Bangladesh: Challenges Within and Without
Shahedul Anam Khan
Not many would disagree that the ‘twin challenges, institutionalization of a democratic order and at the same time attaining a target rate of economic growth for development,’ (Moudud 1995: xi) pose the most insurmountable impediment to the development efforts of this country of 150 million. The internal challenges for a country, predicated largely on the internal compulsions that stem from socio-political-economic developments, and the strategic or external challenges are influenced by one another, and the responses are determined by their interplay.
The internal dynamics can always be externalized, particularly in South Asia. Its unique features, the commonalities of the countries’ history, religion, culture, and basic ethos, make this possibility even more real. And when certain developments in one country come to be perceived by another as a potential threat to it, the situation is made even more complex, and the solution rendered more difficult, if not altogether impossible. That is when the realist in us gets the better of the idealist, and solutions based on statistical perceptions dominate our reactions. This reinforces the argument that we in South Asia must approach problems with a common understanding and with the mindset that although not all problems are externally generated, we need each help from others, nonetheless, to resolve them.
But, there are challenges too that originate from the region and beyond. In the case of Bangladesh the fact that it has virtually a single neighbour has both a positive and negative side. The source of challenge or conflicting issues is only one, and by the same token the advantages of a single neighbour predominating Bangladesh’s calculations in determining its responses to issues that relate to national interests are many.
Needless to say, an economically strong country is better placed to address the challenges. Its economic strength accords the flexibility and the manoeuvrability it needs in this age of globalization that makes interdependence a sine qua non for development. But political independence loses its meaning in the face of dictates from the international financing institutions which prescribe the formulation and implementation of indigenous economic policies.
On the other hand, economic development is meaningless without distributive justice. The non-egalitarian character of our society is a recipe for implosion from within, which no force can contain, much less cure. Poverty is the major challenge to a developing society and Gayoom has hit the nail on the head with his comment, ‘It will never be enough, or indeed good enough, for the small states to be just well defended bastions of poverty’ (Khan and Kabir 1987: viii).
Added to the impoverished social condition and the ever-present economic problems are the constant political turmoil and man-made tragedies that make the challenges for Bangladesh more insoluble. Political flux has helped the germination of obscurantist and religious radicals, although this is not unexpected, given the message that the US global war on terror has conveyed to Muslims the world over.
Meanwhile, the changed paradigm of challenges to a country’s interest, compelled by the end of the Cold War, has caused the focus to shift from the traditional way of looking at security to a holistic treatment of the challenges. Although the issue is still predominated by the realists, there is the alternative security paradigm based on the liberal school, which envisages a world order based on order and cooperation (Stares 1998: 11–23). And that is the primary objective of Imagine a New South Asia (INSA), which must be seen to its conclusion.
This merely brings into prominence the fact that countries, particularly developing ones, face various challenges in the march towards fulfilling their economic, social, and political goals with the full participation of the people. While, as we have seen, these challenges occur both from within the country and from outside, it is the challenges within that some see as more deleterious to national interest. Very seldom can a country project a strong position in its international dealings or afford itself more diplomatic space for manoeuvring because weaknesses at home invariably result in curtailing one’s capacity to formulate robust and resilient policies (Huq 1993: v–x). This chapter will provide an overview of the internal and external challenges that face Bangladesh, with some suggestions to overcome those.
Part I: Internal Challenges
Bangladesh is the first country of the post-colonial period to have achieved independence through a civil war, but even after almost four decades of throwing the Pakistani occupation forces out it is still in the process of discovering itself. Lawrence Ziring couldn’t have been closer to the truth when he wrote that the land remains in a painful state of political gestation (Ziring 2003: ix). That was said in 2003; in 2009 we are still in a very fluid state politically. Internal dynamics, compelled by poor governance and failure to strengthen the state institutions, have thrown up challenges which influence various facets of the state structure and its institutions.
If, ‘Security means protecting the people’s life from various types of threats’ Tanak 1996), what are the likely challenges that we might have to encounter in the foreseeable future? Keeping in mind the pitfalls of enlarging the footprints of our security discourse, five major areas that might pose a challenge to Bangladesh’s national interest may be identified, as Barry Buzan (1991: 112–3) has suggested, namely, socio-political, economic, military (or external/strategic), and environmental.
