Bangladesh at 50: The battle of competing narratives

Two narratives compete to dominate descriptions of the country — one positive, one negative. Both are right.

Bangladesh at 50: The battle of competing narratives
Rickshaw drivers with their passengers on the streets of Dhaka, the country's capital city. Photo: Orjan Ellingvag/Alamy Stock Photo

2021 marks Bangladesh’s 50th year of independence. Although independence was actually realised with the surrender of Pakistani military forces at the end of a brutal nine-month war, it is March 26th, the day after the war started in 1971, which is marked as the country’s Independence Day. This is the date in 1971 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, declared independence just before he was imprisoned by the Pakistan Army.

Journalists and analysts have therefore started to pen columns seeking to explain the trajectory of the country, a half century since its birth — and why the Bangladesh government has become particularly assertive in pushing its own story about the country.

The 1971 military conflict resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people at the hands of the Pakistani military and their collaborators and a war-ravaged country. And as the conflict neared its end, with famine looming, a US diplomat suggested to Henry Kissinger, the then US government’s national security advisor, that Bangladesh was likely to become an “international basket case”.

If this highly pejorative shorthand term for describing the country on the cusp of independence  — to which Kissinger at the time responded by saying “But not necessarily our basket case”— is used as the marker by which to assess Bangladesh 50 years on, the country has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

In this half century, Bangladesh’s reliance on aid has significantly reduced — with most of the current donor funding now in the form of concessional loans for infrastructural projects. Until Covid-19 struck, the country’s economy was  growing at a fair whack — somewhere between 6% to 8% — even if the official GDP figures may be massaged upwards. Last year, Bangladesh’s per capita GDP was higher than that of India’s — a real achievement, even though it is likely to be temporary. The country is the second largest exporter of ready-made garments, and in 2026 will no longer be categorised by the United Nations as a “least developed country”.

While real poverty remains, it is steadily declining. According to the World Bank, the percentage of citizens living in the country below the international poverty line has reduced from 43.8% in 1991 to 14.8% by 2016. Life expectancy, literacy rates and per capita food production have also increased significantly.

The narrative of a “booming Bangladesh” should certainly be a key part of any narrative of the last 50 years.

But listen to the current party in government, the Awami League, and this is the only story about the country it wants us to hear — with the party in addition claiming that all the credit should go to the current prime minister, in power since the beginning of 2009, with no credit going to any other party previously in government, in particular, to the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Some of this economic and development success should rightly be credited to the Awami League. For example, in how it dealt with the power crisis inherited from the previous government — though, it should be noted, that allegations  of corruption in its procurement processes remain rife. When the party came into power in 2009 , hours of daily power cuts were part and parcel of ordinary life throughout the country, as the previous BNP government had been unable  to sign the contracts necessary to increase electricity production. Now, power cuts are few and far between, significantly benefiting the lives of ordinary people as well as the economy.

At the same time, though, it should be remembered, it was not only under the Awami League that the country’s economy boomed, and development indicators improved. During the BNP’s last time in power, between 2001 to 2006 — even with the country’s power crisis — the economy grew significantly, with GDP increasing 3.8% up to 7% in its five years.

So the economic and development success story is an important strand in any Bangladesh narrative, but not one that can be attributed solely to the Awami League.

However, the narrative about the country’s trajectory over the last 50 years should not just be about its economy and development, important though these are. The country fought its war of independence principally to achieve democracy and citizen’s civil rights, and here the trajectory is in the opposite direction.

In discussing this aspect of Bangladesh, and in particular the role of the current Awami League government, it is important not to mythologise the periods prior to 2009. There has never been a time in Bangladesh’s history without claims of rigged elections, corruption and serious human rights violations. Yet, at the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that the democratic, human rights and governance situation in Bangladesh has never been worse in the last 30 years. Parallel to the upward line indicating the country’s positive economic and development figures, there is one pointing downwards indicating the country’s declining record in democracy and governance.

The Awami League came to power in 2009 with a surge of popular support in an election run by an independent election commission supported by a caretaker government. Since then, the Awami league has suborned the election commission, picking pliant members, and changed the constitution to remove the requirement for national elections to be held under a caretaker government. In response, in 2014, the opposition parties boycotted the election resulting in the Awami League winning unopposed. In 2018, the opposition did take part but the elections were systematically rigged with the Awami League winning 96% of the seats. As things stand, no one can foresee the possibility of the Awami League allowing free and fair elections in the future.

Along with this, freedom of expression and the media have become highly restricted. Pro-opposition TV stations have been closed down or taken over. Just in the last year, hundreds of people — including journalists, editors and social media commentators — have been arrested under the draconian Digital Security Act for writing critical commentary about the government. Newspapers have to be very careful about what they publish. When Al Jazeera broadcast an investigative documentary in February about high level corruption at the centre of Bangladesh government, newspapers did not dare to report on it and civil society members refused to comment. One normally outspoken commentator, braver than most, asked by this author to comment on the film, said, “Who is going to protect my family?”. He was alluding to reprisals he feared his family would face from the government law enforcement agencies, including the threat of enforced disappearance which has become a common tactic of the current government in dealing with political challenges.

Other declines in governance exist. There are practically no institutions independent of the Awami League. The police and law enforcement agencies do the bidding of the ruling party and powerful politicians. Rule of law is practically non-existent — with lower courts both politically controlled and highly corrupt — and the situation in the higher courts only better by degree.

In any reckoning of the county, this narrative must also be included. Bangladesh, at present, is a weave of both the positive strand on economy and development, and the negative one on democracy and governance. Indeed, the BBC put it well in an article earlier this week: “Bangladesh is held up by many as a model of development, but as it marks 50 years of independence critics say it risks becoming a one-party state intolerant of dissent, threatening the democratic principles on which it was founded.”

The government denies the negative strand, but pro-government commentators willing to acknowledge the declining governance standards, argue that this is the price the country has to pay for its stable and booming economy. Of course without free and fair elections, this is not a question that the country’s citizens are allowed to have a view on — though some may argue that the lack of a popular opposition movement to the current government suggests a citizenry willing to sacrifice their democratic rights for economic and social gains (though this could also be due to fear of a repressive state).

More significantly, there is no reason to believe that the country’s social and economic gains require any reduction in democratic rights. Indeed arguably, the democratic decline is holding the country back, as the Awami League and the government increasingly become enmeshed as one entity, in a one party state, with corruption sky-rocketing.

There is little to suggest any change in the country’s trajectory in the foreseeable future, as the competing narratives vie to dominate how the country is described in the media and elsewhere.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.