Free Shahidul Alam! Authoritarianism and Dissent in Bangladesh

Raihan Ahmed,
Mark Jay

Summary: The recent arrest of the internationally renowned activist and journalist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh reveals the authoritarian character of the Bangladeshi government’s rule. In this article, Jay and Ahmed place the current situation in Bangladesh in its historical context and exposes its deep inner contradictions. — Editors

The Bangladeshi activist and photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested in Dhaka on August 5, as a punitive measure in response to an interview with Al Jazeera in which he allegedly provoked the government’s sensibilities. In fact, Alam provided a critical appraisal of the state’s role in creating an unbearable set of conditions which led to massive student protests throughout July and early August — against perilous road conditions and a rigged quota system that reserves government jobs for those connected with the ruling party. As students and older generations of Dhaka residents occupied the streets, chanting “We want justice”, the government responded with indiscriminate violence. In retribution for his articulate defense of the protests, dozens of plain-clothed government security forces raided Alam’s home, detained him for “spreading propaganda and false information against the government,” and, according to Alam, proceeded to torture him. For more than 100 days, Alam was held in jail for violating Section 57(2) of the Information and Communciations Technology Act of 2006. “It is an open secret,” Rahnuma Ahmed (Shahidul Alam’s partner) presciently observed in November of last year, “that the law is selectively applied —  to silence criticism of the government.” On November 15, Alam was granted bail, and he now awaits a court hearing where his fate will be decided. If convicted, he faces 7-14 years in prison.

Far from being an isolated case, Alam’s plight is symbolic of the greater repressive state apparatus which he has struggled to highlight through his art and journalism. The present situation is emblematic of the threat which authoritarianism poses in and beyond South Asia, with encroachments upon civilian rights buttressed by a propaganda machine oiled by the blood of journalists and independent sources of media content. Throughout Alam’s career, he has targeted extra-judicial state violence and the obstruction of popular democratic processes for exposure through his photographic lens. While human rights and democracy are touted as critical nation-state values in the Global North, the age of the war on terror has provided a context in which de facto autocratic regimes — such as the one represented by the Awami League (AL) party  in Bangladesh — can leverage apparent ideological commitments such as secularism in order to accumulate geopolitical capital on the international stage and avoid censure therein.  In a global climate where fear of Islamist violence and the refugee bogeyman captures the collective political consciousness of the Global North, the Bangladeshi state has exploited their status as the secular option along with the good will earned by taking in Rohingya refugees in order to veil their domestic tyranny.

A recent US congressional report, for instance, writes that, “the United States has long-standing supportive relations with Bangladesh and views Bangladesh as a moderate voice in the Islamic world.” The US has collaborated closely with the AL government in joint “counter-terrorism efforts” that range from training security forces to more systematic attempts to address “the underlying social, demographic, and economic factors that inhibit economic growth and increase vulnerability to extremism.”

Bangladesh is of strategic international importance due to its political status as a nominally democratic state with an impoverished majority-Muslim population, and its economic status as a source of cheap labor and textiles. In other words, the form which its regime’s authoritarianism takes today is an expression of the geopolitical logic of the age of “the war on terror” within global capitalism. In speaking out against the government, Shahidul Alam is a symbol of resistance to this harrowing state of affairs. Alam is one of many Bangladeshi activists currently seeking to combat the suppression of democracy and basic human rights as a precursor to reviving the progressive ideals on which Bangladesh was founded, in opposition to the cycle of authoritarianism and repression of dissent which he witnessed to be returning in full swing.

“Very much larger”

In his pointed interview with Al Jazeera, Alam was asked whether the most recent protests — which were sparked after a bus accident resulted in the death of two students on July 29 —  were just about road safety, or about something larger. “Very much larger,” he responded.

It’s an unelected government, so they did not really have a mandate to rule, but they have been clinging on by brute force. The looting of the banks, the gagging of the media … the extrajudicial killings, the disappearances, the need to get protection money at all levels, bribery at all levels, corruption in education, it’s a never ending list. It’s been huge. So it really is that pent-up energy, emotion, anger, that has been let loose. This particular incident, sad as it is, is really the valve that allowed things to go through.

Alam also drew attention to the state’s violent response to the protests.

The police specifically asked for help from these “armed goons” [the Bangladesh Chhatra League and the Jubo League, the student and youth wings of the AL] to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Today, I was in the streets, there are people with machetes in their hands chasing unarmed students and the police are standing by watching it happen, in some cases they are actually helping it out. This morning there was tear gassing.

