Bangladesh, and the Lucifer Effect – The Allure of Toxicity A Situationist Explanation of the Evil in Bangladesh by Iftekhar Sayeed

 “Where there is love, let me sow hatred,
Where there is pardon, injury,
Where there is truth, error,
Where there is faith, doubt,
Where there is hope, despair,
Where there is light, darkness,
Where there is joy, sadness.”

 To the memory of Mahima


The people of Bangladesh didn’t always use to be evil. That changed, however, with our democratic transition.

No better representation of collective perversity can be adduced than a brief report from a local English daily.

“Police on Tuesday submitted charge-sheet of the sensational Mahima gang-rape case accusing four rakes of the heinous crime….They are said to be local activists of Jatiyabadi Chatra Dal [JCD], the student wing of ruling BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party].

“It is stated in the charge that Mahima, 15, daughter of Abdul Hannan of Kathalbaria village in Puthiya upazilla was picked up by the accused from the backyard of her home and gang-raped by them on February 13.

“The rapists also took photographs of the raping scenes and exhibited those to the public to humiliate her and the family.

“Ultimately, the teenager committed suicide by taking pesticides on February 19 to hide her disgrace forever (The Bangladesh Observer, 7th March, 2002).”

This is clearly not ‘just’ another case of rape. Mahima was raped because her father and brother belonged to the opposition, the Awami League (AL). This was a case of political hatred, rape being a common method used to humiliate men-folk in conflicts. Needless to add, the rapists got away, scot-free. Note well the immunity of the perpetrators, for this will be a common element in all the political violence in Bangladesh.

These incidents constitute a pattern. “Incidents of sexual harassment at educational institutions over the last few years provide a shocking pattern: the perpetrators are mostly political activists, especially those belonging to the student fronts of the mainstream political parties (The Daily Star, 11th March, 2000)”.

In September 1998, a committee investigated allegations of sexual abuse at Jahangirnagar University against boys from the Chatra League [BCL], the student front of the ruling Awami League. It revealed that “more than 20 female students were raped and over 300 others were sexually harassed on the campus by the ‘armed cadres of a particular political party’ (The Daily Star, July 31st, 2001) “. The political party was not named because of the obvious retribution to be expected by the members of the committee from the ruling party at the time.

The title of this article derives from the book by Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, significantly subtitled, Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007). The Abu Ghraib scandal broke in May 2004, with the spread of ‘trophy photos’ taken by members of the US Military Police, showing images “of punching, slapping and kicking detainees; jumping on their feet; forcibly arranging naked, hooded prisoners in piles and pyramids; forcing naked prisoners to wear women’s underwear over their heads; forcing male prisoners to masturbate or simulate fellatio while being photographed or videotaped by female soldiers smiling or encouraging it; hanging prisoners from cell rafters for extended time periods; dragging a prisoner around with a leash tied to his neck; and using unmuzzled attack dogs to frighten prisoners (pp 18-19)”.

The “iconic” image was that of the “triangle man”. a hooded detainee seen standing with arms protruding from a garment blanket revealing electric wires attached to his fingers. The wires were not live, but he was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box if his strength gave out. The image made the cover of The Economist, with the caption, Resign, Rumsfeld, alluding to the secretary of defence under George Bush.

There were even more pictures which the US government chose not to show the public. “I have seen hundreds of these images, and they are indeed horrifying,” continues Zimbardo. “I was shocked, but I was not surprised. The media and the “person in the street” around the globe asked how such evil deeds could be perpetrated by these seven men and women, whom military leaders had labeled as “rogue soldiers” and “a few bad apples.” Instead, I wondered what circumstances in that prison cell block could have tipped the balance and led even good soldiers to do such bad things.”

Zimbardo’s book argues that the apples weren’t bad, but the barrel itself was bad – the barrel that the American leadership had created.

This view is known in political psychology as ‘situationism’, that what shapes political behaviour are the situations individuals find themselves in. The opposite position is known as ‘dispositionism’, the view that internal psychological makeup – beliefs, values and so on – determine political, and other, behaviour.

Broadly speaking, situations trump dispositions in group settings, where forces such as conformity and obedience compel unwanted behaviour. As David Houghton notes, “novelty, ambiguity, and uncertainty in general – paired with the relative absence of social or situational pressures on decision-making – all seem to enhance the importance of dispositionism (Political Psychology: Situations, Individuals And Cases, New York: Routledge, 2009, p 240)”.

Leadership positions are characterised by “novelty, ambiguity, and uncertainty in general – paired with the relative absence of social or situational pressures on decision-making”. Therefore, the further up the hierarchy we go, the greater the scope we have for blaming individuals, rather than circumstances, for wicked deeds. This is the tack taken by Philip Zimbardo in assigning blame for the Abu Ghraib incidents.

At the close of the book, after looking at all available evidence from the media and the military, Zimbardo sets the reader to do jury duty (p 439):

“Are you willing and ready to make a judgment of complicity in the abuses at Abu Ghraib and many other military facilities and secretly run CIA jails of each of the following high-ranking members of the military command: Major General Geoffrey Miller, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, Colonel Thomas Pappas, and Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan?

“Are you willing and ready to make a judgment of complicity in the abuses at Abu Ghraib and many other military facilities and secretly run CIA jails of each of the following top members of the political command: former CIA director George Tenet and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld?

“Are you willing and ready to make a judgment of complicity in the abuses at Abu Ghraib and many other military facilities and secretly run CIA jails of each of the following top members of the political command: Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush?”

Indeed, it was obvious to the Economist that this was a systemic, not an isolated, problem. “Moreover, the abuse of these prisoners is not the only damaging error that has been made and it forms part of a culture of extra-legal behaviour that has been set at the highest level. Responsibility for what has occurred needs to be taken—and to be seen to be taken—at the highest level too.” The article mentions Guantanamo Bay and the suspension of the Geneva Conventions, concluding that Donald Rumsfeld should resign or be fired by George Bush, arguing, strangely enough, that the president could always be voted out of office at the next election.

This article will argue that democracy in Bangladesh has created ‘situational enemies’, a term used by Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, p 235). It will argue furthermore that the evil in Bangladesh is directed and sustained by the malicious dispositions of our political leaders, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. However, since democracy was foisted and forced on us by western donor countries, ultimate accountability must rest with western leaders.


Before proceeding, it is imperative that the reader understand a peculiarly Bangladeshi evil, the hartal. Hartal is the means employed by the opposition to overthrow the government by forcing all traffic off the roads, thereby bringing the country to a standstill, by means of violence. Hartal is best illustrated by enumerating examples of hartals. Here are a few, gleaned from local newspapers.

“Politicians are not human”.

Such was the pronouncement of the brother of Salahuddin (33), a fisherman, who was killed in a skirmish between the two student wings of the political parties in the latest hartal (Prothom Alo, 6th April, 2001).[1] Two rickshaw-pullers – one of them unidentified, the other Badaruddin (32) – were bombed while they were pulling their rickshaws during hartal hours. It took them 24 to 48 hours to die (The Daily Star, April 4th 2001). [1]An auto-rickshaw was burned to ashes, and when the driver, Saidul Islam Shahid (35), tried to put out the flames, he was sprinkled with petrol, and burned to death. It took him more than two days to die (The Daily Star, April 5th 2001). Truck driver, Fayez Ahmed (50), died when a bomb was thrown on his truck (The Daily Star, April 4th 2001).[1] And Ripon Sikder, a sixteen-year-old injured by a bomb, died on 4th May at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital after struggling for his life for eleven days (The Daily Star, May 6 2001).

A headline in The Daily Star reads: “Arson attack on bus kills 9; Bomb hurled on transport in several city areas”. On the night of June 4, 2004, a double-decker public bus full of passengers in front of the Sheraton Hotel in Dhaka blew up in flames. “The fire caught my wife Yasmin and burnt her alive before my eyes on the upper deck,” said Abdur Rahim, bursting into tears. Six people were incinerated inside the bus, and a burnt man jumped to his death; two others, including a two-year-old child, died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

“This sort of incidents (sic) take place before every hartal and you also know the perpetrators,” said Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ashraful Huda, careful not to name the Awami League, the opposition at the time, who were destined to be his future boss.

More recently, in January 2015, according to journalist David Bergman, 61 members of the public perished in hartals, most of them burnt to death. On 14th January 2015, for instance, five people were burned alive when a petrol bomb was hurled on a long-haul bus at Jagirhat in Rangpur. This was a blockade, or siege, a variation on hartal, when entire cities are cut off from the rest of the country using violence, usually arson. The bus was torched despite traveling in convoy with 30 other buses under police protection.

“We don’t do politics. We are common people. Why should we be the victims?” asked Al-Amin, a survivor.” If they wanted to torch the bus for political reasons, they could have done that after getting the passengers out of the bus. Why did they attack common people like us?”

On February 2, 2016, again a bus was set ablaze in Chouddagram in Comilla, burning alive seven people and injuring around 26 passengers. This time, a case was filed against the leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia. In court, her lawyer alleged that the arsonists had been ruling party leaders out to ruin the image of his client. Of course, neither of the two Begums (ladies) had been anywhere near the scene of the crime (they never are, having devoted followers to do their noisome deeds), so it’s her word against the other. Both of them are perfectly capable of ordering such attacks. As noted, they have evil dispositions.

One could expand this enumeration of murder; but verb sap. The sensitive will need no further enlightenment, and for the others (who are many), no amount will suffice. Let us press on with other, related concerns.

Having looked at the human toll of hartal, we turn to look at the economic cost, the only cost that has been stated and analysed by experts (perhaps a Bangladeshi life has little value). According to the World Bank, during every hartal five percent of GDP is lost – which works out at $50 billion (The Daily Star, May 3, 2001). In the 1980s, under military dictatorship, Bangladesh used to experience 21 full working days of hartals – in the democratic ‘90s, the figure rose to 47. That is to say, in the ’80s there were 21 – failed – attempts to overthrow General Hossain Mohammed Ershad, and in the ’90s there were 47 attempts to overthrow the democratically elected governments of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, which succeeded. In terms of lost output, the hartals in the first decade cost $11.05 billion dollars; in the second decade, they cost $23.5 billion: a dirt-poor Bangladesh took economic steps backwards. And the hartals grew more violent under democracy; under military rule there were no murders, arson or immolation – the state had not broken down into two warring factions, the General was firmly in charge. The country subsequently took giant leaps backwards in its humanity.

This is not paradoxical. As noted above, according to Jason Brennan, democracy makes us situational enemies. The last chapter of his book Against Democracy has the title ‘Civic Enemies’ (pp 231-245). “Politics tends to make us hate each other, even when it shouldn’t. We tend to divide the world into good and bad guys. We tend to view political debate not as reasonable disputes about how best to achieve our shared aims but rather as a battle between the forces of light and darkness. (pp 231-232).”

(Charles Taylor, in his book, A Secular Age, makes a similar observation: “A Buddhist acquaintance of mine from Thailand briefly visited the German Greens. He confessed to utter bewilderment. He thought he understood the goals of the party; peace between human beings, and a stance of respect and friendship by humans towards nature. But what astonished him was all the anger, the tone of the denunciation, of hatred towards the established parties. These people didn’t seem to see that the first step towards their goal would have to involve stifling the anger and aggression in themselves. He couldn’t understand what they were up to (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007, p 698)”.

One is reminded of W. B. Yeats’s lines:

…to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

This is not merely an opinion. Massive amounts of research by political scientists, social psychologists and political psychologists (to be described below) confirm the observation. The only reason Republicans and Democrats do not burn each other alive is that the state – and the idea of the state – is strong whereas in Bangladesh, and indeed the whole of South Asia, the idea of the state is absent. Loyalty has always been directed towards language, religion and caste. Thomas Hobbes has never made his presence felt here. Given the fragility of the state, elections wreak havoc. “The contradiction between a personalised Indian society and, in theory if not always in practice, an impersonalised colonial state apparatus became more acute after the introduction of the elective principle,” observes Ayesha Jalal (Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia, A Comparative and Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p 11). In addition, as we will see below, the stakes are low in the United States.

Having said that, it must be noted that the term ‘democracy’ has historically had a pejorative connotation, as we shall see, starting with the father of western political philosophy himself, Plato (see, for instance, the Republic 496 c-e, and below). Polybius, probably the last thinker to pronounce on the subject in antiquity, rechristened democracy into the unholy ‘ochlocracy’ (John Dunn, Setting The People Free: The Story of Democracy, London: Atlantic Books, 2005, p 57), which connotation stuck to it like a barnacle well into the eighteenth century, and which accurately describes its practice today in Bangladesh. “As it entered the eighteenth century, democracy was still very much a pariah word (p 71).”

Now we return to our subject, the perennial and iniquitous hartals of Bangladesh, the particular form of pathology that democracy here has taken. On the website Hartals Drain Bangladesh’s Potential, Christian Prokopp writes: “The shutdown of significant parts of economic activities and public life, and subsequent severe negative economic consequences are a deliberate part of hartals.”

Notice the identification of the state with the party: the opposition, by hurting the state (people, property, the economy), hurts the ruling party with its hartals. The state exists nowhere beyond the party.

Prokopp bemoans the lack of data on hartals – not an accident, for accurate data on the economy would show up in newspapers every week how the political parties were reducing the country’s growth rate. “One of the best sources is a study by the UNDP ‘Beyond Hartals’ from 2005, which investigates the hartals of the 1990s.” The hartals of the 1990s, as we saw, for the first time in our history brought the country to its knees, a post-democratic state of affairs, and therefore a subject of economic scrutiny. “A core finding of the UNDP study is that the hartals of the 1990’s in Bangladesh may have reduced the annual GDP growth by three to four percent. These figures are merely inferred from the number of hartal days to working days and the total annual GDP. The authors calculated a 4.5 percent GDP loss per year on average over the decade.”

However, hartals don’t only have immediate economic consequences – they impact the future. “Political instability exacerbated or instigated by hartals furthermore impedes infrastructure development in electrification and transportation, for example. Stability and infrastructure are undoubtedly substantial factors for the economical growth of Bangladesh. Lastly, the local private sector is discouraged to invest (sic) in such an uncertain environment. Garments production for example is sensitive to unrest, which obstructs reliable production and timely export of goods, which is essential to sophisticated, modern supply chains of foreign buyers.”

More significantly, hartals condition future assessments of the economy by potential investors, both local and foreign.  They not only create present death and loss, but generate a stream of ongoing misery.

Hartal figures vary for political reasons: no newspaper, as observed, will dare to report an ongoing tally of economic losses and face the wrath of the parties’ thugs (this theme of self-censorship by the local media will return, but rarely on account of thugs, though). Thus, we saw above that the Daily Star states that there were 21 hartals in the pre-democratic ‘80s, and 47 in the democratic ‘90s (the former being very benign compared to those in the ‘90s and thereafter, as we have observed). The trend, however, seems pretty clear, despite variations and vagueness in the numbers: hartals have skyrocketed since our democratic transition. On the Wikipedia page on hartals in Bangladesh, we find 59 days of hartal in the ‘80s, followed by 266 days in 1991-96, and 215 days in 1996-2001 – that is, a total of 481 days of hartal in a decade. The Banglapedia figures, though different, show the same trend, with the worst figures for 2000 to 2002 at 332 days of hartal, followed by 130 in 2003 to 2006 (Banglapedia gives hartal figures at national, regional and local levels, but only the first have been considered here, since they are the most virulent). Of the 721 hartals recorded by the Banglapedia since the country came into being as East Pakistan in 1947, 591 occurred after the democratic transition of 1990 – that is, 82 percent in a mere 21 years (1990-2011). The article needs updating since, as we have seen, there have been many and severe hartals as recently as 2015, when, according to David Bergman, 61 people died, most of them burnt alive, in January alone (Bergman notes that altogether 119 people died through political violence, including hartals, in January and February, 2015).

There were no hartals at all in 2007 to 2008, a period of peace and good government fondly recalled even today, when the military, the de facto sovereign, took over (according to the German legal philosopher, Carl Schmitt, the sovereign is the institution that succours a nation in extreme circumstances, and the Bangladesh Army has done so on repeated occasions).

Hartal, then, appears to be the acme of evil in Bangladesh, the favoured instrument of Lucifer’s hatred of humankind dwelling in peace before he turned his sulphurous gaze on this blessed land. Yet, according to the Supreme Court, hartal is a constitutional right. Yes, anyone with beef against the government can legitimately wound, kill, burn, bludgeon, bomb his or her compatriots to further the cause. “Hartal, though a right, is apt to curtail the rights of people not willing to participate in it. In that sense, hartal is viewed by many as a coercive political right,” concludes the Banglapedia article. Only in a so-called democracy with two dynasties rotating in power using power, naked and unrestrained, can the oxymoron ‘coercive political right’ be printed without shame.

Finally, a word on the international press. Bangladesh receives scant coverage in world media (it’s an easy-to-miss country, nestled imperceptibly next to India), and when it does, the result is often distortion. We have seen the centrality of hartal in the ‘democratic process’ (for want of a better expression). But the word is untranslatable into English, the world language. This is not an accident; the meaning of a word arises from the rules for its use in society, the upshot of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s stress on the connection between linguistic activity and a ‘way of life’ (‘translation’, A Dictionary Of Philosophy, ed. Antony Flew, London: Pan Books, 1979). Consequently, you cannot translate between languages: you can’t transfer a way of life. Therefore, we come across the following in The Economist: “On October 26th [2013] the two women who for over two decades have dominated politics in the Muslim-majority country of over 150m spoke on the telephone. It was their first conversation in many years. Their country was in crisis, on the brink of a 60-hour hartal, or national strike, called by one of them, Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).”

Hartal = national strike.

I’ve never heard of a national strike; inevitably, the word is a neologism. Now, there is general strike, defined by Collins online as “a strike by all or most of the workers of a country, province, city, etc, esp (caps.) such a strike that took place in Britain in 1926.” The reader of The Economist thus has a nebulous idea of most Bangladeshi workers downing tools at the behest of the opposition leader.

“The hartal went ahead. At least 13 people were killed and 1,000 injured as thuggish BNP loyalists battled the police for control of the streets, and hundreds of crude bombs exploded.” Now, the reader must be scratching her head. How can people get killed or injured in a national/general strike? Why bombs? Why thugs? It would take several pages of print to convey to the reader the meaning of the term, as we have had to do above. An anthropological inquiry is not a newspaper’s remit. The word erects a barrier between two diametrically opposed civilisations, incommensurable.

Then there is misinformation. “Nearly 50 people have been killed and more than 10,000 opposition activists arrested,” reported The Economist on February 2, 2015. But we are not told how they were killed. They were, as we have seen, burnt alive. Mistranslation and misinformation conspire to perpetuate the bad barrel of hartal.


Would you like to have your own private army – without spending a cent? Impossible? Not at all. It happens all the time. The cheapening of the soldiery is one of the blessings of modernity. Among other innovations, the post-1789 period in Europe created the citizen army. The number of soldiers exploded: in 1740, the peacetime Prussian army numbered 80,000 men, that of France, 160,000. In 1914, the peacetime strength of the German army was 750,000 which swelled to 1,700,000 on a war footing. Excess reserves and the Landswehr brought the total that could be brought into the field to 5,300,000; the peacetime strength of the French army was 800,000, its wartime strength 1,600,000, which, with reserves, totalled 4,400,000 men And these men were all nationals, unlike previous soldiers, many of whom had been foreigners (S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p 1549).

How did this remarkable change come about?

Finer continues: “In the old days, no state could have supported the cost of paying so many troops. But now they did not have to pay them more than a mere pittance. Here was a complete contrast to the eighteenth century: after all, it was the cost of the American War that led to the financial crisis in France and thereby the Revolution. This was all turned on its head, and the reason for it was that by now the ideology of nationalism had gripped the masses. It no longer seemed exceptional to be a soldier. Every able-bodied man regarded this, now, as a sacred duty. That is how, when 1914 came, so many millions of men went to their graves like sheep” (pp 1552-1553).

We are no longer dealing with Homo economicus, who carefully weighs costs and benefits, but with Homo psychologicus, the irrational agent (I owe this neat little distinction to David Houghton).

