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Landscape of Violence: Local Elections and Political Culture in Bangladesh Author(s): Hussain Zillur Rahman Reviewed work(s): Source:

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 47 (Nov. 24, 1990), pp. 2622-2624 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: . Accessed: 26/11/2011 05:01
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Landscape of Violence Local Elections and Political Culture in Bangladesh

Hussain Zillur Ralhman The analysis of violence as. an aspect of political culture opens up interesting insights into the evolution of the Bangladesh polity. A visual story of the incidents of violence in five local level elections since 1973.
ARE Bengalis naturallyprone to violence? Is Bangladeshone vast 'jhagrapur' all quarreland no solidarities-as coined by a muchquoted p-airof western academics?' There is little disputingthe fact that violenceseemingly abounds in every strata of the Bangladesh polityand society. A glance at any of the nationaldailiesand theirmofussil round-ups brings this home quite clearly. But how valid is it to see the roots of such violence in some innate feature of the national character? It is in fact misleadingto look for the explanations of violence in some essentialist characteranalysis as some 'experts'would have it. The nature and level of violence is not a permanentstate; therecan be distinct patternsto them and these may change over time. The explanationsof violence is better understoodin the analysisof power,i e, what nations of powermotivatethe aspiringindividual, how rulinggroups accumulate,hold powerwithinsociety,and finally and exercise to what extent overt violations of social norms of justice impinge upon threshold levels of tolerance of the common people. If we were to summarise these dimensions within a single term, this would be political culture. The analysis of violence as an aspect of insights politicalcultureopens up interesting into the evolution of the Bangladeshpolity. For a concrete illustration, we shall look at local-level elections, specifically union parishad and upazila parishadelections. In many ways, local-level elections constitute a potentialsite of action for all the keyactors of the political arena, i e, the ruling group in control of the state,oppositionalnational parties vying to challenge the incumbent government, locally-based political entrepreneurspursuingtheir individual interests and lastly, the local masses acting on perceived common interests. Not all of them may in the event get to play any active role in electoral outcomes which is where violence comes in as a factor to limit, constrain or exclude participation by one or more of these political actors. The story which we have reconstructed here is a simple one in outline. It is also largely a visual story. Drawing upon the major national dailies as our source material, we have collated all reported incidentsof violence for five local levelelections, i e, union parishadelections of 1973, 1977, 1983-84and 1988and lastlythe recently completed upazila elections of 1990.The five give as it were the story of local democracyfor the entirepost-independence 2622 period. The information collated from the newspapershave been plotted onto maps to provide an easily-grasped visual analysis of the extent and spread of electoral violence over the 19 years of independence (Maps 1 to 5). Before proceedingfurther,a clarification on the sourcematerial.It is, of course,likely that not all incidents of violence will find their way into news reports. Reported incidents of violence as a statistic is in that sense frequently likely to be an underestimate. This may not, however, significantly distort the broad contours of the story if the bias towards underestimation operates uniformly in all the years. Since therehas been little to suggestany dramatic changes in thescope or efficiency of locallevel reportingover the post-independence period, it seems reasonable to take the picture which emerges as valid in broad terms. To a largeextent, the visual story revealed through Maps 1 to 5 is a self-explanatory one. Comparedto the 1970s, the 1980sappear to have witnessed a major expansion in the role of violence in local elections. Violence marred 138 polling centres in the