Contradictions in Nation-state. Bangladesh was already a nation before it gained statehood. Some aver that the birth of Bangladesh was the mutation of an ethnic unit, which was on the verge of attaining nationhood in the 16th century, to a state in 1971 (Ramakant Mukherjee, quoted in Mohsin 1992: 59). But regrettably, we are still to solidify as a state. The internal contradictions and the cleavages at belie the fact that at birth Bangladesh was one of the most homogenous states. The fissure has widened with time, mainly due to the ineptness of the political leader-ship in working towards transforming the nation into one whole entity. In fact, if anything, the divide was exploited for political gains.
Needless debates continue to be generated on issues like whether we are Bengali first or Bangladeshi, whether it is the Muslim identity of the majority population that should have primacy over our national identity. Some are not fully convinced that with Bangladesh emerging as an independent country, the rationale of the two-nation theory stands disproved on the ground that the Pakistan movement was more a political than an ideological one, for the restitution of the interest of the Muslim minorities in India, and which has been reinforced by the birth of Bangladesh.
The secular versus non-secular debate occupies the time of scholars, politicians, and civil society alike. Bangladesh had shed the secular character of its constitution by making Islam the state religion. This was perhaps compelled by, as one scholar puts it, ‘two themes most important to the hearts of Bangladeshis—an assertion of the distinctiveness and the fear of domination’ that necessitated the expression of the ideological dimension of its nationalism (Mohsin 1992: 63). But whether merely enunciating principles like secularism in a country’s constitution makes it really so, is a matter of debate too. Examples abound where a concept has not found resonance with the majority and, in spite what the constitution lays down, in a democratic dispensation, secularism may lose out to majoritarianism. Gujarat in India is a case in point.
Not unexpectedly, the issue has spilled over to the political plane too where parties are now influenced by the conflict between the secular and the non-secular debate. This, many feel, will be the most important factor in defining the future character of the state of Bangladesh. The political situation, with the two leading parties enmeshed in a confrontational mode over the last 18 years of democratic regime, has allowed the religious parties to strengthen their positions such that they can benefit politically in future elections.
But unfortunately, religion has been exploited by both the major parties for political gains. While the last government was a coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), its other constituents were the religious and right of centre parties. The Awami League (AL), the so-called upholder of secularism, had no qualms either in going for a joint political programme against the BNP during its first tenure in office, or injoining hands with the Jamat-e-Islami.
Democracy never got a chance to flourish in Bangladesh. The democratic rights for which Bengalis fought the Pakistan establishment were trampled upon with the establishment of one-party rule in January 1975. The military intervention and pseudo-democratic rule that the country endured from 1975 till 1991 all but destroyed its political institutions. But even more a matter of regret is the way the two major parties, that have been alternately in power all these years, have chosen to conduct politics and practice democracy. This has led to situations marked by mutual hostility, manifested in the confrontational politics that had at one time made the prospect of direct military intervention very real indeed.
But the political vacuum in 2007 (there being an unelected caretaker government at the moment), exacerbated by the government’s efforts to get rid of the leaders of the AL and BNP, has divided the political parties down the centre between the reformists and non-reformists Some political observers feel that the current flux would only help the religious parties, who have not been scalded by the current turmoil, to fill the gap.1
Bangladesh is going through a very complex situation that may well determine the course of the country’s democratic future, if it fails to devise appropriate means to deal with it. The impact of the recent political turmoil has been very damaging, both economically and politically. Which one of the two is worse, is difficult to determine at this time. But while the economic setbacks can be reasonably compensated by undertaking appropriate economic policies backed by sound monetary and fiscal measures, though many of the related factors may not be entirely within one’s control, the political imbroglio will need tremendous acumen and sagacity on the part of all concerned to prevent extra-constitutional arrangements from hijacking the democratic rights of the people.
Bangladesh has been at the top of the Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries consecutively for at least the last five years. With the shocking cases of corruption coming to light, that involve civil servants to ex-ministers to Central Bargaining Agents (CBA) leaders, and even kanungos (persons dealing with government land), the premise correlating poverty and corruption and the social position of a person has been thrown overboard. The common feature is the lust for money which is the root of all evils, a gospel truth that finds veracity in Bangladesh.