In Bangladesh, the student politicians serve as private armies to the two royal families, the House of Mujib and the House of Zia (currently incarnated in Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter, and Khaleda Zia, Zia’s widow, the leaders of the two political parties). The ruling Awami League’s student front is called the Chatra League (Chatra means student), and it also has a youth wing called the Jubo League (Jubo means young); the corresponding bodies of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party are the Jatiyatabadi (nationalist) Chatra Dal (JCD) and Jatiyatabadi Jubo Dal. Collectively, they may be compared to the Hitler Youth or Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.

The respectable appellation ‘student politician’ would, however, be inept. As we have seen, they are monsters. I suggest the term ‘student thugs’, to capture the genus and species: ‘student’ because they are not hired musclemen, and ‘thug’ because most students are their antithesis, diligent and pacific. They are the personnel behind the hartals. Without them, there would be no bombings, no immolations. That is to say, they are indispensable to the parties and their leaders. Their extra-rational loyalty to their respective leaders stems from the same madness as inspired the European armies: nationalism. (Notice that the people never participate in hartals: nationalism, unlike in Europe, never reached the masses here. It is an elite phenomenon, and thereby a contradiction. That should not be a surprise: the meaning of a word, as we have seen, cannot be transferred to another way of life. But that’s not the only contradiction: Mujib and his daughter’s nationalism is Bengali nationalism – Bengalism – and is anti-Islam, pro-India and strongly flavoured by Hinduism; Zia and his widow’s nationalism is Bangladeshi nationalism, pro-Islam, anti-Indian, pro-Pakistan. Thus, two rival nationalisms coexist, though the former is usually classed as more nationalist. But both claim extraterritorial loyalty to foreign countries, yet another contradiction. However, an ersatz nationalism is just as heady – and toxic – as the real McCoy.)

These are not revelations: everyone knows about the use of student thugs in politics. Quondam president and chief justice Shahabuddin Ahmed observed that “students are getting guns instead of education.” “He reiterated his stand against the ‘political use of students and urged the students to sever connections with the political parties’ (The Daily Star, July 11, 2000)” He became enormously popular for his ineffective jeremiads. Another former president, A. Q. M.  Badruddoza Chowdhury, thundered, “Students are armed to punish the opposition and we strongly condemn such acts” (The Bangladesh Observer, March 30, 2005).

When the Colombian FARC pressed children into military service, right-thinking people were appalled. When our political parties press children into thuggery, everybody turns a blind eye.  Donor-financed NGOs, which routinely publish the number of murders and rapes every year, never mention these young rogues, and their fate (their rational motives for ignoring the demise of student thugs have been detailed in The Freedom Industry).

These young boys (always boys) are filled with what the Greeks called ‘thumos’ – spiritedness. They are a lot like animals – lightly instructed, highly motivated, savagely instinctive.

“Do you think, said I, that there is any difference between the nature of a well-bred hound for this watchdog’s work and that of a well-born lad (Plato, The Republic 374e – 375a, trans. Paul Shorey, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)?”

Further: “And will a creature be ready to be brave that is not high-spirited, whether horse or dog or anything else? Have you never observed what an irresistible and invincible thing is spirit, the presence of which makes every soul in the face of everything fearless and unconquerable?

“I have.”

“The physical qualities of the guardian, then, are obvious.”


“And also those of his soul, namely that he must be of high spirit.”

“Yes, this too.”

“How then, Glaucon, said I, will they escape from being savage to one another and to the other citizens if this is to be their nature?”

“Not easily, by Zeus, said I. (Republic 375a – b).”

Not easily, indeed. Notre Dame College in the capital, Dhaka, is famed for keeping student politics out of the campus, unlike its opposite, the infamous Dhaka College. In 1991, the year after the annus mirabilis of our democratic transition brought about by these heroic, freedom-loving student politicians, as the myth goes, I went over to Notre Dame College, my alma mater, and spoke at length with Fr. Joseph Peixotto, the principal, and Fr. James Banas, the vice-principal. I asked them how they managed to keep students out of politics, and their answer was simple: whenever a student got into politics, they called the parents, and they would immediately pull him out. Obedience and conformity are built into the culture, but these can also be used by the political parties, which, in effect, become surrogate family, the founder serving as a father figure at the locus of a personality cult.

A recommendation from the principal of Notre Dame College weighs heavily in favour of students with the admissions departments of American universities. However much America may admire our student politicians, they don’t want them running amok on campuses there. But the padres of Notre Dame, which now holds the campus of Notre Dame University here, almost failed to stem the rot.

In 1974, the son of the prime minister, regarded by followers as the pater patriae, stormed into the campus with his thugs, cutting off electricity and intimidating the residents. The Fathers informed the police, but they were solidly behind the scion. The Fathers put on their cassocks, and heard him out. Sheikh Kamal demanded student politics. The priests agreed, but had secretly decided to leave the country. Sheikh Kamal sensed this, and never came back.

(It cannot be over-emphasised that these students are boys, minors, children. College in Bangladesh is high school. They enter college in their sixteenth year and exit in their seventeenth. The voting age in Bangladesh is eighteen.)

Consider the inference that Socrates draws from his observation of dogs.

“And does it seem to you that our guardian-to-be will also need, in addition to the being high-spirited [thumos], the further quality of having the love of wisdom in his nature?

“How so, he said. I don’t apprehend your meaning.

This too, said I, is something that you will discover in dogs and and which is worth our wonder in the creature. “What?”

“That the sight of an unknown person angers him before he has suffered any injury, but an acquaintance he will fawn upon though he has never received any kindness from him. Have you never marveled at that?”

“I never paid any attention to the matter before now, but that he acts in some such way is obvious.”

“But surely that is an exquisite trait of his nature and one that shows a true love of wisdom.

“In what respect, pray?”

“In respect, said I, that he distinguishes a friendly from a hostile aspect by nothing save his apprehension of the one and his failure to recognize the other. How, I ask you, can the love of learning be denied to a creature whose criterion of the friendly and the alien is intelligence and ignorance?”

Socrates concludes: “Then may we not confidently lay it down, in the case of man too, that if he is to be in some sort gentle to friends and familiars he must be by nature a lover of wisdom and learning (Republic 376a – c)?”

Love of wisdom and learning, philosophia, are, of course, the last thing on the minds of student thugs. They believe they know everything; certainly enough to decide who should rule the state.

The domestication of the spiritedness of Glaucon constitutes the master-question of the Republic. But might not the spirited part of the soul degenerate into the appetitive part, represented in the dialogue by Adimantus? Might not Glaucon become acquisitive? But that is not the worst fate than can befall the spirited. The worst fate is the criminalization of the thumotic soul.

It was in the year 1991, the year following our annus horribilis, that I made my first contact with a student thug. His name was Nanno (I never cared to learn his last name). He was a leader of the Chatra League, the student front of the Awami League, then in opposition. His elder brother, Liaquat, was in jail, and Nanno had logically inherited leadership of the local mafiosi of Eskaton, where my parents lived.

He rang the bell, and our servant opened the gate, and received a slap. Nanno swaggered into the driveway, sidekick in train, and was met by my father at the door. My mother stood behind him, rooted. They noticed the butt of a gun protruding from his pocket.

“They’re going to kill you,” he said.

My father had been chairman of the Bangladesh Textile Mills Corporation and had brought militant trade union leaders to heel. He knew how to negotiate.

“Then let them kill me.”

“No, no, why should they kill you?”

Abba had just sold the property, and Nanno knew of the transaction, and demanded his share, Takas 200,000 ($5,000 at the time).

He left, and the talks went on for a few days. Fortunately, my wife and I were not living with my parents at the time; otherwise, he might have slapped us around to impress them.

It didn’t even occur to us to go to the police. My parents had connections in the Awami League, but they were told they had to pay up; the money would go to the top.

When I learned what had happened, I made a phone call, and summoned eight professional murderers in my living room, most of them bleary-eyed with booze. They came pillion-riding noisily on four motorcycles, and made quite an impression on the guards.

“Tell us what we have to do,” barked the boss.

My father smiled and shook his head. I was young, and he was old. I had only one concern, their safety, and I didn’t care what I had to do to get it. There was no state to protect us.

I don’t know how much he paid Nanno, but they soon moved out and into an apartment building secured 24 hours by guards.

Homo psychologicus has graduated to Homo economicus. But sometimes, the thumotic soul just loses its thumos, as happened with Javed (not his real name).

It was in the year 1991 again, the year after the miraculous or terrible year, according to taste and judgment, that I sought out a quondam student thug and interviewed him in-depth. Javed was now in retirement, drug-addled and living off his family, a drop-out. He had been one of the heroes who supposedly toppled General Ershad. A psychiatrist I spoke to, Dr. Mirza M. Huq, confirmed that “it is not uncommon for students involved in politics to be addicted to drugs.” He was on the hit-list of the opposition, so moved to another city. His relatives shunned him. One observed, “He can kill a man in cold blood, and no one could tell by looking at his face.” Family pariah, national (and international) hero: such was the fate of student politicians. (A transcript and translation of the interview can be read here.)

Javed joined the party when he was fourteen (in 1988). By the age of fifteen, he was an armed member.

“How I got hold of arms. The aim was to organise a program at school, save money and buy arms. The teachers tried to stop us, but we went ahead with the program. We also collected tolls [extortion money] from businessmen in the area. Then we bought arms from an iron-smith. Pipe-gun, 250 takas ($6); cocktail, 1100 takas.

“After this episode, the party started giving us total assistance. They started to send boys from the armed cadres, or cells. They were our age; they didn’t attend school. Their sources of income were gambling, black marketing in cinema tickets, mugging, selling drugs, and extorting money from hawkers and shop-owners. These were ‘taxes’. Taxes were collected on a fairly regular weekly basis. The cadre boys would receive tax proportionate to the area they could control.”

Javed didn’t tell me if he had murdered anyone, and I didn’t ask. Some things can’t be talked about. But his peers did. After several rehabs, several lost jobs, a failed marriage, today he has a job, a wife and a son. He lives with his parents. But who will give him back the best years of his life? (Paradoxically, he’s still fiercely loyal to the party that exploited his youth; as a rule, the more severe the initiation, the greater the loyalty to the group (The Lucifer Effect, p 376).

He is lucky to be alive. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of student thugs murdered stood at 872 (including members of youth fronts), an average of 48 per year, or 4 per month. This is a typical news item: “Munshiganj, May 23 – Joint Secretary of Munshiganj City Chatra League [opposition party student wing] Masum Mia (28) was beaten to death….According to a report, the deceased Chatra league leader came under the attack of the assailants when he was found on the road. The attackers started beating him with sticks and fled the scene leaving the victim. When the body was taken to the Sadar hospital, the doctors declared him dead. The Sadar Thana police said there were some cases against the deceased Chatra League leader (The Bangladesh Observer, May 26, 2003).” A chart showing the number of newspaper headlines announcing the murder of student politicians can be found here (note the steep decline in the number of murders under military rule in 2007-8, and subsequent surge).

These young men are not killed by the authorities. They kill each other, almost always in the same political group, after they fall out among themselves over a division of the spoils. Homo economicus has gone into business. They typically collect extortion money from businesses in their designated areas. Nanno and his brother Liaquat, as we have seen, controlled the area of Eskaton in the capital, where my parents lived.

Newspapers and NGOs in Bangladesh have never carried out a study of the extent of Danegeld in the country (as opposed to say, delving deep into the number of young people watching pornography). This is understandable and, unfortunately, rational. The statistics would reflect badly on our donor-enforced democracy. Anecdotal evidence suggests extortion levels must be high: In El Salvador, extortion amounts to 16 percent of GDP.

However, in 2007, only 10 youths were killed and the next year the figure fell to eight. In 2007-8, the military took over the country, under General Moeen U. Ahmed. These were memorable years of peace and stability. The highest number of murders occurred in the year 2013, when the tally reached 110.

Between 1985 and 2000, 15 students were murdered at Tejgaon Polytechnik Institute (The Daily Star, 3rd April, 2000). They all belonged to political parties. The age of graduation from the institute is 18, so they must have been around 17 years of age. The five students killed in 1985 belonged to the Jatiya Chatra Samaj, the student front of the Jatiya Party, the party of then ruler, General H M Ershad. Ershad disbanded the Jatiya Chatra Samaj, realising his boys couldn’t cope with the other groups.

Why did Ershad fail to create loyal student thugs? Why couldn’t he channel their thumos?

He was the anti-hero. He had no ideology, no convictions or beliefs. He was personally corrupt. He rigged elections. He made Machiavellian use of religion: when it didn’t rain, he gathered his followers and prayed in the open. And then it rained. (In addition, he was a womanizer, while still married. He flaunted his mistresses, who were some of the most beautiful women in Bangladesh.) Loyalty to Ershad was based on rational considerations: money. He dispensed patronage. But he couldn’t buy the thumos of the students. They were Homo psychologicus, not Homo economicus, not the acquisitive soul.

This ‘rotting of the apples’ is not confined to student thugs. The ‘bad barrel of democracy’ has affected the entire society, even the person-in-the-street. Lynching, for instance, was virtually unknown pre-democracy, under Generals Ershad and Zia. A thief caught by a mob would be beaten up and handed over to the police. This testified to the low levels of crime and violence under these rulers, and to a certain degree of faith in the justice system. When political parties themselves became criminalised, and violence soared, this faith fell apart. Mobs began to beat alleged thieves, muggers and robbers to death – and worse.

“[The] catching [of] an alleged mugger and setting him on fire by pouring kerosene all over his body at Mirpur last Monday night raked up a nightmarish memory. We can’t forget that not so long ago lynching became a regular occurrence just about anywhere (sic) in the country. But mostly alleged muggers would either be burnt to death or set on fire by angry crowds in broad daylight in the capital city…(The Daily Star, January 12, 2003).” Between 2006 and 2018, newspapers have reported 677 incidents of lynching; that is, 52 per year and around four every month, with the highest total recorded so far in 2011, 98.

Lynching, no doubt, is a rational response to a failing and criminalized state, but the violence meted out seems sometimes disproportionate. Given the lawlessness in the country, with the two major political parties in the van of all things, the parties sought to assuage the public and hamstring the opposition with a series of ‘repressive’ laws. Laws curtailing fundamental rights had never been passed under military rule; there had been no scope or need. The ‘Special Powers Act’ had been passed in 1972 by the democratically elected Awami League under similar circumstances; Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed by the BNP in 1992-94; Public Safety Act (Awami League, 2000 – 2002); Offences Disrupting Law and Order (Summary Trial) (BNP, 2002); Speedy Trial Tribunal Act (BNP, 2002); Digital Security Act (Awami League, 2018).

Extra-judicial killing appeared for the first time since 1975. In the last ten months of 2018, there have been 437 extrajudicial killings, according to reports. They began with ‘Operation Clean Heart’ under prime minister Khaleda Zia of the BNP: between 16th October 2003 and 9th January 2004, the military arrested 11,245 suspects, more than 40 of whom died in custody.

Then there are the disappearances. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the “spate of secret detentions and enforced disappearances” have become commonplace in Bangladesh in recent years, according to Al Jazeera.

“While some people were released after weeks, even months, in illegal custody, others were later discovered to have been killed in so-called ‘armed exchanges’,” she said.

Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar estimates up to 414 individuals have gone missing between 2009 (when the Awami League government came to power after the military interregnum) and 2017. In 2017, Odhikar reported a further 86 disappearances. A report by Human Rights Watch published last year found that at least 90 people were victims of enforced disappearances in 2016 alone, 21 of whom were subsequently found dead.

Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special paramilitary unit, is alleged to be behind most of the disappearances. A Human Rights Watch in its report published in 2011 said the RAB has a “long record of killing people in custody.” The Rapid Action Battalion was created by Khaleda Zia when she was prime minister; it proved so popular that her rival Sheikh Hasina kept it on into her own tenure. State violence and street violence complement each other.


We have seen that lynching, extortion, even extrajudicial killing (which makes the government appear to be in charge), disappearances (largely directed at the opposition) are rational responses to an irrational situation – loyalty to two toxic leaders, or dynasties, in competition for power, instead of loyalty towards the state.

As early as 1908 – while Sigmund Freud was studying his patients in Vienna –  Graham Wallas, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), in his book Human Nature in Politics, warned against viewing every human action and decision as the result of a rational, intellectual process (Political Psychology, p 24). This was in the tradition of Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Le Bon in the 1800s in France.

Muzafer Sherif, a Turkish social psychologist, emigrated to America. He reasoned, strangely enough, that, America being a democracy, Americans would tend to be conformists because their democracy emphasised mutually shared agreements (The Lucifer Effect, p 262). In the early 1950s, he devised an ingenious experiment at Robber’s Cave, Oklahoma, to test his hunch. He took twenty-two schoolboys, none of whom knew each other, to a summer camp and divided them randomly into two groups. He had screened the boys for pathological traits to rule out any dispositional effects. Each group was then separated from the other for a week, during which time they developed their own leaders, identity and culture. Sherif then threw the two groups into a series of competitive activities and games. “Hostility quickly emerged between the two groups, to the point where they could not engage in non-competitive activities without insulting and even fighting one another (Political Psychology, p 170).” Mere, arbitrary classification of the boys into two groups sufficed to create hostility, a situational effect.  Political parties, divided by personality, ideology, history, and values must generate far greater hatred. In Sherif’s experiment, nothing was at stake; in national politics, issues like language, religion, money create a life-and-death struggle, as we have seen. Democracy makes us situational enemies, to repeat Jason Brennan’s felicitous expression. Yet democratic disputes in America are far removed from democratic disputes here.

“It’s especially bizarre,” observes Brennan, “that mainstream political discussion is so heated and apocalyptic, given how little is at stake. Republicans and Democrats disagree about many things, but in the logical space of possible political views they’re not merely in the same solar system but also on the same planet. They’re not debating deep existential questions about justice but instead surface disputes about the exact shape of the society they mutually accept. They’ve both agreed to buy the Camry; they’re now just debating whether to accept the sports package or hybrid (Against Democracy, p 232). In Bangladesh, parties contend over whether to get the Uzi or the Kalashnikov – to use against the other side.

In 1955, however, Sherif’s findings were challenged by social psychologist, Solomon Asch. Asch believed that Americans could act autonomously even when the group challenged his view. To test this, he devised an experiment in which he showed subjects four perpendicular lines, A, B, C and X, where C and X were the same length, and the others shorter or longer. Asch speculated that even if the group gave the wrong answer – A = X, or B = X – the individual would not subscribe to a transparent falsehood.

The subject made few mistakes (less than 1 percent of the time). But there were seven other members of the group (who were Asch’s confederates posing as subjects). They were instructed to give incorrect answers unanimously on specific ‘critical’ trials.

Of the 123 participants in Asch’s study, the individual yielded to the group 70 percent of the time on some of those critical trials. Thirty percent of the subjects conformed on the majority of trials, and only a quarter of them maintained their independence throughout the testing.

We conform out of two needs: informational needs (other people will have knowledge that may be useful), and normative needs (other people will accept us more if we agree with them, the need to belong.

Technology, unavailable in Asch’s time, now allows us to peer into the mind – literally. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) scans reveal which parts of the brain are active – ‘light up’ – during the experiment. When we yield to the group’s erroneous judgment. Conformity shows up in the brain scan as changes in selected regions of the brain’s cortex dedicated to vision and spatial awareness (specifically, activity increases in the right intraparietal sulcus).   However, if you make independent judgments that go against the group, our brain would light up in the areas associated with emotional salience (the right amygdala and the right caudate nuclear regions). This shows that resistance to the group creates an emotional burden for those who maintain their independence. That is to say, autonomy comes at a psychic cost. (For a literary rendition of the psychic cost of independence, the reader is directed to the masterly short story by D H Lawrence, England, My England.)

“We like to think that seeing is believing,” observes neuro-scientist Gregory Berns, “but the study’s finding shows that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe. (The Lucifer Effect, pp 263 – 265).””

