State, Civil Society and Limon Hossain: Cursory Notes on Contemporary Bangladesh

Guest post by Nazmul Sultan


The effects that generate from the state’s `exceptional’  interventions in society– often disregarding the dialogic process with its constitutive yet distinct agencies (e.g. civil society, hegemonic capitalist bloc and so on) — do not come to the fore of particular agencies in their immediate forms. Rather, in the process of their becoming as corresponding narratives, those effects coalesce with the narritivization process that is specific to the particular agencies. Such narratives go through a classificatory process, which seeks to mediate the singularities of the events in the form of its own political projection. In contemporary Bangladesh, where newspapers still are the predominant medium of civil society’s appearance , such narrativization and pigeonholing of varied form of events take place instantly through the lens of civil society’s political lexicon.

However, the becoming of the news of Limon Hossain, after he was being shot by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), took more than two weeks. The temporal gap between the day when Limon Hossain got shot by the elite paramilitary force called RAB and the day when this news was recognized through a newspaper report is indicative of the complexity involved in the immediate form of this event. That is, the narrativization of Limon Hossain’s story went through an entangled process of preservation as well as cancellation before its emergence as a news mediated by the existentialities of the civil society. To some extent, this specific mediation is determined by the constitutive tension between the civil society and the political society (political society: in its Gramscian sense). Nevertheless, this is not all. The specificity of this particular mediation only can be deciphered from the totality of the political horizon, wherein this contradiction is simultaneously conditioned by their determinate unity. Perhaps a glimpse through the event that unfolded after Limon Hossain got shot may help us to determine the internal conflict and correspondence among political agencies.

Prothom Alo (PA), the mouthpiece of Bangladeshi civil society, was the first media to pick up this news. The report appeared in the front page with a conspicuous heading: “Extreme Cruelty,” after two week has been passed since Limon Hossain got shot ( Meanwhile, one of his legs had to be amputated following tissue damage). That box report contained a one-legged photo of Limon Hossain which eventually became the most popular profile picture in the FB. The newspaper, Prothom Alo, narrated that Limon Hossain, a boy of 17 and a candidate for upcoming higher secondary exam, had left his home for fetching cattle from a nearby neighborhood. At the same time, RAB was invading the area for capturing a high-profile terrorist. Initially, RAB had not been able to capture the fugitive.

The rest of the story in the words of Limon Hossain: `(On March 23, Limon, returning home with grazing cattle, was stopped by a team of RAB-8 led by deputy assistant director Mohd Lutfar Rahman, nearby Shohid Jomaddar’s home.) They grabbed hold of my collar, they said, you are a terrorist. They dragged me to the front of Jomaddar’s house. One of them said, we’ll crossfire you. I gave him my mobile, I said, please, please call my college principal. I begged. He pocketed my mobile. Another RAB pointed his gun at my left leg and fired. His nameplate said Lutfar. I fell down, rolled on the ground till I struck a banana tree. One of them pinned down my hand with his boot. They wanted to know who I was. I told them my name, my college name, I even told them my HSC exams were beginning on 5th April. I was wearing a red shirt, one of them took it off, tied my wound. They took off my lungi, wiped away the blood. They stamped at bloodstains on the ground, they threw away the blood-soaked lungi in the nearby river. Another got a lungi from Jomaddar’s house. Limon had been lying naked until then. They called a village elder, he was heard to scream, ‘But he’s a good boy, and you shot him!’  This is how the story appeared. Although it is not here my intention to inquiry about the veracity of the represented story, there is no potential reason to doubt the course of the story given the record of the RAB.