Social scientists argue that it might not be possible to eliminate the scourge entirely from our country, and in the short term we may have to keep it at an endurable level till there is a pathological transformation in us. This is a commentary on the real state of our psyche, which takes corruption and dishonesty as normal phenomena. We are quite happy to coexist with those who are corrupt and dishonest. Corruption is not unique to Bangladesh. It occurs in most countries, both developed and developing. With us, it has swelled over the years till it has become a way of life. And it has snowballed primarily because of the culture of impunity. Dishonesty goes right up to the top of the hierarchy of the ruling elites.
In Bangladesh, corruption has been a low-risk high-gain enterprise, with nothing to lose and everything to gain. And social scientists see, too, a difference in the consequences of corruption at lower levels and that in the higher echelons of the government and bureaucracy. It is in the high places that decisions and policies relating to national issues and national interest are made, that can be derailed by the craving for self-aggrandizement; those driven by greed can hardly differentiate between the self and the nation. This has been exposed through the many corruption cases that are now under investigation.
And what is the impact in pure economic terms? According to a World Bank Report, if corruption in Bangladesh can be kept at ‘acceptable’ level it would add between 2–3 percent to the country’s GDP. Currently, the GDP is around 5 per cent and the per capita income about US$482. With the added 3 per cent and a per capita income of around US$800 Bangladesh can graduate from a low-income group to a mid-level income country (Prothom Alo 2007: 11).
Illegal Weapons and Societal Violence.
There are many causes for the proliferation of illegal weapons and increased societal violence, but an important one is the inability of the state to guarantee security to the people who then seek alter-native security guarantees which lead to the demand of small arms (Christopher Louise quoted in Behra 2003) and most come illegally. But illegal weapons do lead to violence and criminalization of society, although the reverse causality may also be true. The impact of this phenomenon has been most severe on Bangladesh society. Nobody is sure as to even the rough figure for the number of illicit weapons in the country. Bangladesh is also a conduit of illicit weapons, the nature and configura-tion of its land and sea borders making it particularly vulnerable to illegal arms and drugs dealing.
A report published in The Netherlands, A Cocoon of Terror: A Review (2003) has this to say on the situation in Bangladesh:
Bangladesh is on the point of threatening the region, the Indian subcontinent, and far beyond if left unchallenged. Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant Muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups, a powerful military with ties to the militants, the mushrooming of Islamic schools churning out radical students, middle-class apathy, poverty and lawlessness—all are combining to transform the nation.
This followed the report on Bangladesh by Bert Lintner in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2002. What had been a matter of inference and supposition thus far has now come to be proved with the Jamat-ul Mujahideen, Bangladesh (JMB) and Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI (B)) exposing themselves in 2004 and 2005. That there were underground radical Islamic militant groups, with the purpose of establishing a theological state through violent means, has been finally exposed through the almost 500 near-simultaneous bombing in all the 64 districts save one, on 17 August 2005.
To begin with, the nature, intensity, and scope of religious militancy were nowhere near what were prevalent in India or Sri Lanka and one would have hesitated to characterize the type of terrorism that Bangladesh was experiencing as orthodox terrorism. However, the situation in Bangladesh has undergone a rapid and dangerous transformation over the last several years (Khan 2006).
Although there are no definite indications of any organic link between the radicals in Bangladesh and international terrorist organizations, it is quite clear that there is definitely a synergy between the religious extremists in Bangladesh and other international Islamist organizations, at least insofar as motivation is concerned. These organizations rose from religious obscurantist groups which were given political sponsorship in the then coalition government and used against the leftist political opponents. Some of them have been tried (many in absentia) and sentenced to long-term jail sentences for aiding and abetting militants.2 However the doomsday scenario, presented by some academics and commentators, of Bangladesh becoming a Taliban state and another Afghanistan is highly exaggerated (Karlekar 2005).
In spite of the many hurdles since its independence Bangladesh has made significant strides in the field of human development as its HDI shows. In fact, its record in this field is better than many of its neighbours. But we are still to see the end of endemic poverty, although the percentage of the abjectly poor has decreased, and the number has remained stable. But growth has not led to equal distribution of wealth, thereby escalating the iniquitous social configuration. The rich-poor gap remains very pronounced. Although Bangladesh’s aid-dependence has reduced greatly, the fact that the development partners dictate much of the development work reduces its capacity for independent planning.