Jason Brennan divides the citizenry into three groups: hobbits, hooligans, and vulcans. Hobbits are apathetic non-voters. They have little or no knowledge of current affairs, economics or politics – and no interest in these matters. Hooligans are passionate about politics, well-informed but biased. They cherry-pick information to suit their party-political views. “For them, belonging to the Democrats or Republicans, Labour or Tories, or Social Democrats or Christian Democrats matters to their self-image in the same way being a Christian or Muslim matters to religious people’s self-image.” Vulcans are the rarae avis, unbiased and rational; they proportion their belief to the evidence. Their views are grounded in the social sciences and philosophy. Most people are either hobbits or hooligans (Against Democracy, pp 4-5).

However, hooligans don’t kill each other, so we need a fourth category for Bangladesh: student thugs. Hooligans in Bangladesh provide moral support to the student thugs. Obedience to authority perceived as legitimate – authority which is legitimised by hooligans and the democratic process – galvanise students to commit the vilest of acts. We have seen how, in the experiment by Muzafer Sherif, ingroup-outgroup hostility can occur even in the absence of any material stake. And group pressure overrides the individual’s autonomy. All of us are capable of extreme evil in an obedient herd.

During the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments destined to be famous – or infamous – in New Haven, Connecticut. These were investigations of ‘blind obedience to authority.’ Milgram’s motivation was to understand how readily the Nazis had obediently killed Jews during the Holocaust (being a Jew himself, he had an acute interest in the subject).

Milgram put an advertisement in the newspaper offering $4 (plus 50 cents care fare) for approximately one hour to help ‘complete a scientific study of memory and learning’. Participants were told that they were to help scientific psychology to improve people’s learning and memory through the use of punishment (electric shocks). The shocks were graduated at thirty levels, each switch increasing the shock by 15 volts, so the maximum was 450 volts (labelled XXX). The participant, the ‘teacher’, had to administer the shocks to a ‘learner’ every time he got an answer wrong, going up one switch each time. The ‘learner’ was a confederate, and the shocks were simulated, but the ‘teachers’ didn’t know that. The learner would complain verbally and scream out his words of agony at high levels of shock.

Prior to the experiment, Milgram asked forty psychiatrists what percentage of Americans would go to each of the thirty levels of the experiment. On average, they predicted that less than one percent would go all the way to the end, that only sadists would engage in such behaviour, and that most people would drop out at the level of 150 volts.

In the event, two out of three (65 percent) volunteers went all the way up to the maximum shock level of 450 volts – even though they could hear nothing from the learner-victim assumed to be unconscious or dead (The Lucifer Effect, pp 267-271).

David Mantell, who repeated Milgram’s study in Munich, Germany found an obedience rate of 85 percent – 20 percentage points higher than in New Haven. David Houghton tentatively attempts to understand the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in terms of obedience to authority. He quotes a lawyer from Kigali, with a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother: “Conformity is very deep, very developed. In Rwandan history, everyone obeys authority. People revere power, and there isn’t enough education (Political Psychology, p 52).”

In a vertical, hierarchic society such as ours in Bangladesh, this observation would be equally true. Obedience to authority, however, is innate, according to Stanley Milgram. We are born with a disposition to obey, as part of our evolutionary psychology; but there’s more to it than that. Our disposition to obey interacts with social structures and specific circumstances – in short, situations – to produce special cases of obedience (Political Psychology, p 52). Hannah Arendt famously coined the expression “the banality of evil”. We’ve noted how Javed and his peers, school-going teenagers, became student thugs. But obedience is obedience to authority, and therefore leadership plays a central role in directing evil.

According to David Reynolds: “But as we shall also see in Yugoslavia, ethnicity is rarely a spontaneous force. It needs to be manipulated by politicians. What mattered in Rwanda was the reaction of Hutu hard-liners in the party and the army to their impending loss of power” (One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945 (New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 2000, pp. 606-607).

The Rwandan genocide was meticulously planned by Hutu army officers and politicians to avoid sharing power with Tutsi rebels after a peace accord to end a civil war. They raised a militia, cranked up the genocidal propaganda and imported hundreds of thousands of machetes in advance. The outside world barely noticed until it was too late. The genocide ended only when a Tutsi army swept in to stop it, led by Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame.

The lawyer from Kigali continues: “You take a poor, ignorant population, and give them arms, and say, ‘It’s yours. Kill.’ They’ll obey. The peasants, who were paid or forced to kill, were looking up to people of higher socio-economic standing to see how to behave. So the people of influence […] are often the big men in the genocide. They may think that they didn’t kill because they didn’t take life with their own hands, but the people were looking to them for their orders. And, in Rwanda, an order can be given very quietly.”

The allure of toxic leaders can never be explained rationally. The leadership itself may behave rationally, but their cultish followers are hard to fathom. The extra-rational loyalty of student thugs in Bangladesh to their respective leaders is a case in point.

What depths can obedience plumb? That question was answered on November 28, 1978 in the jungles of Guyana. It is one thing to kill your neighbour, but a different thing to kill your own children on command. The command was given by Jim Jones to his 900-plus followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.  Most of them obeyed willingly. Jim Jones had been a pastor of Peoples Temple in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He set out to create a socialist utopia in the South American country, where brotherhood and tolerance were to replace the materialism and racism of the United States. He became an egomaniacal tyrant and ultimately an Angel of Death (The Lucifer Effect, pp 294-295). One is reminded of the worship of Moloch. And if people can follow Jim Jones, they can follow anyone.

Note, however, that 35 percent of Milgram’s participants did not go along with the researcher. They appear to have had what may be termed ‘good’ dispositions. But dispositions do not guarantee immunity from evil. Philip Zimbardo questions the ‘good-evil’ dichotomy, arguing instead that the distinction is permeable and nebulous. Given the right – or wrong – situation, we are all capable of committing acts of evil.

In 1971, Zimbardo, then a young professor of psychology at Stanford University, was interested in studying the effects of prison roles on behaviour. Like Milgram, he put an advertisement in the newspaper, and selected twenty-two participants, after carefully screening them for any kind of abnormality. The ‘prison’ was located in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department. To make the situation seem more real, he had the Palo Alto police ‘charge’ the ‘prisoners’ in public mock arrests. When they arrived at the prison, they were made to strip, delouse and forced to wear specially designed smocks.

Within two days, the situation began to take over. Some guards became sadistic and devised ingenious ways to humiliate and intimidate the prisoners (physical violence was not allowed). One guard, nicknamed ‘John Wayne’ by the prisoners, was especially adept at devising new kinds of torment. He played sexual games in which he ‘forced’ prisoners to perform acts of sodomy. Some prisoners rebelled, others became passive and some appeared to have emotional breakdowns. After six days, the experiment had to be stopped, but only after Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s graduate assistant and a relative outsider (whom he later married), expressed her shock at the evil of the situation.

Zimbardo’s explanation for what had transpired was the ‘bad barrel’ theory (already mentioned). The system (barrel-makers) create the ‘barrel’ (situation) that produces the ‘bad apples’. Put good young men in a bad situation, and the situation will quickly override their dispositions. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Zimbardo was shocked, but not surprised. It was eerily redolent of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). He tried to help in the defence of Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, one of the soldiers who was photographed grinning beside a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners. His aim was not to have Frederick exonerated, but to have his sentence made lighter. The Western legal system, however, is strongly dispositionist, and the judge rejected Zimbardo’s situationist argument.

The SPE has often been referred to as the ‘Lord of the Flies’ effect, after the novel of the same name by William Golding. The novel is about a group of boys marooned on a tropical island (possibly after a nuclear war). Without any authority, the boys descend into aggressive behaviour, in a Hobbesian ‘war of all against wall’. David Houghton describes Hobbes as a dispositionist, someone who views human nature as essentially evil (Political Psychology, pp 60 – 61). I beg to disagree. Hobbes was very much a situationist, maintaining that, absent the sovereign, people will be in ‘a state of nature’, perpetually at war with one another. But, given the sovereign, there will not only be peace, but flourishing.

“In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short (Leviathan, Chapter 13).”

It is not only the fear of death that motivates humans to seek peace, but also a “Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them”. That does not sound like a disposition to wickedness.

Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ may be regarded as a piece of didactic fiction, or, at best, a conjecture. Recent research has, however, proved him to be more right than he himself would have believed.

Archaeological and anthropological studies have shown that in simple agricultural societies with no political framework beyond village and tribe, life was, and still is, ‘nasty, brutish and short’.  Human violence contributed to 15 percent of deaths, including 25 percent of male deaths. In New Guinea today, violence kills 30 percent of males in one agricultural tribal society, the Dani, and 25 percent in another, the Enga, In Ecuador, perhaps 50 percent of adult Waoranis are killed by other humans. It took larger political frameworks – cities, kingdoms and states – to bring human violence under control (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Croydon: Vintage, 2014, p 93).

Besides, in the Middle East, we have seen that when the state collapses, chaos and bloodshed reign. Hobbes was not wrong. Consider the number of homicides in Iraq in the late 2000s after the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist state: the figure stood at 3,700 per month.  With the fall of the government of Libya and the civil war in Syria, the entire Middle East turned into “bellum omnium contra omnes”. Even as late as May 2016, Emma Sky, a former adviser to the military in Iraq, suggested viewing the conflict as “a struggle for power and resources in a collapsing state. A Hobbesian war of all against all”.


Mahima didn’t commit suicide; she was killed. By whom? We begin our investigation with the lowest rung: the voters. Bangladesh was conceived in hatred. The first nationwide elections were held in 1970, more than two decades after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Two demagogues, one from the east, Sheikh Mujib, and one from the west, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, contested the election. They were both orators of the first caliber, and could rouse the rabble (Ayesha Jalal, in her book, uses the term ‘populist’ (p 66), but I prefer the classical, Aristotelian term) – for ‘the orators lead the people’ (Aristotle, Politics, 1305 a1 12).

They appealed to the poor, with the added twist here that the ‘rich’ were located in West Pakistan, when, in fact, they were mostly a coterie of Punjabis (p 50). The poor majority in East Pakistan spoke Bengali, so linguistic nationalism was also stirred up. West Pakistan was a polyglot nation, but, with 1,000 miles separating the two wings of the country, the voters in the east felt they were a homogeneous lot, ‘the enemy’ who did not speak our language. A civil war followed, and East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh.

Grievance is not a fact. It has to be articulated, stimulated and directed by a leader. We have seen the role that leaders play in fomenting hatred. We have also seen how ‘ingroup-outgroup’ hostility can exist purely on the basis of division, with the two groups identical in every respect. This is not rational. “Politics makes us hate each other, even when it shouldn’t” concludes Jason Brennan (Against Democracy, p 231). He observes that voters are ‘ignorant, irrational, misinformed nationalists’ (p 23).

“What voters don’t know would fill a library” notes Bryan Caplan in The Myth of The Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies’ (quoted, pp 28-29). Ilya Somin, author of Democracy and Political Ignorance, found, upon empirical research, that at least 35 percent of voters are know-nothings. Political scientist Larry Bartels notes that “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics” (p 25).  And here we are dealing with the political situation in America, where more than 80 percent of white people over twenty-five have a high school diploma, and information is inexpensively available; yet people know as little about politics as they did 40 years ago. Americans don’t know history, economics or about politics and current affairs More than 25 percent of Americans don’t know whom they fought against in the Revolutionary War (p 29). In 1964, only a minority of citizens knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO. This was two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis when America nearly went to – nuclear – war against the Soviet Union. 40 percent of Americans do not know whom the United States fought in World War II. 73 percent of Americans do not know what the Cold War was about (p 26).

It is frequently argued that at least democracy allows voters to ‘kick out the bastards’. But how does one tell who the bastards are, what they did, what they could have done, what the opposition intends to do…and so on. This requires a great deal of social scientific knowledge. Whether I decide on free trade or protectionism, for instance, requires a knowledge of economics. But, in Bangladesh, as we will see, voters cannot even kick out the bastards, and have an unpleasant choice between two equal bastards. British social psychologist Henri Tajfel has found that hostility towards outgroups and favouritism towards one’s own can occur in the absence of any interaction between them and in the absence of any ‘reasonable’ or ‘rational’ differences between the groups (Political Psychology, p 171). The ‘situation’, and not the ‘disposition’, makes the difference. In this respect, we are all Homo psychologicus.

Tajfel divided individuals randomly into two groups based on such frivolous criterion as their opinion of indistinguishable abstract artists they had never heard of: those favouring ‘the Paul Klee style’ and those favouring ‘the Kandinsky style’. To his surprise, the individuals displayed extra-rational loyalty to the in-group and hostility to the out-group. When sharing financial resources, they chose to penalize the out-group rather than receive more money themselves.

Political psychologist Geoffrey Cohen did a number of scientific studies to determine how political partisanship – or what is sometimes unflatteringly called ‘tribalism’ – affects judgment about policy issues. The experiments presented participants with two contrasting alternatives – stringent or generous – of a social welfare policy. Judging each policy on its merits, participants chose the policy consistent with their ideological views. However, when the policies were attributed to either the Republican or the Democratic Party, liberals preferred the Democratic-labeled policy regardless of whether it was generous or stringent, and conservatives favoured the Republican-labeled policy regardless of the details (Against Democracy, pp 40-41).

People were not processing information rationally, but being faithful to the team. A number of voters describe themselves as independent, but study after study shows that they are closet partisans. This lends credence to the party identification model developed in the 1960s by Angus Campbell and his colleagues at the University of Michigan (Political Psychology, pp 157-159). Most voters develop a long-term emotional attachment to a particular political party during their formative or teenage years.

Philip Converse argued that voters lack ‘attitude constraint’. Mass studies since the 1940s have shown that voters are political naïfs. They possessed low levels of information about politics and paid little attention to what was going on in the political world (redolent of Brennan’s ‘hobbits’). They had no worked-out ideology; indeed, their political views were ‘all over the place’. They were liberal on some issues and conservative on others; most of them did not know what the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ meant.

People who are most active in politics tend to have strong hooligan characteristics, notes Jason Brennan (Against Democracy, pp 41-42).  Diana Mutz calls exposure to contrary points of view, or talking to people who disagree ‘crosscutting political exposure’. Crosscutting political exposure strongly decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote. Conversely, people who have little crosscutting political exposure tend to be the most active in politics and spend the most time in echo chambers.

Social psychologists Jeremy A. Frimera, Linda J. Skitkab, and Matt Motyl have performed experiments to understand people’s aversion to facts. The majority of people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate willingly gave up a chance to win money to avoid hearing from the other side. Audi alteram partem may be a sound legal maxim, but in ideological disagreements the injunction is routinely flouted: Audi non alteram partem. “Their [participants’] lack of interest was not due to already being informed about the other side or attributable election fatigue. Rather, people on both sides indicated that they anticipated that hearing from the other side would induce cognitive dissonance (e.g., require effort, cause frustration) and undermine a sense of shared reality with the person expressing disparate views (e.g., damage the relationship).”

The following summarises the key features of irrationality:

Confirmation and Disconfirmation Bias We tend to accept evidence that supports our preexisting views. We tend to reject or ignore evidence that disconfirms our preexisting views.

Motivated Reasoning We have preferences over what we believe, and tend to arrive at and maintain beliefs we find comforting or pleasing.

Intergroup Bias We tend to form coalitions or groups. We tend to demonise members of other groups, but are highly forgiving and charitable toward members of our own groups. We go along with whatever our group thinks and oppose what other groups think.

Availability Bias The easier it is for us to think of something, the more common we think that thing is, such as terrorism or a shark attack, according to psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. We are terrible at probability and statistical reasoning. (Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recount how people in New Jersey were significantly less likely to vote to re-elect President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 if they lived near the sites of recent shark attacks.)

Prior attitude effect When we care strongly about an issue, we evaluate arguments about the issue is a more polarised way.

Peer Pressure and Authority People tend to be influenced irrationally by perceived authority, social pressure, and conformity, as seen in the experiments by Muzafer Sherif, Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram (Against Democracy, pp 61-62).

We have seen at great length that people are ignorant, misinformed and irrational. “In general, the lower the epistemic and moral quality of an electorate, the worse governmental policies will tend to be. Whom the voters select as a leader does make a significant difference (Against Democracy, p 161)”.

Bangladesh is no exception to the rule. The people’s choice of Sheikh Mujib turned out to be a lemon. The socialist utopia he promised morphed into a nightmare. In addition, when a famine occurred in 1974 (in which, on one estimate, 1.5 million people died), the government stood by, a spectator, even though there was enough food in the country but it was exported to India (famine, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1988). A massive case of government failure had occurred (giving the lie to Amartya Sen’s contention that democracies never experience famine.) The government estimated a death toll of 26,000, when, according to the Banglapedia, over a million people died between July 1974 to January 1975.

It was in 1974 that Fr. Richard William Timm, watching a woman fighting off dogs for food in a dustbin, decided to start a feeding program at Notre Dame College. Every day, the padres fed a thousand people whom they saved from starvation. To cut a long story short, I will let Lawrence Ziring say it in his terse style:

“Mujib presided over a court corrupted by power. It acted as though it could shelter itself from the realities of Bangladesh. But the license that might have been ignored in some other societies, could not be ignored in a country overrun by self-styled enforcers, gouged by profiteers, and raped by government officials. With literally hundreds and thousands dying from hunger, with millions more threatened, high living in Bangladesh could only be equated with debauchery and hedonism, with irresponsibility and indifference. To anyone with a grudge or a sense of national purpose, the conclusion was the same. Deliberate efforts had to be made to reverse course, and the only option for such a reversal lay with a new team, and the only team capable of making the manoeuvre was the Bangladesh army (Bangladesh: From Sheikh Mujib to Ershad: An Interpretive Study (Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 1994, p 103).”

Mujib was in jail in what was then West Pakistan, but returned to a hero’s welcome to become prime minister in January 1972 of his newly-created Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). “Mujib believed he was Bangladesh, more so that he was good for the country and that it could not manage without him. Those who reinforced Mujib’s impression of himself and his role did so because it benefited them politically or materially, not because they truly believed in his leadership (p. 93).” Yet, in the election of 1973, he won a landslide victory: the disillusionment was still to come.


Mujib, distrustful of the army, formed his own personal army, the Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini, or National Security Force. “Opinion was strong that the paramilitary organization was no different from Hitler’s Brown Shirts or the Gestapo (p 98).” The Rakhi Bahini unleashed a wave of terror and murder, along with other anarchic groups. By 1974, several thousand politicians had paid for their lives for defying or supporting Mujib.

Then, as we have seen, in the summer of 1974, famine struck, and Mujib did not lift a finger to help his Bengali followers. Viewing the decline of their creator’s popularity, the Rakhi Bahini turned, not exactly on Mujib, but on his followers. By the end of 1974, four thousand Awami Leaguers were believed to have been murdered, including five ministers. Mujib then belatedly distanced himself from the Rakhi Bahini, and called in the regular army to restore a semblance of order. This exposed the army to the full extent of the national problem.

On 28th December, Mujib declared a state of emergency. He put the constitution aside, abandoning the three-year old document as a legacy of colonial rule. The Awami League was swept away by its leader.

In January 1975, Mujib had himself declared president. “Mujib, not the Bangladesh army, had removed the constraints on the arbitrary uses of power (p 102).”

BAKSAL, Mujib’s expression of the one-party state, was to take the place of the Awami League. “Thus in a more significant way, BAKSAL was meant to serve the purpose of the Bangabandhu’s [literally, friend of the Bengalis, an honorific bestowed by devotees] personal dictatorship, not the cause of national development and unity. BAKSAL was proof positive that Mujib intended to convert the country into a personal fiefdom for himself and his family members, and his many detractors did not need convincing that their once respected leader, not they, was the real threat to the nation’s ‘democratic’ future (p 105).”

On 15th August, 1975, a group of army officers stormed into Mujib’s residence and killed him and his entire family, with the fateful exception of his daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, who were out of the country (in this, they were backed, it was widely believed, by the CIA, according to Ayesha Jalal (p 89).

