Dynamics of violent activism
Media reports have identified a number of individuals involved in the murder of Biswajit on December 09, 2012. The incident is inescapably egregious, but what is outright detestable is that the alleged murderers are supposedly activists of a fabled student organization, and their violent act was motivated by the presumption that Biswajit belonged to the opposition camp. This commentary critically explores the making of such nefarious political activism in today's Bangladesh.
Let us start with the demography of the alleged activists, the suppliers of murderous activism that claimed the life of Biswajit. All of these activists are likely in their early 20's, and hail from low to middle income families living in small localities far away from the capital. The non-descript parents of these non-metropolitan boys are shell-shocked by the incident as there was nothing in their upbringing that would prognosticate anything even close to their December 09, 2012 barbarism. Their inauspicious transformation likely started with their entry into the glitzy world of campus politics in the central theatre of the country, Dhaka. And their regimentation into campus turf wars perhaps commenced during the last few years of escalating antagonism between the major political alliances.
It is not yet exactly known why the Biswajit killers chose the career path of violent activism that culminated in the murder of Biswajit. Admittedly speculative, a likely scenario may nonetheless facilitate understanding of the dynamics of violent activism. It stands to reason that the lucrative and fast pace career in the business of politics lured the Biswajit killers into violent activism. The alternative world of normal studentship appeared to these young fellows as one of life long economic despair and stagnation in the social gutter of nobodies since they were at best mediocre students and could only enter public university programs with weak employment prospect (private university option beyond their means). Discarding this unpalatable choice, the Biswajit killers may have considered the non-violent career track of student politics, only to find that lacking charisma, with no established political connections and pedigree, and with no financial resources to sustain them for long in studentship, the odds of making it big are rather slim.
The Biswajit killers having now made the career choice of a violent activist, the choice of the party was rather rational. They quickly and correctly recognized that it is a matter of survival of the fittest in the political arena of today's Bangladesh as it is in a jungle. Given that the ruling party's influence peddling controls the entrance to and exits from all doors in Bangladesh, including the doors of justice and law enforcement, the fittest are those who pledge loyalty to the ruling party of the time and/or have ample resources (financial means, business and family connections) to purchase their favours. The young perpetrators had none of it, and the mere pledge of political loyalty would surely go unnoticed by the party hierarchy. Hence, the path of violent activism for the current or imminently prospective ruling party might have made most sense to these small-locale boys given their fervent desire to break through the glass ceiling with the fastest possible ascend.
The above explanation of the supply of violent activism is, however, incomplete and inadequate in explaining why the frequency and severity of violent activism was rather low compared to now during prior periods of political turbulence dating back to the mid 1970s. The answer lies in the evolution of demand for violent activism and the rapid rise in the financial dividends from influence peddling. Without a doubt, the clients of violent activism are the very political parties that are entrusted with the security of ordinary citizens through the democratic process. Quite ironically, it is largely the periods of more competitive democracy that have seen the frequency and severity of violent activism shooting up. In periods of no democracy, dictatorial democracy, or democracy dominated by a single party, the all powerful single camp controls the entire turf of winning elections if there is any, remaining in power, gaining and distributing financial and political resources, and sentencing any opposition at will. On the other hand, as democratic competition heats up, the margin of electoral (popular vote) victory becomes thinner, and any marginal edge in the control of the turfs becomes ever so consequential. With a long term upward trend in democratic processes and institutions, albeit with troughs and valleys, the intensifying political competition has increasingly drawn the political parties toward developing, nurturing and growing their own shadow armies of violent activists, popularly known as the cadres. When in power, cadres are used to thwart competition by terror and when in opposition they are used to instigate and enact violent protests. It is also worth noting that the emergence of two dominant political alliances in the new millennium has polarized and intensified the political competition even further and in the process has also elevated the demand for the services of violent activists.
The process of paying for the services of violent activists is well illustrated by the recent satirical commentary of Shahdin Malik in a local Bangla daily. Essentially the violent activists are rewarded by status upgrade within the party in an accelerated manner and by permission and protection to seek rents from ordinary citizens and businesses while in power. In time, violent activists often graduate from the street alleys to the hallways of the parliament, manage and lead the new crop of young cadres, and of course peddle influence, while in power, to reap handsome financial rewards. Further, the political parties provide a vigorous defence and/or cover-up of their misdeeds, most recently illustrated by the denial of the ruling party affiliation of the Biswajit killers (bdnews24.com, December 10, 2012).
While supply and demand are necessary to explain violent activism, ultimately it is the financial dividend from governance power that makes the end to end business of politics a viable phenomenon in Bangladesh. This unholy business has taken a toll on the composition of the Parliament as well, tending to degenerate it into a "rich man's club" (p. 60, Rounaq Jahan and Inge Amendsen, 2012, The Parliament of Bangladesh: Representation and Accountability, CPD-CMI Working Paper 2). As incredible as it may sound, it is the miraculous pace of economic growth in Bangladesh that continues to boost the financial gains from governance power, the increasing gains also becoming necessary to sustain in opposition if and when needed. Alas, the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh, the Biswajits, have become unsuspecting victims of their collective economic success. Sadly, Biswajit's own hard work ended up powering the dynamics of violent activism that obliterated him.
To be sure, the people of Bangladesh are duly proud of a democratic and prosperous Bangladesh. But the fundamental building block of a civil and humane society is not its riches, it is not democracy either. Instead it is the rule of law that translates a hell of the survival of the fittest into a heaven of security for the weakest. The major political alliances, on their own, are not expected to become the protectors of law anytime soon. But if the history of Bangladesh repeats itself, both alliances have much to worry about in travelling along their law-as-we-like trajectories.
Mo Chaudhury is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
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