OVER the last few days my thoughts have kept wandering back to George Orwell's 1984. I took this opportunity to refresh my memory of this classic dystopian novel. 1984 is about totalitarianism, which tries to control every aspect of people's lives, including people's thought process and what they believe, even privately. 1984 is set in the late 1940s, but the totalitarianism that Orwell describes is based on the experience of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. 1984 is a description of England under such totalitarianism -- a fictional situation. But 1984 is timeless because such a fictional scenario has often become the reality in many countries in the immediate past.
This brings me to the present and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia. It won't be unfair to describe Bangladesh as a multi-party democracy with free media and thriving civil society, albeit with some serious imperfections. But the recent political behaviour and language in Bangladesh have been irrevocably transformed since the general elections of January 5, 2014. The first anniversary 'celebration' and 'protest' by two main political parties have revealed the 1984 characteristics of our own political landscape.
In 1984 we come across slogans such as War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. In Bangladesh today the equivalent slogans could be Abstention is Democracy, Obsequiousness is Friendship, Leader-worship is Freethinking. January 5 is either a 'Democracy Killing Day' or a 'Democracy Preservation Day.' A political leader is either being provided 'safety' as requested or being 'confined' against wishes. In George Orwell's 1984 slogans were important because the Party used them as a technique to break down the psychological independence of its subjects. The idea is that 'who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.'
The dominant narratives around the 2014 elections, pre- and post- January 5, are worth recalling from the perspective of both the major political parties in Bangladesh. If politicians generally keep repeating certain 'mantras' then they have complete political power over the present. So there will be a time when politicians will announce that 'two and two make five, and we, the citizens, have to believe it.' As Winston, the main character of 1984, thinks after he has been tortured in the Ministry of Love: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? He sits at the Chestnut Tree Café and traces 2 + 2 = 5 in the dust on his table.”
The January 5 elections and its aftermath has badly whittled away the foundational value of any society, that is, trust. The responsibility for the present disturbing state of affair rests with all of us, albeit the lion's share must fall on the shoulders of the politicians as they have been specifically mandated to govern the country. There is a general feeling and growing but clear perception that politicians are not to be trusted. When it comes to 'trust' as an essential foundational value, it can be argued that there is a worldwide crisis. Trust is a declining commodity across the world, and democratic institutions don't necessarily enhance trust, and a case in point is the US. Although the US has had democratic institutions for many decades, interpersonal trust among Americans has declined over the last forty years. This trend is probably true of other industrialised countries, bar certain exceptions. But what is incontrovertible is the fact that this trust deficit is rather acute in the developing countries and the present-day Bangladesh is an appropriate and stark specimen.
So how do we explain the relationship between trust and other factors? Literature suggests certain pointers: the people of rich societies show higher levels of interpersonal trust than the public of poorer ones. Certain conditions encourage distrust, for example, poverty, poor education and quality of institutions. Under condition of extreme poverty, the loss incurred from misplaced trust can be fatal. Devoid of cooperation the main victim is 'trust.' Neither is education per se a driver for trust. “A society's level of interpersonal trust seems to reflect its entire historical heritage, of which her political institutions are only one component” (Warren, Mark E., 1999. Democracy & Trust, Cambridge University Press). The same author highlights two central factors that help to stabilise democracy: a culture of trust and mass legitimacy.
The former is the emergence of the 'loyal opposition.' Instead of seeing the opposition as traitors they need to be seen as trusted players, who will follow the rules of the democratic game. Mass legitimacy or mass support is a critical factor, especially during times of crisis. Democracy will only survive and thrive if it takes root among the public, as democratisation means trusting the public.
Bangladesh is presently very low on trust, which may ultimately give rise to totalitarianism. But as Orwell's predictions did not materialise, and democracy ultimately won in Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Bangladesh will hopefully continue to consolidate its nascent democratic process. Nevertheless, 1984 is a stark reminder that authoritarian governments can easily take hold by way of psychology of power and that manipulation of language and history can be used as mechanisms of control. Citizens will have to be ever so vigilant or else, in the language of 1984, 'Big Brother [will be] Watching You.'
The wrtier is Barrister-at-law (Lincoln's Inn) and Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.