The unearthing of this story triggered intense reaction around the nation. Perhaps, the involvement of RAB in this issue made it so visceral. Most of the ideologues of the civil society have been defending RAB’s extra-judicial killing contradicting their otherwise consistent critique of paralegal activities of the state. RAB’s reputation as clinical demolisher of extremism (both Maoist and Islamist extremism) and violent unrests earned it the trust of ‘peace-seeking’ civil society. Since RAB embodies a global label of efficiency (as Wikileaks has revealed RAB was being trained by their British counterparts) and non-corruption so rare in the legal forces, civil society retained their support on RAB, however unahppily. Although the current government vowed for the disintegration of RAB before the election, they took a somewhat vague position after ascension into power, despite their consistent defense of RAB. In fact, one of the ministers of the government said that extra-judicial killing is a political culture, which can’t be eliminated dramatically. That is to say, the obvious corollary of this incident is RAB’s legitimacy as state’s organ, which however isn’t reducible in the will of the particular government.

And the irreducibility of RAB in the particularity of state indicates that it’s existence is a consensual process among the organs of, what Gramsci had conceptualised as ‘integral state,’ by the means of which they also imply a general opposition against the subordinated class, notwithstanding the mediating manoeuvres. Civil society, thus, seeks to retain the ‘good part’ (anti-extremist necessity) of RAB, denouncing the extremism (i.e. unnecessary impatience) of RAB, which tends to perpetrate into the ‘civil’ kernel of the society. However, the issue is not only about the RAB. It is also about the particular form of power struggle between political society and civil society that has been happening in contemporary Bangladesh. So, the general impression that Limon’s case brought forth had to be differentiated, if the expediency of RAB’s action to be located in the physicality of the state, with which civil ideologues are contesting. The humble background of Limon, the college student, who used to work in brick factory with no crime record, made it easier for them to distantiate the case from other ”necessary” atrocity of RAB.

And the determinant factor between the necessary and unnecessary atrocity is none but the state, which seeks to deploy RAB for their own self-serving goals. This kernel of the story has been reinforced by the post-shooting activities of the RAB and government. With a bent on proving Limon Hossain a dangerous terrorist, RAB and administration filed case against him and compelled him to appear in court in wheel chair. After the becoming of the story as a national event (as implied by the ideologues of civil society), state officials initially sought to neutralize the case by recognizing the event as a rare accident from RAB’s part. Meanwhile, the intensified criticism of media against the recklessness of RAB (posited as an off-spring between collaboration between RAB and state) provided civil society with the opportunity to grill the state for its continual negation of ‘civil element’ from the governing. However, the increasing involvement of civil society in this case forced the state to recognize the implied meaning of civil society’s onslaught (where Limon Hussain is nothing more than an occasion to accentuate the ‘permanent’ tension between them) .

Now, government accuses civil ideologues for exploiting this issue and even dramatically reclaimed that Limon is a collaborator of the terrorist group which newspapers are deliberately hiding. Clearly, the conflicting register settled between the state and civil society. Following this U-turn of government, PA editor wrote a special editorial: “The role of media regarding the Limon-incident and then govt agencies reaction against this role have driven us in front of a burning question. The crux of this burning question: aren’t the orders of this society, the human values and sensitivity of this society  going down into abyss ?…Are we capable enough to represent all these Limons? Are we capable enough to provide with pictures of all these Limons? A nation where 160 million people live, could the media become powerful enough so that they would be able to report about all the injustices happening around? If it is not the case, then where is this society going on?” In other words, civil society’s ideologues identified state as the root cause of all anarchy. Meanwhile, they also carefully differentiated the role of RAB (patent from this excert of a column which also appeared in PA: `Even after the Limon-affair, I do think we still need the service of RAB with condition of some reformation. In a nation where top criminals get bail from the high court, where the weak and corrupted system of investigation, forensic support, prosecution and judiciary system prevail, it is difficult to legally prove the crime of influential criminals. In such a nation, RAB definitely have some usefulness”).

