangladesh from outside. And yet there are some issues, seemingly intractable, which call for focus on the part of the government. One can cite here the Rohingya issue, a crisis which Bangladesh must through smart diplomacy must tide over in the larger national interest.

All of this depends of course on the ways and means through which we deepen our democratic roots, for democracy is that particular form of government which ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Where does our democracy go from here, if we might inquire? The answer to that question depends greatly on how history has played itself out in Bangladesh. And history here has been more of an irony than an unambiguous flow of political truth.

The irony lies in the contradiction between the Bengali nation's historical struggle for a right to democratic expression as exemplified through the institution of a popularly chosen government, and the repeated failure of the political classes to have in place a pluralistic system capable of fulfilling popular needs.

A cursory observance of history reveals a continuity of democratic idealism among Bengalis in the years after 1954. The question, therefore, of what the future holds for democracy in Bangladesh must take into account the various moves which have systematically militated against government by popular will.

If the Mujibnagar government, based on the consent of the governed as demonstrated through the electoral results of late 1970, could wage a successful War of Liberation in 1971, it also gave out hints of where the political system in Bangladesh could be going.

Of course, it went in the right direction when the government first made it officially clear that a Westminster system of politics would be in operation. And that was how cabinet government came into effect in January 1972.

In the years after 1975, the question of democracy became more and more dependent for an answer on the trajectory taken by national politics day after day and week after week. Again, it was irony that came in. The killing of an entire national leadership between mid-August and early November was proof that democracy in Bangladesh had gone overboard. It was not an enviable situation to be in. But that was not the end of darkness.

There were others. The various coups and attempted coups, with spasmodic, seemingly civilian governments in between, made it hard for the country to sustain even a semblance of democracy in the country. And then came the long dictatorship of General Ershad. It effectively struck at the very value system on which Bangladesh prided itself.

So what future for democracy in the country?  The expectation back in 1990, when the Ershad regime was pushed from power through a mass movement, much in the manner of the exit of the Ayub Khan government in 1969, centred on a return to democracy proper and fully functional. The February 1991 elections promised light at the end of the tunnel. And then things began to go badly wrong.

The rest is history. In these present times, the polarization of politics, wide to the nth extent imaginable, has pitted a section of the country against another, almost in the manner of medieval tribalism. On the one hand, there are the forces of secular liberalism.

On the other stand the forces of the right, emboldened in their belief that religion can be a mighty weapon in an attainment of political power. And then there has been, prior to December 2018, a new combine, with men known for their loyalty to the boat trying out their fortunes with the sheaf of paddy.

Beyond and above everything, new leadership has not properly grown in the way it did in the 1960s and early 1970s; political sycophancy has had the better of political wisdom. For democracy to grow, to enrich itself, to be a vehicle for citizens to understand the role of the State and the privileges they are entitled to, secular political pluralism is a must.

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