Political Violence, Trauma and Impact on Democracy in Bangladesh


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Sheikh Hasina Wazed, (left – current Prime Minister) and Khaleda Zia (right – former Prime Minister) of Bangladesh


Dr. Kalam Shahed         22 November 2020

Bangladesh has seen numerous traumas arising from political violence in the country. Awami League (AL) hierarchy has been the victim of three major episodes of political violence. These include the 1975 brutal killing of the Mujib family, which was followed by the jail killing of the party’s top leaders in the same year. The last one was the grenade attack on an AL rally in 2004. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had sustained the loss of its charismatic leader in Chittagong in 1980, who was killed by an ambitious military general in an intricate and mysterious tangle of crony conspiracy.

All violent killings, political or non-political, leave behind emotional trails with a noticeable impact on human behaviours in the post-traumatic period. In the realm of politics, these traumas have had a far-reaching impact on the psyche of political elites and shaped their political behaviour towards crime, justice, and other institutions of the state that are deemed to safeguard democracy and public interests. Complicated grief behaviour of those who survived or were affected by political violence remains an interesting and expanding subject of academic scrutiny and research by scholars and neuroscientists.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by witnessing violent deaths can complicate the political philosophy and political actions of democratic party leaders. Insecurity, loss of faith in the institutions of the state, and skepticism about the loyalty and efficacy of the party machinery are some manifestations of leaders experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have suggested that most people can adapt to traumatic loss with a gradual reduction in grief intensity over several months. But for many people afflicted with complicated grief, the grieving and recovery process can be prolonged, and some personalities can be frozen or stuck in a state of chronic mourning for an unlimited period.

Political assassinations ranging from the time of Roman and Arab history to more contemporary killings of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King in the U.S.A., Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi in India, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Anwar Sadat in Egypt, Olof Palme in Sweden, Juan Peron in Argentina, and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan have had a significant socio-political impact in their respective countries, but the subsequent course of national politics was not shaped by their victim children or spouses. Although Juan Peron’s wife, Isabel Martínez de Peron, in Argentina and Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in Sri Lanka had claimed political power after the assassination of their husbands, and Indira’s son,  Rajiv Gandhi, had come to power in India,  their terms in office were comparatively short and they never rose above the decision of the parties they had inherited.

Neurological impacts of trauma appear evident in Bangladeshi political Prima Donnas, Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, the hereditary leaders of Bangladesh, who came to power after the assassination of the two popular leaders – one, was the father of Hasina Wajed and the other, husband of Khaleda Zia. Their claim to power and state resources can be shaped by their inner logic, which is likely but not necessarily, affected by the post-traumatic disorder. None of the leaders sought expert medical treatment after they experienced severe trauma and emotional disorder. No conclusive or scientific evidence can be adduced to connect trauma to their political behaviour, and the comments here are offered based on patterns of visible attitudes, political narratives, decision-making, and the consequential impact on governance. It is argued that suspicion, insecurity and resulting intolerance for political opposition, violence as a means to retain power and privilege often form the inner logic that can shape the ideological discourse and political actions of the affected leaders. They often raise the spectre of internal and external conspiracies against the state to justify domestic repression.

After the brutal assassination of several of her family members, Hasina was practically destitute, living with her family on a paltry handout from the Congress-led government in India. Back into the Bangladeshi political mainstream, while she was the head of the opposition party, a grenade attack in 2004 killed some of her political colleagues and although she had narrowly survived, her eardrums were punctured because of the blast. These are highly traumatic events for any normal person to escape shaping the mental landscape. Her political thoughts and affinity towards violence, corruption, and style of politicking in the country possibly continue to be shaped by the post-traumatic mental landscape and the enduring grieving posture she finds herself in.

Khaleda found an easy entry into the national politics after the assassination of her husband and the political missteps of the military dictator Hussain M. Ershad. Trauma and insecurity led her to depend more on her close family members, particularly on her reckless younger brother, Sayeed Iskander, and her ambitious son, Tariq Zia. Although she was not known for corruption, her unrestrained extended family and their cronies penetrated the institutions of the state, corrupting the democratic road map which became littered with hurdles and setbacks. Vested interests in the military, in return for quick promotions and access to resources, sought to placate her insecure mindset in a post-traumatic grieving process through guarantees against the military coup and political assassination. Some military cronies created an inner core of allegiance and support and touted themselves as Zia bahini, ostensibly dedicated to her political fortunes.

Hasina, now in her fourth term in office as the Prime Minister, has presided over the past two fraudulent elections that saw her continue in office and consolidate power. Although the country has seen a remarkable rise in gross per capita income, the distributive benefits among the masses remain relatively low. The rising tide of corruption is not only engulfing all the state institutions but also penetrating the core of the ruling elites in the country. The democratic gains that were accrued from 1991 to 2006 have smoldered in the rising tide of political oppression. AL stalwarts can not contemplate the peaceful transfer of power through a fair election as they remain genuinely apprehensive of not only losing unfettered power but more starkly, facing future accountability and accompanying political retribution.

Individually, trauma-affected political leaders can be affable and even compassionate, and occasionally respond to organized popular demands. However, their inner trauma continues to survive unhealed and unattended because of the immense political clout they enjoy and the layers of sycophants who fan partisan passions and approve and applaud their actions. None of the two Bangladeshi leaders are crazy murderers like some Arab autocrats and one must be mindful that they themselves were the victims of major political violence in the country. Nonetheless, one question is inevitable: can one expect such traumatized, grief-stricken, overwhelmed leaders to offer electoral democracy back to the country? The next national election is more likely to be a sequel of the earlier two, further riveting authoritarianism and making democratic turnover a far-cry. Moreover, personal hostilities between the two leaders manifest as ingrained, often rancorous, conflict-trapped grief narratives of the two families. The factorial structure of complicated grief and insecurity of the leaders who suffered severe trauma can be irrevocably costly for decision-making at the national level. This is particularly worrisome when such leaders remain unaware of their neurological wounds, they had sustained that can overwhelm rationality in favor of a compulsive search for security and dependency among their intimate and inner circles. For such leaders, distrust for institutions is bound to create deleterious effects on national body politics. Negotiations, compromise, and civil and human rights — quintessence for democracy — often, become secondary, if not irrelevant, for the victims of trauma. When overlap between grief, desire for glory, vengeance, and security becomes the overarching impetus behind political decision-making, it only hastens the decay or death of democratic institutions in the country. The trauma that permeated into two lead political families whose influence over the political landscape of the country is expected to remain undiminished in the foreseeable future, continues to cast deep shadows over the sustenance and growth of democracy in Bangladesh.


The author is an independent security policy researcher based in Canada. Earlier, he taught international politics at the Queen’s and Carleton Universities of Canada.