The Meaning of India-Bangladesh Border-fence

Guest post by Nazmul Sultan

    Indian prime minister Manomohan Singh’s recent visit to Bangladesh has triggered myriad speculations concerning the meaning of intensified geopolitical alliance between India and Bangladesh in South Asian region. Given the temporality of parliamentary politics that is hegemonic in national-political space of this region, the visit is also destined to influence the electoral zigzags of coming days. What is more, the sudden move of West Bengal’s populist chief minister Mamata Banerjee, which halted the much-awaited agreement on the water-sharing of the Teesta river, added essential twist in the diplomatic drama that continued for few days. In the process – thanks to the withering away of terms such as `imperialism’ from the hegemonic space of politics—the embedded conditions of these mutual `negotiations’ have become obliterated. This brief intervention, on the contrary, will seek to arrest the generality of internal relations between two hegemonically uneven states . In so doing, we will concentrate on the political meanings of the border-fence that India built throughout the last decade encircling entire Bangladesh. [For a detailed study of Bengal Border, see, Willhem Van Schendel, The Bengal Border Land: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London, 2005).] Being coalesced with the logic of contemporary global order, this border fence, more than any other element, registers the changing horizon of imperialist exigencies in the level of inter-nation relations. 


    Although the generality of capitalism has fundamentally reshaped our very conception of territoriality and sovereignty, the practice of setting up fence around particular politico-economic sites predates the advent of global capitalism. Aristotle, in his ‘politics’, argued against the conviction that walls around cities are a sign of military weakness and advocated for strongest walls around the city: “To have no walls would be as foolish as to choose a site for a town in an exposed country and to level the heights; or, as if an individual were to leave his house unwalled, lest the inmates should become cowards.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293] The backdrop of Aristotle’s argument contains the genealogical dimension of the fence. That is, the political significance of fence had been formed in and through the dynamic of pre-capitalist world whereby territorial expansions was an instance of surplus extraction through force. However, this general logic of territoriality intertwined inextricably with the relational self-positing of a city-state. Thus, the presence of fence appeared to Plato as a contradictory feature with the military pride of a city. Aristotle, despite his opposition to Plato’s proposal, had not only understood border-fence as a military-strategic object, but also as a distinguishing symbol of the community from others . Hence, he proposed for decorating the border walls, apart from making them effective: “..not only should cities have walls, but care should be taken to make them ornamental, as well as useful for warlike purposes and adapted to resist modern inventions….for when men are well prepared no enemy even thinks of attacking them.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293]

    This apparent universality of fence as a signifier of particular political community, however, refounded itself corresponding with the primacy of global capitalism, which is particularly contextual for our investigation into the meaning of Indo-Bangla border fence. The generalizing logic of capital which continually projects to overcome the spatial disjunctions (or as Marx put it, Capital seeks to annihilate space by time), simultaneously requires the particularization of its spaces of movement (as Deleuze put it: “capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization”). The movement of capital, which disregards the singularities of spatial units, in another turn, re-enacts the mechanism that heterogenizes its objects, since the continual reproduction of heterogeneity conditions for the onslaught of ‘real’ homogenizing operation. Border fence, to that extent, is a symptomatic manifestation of the internality of global capitalism. The location of border-fence in contemporary system, nevertheless, is the political sphere whereby it reflexively corresponds with the requirement of capital’s movement. Fence posits itself capitalizing its ‘trans-historical’ meaning, which implies certain collective signification for the demarcated communities. Border-fence always-already presupposes the heterogeneous presence of diverging politico-economic as well as cultural sites, as the reproduction of its own validity would have become uncertain if it fails to account for the real abstraction that it implies. Border-fence thus signifies the seclusion of a community in its relational instance i.e., seclusion as nation, ethnic group, religious group and so on. What is most significant in the contemporary resurgence of border fence is its globalized significance rather than bilateral specificity that was common to the history of perimeter fences. In other words, the validity of the fence is essentially justified by putting forward trans-national issues such as restriction of Islamic militancy, illegal workers, left-wing radicals etc.