Bangladesh’s economic development is linked with the modern trend of globalization. It is going to occupy the unmitigated attention of our foreign policy planners, as has been suggested. Globalization has been viewed differently by different people. Even in Bangladesh, the phenomenon is seen both as a boon and a bane, depending on how one has benefited or been harmed by it. ‘Globalisation is claimed to have brought new benefits and possibilities to national communities through opening markets and exerting pressure upon governments that violate human rights. However, it has also been claimed that globalisation disenfranchises national communities by compromising governments’ ability to control domestic economic, political and social conditions’ (Worthington 2001). The three areas in which globalization has provoked the loudest condemnation are: compromise of national economic interest; compromise of sovereignty; and compromise of national identity (Worthington 2001).
What the West thinks about globalization applies to Bangladesh too. For example, this is what Lowell E. Jacoby, director, Defense Intelligence Agency, USA had to say about the prospects of globalization for his country:
[T]he increasing global flow of money, goods, services, people, information, technology, and ideas remain an important influence. Under the right conditions, globalization can be a very positive force, providing the political, economic, and social context for sustained progress. But in those areas unable to exploit these advantages, it can leave large numbers of people seemingly worse off, exacerbate local and regional tensions, increase the prospects and capabilities for conflict, and empower those who would do us harm. Our greatest challenge may be encouraging and consolidating the positive aspects of globalization, while managing and containing its downsides.3
But there are also double standards here. The West has no problem with the normal market mechanism operating freely, except for the free movement of labour across international boundaries.
Global Warming/Environmental Degradation.
Experts are divided in their opinion regarding the impact of environment on our security. One security expert states, ‘Not all analysts are convinced that there are identifiable links between environment and war or that environmental degradation can lead to serious conflict. Indeed the whole notion of environmental security is contested.’ (Dupont 1998). Another is of the view that, ‘Ultimately states, peoples, and economies, cannot be secure unless the ecosystem is secure.’ (Elliot 1998). It is this conflicting perception that should generate enquiry and discussion on this issue, which, I believe, has far-reaching consequences for our national interest and national security.
The greatest harm done to earth and which has the potential to destroy the world eventually is global warming to which the West is the biggest contributor. In this regard the biggest culprit is the USA, which contributes almost 25 per cent to the GHG effect. Yet, it refuses to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and, in fact, has disassociated with it entirely under pressure from its corporate bodies motivated by shameless consumerist culture.
The potential harm that this can do to us is incalculable. In fact, some view that not terrorism but global warming is the most serious challenge to our existence. For many countries this is the only challenge as far as state security is concerned. In The case of Bangladesh, we are losing 4 per cent of our GDP on account of environmental degradation. The other consequences of global warming like population movement, inundation of large areas (a rise of 1 m in sea level will see a large part of the country go underwater), have serious long-term consequences for Bangladesh.
Although our aid dependence has reduced from around 70–60 per cent in the 1980s to less than 50 per cent now, it still remains a debilitating factor in the planning and execution of not only economic policies but also determining our monetary and fiscal policies. Opinion is divided on whether we can do away altogether with foreign aid in carrying out our development priorities. The fact that our internal savings are low necessitates foreign input to supplement our internal resources.4
Given the fact that not all nations are equally resource-endowed, and also that some of these resources are common, and straddle international boundaries, ‘Conflicts are likely to increase as … resources become scarcer and competition for them increases’ (Elliot 1998). The case in point is sharing of the water of the rivers common to Bangladesh and India. In fact water, or, to be exact, its shortage, will be cause of future conflicts. It is important that Bangladesh, while working out mutually acceptable modalities of sharing water of the common rivers also develops a national capacity to deal with the prospect of water shortage through alternative plans. However, the linking of rivers is not one of the options that Bangladesh is inclined to consider.