The common necessity of RAB is not questioned, despite the occasional appearance of liberal dilemma which does support RAB’s crusade against extremist tendencies, but skeptical of the extra-judicial anarchy. Processually, they locate the occasional invasion of RAB in homogeneous terrain of society as a sectarian effort from the state to assert it’s own interest. Hence, extra-judicial kernel of the events is an outcome of the impatience of the state, while killing itself is not a problem insofar as it is consistent with the rules that are shared by all factions of ruling class. In the course of the story, the tale of the innocent people that PA editor evoked settled into the homogeneous section of the society. The case of Limon Hossian could be picked up easily because he was clearly from a humble background, a non-extremist, unlike the terror-generating mobs of population. Clearly, the civil society as a process of political mediation, in its spatially specific form, has been lacking the necessary mediator to correlate with both the urban and rural lower-class population, while the urban middle-class has largely been flocking under the anti-political politics of civil society for quite a long time. (The clash between civil society and state-leaning political caste had culminated during the civil-military coup of 2007).

This is however only the plain description of the story, which is valid insofar as we define the interaction between civil and political society from the primacy of their spatial moments. In other words, as Peter Thomas suggested (contra the dominant thesis that Gramsci deployed the categories of civil society and state with respective fixity with hegemony and coercion) that  these categories have to be understood functionally, rather than spatially fixed attributes of political and civil society (which is why the equilibrium of integral state is the disequilibrium of related forces). Simultaneously, the general notion of hegemony  has to be located in the determinate generality of the social totality, that is, the ruling class’ process of ruling of the subordinated classes. Therefore, the notion of hegemony is inextricably related with the unified state-form, notwithstanding the systematic role of civil society as the vantage point of ruling class’ hegemonic disposition.

It has been said in various forms, drawing from Gramsci or not, that the state-form of east was historically dominated by the coercive apparatus as opposed to the consensual mediation of civil society in the west. Without relapsing into such gross contradistinction, it seems helpful to historicize the rise of contemporary form of civil society in Bangladesh with special attention to its own temporality (which is beyond the scope of this cursory note). To speak broadly, the coincidence between the emergence of East Bengal’s urban middle class (it is to be noted that Bengali Muslim civil society developed lately compared to their Bengali Hindu counterpart) and the autonomous political state helped to spatially unify the political society with the equally nascent civil society. This coterminous physical location of political and civil society restricted any contradistinct development of civil society, even the occasional agitations of sections of civil society were far from heralding a self-contained development of civil society (apart from a mere opposition to a given regime).

Following the routine domination of military powers into political apparatuses in both pre and post-independence, the civil-political societies were more prone to mitigate their internal tension in order to confront the former. The birth of a contradistinct form of civil society is closely related with the firm entry of Bangladesh into global market in 1980s (and also with the significant rise of NGOs), which also coincided with the re-birth of electoral democracy. Anti-dictatorship struggle of civil society throughout 1980s resuscitated the political imagination of the urban middle class. The erstwhile dream of a just nation-state had shifted towards a desire for well-regulated and restricted terrain of state, while civil society would have retained their relative autonomy from the embattled business of state. In other words, the formative orientation of contemporary civil society was concerned with the delimitation of political society, a concern which owed to the experience of military regime, despite their struggle for the very reformulation of political sphere. State (as in government), however, sought to control the already well coordinated civil society, since its mode of disposition was no longer coterminous with state, being appeared as an unpleasant threat for the incumbent governments. Therefore, the last 15-20 years of the nation has experienced a progressively intensified tension between state and civil society– conditioned by a civil society-aligning emerging capitalist class–which had culminated through a civil-military coup professing to fix the system with their anti-political credentials. That experiment didn’t go far, as the ‘political’ pressure mounted by popular political parties compelled the savior anti-political governors to retreat— only to pave the way for a general election in 2008.