To get a sense of the material conditions of the recent protests, and of the state’s authoritarian response to any and all criticism, requires a brief detour into Bangladesh’s political and economic history.

In 1971, after the bloody civil war that ushered in Bangladesh’s independence —  in which, according to official estimates, 3 million people died — the Awami League ascended to power under the banner of “nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism.” In a gesture to its socialist base, which included strong workers’ and students’ movements, the AL nationalized many sectors of the economy. But far from spreading the gains of the economy to all Bangladeshis, the nationalization program did little more than set up a patronage system in which AL politicians appropriated the country’s wealth for themselves and their allies. The AL was quick to alienate its political base, and it used violence —  often murderous — to quell dissent. In 1975, amidst growing social turbulence, pro-US right-wing forces murdered AL leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family.

With the help of Western governments, General Ziaur Rahman emerged victorious after the coup. Ziaur removed the ban on religious-based political parties, and relied on Islamist militias and Western security forces to silence criticism of his regime. The general accepted IMF loans, privatized national industries, and opened his country to foreign trade. In 1981, in another bloody coup, Ziaur was murdered, and General H.M. Ershad assumed power. Ershad continued Ziaur’s precedent, using strongman tactics to silence his critics, and relying on foreign aid to develop the economy. After the IMF instituted a Structural Adjustment Program in 1986, Bangladesh’s resources and its people were increasingly prey to the whims of global capital.

In 1990, protests against Ershad’s military regime reached a fever pitch, with hartals (mass protests that shut down private enterprises and public spaces) occurring across the country. Ershad responded with deadly force, and in one incident, an army truck ran over a group of protesting students. But activists were undeterred, and sustained protests forced Ershad’s resignation later that year. Thus, after fifteen years of military rule, there was a return to civilian rule.

Since this time, Bangladesh has gone back and forth between being ruled by two political parties: the AL, a secular nationalist party led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is led by Khaleda Zia, the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, and has close ties to the military and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the largest Islamist party in the country.

Throughout the past few decades, both parties have consistently been on the take. Nepotism, bribery, and the looting of public coffers has been rampant. Each party has resorted to violence to destroy their political opponents, and, in actuality, the armed forces have never been too far removed from the administration of civil society. In 2008, the AL won the parliamentary elections in a landslide, and the discredited BNP responded to this rout by claiming the elections had been rigged. In subsequent years, Hasina and the AL have attempted to gain popularity and sublimate political anger by initiating a tribunal to prosecute criminals from the war of independence. The prosecution of religious figures found support particularly due to a public fear of the relatively recent threat of Islamist violence, the worst cases of which included Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh’s (JMB) nationwide detonation of over 400 bombs in one day in August 2005.  Many have cast doubt over the fairness of the tribunal, however, as the AL have used the proceedings to consolidate power by targeting political enemies in the BNP and JI. With the urging of the latter parties, people increasingly took to the streets in violent protest, and the AL responded with severe repression.

In 2013, the AL-dominated parliament amended the Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006 to “tighten controls on dissent in the electronic media.” The following year, the AL government created a national broadcast commission tasked with “prohibiting content contrary to the ‘public interest’ that undermines the reputation of the army and law enforcement agencies or harms relations with ‘friendly countries.’”

After the AL government banned the JI from participating in the 2014 elections on grounds of anti-secularism, the BNP opted to boycott the election, with the result that the AL took 280 out of 300 parliamentary seats. Thus, the two party system in Bangladesh has given way to a one-party autocratic rule. The ousted parties called on their supporters to participate in widespread hartals against the government, and the AL has responded in violent fashion. In the past five years, the facade of democratic rule has been lifted, as over a thousand people have been killed in political clashes. Under the ideological cover of a draconian “war on drugs” — in which more than 24,000 people have been arrested and hundreds have been killed in May and June of this year alone — critics of the government have been rounded up en masse.

Despite their ideological differences, both the BNP and the AL have shown an important similarity: both parties have advanced an economic agenda that has rendered Bangladeshis vulnerable to the incursions of big capital. And the effects on Bangladeshi workers have been disastrous.

