‘Culture of Fear’ in Bangladesh Politics

Bangladesh is going through one of the worst political subjugations ever. The last parliamentary election held one-sided, highly rigged, without major political party’s participation. Although government was formed, its legality is questioned; in an interview with CNN, Ali Riaz claimed, “the government is constitutionally legal, but morally illegal”.[1] Therefore, demanding government’s step- down, and mid- term fair election, opposition party with its grand alliance, has initiated terrible street violence, resulting hundreds of deaths and leaving much more severely injured. But, government seems adamant and neutralized all resistances with iron hand. People are apprehensive; dare not raise voice even in rational issues. Sort of repressive, suffocating or can be said, the ‘culture of fear’ has gripped popular psyche. But, what does culture of fear exactly mean? And, how has it sprung up in Bangladesh?

Generally, culture of fear is generated to the popular national imagination employing coercive measures, directly or indirectly, through state’s policing actions. According to Maria Alves, three psychological components of the culture of fear are included such as silence through censorship, sense of isolation, and a generalized belief that all channels of opposition were closed. A feeling of complete hopelessness, prevailed, in addition to withdrawal from opposition activity.[2] Alves in her celebrated book State and Opposition in Military Brazil shows how military regime of Brazil in 1960s created culture of fear to subjugate resistances against authoritarian regime. Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in context to US ‘War on Terror’ project, asserts that a culture of fear is deliberately generated because it “obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue”.[3] Similarly, Professor Ali Riaz in his recent book Culture of Fear: The Political Economy of Terror and Violence in Bangladesh defines that culture of fear is a socio- political milieu, where terrorism, violence and use of force are considered as a part of governing modality and determinant of mutual relations. Here, power is the center of all underlying associations of diverse social groups. This is not natural but a constructed psyche. Ali Riaz contends that this culture is constructed by the dominant groups to compel the subordinates in unquestionably championing their authorization.[4] Journalist Adam Curtis in his BBC documentary named The Power of Nightmares maintains that politicians use our fears to increase their power and control over society.[5] However, the culture of fear presents everywhere; it hierarchically demarcates the society into different poles such as the superior- inferior, the patron- client and so forth. This superiority does not constrain to the class supremacy only but manifested through other social issues such as ethnicity, religion and gender.

In Bangladesh, it has been observed that violence and terrorism are used as the means of demonstrating the cultural of fear. The dominant groups deliberately produce pusillanimity in popular imagination by destabilizing politics, inducting vandalism and undertaking other farcical actions. The fear is disseminated everywhere that paralyzes the people’s power of rebellion. This culture is given the ideological connotations; where people of one group addresses others as kind of demonic and unsolicited. The dominant groups institutionalize the culture of fear, where sort of privatization of institutions is prevalent, personal cult becomes vital, often idolized by the terrorists and consequently, terrorism gets patronized. Culture of fear is not only produced by coercion but also by entangling people within ideological entrapment. Ruling class generates ideology from their vantage points and enforces them on mass psyche. This is done, Riaz argues, in a kind of Foucaultdian discoursive manner, basically in two phases: first, establishing and sustaining discourses, and second, seeking people’s corroboration.[6] Being grifted by this subtlety, people unconsciously start serving the interests of the powerful; even if they can realize that, ideologically, they are victimized, and cannot revolt. It establishes the situation what new historicists define as the state’s way of “thought control”, where state constructs its ideology into every citizen’s mind. In contemporary Bangladesh, the situation has been created in a way that there is no other voice, but the dominant; there is no other truth, but the truth of what the ruling party attempts to discriminate. Citizens hardly have any right to speak on national issues. Once one raises voice, he is neutralized. Killing and enforced disappearance, political and non- political, have become an everyday affair. For example, in 2011 the case of enforced disappearance was 792, in 2012 it increased to 850 and in 2013, the number further increased to 879.[7]

In addition, the political economy of Bangladesh directly contributes in dispersing the superiors’ ideology. In capitalist market economy, holding control of production mechanism, ruling class compels the mass not to move beyond their construction. In fact, in post- 1975 Bangladesh, hijacking socialistic notion of the country, few people overnight turned to bourgeois and grabbed state power. A kind of “patron-client” relationship found between the powerful elite class and mass people. B. K. Jahangir rightly comments that the political economy of the country is “a reciprocity of exchange based on unequal rank” with three important characteristics: economic structures of exploitation, political structures of domination and ideological structures of con-sensus and control.[8] But in the countries where capitalism has not been developed and capitalists themselves are not united enough, the rulers employ the state institutions to usurp their interests. In Bangladesh rulers apparently have been using state institutions in expanding the culture of fear. For example, Bangladesh government’s Terrorism Control Act 1992, Mass Security Act 2000 and formation of RAB and its “Operation Clean Heart” are nothing but meeting the vested interest of the powerful. Intentionally, people are kept fearful and under constant surveillance. Government has placed law enforcing agencies in unchallenged position. Killings, forced disappearance, and other political violence in Bangladesh are not accidental; rather motivative that makes the citizen helpless, apprehensive and forced to submit to the state. Different human rights organizations enlist that in 2013 only, 506 people were killed, 24176 were injured, and 3171 arrested, total 27923 people became the victim of either the violence of political parties or law enforcement agencies.[9]