Part II: External Challenges
The Global Strategic Situation
The current global security environment is characterized by a unipolar world, with the USSR having abdicated its global role as a balancing if not a global power in 1991, thereby allowing a free hand to the USA to dominate the world. The transformation of the world with the collapse of communism, that gave hope for a New World Order, has now given way to New World Disorder, where international law is interpreted to suit the interests of the great powers and the principle of pre-emption and the threat of use of force have become the norm rather than the exception.
Principles have been purged to give way to the predominance of ‘national interest’ in the planning matrix of powerful nations. Islam has replaced communism as the major threat to the West, and there is a stereotyping of people with a particular dress and a particular way of life. Linked with the West are the international financial institutions (IFIs), like the WB and the IMF whose policies, dictated particularly by the USS, have done more harm than good, whose prescription for good governance it is obligatory for the recipient countries to follow. And their definition of good governance means following their advice of structural adjustments and other prescriptions that generally go against the interest of the country.5
The world has changed since 9/11, not so much in terms what happened in September 2001, but in terms of how the USA and its allies have chosen to pursue their foreign policies, focusing on one ideology as their threat. The so-called war on terror has been used to validate all manner of illegal actions by the USA both at home and abroad. Bangladesh unwittingly became a US partner on ex-President Bush’s war on terror that has thrust the world into terrible uncertainties.
The Regional Environment
South Asia is vested with certain special features of geography and history. The first is the Indo-centricity of the region. This is how J.N. Dixit sums up the reality:
The osmosis of history made India central to the processes of South Asia’s political, strategic, economic and demographic developments because of its territorial size, population, diversities, economic strength, technological capacities and military power. Geography contributed to the process. The borders of other South Asian nation states touch India’s frontiers. None of them however has a direct land, marine or river border with each other. India shares ethnicities, languages, religions and cultural traditions with all the other states of the South Asian region.6
Common borders are the cause of persistent conflict and the cause of externalization of internal problems. India’s regional policy since 1947 and the subsequent ‘Indira’, ‘Rajiv’, or ‘India’ doctrines have caused others to seek countervailing measures.
The change in the strategic climate brought about by the end of the Cold War had very little effect, if any, on the strategic situation of South Asia. This was primarily because the region was only of a peripheral interest to the big powers in their power play, notwithstanding the linkages of the individual countries of the region with the major world powers. Thus, the observation that, ‘In no region of the world do these events appear to have less impact on the fundamentals of the security situation than in South Asia, whether at the inter-state level or intrastate level,’ (Delvoie 1995) is borne out by the current security situation in the region.
The regional situation is largely the product of the global strategic scenario. The present South Asian security environment is less than stable in spite of the appearance of a new dawn in the Indo-Paki relationship, it being the major determinant of regional stability. South Asia has never been a monolithic security construct due to the variegated perceptions of threat and security. It remains the most conflict-prone area, and distrust and the baggage of history continue to be with us. SAARC has not lived up to the expectation of engendering regional amity, and it may be said, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, that this state of flux is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
This region has seen four major wars and the rise of two nuclear powers while remaining one of the poorest regions of the world where more than 50 per cent of the people can barely keep their body and soul together. South Asia is the scene of some violent and long-running ethno-religious conflicts, which have not only regional but also international ramifications. Sub-national/cultural issues straddle the national boundaries and have the potential of adversely affecting the stability of the region. Added to this, the proliferation of small arms, drugs, and terrorism adds to the already vitiated atmosphere.
The situation emerging from the events of 9/11 and the US war on terrorism has changed the relational matrix between the only super power and the two big regional powers. India’s aspiration for a dominant role, not only in the region but also beyond, has received a tremendous boost by its new-formed strategic partnership with the USA, which would like to see India become a world power. As for Pakistan, it has to thank the Afghanistan situation that has twice cast it from the periphery of US strategic considerations, to a frontline state-once in the fight against the Soviets and now in the so-called US global war on terrorism.
Being hemmed by India on all three sides (and of course the Bay of Bengal falls into the Indian Ocean eventually) it is but natural that policy formulations will be largely predicated on how the Indo-Bangladesh relationship develops in the external front, much in the same way as its internal dynamics, in equal measure, dictate Bangladesh’s policy towards its big neighbour.
