The ruling class in Bangladesh

Serajul Islam Choudhury
Over the years, through many recognisable changes, a class of well-to-do people has consolidated its position as the ruling class of Bangladesh. It comprises politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats (both civil and military) and professionals. Governments have come and gone, a state was born and has fallen, another has taken over, but the class consolidation has continued, relentlessly even if quietly. The country today suffers from many known diseases, such as corruption, violence and militant fundamentalism, but the greatest threat to its security and prosperity has been its ruling class itself. Such a statement may sound preposterous to the authority that be; nevertheless, it is not untrue. Indeed, most of the problems that the country is bedeviled by are the creations of our rulers themselves.

This class is one and undivided. Of course, it has parties and factions, which are, oftener than not, involved in bitter quarrels. In fact, the main currents and cross-currents in our mainstream politics are really about these quarrels. The parties would like to divide the people vertically along the lines of their vested interests, and have already managed to split most of the professional bodies and trade unions, including those of journalists, physicians, engineers, and even teachers. But their fight is not ideological. On the contrary, it is shamelessly about materialist desire for power to plunder and expropriate public property and wealth through governmental as well as non-governmental means. To be sure, it is their desire to be rich and powerful that makes them quarrel, in essence, it is nothing better or worse than fratricidal struggle for property rights. Such fights can be very bitter, they often are. But the feud is within the family; the class is one and the same, and the mutual hatred that flows within it is not indicative of separation, but of an abiding relationship. To all intents and purposes, the class is united against the very interests of the public which they are supposed to be safe-guarding.

The members of the ruling class are familiar to us, though not personally. Day in and day out, we are obliged to hear them and about them through the very powerful and virtually inescapable electronic and print media. Their words, activities and images get imprinted on our awareness and we tend to initiate and reproduce, most of the time unwittingly, their mad pursuits of plunder and exploitation. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so does competition among the grabbers; and that we as a people have been able to put all the corrupt countries of the world to shame is not because of the wealth-producing activities of the very hardworking and firmly honest peasants, workers and the lower middle class but on account of the doings of the misappropriating and extortionist rulers of the country.

People themselves have never been in charge of their own affairs in this poor country of ours. The minority has ruled over the majority. This has been true in the colonial British rule, and it remains starkly true even to-day, despite the much-vaunted liberation of the country, not once but twice. The liberation has really been of the ruling class, for it has given it uncontrolled and uncontrollable rights to rule. Many things at the superstructural level have changed, but the relationship between the rulers and the ruled has remained unchanged — over centuries and not merely decades. And, yet it is one of those ironies history often produces that the independence of the country that has liberated the rulers was gained not because of the ruling class, but instead of it. For one thing, the class was not interested in independence, it wanted transfer of power from the foreigners to locals, meaning, themselves. For another, they were interested in peaceful bargaining and not in war, which they wanted to prevent but was unable to. Ordinary people fought, because they had to. The established leadership was unprepared; it was in disarray and found it convenient to take shelter beyond the borders, whence it come back, to take over power, quite characteristically.

During the war a section of this class had opposed the people’s struggle for liberation, some of them had even collaborated with the enemy. But these elements have not found it difficult to be rehabilitated not only socially, but also politically, and unbelievable though this may appear to outsiders, some are, at the moment, sharing power with the BNP. Not that the Awami League has been allergic to them, either: for they too had taken the Jamaat as fellow-fighters to oust the BNP when that party was in power some time ago. These affiliations are yet another confirmation of the fact that the ruling class is, in the ultimate analysis, one and indivisible.

