More than a decade ago in July 2010, I wrote an article titled "When state is the cause of its own insecurity". The piece was compelled by the prevailing political situation at that time. What I tried to convey in that article was that: of all the threats that impact national security and influence the course of politics, the greatest stems from the state itself. That view is not mine alone. The state becomes the cause of its own insecurity because of what it does or does not. When the government of the day errs in its duty to guarantee the basic rights of citizens, state security is endangered. The coercive instruments, though no longer the exclusive monopoly of the state, are wielded with impunity by it—it being answerable to none but to its conscience. Inappropriate reactions to various situations had made the state vulnerable from within.
What I had also ventured to opine was: "In Bangladesh today, in most of the realm of our activities as a citizen, our space has been so severely constrained that it is giving rise to the worry that we may willy-nilly become victims of bad governance, with coercion as the main instrument to keep everyone in line.Particularly when saviours become predators, and the state, whose primary responsibility it is to ensure the physical safety of its people, is unable to ensure that fully, when political space is denied to the opposition and when all types of subterfuges are employed to send an indirect message to the media to exercise self-censorship, inevitably, confidence in the system is sapped. Extreme repressive measures over time become the norm, and the government assumes a repressive disposition and the regime an authoritarian character; all these are recipes for internal flux."
These comments were made during the seminal stages of the second incarnation of the Awami League (AL) as the country's ruler and when the most-detested Digital Security Act had not been formulated, let alone enforced so ruthlessly, nor had the incidences of extrajudicial killings reached such a proportion as it has in recent times. Our prediction about the character of the government has come true in many respects. What we witnessed then was nothing that we had not seen before when the BNP was in power. But the AL returned with a vengeance, and the scale was upped manifold. Most of what one had feared have come to pass.
Bangladesh has slipped one position in the World Press Freedom Index to 146. While we have climbed four notches in the democracy index, there is little to celebrate on that account because Bangladesh is still classified in the "hybrid regime" category, which means that substantial irregularities often prevent the elections from being free and fair, according to a report by the research and analysis division of the Economist Group.
The situation that motivated venting this anguish in writing has worsened further. Trust in democracy and state institutions, regrettably, has sapped. That cannot be a flattering commentary at a time when we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of our independence and the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation, who had fought to guarantee the democratic rights to his people.
What, however, was not covered in the aforementioned article was the harmful consequences of denying political space to the opposition and reducing state institutions to a level where they no longer serve the nation, but instead become the handmaiden of the administration. Three long-term but extremely damaging consequences that result from this state of affairs are: the main opposition party becomes a political non-entity, elections become an exercise in futility for the people with the results a foregone conclusion at the national and local levels, thus causing people to lose faith and trust in politics and the electoral system. It may not be out of place to mention that in spite of the expressed position of the AL about a strong opposition, its actions have betrayed its desire to ensure that the only political party capable of standing up to the AL is turned into a political non-entity. And they have been fairly successful too. But the BNP has its own failings too, which have reduced it to what it is now.
The situation in the political arena—a parliament in whose formation the people had little part, an opposition in the house that partly belongs to the ruling party, the main opposition outside the parliament facing every kind of hurdles in organising politically—is fraught with danger because the sum total of all these is a kind of chemical reaction, metaphorically speaking, that creates a vacuum in the political arena and offers the ground for other elements to rush to fill the void. And the most likely of these elements, who happen to be fairly well-organised, are the faith-based parties, most of whom strut themselves up by aligning with either of the two major political parties. But apart from these, there are religious groups who do not claim to be political organisations, but nonetheless command the support and influence of a large segment of the people in this country. They offer opinions and take positions on national issues that go down well with some sections of society.
Despite claims to the contrary, courting these groups by the political parties and hobnobbing with them to curry their support (since they command large vote banks) is a common political strategy. Compromising with these elements has become a part of the policy for ensuring the perpetuity of political rule.
What political expediency has done is to empower these elements to the point where they now pose as a virtual opposition to the government. National issues with religious overtones are being used to oppose various policies of the government, something that the opposition parties, including the BNP, have not been able to do. What that might eventuate in is that these groups—using the same platform that they are currently using to voice their opinions through the religious lens—will project their views on exclusively political matters through the same lens. The upshot of this is that a time might come when they will assume the mantle of the political opposition and the people might mistakenly take them as alternatives to the traditional political parties. A new force with their own agenda might emerge in the political arena and command the support of a section of the people, with some possibility of changing the fundamental character of politics in the country.
Are we at all thinking about these possibilities?
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.