Today, Sheikh Hasina is prime minister of Bangladesh, and leader of the Awami League. This turn of events seems surprising, but it would appear that, in South Asia as a whole, it is to be expected: here, failure pays. Ayesha Jalal has documented the prevalence of authoritarianism alongside democracy in South Asia, but she never mentions what did not happen rather than what did. Often the dog that doesn’t bark is more telling than the dog that does. India was defeated in the six weeks’ war with China in October – November, 1962. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t resign, and nobody even asked him to resign. In the opinion of Nehru’s biographer, Michael Edwards: “It is a tribute to Nehru’s towering position both in the Congress and the country that he neither suggested that he should resign nor was his resignation ever called for – even by the opposition. It is difficult to believe that in any other democratic state he and his cabinet could have survived (Nehru: A Political Biography (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1973), p 314)”. On the contrary, his dynasty began with his only daughter, Indira Gandhi, after a brief interval. In the words of Hugh Tinker: “That she had less than two years’ experience of Parliament and of cabinet office did not matter. She had the mystique of the dead leader in her features and in her blood. Once again, the past exerted its power over the future (South Asia: A Short History (London: Pall Mall Press, 1966), p 243)”. Indira and her unelected son, Sanjay, orchestrated the sterilization of nearly eleven million people (Percival Spear, A History of India, Volume 2, (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1990), pp 267 – 268)). She paid a political price for her and her son’s actions, but only briefly. Her career ended when she was gunned down by her Sikh guards. According to Stanley J. Tambiah: “Even when the suddenness and the emotional trauma of Indira Gandhi’s assassination are taken into account, the evidence is clear that…the destructive actions of the mob…were encouraged, directed, and even provisioned by Congress (I) politicians, activists and supporters, and indirectly aided by an inactive, cooperative police force (Stanley J. Tambiah, Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (New Delhi: Vistaar Publications, 1997, p 137).” Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, became premier, until he too was assassinated by Tamil terrorists (Sanjay had died in 1980). And for a while, it seemed that India would have an Italian-born, ex-Catholic woman as prime minister, Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi. She was elected from her husband’s constituency in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. In 2017 Sonia retired as head of the Congress Party and was succeeded by her son, Rahul.


One of the architects of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in December, 1992 was L K Advani. The breaking of the mosque triggered riots in which an estimated 1,000 people died. He  became home minister (twice) and then deputy prime minister. About the state elections in Gujarat in 2002, Kuldip Nayar, an Indian columnist, pointed out that Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi “did best in the area where he planned and executed ethnic cleansing” – a swing of 18 per cent in central Gujarat and 11 per cent in the north. Altogether, the BJP won 126 seats in the 182-member assembly (The Daily Star, December 19, 2002). The Bush administration refused him a visa, blaming him for the pogrom in which 2,000 Muslims were killed, according to The Economist. “He may be a mass murderer,” opined Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times, the newspaper he edits, “but he’s our mass murderer.” This was a common reaction among Indians to the Bush administration’s decision. We have seen the role of intergroup bias, in which we are forgiving of our own group’s shortcomings and scathing about the outgroup’s misdeeds. Today, Narendra Modi is India’s prime minister.

In Pakistan, this sort of rabble-rousing has been almost absent, largely because the military has run the country for most of its existence. However, failed leadership pays off in Pakistan, too. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the demagogue mentioned earlier, was president and then prime minister of the country, despite being commonly credited with the dismemberment of Pakistan. Bhutto was executed in 1979, but his daughter, Benazir Bhutto succeeded in being premier two times. Benazir was assassinated in 2007 (her brother had been killed by the police in 1996). Her son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, became chairman of his mother’s political party, the Pakistan People’s Party, with Asif Ali Zardari, his father, being co-chairman.

At this point we should note that in his book Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah establishes how democracy and ethnonationalist violence are causally connected in the whole of South Asia. From the Sinhalese-Tamil riots of 1956 to 1983, to the 1984 riots in Delhi and the post-Babri Masjid one, the author establishes that ‘…participatory democracy, competitive elections, mass militancy, and crowd violence are not disconnected (New Delhi: Vistaar Publications, 1997), p 260).” He goes so far as to affirm that “ethnonationalist conflicts combined with collective violence are not just isolated volcanic eruptions but are close to becoming systematized social formations. The evidence for the ritualized and routinized forms of conduct that comprise a repertoire of collective violence supports this assertion. In South Asia (and in many other places as well), violence is an integral part of the political process (p 328).”

The election of toxic leaders should not be hard to understand, for, we saw earlier, the quality of the electorate determines the quality of the candidates. We have seen that the electorate is ignorant, irrational and misinformed. Add to that the fact that it is woefully uneducated in South Asia, and one isn’t surprised to learn, for example, that there are 4,122 criminal cases against current and former elected representatives in Parliament and state legislatures in India (Daily Star, December 5, 2018).

The use of thugs in Indian politics is wide-spread, acknowledged and accepted. Take the world’s largest volunteer organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an epitome of civil society. Founded in 1925, the flagship of Hindutva today has an all-male membership of 5 million. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, served as an RSS pracharak (a member of a hard core of RSS apostles). According to The Economist: “Some RSS groups exercise quiet influence, lobbying for more “nationalist” economic policy, for instance. Others simply wield muscle. The 2m-member Bajrang Dal, a youth branch of the World Hindu Council, an RSS offshoot, has a reputation for beating up Muslim boys who dare to flirt with Hindu girls. The 3m-strong All India Students Council is aggressive in campus politics. By threat or violent action it frequently blocks events it does not like, such as lectures by secular intellectuals. Just outside the orbit of the RSS lie violent extremist groups, such as one believed responsible for murdering leftist writers.”

At the state level, take Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, and her Trinamool Congress party. The TMC machine, which critics say is backed in many areas by local criminal gangs, wields an intimidating presence in a state that has long been coloured by political violence. It is often said that whoever controls the ballot box controls the election. It does not help that the state police are seen as subservient to the party. Tales of corruption and extortion under the TMC are rife, and criminality by TMC street thugs has turned poor voters against the the party. Before the election of 2016, aware of West Bengal’s propensity for politically motivated violence, India’s national election commission took vigorous steps. Besides staggering the votes over several weeks, it replaced local police chiefs and election officials with its own functionaries, mounted mobile and stationary patrols and rounded up suspected thugs.  Consequently, the election was the most peaceful in West Bengal’s recent memory. Ms. Banerjee was not pleased. (Nor was the previous lot saintly: after the crushing defeat of the communist-led Left Front – in power for 34 years – in 2011, much of its street muscle went over to Ms. Banerjee.)

When Uber and Ola drivers went on strike last year in Mumbai, the strike was rendered highly effective by the strength of powerful unions, in particular one called Maharashtra Rajya Rashtriya Kamgar Sangh. Thousands would have crossed picket lines but for their colleagues who maintained solidarity by, for example, forcing strikebreakers to strip naked or by smashing their phones. Dozens trying to work were beaten up and their cars damaged.

According to the World Bank, enrollment in primary schools in South Asia rose from 75 to 89 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the teaching has been of poor quality.  In Bangladesh, a survey conducted by World Vision found that 54 percent of students in grade three do not understand what they are reading, and 33 percent cannot read five words in thirty seconds. In India, 38 percent of Grade 3 children in government schools cannot read simple words, and only 27 percent can do double-digit subtraction. More than half of those in Grade 5 cannot read at Grade 2 level. Even when teachers show up for class (and they often don’t) they are lacking in ability. “In India, we need 9m teachers, but we don’t have 9m people who can teach,” says Pranab Kothari of Mindspark, an interactive software developed in India to teach pupils.

During peaceful protests by school children demanding safe roads and university students demanding a more meritocratic public service exam, both groups, including journalists, were beaten up by thumotic student thugs of the ruling Awami League – and their pictures and names were published in newspapers and on the internet by, for instance, Channel 4 in Violence, Abuse and Disappearances in Bangladesh. One university protester was beaten with a hammer before the cameras; two bones of his right leg were broken, there were eight stitches on his head and bruises all over his body. He was hounded from hospital to hospital (The Daily Star, July 5, 2018).

(The protesting students were perceived as disobedient and their tormentors as obedient, to the government. Disobedience, perceived or real, carries enormous costs in society, not only in Bangladesh, but in South Asia. Louis Dumont, in his book Homo hierarchicus (1970) has suggested that Indians be described by that expression rather than by Homo aequalis, the western, individualistic type (Philip K. Bock, Continuities in Psychological Anthropology (San Francisco, W H Freeman and Company, 1980, p 128).

Despite these incidents fresh in the memory, despite the extrajudicial killings, despite the disappearances, a staggering 62 percent of the people felt that the country was headed in the right direction, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute; and CallReady polled 1,186 young people and found that more than 51 percent wanted the current government to stay in power.

The quality of the electorate, according to historian Norman Davies, lay behind the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. “Hitler’s democratic triumph exposed the true nature of democracy,” he affirms. “Democracy has few values of its own: it is as good, or as bad, as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government: in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4, it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters (Europe: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 969).” This view is shared by Jason Brennan (Against Democracy, p 159).

German fascism, unlike fascism elsewhere, as in Italy, was not an elite product (Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and The Descent of the West, (New York: Penguin, 2006, p 240). However, a section of the elite warmed to Hitler, where others he left cold. “The key to the strength and dynamism of the Third Reich was Hitler’s appeal to the much more numerous intellectual elite; the men with university degrees who are so vital for the smooth running of a modern state and civil society.” Germany had the best universities in the world. More than a quarter of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences between 1901 and 1940 were awarded to Germans; only 11 percent went to Americans (p 235).

Heine anticipated Nazism a hundred years earlier. “There will be,” he said in Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834), “Kantians forthcoming who in the new world to come will know nothing of reverence for aught, and who will ravage without mercy, and riot with sword and axe through the soil of all European life to dig out the last root of the past; there will be well-weaponed Fichteans on the ground, who in the fanaticism of the Will, are not to be restrained by fear or self-advantage, for they live in the Spirit (quoted, Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1969, p 89).” The German intellectual of the 1930s had a long pedigree.

The European elite as a whole has learnt the lessons of history. When Jorg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was elected with 27 percent of votes in 2000, it formed a coalition with the centre-right People’s Party. Louis Michel, Belgium’s foreign minister, called Haider a Nazi. “A man who exults in Nazi theses is a Nazi,” said the minister. He observed that voters can be “naive” and “simple”, that to be a democratic party “you must work by democratic rules, you must accept not to play on the worst feelings each human being has inside himself”. Hitler’s party also rose by democratic means. The Freedom Party resembled the anti-immigrant and xenophobic Vlaams [Flemish] Block. “I have forced all the democratic parties in Belgium to declare that they will not do deals with Vlaams Blok,” he said.

This is a dispositionist view: human beings have terrible feelings bottled up inside them, and leaders can prey on these feelings. However, for Zimbardo, the situationist, the ‘barrel-makers’ constitute the system, which produces the bad barrel/situation, occasioning the ‘bad apples’. In his book, he says “The power of charismatic tyrannical leaders, like Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler, endures even after they do terrible things to their followers, and even after their demise (p 295)”. In other words, the evil that men do lives after them.

Before the American presidential primary of 2016, the Economist agonized over the impending choice of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate. It fondly recalled that in 2002, France’s left and right joined together to elect the unprincipled machine politician Jacques Chiraq against his rival, Jean-Marie Le Pen, “a brutish demagogue”. Chirac owed his victory not to his traditional supporters, but to his traditional left-wing opponents. Posters urging the French to “Vote for the crook, not the fascist” popped up across the country.

Since then, the centre-left and centre-right have cooperated against the populist parties’ rising vote share in Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden (as of 2015, according to the Economist).

This is elitism, pure and simple, or even paternalism. That the electorate of South Asia is not educated cannot be a sufficient explanation for their choice of toxic rulers. The American electorate is very well-educated, and the German intellectuals were some of the most educated people in the world. The role of the elite, an intermediate crust between the leader and the people, requires investigation, for we have seen the European elite bandying together against wicked forces. However, the role of education cannot totally be discounted, for it is ‘learning and wisdom’, to use Plato’s phrase, that transform the masses into an elite.

Again, France furnishes a clear example. Voting intentions in 2015 reveal that those with less than high school education (36 percent) aimed to vote for the far-right, xenophobic, nationalist, anti-European Union National Front; this share dropped to 23 percent for those with a two-year degree and to 14 percent for those with a three-year degree or more; the last group planned to vote much more for left-wing parties (44 percent) and the centre-right (39 percent). This shows the triumph of education over ignorance.

(Paternalism has staged a remarkable comeback, not only in politics, but also in economics, where the ‘rational individual’ had been solidly enshrined. In his book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics (Penguin, 2016), Richard H. Thaler divides people into ‘Econs’ and ‘Humans’, the former the nonexistent creature of economic theory, and the latter the flesh-and-blood individuals of real life. Along with a colleague, he was able to persuade people in one experiment to save more than they were doing. An Econ would always be saving the right amount, being perfectly rational. But humans have problems such as inertia, loss aversion and lack of self-control. When an economist of the traditional school evaluated their experiment, he asked, “But, isn’t this paternalism? (pp 309-322)” This was cruel, so they decided to call their version ‘libertarian paternalism’, or nudge (the title of Thaler’s bestseller.)

So far, we have investigated the lowest rung of the political ladder – the voter – and found him/her clearly guilty. But did the elite also take part in the murder of Mahima? Let us proceed.

According to Finer, the Forum polity (democracy, republic) has been a rarity in history whereas the Palace polity (monarchy) and its variants have been the most common. Only in the last two centuries has it become more widespread. Historically, it was largely restricted to the Greek poleis, the Roman Republic, and the medieval European city-states.

He adds, however: “Furthermore, most of them for most of the time exhibited the worst pathological features of this kind of polity. For rhetoric read demagogy, for persuasion read corruption, pressure, intimidation, and falsification of the vote. For meetings and assemblies, read tumult and riot. For mature deliberation through a set of revising institutions, read instead self-division, inconstancy, slowness, and legislative and administrative stultification. And for elections read factional plots and intrigues. These features were the ones characteristically associated with the Forum polity in Europe down to very recent times. They were what gave the term ‘Republic’ a bad name, but made ‘Democracy’ an object of sheer horror. (The History of Government, pp. 46-47).” As we have seen, Polybius identified democracy with ochlocracy, and even in the eighteenth century it continued to be a pejorative.

Thus, when Tambiah identifies democracy as the cause of violence in South Asia, we should not be surprised. “The general theme of whether democracy as a political process and the democratic state as a system intensify the occurrence of violence is an old one in the history of political theory. From the Greeks onwards, even up to the nineteenth century, many theorists, perhaps most, associated democracy with civil strife, and it is only subsequently that this became a minority view (Levelling Crowds, p 262).”

The minority view is not held by the elite of Bangladesh (or of South Asia). Why do they persist in believing in a system that is shown to be dangerous by empirical evidence? There are two reasons for this tenacity: one rational, another irrational.

First, the irrational.

The psychology of an elite has deep roots in experience, not so much immediate, but distant, as is history. We have seen outgroup-ingroup hostility and favoritism at work (in the context of Bangladesh, what West Pakistan did to ‘us’ is beyond criminal, but what ‘we’ did to ourselves, as in the famine of 1974 and other events of the period, must not be discussed; in India, Narendra Modi may be a ‘mass murderer’ but he’s ‘our’ mass murderer, and so on.) However, society at any given time consists of groups that dominate other groups. Heavily influenced by evolutionary psychology, the group dominance theory, chiefly associated with Jim Sidanius and his colleagues, views society as inherently oppressive and group oppression to be the “normal, default, condition of human relations” (Political Psychology, p 174-175).  Sidanius argues that

“most forms of oppression including racism, ethnocentrism (including the oppression of religious minorities such as Jews) sexism, nationalism, and classism and as well as a number of other social attitudes, human drives and social institutions function, in part, to help establish and maintain the integrity of this group-based hierarchical structure.”

An interesting corollary to this theory is the notion of outgroup favouritism. Outgroup favouritism or deference occurs among lower-status groups in relation to higher-status ones. Sidanius’ example is that of Uncle Tomming by blacks towards whites in the segregation era. A Scottish observer said of freed slaves that “chains of a stronger kind still manacled their limbs, from which no legislative act could free them; a mental and moral subordination and inferiority to which tyrant custom has here subjected all the sons and daughters of Africa (Scott Christianson, With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998, p 142-143).” Lower-status groups may also under-achieve due to lower social expectations.

The corresponding example from South Asia may be Dr Azizzing after the fictitious character Dr. Aziz in E M Forster’s A Passage to India (1924). Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the early graduates from the University of Bombay, speaking in 1867, drew attention to “the strong Anglicising undercurrent which has begun through the deeper instincts of Indian students”. With pride, he predicted: “There will ere long be produced in India a body of men out-Heroding Herod, more English than the English themselves”. The instrument was English-language education. In 1860, there were 40,366 students in the schools of Bengal receiving an English-language education; in Madras Presidency, the number was 6,552 and in Bombay, 2,984. The number of university graduates in Bengal, Madras and Bombay were, respectively, 28, 11 and 8; in 1885, the corresponding figures were 264, 163 and 72 (South Asia, pp 180-181). My late uncle went to Presidency College in Calcutta, where he once blurted out a few words in Bengali for which he received a severe reprimand from the teacher: English was the intra-mural language!

In 1882, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society was moved from New York to Adyyar near Madras. For a brief period, Madame Blavatsky, a co-founder, lived in India. Speaking at Banaras, she said: “If the modern Hindus were less sycophantic to their Western masters, less in love with their vices, and more like their ancestors”, they would acquire mastery, through occult power (South Asia, p 182).

“In any town in India,” writes George Orwell in Burmese Days (1934), “the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in this case, for it was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership.” Thus, Orwell gives brick-and-mortar shape to the psychology of the ruler-ruled relationship that was the Raj, where a couple of hundred thousand British soldiers controlled teeming millions.

Dr. Veraswami befriends our anti-hero, Flory, and urges the latter to let him join the Club to escape the machinations of U Po Kyin, Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada.

“And you do not know what prestige it gives to an Indian to be a member of the European Club.  In the Club, practically he iss a European,” observes the good doctor. The members naturally object to having a ‘nigger’ in their midst. “He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club.”

Dr. Veraswami’s admiration for the British is pathetic. “Dr Veraswami had a passionate admiration for the English, which a thousand snubs from Englishmen had not shaken.  He would maintain with positive eagerness that he, as an Indian, belonged to an inferior and degenerate race.”  Flory and the doctor have a regularly comic conversation, in which the Englishman knocks down the English and Veraswami defends them. Dr. Veraswami says: “’My friend, my friend, you are forgetting the Oriental character. How iss it possible to have developed us, with our apathy and superstition?  At least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.”

The frankest expression of cultural cringe –as we may call this type of outgroup favouritism –  flowed from the pen of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who favoured all things British against all things Indian: “…all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule (quoted, Mark Tully, No Full Stops In India (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1993, p 57).”

Swami Dayananda, founder of the Arya Samaj (Society of Arians) in Bombay, in 1875, famously tried to show that all Western scientific knowledge had been revealed in the Vedas – telecommunications, ships, aircraft, gravity and gravitational attraction (Peter Van Der Veer, Imperial Encounters (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006, p 50).

The South Asian elite are in a parlous state. Spare a thought for Martin Kampchen, who wrote from Santiniketan: “Several daily newspapers of Calcutta flashed the news of Jhumpa Lahiri’s wedding in Calcutta as their first-page leader, complete with a colourful photo of the happy couple. First I thought: O happy Bengal! You still honour your poets as the ancient civilisations used to do. And for a moment I remained in this innocent bliss of satisfaction. Then it dawned on me that not any writer’s marriage is accorded such flattering coverage. Only expatriates who have ‘made it good’ abroad, who have ‘done the country proud’, are subjected to such exaggerated honours (The Daily Star, 27th January, 2001).”  Jhumpa Lahiri had just won the Pulitzer for her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies.

Before he became prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan used to insult some people by calling them Brown Sahibs (maybe he still does). Most of his friends fit that description – which means they ape the dress, habits and affectations of the former British colonial masters. Indeed, Khan himself used very much to be a Brown Sahib. “His English is more polished than his Punjabi,” according to the Independent.

A pejorative expression used by South Asians for South Asians is ‘coconut’: brown outside, white inside.

In 2006, a photo of then prime minister Khaleda Zia taken by Shahidul Alam was printed on the cover of TIME magazine. The Daily Star, the leading English daily of Bangladesh, made a point of mentioning the fact in its pages (April 14, 2006): “We would also like to take this opportunity to commend Mr. Alam for being the first Bangladeshi photographer whose work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine.” Alam had ‘made it’ in the west, so he had to be ‘honoured’.