The strategic location of Bangladesh being what it is—the tyranny of geography making us ‘India-locked’ on three sides—any discussion of our strategic challenges would be predicated on and revolve around our largest neighbour. Insofar as Bangladesh’s geo-strategic importance apropos India is concerned, it is the contiguity with the Seven Sisters of India’s North-East that has accorded Bangladesh the strategic weight. One wonders whether Bangladesh would have attracted the attention from India that it does now, had it been located in any other part bordering India.
The fact that Bangladesh dominates a very narrow point of egress into the North-East, the Siliguri Corridor, is a matter of concern for both the countries, though of course for very different reasons. Thus, for Bangladesh, the prospect of being threatened physically may not necessarily issue from the Indo-Bangladesh relational dynamics.
Bangladesh predominates India’s strategic thinking. According to some observers, it has even surpassed concerns that stem from Pakistan. What engages one’s attention is the fact that Bangladesh has come to be viewed as one of the major threats to India’s security that stems primarily from what India considers as the rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh and its potential to export Islamic terrorism to India, illegal migration, particularly to the Indian Northeast, and the harbouring of anti-Indian elements inside Bangladesh (Saika 2003).
Let us briefly address each of the issues.
For Bangladesh, several issues that have resisted permanent resolution provide great uncertainty in its planning matrix. The issue of water-sharing and the Tin Bigha Corridor, the border issue with 6.5 km of border still un-demarcated, the pressure of providing transit or corridors to India, export of gas to India, and so on., are a few of the challenges that Bangladesh currently faces.
The Indian North-East.
Bangladesh is under tremendous pressure from India which perceives the former as fomenting rebellion in the region. What the Indian establishment seems to overlook is the fact that historically, what constitutes the Indian North-East today had never been a part of India, politically, culturally, or ethnically (Verghese 1996: xiii). The seeds of secessionism predate the independence of India when the Nagas attempted to assert their separate identity. In the words of Eric Forum, the Indian North-East is in a state of ‘malignant aggression’ (Nepram 2001), which is witness to a variety of problems that stimulate terrorism and violence.
Bangladesh is also hard pressed to convince India that encouraging ‘migration’ is not a policy7 of the government of Bangladesh and that the figures of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India are too far-fetched to be accorded any credence. The reality is that the Assamese have long been accustomed to ‘unobtrusive’ migration of non-Assamese, particularly Bengalis who have provided the state with cheap labour for its plantation economy and also with entrepreneurial and professional elite. Since 1970 most of the migrants have been Bengalis. The added element of difference in this case is that the migrants are mostly Muslim. (Morris-Jones 1984).
But what perhaps takes the cake is the allegation, especially from the strategic community, of collusion between the Bangladesh and Pakistan intelligence agencies to foment the unrest with a view to subsuming a part of this area into Bangladesh and carving out a Brihot Bangladesh (greater Bangladesh) in the region (Saika 2003). What India has failed, or been unwilling, to comprehend is that very little strategic dividend would accrue to Bangladesh by its support to the Indian rebels. In fact, Bangladesh is well aware that, if anything, it would be counterproductive.
Nuclear South Asia.
A significant metastasis of the regional strategic scenario occurred in May 1998 when the two regional prima donnas went overtly nuclear. A qualitative change was brought about in the strategic scenario of the region when the two countries graduated from being covert to overt nuclear powers, albeit much to the dislike of the ‘major sinners’. Although nothing apocalyptic has happened between then and now, belying apprehensions of the doomsayers, it did not usher in an era of stability in the region either, as the protagonists of nuclear weapon had predicted it would. What, however, it has induced is the proliferation of arms, particularly of conventional weapons.
Sino-Indian Strategic Equation.
This is also the consequence of the USA’s strategic interest in the region, India being made to play its proxy of balancing China. The impact of this has very grave security implications when taken in the context of the North-East flux as well as the spatial constraints imposed by the Siliguri corridor.
USA’s Global War on Terror (GWOT).
The US policy of ‘you are with us or against us’ has compelled many developing Muslimmajority countries to join the US GWOT bandwagon. These smaller states might have to face serious consequences eventually. Bangladesh’ importance in the US foreign policy dynamics has greatly been enhanced since 9/11. To have a Muslim-majority state with a democratic dispensation as an ally delivers strategic dividends to the USA. But there is disconnect between the government policy and popular perception in Bangladesh with regard to the US GWOT.
