Navigating the Crossroads: Civil Society and the Quest for Democracy in Bangladesh



Why India Needs To Support the Quest for Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh

by Akmal Hossain    9 February 2024

Alexis De Tocqueville, a French political thinker, visited the USA in the twentieth century and found a vibrant democracy there. He realized that a solid and functional civil society made American democracy effective. Political scientists and other social science scholars’ recent research about civil society’s role in democratization is highly appreciated. Daren Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberties explains how a strong and vibrant civil society protects fundamental democratic rights. The authors argue that a “narrow corridor” for political and civil liberties can only exist if the civil society can chain a “strong state.”

It is important to note that civil society’s mobilization was an important source of pressure and inspiration for democratic change in South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Poland, China, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Nigeria, Benin, to name a few. In addition, to challenge autocracy individually and in groups, citizens formed movements, churches, professional associations, women’s groups, trade unions, human rights organizations, producer groups, the press, and civic associations, to name a few, to protect fundamental and other civil rights.

Take the example of Liberia, where civil society played a significant role in the reconciliation process and organized a free, fair, and credible election after a long period of civil war and ethnic tension. Other examples also indicate why a robust civil society matters for a functioning democracy and ensuring other political rights.

From the creation of Bangladesh to the anti-autocrat movement against Ershad in the 1980s and early 1990s, the role of Bangladeshi civil society cannot be denied. University teachers, journalists, rights activists, and other civil society groups played unprecedented roles in securing political rights and the democratic process. Mohammad Rafiq, a Jahangirnagar University teacher, became famous for his poem that shocked then-military dictator Ershad.

However, civil society’s role has changed in the last two decades. At the same time, the term civil society has become an unappealing word to the young generation in Bangladesh. Akbar Ali Khan, a former bureaucrat and a famous writer on the politics and economics of Bangladesh, used the term ‘dushil’, meaning immoral civil society. Even the word has become an “obscenity” to many people. If people do not like someone’s words, say, “do not talk like a civil society here.”

What factors may have contributed to the limited involvement of civil society members in promoting democratization and protecting the rights of the masses in Bangladesh? There are multiple reasons behind this failure. The main reason is the partisan role and self-serving interest. Bangladesh’s civil society has been divided into several groups for their political, religious, ideological, and material interests. Harun Or Rashid, a prominent Bangladeshi scholar on the political history of Bangladesh, argues that “civil society does not exist in Bangladesh.” The reason is that civil society members, if not all, lean toward political parties, either ruling or opposition parties.

Civil society did the worst things by participating in the depoliticization and marginalization process in Bangladesh. Producing continuous speeches, writings, talk shows, and using other ways against politicians, political parties, and politics made the young generation apathetic towards politics. They frequently argue that politicians and political parties are selfish and power-hungry. They do politics for their own sake, not for people’s interest. They do not care about us.

A million-dollar question is, without obtaining power, how can a politician make policies? Power is necessary for politicians and political parties to implement their electoral manifesto, policies, and ideological issues. Therefore, politics for power is a good thing in policy science. However, monitoring political parties and politicians is essential to prevent them from becoming authoritarian.

The consequences of civil society’s depoliticization process are massive. First, the ‘so-called’ brilliant students are less interested in politics and do not join the political process, particularly political parties. Recently, Obaidul Qader, a powerful politician and minister of the ruling party, invited youths to join politics. He argued that politics becomes “characterless” if brilliant youths and honest people do not join politics, civic engagement, and the political socialization process. However, people may criticize his invitation as he ensues politics among the students for political purposes.

Second, due to the massive depoliticization process that has already occurred in the country, the institutionalization of politics and democracy has failed. Institutions are the foundation of democratization as people obey the rules and norms. Politicians and political parties maintain formal and informal rules and regulations, if not all, to uphold accountability and transparency for good governance. It is imperative to remember that establishing political institutions does not come from the sky and must be built by the respective societies and nations.

Bangladeshi civil society’s continuous support for the so-called neutral caretaker government system, an interim government method conducting national parliament elections, has prevented development institutions responsible for organizing a free and fair election. Civil society groups are expected to pressure the political parties to develop an institution, tradition, and culture to advance an electoral system that all will accept instead of depending on an illegitimate form of government.

In the same way, civil society’s failures are visible in other areas of governance, including the judiciary, legislation, executives, rules of law, and control of corruption, to name a few. Fragmented and divided civil society should have put material and other interests in their pockets. Many civil society organizations and members are often reluctant to challenge the government’s decisions even when these decisions are not in the people’s best interest. This lack of accountability has weakened the democratic system, leading to a failure to protect the rights of citizens.

Explaining the drawbacks and failures of civil society’s role in democratizing Bangladeshi politics and institutions does not mean I do not admit their positive roles. These groups could play a more vibrant role in making Bangladesh’s public sphere open, inclusive, and game changer in politics. What factors backsliding them is another vital issue to be discussed and explained. Ultimately, this discussion makes us realize the importance and the necessity of a strong and vibrant civil society to democratize Bangladeshi institutions and politics. In addition, we must reevaluate how to address the obstacles to making a functional civil society in Bangladesh.