“You mention the name Bangladesh to a westerner and wait for his or her first reaction and what you hear may not please your ear” lamented the now-defunct English daily The Bangladesh Observer in its cover story (October 20th, 2006). But all is not lost! Mohammed Yunus and his Grameen Bank had won the Nobel Peace Prize, rekindling “the (sic) Bengali nationalism in the teeming millions”. Never mind that a connection, however tenuous, between a Nobel Prize for microcredit and Bengali nationalism, is not immediately obvious. The former, conferred by the outgroup, raises the prestige of the latter.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the first American novelist, knew all about cultural cringe, and was probably the first person to articulate the phenomenon of cultural imperialism. Consider this footnote from his novel Afloat and Ashore (1844):

‘The miserable moral dependence of this country on Great Britain, forty years since, cannot well be brought home to the present generation. It is still too great, but has not a tithe of its former force. The writer has himself known an Italian prince, a man of family and high personal merit, pass unnoticed before a society that was eager to make the acquaintance of most of the agents of the Birmingham button dealers; and this simply because one came from Italy and the other from England…(Afloat and ashore, a sea tale (New York, Hurd and Houghton, 1871, p 439n).”

Despite the fact of American independence, the reality was that Americans still suffered from a colonial mentality. His book had been ‘puffed’ in England, which gave it greater mystique in America. A more recent case of cultural cringe has been detected down under. In fact, the term has been coined to cover the feeling that Australia is only a reflection of the mother country. In “The Lucky Country” (1964), Donald Horne famously suggested focus on Asia as an alternative to the “sometimes humiliating attempts to keep up the family relationship with Europeans…It is in dealings with Asian countries that Australians might regain a sense of confidence and importance” (Quoted in The Economist, December 14th, 1996, ‘Australia’s Identity Crisis’, pp 35-37). In the ensuing brouhaha, the thought got buried in static. Nevertheless, Paul Keating went down in history as the man who suggested ingratiatingly in Singapore that ‘mateship’ was an Asian value!

Parents in Bangladesh proudly announce that their children live in Britain, America, Canada or Australia. Living in the Middle East just doesn’t cut it. As an English teacher, I can vouch for the fact that those fluent in English positively look down on those lacking English. One of my former students said that she hated English medium students who proudly say they are weak in Bengali, the mother tongue. And this despite years of Bengali nationalism – Bengalism – when teaching in English was prohibited up to the age of 16. Father Peixotto, an American, delivered his physics lectures at Notre Dame College in the 1970s in Bengali, despite complaints from the students that he couldn’t be understood. He insisted he was required by law to lecture in Bengali. All that is over, of course. English medium schools have spawned all over the country. On YouTube, young people in intimate talk shows such as this one with D J Sonica combine fluent English with Bengali, which is considered ‘cool’ (modern).

‘The return of the repressed’, in Freudian language, refers to the tendency of repressed psychic material to reemerge in the life of an individual – or society (Continuations in Anthropological Psychology, p 165). Thus, in Europe ‘the spectre of communism’ and, today, fascism and, in America, racism, and anti-Semitism in both have resurfaced to bedevil society. In Bangladesh, the repression of Islam under Sheikh Mujib was reversed by General Zia; the repression of the love of English never quite succeeded in pushing it below the surface, and has come into its own in full daylight.

The people speak Bengali, which they can barely read. The elite are drawn to English. The two never meet (except during elections). Tambiah remarks: “In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, the attempt to realise the nation-state on a Western European model has virtually failed. The nation-state conception has not taken deep roots in South Asia or generated a wide-spread and robust participatory ‘public culture’ that celebrates it in widely meaningful ceremonies, festivals, and rituals (Levelling Crowds, p 264)”.

It is not only the nation concept that has failed, but the very notion of the state itself. The focus on language in South Asia has dimmed all idea of the state. The raison d’etre of the state is salus populi – the safety of the people – to use Hobbes’s expression. When a state fails to secure the people, they can have no allegiance to it. Loyalty for protection is a rational exchange. Loyalty to a language defies rationality. A language is not a determinate territory over which the sovereign’s writ runs. A language, unlike a police force, cannot protect citizens from violence. A language may be spread beyond the national frontiers (as in the case of Bengali, which is spoken in West Bengal), or in a sub-region, like the contesting languages of India, and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. In 1952, just seven years after the independence of India, Potti Sreeramulu starved himself to death for a Telugu state – within India. This was the beginning of the linguistic ‘states’. It took a civil war in Sri Lanka to settle a linguistic struggle.

“Nationalists,” argues Kedourie, “must operate in a hazy region, midway between fable and reality, in which states, frontiers, compacts are at once both real and unreal (p 71)”. Compacts, that is, not only among states, but among citizens of the same state, the social contract. (Kedourie finds no distinction between linguistic, racial, cultural and religious nationalism (p 73), so his observation would apply to India and Pakistan today.)

Thus, it is no accident that the subcontinent has developed no concept of the state, and where the state itself uses violence against its own citizens. Private armies, such as those employed by Sheikh Mujib and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and the impromptu rabble roused by political parties in India, constitute states within the state, as do the current private armies, the student thugs, of the two leaders of Bangladesh.

This is the ‘Lord of the Flies’ effect referred to above. Security is a public good that only the state can provide; it cannot be bought in the marketplace. Ayesha Jalal, in her book on South Asia, considers the state to have two functions (redistribution and development), neither of which includes security, but assumes its presence. Consider the daylight murder of Biswajit Das. During a hartal conducted by the BNP, on December 9, 2012, members of the ruling party student thugs, the Chatra League, suspecting Das to be an opposition activist, hacked and beat him to death while the police stood by. The 24-year-old Das was a tailor on the way to his shop in Laxmibazaar. Pictures of Das in his bloodstained shirt trying to ward off the thugs were published in all the newspapers.

It is not the function of a state to promote a language or a religion (not dissimilar) nor to promote redistribution or development, these being second-order functions, but to promote the safety of the people and the protection of their property. Absent this public good, the state can never have a stab at the other goods of redistribution and development.

But we have digressed from the observation that everything to do with the white race appears to us as remarkable. The belief that western civilisation is superior to ours is deeply ingrained in the elite. We have relieved the white man of his burden, and carry it on our shoulders. And the white man left us with a democratic burden, which we carry like a cross.

Despite the slaughter of the two world wars, despite the killings in Vietnam, despite the murder of 1.7 million Iraqi children through sanctions, the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq, our respect for western civilisation remains undimmed. “The white race is the cancer of history,” wrote Susan Sontag, but we believe the white race to be the benefactor of humankind.

Let me begin my overview of the media elite in Bangladesh with an autobiographical account. After the democratic transition of 1990, I did some research and the output was an essay called “Democracy: The Historical Accident”. I submitted the piece to the highbrow English weekly, Holiday. The editor changed the title, saying it was “too loud”.

Then I wrote an article on the emergency of 1958 in Ceylon, which I called “The Devil And The Deep”. The editor of the most widely circulated English daily, The Daily Star. Mahfuz Anam, objected to the title. “The devil of democracy!” he gasped. “People want democracy now.” The title was changed. After a series of violent hartals and murders, I concluded another article with the one-sentence paragraph ‘We can have either democracy or safety, but not both’. The article appeared in the Daily Star, but with the last paragraph expunged, and the editor’s own words in its place, pleading for democracy.

My final and last encounter with the Daily Star occurred when an editor, Modon Shahu, told me “We know people want martial law, but we can’t print that”. If a newspaper knows what the people want, but won’t say it, that’s self-censorship. (Strangely enough, the motto of the Daily Star, blazoned across its online articles and print issues, is ‘Committed to PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW).

But these are mere peccadilloes compared to what the newspapers in Bangladesh got up to in order to connive at fake elections. A little background first. As the reader will recall, General Ershad (always ‘General’) resigned the presidency on December 6, 1990. Illegally, he was kept in jail along with the vice president, Moudud Ahmed, who, by the constitution, was supposed to assume the presidency on the incumbent’s resignation. Instead, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, violated the constitution of which he was chief protector, became president, without a murmur of protest from the national as well as international community.

The first ‘free and fair’ elections were held in 1991, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won, with Khaleda Zia as leader. The Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina was now the opposition. At the end of her tenure, Khaleda Zia refused to budge and only a series of hartals, blockades and sieges by the Awami League succeeded in removing her from office. A Solomonic arrangement was arrived at: a neutral, caretaker government would henceforth oversee all elections, and not the ruling party, which would step down. (The advisor to the caretaker government would be the previous retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – what this would mean for the independence of the judiciary can be guessed at.)

Elections under the neutral, caretaker government were held in 1996 and 2001, with the parties rotating in power. The democratic miracle had been achieved – a two-party system, with opposition and ruling party changing place every five years. After the election in 2001, a government officer told me confidentially that the election had been bogus. I didn’t believe him. Then, I read an article in The Economist and felt like a fool for disbelieving such a reliable source. Now, our newspapers always report and even republish news items on Bangladesh published in prestigious western journals like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and, of course, the Economist.

Not a single word appeared in the newspapers of Bangladesh about the findings of Walter Mebane and his team at Cornell reported in the Economist. Mebane and others studied the figures for the three elections in this country in 1991, 1996 and 2001. The first was clean, the second showed that some 2 percent of results were problematic and the third, a glaring 9 percent. Yet the elections had been vetted by the Carter Center and the European Union. The caretaker government had been a ploy to provide the illusion of an alternation of power. Its latent function – as opposed to its manifest function of overseeing true elections – was to ensure Buggins’ turn. Local as well as international actors connived at the chimera. (The caretaker government was ditched after the 2008 election held under a military government. Since then, Bangladesh has been a one-party state.)

The sentiments of the elite were echoed by writer Tahmima Anam, daughter of Mahfuz Anam, when she wrote for the BBC: “For three consecutive elections, we have had a large and enthusiastic electorate who have ushered in freely elected governments and representative parliaments. Although young and sometimes faltering, we have been understandably proud of our fledgling democracy.”  Apparently, we, the people of Bangladesh, are brains in vats being fed our stimuli by malevolent/benevolent forces.

Do the elite have extra-rational reasons for their faith in democracy? Yes, as we have seen. However, they also have eminently rational reasons for pretending to have faith in the system. For depth of analysis, we will consider faith and pretended faith in the God that failed: Communism.

In the early 1950s, the Czech party member Zdenek Mlynar, then a student at Moscow University, was accosted by a very drunk Russian. The latter had just voted in favour of keeping out a friend from the party for a minor offence. Ashamed of himself, he asked Mlynar to “call him a pig” (we know from Dostoyevsky how those Russians are given to bouts of alternating criminality and contrition.)  When Mlynar inquired why, he received the following reply: “Because you are not a pig, you really believe in all this…You read Lenin, even when you are all alone. You understand? You have faith in all these ideas.” The Pig went on to become a successful military prosecutor. In the late 1970s, Mlynar went on to write, “No doubt he still gets drunk after a trial and gets someone to call him a pig” (Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (Da Capo Press, 2001), p 424).

The children of the nomenclatura grew up, pigs almost to the last man and woman. They cared nothing for communism, and a great deal for their inherited privileges. As communism became more manifestly a failure, the Believers – there were still some – tried to reform the system. The Pigs made a show of ‘outward orthodoxy’, to use Vinen’s expression, but were in fact concerned only with their careers.

Of course, the Pigs twigged that capitalism would allow them to pass on their privileges better, and that they were in a unique position to benefit from the transition to capitalism. In the event, according to Vinen, the move to capitalism was a ‘management buyout’ (p 429). Some people lamented that self-interest, rather than idealism, had won the day. Istvan Csurka of the Hungarian Democratic Forum said that “his country had been cheated of the revolution” (p 432).

While the communist threat remained alive, it was American foreign policy to promote non-democratic rulers and strongmen in the Third World. We have seen that both Sheikh Mujib and Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto appealed to the poor with their socialist ideas to win elections. The CIA actions against Chile’s elected president Salvador Allende constituted the end of the socialist wave that began in the late 1960s, according to Ayesha Jalal (p 84). Both leaders were destined to be killed by the army. General Ziaur Rahman came to power in 1977; he founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and reversed Mujib’s socialism and nationalisation with a program of privatization and denationalisation, moving the country firmly towards free markets and capitalism. He was killed by army personnel in 1981. General Hussein Mohammad Ershad (1982-1990) continued the manoeuvre to the right.

In the 1980s, Jeane Kirkpatrick was perhaps Ronald Reagan’s most influential foreign policy advisor. In her obituary, The Economist observed that “she supported military interventions, covert proxy wars, the coddling of anti-communist dictators and the full-blooded, unapologetic pursuit of America’s national interests”. America had loss its confidence under Jimmy Carter; she felt no need to compromise or apologise, coming out fighting against an ‘expansionist’ Soviet Union.

Her 1979 article ‘Dictatorship and Double Standards’ seethed with realism:

“No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratise governments, anytime and anywhere, under any circumstances.” “Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits. In Britain, the road [to democratic government] took seven centuries to traverse.” “The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers.”

When the Cold War ended, the West reversed its policy: now it would champion democracy. The myth was born that on December 6, 1990 General Ershad was forced to resign by the thumotic student thugs of the political parties. The reality is more banal: The General didn’t jump, he was pushed – by the western donors. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the number of democracies in sub-Saharan Africa rose from 4 in 1989 to 33 in 1995 (The Economist, September 7th 1996, ‘Survey of Sub-Saharan Africa’, p. 5). In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, only one sub-Saharan government was peacefully voted out of office. ‘Now nearly all face regular elections…’About this epidemic of freedom, anthropologists Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their book Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999) says: “It cannot simply be a coincidence that, now that the West ties aid to democratisation under the guise of multi-party elections, multi-party elections are taking place in Africa (p 118).” And in Bangladesh.  As The Economist observed: “…the cold war’s end prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start insisting on democratic reforms”. And it was only in 1991 in Harare, Zimbabwe that heads of state declared that the Commonwealth should promote democracy and human rights. “When the Commonwealth moves collectively, that is, when all countries are pursuing the same objective of free and fair elections and good governance, it can act against countries that don’t even pay lip service to those values,” wrote Sir Donald McKinnon, Commonwealth secretary-general 2000-2008. “The fact that Zimbabwe and Gambia are no longer in the Commonwealth is because of a reluctance by the leaders of those countries to accept, adhere, commit and administer those values.” Apparently, Bangladesh at least pays “lip service” to the values of the Commonwealth (and no more, as we shall see).

Money that had hitherto been channeled through the state now began to flow to non-state actors – NGOs. Unsurprisingly, these have proliferated. Again, Chabal and Daloz make an astute observation: “The political significance of such a massive proliferation of NGOs in Africa deserves closer attention. Our research suggests that this expansion is less the outcome of the increasing political weight of civil society than the consequence of the very pragmatic realisation that resources are now largely channeled through NGOs (p 22).” In other words, a rational response to monetary rewards.

Between, 2000 and 2005, Bangladesh languished at the very bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; in 2013, the World Bank scrapped South Asia’s biggest foreign-funded infrastructure project, the Padma bridge, because of corruption by Bangladeshi officials. It is naïve to argue that there is corruption everywhere in Bangladesh except among NGOs. It has been estimated by economist Abul Barkat that only 25 percent of donor money reaches the poor in Bangladesh (New Nation, September 26, 2003); the remainder goes towards meeting administrative costs, including salaries. Chabal and Daloz observe that “…there is today an international ‘aid market’ which Africans know how to play with great skill. Indeed, there is very little doubt that NGOs spend an excessive proportion of their budget on furnishing their members with sophisticated and expensive equipment (from computers to four-wheel drives), leaving all too little for the development projects which justify the work of the NGOs in the first place (p 23).” This observation can be made of Bangladesh verbatim. Dr. Mozaffer Ahmed, economist and former chairman of Transparency International Bangladesh, echoed Abul Barkat when he observed that “Beneficiaries get only 20 to 22 percent of the foreign funds while [the] rest are used as ‘cost of fund’ meaning house rent, salary and other expenses”. According to The Economist: “There are about 20,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, probably more than in any other country.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that a BBC survey found that every section of society was suspicious of NGOs. Only three percent surveyed wanted to give them more power – and only two per cent admired social work, the ‘least admired’ of all kinds of work.

I became quite friendly with a top NGO honcho, and over dinner at a party, he gave me his job description. “I’m supposed to speak well of the West, say how good it is….” He had no illusions. Today, he lives in Baridhara, a posh enclave in Dhaka city.

Here is a sprinkling of facts about the income of NGOs and their connection with democracy. The reader should keep in mind the fact that the annual per capita income in Bangladesh is $4,200 (on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis). 24 local NGOs were given Takas 15 million – $260,000 – by USAID, DFID and the Swiss Development Corporation to observe the elections in 2001(at the exchange rate at the time). Another NGO – Association of Social Advancement – garnered Takas 10m – $175,000 – to meet monitoring expenses alone (The Daily Star, July 25, 2001 and August 11, 2001). And, again to meet election monitoring costs, the Coordination Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh received Takas 7.6m – $133,000 – from ‘an institution in the Netherlands’ (The Bangladesh Observer, April 5 2002). And Acting High Commissioner of Australia, Dr. Michele Forster, handed over a cheque for Takas 405,000 to the Executive Director of Democracy Watch, Ms. Taleya Rahman, for a Democracy Festival in northern Bangladesh (Observer, March 16 2002). Before the local (Union Parishad) level elections of 2003, eight NGOs were granted Takas 23,000,000 ($383,333) by the Danish aid agency DANIDA to monitor the elections – and some familiar names and acronyms crop up, such as, Democracy Watch, Bangladesh Manobadhikar Bastobayan Sangstha, ASA, NEOC, MMC….( The Daily Star, January 21, 2003).

The manifest function of NGOs is to promote civil society (as well as development); their latent function is to purchase the loyalty of the elite. The total silence of the NGOs and civil society in general on the subject of student thugs killing each other over turf can be explained in terms of their eagerness to please donors: the thugs are an integral part of the democratic process. If they did not take to the streets (hartal), the ruling party would continue in power.

People like Tahmima Anam write for the BBC and the Guardian and, I’m sure, other western publications. In the latter, she wrote that “I can insist that the story of Bangladesh is not the story of a secular country that has turned to radicalism: it is the story of a country that has, against all odds, survived, even flourished.” Whether Bangladesh has flourished or not is moot: statistics on Bangladesh are hard to find. But for my present purpose that is neither here nor there. (When statistics are available, they are often depressing; for instance, the official unemployment rate is an enviable 4.4 percent. However, about 40 percent of the population is underemployed; many persons counted as employed work only a few hours a week and at low wages. The only industry, the garments sector, is incapable of absorbing these surplus workers. And the outlook for even this one industry is gloomy as labour-replacing machines take the place of unskilled workers.)

When I tried to portray an unflattering picture of Bangladesh and its toxic leadership (which is mentioned in neither the BBC nor the Guardian articles), I met with resistance, at least, and indifference, at worst. I recall writing to New Hope International, and the editor sending me a terse note saying that if I found democracy so deficient, what alternative did I propose? Earlier, the chief editor had said that they would have been happier if I had attributed the violence I described to the market-friendly policies of the World Bank and the IMF!

I approached the Christian Science Monitor – they weren’t remotely interested. I wrote to The Nation – thinking that this paper would surely be concerned about the plight of teenage boys used as thugs by the political parties; I never even heard from them. I sent an article to the New Statesman. I got a reply saying that the relevant editor would get back to me after the Christmas holidays. I never heard from him again.

Then, my own analysis told me what was going on – these major newspapers were part of what I have come to call ‘The Freedom Industry’. Since their readers have been indoctrinated into believing that democracy is God’s gift to humanity (George Bush’s phrase), any criticism of democracy would not go down well with them. Prestige and money were at stake.

Finally, I learned about the Alternative Media/ Indy media.

My first ‘break’ came when Csaba Polony of Left Curve published a cycle of poems on the murder of student politicians by student politicians. I was grateful: I realised that criticism of students – who were supposed to have overthrown a dictator in 1990 – would only be acceptable to low-budget, low-circulation. non-mainstream newspapers and magazines.