Minorities in Bangladesh, particularly the ethnic groups and Hindus, are not safe from the victimization of state’s structural violence. The nationality of ethnic groups is consciously denied. Instead of giving their fair rights, they are merely sympathized. In the name of modernization, they are homogenized excluding their cultural and ecological heterogeneity. Riaz argues that they are treated as the other; viewed from the oriental framework, the way the west views the rest-traditional, violent, and non- civilized and what not. Producing fear in the popular discourse, they are transformed into subject; either through the process of assimilation or exclusion.[10] The imposition of culture of fear on the ethnic groups is done by three ways: their existence as separate nationals are constitutionally denied; the material base of their culture is destroyed; and they are colonized permanently by controlling their experiences. It can be stated that being apprehensive, Hindus no longer belong to the country as their own; they are ‘proventialized’ in their own land. No political party takes responsibility once violence occurs, rather accuses each other and consequently, the genuine perpetrators remain beyond rule of law. Minorities are always attacked by the dominant groups, particularly in post- election period. In 2001 and previous elections, they became target of the political violence. In 2012 Ramu Tragedy shocked the nation. In 2013 religious minorities in various places were attacked after the verdicts of the war crime tribunal. The statistics of repression against religious minorities shows that in the years of 2011, 2012 and 2013 the number of people affected were 183, 222 and 787.[11] As a result, minorities particularly are migrating to India, often illegally risking their lives. The marginalization of minorities is evident in the statistics of religious groups in Bangladesh. In 1941, the number of Hindus in Bangladesh was 28.3% whereas today it is roughly 8.5%.[12]

Furthermore, women are also victimized in the country. Women are persecuted basically through the unequal rights of women on property, men ideological upper hand over them in patriarch social set up, and the social institutions discriminatory treatment to women. They are deliberately embroiled in a social hierarchy where they cannot enjoy direct control on resources and remain subordinate. Religious card is deceivably employed in this regard, especially in dividing wealth. Instumentalizing different male dominated socio- economic, cultural facets, women ideology are manipulated in a way that, even women themselves are not aware of their subjugation. Moreover, if we go through the controversy regarding Sharia and Fatwa law in Bangladesh, particularly in 1990s and the government’s silence regarding the issues, it would be clear how institutions undertake gender violence. In the name of Islamic jurisdiction, still hundreds of women are victimized in the villages of Bangladesh by Mullahs, where the dubious silence of government is appalling. The matter of great concern is that although fatwa was outlawed in 2001, under the pressure of Islamists, it has been legalized in 2011 again. Moreover, Sheikh Hasina government has made a proposal of forming “Sharia Board” and governing the country in according to “Madina Shanad”, which is truly formidable. As women are still everyday perpetrated, further legalization of fatwa will further exacerbate the situation only.[13] In addition, women are victimized by the law enforcing agencies too. It is ironical to state that in 2013, among total rape conducted by security forces, 44% were by police only.[14]

Therefore, question arises, where Bangladesh is actually heading to? Riaz outlines two possibilities of the country’s future. First, due to the recurrent presence of terrorism, violence and fear, the country might turn into the fascist one. He finds all characteristics of fascist country prevalent in Bangladesh, prominently, intolerance, partiality to certain group of people, using law enforcing agencies to neutralize the ideological opponents, and irresponsibility of the political parties. Along with this fascist character of the state, the power of the mass people to revolt is put down by intimidating that leads the country towards an anarchic one.

Second possible trend of the country is the emergence of a theocratic state. He argues that by establishing discourse that creates the fear in the world as well as the after world, the basis of developing a theocratic state is foregrounded. In Bangladesh, the potent emergence of Islamic political parties, the widely propagation of fatwa and shalish and parochial reaction to modernity, kind of re- Islamization of self and society is apparent. These Islamization process teaches not to question the existing discourse. People admit the repression of the ruling class with nonchalance. Hence, there is a possibility that in the name of an Islamic country, the ruling class can emerge more oppressive and secure their interests without mettlesome confrontation. But still, the possibility of resistance against the present repressive regime cannot be ruled out. As Foucault believes that where there is power, there is resistance.[15] Although there is the culture of fear everywhere in the country, it is not the ultimate end. The identification of this culture and consent against it might change the future of the country.


(The author teaches at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University, Dhaka. He can be reached at mizanur.rahman@bsmrstu.edu.bd.)

End notes 
[1] See, Ali Riaz’s Interview at CNN, Was Bangladesh Election Legitimate? January 6, 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2014/01/07/bangladesh-election-violence-ali-riaz-intv.cnn

[2] Maria Alves, (1985) State and Opposition in Military Brazil. Brazil: University of Texas Press. p. 352

[3] Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘War on Terror’, Washingtonpost.com. March 25, 2007

[4] Ali Riaz (2014) Culture of Fear: The Political Economy of Terror and Violence in Bangladesh (in Bangla), Dhaka: Prothoma Prokashan. P. 12

[5] See The Power of Nightmares: Your comments. BBC (London). August 3, 2005

[6] Ibid. 35

[7] Kamrul Hasan (2014) The Human Security has Demolished, Prothom ALo, May 4, 2014.

[8] B.K. Jahangir (1982) Rural Society, Power Structure and Class Practice. Dhaka,Bangladesh: Centre for Social Studies, 78.

[9] See the reports of Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and Odhikar 2013

[10] Ibid

[11] Odhikar Statistics Religious Minority 2013, www.odhikar.org

[12] Cited in Riaz, Culture of Fear. P. 104

[13] See Shomokal, 2013, Not Prime Ministership, Want peace: Hasina, November 10, 2013

[14] See Law Enforcing Agencies Raped! (In Bangla), Prothom Alo, November 11, 2013

[15] Sara Mills (2003) Michel Foucault, London, New York: Routledge, p. 69


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