After decades of privatization schemes, land grabs, and deforestation, the situation for rural Bangladeshis has become dire. State-run modernization projects like the coal-based power plant at Rampal, along the Sundarbans forest, are implemented at the whim of ruling elites. The resultant environmental degradation and dispossession are dismissed as “collateral damage”, and protesters, such as those participating in the nationwide Save Sundarbans resistance-movement, face indiscriminate attacks by police and private militias. As Maha Mirza writes

the state continues to be obsessed with big development projects and paid experts; coal plants, fly-overs and nuclear power plants have become the core development vision of our middle class mindset. Cafes, billboards, ramp models, peri-peri chicken restaurants, and imported hot dogs have become our ultimate emblems of modernization. Farmers, villagers, labourers, and poor communities, in this process, are perceived to be the ‘un-modern’, ‘un-civil’ roadblocks to our unstoppable path towards progress.

The dialectic of dispossession and repression has been unfolded for decades now, with the result that 82% of rural Bangladesh households are now “resource poor,” and 57% are completely without land of their own. Furthermore, Bangladesh is one of the “most climate vulnerable countries in the world”, and there is a strong link between global warming and the rampant riverbank erosion which has displaced thousands of Bangladeshis.

The devastation of the countryside has led to a serious uptick in internal migration to cities, with Dhaka, the largest city in Bangladesh, being the major destination. The city’s population has grown exponentially in recent decades, from around 1.5 million at the time of independence to 6.6 million in 1990 to more than 21 million at present in the greater Dhaka area, making Dhaka the world’s most densely populated mega-city (more than 75% more densely populated than Hong Kong). Most residents in Dhaka dwell in slums where, due to government neglect, conditions are generally deplorable. There is limited access to healthcare, and educational opportunities are few and far between. A third of the population lacks access to electricity, and most people are forced to use unsanitary water to wash and clean. More than 60 percent of Dhaka residents are forced to dump their garbage in the street, only 20% have access to sanitary latrines, and nearly 90% of homes lack an underground drainage system.

This must be understood in the context of the more general poverty in Bangladesh. 43.3% of Bangladeshis earn less than $1.25 per day; 75.8% earn less than $2 per day. Job scarcity in Bangladesh is such that the number of workers abroad exceeds the number of domestic factory workers. The domestic economy relies on remittances from the millions of Bangladeshis currently living abroad, working as guest workers or day labourers in conditions that are generally demeaning and dangerous.

Workers who remain in Bangladesh are prey to all forms of economic exploitation. Most of this exploitation occurs in the informal sector, which employs 47% of the country’s labour force. Lacking legal and social protections, informal workers are precarious in the deepest sense of the term. The government has done little to address perilous work conditions that caused 1,240 Bangladeshis to die at work in 2016. One official solution to widespread economic vulnerability is “micro-credit.” However, as Anu Muhammad has argued, though this financial scheme is hailed by the non-profit industrial complex, micro-credit is better understood as an attempt, administered by global elites in conjunction with the Bangladeshi middle class, to expand capital’s tentacles into the huge untapped market of the country’s informal economy. Indeed, micro-credit’s record when it comes to poverty alleviation is dubious. At least 60% had to borrow more money from local money lenders to repay their official loans. Many more were forced to sell off assets, even their own organs. Bangladeshi activist Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad has drawn attention to this “cycle of debt”, and called micro-finance a “death trap” for the poor.

In the formal sector, Bangladesh’s economy is driven by the garment industry, which increased its exports from $116 million in 1985 to more than $25 billion in 2015. The garment industry — the world’s second largest, after China — generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue, and employs around 4 million workers, 80% of them young women, many of them rural migrants. The government has resorted to the widespread criminalization of union organizers, and has deployed the urban police force (instituted in 2010) to quash labor unrest. As a result of this systematic violence, only 5% of garment workers are unionized. The minimum wage is $68 per month, but most female workers are paid less, around $37 per month, a fraction of the wages paid to exploited factory workers in China and India. These workers are also forced to toil in conditions that range from “appalling” to deadly. At least 117 people were killed in the Tazreen Fashion factory fire near Dhaka in 2012. Some months later, more than 1,130 people were killed outside Dhaka when Rana Plaza, a giant garment factory, collapsed.

