Book Review: ‘Institutionalization of Democracy in Bangladesh’

A democracy is a form of government that is controlled by the citizens. Elections are held to select people to hold seats within the government. These individuals are expected to carry out the wishes of the citizens. Actions that are performed are based on the popular votes and voices of the citizens. 

Author: Arun Kumar Goswami

Reviewed by: Anwar A. Khan

Title of review: Institutionalization of Democracy in Bangladesh against the odds

Reading is an exercise in empathy. To read is to enter another world in a way different from any other art form. The reader is actively participating, activating the pages of a book simply by picking it up and beginning.

Dr. Arun Kumar Goswami’s book testifies the struggles for democracy and its institutionalization in Bangladesh. 

The argument that democratic reforms should be sequenced, so that countries only try and introduce multiparty politics when they have an effective state, a harmonious society and a strong economy is very seductive. Given that introducing competitive elections often results in political instability and violence, it is tempting to think that democratisation should only be attempted once a country has already established a strong social, political and economic foundation.

In this massive, kaleidoscopic history of the current democratic age, Prof Arun finds the roots of the crisis of modern liberal democracy in the country. He argues that a series of small changes in economic, social, and political life across the Bangladesh world can pull-back the consensus-oriented model of democracy that had emerged after the country was born in 1971. 

Many of the stories are familiar, but he is particularly good at revealing the subtle social and cultural transformations that has unfolded in the country. If you consider yourself to be a true book-lover, then you know full well the incredible magic of reading this book. 

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home. Books and doors are the same thing. You open them, and you go through into another world.

Dr. Arun Kumar Goswami is Professor of Political Science and Director of South Asian Study Circle, Jagannath University, Dhaka. He was born in 1957 and hails from Madaripur District. His father, Late Upendra Nath Goswami took part in Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 being a service holder of Pakistan Government.

The book contains more than 700 pages with 9 chapters and 14 appendixes. It is the PhD dissertation of Prof Arun Kumar Goswami. The book is the first of its kind in Bangladesh. He has taken enough pains to complete his PhD thesis marked by richness of details on the institutionalisation aspects of democracy in Bangladesh. He has dealt with the pros and cons while producing this very useful book for those who need some guidance or direction or helpful suggestions regarding a decision or future course of action for strengthening the institutionalisation of democracy in Bangladesh.

He has gratefully dedicated this magnificent research work to the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other great souls who led Bangladesh towards institutionalisation of democracy; to his mother Renuka Devi and father Freedom Fighter Late Upendra Nath Goswami for whom he has been able to pursue the light of knowledge; and to the martyrs of 1971 liberation war for whom Bangladesh has been an independent and sovereign state.

A democracy is a form of government that is controlled by the citizens. Elections are held to select people to hold seats within the government. These individuals are expected to carry out the wishes of the citizens. Actions that are performed are based on the popular votes and voices of the citizens. An autocracy is the opposite of a democracy. This type of government is overseen by one individual that determines what types of actions will be carried out.

The research thesis can be considered one of the most comprehensive and insightful one ever written about Bangladesh’s democratic Institutionalisation … Having seen the failed attempts at a democratic government in his native Bangladesh, Prof Arun set out to study a stable and prosperous democracy in order to gain insight into how it worked or how it has been working. 

The state of democracy in Bangladesh is the result of his studies. The book is and shall remain so popular because it deals with issues related to institutionalisation of democracy in Bangladesh.

It also focuses mainly on the structure of government and the institutions that help maintain freedom in Bangladesh. Moreover, it focuses more on individuals and the effects that the democratic mentality has on the norms and thoughts that exist in Bangladesh’s society.

Dr. Arun’s main purpose in writing this book was to analyse the functioning of political society and the various forms of political associations, although he also had some reflections on civil society as well as the relations between political and civil society. He ultimately seeks to understand the true nature of Bangladesh’s political life and why it is so different from other countries.

Prof Arun Goswami studies of democracy in Bangladesh which has led him to the conclusion that Bangladesh’s society is characterised by five key features:

1.Love of equality: Bengalis love equality even more than we love individual liberty or freedom; 

2. Absence of tradition: Bangladesh inhabit a landscape largely without inherited institutions and traditions that define their relations to one another;

3. Individualism: Because no person is intrinsically better than another, Bengalis begin to seek all reasons in themselves, looking not to tradition nor to the wisdom of singular individuals, but to their own opinion for guidance;

4. Tyranny of the majority: At the same time, Bengalis give great weight to, and feel great pressure from, the opinion of the majority. Precisely because they are all equal, they feel insignificant and weak in contrast to the greater number; and

5. Importance of free association: Bengalis have a happy impulse to work together to improve their common life, most obviously by forming voluntary associations. This uniquely Bengali art of association tempers their tendencies towards individualism and gives them a habit and taste for serving others.

Prof Arun is often acclaimed for making a number of correct predictions in Democracy in Bangladesh. In the book, he has warned that friends of democracy must keep an anxious eye peeled in this direction at all times and gone on to say that a new found wealthy class may potentially dominate society.

According to him, democracy would also have some un-favourable consequences, including the tyranny of the majority over thought, a preoccupation with material goods, and isolating individuals from each other and society.

