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     Volume 8 Issue 56 | February 6, 2009 |

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Being Liberal
in Dhaka
Faruq Hasan

I often get asked what my political affiliations are. It usually happens quite casually, while discussing the recent national elections and who I voted for, or something to do with the latest Middle East crisis. My answer is always a curt, non complicated one: I am a liberal. The responses that I always get are far from simple though. They usually range from branding me as an Awami League (or Obama) supporter, to a free market worshipper, and even as an anything-goes hedonistic muddle-headed socialist tree hugger (now that's a mouthful). Seldom has such a simple (or so I think) answer created such a motley band of retorts.

True, the urge to brand and label each other is a natural human response and yet I doubt whether the same simple word means so many different things to so many different people. Mind you, the novelty of being seen as a political chameleon wears off pretty quickly and leads to disgruntlement and a sense of disempowerment as I realise my identity is totally at the hand of strangers I meet who profess instantaneous intimacy (or repulsion) at the sound of a single phrase. For the last few months now, I have decided to scratch below the surface a bit and find out exactly how liberal (or conservative) I am politically Little did I realise that this would start me on a journey that I wasn't really prepared for.

If you google “Liberal in Bangladesh”, you automatically get forwarded to the Liberal Party of Bangladesh website. The fact that both the website and the party are defunct may say something about liberalism in general in the country. Defunct political parties aside, political liberalism always had an essence, both in Bangladesh and abroad. It may surprise those who constantly ask me for my political position, but a true liberal is defined not by what she believes on any given issue, but by how she arrives at her conclusions. And those conclusions, whatever they may be, are always provisional, for a true liberal is always open to the possibility that her conclusions are wrong and is always receptive to arguments which are grounded in empiricism and concern for justice.

But all this is vague and still not concrete; after all, people of all political spectrums are concerned for justice, equality and getting concrete results. So what sets aside a
liberal from a conservative or a libertarian?

The question draws parallels to whether you are an Awami Leaguer or a BNP supporter. As a liberal, people quickly pigeonhole me as an AL supporter. It's true that certain manifestos of the Awami League party definitely coincide with my brand of liberalism. On the economics side, there's a devotion to progressive taxes as a means of redistributing wealth, a greater role for nationalisation (especially in these times of free market turbulence), subsidies for agricultural inputs etc. On the social side there are perhaps greater similarities: a claim to keep religion out politics, an attempt to bring minorities into the mainstream and to promote a sense of national identity based on cultural rather than religious factors. Yet my political loyalties aren't that simplistic either. I don't see eye to eye with the AL government's urge to nationalise all sectors of business and a natural aversion to free market economics (why else would you delegate a strong Communist as the Industry Minister), throwing money to ease commodity price pressures, or a slightly myopic foreign policy that hasn't really formulated a distinct strategy on how to play power politics with our neighbours.

Simply put, liberalism (or conservatism for that matter) is really a messy business in Bangladesh. What works is unfettered populism, where politicians deliver a kind of a sop to their constituents to buy votes. Different arty manifestos, whether that of a liberal or a conservative, overlap frequently while individual parties show remarkable inconsistencies within. Creating political identities is a messy, and some would argue, futile exercise. And that applies to personal political allegiances and affiliations as well.

But back to me being a liberal and being probed, mocked, or lauded for it. I realised that my identity as being a liberal is just as riddled with inconsistencies and double standards as the political scenario in Bangladesh. Realising the murky world of self-identity and political branding goes hand in hand with understanding the complex process of politics itself, where ideologies seldom dovetail with practise, where you can go to sleep a liberal and wake up a conservative the next day. I no longer have a glib answer ready when asked about my political affiliations; in fact, I switch the spotlight on to the interrogator by asking, “I have no idea. What are you?”

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