Elites and the Masses

As the elite has changed since independence, so too have the masses, and the relationship between them. It is still a strongly clientelistic set-up, but it is not as informal, farm-based, or infused with ideas of benevolence as was the case a decade or two ago. What has changed is as follows: in the political relationship between the ruling elite and the masses, we hear a change in tone from the grateful masses to an increasingly sophisticated political society. In the economic domain we see a marked shift towards real structural interdependencies with business depending on the labour of the masses. It is here that conflicts of a class nature are showing up, arguably for the first time since the tebhaga agrarian rebellions of the 1930s. In the social relationship, we see a shift away from interpersonal patronage to a more organized and public form of charity, a professionalization that marks the growing detachment from semi-feudal relations and the need for elites to create and demonstrate social status.

The Spirit of '71

There are also continuities in that relationship. Despite growing economic distance, the elites and the masses share important beliefs and cultural practices. For the Muslim majority, this includes adherence to a customarily private, moderate, and tolerant form of Islam. For the middle and upper classes, newer forms of religiosity are more assertive and more reflexive. In their rising use of the hijab or burka, educated and affluent women come to resemble their moffusil sisters whose mobility has always been limited or licensed by Islamic modesty in their dress.[1] Compared to the secular leftism of the progressives in their parents' generation ('Frantz Fanon and all that', as one nostalgically recalled), the post-'71 elite generation arguably takes more interest in the intellectual and cultural history and practice of Islam, so that faith connects them to their Muslim-majority fellow citizens.

But it is a complex religiosity that competes with cultural identity and political values and does not imply rejection of secular (or non-communal) values within the nation-state. Values of pluralism and justice can be consistent with faith (Huq 2010). The complex relation between Islam, national identity, and political values—an identity crisis older than Bangladesh[2]— reemerged in the Shahbag movement of 2013. This campaign occupied the city centre for weeks, with up to half a million people reportedly involved.

Shahbag cut across classes but also generations, bringing people from all walks and stages of life onto the street in support of the delayed 'transitional' justice for the war crimes of 1971. Paradoxically, given the bloodthirst of a campaign demanding the death penalty for Jamaat-i-Islami politicians convicted of war crimes, the movement was a brief reprisal of the unity of the painful but glorious nationalist struggle, a sign that 'the spirit of '71' lived on.[3] This movement has now been reduced—or inflated—to a struggle of Western-oriented middle-class moderns against vernacular traditionals seduced by militant Salafists (adherents to extreme text-based orthodoxy).[4] Yet Shahbag should be interpreted as continuitywith the past, as a broadly shared demand for justice overdue.

  • [1] See for instance Huq (2010, 99) who identifies a growing tendency for 'a brand of Islam that ismore thought through and is disseminated from extra-familial sources' among women across theclass divide. Rozario (2006) discusses the rise in veiling among educated women.
  • [2] See R. Ahmed (1996) on 'The Crisis of Identity-Muslims or Bengalis?', chapter 4.
  • [3] Although some of those who were there in 1971 struggle to see the connections—see Zeitlin (2013).There may be more detailed accounts in Bangla, but analyses in English include Murshid (2013); Lewis(2013);Zeitlyn (2014). The leftist blog Alai o Dulal features the best of the progressive political eventsanalysis: http://alalodulal.org/2013/03/19/paltan-to-shahbag/ (accessed 7 October 2015).
  • [4] Murders of 'atheist bloggers' by fundamentalists solidified the clash-of-civilizations thesis andintroduced a transnational dimension, with British-Bangladeshi fundamentalists claiming the killing(Hammadi 2015). Zeitlyn's (2014) article about how the politics of Shahbag and the InternationalCriminal Tribunal were being viewed by British Bangladeshis seems prescient in light of thisdevelopment.
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