The class we are confronting now began its onward journey during the British period. They were hoping that the British would hand over power to them and withdraw. But their was a clash of interests between the two wings of the class — the Hindu and the Muslim — which created communalism, led to communal violence and ultimately to the partition of India, causing immeasurable loss of life and misery particularly to the people of Bengal and the Punjab. In East Pakistan the rising middle class made some gains but found itself hindered by the wielders of power at the centre. It felt frustrated. The common man felt both deprived and betrayed, for his fate had not changed at all. So when the disgruntled middle class began to get itself politically organised with a view to gaining a ‘fair’ share of power, the betrayed people of the province joined in. Clearly the agenda of the leaders and the led were not identical, the leaders wanted the power to rule, the people expected liberation. And it was people’s participation and sacrifice which ultimately forced the Pakistani rulers out of the province and led to the founding of a new state.

Ideologically and culturally, Bangladesh represented an advancement, for it was established on the basis of linguistic nationalism, discarding the religious one. But new rulers’ attitude towards the people remained exactly the same as that of the Pakistani ruling class.

The new rulers were not new, either; they belonged to the same middle class which was rising. The new independence opened up for it limitless opportunities of gaining in wealth and power through misappropriation of aid and loan, illegitimate trade and commerce, expropriation of industries and public property, robbing of small savers’ deposits in the banks, looking after the interests of the multinationals, and the like.

It is because of the misdeeds of the ruling class that the country remains poor. That militant fundamentalism has been rising menacingly is also due to its patronisation — both direct and indirect. Directly, the rulers have competed with one another in their use of religion politically — to win votes, and at the same time keep the people forgetful of their worldly miseries. Indirectly too they have been encouraging militant fanaticism to grow by setting up madrashas. That madrasha education has been a breeding ground of the Talibans is now being recognised by its promoters — both foreign and indigenous — in Pakistan, much to their own discomfiture.

The ruling class has also been helping fundamentalism through their twin gifts of poverty and inequality to the people. Poverty begets helpless in the poor, and they turn to religion for shelter, consolation and justice in the world hereafter being deprived of it is their present life. Inequality creates discontent, and the discontented feel inclined to religious fascism in the absence of other outlets for their mounting rage and grievances. The rulers themselves tend to set themselves up as role models in respect of piety and piousness, remaining in their heart of hearts brazen materialists. This is understandable. They have their sense of guilt and the desire to look pure. Religion also offers them occasions for socialisation, which they are in need of.

The rulers call themselves nationalists, but their nationalism is wholly without any patriotic content whatsoever. Bangladesh has been established in the teeth of open opposition from the imperialist forces. But the components of the ruling class have been vying with one another to win the favour of the imperialists for feathering their own nests. Serving the interests of multinational corporations, they are continually betraying those of people. Their brand of patriotism is in no way better than that of their Pakistani ‘enemies’ whom they have replaced.

The people know this class and have no respect for them. They are aware that the ruling class is absolutely unpatriotic, that it lives in the country it rules like expatriates, almost aliens; and that it cares for the people less than the much-hated landlords living in Calcutta cared for their tenants in East Bengal. Famously the ruling class walks without moving; it has to be removed if the country has to progress. And the sooner the better; for the rulers are increasing the misery of the public by the day.

The crucial question is how. It is the people who can do it; but the people are not united, they are weak. The root cause of this weakness is, of course, the absence of a political party of their own. The unified and self-perpetuating ruling class is the enemy and it has all the power to throttle and divert. It will be wasteful, to say the least, to expect that this or that part of the ruling class will act as an ally or that it will disintegrate owing to internal contradictions. No; neither of these is going to happen. What will be needed is a people’s movement to bring about a total transformation in society, with the purpose of liberating the people. This movement will not be new; it has been there even in the British period and it continued through the Pakistani rule reaching a certain height in 1971. But it did not end there. It has to be taken forward. Elections have happened in the past, they have changed governments, and even the shape of the state; but the society has remained the same; so has the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. It is the social structure itself, which must be changed. This certainly, is not an easy task; but there is no alternative to it, really. For achieving that goal the patriotic and democratic forces in the country have to forge a unity, which, by its very nature, will be secular, anti-imperialist, thereby, fully pro-democracy. Liberal illusions will not do.

The author is a former head of the department of English, Dhaka University.

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