    In a recent intervention in the aftermath of Arab spring, Kees Van Der Pijl, suggestively remarked that the study of imperial domination should not be reduced into an isolated exposition of capital’s movement, rather it is “equally urgent to analyse the structures of imperialism in terms of modes of foreign relations.” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America’s Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.] He goes on to explicate the essential linkage of the internal structure of subordinated nations with the functioning of imperial orders. Similarly, the apparently externalized positing of certain nations in the topography of `war on terror’ interacts with the internal organization of the nations. The diachronic impact of such supra-national politics ultimately intertwines with the structural reorganization of society. 

    The meaning of the border-fence, in the lexicon of national-political, remains confined within the abstract exercise of sovereignty and suchlike fetishes, while the totality of border-fence’s operation – due to the specificity of its appearance as a political signifier of the horizontal moment of national life – inflicts even the micro aspects of the particular political-economic site. The Border-fence, needless to say, is not the only active agent in the process. The reflexivity of the fence is essentially conditioned by the immanence of ‘nation’ as an over-arching category in post-colonial political spaces . Hence, border-fence becomes the emblematic appearance of the ‘exclusion’ from the civilized world. To put in another way, the over-arching expansion of fence is precisely conditioned by the constituted fear of contemporary developmental liberalism: the fear of being unrecognized as “moderate developmental state.”

     In the post 9/11 re-articulation of geopolitics, territorial exclusion becomes a crucial strategy to impose the label of heterogeneity on certain nations vis-a-vis homogeneous or normal nations. The physical blocking of hitherto loose borders, however, is only the semblance of this process; the cruciality of conspicuous territorial separation is vital insofar it signifies exclusion as heterogeneity, since this process of exclusion inversely works through the concomitant internal dichotomization of the supposedly heterogeneous nation i.e., the nation which is ‘unnegotiable’ in terms of perceived homogeneity. That is to say, the national devaluation or the “national shame” of being heterogenized provokes the internally hegemonic institutions (e.g. state, civil society, NGO, Media etc), which are affected by their supra-national ‘heterogeneity’, to attack the internal others who are responsible for nation’s not being ‘normal.’ That means geopolitical deployment of the exclusion as ‘abnormal’ fuses with the heterogeneous nations’ homogeneity-seeking forces (who, in the determinate instance, always align themselves with the hegemonic logic of neoliberal capitalism) to doubly invigorate the internal repression of the subversive elements (which, however, are not necessarily opposed to the logic of capital). Simultaneously, that double pressure processually leads nationally representative institutions to find the way of “being normalized” in uneven dialogue or transactions with ‘normal’ nations . This leads us to the revealing moment, when the cool-headed Economic Adviser of Sheikh Hasina, Mashiur Rahman, suddenly overrides the policy of putting the economic gain as the reason behind allowing India to use Bangladesh as a transit-route. Being a rupture in the continuity of otherwise consistent narrative, this statement revealed the deep-seated complexity hidden beneath the rhetoric of economic gain : “Had our country been an uncivilized one or our leaders been illiterate then we could have asked for the fees [the proposed duties on Indian goods to be transited through Bangladesh], but that’s not the case.” The functionality of national-political, given the over-arching urge to be “normalized”, gathers it force around the ghosts of heterogeneity that is not coeval with standard of ‘secular-civilized nations.’ Since this witch-hunting by state is inextricably related with governance as well as reproduction of the state apparatuses, the process of locating ‘evil’ often subverts the territory of a particular group owing to the essentially indeterminate logic for identifying subversives. Therefore, the process for the determination of the Islamist militancy(i.e. responsible for exclusion) effaces the demarcating lines between various ideo-political groups , and re-emerges through the registers which are not coeval with the logic of domination: thus, a veteran leader of RMG workers’ movement has been accused of having rapport with Islamist groups, since she chatted with a fellow prisoner in the prison van, who incidentally belongs to a far-right Islamist group. Nevertheless, this `Aesopian’ evidence was enough to file an allegation against her given that workers, not unlike Islamists, contribute to the ruining of sacred national image abroad through protests, vandalism and so on.


