‘National Security Council cannot be good for democracy’

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, a Pakistani academic and author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, talks to Syeed Ahamed and Faisal Gazi of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.

Published in the New Age (7 July 2008 )

Q: National Security Council is a looming spectre for Bangladesh. What is your view on the matter?

A: A national security council will only institutionalise the military’s role in Bangladesh’s policy process. In every case, this Turkish model which has already been used ineffectively in at least three countries, Turkey, Pakistan and Chile, has undermined democracy by establishing a top-down authoritarian model. No matter what the intention is, the outcome of military authoritarianism cannot be good for democracy.

What has been the role of the NSC in Pakistan and how has it affected civilian administration?
When General Musharraf came to power, he immediately sought the help of the civil administration. The bureaucracy is very self-serving and responds positively to authoritarian rule. It does not have a political agenda and is far happier living with military bureaucracy. Bangladesh must have experienced the same during the 1980s. However, whenever the military starts to expand its control over the civil administration, civil bureaucrats become uncomfortable and non-cooperative.

Some say a meddling military is to be expected in weak democracies like Bangladesh and Pakistan and, therefore, we might as well institutionalise their role through an NSC. What is your view on this?
Both Bangladesh and Pakistan were ‘created’ without any major plan. We always compare ourselves with India. But the Indian Congress was exposed to a certain level of political accountability even during the First World War. Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, which was the result of a bargaining movement of Muslim elites who had no social development agenda. The elites did not even go for land reforms.
In East Pakistan, the separation movement also started without an agenda and even until the late 1960s there was no plan beyond provincial autonomy. So ultimately, Bangladesh also inherited the problems which Pakistani politics faced when it was created. Also worth bearing in mind is that the majority of the original officers of the Bangladesh military were repatriated officers from Pakistan.
What is common between Pakistan and Bangladesh is that politicians never learn from history. You cannot have true democracy with a top-down centralised political system in place. You need to revamp the political system considerably to ensure a multiple structure within the political system.

You have made repeated warnings to Bangladeshi politicians before the events of January 11, 2007. In the current political reality, why should the people of Bangladesh want the failed politicians back?
Yes, it is understandable that the politicians did not act responsibly which might have prompted the military to step in. However, Bangladesh was heading towards an NSC anyway and I could even sense the growing role of the military when I visited Bangladesh in 2006.
Bangladesh needs to address the long due political reforms which it requires to ensure grassroots participation, change of political culture and devolution of democracy with local level political institutions (such as panchayet in India).
Bangladesh’s political parties are an absolute mess at the moment and the military cannot be blamed for their total disorder. However, if Bangladesh fails to take the long road to political devolution and institutionalisation, and resort to the quick-fix solution of introducing an NSC, the situation is going to be a lot worse.

Civil society in Bangladesh welcomed and then accepted the army intervention just like their counterparts did in Pakistan. The relationship has now soured and the disenchantment is now palpable. What role should civil society play in Bangladesh now?
Bangladesh has a stronger and more progressive civil society than Pakistan and they have a rich history of revolting against authoritarianism. My question is: Where has this civil society been during this period? Didn’t they see it coming?
Apparently, the educated middle class have been very frustrated with the politicians, but this short-cut solution of NSC will only worsen the already weakened democratic system.
Civil society thought it would be able to use the military to overhaul the decaying political system. But the military is not a toy which can be thrown aside after you use it. Once used to bring change, it will start to demand its own share of the power. I guess, like in Pakistan, civil society has been thoroughly lazy by taking these shortcuts to reform. This will only be destructive in the long term. It is a mistake Pakistan has made and Bangladesh seems all set to follow.

What are, in your opinion, the most damaging aspects of an NSC in a weak democracy that are not communicated to or not allowed to be discussed by the public?
A national security council will not only institutionalise an authoritarian political system, once the military becomes part of this system, the system will become less transparent as well. Hence reforming that authoritative system will be much more difficult than reforming the existing political system.

Some say the establishment of an NSC directly affects the rise of religious right wing (Islamist) politics. Would you say that there is a link between the two phenomena in the context of Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Since military power does not have a development agenda, religion systematically becomes the power player in politics. Once religion enters the political system, it looks different. The BNP used it and the AL did not oppose it properly. The fear is, if Bangladesh uses an authoritarian system like the NSC, this political Islam will become more dominant.
Another concern is the overwhelming connection between military and de-facto religious fundamentalism. The military has always promoted religious groups. Ziaur Rahman was active in rehabilitating these groups when he was in power. In Pakistan Islamist groups are linked with the intelligence services, ISI (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, also known as the Inter-Services Intelligence).
What I also noticed in Bangladesh is the rise of anti-Indian sentiment. This is exactly the kind of thing that will force the military to cooperate with the religious right. There has always been an informal link between military and the religious right. An NSC is going to strengthen that link. And inevitably, you will witness how civil liberties will gradually be taken away.


Does an NSC have any benefits and, therefore, can there be any such thing as [the] best case scenario?
Giving military a role in the development process is not a bad idea. But giving them a role in the policy process is probably not a constructive idea either. Last time Bangladesh experienced a military takeover, it ended in 1990, after fifteen years in power.
However, the military is far more disciplined and commanding than political institutions. Over the years, the Bangladeshi military has evolved from a ragtag revolutionary force to a hierarchically organised bureaucratic institution.
The new structure makes it politically more potent and lethal in pushing back civilian institutions. If the military is given an institutional role in the political system, it will eventually overstep politicians to create an elite power structure of its own. So, it is a bad idea to give it more power and to use it as a powerbroker.

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