And that turned out to be the case: I sent my article to an online journal called Axis of Logic. The editor was breathless with excitement: he immediately published it, and even tried to call me from America – but it wasn’t easy to get through to Bangladesh. (The article is called The Freedom Industry and Student Politics in Bangladesh.) As for the fate of the present piece I’m working on, I’ll settle for the least reluctant publisher anywhere in the world (except Bangladesh, where it’ll never see the light of day, as experience has taught me).

The intelligentsia to which people like Tahmima Anam belong (her mother, Shaheen Anam, is executive director of the mega-NGO, Manusher Jonno (For the People), which dispenses donor money to lesser NGOs), have extra-rational as well as rational motives. To observe one extra-rational motive yet again, consider that a lasting insult in Bangladesh is to call somebody “a Bangalee” (speaker of Bengali) – the antithesis of a westerner, lacking in refinement, sophistication, upbringing. Echoes of Macaulay, who had some nasty things to say about Bengalis, reverberate even today. This is a classic case of ‘outgroup favouritism’, Uncle Tomming or Dr. Azizing, as we saw above.

Imagine, then, what affirmation and rejection by the outgroup mean for the psychology of an intellectual in Bangladesh. It is a commonplace in economics and business that the customer is king, and in our case the customer is the West. But this particular customer is a monopsonist – a single buyer – and has the power to exploit. Liberals rail against colonial and neo-colonial exploitation, but is shtum on this subject. The result is anti-empiricism.

In her BBC article, Tamima Anam continues, “Otherwise, even if the military cleans up the political landscape, even if they arrest all the corrupt politicians, even if they seize the illegal assets and raze the buildings that were made with black money, who will become our new democratic leaders? Who will we be left to believe in? Only those who wrested power in the first place: the army.” (She is referring to the military takeover by General Moeen U Ahmed on January 11, 2007 when the caretaker arrangement came unglued and the country threatened to tear itself apart in an orgy of violence and murder – which Ms. Anam keeps mum about -under the two toxic leaders, who were later jailed, ending with elections in December 2008 in which the old Awami League and its leader Sheikh Hasina won with generous financial assistance from India. Delaying the vote averted a possible bloodbath, observed The Economist. Neither is she gratified that student thuggery disappeared in 2007-8, the number of student thugs murdered falling to 10 and 8, from 48 in 2006 and rising to 27 in 2009 on the departure of the military in December 2008. For some reason, the murder of these hapless boys, the hoplites of democracy, does nor rouse any degree of grief or sympathy.) Note her lament: “Who will be left to believe in?” This need for heroes has landed us with toxic leaders, leaders who seem miraculously to have inherited heroism. It is about time we stopped looking for heroes, and started trusting in our own finite resources, talents and abilities.  (Interestingly, South Africans, who can boast numerous heroes, do not believe that heroism is inherited – or vice, for that matter.)

“If they do not hand over power to elected leaders, they will emerge as the most powerful force in Bangladeshi politics. And a victorious army, as history has taught us time and again, is a dangerous thing.” This is a common refrain. Referring to the resignation of General Ershad in 1990, Ayesha Jalal affirms that “In Bangladesh, an unpopular military regime was forced to pass the mantle to a popularly elected government…(p 4)”. (Ershad is referred to as a ‘despot’ in Time magazine.) General Zia and General Ershad were military rulers – the first is considered a national hero by followers, while, it is true, that the second was perceived as anti-hero unable to rouse the thumos of student thugs.

These are the facts about Ershad. He was wrongly imprisoned by the caretaker government led by  Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed; his detention was declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1998; one of the judges was the late B B Roy Chowdhury (who sternly disapproved of the Chief Justice being president ultra vires of the constitution in a personal conversation with me); the judgment, he told me, had for precedent the one against former vice-president Moudud Ahmed, also wrongfully detained. From jail, Ershad won five constituencies he contested, and is still Chairman of Jaitya Party, and a Member of Parliament. He was made special envoy to the prime minister in the previous parliament.

That doesn’t sound like an unpopular military ruler. Indeed, he seems to have been hard done by, being detained wrongfully for years. Again, we have seen that more than 80 percent of hartals since 1947 have occurred after 1990, under democratic rule. Hartals require enormous personnel, that is, a large body of student thugs. People have been burnt alive in these hartals by both the toxic leaders. Moreover, extrajudicial killings began under a democratically elected government, and the military was used during Operation Clean Heart in a manner unprecedented in the history of the country. The death squad, the Rapid Action Battalion, was formed in 2004 by the elected prime minister Khaleda Zia and has been retained by her rival, Sheikh Hasina, no doubt for its popularity in an increasingly violent and crime-ridden country.

Another aspect of the situation that seems to have escaped the attention of Ms. Anam and Ayesha Jalal is the corrosive effect of democracy on the judiciary, the last bastion of the individual against despotic government. According to Jean Lipmen-Blumen, one characteristic destructive behaviour of toxic leaders includes “Subverting those structures and processes of the system intended to generate truth, justice and excellence and engaging in unethical, illegal and criminal acts (The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Resist Them (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p 20).” Clearly, interfering with the judiciary constitutes such behavior. We have already seen how the line between the judiciary and the executive was erased by the Chief Justice himself when he became president in 1990.

In a conversation in the early 1990s, B B Roy Chowdhury, then a judge on the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, told me, “He [General Ershad] never interfered with the judiciary.” Ershad routinely used to lose case after case, but never tried to influence the judges. Packing the courts became routine under the elected governments. “There is a history of politically stigmatized appointments to the highest judiciary as well as ignoring the recommendations of the Chief Justice, either partially or wholly by the government of the day,” proclaimed an editorial in the Daily Star (August 25, 2006).

In 2007, Chief Justice M. Ruhul Amin claimed that it would take twenty years to deliver the judiciary from the effects of appointing judges on the basis of “political considerations” (The Bangladesh Observer, May 1, 2007). But the undoing of the judiciary occurred in 1996. Sheikh Mujib, we will recall, was killed by army officers. A grateful nation heaped honours on the assassins, and conferred immunity against future persecution. This immunity was lifted in 1996 when Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, became prime minister. The lower judiciary sentenced the men to death by firing squad –  there is no provision for execution by firing squad in the laws – hoping no doubt to ingratiate itself to the prime minister.

The higher judiciary proved less pliable. High Court judges and then the Supreme Court refused to hear the lower court’s verdict: they declared themselves ’embarrassed’ without explaining why. A writer loyal to the dynasty observed: “It was amazing to see how the virus of ‘embarrassment’ spread within the echelons of the judicial hierarchy (Dhaka Tribune, August 15, 2016).” On January 28, 2010, five of the convicts were hanged – after Sheikh Hasina came to power again. How the judiciary was finally brought around to hear the case must remain a matter of conjecture and controversy.

Leaning on the judiciary reached new heights when, for the first time in the country’s history, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court resigned. Surendra Kumar Sinha says in his tell-all book published in exile in America, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Democracy and Human Rights, that he was forced to resign. The nub of the issue was the 16th amendment to the constitution which empowered parliament to impeach judges of the Supreme Court. Along with his peers, he upheld the High Court judgment that the amendment was illegal. “The Prime Minister and other members of her party and ministers blasted me for going against the Parliament,” he observes (p2). “Finally,” he concludes, “in the face of intimidation and threats to my family and friends by the country’s military intelligence agency called the Directorate General of the Defense Forces Intelligence (DGDFI), I submitted [my] resignation from abroad.” According to Al Jazeera, Justice Sinha writes that he feared DGDFI might not only “kill” a businessman named Aniruddha Roy, someone he knew well, but also “members of my family”. Unsurprisingly, the episode received scant attention from the media in Bangladesh. The book was published in an election year, but, as we have seen, most people polled were happy with the direction the country was taking. The elite, for reasons unknown, declined to enlighten the masses (who would have been totally at sea regarding the separation of judiciary and executive in any case, such is the level of political awareness at the grass-roots level).

Recall how, according to Jean Lupmen-Blumen, a characteristic behaviour of toxic leaders is “Subverting those structures and processes of the system intended to generate truth, justice and excellence and engaging in unethical, illegal and criminal acts”. We have also seen examples of the suppression of peaceful protests by student thugs of the ruling party. Now we come to the subject of strangling criticism of the government.

In 2017, at least twenty-five journalists and hundreds of bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under the draconian Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT) after their online content was deemed defamatory or blasphemous. A sensation among international civil society occurred upon the arrest of world-renowned photo-journalist, Shahidul Alam, on August 5, 2018, after he spoke to Al Jazeera and did a Facebook Live broadcast amid massive anti-government student protests that gripped the country. He spent 107 days in jail until granted bail by the High Court. He faced 14 years of imprisonment. In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, described Alam as “mentally sick” and blamed his behavior on his family background – Alam’s great uncle was on the opposing side to Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujib, in Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan. (This is too eerily redolent of Soviet practice of labelling rebels as mad.)

Speaking about Alam’s deceased great uncle, Abdus Sabur Khan, she observed, “He opposed our liberation war, he joined Pakistan, he didn’t accept Bangladesh. In 1971 he was with the Pakistani occupation army. Sometimes blood speaks, you understand that.” It appears that vice as well as virtue are heritable.


In one of a dozen Facebook videos he posted from the protest site, Alam said he had been attacked and had his camera smashed by “goons” wielding metal rods and sticks from the Chatra League, the student thugs of the ruling party. “The police specifically asked for help from these armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads,” alleged Alam on Al Jazeera, as reported by Channel 4. “I mean, how ridiculous is that?”

His detention was a clear signal to any would-be whistleblowers or dissenters of the fate that would await them. In contrast, I remember going down to a theatre in the ‘80s to watch a play performed by a troupe of local actors in Bangladesh. The play was called The Captain of Kopenick. The play was about a down-on-his-luck ex-convict shoemaker. He is ignored by everyone until he dons a military uniform – and achieves instant respectability. The play, performed in Bengali, was a flagrant caricature of the rule of General Ershad, who had acquired power through a military coup in 1982. However, the play was not banned, the actors were never arrested or even prosecuted. I went home that evening, much amused.

But the media of Bangladesh will tell readers and viewers of how we moved from dictatorship to democracy on December 6, 1990, when Ershad resigned, a day commemorated every year as ‘democracy day’. We have seen the psychology of the elite in Bangladesh, their rational as well as extra-rational motives for an anti-empirical faith in democracy and toxic leaders. I quote at length from Bertrand Russell’s essay On Being Modern-Minded a passage brimful of sentiments that can’t quite be conveyed by a social or political psychologist. His observations combine the blending of the irrational need to belong to a heard, the fear of social death, not being one of the chosen, to the rational need for career, kudos and cash:


“A mentally solitary life, such as that of Copernicus, or Spinoza, or Milton after the Restoration, seems pointless according to modern standards….And in any case what is the use of an eccentric opinion, which never can hope to conquer the great agencies of publicity? The money rewards and widespread though ephemeral fame which those agencies have made possible place temptations in the way of able men which are difficult to resist. To be pointed out, admired, mentioned constantly in the press, and offered easy ways of earning much money is highly agreeable; and when all this is open to a man, he finds it difficult to go on doing the work that he himself thinks best and is inclined to subordinate his judgment to the general opinion (Unpopular Essays (Bombay: Blackie & Son (India) Ltd, 1979), pp. 66-67).”


We have traced the killers of Mahima to the voters, the people, and the elite, obedient to two pathological leaders, who are ultimately the guilty. But does the buck stop there?


Democracy did not descend from heaven, but from the western donors. It was they who created the situation, the ‘bad barrel of Bangladesh’, they were the system makers who have perpetuated a situation where formerly decent people became evil.


The reader will recall Milgram’s 35 percent, the subjects who refused to shock the victim despite repeated exhortations from authority. She will also recall Christina Maslach, the ‘heroine’ of the Stanford Prison Experiment, who persuaded Zimbardo to terminate his experiment with the twenty-four young men, all previously screened for any abnormality in their personality.

In 2004, two concerned citizens of Bangladesh wished to put an end to the toxic rule of the two dynasties – with ‘permission’ from America! If it hadn’t been for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, we would never have known how the superpower sealed our doom. Former army chief and Awami League minister Lt General (retd) Noorudin Khan supplicated support from the US government to end Bangladesh’s administration in 2004 and bring a government of national unity consisting of senior leaders from both the major parties. Also, another ex-chief of Bangladesh Army and standing committee member of BNP, Lt Gen (retd) Mahbubur Rahman, had told the US ambassador that the military would always look to the US government for a signal to go ahead with a coup. Ambassador Harry K Thomas refused, saying the US would uphold stability and democracy and would not countenance any extra-constitutional measures (The Daily Star, September 7, 2011).

The two military officers had been prescient, and on January 11, 2007, the military, under the guise of a civilian administration, took over power: the country was on the verge of collapse. An election was scheduled to take place on January 22, which the BNP planned to rig. “Delaying the vote averted a possible bloodbath,” opined The Economist.


The political cycle of Bangladesh seems to go something like this:


civilian rule – extreme situation – military rule – civilian rule – extreme situation – military rule…


The force that saves a country in extreme situations constitutes the sovereign, according to Carl Schmitt (after Thomas Hobbes). We have never developed a notion of the modern state, as noted above, due to romantic attachments to language or spiritual cravings for religion. Thus, our last bulwark against anarchy and chaos is the military.

The military government of General Moeen U Ahmed proved highly popular (except among the extra-rational loyalists of the two begums, especially when both were incarcerated by the army). In a letter to the Bangladesh Observer, a citizen of the country, Nur Jahan, expressed her gratitude to the military-backed caretaker government: “When everything was falling apart, we were feeling like [we were] on board a ship in a stormy sea, which might sink any moment. At that critical time the caretaker government held the helm firmly and steered us safely to the shore (April 17, 2008)”. Even novelist Tahmima Anan had good things to say about the military takeover, as we saw above. This is small wonder, when General Moeen U Ahmed appeared in TIME magazine with a handsome profile. America had clearly changed its mind.

But like mythological tales of ancient Greece, the ending proved less than euphoric, for the two toxic leaders were soon back in politics; Khaleza Zia carried out deadly hartals, and Sheikh Hasina has continued as premier until today, her rival locked up on corruption charges. Democracy is back with all its pathologies.

The journalist Gwynne Dyer, writing in The Telegraph, informs us that General Moeen’s view was that “essentially democracy is to blame”. He dismisses this out of hand. “And the general doesn’t think democracy is right for Bangladesh. But if it isn’t right for Bengalis, one of the most politicized, argumentative populations on the planet, then just who is it right for?” He ends his article with the old chestnut from Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

Western donors are the barrel-makers: but why this insistence on a system of government that has taken so many lives in Bangladesh, often in the most gruesome form, and ruined the lives of countless young people, including teenagers? For the murder of Mahima must, in the last analysis, be attributed to the West. Guilty. But what was the motive?


A New Religion


I was an English language teacher at a Catholic seminary in Dhaka on Asad Avenue called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). After class, I used to have regular conversations with the rector, Fr. Bejoy D’ Cruz, a short, portly young man with intent eyes.


One afternoon, over a cup of coffee, he was telling me how difficult it had become to recruit young men to the priesthood. He said that young people in the west preferred to join NGOs.

This was a revelation.

We have seen that people in Bangladesh join or set up NGOs for rational reasons – money. However, westerners do the same for the old, extra-rational motives that once directed them to the pews and pulpits. The number of priests and nuns have been declining in the occident, the number of nuns especially so, the total of those not called offset by the increasing ranks from Asia and Africa. All over Europe and North America (albeit, as mentioned, not in Asia and Africa), the numbers of priests and parishioners will continue their remorseless decline, as observed by a newspaper. I started class with eight seminarians, and next year there were sixteen. God has emigrated.

In a conversation with an American priest, Br. Donald, he said it was much better to be here in Bangladesh, where people take religion seriously, than in America.

Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, discusses the issue of ‘meaning’ as addressed by a French thinker, Luc Ferry (p 677). The latter gives instances of young people who have achieved a strong sense of meaning in their lives through membership of Medecins Sans Frontieres, but ‘horizontally’, not ‘vertically’. No doubt, similar observations can be made about membership of other NGOs, like Amnesty International or Article 19. Thus, people find meaning in their lives through something greater than themselves, without being other-worldly. But they, nevertheless, manifest a need for transcendence.

Again, the same writer observes the mobilisation of resources in the event of a distant calamity, such as a flood or earthquake. He attributes this outpouring of empathy not only to the media and methods of transportation and the fact of economic plenitude, but something less tangible, not unconnected to the Christian past. “The same media and means of transport don’t awaken the same response everywhere; it is disproportionately strong in ex-Latin Christendom (p 371).”

Taylor observes that new forms arise in history in spiritual traditions which are carried forward and reshaped so that subsequent periods show the same spiritual inclinations in a revised, but mirrored form. “I have argued that this is true for exclusive humanism in relation to Christian faith, in the centrality of benevolence, for instance. I have even argued that exclusive humanism couldn’t have arisen without this analogue to agape. (pp 679-680)” Indeed, religion is reconstituted.

A similar line of thought emerges in Democracy in Europe, by Larry Siedentop (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2000). More interesting than Taylor, Siedentop traces democracy to Christianity. He observes: “For the Christian God survives in the assumption that we have access to the nature of things as individuals. That assumption is, in turn, the final justification for a democratic society, for a society organised to respect the equal underlying moral status of all its members, by guaranteeing each ‘equal liberty’. That assumption reveals how the notion of ‘Christian liberty’ came to underpin a radically new ‘democratic’ model of human association (p 194, italics original)”.

“Mediaeval noblemen did not believe in individualism”, observes Harari in Sapiens (p 128). One’s place in the social hierarchy determined one’s worth. Teenage sons of barons did not have private rooms on the second floor of the castle “with posters of Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur on the walls”, let alone a locked door closed to parental supervision. He slept with other boys in a large hall, always on display and always alert to what others saw and said. It was the hierarchy and others’ perception of him that determined his true worth.

The individual makes his first appearance through Machiavelli and Luther, according to Alasdair McIntyre (A Short History of Ethics, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967, p 121). “For the first time, the Absolute Individual confronts the Absolute State” wrote J.N.Figgis, as quoted by McIntyre, of the period after the Reformation (p 124).

Siedentop bemoans the lack of shared beliefs in Europe and the lack of democracy (hence the title, deliberately echoing Tocqueville’s book). The latter is due to the former, for which he blames anti-clericalism and multiculturalism (sometimes together).

Anti-clericalism hardly consists with this benign view of Christianity. Christianity has been consistent with persecution, autos-da-fe, slavery, serfdom, absolutism, war, racism, capitalism, and, today, democracy (as he claims). Siedentop takes anti-clericalism as an unfortunate aspect of European culture today without querying its origins, motivation and legitimacy. In recent times, clerical sexual abuse of children as well as nuns, along with the concomitant cover-ups, have confirmed the worst suspicions of the anti-clerical.

“Thus, the defining characteristic of Christianity was its universalism. It aimed to create a single human society, a society composed, that is, of individuals rather than tribes, clans or castes.” It is Christian ontology that undergirds liberal values. The primary and foundational commitments to equality, reciprocity and individual freedom are constitutive of Western society; the commitments to tolerance, pluralism and scepticism are derivative and secondary (p 210).

Siedentop claims that Christianity, unlike other faiths, “interiorizes God”. Christianity is not a social group worshipping itself a la Durkheim, but a social group premised on the individual as a free agent. This interiorization is the source of conscience and a sphere of choice protected by human rights. “That is the kernel of truth embedded in the Protestant version of Christianity – the kernel which makes it plausible to claim that Protestantism, for all its aberrations, is a more self-conscious form of Christianity than Catholicism (p 211).”

Islam, and multiculturalism, come in for heavy criticism. Clearly, Islam is deficient and defective, and its values “abhorrent”. Islam prioritises men over women, fathers over daughters, husbands over wives (curiously Siedentop doesn’t expend much energy on Hinduism which as we have seen, is characterised by the Homo hierarchicus; the sex ratio at birth in Bangladesh, a Muslim country, is 1.04 males per female, while in India it is 1.12 males per female, a result of female foeticide unknown in Bangladesh. When Nehru passed away, his daughter, Indira, was not able to light the funeral pyre; that duty fell to Indira’s son, Sanjay. Son-preference runs deep in India (Nehru: A Political Biography (p 7)).

