The struggle to secure governmental power and control of the state; its financial resources, bureaucracy and security agencies through parliament elections has defined Bangladeshi politics since independence. It is a reactive form of politics that encompasses the entire society and defines and negates new forms of politics and political vocabularies. It rests on the ability of the parties and political leaders to mobilise and reward people for participation in confrontational politics.



I VISITED Bangladesh for the first time in 2005. Ever since, I have been intrigued by the people, culture and especially its politics. However, Bangladesh is today a country plagued by human rights violations, enforced disappearances, misuse of authority and endemic corruption at all levels of the state. Ailments intimately connected to politics, political parties and politicians.

In 2012, a study of the 9th parliament concluded that 80% of the members, including ministers, had been accused of influencing administrative work, 75% of misusing state development funds, 70% of involvement in criminal activities, 69% of influencing public procurement processes and more than 75% of influencing educational institutions[1]. This was an increase on all parameters compared to previous studies[2]. It indicates that the problems have increased over time, not decreased with the growth of economy and development of the country. And it appears as if, these practices have been (re)cycled into the political arena, regardless of the particular parliamentarian power configuration or party in power.

Such political practices have endured and proliferated despite public knowledge, pressures and criticisms – nationally and internationally. These practices undermine the path towards democracy which began with independence in 1971 and severely affect the poorest in society by denying equal rights and access to state services. Misuse of authority and political interference in governance is a widespread and everyday practice, integral to politics and government in Bangladesh today [3].

What makes politicians do as they do, despite public knowledge and criticism? And how are people inclined and aligned to these damaging practices? This article looks into these questions and turns the gaze to the making and shaping of young politicians, who over time will populate and manage the state.

Politics and Politicians

Bangladesh national politics is characterised by a confrontational divide between two major parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)[4]. This divide has determined Bangladesh since democracy was reinstated in 1991, after 16 years of autocratic military rulers. Though challenged by the 2006-08 military take-over the confrontational politics reclaimed its defining role on society in the following two elections. It culminated with the 2014 election that was carried through by the AL without the participation of the opposition, the BNP, and widely criticised for not being fair and free. More than 80% voted in the 2008 election, with less than 30%[5] in the 2014 election[6].

The divide permeates society, state governance and is evident in all levels of state administration. Change of government is therefore, not just a change of parliamentarian decision making power but a complete transformation of bureaucracy and administration. Management and leadership are replaced throughout the state, from the police and hospitals to educational institutions etc. Unwanted people are transferred, some resign or are forced to retire and others are selected and promoted on party political affiliations. The underlying logic is, on one hand, to eradicate the traits of the previous government and, on the other, to ensure loyalty and control of key state institutions and agencies.

The confrontational divide is not just a feature of political competition; it is ingrained into and rests on the electoral system. It gets its power from the Westminster model in which the constituencies are the units of voting in head-to-head races where the winner takes it all. In addition, the constitution stipulates that a party member cannot vote against his/her own party. Together this creates confrontational political competition of absolute success or failure and ensures alignment and control of party members by the leadership. On this foundation, consecutive elected governments (disregarding the military dictatorships) have blatantly utilised the parliament to benefit themselves and their allies. The opposition consequently boycotts parliament and resorts to street agitations and mass movements to voice concerns and demands and disrupt society. Democracy only comes to life, has an existence and legitimacy in the actual voting, where all people are respected as citizens and as masses of voters.

The constituencies are the battleground and prize. The elected Member of Parliament controls the distribution of state resources planned for local development initiatives, such as contracts, jobs and promotions within the local administration, and uses this to build support bases and secure vote banks. This ensures party control of state institutions and establishes an opportunity structure for exchanges of favours, distribution of benefits and allocation of rewards. It is a political practice that has grown with democracy during which the two ruling parties have continuously utilised, amended and ignored the legal system for own ends. This kind of politics has created a society based on the rule through law, not rule of law.

The struggle to secure governmental power and control of the state; its financial resources, bureaucracy and security agencies through parliament elections has defined Bangladesh politics since independence. It is a reactive form of politics that encompasses the entire society and defines and negates new forms of politics and political vocabularies. It rests on the ability of the parties and political leaders to mobilise and reward people for participation in confrontational politics. Mobilisation works around the student front organisations at the universities.

