Bangladesh is ‘now under an elected parliamentary dictatorship’ with an ‘irresponsible opposition’, says left-leaning writer and activist Syed Abul Maksud.
The Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party act in one way when they are in power and in altogether a different way when in opposition, he said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.
Society is now in the grips of a sense of fear, which the incumbents have given rise to, Maksud said.
‘The extent of the space for dissent, freedom of expression and freedom of press ultimately marks the difference between a democratic government and a despotic regime — military or otherwise,’ he said.
In the past four decades since independence, successive governments have developed an ‘economy of thugs’, Maksud observed.
The government has honoured the country’s foreign friends for their contribution to the war of independence in 1971. What is your view about the initiative?
I appreciate the move to honour the foreign friends who provided immense moral and material support in our struggle for independence. It was a moral duty of the government to formally recognise their contribution.
It is not that the government has taken the move all on a sudden. Many people, in fact, demanded recognition for the country’s foreign friends. I myself have written on the issue. I am happy that the process has begun, belatedly though, and hope that it will continue.
The Awami League is, however, reluctant recognise the contributions of the members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to the war of independence, and vice versa. In fact, each more often than not questions of the role of the leaders of the other. Why is it so?
It is a reflection of their parochial political mindset. In a liberal democracy, you can differentiate political parties on the basis of their activities and ideologies. You can differentiate a socialist party from a conservative or a democratic party abroad.
Here in Bangladesh, however, you cannot differentiate the two major political parties on the basis of their policies and programmes and what their leaders say. They pursue identical political policies. They have made Bangladesh politics hostage to two families — the Sheikh family and the Zia family.
You have talked about liberation war honour. It could have been better if the foreign friends were honoured from a united platform.
The government ‘did not involve’ the opposition parties in the process. It is an unfortunate political reality.
Political empowerment of the people was one of the motivations of the war of independence. Have we achieved it in the past four decades?
We have achieved some kind of political independence and a flag. But we are yet to achieve political independence in the true sense of the term. Instead, we have become politically dependent on India. Yes, India provided us with moral and material support in 1971. But the Indian ruling class has also obstructed our efforts to be politically independent through their dominating attitude.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was a towering personality, somehow managed to overcome the dominance of India. After his assassination, most of the military rulers and the political governments have largely pursued anti-Indian stance. As such, the relations between the two countries have remained strained and distrustful for several decades. The Awami League, which is exceptionally friendly towards India, has also failed to improve the strained relationship.
The January 11, 2007 intervention in the political process put our political freedom at stake. In the subsequent two years, former army chief General Moeen U Ahmed tried to make sure that we remained politically dependent on India. The regime made dependent — politically, economically, socially and culturally — on India.
We watch Indian television channels in Bangladesh but India does not allow Bangladeshi television channels to broadcast their programmes there. It is suffocating and people cannot raise their voice against such duplicity.
Why have India not given Bangladesh even its due share on different issues during the AL-led government if the Awami League, as you say, is ‘exceptionally friendly towards India’?
The government goes out of the way to accommodate the agenda of India but such a ‘friendly’ gesture is not reciprocated. Most people now understand that India never goes against its interests — genuine or otherwise.
What would be the political cost of maintaining such ‘exceptionally friendly relations’ with India?
Why has the Indian ruling class become adamant about not signing the Teesta agreement and so indifferent to continued border killings? The answer is that the Bangladesh government has lost its capacity to bargain with India. They compromise national interest to maintain personal and party friendship.
Not only the Awami League but its political allies also are in the race to be exceptionally friendly towards India. They would have to pay for it in the next general elections, certainly.
Some Awami League leaders have, however, remained true nationalists but their top leadership is pro-Indian. The pro-Awami League intelligentsia, cultural activists, writers and journalists have also become pro-Indian.
An interesting phenomenon is that the persons who used to be ‘pro-Pindi before and during the liberation war have become pro-Indian all on a sudden. They are sheer opportunists. This section of the people have lost nationalist zeal over the past four decades and given rise to a national crisis.
Ministers often allege that the advisers to the prime minister take many decisions for their ministries. In such circumstances, what is your opinion about the government’s decision making process?
In British and Indian democracy the cabinet is responsible to parliament. But, in our parliamentary form of government, parliament has hardly anything to say as the constitution has given unlimited power to the prime minister. The ministers are expected to perform according to the wishes of the prime minister.
The prime minister has also set a new layer — six unelected advisers —between her and her cabinet members. The government cannot make any decision, policy and law without the consent of the advisers. We are now under an elected parliamentary dictatorship.
People’s perception is that corruption is rampant in almost all public offices. What is the reason for such a perception?
