The bhodroloke revolution and its discontents

Asif Yousuf and Jyoti Rahman

Published in The Daily Star (11 July 2007)

A bhodroloke revolution is said to have taken place in Bangladesh. At least that is how the events of January11 were advertised to an international audience by the foreign affairs advisor Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury at the Australian National University on June13.

Dr. Chowdhury started his talk, titled “Evolving Challenges for Bangladesh in South Asia,” with the history of Bengal and South Asia. He noted the 19th century Bengal renaissance and the rise of the bhodroloke class.

He noted the intellectual accomplishments of the bhodroloke from Tagore to Dr. Yunus. Then he stated that the current government is the result of today’s bhodroloke class — composed of professionals and academics, the large NGO sector, and an army that is thoroughly imbued with the “UN values” — asserting its power to save the nation from imminent collapse after an extended period of political impasse.

What happened on January 11 is a lot more complicated than the simplified picture put forward by the foreign advisor. But that simple picture by itself is highly important. Politics is manipulation of symbols, and in politics, as in marketing, packaging and image matter.

What is so worrying about the bhodroloke ideological package?
Let’s start with the definition of the bhodroloke. Dr. Chowdhury quoted JH Broomfield, an American academic, for his definition of the term. Broomfield discussed the bhodroloke in his 1968 book titled “Elite conflict in a plural society: twentieth-century Bengal.” His study spanned the first half of the last century, focusing on the 1910s and the 1920s. Here is how he depicted the bhodroloke:

“…a socially privileged and consciously superior group, economically dependent upon landed rents and professional and clerical employment; keeping its distance from the masses by its acceptance of high-caste proscriptions and its command of education; sharing a pride in its language, its literate culture, and its history; and maintaining its communal integration through a fairly complex institutional structure…”

Broomfield’s thesis was that the Calcutta-based, predominantly Hindu, bhodrolokes were opposed to democracy in pre-partition Bengal, and this opposition to majority rule contributed greatly to Muslim separatism and partition.

Whatever the intellectual accomplishments of individual bhodrolokes were, the bhodroloke class was portrayed as an anti-democratic force in Broomfield’s narrative. Was Dr. Chowdhury aware of the irony in choosing the intellectual roots of his government?

Therefore, while it is true that the bhodrolokes were seen as high achieving, benign elite who brought welcome innovations and reforms to Bengal, it is also true that they were simultaneously perceived as beneficiaries of colonialism, a much-despised enterprise precisely because of its exclusion, racism, and dehumanization of the majority.

Indeed, these evils of colonialism are highlighted in the schools of Bangladesh and passed down the generations through socialization, thus raising serious questions about the effectiveness of the advisor’s choice of packaging.

One hopes that the advisors and their supporters do not take this bhodroloke packaging seriously, that is, it is only ideological wrapping or rhetoric. But some people will definitely take this packaging seriously as the ideological basis of the government. And an elitist ideological packaging like this will inevitably draw strong opposition.

Charges of neo-colonialism and cultural inauthenticity will be leveled. What’s worse, opposing forces will not need to prove to the populace the worth of their policies. Rather, they will simply have to prove that they themselves are not “elite,” or that they are “culturally authentic.”

What form might this opposition take?
“Nationalists” will question the government’s loyalties to the nation. Populists will question its “popular mandate.” Marxists will trace the government’s links to the international capitalist system. And Islam-inspired politicians will question the government’s cultural roots.

In other words, the bhodroloke packaging will have made the government an easy target for all, with justifications readily found in the historical memory of the Bangladeshi nation. It is, thus, highly ironic that the advisor delved back into our history for this analogy.

If the government does actually take this package seriously, then we should indeed be very worried. Elitist politics of the top-down variety not only leads to bad governments, but more importantly, it could lead to populist backlashes that produce equally bad — if not worse — governments, since succeeding regimes have popular mandates but few institutions where the information flows from the bottom to the top. That is, we feel, a good description of the kind of governments we had for the last 16 years.

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