    “What has changed in the time between Reagan’s ’empire of evil’ and Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ is not the intensity of the evil but the juridical status of the subjects that are supposed to embody the ‘evil’ .However destructive the military capabilities on the both sides of the Cold War antagonism were, the ‘willingness’ to respect each other as subjects of international law was never seriously questioned during the Cold War period” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America’s Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.]

    The indeterminate positing of enemy (i.e., the non-negotiable), so to speak, is precisely the rupture heralded by post 9/11 rearticulation of global politics. Just as we have seen the dislocation of enemy/heterogeneity in the internal organization of a given politco-economic site amounts to a breaking through of traditionally static identification of subversive-element in a particular group, so the inter-national appearance of a nation – from the vantage point of hegemonic projections – is an equally indeterminate constellation of good and evil, as though the concern of national security, like Schmitt’s X-ray flashes, exposes the potential explosiveness of `incarcerated’ people at the very moment they disregard the distributed place. The border between India and Bangladesh is an exemplary instance. As F. Balke reminds us of the difference between the juridical status of the evil-embodied alien subjects that owes to the changed notion of national security, Indian state—being coterminous with the global trend of Islamophobia– gunned down more than 1,000 Bangladeshi citizens (working peoples, small-time cow-smugglers etc) who dared to pass the border illegally. That is, the frequent and intentional killings of BSF is precisely a manifestation of the heterogeneous or juridically uneven status of Bangladeshi citizens. Numerous flag meeting between BSF and BGB (erstwhile BDR) could not reach to an agreement for the very reason that sovereignty – the state of exception – only can express itself through the pride of acting alone. The blatant functioning of the presupposition that Bangladesh is a mere combination of ‘good secularists’ and ‘bad Islamists’ can easily be discerned from the recent portrayal of Bangladesh in the hegemonic neoliberal voices of India. Indian Prime minister recently claimed that 25% of Bangladeshi citizens belong to parliamentary Islamist organizations(hence a threat for India’s security), while the actual number is less than 5% (in terms of electoral votes). Similarly, India’s mainstream medias consistently portray Bangladesh as a vying field between “Bengali-secularist-India-friendly’ and “Islamist-anti-India”, where only the tutelage of India (which also implies that the strict isolation of subversive elements from Indian land) could save both parties. As Kolkata-Based Daily Anandabazar clearly says: “The main conflict in Bangladesh is between its Bengali-self and Islamic-self. After the Mujib-assassination, Pakistan (sic) sought to invigorate Islam undermining the Bengali-self. That struggle still continues. In this historical moment, Indian diplomats think Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh will help the initiative to build a new Bangladesh.” In other words, the forced bifurcation of Bangladesh between good and evil, as evident in the aforementioned instances, does not only sustain the presuppositions of mutual relations, but also reproduces the legitimation of the logic that governs the site of inter-national differentiation. To that extent, Border killings – by virtue of its reassertion of the symbolic order embodied in the fence – is political killings par excellence.

    While the movement of labor is delimited by such forced containment, the hegemonic capital is making it way annihilating the disjunctive spaces (as in the enactment of much-debated transit-route through Bangladesh). The ironclad body of border-fence that seeks to restrict people’s movement through force has been appearing as a site of a struggle that can’t be reduced into a national barrier. In other words, the generality that underpins the struggle is a thoroughly global phenomenon, notwithstanding the specific historicity that concerns Indo-Bangla border-fence. That is to say, the meaning of border-fence, for the affected people of global south, is unambiguously concrete. This is a kind of concreteness – to paraphrase Anna Feigenbaum – that requires no metaphor. [Anna Feigenbaum, “Concrete Needs No Metaphor: Globalized Fences as Sites of Political Struggle,” Ephemera 10/2 (2010): 119-133. This is how she defines contemporary border-fences: “….‘globalized fences’… can be identified by four commonalities: they serve transnational security functions (particularly in a post 9/11 homeland security context), they are contracted through multinational companies, they are built with materials imported from different nations, and they integrate ‘virtual’ and  physical technologies]