University and Parties

Students and student activists have been at the centre of politics, political transformations and state building in every part of the world. Recently, students have been the leading force in attempts to promote democratic transformations in Pakistan, Iran, North Africa and Hong Kong demanding political changes, openness and participation, with varying degrees of success. However, contrary to our normal thinking about young activists as challengers of the established order, the politics of student organisations in Bangladesh are closely connected to party politics.

The most significant events in the national history for independence – the 1952 Language Movement and armed struggle during 1970-71 – were to a great extent organised by students. Student activists mobilised popular national support for self-determination and democracy that paved the way for Bangladesh as an independent state. Since then, universities and especially at Dhaka University has been the key site for incubation of political leaders and popular movements protesting and toppling undemocratic governments and despotic leaders.

Initially, activism was defined by the anti-colonial struggle and, after the partition, by the conflictual relationship between East and West Pakistan. After independence, it was marked by 16 years of military rule and autocracy. With democracy in early 1990s, activism became absorbed into party politics. It was hereafter defined by the confrontational relationship between the two major parties; the Awami league and Bangladesh National Party and their respective leaders; Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The divide arranges the university into two competing and contesting groups along political affiliations[7]. It infuses university staff, students and faculty members at every level. It impacts students’ grades, examination results and directs faculty promotions and appointments. A change of government means a replacement of university leadership with people aligned to the new rulers to control campus, fresh opposition activists and ensures continuous recruitment of young people for party politics[8].

Today, Dhaka University continues to be the hub of student politics and the key site of political mobilisation of young people into the machinery of party politics. Student organisations are seen as the mobilising ‘muscle’ of the political parties involved in unlawful activities such as extortion, violent assaults, killings, riots and clashes. Student organisations are seen as instigators and organisers of violence ordered by the political parties, commonly in the form of general strikes (hartals) where student activists work as ‘picketers’ forcefully closing shops, offices and transportation, including violent assaults on people trying to break the strike or just moving about the city. In the run-up to the 2014 election, at least 3000 vehicles were attacked and more than 500 people were killed in this form of political violence.

The main site for mobilisation of new activists is the campus residential halls, where a majority of the 30,000 students live. The halls are controlled by the student organisation in power. As governments change, supporters of the losing party are evicted from the halls and some expelled from campus. Access to housing and other benefits gained from political involvement is a powerful tool to attract young activists and control the student body because residence and affordable housing is a scarce resource at the university and in the city of Dhaka.

The city grows rapidly in economy and population, absorbing migrants motivated by dreams of prosperity and livelihood. Around 300,000-500,000 people have migrated to Dhaka every year since 1990, driven by the growth of the garment sector creating a range of employment opportunities. The population is expected to reach 20 million by 2020[9]. Land prices have soared and housing is today unaffordable for the majority of the population. 28% of the population lives beneath the poverty line with 47.5% living in slums[10]. In this situation, free housing and cheap meals at the hall canteens is an effective tool to manage and attract students to political activism. At the same time, activism is an opportunity to secure a future of prosperity and safety through political affiliations and party connections.

Activists and Student Leaders

Student politics is an opportunist self-generative and self-interested practice in which the politician with distinct interests, concerns and priorities, balances his own ambitions up against the demands of the organisation and the obligations to supporters, in the competition for higher and more influential positions. In this effort, individual drives, ambitions and aspirations are key motivators, set within a set of rules and procedures of political activism. However, to be an activist with leadership aspirations is not an easy endeavour

mort_art_quote_1Like any other form of political organised hierarchies becoming a successful leader rests on the individual ability to gather and grow a group of supporters. Activists invest themselves into a political relationship with a leader on the prospect of tangible benefits such as money, rewards and opportunities. The leader maintains and rewards the activist in expectation of loyalty and presence. The number of supporters works as a tangible display of popularity and strength. Both of which are crucial to overcome the competition either by appeal or by muscle. Violence against competitors within the organisations is a regular practice, as is violence between the activists of the organisations. In this way, violence is ingrained into political organisation and entangled with political activism. Student activism educates the youth with aspirations to become politicians. It is a risky and uncertain path but the rewards of accessing political power and state resources are tremendous. Success is secured by personal networks and individual patrons underlined by determination and patience. It is not unusual to struggle for 10 years or more to be granted a leadership position.

Student organisations are a micro-cosmos of party politics. All the way up to national politics, it is the responsibility of the successful to take care of supporters and support network. Rewards and favours such as promotions, nominations and contracts are defining features of party politics, government and governance in Bangladesh. Practices that are passed on and learned via political opportunity structures that mobilise, form and pave the way for the coming political leadership and national elite.

