“I was sitting at my desk…the doorbell rang, I went to open the door. Then these people came around the back, they’d obviously been hiding by the side. They grabbed me…I was handcuffed, blindfolded, taken away. Once I got there, I was interrogated, tortured…I was hit, I was bleeding, they threatened me with waterboarding. They threatened me with a lot worse, too.”
Shahidul Alam looks tired. He sounds tired, too. The globally acclaimed photojournalist and celebrated human rights activist—a rather dangerous title to carry around on the South Asian front—wears a simple black t-shirt with an image of a clenched fist raised in protest, embodying the very spirit of defiance that had gotten him abducted and tortured just months prior.
By radical religious fanatics? No. By local violent gangs? No.
By the government of Bangladesh itself? The answer is a painful one to concede.
The charge: Mr. Alam helped promote the large-scale protest that gripped Bangladesh during the summer of 2018, organized primarily by high school and college students criticizing unsafe roads in the country. He had been especially critical of the government’s violent response to this movement—a response largely defined by fearmongering, cutting off public communications, and unbridled police brutality. After speaking out, Mr. Alam was seized from his home, violently interrogated, and later granted bail after international backlash.
“So do you believe Bangladesh, as it functions today, is a democracy?” asks Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, sitting across from his interviewee Mr. Alam.
Shahidul Alam offers a battered shrug. “Bangladesh is an autocracy by any means.”
This interview from April 2019 offers a glimpse into the unmistakable, unmitigated decline of democracy in Bangladesh—a new entry in the global trend of “democratic recession,” in which more and more nations seem to be shrinking away from liberal ideals and back into the grasp of right-wing authoritarianism, Big Brother statehood, and suppression of civil liberties. The political analysis foundation Freedom House has tracked this decline of democracy in detail, finding 25 fewer democratic nations today than at the beginning of the millennium, a stark U-turn from the pattern of increasing literacy, healthcare, political transparency, belief in democracy, and generally higher living standards across the globe up until the early 21st century. Several factors have been offered to account for this international rise of authoritarianism: loss of jobs to outsourcing and automation, uptick in refugees entering Western nations, the aftershocks of the 2008 collapse of American banks, widening economic inequality, and ever-more-popular right-wing politicians offering an alternative to liberal democracy: a closed-border nationalist philosophy prioritizing Us over Them.
Bangladesh has not been immune to this democratic recession. Despite the fact that its economy is stronger than ever and its life expectancy is higher than both its British Raj siblings India and Pakistan, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been creeping away from the pillars of liberal democracy, transparency, and civil liberty for quite some time now. The abduction and torture of Shahidul Alam, which raised some eyebrows among the international community due to the victim’s prominence, is not an outlier. It was the latest entry in a series of incidents defining this new political age of Bangladesh, an epoch characterized by authoritarian statehood and the trampling of multi-party democracy.
However, Bangladeshi authoritarianism is not without precedent. In fact, it was the political environment this country was thrust into at its bloody birth following the 1971 secession from Pakistan. At the time, conditions for tyranny and state control were ideal—a land economically barren, impoverished, scarred by the fresh wounds of war, mass rape, and genocide. As The South Asia Journal notes, “World Bank inspectors wrote that the cities looked like they had suffered a nuclear attack…[the first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] had inherited a country in shambles, shattered physically, economically dysfunctional, infrastructure and transport system badly damaged, severe law and order problems with armed gangs roaming the countryside.” Sheikh Mujib’s answer? BAKSAL.
BAKSAL (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League, or the Bangladesh Farmers and Workers’ Party) was the central pillar of Mujib’s one-state approach to governing his newfound nation. In January 1975, he declared a state of emergency and banned all opposition political parties, assuming the presidency and granting himself “extraordinary powers”—a tactic common among modern day authoritarian regimes, most notably Turkey in recent months. Next, Mujib assembled all political and economic elites into one party, BAKSAL, which had exclusive and unilateral control of the government.
BAKSAL became the face of Bangladeshi authoritarianism. It was armed with a militia named the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini, regularly accused of torturing and murdering political dissidents. The “Father of the Nation,” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—once hailed as the charismatic, masterful orator whose visionary leadership helped Bangladesh achieve a new era of liberation and progress—became the face of Bangladesh’s militarized junta. The BAKSAL era culminated in the assassination of Mujib and the butchering of his family—all but two of his daughters who were studying in London, both of whom were banned from returning to Bangladesh.
The assassination was followed by a series of military coups that catapulted political strongmen like economically liberal Ziaur Rahman (under whose administration the two competing modern parties, BNP and AWAMI League, emerged) and the quasi-dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad to power. This turbulent period in Bangladeshi history was defined by constant alterations between democratization and dictatorships, with the free market and the prospect of multi-party elections flourishing one moment, and then being replaced by the establishment of the death penalty for political dissent the next. Finally, on 27th February 1991, the interim, unaffiliated Caretaker Government supervised the nation’s first free, fair (or as free and fair as possible) election, which placed the BNP in power with Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister.