MAP I A Look at Ihcidence of Electoral Violence: Union Parishad ElectionI1973



Economic and Political Weekly November 24. 1990


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union parishad elections of 1973 (Map 1). concentrated But this violencewas regionally in Chittagong, Comilla, Sylhet, Jamalpur, Khulna and Barisal. The 1977 union parishadelectionsappearto haveexperienced the least violence with only 38 polling centresaffected(Map 2). The trendis reversed in the 1983-84union parishad elections (Map 3): Twohundredand four polling centres wereaffected by violence but unlike the 1973elections, the incidenceof violence has regionalspreadindicatingthe a muchgreater emergence of electoral violence as a more generalphenomenon.The trendis continued and virtually engulf the entire country during the 1988 union parishad elections (Map 4) with over 3,000 polling centres affected. Violence rather than participation becomes here the dominant theme in the electoral experience.The trend is partially reversedin the 1990 upazila parishad elections (Map 5). The scale of violence is lesser than in 1988 but still higher than the level in 1983-84 with 266 centres affected and significant regional concentrations in Chittagong, Noakhali, Munshiganj, Keraniganj, Brahmanbaria, Gopalganj, Jessore, Satkhira and Rajshahi. The intrusionof violence within the electoral sphere as analysed above appears to have stemmed from two different political imperatives. We may distinguish these as (a) violence as a form of political competition and (b) violence as intending political exclusion.One importantfeatureof contemporary political culture is the instrumental use of violenceas a methodof politicalcompetition. The rules of the political game increasingly allow for this form of competition. The election of 1983-84 and in particular the election of 1988, however, demonstrate additionaland distinctlydifan ferent imperativeat work. Violence here is resorted to not primarily to engage in politicalcompetitionbut to excludethe local society from participation in the political process altogether.Assuming the character of wholesaleintimidationwhichdeteractual voting, the function of violence here is less a partisan one than an imposition by the central authorities on the local society. Violence in this instance operates to disenfranchise the community ironically through the very medium of local elections. The 1988 local elections clearly mark the high point of such an imperative with political participation reduced to a virtual minimum all across the country in favour of the will of rulinggroups in control of the state. The 1990 elections appear to mark a with retreatfromthe exclusionary imperative a partial revival of the scope for political competition. Such a retreat is neither accidental nor arise out of the good intentions of the incumbent government but reflectratheralteredpoliticalcalculationson the part of ruling groups forced on by external and internal pressures for yvider political participation. The revival of political competition has been underpinned

both by the continued use of violence and the spontaneousvigilanceby the local community. In this, the state has as3umed a characteristically ambiguousrole,i e, on one hand in conflict with the wider democratic aspirations of the people and on the other generallyunable or unwilling to impose its exclusionary will on the local community. Such contradictory roles has on balance tended to tilt the local political landscape of 1990more towardspoliticalentrepreneurship than tQwards enhanced role of the an democratic polity. To the extent that it has continued to be underpinned by violence, the revival of political competition at the local level has been a changefor the betterin only a special, very restrictedsense-a process seen more accurately as a balance of terror amongst political entrepreneurs than a definitive assertionof the democraticpolity.No doubt the politicalcapacitiesemergingthroughthe balance of terrorprocess bespeaksof a certain dynamismat the base of the Bangladesh polity. However, democraticpotentialafthe fordedby such local-leveldynamismappear to be strictly circumscribed on another plane, namely,the hegemoniccontrol of the functionsand representational authoritiesof local government institutions by the bureaucraticstate. With such powerful instruments of control at hand, the ruling group does not appear immediately

threatenedwith any loss of politicalcontrol by certain amount of 'opposition' success. Indeed, one political strategywhich can be discerned is the calculated use of pressure by the incumbent administration to individually co-opt 'opposition' victors, a task made easier by the large number of 'independent' victories. The political prospectopen to the victors of the 1990 local elections appear then to one. Whiletheycan surely be a double-edged partake of the spoils of incumbency,they will find it hard going if they aspire to be of the power-houses democratic alternatives. Truthfullyspeaking, such aspirations may of evenbe misplacedif unaware the obstacles existing by way of the hegemonic control over local government bureaucratic stateby power. But we need not despair. For the long-suffering dwellers of village Bangladesh, the meaning of democracyin any case stand reducedto a minimalistconnotation, namely,not who can do the most good but rather who might do the least harm. From this perspective,the potential significance of the revivalof political competition may lie not so much in an expansion of democraticrights as in a reduction in arbitrary oppression.A balanceof terror may then even be seen as 'better' than the earlierone-sidedterror.Such are the idioms in which democracyappearsto speak in today's Bangladesh.

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the Tamil minority - a conflict that threat-

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-November 24, 1990