Promises to keep
Rehman sobhan discusses the philosphy behind the original publication of Forum in 1969 and why its ethos is as relevant today as it was then
Forum was founded by Kamal Hossain, Hameeda Hossain, Zeaul Huq, and myself, in 1969 when we were in our mid-thirties and the birth of Bangladesh was still two years away. We had emerged from the stifling autocratic rule of Field Marshal Ayub Khan through a mass upsurge which embraced the two regions of Pakistan.
The people of Bangladesh saw their victory not just as the triumph of democracy but as an advance towards their long thwarted struggle for self-rule. The anti-Ayub movement within Bangladesh had unleashed new forces, drawn from the subaltern classes, whose vision for a new Bangladesh extended beyond political democracy and sought wider participation in the benefits of self-rule.
In establishing Forum, we hoped to capture the excitement of that moment. We sought to track the emergent and often conflicting forces which were trying to give direction to these historic trends as well as to draw attention to the forces which were conspiring to frustrate the democratic struggle. My most powerful memory of the Forum phase of my life was the enormous sense of hope and expectation which motivated those of our generation who were involved in the struggle.
Even though we all recognized that the democratic struggle may have to go through a phase of conflict involving much pain and bloodshed, we never for a moment doubted that our cause would eventually triumph. In this optimistic mood, Forum sought to encourage debate on the policy options which lay before a democratic Bangladesh under self-rule. A number of our contributors recognized the need to direct policy in a democratic Bangladesh towards building a more egalitarian society where a privileged elite would not be able to appropriate the fruits of the democratic struggle.
In the course of the thirty-five years since the demise of Forum, Bangladesh has achieved both self-rule and democracy. Self-rule, however, came at the end of a bloody war of liberation rather than through a process of constitutional transition. Democracy, which came as the by-product of liberation from Pakistani rule, was much harder to sustain, and exposed us to long episodes of militarized autocracy.
The fifteen years since we recaptured democracy at the end of 1990 have yielded few of its expected fruits. We have seen the capture of our democratic institutions by predatory forces drawing on the currency of money and violence. Our parliament has been rendered dysfunctional, and successive governments have remained accountable neither to their electorate nor their conscience. As a result we have been witness to the progressive degeneration of governance, where the administration and law enforcement agencies have been politicized and commoditized. A plethora of problems has remained unresolved and has festered over the years, leading to a growing disillusionment with our political establishment.
Today, as we set out to re-launch Forum, the sense of elated expectation which informed our earlier adventure is no longer there to sustain us, and our aspirations remain more qualified about what may came out of our endeavours.
Democracy, which at the end of the 1960s was the hope of the future, not just in Pakistan/Bangladesh, but around the world, is now ubiquitous across South Asia and much of the world. But it has not provided a particularly bountiful harvest. Democracy in South Asia remains in a parlous state.
In Pakistan, after many years of struggle, democracy still remains captive to the cantonment. In Nepal, the malfunctioning of democracy has inspired one of the world's rare Maoist insurgencies. In Sri Lanka, the cohesion of the nation state remains under challenge due to the inability of its democratic process to resolve the challenge of ethnic conflict. Even in India, perhaps the most sustained democratic enterprise of the post-colonial era, the inability to accommodate the deprived within the bounties of economic growth has contributed to a proliferating challenge to the democratic process from both ethnically and socially driven insurgencies.
In South East Asia, democracy still remains fragile, whilst in Latin America the democratic capitalist model which was supposed to signal the end of history is under increasing challenge from the likes of Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and now Obrador in Mexico. In the Middle East, attempts to impose democracy as part of an imperial agenda are already imploding in Iraq, whilst its practice in Lebanon, Palestine, and even Egypt is yielding outcomes which are far from comfortable for those in Washington who thought their version of democracy was an exportable project.
The revival of Forum in Dhaka is inspired by the concern that many of the goals which inspired our generation and motivated us to set up the original Forum remain unrealized. Democracy in Bangladesh remains on life support as its present manifestations assume forms which were beyond the imagination of those who invested their life in its realization.
