THERE is an entirely justifiable lament in Bangladesh regarding the lack of sound scholarly materials on the country, particularly those produced by Bangladeshi academics themselves. While some disciplines, such as economics, have managed to produce work of high quality and relevance, most other areas in the social sciences and the humanities have been a bit wanting. Except for the determined efforts of some individuals (e.g., Prof. Rounaq Jahan and a few others), Political Science has remained among the low performers in the contemporary period. Not only is original research and scholarship on the subject a bit sketchy and scattered, even a reliable and readable book on the political history of Bangladesh is not readily available. In his latest book, Prof Ali Riaz, one of the few political scientists whose intellectual engagement with the country has been persistent, sophisticated and productive, satisfies that last need in a most commendable manner.
Bangladesh presents a very interesting challenge for scholars particularly in the context of the “paradoxes” it reflects. This is a country that had been established through a brutal and intense liberation war inspired by some lofty ideals about constitutionalism, secularism and social justice which witnessed those principles gradually becoming complicated, if not compromised,over time. This is a country that is predominantly Muslim but has a fairly well established history of tolerance and inclusiveness, has a touching and, often, assertive faith in democracy, and repeatedly chooses women to head its governments. This is a country that is mired in corruption, inefficiency, political polarization and weak governance but, nonetheless, enjoys a fairly lively pace of economic development, significantly lowers the rate of poverty, and has made substantial progress in improving the quality of life of the people as measured through various social indicators. Riaz seeks to unravel some of these puzzles.
At one level the book, particularly the first three chapters, is a fairly brisk introduction to the society and politics of Bangladesh from its emergence as an independent country in 1971 till more recent times. There is a brief history of “Bengali” nationalism as a response to the economic disparity, cultural insensitivity and political injustice that the Pakistani ruling classes had inflicted. The author then proceeds to describe the country's political evolution after its independence – its struggles to establish democracy and occasional experience of militaryor semi-authoritarian rule, the emergence and consolidation of new regimes, the policy and ideological spaces they tended to occupy, and conflicts over political power sometimes expressed in rhetorically bombastic and strategically cynical ways. That history is complex, at times a bit messy. Nonetheless, it is presented with admirable detachment and objectivity.
But the book is not a mere chronological account of events and leadership changes. In the second part of the book, encompassing the last four chapters, Riaz explores several themes that are essential to an understanding of Bangladesh today. First, he discusses the nature and quality,as well as the challenges and trends, of democracy through a thorough review of the extant literature in reference to the results of various pertinent public opinion surveys, electoral data, and the delineation of different regime types. Second, he draws upon his previous and well-respected work on the schizophrenic malaise of Bangladeshis as they are torn between embracing their religious or their linguistic-cultural identity, the politicization of this issue, and the rise and influence of extremism and intolerance in the country. Third, he analyses the confusing situation regarding the large number of political parties in Bangladesh, particularly the contradictory tendencies towards fragmentation and their simultaneous enthusiasm for (at times opportunistic) alliance formations. And finally hetries to identify the factors which have fueled the “engine” of economic development in Bangladesh against, what many would consider to be, insurmountable odds. In all of this, Riaz demonstrates his command of the available material and his considerable skill in weaving them together in coherent and elegant ways.
There are a few, hopefully constructive, suggestions that may be offered. First, there are some intriguing silences in the book that are a bit unusual from a writer otherwise so perceptive and compassionate. Women's role in development work is mentioned, but gender issues either in terms of the structural inequities women suffer, or the routine physical and psychological traumas they have to endure, are not given adequate space. Similarly, some attention to the violence in the country driven by partisan, communal, or class considerations (sometimes all three simultaneously), or environmental concerns and mobilizations, or Bangladesh's location in a globalized structure of production and exchange (particularly its relationship with its neighbors) and so on, may have added to the book's comprehensiveness.
Second, one of the greatest merits of the book is that it presents a formidable compilation of appropriate information(including survey data, electoral results, development indicators, dates/names relevant to important events, and so on). But the efforts at explanation may, at times, be a bit uneven. For example, the chapter on Democracy is both empirically and theoretically rich and unique. However, the one on “Unpacking the Paradox of Development” suffers in comparison because the author relies on the traditional trisect of causes usually cited as relevant to Bangladesh's economic accomplishments – generous remittances from abroad, the burgeoning RMG sector, and resourceful NGO activism. Perhaps some reference to the conditions in which these three opportunities came about, the specific reasons that led to their success, the current challenges or future prospects they face, and other factors contributing to economic growth, may have made the discussion more consistent with the standards he himself has set elsewhere.
It must be remembered that a book which is an overall survey of political history of a country cannot possibly be all things to all people, and there are limits to the explanatory frameworks that may be marshaled. To criticize a book for what it does not contain is probably a bit churlish. What it does contain is most impressive. The language is judicious, the analysis rigorous, the insights astute, the research exhaustive. Those studying Bangladesh, or just interested in knowing about the country, should be grateful to Riaz. Political scientists should feel proud and, in some ways, vindicated.
The reviewer is Prof. Emeritus, Black Hills State University, USA and Director, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka.