In Search Of Roots

Bangladesh–Behind the Blinds

Sandeep Banerjee

Mukto-mona website recently published two commentaries by activist Ms Rafida Bonya Ahmed, wife of slain blogger Professor Avijit Roy. One article ended with a paragraph that tells, "Bangladesh—the world's eighth most populous country, with the fourth largest Muslim majority population—could very quickly become a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, despite its long history of secular tradition. Remember, there is poverty, growing income inequality, the impact of global consumerism, a large segment of the population without any secular education, constant political feuds and regular injections of extremist Wahhabi culture that extremists can eyploit. All these factors could tilt Bangladesh toward Islamic fundamentalism if the Bangladeshi government and the secular community do not take immediate action against : the growing trend of Islamic militancy". In another one she warns, "...The increase in global wealth is outpaced only by the widening income inequality, with this much global wealth we still have a large population in the world living under the poverty levels. The implications of modern day imperialism taking new and more dangerous forms every day.... Between the availability of Islamism locally, religion based local politics within these countries by the ideologically bankrupt and corrupt governments and the support from the powerful nations for political and economic gain, poverty, unemployment and lack of secular education, imperialism—the anger over the unjust global political and economic actions—religious fundamentalism and ideologies have been flourishing.

These are indeed some issues that people encounter only seldom in the popular discourses on rising fundamentalism in Bangladesh. But one may start exploring these issues, however sketchily, incompletely and disjoint at the outset.

In Bangladesh top 5% of the population earn more than bottom 50% together as per report of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics issued in 2015. In a country where millionaires abound and even billionaires, not just Taka Billionaires, but also $ billionaires, the average income of the bottom three-fourth of population is Taka 7000 (in 2010 which was Taka 4560 approx.). Jute workers and textile workers used to get less than that amount.

'Pukka' roofed houses (using brick/cement) are 3.65% among all in rural areas and less than 30% (28.71%) in urban areas, the national average being 10.37%. A quarter of households live in houses with 'pukka' walls. Only 10.62% of households get piped water from some water supply source. 55.26% households have electricity connection. More than 65% of rural households own less than half acre (i.e. less than 0.202 Ha or 1/2 bigha for 1 bigha =1600 square-yard) land; about 59% of operated holdings too are of same size. And about 1.7% of such households have any 'pukka' room in their dwelling units. Literacy (of persons of 7 years old and above) in rural areas is 58% and in urban areas 71%; among males 61% and among females 55%. Persons with Secondary or higher education are 8-9% in villages and 22-23% in towns.

Professor Azizur Rahman Khan (Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of California, Riverside) presented a more recent picture, that of 2014, at the June 2014 Dhaka conference of Bangladesh Economists Forum in a paper titled "Inequality in Bangladesh" using 2014 WDI data from World Bank. There he presented pictures of, as if, two different countries inside Bangladesh. The table is taken from that lecture :
Immigration is a route to escape poverty. A Saudi job, job in the Arab world, is like a dream to many. Europe, America are heavenly destinations. If you cannot manage that far, then try India. In 2008 alone 880,000 persons went immigrated (that is more than 6 in every 1000 persons). In a 6-year period, in between 2006 and 2011, more than 3,500,000 persons went abroad and only about 500,000 returned home; so in this 6-year period a net of 3 million persons or about 2% of the Bangladesh population moved abroad. This is the picture of regular, legal immigration. There are risky illegal ways too. Hundreds of illegal immigrants or refugees die ferrying dangerously the Mediterranean Sea, or the riskier Bay of Bengal or elsewhere; only when scores or hundreds die together in a mishap, that becomes a news.

1947 gave two countries partitioned on the basis of religion. But almost from the onset the 'East' could not reconcile fully with 'West'. East Pakistanis had some dissonance with their West Pakistani counterparts. The conjunction of Bengali self and the Muslim identity in East Pakistan or East Bengal gave rise to some complexity hitherto unknown to rulers of Pakistan and unknown also to many.

The Language Movement of 1952 in East Bengal became a glaring portrayal of National Problem and national movement in a Multi-National country like India or Pakistan (or erstwhile USSR, Yugoslavia etc.). What developed from protest over imposition of Urdu as the National Language of Pakistan soon grew up to a mighty movement for mother tongue, and its martyr day, Feb 21, was later accorded the 'International Mother Language Day' status by the UNESCO in 1999. Subsequently, within a couple of decades, a 'Nation State' of Bengalis, Bangladesh, was born declaring independence from Pakistan, the seeds of which were perhaps sown by that 1952 movement.

In the elections in erstwhile East Pakistan (or East Bengal) regional party/parties (or rather parties controlled by Bengalis) almost always scored far better than parties like Muslim League or East Pakistan wing of Jamaat-e-lslami Pakistan. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, ex-Prime Minister of Bengal (British India), who also had a United Bengal project (a separate country—Bengal, without division, after British withdrawal) along with Sarat Bose, left Muslim League after partition and joined Awami League. He subsequently could become PM of Pakistan, though only for a short period before being forced to resign by the military and get banned from public life. In the general election of 1970, Awami League swept the election in East and thus became the majority party. The openly religious parties got less than 6% of all polled votes. The Junta however was not ready to concede power to Mujibar Rahman of Awami League. Soon there was a 'war of liberation' (from March, 1971) that ended in the creation of a new country Bangladesh.