Mahima was a simple Muslim girl – young, but nevertheless deficient for being Muslim. A Christian, European girl would not have killed herself because her society would regard her as a person first, a woman, a daughter, a wife, second. Failing the family honour (a collective sentiment) would have been intolerable, a social death. She chose an actual death.

Siedentop approves of the “superb” spread of the language of human rights throughout the world, constituting an almost universal culture, the “ultimate and least resistible form of Western influence, something which must appear to defenders of other faiths as the last form of Western imperialism (p 213)”.

We have seen throughout this essay that the pursuit of democracy and the pursuit of human rights have been at odds in Bangladesh, and indeed, in South Asia. Assault and battery of children protesters, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, far from denting the popularity of an elected government, in fact augments it. Nor is the issue of human rights free of incoherence: the right of the foetus versus the right of a woman to abortion are vehemently disputed issues even in the West. The rights of workers to job security vary between continental capitalism and Anglo-Saxon capitalism, and so on. Torture seems to be employed even by liberal regimes whenever national security is threatened. An Irish plebiscite legalised gay marriage in 2015: does that mean that the majority can confer a right, or take it away?

As one would expect from someone who believes in universal values, Siedentop maintains that “the only form of Western imperialism that remains legitimate is ideological (p 188)”.

Interestingly, no other civilisation seems to wish to project its values onto the world, no doubt because these values are parochial and particularistic. The reader will have noticed that criticism of democracy in these pages have come from anthropologists, who are necessarily interested in the parochial and particular (and one politician philosopher, similarly focussed on the empirical and real).

The time has come to raise the all-important question (‘the million-dollar question’ if not so many lives had been involved): Despite all the evidence, from political psychologists, social psychologists, journalists, historians, anthropologists…despite all the evidence, why does this faith in democracy endure – in the west? (In Bangladesh, we have looked at both rational and irrational reasons for such faith).

Happily, the European elite have fewer illusions about democracy. Jean Monnet has been quoted by The Economist as having “thought it wrong to consult the peoples of Europe about the structure of a community of which they had no practical experience”. However, the European Union vigorously champions democracy in Bangladesh, even going to the extent of whitewashing fake elections (with the Carter Centre, as we saw above). And even as Jeanne Kirkpatrick was writing her classic essay on dictatorship and double standards, she observed that “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratise governments, anytime and anywhere, under any circumstances.”

The invaluable question was posed in the 1930s by Joseph Schumpeter in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1950): “But how is it possible that a doctrine so patently contrary to fact should have survived to this day and continued to hold its place in the hearts of the people and in the official language of governments? The refuting facts are known to all; everybody admits them with perfect, frequently with cynical, frankness. The theoretical basis, utilitarian rationalism, is dead; nobody accepts it as a correct theory of the body politic. Nevertheless, that question is not difficult to answer (pp 264-265).”


Before answering the question, Schumpeter presents arguments against the eighteenth-century view of democracy, which he defines as “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will (p 250)”. Then he draws the implications of the definition.

He affirms that there is no common good which everyone can be persuaded to accept by rational considerations. On the level of the individual will, we, in a democracy, will have to attribute to it a level of independence and rationality that are “altogether unrealistic”, meaning, anti-empirical.

“Everyone would have to know definitely what he wants to stand for. This definite will would have to be implemented by the ability to observe and interpret correctly the facts that are directly accessible to everyone and to sift critically the information about the facts that are not. Finally, from that definite will and from these ascertained facts a clear and prompt conclusion as to particular issues would have to be derived according to the rules of logical inference—with so high a degree of general efficiency moreover that one man’s opinion could be held, without glaring absurdity, to be roughly as good as every other man’s (pp 253 – 254).” And all this the citizen would have to accomplish by herself, ‘unaided’ by pressure groups or propaganda.

Under the rubric “Human Nature in Politics”, Schumpeter begins thus: “It remains to answer our question about the definiteness and independence of the voter’s will, his powers of observation and interpretation of facts, and his ability to draw, clearly and promptly, rational inferences from both. This subject belongs to a chapter of social psychology that might be entitled Human Nature in Politics (p 256).”

The reader will recall the title of the book by Graham Wallas mentioned before under the heading ‘The Irrational’. Schumpeter recommends the book as “the best introduction to political psychology”. (He takes Wallas to task for not taking his own premises to their logical conclusion!)

He gives a brief history of the demolition of the ‘rational’ individual. “During the second half of the last century, the idea of the human personality that is a homogeneous unit and the idea of a definite will that is the prime mover of action have been steadily fading—even before the times of Théodule Ribot and of Sigmund Freud. In particular, these ideas have been increasingly discounted in the field of social sciences where the importance of the extra-rational and irrational element in our behavior has been receiving more and more attention, witness Pareto’s Mind and Society. Of the many sources of the evidence that accumulated against the hypothesis of rationality, I shall mention only two.”

The first he mentions is the name of Gustav Le Bon, the pioneer in the study of the psychology of crowds (psychologie des foules). Schumpeter extends the denotation of ‘crowd’ to include “every parliament, every committee, every council of war” for they share with the rabble “a reduced sense of responsibility, a lower level of energy of thought and greater sensitiveness to non-logical influences”.

“Moreover, those phenomena are not confined to a crowd in the sense of a physical agglomeration of many people. Newspaper readers, radio audiences, members of a party even if not physically gathered together are terribly easy to work up into a psychological crowd and into a state of frenzy in which attempt at rational argument only spurs the animal spirits (p 257).”

The second source he mentions is, in some ways, more illuminating. “Economists, learning to observe their facts more closely, have begun to discover that, even in the most ordinary currents of daily life, their consumers do not quite live up to the idea that the economic textbook used to convey.” He has, in fact, anticipated the discipline known today as Behavioural Economics. As we have seen, Richard H. Thaler draws a distinction between Econs and Humans, the former being the fictional creature of economic theory and the latter the flesh-and-blood people of everyday life. Just as the rational individual is a textbook fiction, so the rational citizen is an ideological construct.

In the next section, Schumpeter asks his invaluable question. His answer is equally invaluable. “First of all, though the classical doctrine of collective action may not be supported-by the results of empirical analysis, it is powerfully supported by that association with religious belief to which I have adverted already. This may not be obvious at first sight. The utilitarian leaders were anything but religious in the ordinary sense of the term. In fact they believed themselves to be anti-religious and they were so considered almost universally. They took pride in what they thought was precisely an unmetaphysical attitude and they were quite out of sympathy with the religious institutions and the religious movements of their time. But we need only cast another glance at the picture they drew of the social process in order to discover that it embodied essential features of the faith of protestant Christianity and was in fact derived from that faith. For the intellectual who had cast off his religion the utilitarian creed provided a substitute for it. For many of those who had retained their religious belief the classical doctrine became the political complement of it (p 265).”

This explains why democracy is beyond criticism and rational evaluation: the dissident is not only wrong, but morally wrong, a heretic, as was the case with Marxism. “It actually becomes what from another standpoint I have held it incapable of becoming, viz., an ideal or rather a part of an ideal schema of things. The very word may become a flag, a symbol of all a man holds dear, of everything that he loves about his nation whether rationally contingent to it or not. On the one hand, the question how the various propositions implied in the democratic belief are related to the facts of politics will then become as irrelevant to him as is, to the believing Catholic, the question how the doings of Alexander VI tally with the supernatural halo surrounding the papal office. On the other hand, the democrat of this type, while accepting postulates carrying large implications about equality and brotherliness, will be in a position also to accept, in all sincerity, almost any amount of deviations from them that his own behavior or position may involve. That is not even illogical. Mere distance from fact is no argument against an ethical maxim or a mystical hope (p 266).”

Aldous Huxley made similar observations about democracy, the religion. “The word [democracy] conjures up ideas of universal liberty and happiness. The hearer feels an expansive emotion, a pleasing enlargement of his personality, following on the idea of the loosening of restraints. He can be moved by repetition of the word to take violent action (A Few Well-chosen Words, Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays, Volume II, 1926-1929, ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), pp 59 – 60).”

These words were prescient. Violent action has indeed been taken to spread the faith across the Middle East. However, when a Palestinian uses the word ‘democracy’, he means oppression. When a Rohingya refugee fleeing from newly-democratic Burma hears the world, it is safe to assume that no pleasant associations come to his or her mind. Huxley continues: “As a matter of historical fact, however, democracy has come to mean, not universal liberty, but the absolute rule of majorities. In republican America the formula of democracy is: Agree with the majority, or clear out.” He writes like a contemporary observer of American politics.

Huxley, too, was aware of the sacred nature of democracy. He writes: “Only the most mystically fervent democrats, who regard voting as a kind of religious act, and who hear the voice of God in that of the People, can have any reason to desire to perpetuate a system whereby confidence tricksters, rich men, and quacks may be given power by the votes of an electorate composed in a great part of mental Peter Pans, whose childishness renders them peculiarly susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and the tirelessly repeated suggestions of the rich men’s newspapers (Political Democracy, p 228).” (When I quoted these words to an English friend of mine, he said, “Was he on mescaline?” Huxley was writing six years before Hitler’s electoral success).

We have seen that political and social psychologists have confirmed his view about “mental Peter Pans”, and as for the rich men, Bernie Sanders thundered “We allowed rich people to buy the US government”. He said that he didn’t have a super PAC, through which the rich channel their donations. By August 2015, he had raised $15.2 million dollars from 350,000 supporters, who, on average, contributed $31. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn referred to the “stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media”.

Schumpeter and Huxley noted the anti-empiricism mentioned above, infecting not only the layman but also the historian (such as Ayesha Jalal). Like Siedentop, Schumpeter traces democratic values back to Christianity, but without the former’s glorification. “Thus transposed into the categories of religion, this doctrine—and in consequence the kind of democratic persuasion which is based upon it— changes its very nature. There is no longer any need for logical scruples about the Common Good and Ultimate Values. All this is settled for us by the plan of the Creator whose purpose defines and sanctions everything. What seemed indefinite or unmotivated before is suddenly quite definite and convincing. The voice of the people that is the voice of God for instance. Or take Equality. Its very meaning is in doubt, and there is hardly any rational warrant for exalting it into a postulate, so long as we move in the sphere of empirical analysis. But Christianity harbors a strong equalitarian element. The Redeemer died for all: He did not differentiate between individuals of different social status. In doing so, He testified to the intrinsic value of the individual soul, a value that admits of no gradations. Is not this a sanction—and, as it seems to me, the only possible sanction —of “everyone to count for one, no one to count for more than one”—a sanction that pours super-mundane meaning into articles of the democratic creed for which it is not easy to find any other (p 265)?”

The goodness of democracy is thereby ‘evidence-transcendent’, for it is God’s plan for humanity. We have seen how Charles Taylor conceived of the reconstitution of religion in the secular. Nineteenth century Europe was a time of secular religions: nationalism, Marxism and democracy each arrived as new religions for a new society.  (Even among Arabs, faith in the fundamental goodness of democracy was in full display in 2011, notwithstanding the clear and contradictory evidence of Iraq.)

A ‘secular religion’, far from being an oxymoron, is an identifiable social phenomenon. According to Ninian Smart, in his book The World’s Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989, pp 10 ‎‎- 25), every religion has seven characteristics, or dimensions. We tick them off one by one, with respect to nationalism:

(1) the ritual dimension: speaking the language, saluting the flag, national holidays,  pilgrimages to sights considered important; (2) the experiential or emotional dimension: nationalism has a powerful emotional side, a fact that seems to me to explain why children are peculiarly susceptible to it, as during the Chinese May 4th Movement, or the 21st February 1952 students’ movement in the then-East Pakistan (today Bangladesh); these emotions are always kept simmering below the surface through patriotic or heroic songs, dramas…(3) the narrative dimension is obvious in nationalism: the history of the nation; the stories (fictionalized, or embellished) of great men, women and even children who made the nation what it is; (4) unlike the emotional dimension, nationalism lacks a strong doctrinal dimension, reinforcing my observation that the power of the emotional aspect renders nationalist sentiments peculiarly appealing to children; however, nationalism can appeal to a set of doctrines, such as democracy, individual freedom and rights (or it could appeal to purely religious doctrines as well); (5) the ethical dimension of nationalism refers to loyalty to the nation, martial values needed during defense (or offence), family values (to provide soldiers); (6) the social and institutional aspect of the nation-state consists in such public figures as the head of state, the army and its military ceremonies, the education system – a formidable apparatus for collective indoctrination – and even in games (the Olympics is the egregious example); (7) finally, the material dimension of religion are the physical monuments and artistic objects that have been created by the ‘nation-builders’.

Smart then goes on to adumbrate the seven dimensions of Marxism.

It should be clear to the reader that democracy, like nationalism and Marxism, has similar characteristics:

(1) First, there’s the ritual dimension of the quinquennial vote, the municipal and local elections, the swearing-in ceremonies….At election time, the people come together. Voters vote for the national good (however ill-equipped they are to determine this) and not just for their narrow self-interest (Against Democracy, p 49). There is a period of transcendence at election time, lasting several weeks, if not months. (2) Then there’s the experiential or emotional aspect: every election is preceded by months of campaigning during which euphoria and heightened expectations prevail. (3) The narrative or mythical dimension of democracy is fairly obvious: there’s the identification over 2,500 years with Cleisthenes and Greek democracy, the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution….Locally, there is the identification with those who overthrew a ‘tyrant’: in Bangladesh, December 6, 1990 is recalled every year as the day General Ershad was overthrown by brave boys (who were in reality thugs, but never mind); in America, the 4th of July serves a similar purpose. (4) Democracy, more than nationalism, has a far richer doctrinal dimension, ranging from – to take an arbitrary span – the treatises of John Locke to the output of John Stuart Mill. (5) The ethical dimension: values (observed in the breach) of tolerance, equality, accountability, are inculcated in voters. (6) The social and institutional aspects of democracy stand out – literally: there’s the elected President or Prime Minister with his or her regalia and elaborate ceremonies; the ‘people’ are represented through popular songs, dances, dramas, poetry and folk-tales. (7) The material embodiment of democracy is often magnificent: in Bangladesh there’s the Assembly Building designed by Louis Kahn; The Capitol, the White House and Westminster Palace are imposing monuments to democracy. As de Tocqueville observed: “Nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation; nowhere does the nation itself appear greater, or does the mind more easily take in a wide general survey of it. In democratic communities the imagination is compressed when men consider themselves; it expands indefinitely when they think of the State. Hence it is that the same men who live on a small scale in narrow dwellings, frequently aspire to gigantic splendor in the erection of their public monuments (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, Book 2, Chapter 12).” Not surprisingly, even democratic architecture conduces to a feeling of transcendence.

The highest level of human growth, according to Abraham Maslow, is that of transcendence. Transcendence, for Maslow, encompasses the need to rise above the interests of the self, to find fulfilment in helping others reach their potential (The Allure of Toxic Leaders, p 129).

According to Jean Lipman-Blumen, control myths are rationalisations that we use to persuade ourselves to act or desist from acting, and these are deep-buried in our subconscious existential, psychological and psychosocial needs. “Both because of and despite the fact that they travel incognito, these powerful control myths prevent us from even attempting to overthrow toxic leaders (p 130).” She lists several control myths, but the most powerful and positive ones come at the end, or at the top, for they promise ennoblement and immortality, thus speaking to the needs that Maslow describes as self-esteem, self-actualisation and transcendence. A few samples follow (pp 135-136).

“This leader is an unique being. Participating in his/her vision will make me unique, too.” (Self-esteem and belonging; self-actualisation and transcendence.)

“Whatever promises the leader makes will come true.” (Safety)

“This leader’s vision is so ennobling, I would follow her to the ends of the earth.” (Self-actualisation and transcendence)

“When I am part of the leader’s group, I can do no wrong.” (Aesthetic [order, symmetry and beauty]; self-actualisation and transcendence)

“Being part of the leader’s group fills me with a sense of doing something really important.” (Cognition and transcendence)

“The vision is worth any sacrifice.” (Transcendence)

“Attaining the vision through my heroic efforts will earn me immortality.” (Transcendence)

The writer adds: “Believing in the special, god-like qualities of the leader makes it difficult to evaluate his claims to mana.”

“They beat her to death with their clubs,” wrote a student about his teacher. “It was immensely satisfying.”

This was a clear example of thumos run amok, and used by a toxic leader to further his personal agenda.

“The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutionary bugle to advance” first sounded 52 years ago, on May 16th 1966, when Mao approved a secret circular declaring war on “representatives of the bourgeoisie” who had “sneaked into the Communist Party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture”. Between May 1966 and Mao’s death in 1976, which in effect ended the Cultural Revolution, over 1 million died, millions more were banished from urban homes to the countryside and tens of millions were humiliated or tortured.

How could an entire nation follow a toxic leader like Mao Zedong? Jean Marie-Lupmen has a few answers. She also explains the allure of toxic leaders in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and other places like Cambodia and the Soviet Union.

Mao stood on the threshold of Paradise, Communism, the end of prehistory and the beginning of history. A few million deaths seemed a paltry sacrifice in a cost-benefit analysis. He stood at the terminus of human civilisation, the Prophet over the Promised Land, with his eager Communist disciples.

Charles Taylor, although the winner of the Templeton Prize, is clear-eyed about the history of Christianity, unlike Siedentop, and the dangers to the devout. He observes:

“So religious faith can be dangerous. Opening to transcendence is fraught with peril. But this is particularly so if we respond to these perils by permanent closure, drawing an unambiguous boundary between the pure and the impure through the polarization of conflict, even war. That religious believers are capable of this, history amply attests. But atheists can as well, once they open themselves to strong ideals, such as a republic of equals, a world order of perpetual peace, or communism. We find the same self-assurance of purity through aggressive attack on “axes of evil”, among believers and atheists alike. Idolatry breeds violence (p 769).”

Bertrand Russell once wrote: “Belief in democracy, however, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical and therefore harmful (‘Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind’, Unpopular Essays (Bombay: Blackie & Son (India) Ltd, 1979), p. 149).”

But belief in democracy is not like any other belief, just as belief in the goodness of God and His plans for humanity is not like any other belief. Belief in the goodness of democracy is evidence-transcendent: it exists despite all evidence to the contrary. Brennan insists, time and again, that “democracy is not a poem or painting (p 125)”, that it must be evaluated just as we would evaluate a hammer, as a means to an end, not an end in itself (p 14). In this, he harks backs to Schumpeter’s contention that we must be able to discuss democracy “rationally like a steam engine or a disinfectant (p 266).”

And we have seen that, in Bangladesh, belief in democracy, unlike any other belief today, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical and therefore highly profitable. For a section of our intelligentsia, belief in democracy is extremely rational.

Take a contemporary and pressing instance of the disjunction between democratic reality and democratic faith. It comes from Latin America, where the Latinobarometro survey reported in the Economist shows great dissatisfaction with democracy and a simultaneous preference for democracy!

The proportion of people who are dissatisfied with how democracy works has jumped from 51 percent in 2009 to 71 percent. The share that is content has dropped from 44 percent to 24 percent, its lowest level since the survey began more than two decades ago. However, more than half say that it is better than any other system, though that has dropped by 13 percentage points over the past eight years. The share who are neutral has risen from 16 percent in 2010 to 28 percent.

The chasm between reality and aspiration is deepest in Venezuela, where more than half the people say they do not have enough to eat. Although just 12 percent of Venezuelans are happy with how their “democracy” functions, 75 percent prefer democracy to any other system. Yet it was the democratically elected Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro who helped to take the food out of their mouths. Millions voted with their feet.

On the other hand, Nigerians have turned out to be more rational: in the 2015 presidential election, turnout was just 43 percent; in the last one, it dropped to 35.6 percent. Nigerians have learned from experience, and they may also have been doing a little basis arithmetic: the value of a vote is 1 divided by the number of voters – a value almost equalling zero, which makes voting irrational (Against Democracy, p 110).

