What Democracy Means to Us

Zillur Rahman | 29 May 2023
No image

IN TODAY’S world, democracy means many things to many people. We may find the term democracy being used to refer to a set of ideals, or perhaps being used as political double-speak, or even serving as an instrument of geopolitical rivalry. As definitions dilute, the world can collectively take a moment to reassess and re-examine before jumping into the fray. In this light, one of the most important questions to ask is, what do we mean when we talk about democracy?

I came across a proposed answer to this question in an article last month written by the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Yao Wen. In the article, the author eloquently expresses the opinion that there is no one-size-fits-all model of democracy. An opinion most intellectuals would wholeheartedly agree with. The article also goes on to describe how the Communist Party of China defines democracy and also comments on the current ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ discourse going on around the world.

The article inspired me to thoroughly examine the ideals of democracy that we, the people of Bangladesh, believe in and also compare the state of democracy in Bangladesh to the one espoused by China. From my understanding, the people of Bangladesh hold certain societal values in extremely high regard. All the historic struggles our people have faced have reinforced these ideals. These ideals are reflected in the 1952 language movement. They were put into words in the 1971 Proclamation of Independence. And these ideals were on display during the 1990 mass uprising in Bangladesh that eventually toppled the country’s military rule.

Freedom from oppression and tyranny, the right to self-determination, freedom of expression, equality, human dignity and social justice are the ideals and values that the people of Bangladesh have fought and died for. These are the values that form the pillars of the people’s mandate for democracy in Bangladesh. Any system of governance that does not ensure continuous and unending support of these core values will never be accepted by the people of Bangladesh as a ‘democracy’.

These values are not arbitrary ideologies made to draw lines against any other faction, government or foreign power. These are fundamental human values shared by all. That is why we see dignity, liberty and equality as the very first basic concepts in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, the ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ debate is sometimes framed as a convenient tool for geopolitical camp building. I believe those who look at it this way are missing the forest for the trees. In this world, there are those who believe in these values and work towards progressing them, and there are those who work against them only to benefit themselves. The battle against authoritarianism is very real, and it is also never-ending. We, the people of Bangladesh, have fought this battle many times, examples of which I have already given above.

If we are to compare Bangladesh’s unique mandate of democracy with those of other nations, we must compare the values we share. No democracy is perfect, and the democracy deficit in Bangladesh is great. According to the ambassador, democracy is an ideal that has always been cherished by the Communist Party of China. This statement makes me doubt whether the ideal of democracy we are talking about is at all similar, as we can see that historically, the Communist Party of China was very much against the pro-democratic movement in China in 1989, leading to the infamous Tienman incident. From then on, the government of China has taken an ongoing draconian approach to statewide media censorship and mass surveillance so that such a public uprising can never occur again.

The ambassador also stated that China respects the path to democracy based on its own national conditions and promotes democracy in international relations. Perhaps this is so right now, but this was absolutely not the case in 1972, when China vetoed Bangladesh’s application to the UN. Further doubt comes from the fact that the nation only recognised Bangladesh right after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and when one of the alleged masterminds behind the coup took power in the most undemocratic manner imaginable. Whether these actions reflect the values of democracy or not, I will leave it up to the readers.

In terms of actually executing the mandate of democracy, the ambassador wrote about how China has managed to address the problems of democracy that other nations are facing. They say that they have managed to replace ‘procedural democracy’ with ‘substantive democracy.’ The question of process versus results in democracy is indeed very complicated, and if China did indeed crack the code to perfect democratic governance, the results will speak for themselves. Comparatively, and unfortunately, the democracy we have in Bangladesh right now is neither procedural nor substantive.

The failure of Bangladesh’s local government system to incorporate the people’s voices in decision-making, the rampant corruption proliferating all aspects of Bangladesh’s society, the unchecked rise of inequality, and the abuse of the legal system to oppress journalists and opposition politicians all indicate a rapid departure from the core values of democracy that the people of Bangladesh once fought and died for.

Ultimately, the people of Bangladesh do not need any kind of foreign aid in determining what kind of democracy they should or should not aspire for. The people of Bangladesh are already very aware of what they want and what they lack. The only thing the people of Bangladesh need right now is the capability to make a choice. A capability that has been thoroughly undermined in the political debacles we call the last few elections. One cannot throw aside democracy in the name of development and then express ire at being called a hybrid regime. Right or wrong, the only legitimate form of democratic government is the one that is chosen by the people. It is still a long road ahead for Bangladesh on the path to democracy. We have come a long way, but I fear that right now, we may be walking backwards.

Zillur Rahman is the executive director of the Centre for Governance Studies and a television talk show host.

This article was originally published in New Age.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.