By and large, these deaths can be attributed to the callous attitudes of capitalists and political elites who prioritize profits over worker safety. There is also, however, a more general infrastructural crisis, one that is important to emphasize given that the student protesters’ list of demands focused mostly on road safety and accessibility. A study after the Rana Plaza collapse revealed that, from 2008-2013, only six out of 20,000 buildings constructed in Dhaka have gone through the legally required safety clearance. Simply put, as Dhaka’s population has ballooned, and the city has experienced a massive construction boom, the government has failed to address the attendant social and infrastructural problems, with the result that thousands of people die each year in shoddily built buildings and roads. Unable to address road safety conditions, or effectively monitor the number of drivers on the road without the proper permits, the government has simply fudged the numbers. In 2013, the government claimed that there were only 3,296 road fatalities, whereas the World Health Organisation has claimed, that, in actuality, as many as 25,000 died that year on the road.

“You cannot tame an entire nation in this manner”

With this analysis in mind, we can better understand the scope and significance of recent student protests. It is important not to exaggerate the scope of the protests, and to emphasize the student “movement’s relative isolation from other oppressed strata of society.” It is also paramount, however, to link the protests’ cries of “we want justice” to the broader political and economic landscape, as Alam did in his brief interview with Al Jazeera. To understand why students were protesting throughout July against the quota system, one needs to look beyond government corruption. The students were also implicitly rejecting their fate outside of government employment, in a country pervaded by deep poverty, gruesome work conditions, and pervasive economic precarity. The official youth unemployment rate in Bangladesh is 11% —  and protesting young people are drawing national and international attention to the dire situation facing Bangladeshi workers, and to the government’s deep complicity in this situation.

Furthermore, to contextualize mass protests over road conditions, one must link the dangerous transport situation —  Bangladesh has the second most dangerous roads in Asia — with the broader crisis of urbanization in Dhaka, a crisis intertwined with processes of climate change and dispossession in the countryside which is forcing scores of desperate Bangladeshis to the overcrowded city of Dhaka.

To make sense of why the government responded in such a draconian fashion to peaceful protests, and relatively straightforward comments by Shahidul Alam about the coordinates of these protests, one must locate the situation within the more general political crisis in Bangladesh. As Vijay Prashad has noted, “protests are a constant feature of life” in Bangladesh, and for decades now, a government with no real legitimacy in the eyes of the people has responded to any and all dissent with sheer force.

It is telling that, in February of this year, Shahidul Alam posted to his website the poem “Apolitical Intellectuals” by Guatemalan revolutionary poet Otto Rene Castillo. The piece concludes with these lines

“What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?”
Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence will eat your gut.
Your own misery will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.

Both Alam and his partner Rahnuma Ahmed have written about the urgent need to “speak truth to power”, and denounce and demystify “the aging coterie that rules the country, and its army of professional sycophants.” Their activism is first and foremost concerned with clearing the deadwood which prevents Bangladeshi society from functioning free of corruption, but the atrocity of this basic level of human rights abuse is not the end of his message. Rather, Alam’s recent work on the fate of Bangladeshi migrants abroad reflects the recognition of the sense in which the world of global capitalism pushes working-class Bangladeshis from frying pan to fire, from the domestic sweatshop to the global precarity of unregulated migrant labor in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. His crusade against domestic authoritarianism is geared towards promoting democracy and the protection of working-class people, seeking to secure the sort of freedoms in civil society which are preconditions for material well-being. By speaking on the interconnectedness and breadth of the problem in Bangladesh, Alam continued his work of gesturing towards the kind of structural change needed to secure positive material change, while reminding us of how political interests were actively preventing the effective achievement of the people’s will.

In the past several months, there has been a swell of activism in Bangladesh and around the world demanding Alam’s release. It was largely due to these protests that on November 15, after 103 days in detention and multiple denied petitions, Shahidul Alam was finally granted bail. Following the court’s decision, the prosecutors immediately promised to fight for an appeal. Rahnuma Ahmed has called on activists to keep up the pressure on the government, not only to try to get Alam’s charges dropped altogether, but to “launch a united struggle for repealing undemocratic provisions of Digital Security Act.” Hundreds of writers have been prosecuted by this act in 2017 for writing content that the government found threatening. Ending this crusade against dissidents, and making room for critical discourse, is only the first step in attempting to address the endemic political and economic crises in Bangladesh. But in the absence this step, the government will only attempt to rule over Bangladesh through “brute force” alone.

Bio: Raihan is the nephew of Shahidul Alam. Raihan and Mark are PhD students at University of Virginia, and University of California, Santa Barbara, respectively.

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