The reception of Limon’s case among the locality remained in its concrete form, i.e., the general perpetration of coercive state apparatus in their immediate social lives. This dimension of the story become radically twisted after its becoming as a ‘national’ event. At any rate, this event signified the continually reckless invasion of state apparatus into externalized terrains of society (that is, heterogeneous), while the homogeneous urban middle class, being outside of the working space of RAB etc, only could receive the event as a distant chaos. The political investment of civil society, however, turned the significance of the event on its head. That is, the concomitant of the familiarization of Limon’s background as a humble hardworking (wannabe enlightened/middle class) was the loss of its concrete message. It became the popular signifier of state’s impatience to respect the political agency of enlightened middle class. We already described how impatiently state organs were reacting to this portrayal of the government. From the vantage of civil society’s common sense, these reaction appeared as a stubborn disregarding of the population, as if politicians don’t have to participate in election ever. But such common senses do not say much. It is to be noted that government’s stubbornness relied on a different positing of population (those who remain outside of the ‘anti-political’ civil society and do correspond with ‘benevolent’ state) as opposed to the idealization of entire nation as homogeneous middle class. Therefore, the government, as imperceptive it is, straightly reduced the struggle in the ‘popular-political’ political society and ‘self-serving-anti-political’ civil society, equally disregarding the agency of affected population.

Given this background, the state-civil society tension has mostly been envisaged as the non-correspondence between hegemonic form of state and its coercive register, as if they are fundamentally asymmetrical in their general disposition. This conflation about the functioning of unified state-form owes to the spatially determined understanding of hegemony and coercion. To restate Peter Thomas’ re-reading of Gramsci, hegemony does not remain fixed within a specific constitutive part of the integral state, rather it does traverse between the boundaries of political and civil society. The internal tension between civil and political society, therefore, does not mean that coercive state is trying to disrupt the process of hegemonic expansion and vice versa. Rather, given their constitutive tension, this is more of a mutual struggle to re-define the disposition of civil and political society. That is to say, such internal struggles, the unity of the disunity, do not necessarily pose a crisis of the hegemony of unified state-form.

On the one hand, as it has been routinely observed, the boundary of this disunity remains enacted insofar as the generality of the ruling class has not been questioned. On the other hand, the asymmetrical determinations of subordinated population problematise the hegemonic disposition of the political and civil societies apart from their spatial fixation. The presence of a growing urban middle class, sustained by the corporate-based service sector economy, conditions the vanguardist expansion of civil society. Political society’s internal crisis lies in their inability to maneuver this section of society, while civil society is continually mounting pressure to politically integrate this section within the space of governmental politics. The over-generalization of this moment of internal tension of state-form, however, often contribute to the disregarding of their unified process of restricting and controlling gigantic masses of the urban industrial workers and slum-dwelling population, whose emergence as a politically organized force is no-less determinant element in this very reconstitution of state-form.

The form of democracy which has been abstractly universalized with the advent of capitalist globalization is constituted with a deep rooted fear of multitude (the root of this constitutive fear can be traced in the historical formation of liberal democracy). The ‘democratic’ desires of civil society became another name of their fear of the empowerment of the anarchic mob of population (Ochlocracy). Given this non-correspondence between urban middle class and slum-dwelling majority of the urban population (i.e., slum-dwellers), the role of state (as opposed to civil society) as a mediating force with population has been emphasized as the corresponding (as well as reproducing) moment of social interaction between dominating and dominated classes. This normative way of reading the social totality omits the equally determinant moments of their non-mediation. As we have seen, this isolated study of state owes to the projection of state as a normatively outside force of the civil society. Such accounts only reckon their difference, but not their identity. If state is the locus of the confrontation between diverging tendencies and civil society is ‘dark natural ground’ where the secret of state lies, it would be imprudent to situate the realization of social antagonism outside the physicality of the state. In such generalized processes of confrontation between social classes, civil and political society organically march towards a unified state-form, whereby the vindication of state-form through coercive forces necessarily entails one of the defining moment of mediation between governing and governed classes (it doesn’t require to go to the point of physical confrontation. Nevertheless, the political economic development of Global South indicates the struggle between moribund labor and organized capitalism will continue to traverse to the last instance). However, that does not disregard the relative autonomy of intra-state conflicts which are internal to the movement of integral state.

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