Other parties, such as the AWAMI League, Jamaat-I-Islami Party, and Jatiya Party, had a seat at the leadership table—marking a new optimistic era of what seemed to be the beginnings of multi-party democracy in Bangladesh. For the next two decades or so, political power fluctuated between the BNP and the AWAMI League. The economy soared. Poverty slowly but surely declined. Life expectancy rose, beating out India and Pakistan. Standards of living began its rocky climb upwards. The political scene began to clean itself up, brushing off the authoritarian cobwebs it had been thrust into. Things looked good.
But by 2011, things started to change.
After two decades of relative democratization and liberalization of the economy, the government under the AWAMI League began to tighten its grip on Bangladeshi society. AWAMI, making rather nefarious use of its veto-proof majority in Parliament, removed the famous Caretaker Amendment from the constitution. This amendment mandated an interim, nonpartisan caretaker government to supervise elections and take over during transitions of power, an apparent guarantor of smooth, democratic handovers of power.
The result was unambiguous—it directly paved the way for the consistent, “undefeated” AWAMI administration that Bangladesh has been under ever since. The 2014 election was famously (and some say naively) boycotted by rival party BNP, making electoral competition nonexistent and ushering in an unequivocal AWAMI victory. The recent 2018 election took a more violent turn, involving the use of force and (internationally condemned) “cheating” to make sure AWAMI emerged victorious with virtually no opposition.
All the healthy, inspiring traits of a dictatorship.
The publication National Interest briefly sums up this political decline: “Bangladesh ranks 144th out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders’ press freedom index ranking. Between 2014 and 2017, it fell from 85th to 92nd out of 167 countries in the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. One of the harshest assessments comes from a March 2018 Bertellsmann Stiftung report, which classifies Bangladesh as an autocracy because it ‘no longer meets minimum standards for democracy,’ such as fair elections.”
But authoritarianism in Bangladesh has been long time coming. As explained above, its history up until the 90s was rife with one-party totalitarianism, militarization, and some government policies a little too close to fascism for comfort. A series of changes made to the Bangladeshi legal and political environment—changes that usually disregard or outright trample upon civil liberties—have marked the nation’s retreat from democracy.
One of the primary and most immediate victims: free speech. The recently passed Digital Security Act has become the poster boy of Bangladesh’s assault on free expression. It is a heavy-handed bill calling for government micromanagement of anything posted online, especially on social media—in particular, cracking down on “aggressive and frightening” content. If that description sounds incredibly vague, that’s because it is. Deliberately worded to be applicable to as much content as possible, the Digital Security Act has become a natural predator of free speech, targeting journalists and writers posting any kind of work that can loosely be described as controversial—unsurprisingly, specifically writings concerning the government or religion.
This segues into the rise of political Islam in Bangladesh. Though constitutionally secular, Islam—or a very politicized and Wahhabi mutation of it—has come to play a significant role in modern Bangladeshi politics. Public school curricula have undergone major shifts in material, removing work by secular and non-Muslim writers. Statues were removed from outside courts due to their perception as un-Islamic. A series of writers and critics of religion have been slaughtered by fundamentalists starting 2015, met with a feeble response from the government. “Feeble” is generous—it’s difficult to tell whose side the government is on. When asked about the killings, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been quoted as saying that the writings of the slain author shall be checked for any “immoral” or hurtful content, as if that has any bearing on the protected right to free speech (and the right to one’s life).
The 2018 election has become notorious as it buried any prospect of optimism about the state of democracy in Bangladesh or the direction of governance. Ballot boxes were mysteriously stuffed immediately after voting started. Vote counts in certain regions looked “awfully rigged,” with AWAMI emerging victorious at outrageous margins and with barely any votes registered for opponents. The primary opposition party, BNP, was served over 4,000 lawsuits for minor offences preceding the election. Worst of all, the BNP leader Khaleda Zia was jailed over corruption charges in what has been called an unfairly politicized trial. AWAMI-backed militias and their youth “representatives,” the Bangladesh Chattra League, have resorted to violence time and again to stamp out political dissent. According to Human Rights Watch, abductions and unlawful detainment by government-affiliated gangs have become the norm.
The result is made clear in The South Asia Journal: “In 2018, when there appeared to be a formidable opposition coalition, the AWAMI League government stole the election with a campaign to restrict voting, using all the tools in the how-to-steal-an-election handbook, and made the election not just less competitive but totally non-competitive. It won 96 percent of the parliamentary seats.”
Needless to say, the same party that has spearheaded the decline of democracy in Bangladesh is still in power. (Is the alternative—the Islamic-fundamentalist-allied BNP—any better? Likely not, but the persecution and suppression of this party sets a dangerous precedent for the nation and for multi-party democracy.) Some of the core values established by the Bangladeshi constitution—secularism, democracy, and pluralism—have all been consistently trampled by this administration, and there are no signs of any progress in the other direction. If pressure from both within and beyond Bangladesh is not applied strategically, these values will not only be further undermined, they will be forgotten, buried along with the bodies of the human victims who have fallen prey to an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Adeeb Chowdhury is a high school senior currently studying in Chittagong, Bangladesh. He is a U.S. State Department alumnus and formerly an American exchange student. Adeeb has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since elementary school but recently has chosen to focus on socio-political issues. He is also the president of multiple youth advocacy and leadership groups in Chittagong.