Systemic corruption is there in different offices where a few honest people cannot stop the menace. There is hardly any accountability in the government machinery as there is no parliamentary oversight.
Parliament is not holding any meaningful debate. The ruling party MPs are busy flattering the government in general and the prime minister in particular. The associate organisations for youths, students and workers of the ruling party have emerged as a new threat. They, together with a small number of government officials, have taken corruption to a new height.
Shouldn’t the opposition play a role to make the government accountable to parliament?
Yes, indeed. But the opposition, in our system, has become irresponsible opposition, no matter which party they belong to. They prefer to remain outside parliament but draw monetary and other facilities related to their positions.
Had they been in parliament throughout its tenure, they could at least have raised their voice against the decisions and laws made by the government. They could have stopped things going unchallenged.
All these things happen because there is hardly any difference between the two major political parties — the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party — in terms of principles, goals and policies.
I believe the opposition should go to the House and play a critical role remaining above narrow partisan and personal gains.
The main opposition BNP has alleged that the government created obstruction to its March 12 rally, imposed restriction on the movement of the leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia when she came out of her house for visiting the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar on March 26 morning, and the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel authorities cancelled, upon instructions by an intelligence agency, the booking for a programme where she was scheduled to be chief guest. What is your view about these incidents?
These were highly undemocratic behaviour by an elected government. It is unfortunate. It will ultimately make the government loser. The leader of the opposition in a parliamentary democracy is part of the government. Creating obstructions to her programmes and movements are violation of constitutional rights.
Economic emancipation was a motivation for the war of independence. At what phase of economic emancipation are we, as a nation, now?
Before replying to this question, I need to mention that none of the governments, including the Awami League, has upheld state principles mentioned in the 1972 constitution in the past four decades.
The Awami League has emerged as a bourgeois nationalist and capitalist political party after the war. It has kept socialism merely as a word in the constitution. Sheikh Mujib nationalised all industries and developed state capitalism. State capitalism and corruption are synonymous in countries like Bangladesh. Corruption has become institutionalised over the years.
Amid the surge of consumerism, the entire nation has lost its nationalistic principle. We have in fact submitted ourselves to consumerism.
Democracy was, and is, not practised in its minimal form in and outside the parties.
The rural people have, however, come out of severe poverty thanks to non-government organisations which were supported by the capitalist world.
Why has the level of income inequality remained unchanged?
At least 30 per cent of the people were
bare-bodied in the rural markets in 1972 and 1973. At least 60 per cent of them were bare-footed.
Yes, we have come out of a certain level of poverty. But 15 per cent of the people remain deprived of one out of three meals a day when MPs use Tk 3 crore cars. It is because successive governments have developed an ‘economy of thugs’ in the last 41 years.
My point is that these governments’ contribution to reduction of poverty is negligible. People have established small businesses and applied technology in agriculture and changed their fate themselves.
Despite their absolute majority in parliament, the Awami League government did not fully restore the secular principle of the state. Why?
The Awami League, by nature, is a secular political party. It, however, did not fully restore the secular principle of the state keeping its vote banks in considerations.
What is the state of freedom of the press amidst intimidation and obstruction of journalists by ruling party men and powerful quarters often?
Both the freedom of expression and freedom of press are now vulnerable. The press is now under close watch. The electronic media could not telecast live the March 12 rally of the opposition due to undue obstructions. It is uncalled for.
What is your position about the non-party caretaker government?
We could hold election under a party government if we were in a good democratic environment. But, unfortunately, the situation is different here.
The level of distrust between the two major political parties is very high. The government often obstructs the programmes and movement of the opposition.
The people in general and the opposition parties in particular are losing confidence in the government, which appears to be despotic in nature.
In this situation, a non-party interim government is a good option.
What is the state of society?
We are in transition. Consumerism is becoming prominent across society. The country has been made a springboard for international conspiracy. The government controlled by General Moeen U Ahmed has almost decimated the nation’s self-confidence.
We lack the sense of social justice. A sense of helplessness is grabbing the people. The number of dissenting voices is gradually decreasing. It is frustrating.
Only a strong and genuine nationalistic leadership can help people to come out of this situation.
You say the number of dissenting voices is decreasing. Why?
It is because the governments have been getting oppressive and repressive in nature.
The two political parties, which fought for democracy together against an autocratic government, now behave like autocrats. They act in one way when in power and in altogether a different when in opposition.
A sense of fear prevails and the government itself is creating fear across society. It is not democracy.
The extent of the space for dissent, freedom of expression and freedom of press ultimately marks the difference between a democratic government and a despotic regime — military or otherwise.