A variant of theodicy seems to be at work in appraising democracy. On the cusp of religion and politics, I turn for assistance to a poet, Edmund Blunden, and his heart-wrenching poem, Report on Experience.

I have been young, and now am not too old;

And I have seen the righteous forsaken,

His health, his honour and his quality taken.

This is not what we were formerly told.

I have seen a green county, useful to the race,

Knocked silly with guns and mines, its villages vanished,

Even the last rat and last kestrel banished―

God bless us all, this was peculiar grace.

I knew Seraphina ; Nature gave her hue,

Glance, sympathy, note, like one from Eden.

I saw her smile warp, heard her lyric deaden;

She turned to harlotry;― this I took to be new.

Say what you will, our God sees how they run.

These disillusions are his curious proving

That he loves humanity and will go on loving;

Over there are faith, life, virtue in the sun.

There can be no quarrel with the last quatrain, just as there can be none with the first three: this tension is part and parcel of religious faith. But when we ask why sixteen-year-old Ripon Sikder had to be burned alive, taking eleven days to die, it is not our faith in God, but our faith in democracy, that is, or should be, shaken.

‘They were only war casualties,” he said. “It was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause.’

“Would you have said the same if it had been your old nurse with her blueberry pie?”

“He ignored my facile point. ‘In a way you could say, they died for democracy.”

Readers will recall this exchange between the English journalist Thomas Fowler, the narrator, and the undercover OSS agent, Arden Pyle, in The Quiet American by Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955, p 179).

In the event, 4-5 million Vietnamese men, women and children died for democracy. When one has God on one’s side, and the others don’t, it is legitimate to kill.

Fowler’s facile point about “your old nurse with her blueberry pie” raises the essential question: what if he/she were one of ‘us’, and not one of ‘them’?

Charles Taylor similarly raises the essential question: “And sympathy can so easily be blocked by ideology, even (though rarely) in the case of one’s own children, but certainly when it comes to others (A Secular Age, p 701)”. With the followers of Jim Jones, we have seen that sympathy can be blocked even in the case of one’s own children.

In Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists, David Aaronovitch details his parents’ love of the Soviet Union and Communism. Anything could be justified to a true believer, even Stalinism. “Perhaps there are children of very devout Muslims or evangelicals who will read this and nod along,” he muses.

In the late ‘80s when the Soviet Union was on the skids, the late Debesh Bhattacharya told me, “We will become angels”. He had gone to prison for his Marxist faith when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. He retired as a judge on the Supreme Court. His wife, Chitra Bhattacharya, became MP for the ruling Awami League. Both their sons had studied in Moscow.


Is it possible that every one of our military rulers had good dispositions, and that every one of our democratically elected rulers had bad dispositions?

This seems farfetched. Instead of appealing to dispositions, explanations along situationist lines would be more illuminating.

First of all, there is no political hatred when politics is in abeyance, almost by definition. Society under military rule was not divided between us and them, ingroup and outgroup. Under military rule, there is no political hatred, simply because there is no politics.

Even in a peaceful democracy like America – invariably held up as a model for the world, ‘the city on the hill’ – democracy creates civic or situational enemies. Even before the election of Donald Trump, more than half of Democrats told pollsters that they were afraid of Republicans and almost half of Republicans said the same about Democrats.

Cass Sunstein observes that in 1960, only about 4 to 5 percent of Republicans and Democrats would be ‘displeased’ if their children married members of the opposite party; now, about 43 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats admit they would be displeased (Against Democracy, p 234).

Violence is never far below the surface even in the oldest democracy. After a Republican congressman was shot by an unstable gunman last summer, leading Democrats expressed outrage at the idea that their rhetoric had played any part. Yet they used the attempted bombings and the synagogue shooting to begin a debate about the precise degree of presidential responsibility for domestic terrorism.

In the Mother of Parliaments, tribalism has descended like an evil mantle. On June 16, 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a troubled, far-right 52-year-old gardener. Working-class Labour voters, like the ones who put her in Parliament, tend increasingly to be pro-Brexit and nativist. Mrs Cox was a fervent pro-European.

She had complained to the police of abuse, but MPs do not receive police protection. This year, British Members of Parliament were advised to take taxis home, over fears that they could be attacked by members of the public over the handling of Brexit. “Personally, I have never felt this level of tension during my time in the House and I am aware that other colleagues feel the same,” wrote the Deputy Speaker in an email. “Many colleagues have already been subject to widely publicized abuse and intimidation.”

On January 1, the day after the national elections on December 31, 2018, a mother of four was gang-raped in the city of Noakhali, Bangladesh, for voting for the opposition (Daily Star, January 2, 2019).

“They had repeatedly insisted that I should vote for boat [the symbol of the ruling Awami League] but I cast my ballot for ‘sheaf of paddy’ [that of the opposition],” she said.

Around a dozen ruling party men armed with sticks entered her house after midnight, tied up her husband and children, took her outside and raped her. The woman alleged the rapists were accomplices of Ruhul Amin, a former member of Char Jubilee Union Parishad.

Her husband said that she had gone to cast her vote at Char Jubilee-14 Government Primary School centre around 11:00 am on Sunday. She took the ballot paper from the assistant presiding officer and went to a booth.

At that time, Ruhul, an Awami League man, insisted she vote for the “boat”. He allegedly tried to snatch the ballot paper as she said she would vote for the “sheaf of paddy”. But she put the paper inside the box.

This made Ruhul furious and he threatened her, he said.

(In the event, the government won all the seats in parliament barring eleven, which it graciously ‘lost’. The consensus was that it could have won more convincingly for, as we have seen, its popularity seems to surge after acts of thuggery and murder. However, the electoral outcome was considerably better than the conduct of Ethiopia’s ruling party in 2015, when it won every seat in parliament!)

We began this essay with an earlier case of political hatred, as the reader will recall.

Second, and this is closely associated with the above, is the absence of the monopoly of violence. In his lecture “Politics as a Vocation” (1918), the German sociologist Max Weber defines the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” In short, under democratic rulers, the state is missing in Bangladesh (and India as well, where the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and others routinely act outside the state; the use of thugs in politics is widespread, as depicted in the Hindi movie Vaastav (1999). The plot can be found here.).

Sheikh Mujib had a private army (the Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini), his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, has the Chatra League and Jubo League, her rival, Khaleda Zia, has the Chatra Dal and Jubo Dal. After the slaughter by the Rakhi Bahini in the early ‘70s, we see slaughter again after 1990 – more than 80 percent of all hartals on this land since 1945 occurred after the miraculous year. Hartals require enormous personnel, in short, a private army. And private armies are inconsistent with the state.

With General Zia (1977-1981), General Ershad (1983-1990) and General Moeen (2007-2008), the military possessed the monopoly of legitimate violence. By means of democracy, it seems, we have reverted to the Hobbesian state of nature. These men may or may not have had good dispositions, but the situation they were in made for goodness.

Third, we must recall that the quality of the electorate determines the quality of the candidate pool, and ultimately the quality of governments and the rulers. Norman Davies described German voters in the 1930s as “cannibals” who elected a government of “cannibals”. The European elite have been vigilant against the return of this species of voters. In South Asia, the elite, by pandering to the people, have produced toxic rulers.

When extra-judicial killings, disappearances, battery of child and student protesters by student-thugs, allegations of threats to the former Chief Justice’s friend, and so on, and so forth, increase the popularity of the government, it can hardly be faulted for a rational course of action, aimed at maximising votes. After all, it is not Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch that put the party in power, but the people.

On the campaign trail in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, in speaking of an Australian missionary who had been raped and murdered during a prison riot, lamented that he had not been first in line to abuse her sexually. He treated allegations of his links to vigilante killings in the city of Davao, of which he had been mayor, with pride. And when he promised that he would, as president, dump the corpses of 100,000 gangsters in Manila Bay, the crowd went wild. After he was elected president of the Philippines, the country’s police killed at least 40 suspected criminals in the following two months, more than in the preceding four months combined. A human rights worker, on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, told a newspaper that Duterte was “our most popular president since Cory Aquino”.

Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand, meted out bloody vigilante justice to alleged drug-runners and to government opponents in the Muslim and often strife-torn south of the country. In a shooting spree in 2003, over 2,500 people died in three months, making the prime minister a hero. The police blamed gang violence; human-rights groups accused the government of condoning extra-judicial killings by the security forces. And a panel set up in 2007 by the outgoing junta concluded that over half of those killed in 2003 had no links to the drugs trade. The panel blamed the violence on a government “shoot-to-kill” policy based on flawed blacklists. His popularity was such that it took a military coup to remove him from office. Yet, his mantle passed easily to his sister.

That the quality of voters would determine outcome is an observation as old as democracy itself. Thus we have Plato’s famous lines in The Republic:

“And those who have been of this little company and have tasted the sweetness and blessedness of this possession and who have also come to understand the madness of the multitude sufficiently and seen that there is nothing, if I may say so, sound or right in any present politics, and that there is no ally with whose aid the champion of justice could escape destruction, but that he would be as a man who has fallen among wild beasts, unwilling to share their misdeeds and unable to hold out singly against the savagery of all, and that he would thus, before he could in any way benefit his friends or the state, come to an untimely end without doing any good to himself or others – for all these reasons, I say the philosopher remains quiet, minds his own affair, and, as it were, standing aside under the shelter of a wall in a storm of blast of dust and sleet and seeing others filled full of lawlessness, is content if in any way he may keep himself free from iniquity and unholy deeds through this life and take his departure with fair hope, serene and well content when the end comes (496c-e).”

Compare Thucydides:

“Pericles, indeed, by his rank, ability and known integrity was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude –in short, to lead them instead of being led by them;…what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen. With his successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude (History of the Peloponnesian War, (trans. Richard Crawley, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), II-65).”

For Aristotle, democracy is a perversion of constitutional government: “Of the above-mentioned forms, the perversions are as follows: of kingship, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of constitutional government, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all (Politics, 1279b4-10).” “But when the many administer the state for the common interest, the government is called by the generic name – a constitution (1279a36-37).”

Aristotle’s view of democracy was to have a lasting effect on Europe. According to John Dunn, democracy was “a form of government which simply did not aim at a common good. It was a regime of naked group interest, unapologetically devoted to serving the many at the expense of the wealthier, the better, the more elevated, the more fastidious or virtuous…. Not only was democracy violent, unstable and menacing to those who already had wealth, power or pretension, it was, Aristotle taught many centuries of European speakers to mean, ill-intentioned and disreputable in itself through and through (Setting the People Free, p 50).”

It is interesting to note what Aristotle has to say about democracy, the rule of law, and demagogues. “For in democracies which are subject to the law the best citizens hold the first place, and there are no demagogues; but where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up. For the people becomes a monarch, and are many in one; and the many have the power in their hand, not as individuals, but collectively…. At all events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarchy, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honour; this sort of democracy is to other democracies what tyranny is to other forms of monarchy. The spirit of both is the same, and they alike exercise a despotic rule over the better citizens; the decrees of the one correspond to the edicts of the tyrant; and the demagogue is to the one what the flatterer is to the other. Both have great power – the flatterer with the tyrant, the demagogue with democracies of the kind we are describing. The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, by referring all things to the popular assembly…. Such a democracy is fairly open to the objection that it is not a constitution at all; for where the laws have no authority, there is no constitution (1292a6-32).”

We find an echo of this in Byron:

I wish men to be free

As much from mobs as kings—from you as me.

 We have seen that democratic practice, such as it is, in South Asia, has been inconsistent with the promotion of human rights and the rule of law. There is nothing axiomatic or universal about the latter: they are values, shared or un-shared, with or without consensus. The question of abortion may be recalled.

It would be tempting to join Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in their struggle for human rights and the rule of law, but it is a fruitless endeavour. Violation brings popularity, the life-blood of toxic leaders. The followers and the followed are on the same page.

Besides, there is, as always, the problem of translation. Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘rights’ must be translated into the local language. Without going into a detailed analysis, let us consider the famous definition offered by Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa. “You have more rights because you’re a majority; you have less rights because you’re a minority. That’s how democracy works.” Or take the equally revealing translation of the word ‘democracy’ made by Turkey’s toxic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that democracy is like a train; you get off once you have reached your destination.

Words travel; ideas don’t.

We recall that democracy had been a pariah world. Today, we glibly pronounce ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law’ as somehow entailing each other, a Holy Trinity. But, as Helen Rosenblatt, author of The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), points out:

“A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

“To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe.”

Clearly, there is a leadership role here for the elite, one that the South Asian elite is incapable of fulfilling, not having got over their colonial hangover. The post-war European elite have shown a sense of responsibility forged in the furnace of history.

In Charles Taylor’s prophetic words, “European societies have tended to follow along behind their elite cultures more than American, we said above. But this effect is magnified at the “European” level, where the running has been entirely made by these elites – with consequences which have emerged recently in referenda in various states on the Continent (A Secular Age, p 831, n 46).”

We have seen Louis Michel’s heroic manoeuvring to side line the Freedom Party, which had Neo-Nazi roots. However, in 2017, the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) formed a coalition government with hardly a susurrus from Europe. When the two last formed a government, back in 2000, the news provoked diplomatic sanctions: visits and meetings were cancelled. The Freedom Party has redefined the outgroup as Islam in lieu of their former anti-Semitism (recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital long before Donald Trump).The refugee crisis was, in the argot of psychiatrists, the ‘trigger’ that drove voters into the arms of far-right xenophobes. The sudden upswell of an outgroup, alien in language and religion (though not in Britain, in the latter case), made a salience for the ingroup: nationalist feeling re-emerged. This has strained the compact between the cosmopolitan elite and an increasingly nationalist society.

In 2013 the Alternative for Germany (AfD) fell short of the 5 percent of votes needed to enter parliament. The party had been founded to oppose EU bail-outs of debt-stricken countries like Greece, which many Germans saw as a transfer from industrious German taxpayers to feckless Greeks. The AfD was then transformed as nationalists took it over and began to rail against immigrants and Islam – an outgroup that afforded greater scope for hostility. Unsurprisingly, the AfD won 13 percent of the vote in 2017, making it the third-biggest force in parliament, causing some disquiet.

Although the AfD’s agenda is not remotely like that of the Third Reich (people seen giving Nazi salutes have “nothing to do with our party”, said Beatrix von Storch, its deputy leader), a new paper finds an uncomfortable overlap between the parts of Germany that support the AfD and those that voted for the Nazis in 1933.

German expellees after the war flocked to the north, where the Nazis had done well, thus upsetting pre-war demographics. In the south-west, these were preserved. It is only in areas where pre-war demographics still persist that electoral maps show strong echoes of the past. Parts of the south-west that backed the Nazis in 1933 also embraced the AfD, and those that shunned Hitler rejected it. Overall, the paper’s authors found that among municipalities with average far-right support but few expellees, a 1 percent increase in the Nazis’ vote share in 1933 was associated with an extra 0.3-0.5 percent gain for the AfD from 2013-17. The Nazis are not coming back, but nationalism has deep roots.

Matteo Salvini, the head of the Northern League, a populist party that forms part of Italy’s governing coalition, has a ready explanation for the global rise of movements like his. “It is a common factor,” he says. “The confrontation of the people versus the elite.”

Scholars agree. Since 1999 the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has surveyed political scientists about European parties’ policy positions and rhetoric, yielding ideological ratings for each party on various issues. The attribute most correlated with gaining votes since 2014 has been criticism of elites.

“The educated, multilingual cosmopolitan elite of Europe grew weaker,” writes the historian Norman Davies of the era before the Great War, “the half-educated national masses, who thought of themselves only as Frenchmen, Germans, English or Russians, grew stronger.”

The repression of nationalism by the European elite has been a Herculean effort at cleansing the Augean stables. Nationalism is a formidable religion, founded on the atavistic human need for ingroup-outgroup hatred, and requiring little or no education, its doctrinal dimension being well-nigh a black hole. Any enterprise built on rational foundations, such as the European Union, and not resting on a visceral myth, will be sorely tested by hoary impulses to the contrary. One can only hope (one is almost tempted to say, pray) for its future.

Whatever may be the future of the European Union, it is an undeniable fact that in certain ‘suitable’ situations, human behaviour will become pathological. “The banality of evil” is one of the most insightful expressions to have come out of our experience of evil.

Toxic leaders do not occur only in politics. They occur in business and non-profits as well, where leaders do not have the coercive power of police, spies and thugs at their disposal. One of the most toxic leaders in history (and one was much admired by Machiavelli) was the Pope – until one of his followers got up the guts to revolt. More recently, it took nearly fifty years for lay members of the Catholic Church in Boston to call for the ouster of toxic religious leaders involved in the sexual abuse of hundreds of young parishioners (The Allure of Toxic Leaders, p 126).

Leadership is not an action, but an interaction. People seem often to prefer toxic to benign leaders. Lippman-Blumen observes: “During their heyday, Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers, ImClone’s Samuel Waksal, Tyco International’s L. Dennis Kozlowski, Sunbeam’s Al Dunlap, HealthSouth’s Richard Crushy, Adolf Hitler, Boston’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law,  TV evangelist James Bakker, and Texas Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight, for starters, enjoyed – and many still enjoy – enthusiastic support from followers (p 4).”

To this illustrious list may be added such luminaries as Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina, Aung San Suu Kyi, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, Recep Tayyip Erdogan….

An example of toxic followers in the corporate world can be given. When a jury convicted Michael R. Milken, the ‘junk bond king’ of investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, former DBL employees arrived on Phil Donohue’s TV show. Unanimously, the still unemployed stockbrokers and administrative assistants spoke glowingly of their former boss, despite the fact that Milken’s illegal actions led to the closure of the firm and the loss of their jobs (p 4).

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in China, the Communist Party played it down, declaring it a “disaster”. Yet Maoists maintain that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea: China needed one to prevent the kind of slide towards capitalism that the country was now suffering. In May Maoist websites in China published photographs of a meeting of Mao-lovers in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. “Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” proclaimed a red banner along one side of the room, where more than 50 people sat in rows before a large portrait of Mao.

Do not look for saints among formal leaders, warns Lipman-Blumen. Saints rarely seek elected or appointed office. She adds that “followers knowingly tolerate, seldom unseat, frequently prefer, and sometimes even creates toxic leaders (p 5).”

The best example of a created toxic leader must be Aung San Suu Kyi. A long-time military prisoner in Burma (Myanmar), she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroic determination to bring democracy. However, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees streamed out of Rakhine state in south-east Burma to Bangladesh, Ms. Suu Kyi (who rules as the only ‘state councillor’, remained shtum. The UN said Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya was tantamount to “ethnic cleansing”.

Hatred of the Rohingya is the one thing that unites almost everyone in Myanmar, said another diplomat: “The extremist Buddhists, the masses, the army, and even the NLD [National League for Democracy, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party].” Even somebody of her charisma cannot stand up to her own ingroup against an outgroup perceived as alien. Nyan Win, a party spokesman and Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal lawyer, voiced the views of many in Myanmar when he told Radio Free Asia: “I think everyone knows the Bengali. There are no facial features like Bengalis’ in our Myanmar, nowhere in the country.” The Rohingya are regarded as illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh.

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” the South African social rights activist and fellow Nobel peace prize winner Desmond Tutu wrote.

When she finally broke her silence, her speech was described by Amnesty International as a “mix of untruths and victim-blaming”.

She found herself at the centre of global ire. Her face again adorns placards at protests across the globe but this time the chants are angry. An attempt to revoke her Nobel peace prize has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. More recently, one of South Korea’s largest human rights groups said it will strip Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi of its 2004 Gwangju prize because of her “indifference” to the atrocities against the Rohingya minority.

Amartya Sen famously proclaimed that “A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.” Without going into the question of whether democracy or epistocracy is to be preferred (the latter being Plato and Brennan’s choice), let us ask a more humdrum question: after how many murders and rapes does a country become ‘fit for democracy through democracy’?

When society has a goal in the future, beyond the individual today, no crime is gruesome enough to discredit the outcome. Twentieth-century aspirations went along these lines, but it was hoped that in this century the lessons will have been well-learned.

When we see the dead bodies on the highway, some charred, others mutilated, what epitaph will we write for them?

“In a way, you could say, they died for democracy.”

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