Our struggle to build a tolerant, secular society where religion would not be abused for political gain has been aborted. Our religious and ethnic minorities have been marginalized whilst the forces of intolerance have now emerged as not just a threat to our security but as a challenge to the very institutions of democracy. Whilst we have lived as an independent state for thirty-five years we have witnessed the surrender of autonomy to the hegemonic influence of our development partners.
We remain an increasingly inegalitarian, unjust, and divided society, where our earlier struggle to resolve the problem of one country with two economies has been superceded by the emergence of two societies within one economy. As a result of this erosion of the aspirations which sustained our struggle for nationhood, we find that many of the issues which inspired the founding of Forum thirty-seven years ago remain no less relevant today.
It is hoped that in the days ahead, the columns of Forum will once again be open to stimulate debate on how we can recapture the sense of promise which inspired an earlier generation. This debate will have to be led by a new generation, struggling to survive in a quite different world from ours, now greatly contracted by the challenge of globalization. This generation has grown up in a society which is now fractured to a point where few think of national solutions, and most seek private salvation either through escape abroad or within self contained enclaves of entrepreneurship.
The pervasive sense of anxiety associated with the prospect of a major confrontation between our major political parties in the build up to the next general election has been relieved by the universal elation which has ignited the nation, on the news of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. Prof Yunus has indeed sustained a belief that something positive can be done to reach out to the more deprived segments of society.
Grameen Bank, Brac, and a variety of other institutions have demonstrated that it is possible to address many of our most intractable problems such as poverty and illiteracy without necessarily eradicating the disease. This needs the involvement of a dedicated state, strong political commitment, and a mobilized society to challenge the structural injustices which perpetuate poverty.
As a result, our success stories, such as our hard working small farmers who have tripled food production since liberation, the micro-finance institutions which have delivered credit to 20 million low income rural borrowers, mostly women, our migrant workers whose remittances are approaching $5 billion, and the explosive growth of ready-made garment exports, have yet to be institutionalized within the framework of a coherent national project.
We may observe, for example, that our farmers still struggle for power and face uncertainty in accessing fertilizer, whilst our export success leaves in its wake an underclass of underpaid workers, working in unsafe conditions, living insecure lives in insalubrious habitations.
The growing sense of alienation of our working class, within our increasingly unequal society, has already ignited social conflagrations which are spreading to other constituencies of the deprived, demanding better wages or more reliable power supply, who are no longer willing to tolerate the failure of the system to meet their basic needs. We should keep in mind that such micro successes, within a malgoverned, malfeasant system, which excludes significant segments of society from sharing its benefits, remain inherently fragile.
The challenge before Forum will be to encourage its contributors as well as its readers to reignite their creative imagination as well as their social conscience to explore how we can ensure that our positive gains can be sustained by building a more inclusive, genuinely democratic and secular society, inspired by ideas derived from our own experience rather than imposed on us from without.
This generation will face a much greater challenge than our generation because they live in a fast globalizing world where the choices open to national policy-makers are narrowing. They will at the same time have to take into account that they are part of a regional community, not just limited to South Asia, but also of the more fast growing areas to our east. The notion that we can construct a self-contained world insulated from the rapid changes around us is no longer an option.
<>Forum<> is, however, a journal of ideas, not a think tank. We should therefore aspire to reach out to a diverse audience by broadening our disciplinary scope and ensuring our readability. Forum does not aspire to remake the world around us, but it does challenge its readers to think and to excite them to build a society which is closer to the dreams which inspired the creation of an independent Bangladesh.
How far the new Forum responds to this challenge will depend on the courage and creativity of its new generation of contributors and readers. However, we will also have to take account of the democratic space which is kept available for the practice of bold and independent journalism. Papers such as The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, reinforced by some independent channels in the electronic media, have demonstrated a degree of independence and courage which gives us inspiration.
Yet the practice of such journalism remains exposed to challenge by the power of money, intimidation of journalists who often risk their lives to practice their profession, and above all, from an intolerant political culture which finds its difficult to accept any form of criticism. Forum will have to take its chances in this inclement environment which will in considerable measure be influenced by the nature and outcome of the forthcoming elections.
Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Editorial Board, Forum Magazine.