Bangladesh steals from its citizens to give to the oil giants

Bangladesh’s government signed a deal with ConocoPhillips last year to explore possibilities for deep-sea drilling in the Bay of Bengal.  There are some 7.3 trillion cubic feet of known gas reserves in the Bay. The deal will last nine years and will involve some production sharing with PetraBangla, the nationalized petroleum processing corporation.

Bangladesh is projected to run out of its current natural gas reserves in less than 4 years, and so it is anxious to try and find new energy sources domestically.  Depending on international petroleum markets leaves the nation vulnerable.

There are a number of problems with this deal (not the least of which is the treacherous game that is played with the ecosystem every time energy corporations go hunting for profits in ever deeper waters).

The Bay of Bengal is disputed territory and Burma, India, and Bangladesh all have made competing claims about territorial boundaries.  Because all three countries are oil-dependent and energy-poor, the discovery of series petroleum reserves in the Bay of Bengal will only intensify competition between the three nations.  The Burmese military junta, for instance, sent warships into the Bay as a warning to Bangladesh not to go hunting for oil.

At the same time, ConocoPhillips is undergoing a major restructuring of its operations to restore profitability and investor confidence.  They’re already planning on selling some $17 billion in assets and need new finds in order to prove their long-term profitability.  The Bangladesh deal comes at a crucial time for them; it’s hard to imagine that ConocoPhillips won’t take advantage of Bangladesh’s relatively lax environmental restrictions in the pursuit of “exploration success.”

A citizen’s network called the Committee to Protect Oil-Gas and Mineral Resources, with allies drawn from leftist parties, workers, environmentalists and professionals staged a demonstration and clashed with riot police on Tuesday protesting that the contract would hamper national interests.

Prof Anu Mohammad, leader of the citizen’s network argue that the deal with Texas based corporation would lose ownership of the blocks once the contract was signed, which is nearly 150 miles away from the coast. It which would be suicidal for the nation, observed the economic professor of a state university.

ConocoPhillips would get to keep 80 percent of the profits, while Bangladesh would get 20%.  There are a number of other clauses that make this a sweetheart deal for ConocoPhillips.

But there are other reasons to be worried.  Deals struck with other Canadian (Niko Resources) and American companies in Magurchara and Tengratila in the 1990s resulted in unsafe processing facilities and massive explosions in 2003 and 2005.  ConocoPhillips itself has a record of major accidents, too, in 2004, 2006, and 2008.

Some of the details of the current deal were uncovered through WikiLeaks:

The controversy further deepened after whistleblower site Wikileaks revealed that U.S. Ambassador John F. Moriarty in 2010 pressured the Bangladesh prime minister’s energy advisor to award the contracts to Conoco Phillips, Halliburton and another American company.

Over the weekend there was a student demonstration at Dhaka University.  On Tuesday, they organized a protest in Dhaka and 6-hour strike that was joined by some 600 students, activists, and union members.  More than a hundred protesters were arrested including several left-wing bloggers (all appear to have been released).  There is a call for a black flag march this Thursday if the deal moves forward.

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.

Wage hikes and labor struggles in Bangladesh

On Tuesday, Bangladeshi garment workers went back out into the streets, fighting riot police and waging large demonstrations against the wage increase that was set to go into effect today.  Details are still coming in, but initial reports include mention of factory guards firing on workers, police using tear gas and lathi charges, and at least 5 protesters being injured at AmanTex (a textile mill which sews garments for Swedish retail giant H&M).