The liberated country declared itself as a secular state. Jamaat was against the liberation war; it was banned. However, the last period of Mujibar's premiership was controversial to say the least. That rule came to end by a bloody military coup in 1975. Later, in 1977, some sort of stable government was formed that was led by General Zia. And all through this discontent and turbulence, the country rulers slowly gyrated towards de-secularisation. The same process continued under different rulers till electoral parliamentary democracy was reintroduced in 1991. In 1991 a more or less fair election was held. BNP led by Begum Khaleda (widow of General Zia) got 140 out of 300 seats. Awami League led by Mujib's daughter Hasina got 88 seats, albeit racing very close. On the other side, Jamaat improved their score a lot, securing 12% of votes they got 18 seats. BNP made a coalition with Jammat to form a government. Jamaat which once was against the liberation war, thus officially entered the power structure as a government partner, though, such parties, always have some invisible links within the state structure in almost all counties where they exist. Since then Jamaat is a BNP ally.

Last December the SOUF AN Group published—"Foreign Fighters—An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq", which presented latest data on number of ISIS recruits from different countries, where Tunisia tops the list. How this is to be explained? The First elected president of Tunisia (after Ben Ali's overthrow by the first successful "Arab Spring" mass upheaval) explained to the Wall Street Journalist six months back : "Why do we have educated people, people with jobs, who go to ISIS? It's not the matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream- and we don't. We had a dream- our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate".

A vacuum in the sphere of what can loosely be called ideology was perceptible since late 1980s. Whether that was visible palpably in the post-Mao days, e.g. through the Persian revolution maturing into Enqelab-e Eslãmï in 1978-79, is a completely different subject beyond the scope of this article. Bangladesh and all countries of South Asia were experiencing the same—the decay of the so called 'left' forces, their compromise with the new global order, their becoming redundant and etc, vis-a-vis increase in popular base of pro-religious/religious right forces. Demolition of Babri Mosque in India and the ensuing 'riot' by the Hindutwa-right helped the Islamic-right to grow enormously in the subcontinent. Similarly the acts of Taliban and Al Queda helped the Hindutwa-right of India. On the other side, by petty reformism, taking side of the rulers, corruption of leaders and many other vices, the 'left' forces were able to lose force of attraction by and large.

If the final phase of the 'cold war' (which was actually hotter than inferno in the war theatres, say, in Asia) gave rise to forces like Mujaheedins, who due to their fight against Soviet invasion were great friends of the USA, the post-cold-war invasions, devastations of the combined 'West' gave rise to Al Qaeda et al. Baghdad and places which were once centres of 'civilisation' and Enlightenment were all trampled literally in consecutive wars of New World Order. In the new millennia the USA forwarded the theory of Creative Chaos (and Destruction) and one of the resultant by-products was ISIS. The ruthless cruelties and devastations of the neoliberal wars were kept buried by a consensus-blackout of the media those were scenes sometimes severer than what the deeds of the avenging terrorists nowadays. Such scenarios, if happened some 50-100 years ago (for example in the days in between WW1 and Vietnam war), could make the ground for revolutionary emotions to blossom, in this neoliberal world are producing things very different.

The neoliberals are busy burying 'ideology', 'ethics', not only 'history' in their great march against 'absolutist' 'narratives'. Globalisation is crushing local, regional, national, ethnic etc cultures by media steamroller. Consumerism, blatant and vulgar display of opulence, Commodification of almost everything—all these together produce, simultaneously, allurement for a section of the society and also abhorrence among some other sections.

Can there be an explanation to the present events of Bangladesh without delving deeper into the economic, social, political and cultural-ideological domains!

The toilers were left to rot, to be wrung by the 'economy' and they can become a subject of discussion to the upper echelon, intellectual or whatever, if they die in hundreds together. For 'low key' 'events', why bother! How many months have passed since this? "...published: April 11, 2016: They took position on the Notun Rasta Mor, Alim Jute Mill gate, and JJIR gate in Nawapara, halting vehicular and rail movement on the Khulna-Jessore highway. Khulna Railway Station Master Kazi Amirul Islam said rail communication of Khulna with other parts of the country remained suspended since 6am as the workers took position on the railways.... The CBA and non-CBA Oikya Parishad of the seven jute mills—Crescent Jute Mills, Platinum Jute Mills, Khalispur Jute Mills, Star Jute Mills, Eastern Jute Mills, Jessore Jute Mills and Carpeting Jute Mills—have been observing a strike since April 4. So thousands of workers were on strike for more than 1 week, and that was not a passive strike. Eventually on May 9 this year people heard that "jute mill workers to get all dues". But how it will be done? That newspaper stated: "Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) has sold its 10.33 bighas of land in the capital's Gulshan for Tk 1,000 crore..." And "Currently, Italian Embassy, Italian Club, and a bungalow used by the BJMC Chairman are situated in the land." "We have requested the Italian Embassy and the Italian Club to shift their offices as soon as possible." Remember the Italian things in Dhaka's posh locality Gulshan..., do you? Something happened there only some 7-8 weeks later? Prime property worth thousands of crores of rupees extracted from surplus value from workers over decades and decades were 'sold' to pay the workers their own dues! But was this at all a 'remarkable' issue at all to attract the eyes of the juries or sermon givers!

Bangladesh 2014, Few Social Indicators for the Poorest & Richest Quintiles


Poorest 20%

Richest 20%

Child malnutrition rate



Infant mortality rate



Total fertility rate (How many children a woman gives birth to in her total fertile life)

>3 (3.1)

<2 (1.9)

Teenage mothers as % of teenage females



Percent births attended by skilled health staff



Primary school completion rate



Vol. 49, No.9, Sep 4 - 10, 2016