Part III: The Way Ahead
There are no two opinions amongst the economists and development strategists that Bangladesh has had very poor foundation for a befitting entry into the 21st century. The popular image of the country abroad is of one that is hopelessly dependent on foreign aid, battered by poor governance, corruption, and, in spite of successive governments-declared concern about poverty, with 40 per cent of the population below the abject poverty line.
Although our growth rate has been respectable, the GNP-oriented development process has failed to remove endemic poverty. Thus, many argue for an alternative development strategy that would focus on human development where training and education need to be matched by the creation of employment opportunities (Ahmed 1994: 1). But our efforts must also be to reduce our aid dependence and to seek, instead, to enhance trade opportunities, which alone can ensure both growth and development.
But internal stability is the imperative factor for proper implementation of development policies, which have been missing for the greater part of Bangladesh’s existence. This was brought home in the last two decades when development plans have not only been thwarted because of political turmoil but many plans have also been discarded when a new government took over. The need is for an end to partisan and confrontational politics. This would necessitate reform of both the political parties and politics, which one can only hopes would come about soon.
The drive against corruption is a dynamic process and calls for a change in our psyche, as well as in the general economic conditions of the people before one can hope to see an end to its pervasive form. What needs to be done urgently is to form appropriate rules to de-link corruption from politics to the extent possible, by making it difficult for money and muscle power to dictate the course of politics.
The politicization of the state institutions for partisan gains, making the Parliament ineffective either due to the unethical use of the force of majority or the opposition’s abdication of the responsibility reposed on them by the voters, MPs furthering their lot rather than that of the electorate—all of these have made a mockery of democracy. There is very little wrong with politics but much with the politicians. And unless there is a qualitative improvement in those seeking public office, politics and the people of Bangladesh will continue to be poorly served. The current complexity must not only be addressed, it must be so done that it would preclude the possibility of the current situation continuing into the future.
As for the rise of radicalism, the causative factors must be identified. Our system of education, international geopolitical developments and the US fight against terror, internal political dynamics, and, last but not the least, the overall economic condition have contributed towards its emergence. We will need appropriate strategies to factor in these compulsions. As regards the external challenges stemming from regional compulsions, it is primarily a case of perception and mindset that has to do with history. Indo-Bangladesh issues are not intractable, although some have been long drawn-out affairs. The need is to generate trust through positive actions and allay the genuine apprehensions of the other.
As for human security, and that is what we are embarked upon to ensure, many of the problems and most of the causative factors would require transnational action, like environment and climate change, much as some would chose to act individually in the light of their national interest. But such cooperation may be perceived to be impinging upon state sovereignty. South Asians would need to shed that perception, but it is the leaders of the region who need to come out of their mental straightjacket first and start thinking on a regional basis.
While Bangladesh is still engaged in its efforts to gel as a nation 38 years after attaining statehood, its internal challenges caused mainly by the misuse of state institutions in a partisan manner, even during the tenure of democratic governments, are preventing it from achieving its development goals. Political strife, with parties in power unwilling to accommodate the opposition, and the opposition choosing the streets rather than the Parliament to ventilate its grievances, has made politics dysfunctional. Caretaker governments not elected but with constitutional sanction, are embarked upon the task of cleansing politics of corruption and the corrupt. They cannot afford to fail.
In the strategic context, South Asian countries have unfortunately been weighed down by the baggage of history. If there is a deficit of trust it stems primarily from how we perceive each other, and that is influenced greatly by our experiences of the past. The Bangladesh-India relationship is unfortunately a captive of misperception and mindset. The bilateral relationship exists on several planes. One is at the official level, driven by the bureaucratic views of things. Another is at the commercial level. The last, the people to people connection, is by far the most vibrant and dynamic. It is this last that we, as a part of South Asia, must enhance in the New South Asia. While ideally a South Asian identity needs to be inculcated fast, it has to be inculcated in the minds of the politicians and the leaders of the countries of the region first. And it is the people’s desire that can provide the momentum for change. There cannot be a new South Asia without involving the people, which is not possible without increasing people to people contact. And that is what INSA must aim to achieve as its first objective.
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