There are at least three problems with the proposed wage increase: 1) the wage increases still don’t bring wages to the level where workers will be able to keep up with the increased cost of living, 2) while the minimum wage gives an 80% increase in wages to the newest workers, veteran workers don’t see similar increases in their own wages, and 3) there are widespread reports/rumors that the bosses will refuse to pay the government-mandated wage increases.

On Friday, for instance, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association protested the National Board of Revenue’s decision to punish those garment mills which were not paying taxes on rented property and tried to block the imposition of a new value-added tax.  Already feeling the squeeze from the rising cost of production (in part due to wage increases, but also because of electricity and high cotton prices), garment manufacturers are claiming that the taxes cripple their ability to compete in the world market.  So when the same BGMEA announced that wage increases would go in effect on Monday, November 1, few were holding their breath in expectation of increased wages.  In fact, the Financial Express was reporting that the financial troubles in the garment industry have already prompted a number of sales of factories to foreign capital.  (Everyone seems bent on blaming the workers and not the bosses who clearly overestimated how much they could produce in an economic downturn).

Or take for instance the government’s issuing of a proclamation on Sunday that it would punish any garment factory owner who refused to pay the wage increase and the festival bonus to his/her workers.  Clearly there seems to be some understanding that the bosses are seriously considering breaking the law in order for this to be issued.  Although it should be noticed (in typical Sheikh Hasina speaking-out-of-both-sides-of-her-mouth fashion) that the Awami League also announced on the same day that it was launching its “industrial police” whose sole job would be to make sure that the unions stayed in line.

A few months ago, I reported about the splits in the labor movement (between the pro-government unions and the independent, left unions) and they seem to have widened in recent weeks.  Take, for instance, the difference in posture between the Garment Shramik Oikyo Parishad and the pro-government Jatiya garment Sramik Federation:

“A minimum wage of Tk 3,000 is insufficient for a worker to lead a decent life, and so, we protested the hike,” Mushrefa Mishu, president of Garment Shramik Oikyo Parishad, told the FE.

Mishu also expressed fear regarding the implementation of the new wagestructure in all factories. “We have previous experiences that make us worried.”

“The wage hike is not the demand of the garment workers’ organisations, but the promise from the government and BGMEA,” said Aminul Huq Amin, president of Jatiya Garment Sramik Federation.

“Though in the tri-party meeting in August we proposed to announce the hike earlier than November, we are hopeful that the new wage hike will be implemented in all factories.”

It’s unclear whether this will produce another round of protests like the one’s that broke out last summer, but what does seem to be clear is that organizing in the garment industry is still proceeding.  And if the bosses look to solve their financial troubles on the backs of the workers, there will likely be a big fight once again.

Rupganj revisited

On Saturday, October 23, at least 50 people were injured when the local police and members of the Rapid Action Battalion (some are alleging that it was the Bangladeshi army) opened fire on some 7000 villagers who were protesting the government’s decision to acquire some 5,000 bighas of land (about 1650 acres) for an army housing project. The villagers charge that they are being pressured into selling their land by the Bangladeshi army at a fraction of the price (locals say that 1 bigha of land is worth between 7 and 8 million Takas, while they are being forced to sell for 1.4-1.5 million Takas). When land officials were asked why the sale prices of land were so low on the official documents, they said that landowners chronically underreport prices so that they don’t have to pay taxes (essentially accusing the locals of fraud and absolving the army of any meddling). Locals point to the presence of temporary Army housing camps at Purbagram, Musuri and Ichhapura as evidence that the army is in need of housing and has been using those camps as a launching ground for its coercive activities in Rupganj. New reports indicate that the army actually set up a makeshift office to monitor land sales in the area. The army claims that local brokers were responsible for the coercive land sales, though it’s likely they were told that they would be rewarded for delivering land quickly. It’s also likely that local lending agencies and banks were also being used to pressure locals, as a few papers have reported that lenders were out on the streets looking to collect on loans.