Ramifications for human rights improvements

Political leadership is essential in the fight for human rights, against impunity and misuse of authority. However, the global human rights movement attempts to improve state accountability, good governance and rule of law, tend to overlook this area in their focus on documentation and advocacy work, reform of law and institutions and change of practices and behaviour. Cooperation with authorities and institutions based on integrated sectorial and holistic approaches are seen as crucial for success. Reform and training are the conventional tools used to improve legal systems and change unlawful practices within the security sector. Unwillingness on part of the receiving government, targeted institutions or professional groups, is the preferred excuse employed when things are not moving in the desired or projected direction. Lack of resources, be they financial, technical or human, is the recipients answer to the same problem.

Bangladeshi politics illustrates a problem more complicated and indicates that rectifying technical tools might not be adequate to meet the challenge. It tells us two things. First, bad governance, misuse of authority and human rights violations are not singular disconnected entities but interrelated social processes that affects every corner of society. This might appear commonsensical, especially for the people living under such conditions, but as part of the global community of reformers, we rarely act upon this knowledge and change our thinking and activities.

Second, as every person depends on exchange relations and networks for safety, security and livelihood, it appears wishful to expect substantial changes of conduct from within the state system. State representatives targeted in reform and training programmes; judges, prosecutors, police, correction officers or civil bureaucracy, are often well versed in national and international law and human rights. They know the workings of corruption and violence and how it is detrimental to state accountability. Is the problem the unwillingness of the state or the incapability of individuals within the state? Or is it a matter of absent political courage, aspiration and leadership to initiate, stimulate and promote changes, be they legal or behavioural?

In Bangladesh, the confrontational divide and the politicisation of state institutions combined with the parties’ perpetual mobilisation of activists continuously reinforce and reiterate oppressive unjust harmful practices and behaviours. The deep-rooted political culture, that educates and shapes student activists, politicians and bureaucrats in the image of their predecessors somehow negates or nullifies ambitions of improvement. It is nonsensical that the changes and reforms we aim to achieve are political, but our interventions and practices are technical and instrumental — in many cases detached from the grounded political realities.

We should ask ourselves; what is the source of the problem and where is the potential for change? Can we talk about rule of law, corruption and reform without addressing the political dynamics which define the ways in which inequality and oppression unfolds? Can we expect a police officer stop threatening and torturing people or taking bribes through training and education in a system where impunity and rewards are secured through loyalty to the rich and powerful? Without addressing these questions, we cannot expect substantial improvements in the lives of the poor.

Unwillingness and incapability are not explanatory causes of human rights violations, bad governance or corruption but consequences of deep rooted routines, practices and behaviours such as within law enforcing institutions, defined by and through politics and political configurations, to secure livelihood, safety and security.

Morten_Koch_Andersen_prifile_TMMorten Koch Andersen have worked for DIGNITY-Danish Institute Against Torture since 2006 as programme manager for the prevention of violence and rehabiiltation of torture survivors. After achieving his PhD in 2013, he works as a researcher. Currently, he is pursuing post-doc research on corruption and torture in South Asia.

[1] Akram, S. M. (2012) Positive and Negative Roles of the Members of the 9th Parliament: A Review. Transparency International Bangladesh.

[2] Alam, Q. & Teicher, J. (2012). The State of Governance in Bangladesh: The Capture of State Institutions. In South Asia: Journal of South Asia Studies. 35:4. 858-884.

[3] Transparency International Bangladesh (2014). A National Integrity Systems and Context Analysis (NICSA) Study. Transparency International Bangladesh.

[4] Andersen, M.K. (2013. The Politics of Politics: Youth Mobilization, Aspirations and the Threat of Violence at Dhaka University. PhD thesis. FS & Ph.D. Thesis no. 85/2013. ISSN no. 0909-9174. Roskilde University.

[5] The official figures are contested.

[6] More than 90 million are registered as eligible voters.

[7] Other parties, numerous left wing groups and right wing such as Shibir – though it is banned at campus, are present at university but they do not have the same amount of supporters and connections within faculty and politics.

[8] This also happens at other public universities but Dhaka University is the most prominent and politically important.

[9] UN-HABITAT (2007). Global Report on Human Settlements 2007: Enhancing Urban Safety and Security. London: Earthscan.

[10]World Bank (2013). South Asia Population-Urban Growth: A Challenge and an Opportunity. Washington, D.C. The World Bank.