Bangladesh offers a unique case study of an Asian state that has sought to balance and reconcile the needs for national development with some notion of democracy. As one political commentator puts it, ‘the political leaders are not passionate believers in the creed of democracy although they understand that some form of electoral mandate is needed for their legitimacy to govern.

Good governance is defined more by its efficiency at solving problems, and adherence to the democratic requirement of checks and balances is mostly secondary although not abnegated. Another political scientist believes that ‘it is equally certain that Bangladesh is not likely to see a similar substantial transformation of its limited democracy for a considerable period of time. The political leaders tend not to display acute concern for political and democratic norms. 

However, critics feel it is precisely this pragmatism that may ultimately undo the achievements of the government in the long run. While this may not be an entirely fair statement, the country is indeed at a crossroads. 

The political leaders’ effective and efficient management of the whole society and its pervasive influence has resulted in widespread political apathy and a certain dependency. People have come to rely on the government to solve most of their problems. The exercise of extensive controls over so many important public and social institutions by the government has retarded the development of a citizenry that would take greater responsibility for their own actions. 

The government has responded to the changing nature of the global economy and faced the onslaught of globalisation with greater economic liberalisation. Can this, however, be sustained without correspondingly greater political liberalisation? The government, as discussed earlier, has loosened its control on society and must encourage some political pluralism. However, it still attempts to cling on to its old formula of co-optation by trying to tolerate and accommodate more differences through expanding its networks and means of co-optation. 

This formula is beginning to show signs of dysfunctionality as the need to transcend into a knowledge-based economy requires individuals that are nonconformist, more creative and more willing to take risks. The government’s rather paternalistic approach has stifled the much-needed creative and questioning processes critical for a knowledge-based economy, and it now finds itself in a paradoxical position. There is an urgent need to re-structure the economy to ensure the continued economic vitality of the country. Without reforms in both the economic and political management of Bangladesh, there are doubts about the country’s continued peace and prosperity.

It is at this critical juncture that political transformation in the direction of genuine liberalisation might surface. Accustomed to almost unchallenged dominance, the government would find it a difficult transition to make. It would necessitate a move from co-optation and ingenious ways of curbing dissidence to reforms that might ultimately undermine the fundamentals of a one-party dominant system and challenge the basic tenet of the government leadership philosophy, that once given the mandate at the elections it should be allowed to rule without undue pressure from competing groups.

Would the government be able to embark on real reforms and re-invent itself to become truly democratic? Some observers believe that a decline in living standards of have-nots would upset the existing social contract whereby citizens tolerate authoritarianism in exchange for material payoffs. Since the party in power and its legitimacy is so much tied to its ability to deliver economic results, a prolonged economic recession may affect it in future. This, coupled with a generational change, makes a scenario of the current party in power being voted out of power, not unlikely. 

Aside from the above explanations, Prof Dr. Goswami has veritably sounded-out, “While the path to independence was tortuous, as it was won through blood and great sacrifice on the part of the people under the leadership of the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, their struggle to pursue democracy was no less tortuous. In the post-independent Bangladesh, the first constitution was framed within one year and became effective from December 16, 1972, elections of first Jatiya Sangsad (JS/National Assembly/Parliament) was held under this constitution. The AL, again won an overwhelming majority in the first JS. However, the process of democratization was seriously disrupted in August 15, 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated along with his family members. After long years of army rule by two generals, General Zia and General Ershad democracy was restored in 1990s. By that time, however, Bangladesh polity and society became highly fractious, polarized and violence ridden, making it extremely difficult for democratic institutions to take root and effective in bringing order and stability in the country. Bangladesh had to fight against, first Pakistan’s attempt to marginalize East Pakistan, and subsequently a military dictatorship, which was not only brutal but also left some impact on the Bangladesh society in the form of Pakistani collaborators and fifth columnists, religious obscurantism and more importantly an authoritarian tradition, which became evident when pro-Pakistani elements within the army assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and reversed the process of democratization and secularism in the country, forcing the proponents of democracy to mount their struggle against authoritarianism and military dictatorship afresh, They succeeded in the 1990s and the process of institutionalizing democracy is still going on against many odds mentioned above.”

For students, academics and researchers… of Bangladesh’s politics and democracy for the first about 4 years after Bangladesh was born and ruled by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and from 1991 to till date is required extensive reading, the book is worth in its weight in gold in Professor Arun’s book. As Davidson notes, Bangladesh’s democracy and its institutionalisation, as in so many other places are an “unfinished process” and its future will be determined by its people and its leaders. The book helps us to understand these prospects and possibilities. The book is his PhD dissertation obtained from the University of Dhaka in 2002.

Reading is an exercise in empathy. To read is to enter another world in a way different from any other art form. The reader is actively participating, activating the pages of a book simply by picking it up and beginning. The book testifies the struggles for democracy and its institutionalisation in Bangladesh. 

Prof Dr.  Arun Kumar Goswami is a renowned teacher in Bangladesh. There are the words that he personally found most inspiring, all gathered in one place in his book. The book also includes some delightful and inspiring thoughts and ideas for institutionalization of Democracy in Bangladesh. The strengths of the book lie in them.

-The End –

The writer is an independent political observer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, against war and violence, current and international affairs and does review of books.

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