A map of the Army Housing Scheme (AHS):

What the map clearly shows is that Army’s plan will require a wholesale displacement of the people who live in the area of the proposed project. And since many people have been living in their homes for generations, it’s unlikely that they are going to sell their homes easily or cheaply. Moreover, land is scarce in Bangladesh, a country with one of the highest population densities in the world (the army is trying to set up similar housing schemes all over the country). As a result, the conflict is clearly being driven by the army’s attempt at using force to acquire land that locals are unwilling to part with. Almost every local official has said that the army has thoroughly mishandled the project.

In the aftermath of the protest, the police produced warrants for some 3000 to 4000 men (another report says that it’s closer to 8000 but I’m using the conservative figure), prompting the locals to go into hiding in the swamps nearby. Many reports concluded that all men, except for the elderly and the young, had evacuated the villages in fear of police reprisal. On Sunday and Monday, all the shops were closed and many of the roads were deserted. Widespread panic about the police and the army also meant that children were not sent to school.

Part of the reason that locals are so terrified has to do with their actions in the immediate aftermath. One protester, Mostafa Jamal Haider (another paper calls him Mustafa Jamal Uddin), who was shot by the police, was hurriedly buried, while his family was given only a few moments with him before they were prevented from witnessing the burial rites. Mostafa’s father, Rafiq, told the Daily Star: “When the funeral of my son wasn’t in my hands, how can I expect punishment to his killers? They are very influential people.” Another report indicates that the Rapid Action Battalion forced young children to wash away the blood from the scene of the protest; one young boy, Shanto, who was forced to do this at gunpoint was thoroughly traumatized. Two protesters who were shot were quickly spirited away by the RAB. A few protesters are still missing.

The Bangladeshi National Party and Awami League have been using the Rupganj issue to level attacks at one another, each accusing the other of inciting the villagers to violence. While the BNP is demanding a “fair probe” into the incident, the Awami League is arguing that Khaleda Zia is out for revenge against the Bangladeshi military because it evicted her from her home. Incidentally, what this demonstrates is the new alignment of political players in Bangladesh, with the Awami League cozying up with the military and the BNP trying to position itself as the populist force (though clumsily – it’s quite likely that local BNP players were involved in stoking up the protests, but they clearly weren’t responsible for the conflict itself). As it currently stands, Sheikh Hasina has given the army a green light to continue with its development plans, but is asking them to scale it down to a quarter of the original plan. This will only delay and transfer the fight for land to another place and time.

At the heart of the issue seems to be something different: the economic interests of the Bangladeshi army. The BBC did an extensive expose of the Bangladeshi army’s attempts at acquiring industry, land, and commercial enterprises throughout Bangladesh in an attempt to expand its influence and grow its capital. It’s using the Pakistani army as a model for its own development; and just like the Pakistani army, it’s driving its own economic enterprises through the various “welfare” organizations (these are something like pension schemes for retirees and their families) that it controls. Ayesha Siddiqa still has the best critique of the Pakistani military’s financial holdings in Military, Inc.

Villagers vs. Bangladeshi army

It’s pretty hard to know exactly what’s happening (partly because I’m in the US trying to figure out what’s going on on the other side of the planet) in Bangladesh, but the last few days I’ve been struck by a pretty spectacular fight of villagers protesting against army acquisition of their lands on the cheap.

Here’s what I’ve been able to gather from the various news reports. The Bangladeshi army is attempting to acquire some 5,000 bighas of land (a Bangladeshi bigha = 1600 square yards) for an army housing project in Narayanganj.

In response, villagers organized under two unions (Kayetpara and Rupganj unions) protested the army’s maneuver to coerce people into selling their land on the cheap to the army. The army has set up provisional housing in nearby villages and has been sending agents to pressure locals into selling their land for a fraction of their market value and preventing the locals from registering their land (which would offer them some limited legal protections against coercion). At least one report reveals inconsistencies in the Army’s claims that it is working by the books: the state minister of housing claims that the developers have not followed proper procedures, which include seeking the approval of local officials and submitting layouts of the development.

Some 7000 demonstrators came out to block the road to the proposed housing project by constructing a barricade. After a stand-off of several hours, the police and the Rapid Action Battalion were sent in to tear down the barricade and remove the protesters. They lobbed tear gas and charged the protesters with batons. 10 of the protesters were shot with live ammunition, 50 others were wounded. Law enforcement officials deny firing on the protesters (which makes one wonder how they were shot); several eyewitnesses have the police firing upwards of 150 rounds.

Almost immediately after, protesters descended on one of the provisional army housing camps at Musuri and set it on fire. Military personnel there had to be evacuated by helicopter.

The Bangladeshi Army has been predictably dumbfounded, as they claim that they have had several reasonable discussions with the locals to let them know that the housing plan is “completely run by the personal fund of the army members” and there was no attempt by the army to coerce people into selling their land. In the Army’s mind, the protesters were egged on by outside agitators who have been spreading “hostile and fearful” rumors. The ruling Awami League saw this as an opportunity to blame its primary rival, the Bangladeshi National Party, and its leader, Khaleda Zia, insinuating that the real reason for the protests is a recent ruling by the Bangladeshi Supreme Court asking her to vacate her cantonment home. This of course allows the Awami League the ability to play the victim and repeat its pleas for calm, all the while ensuring that the Army’s plans move forward apace. Incidentally, some villagers have identified the Awami League’s Golam Dastagir Gazi as instrumental in helping the Army purchase land on the cheap.

Bangladeshi garment workers — up from the ashes

The refusal of some factory owners to pay the traditional Eid bonuses has resulted in factory workers at two major garment factories to go on strike and block two highways (in what is becoming a standard tactic of the garment workers).  The factory owners at Zirani (one of the factories) have reported that they will now pay bonuses.  At Monno Attire Ltd. on the other hand, workers went out on strike over being forced to work for 24 straight hours without a break so that the bosses could fill orders on time.  (It’s also problem since many of the workers are fasting for Ramadan and are forced to eat the low-quality food that bosses provide).  Owners of that factory were also forced to make concessions as soon as the strike occurred.

The Financial Express of Bangladesh, at least, thinks that this may be the beginning of a new wave of combativity in the garment districts near Dhaka:

The fresh wave of protests in Manikganj and Gazipur signals the recurrence of violent unrest in the apparel industry ahead of Eid.

Police said thousands of workers of two garment factories in Manikganj and Gazipur blockaded Dhaka-Aricha and Dhaka-Tangail highways as authorities of the units are yet to settle workers’ wages, dues and bonuses.

What seems to be at the heart of this new round of protests is the breakdown (tacit or organized) of relations between the bosses federations (BGMEA and BKMEA) and individual factory owners.  While the federations are at least publicly mouthing support for paying bonuses on time, individual owners have been reluctant to comply (one feels a need to turn this into an object lesson about what Marx called capitalists: “a band of hostile brothers”).  And so workers are forced to take matters into their own hands and win some concessions.  Labor groups have been warning for some time that the bosses would renege on promises to pay bonuses and wages on time.  Should the practice of reneging continue, it will spark some fightback from the workers:

“We will gherao the houses of apparel manufacturers if they fail to provide workers with the dues, bonuses and overtime bill by tomorrow,” federation president Abul Hossain said.

“We don’t want any violence. We just want workers’ legitimate demand to be met within the deadline. Otherwise the consequences will not be good for the owners,” he added.

Also, Bangladesh is coming under some pressure internationally to improve the conditions for garment workers.  Aside from celebrities visiting the garment district, several major multinational garment importers (like the American Apparel and Footwear Importers Association) have called on Bangladesh to resolve the conflict by paying better wages and improving working conditions for garment workers.  Undoubtedly the split between importers and exporters on the issue is because importers have to deal with PR issues but none of the shop floor issues.

The Global Post did a moving piece on the lives of women garment workers that is definitely worth taking a look at: