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.

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:

Bangladeshi industries facing fights with labor


On August 31, workers at Biman Bangladesh Airlines demonstrated at the national headquarters of the air carrier and demanded that the airline stop its attacks on their wages.  When the managing director Zakiul Islam refused to meet with them, his staff locked him inside his office.  They protested for most of the day and agreed to leave and reconvene at the Board of Director’s meeting that was taking place the following day.  They did also threaten to strike and bring the airline to a standstill if their demands were not met.

At the heart of the conflict between managers and workers are the new pay scale that the airline is implementing in order to boost profits and the elimination of the pension scheme.  Some 3,000 workers will lose their pensions if the restructuring goes forward.  The airline company, incidentally, also just recently went public, making it the country’s largest public limited company.  The workers were demanding a return to the government pay scale that they had in place before.  The new pay structure would mean that workers would not see their wages rise as much as they had been promised.  And since they are government employees, they had been counting on see their wages rise as much as their counterparts in other public industries.

According to the Financial Express, “The demonstrating workers and employees’ unions are the Biman Sramik League, Biman Sramik Dal, Society of Aircraft Engineers of Bangladesh (SAEB), Biman Sramik Union, Biman Employees Union (CBA) and Biman Officers Association.”

On Thursday, September 2, the Board of Directors announced that it would meet all of the demands of the protesting workers.  I’m providing a link to a video of the victorious workers:


A new study from Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena and Véronique Salze-Lozac’h entitled “Competitiveness in the Garment and Textiles Industry: Creating a supportive environment” argues that countries like Bangladesh which are dependent on textile exports have to cultivate other competitive advantages other than cheap labor inputs.  This may be part of an attempt of reforming capitalism from within, by showing (as many liberals have) that better working conditions improve productivity and quality and that infrastructure improvements can offset attempts to squeeze workers:

As indicated in this study, the main actors in the sector are convinced that there is more to competitiveness and productivity than just low labor costs. If investment in infrastructure to improve lead times and facilitate trade is key to Bangladesh’s competitiveness, developing and implementing supportive policies, and improving governance at the national and factory levels is also crucial. International buyers are not simply focusing on cost and the bottom line. Because buyers are looking for “more,” it is in the interest of government officials to enact policies that will increase worker benefits (wages, health care, etc.). It is also in the interest of factory owners to implement these policies, so that they will gain a workforce that is better skilled and more productive. Bangladeshi factories are no longer sweatshops with minimal labor standards and workers toiling away for 20 hours a day. Many factories are now focusing on becoming more efficient, with a happier and healthier workforce. Labor awareness, compliance issues, an improved public image, and changes in the conditions of global competition have all led to these improvements.  Further positive developments in this area will compel the developed nations to look on the country more favorably.

One of the problems that a study like this one overlooks is that there are structural impediments to reform in the garment industry, including the deep connections between the factory owners and the government which means that they are both inclined to use their power to extract concessions from workers rather than from themselves whenever possible.  Here’s how Jeremy Seabrook puts it:

More than 30 MPs of the ruling Awami League are factory owners. This is reflected in the government’s response to unrest. After the April disturbances, the Home Minister said: “No one will be spared if found to be involved in creating unrest in the garments sector.” Government said it had “information that outsiders often fuel trouble in this sector.” The ruling elite cannot imagine that poverty, and not malice, drives people, although owners spend as much on a night out as their workers earn in a year. In any case, they prefer to see in the unrest evidence of conspiracy or sabotage by their political opponents.

As a result (and as I’ve argued previously), the workers in the garment industry are compelled to fight back.  As Bangladesh News reported, some of the more militant unions are focusing on the non-payment of Eid bonuses this year to organize workers in a more combative posture.  In fact, the organizing seems to have reached a substantial enough pitch that the Bangladeshi police are encouraging factory owners to pay the Eid bonuses on time to avoid another round of labor unrest.  They have collected reports that there is substantial organizing activity in more than 110 factories (there are more than 6500 garment factories in Bangladesh).

In other news, India is attempting to reorganize its garment exports to become more competitive with Bangladesh and China.


In response to the environmental problems produced by Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry (an industry which it needs to provide steel for national industries since there are few iron deposits in Bangladesh), a Dutch company is proposing building the world’s first “green dock wharf” in Bangladesh.  It would be equipped with the necessary technology to deal with the hazardous chemicals on board these ships and safely recycle them.  I’m interested in seeing how this develops.

Bangladesh: where the bosses lie for Eid

The President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Abdus Salam Murshedy announced this week that the garment bosses will pay their workers their annual bonuses before Eid this year.  I’ve never celebrated Eid in Bangladesh, but if it is at all like it is in other parts of South Asia, it’s a very big deal – and not having money to spend for Eid presents and festivities is pretty demoralizing.  During the strike that happened earlier this year, the bosses had threatened to delay the annual bonuses (partly to intimidate the workers, and partly to blame the workers for tighter profit margins).

Their announcement that they will pay out the bonuses now seems to imply two things.  First, the bosses clearly need to get back to work and another round of protests is something that they cannot afford right now – paying bonuses now is a down payment on labor peace later.  As it is, there is a fight within the mill owners about whether or not to pay the minimum wage increases, with the majority of the owners wanting to fight any wage increase at all.  Second, the more moderate unions are clearly feeling the heat from the organizing efforts of the more radical unions and they need to be able to deliver some tangible gains for selling out the garment workers – the bosses have been tapped to help out in this way.  There are already rumors circulating that the leftist unions are going to be organizing strikes and rallies after Eid.

At the same time, the BGMEA and the BKMEA have been making statements to the press about how Bangladeshi textiles are not getting a “fair price” on the market and that it is the international markets that should be asked to pay more.  As I understand it, cotton prices have gone up this year (I’m sure the flood in Pakistan can’t be helping matters much) and there are chronic electricity shortages all throughout South Asia.  That, in addition to the minimum wage increase means that the prices for which these commodities sell on the markets have to rise to keep up with the cost of the inputs.  I haven’t found good data yet on the profits in the textile industry, yet, though I suspect that the bosses aren’t doing as badly as they’re claiming.  After all, the BKMEA and BGMEA have been working overtime to get contracts in countries like China and Japan and have big plans for expansion.  And, Murshedy’s speech was at a fancy Iftar party at a posh hotel in Dhaka.  The hand-wringing seems to be for show (learned by watching Sheikh Hasina) – I don’t believe a word of Murshedy’s concern for his female workers:

“I request you (buyers) to provide fair prices for our products so that we can make our workers happy, and jointly build a secured society and economy,” …  He said Bangladesh’s garment industry has reached this height following continuous support from the buyers. “Without your support 2.8 million under-privileged women could not come to the mainstream of the society.”

Interestingly (though I haven’t thought this aspect out fully), the minimum wage increase is going to have effects in the financial sector in Bangladesh.  In order to limit inflation, the Bangladesh Bank has imposed severe limits on the ability of banks to borrow money.  At the same time, a rampant increase in speculation on the stock market has meant that consumers are taking their money out of banks and investing in stocks.  At the moment, the banks in Bangladesh are more than a little worried about where the money to pay for the minimum wage increase is going to come from.

The ship-breaking industry is under fire from the government, which has been pursuing environmental legislation to limit the kinds of toxic materials that are brought into Bangladesh on these abandoned ships.  Bangladesh dismantles about 30% of the world’s abandoned ships and then uses the scrap metal in its steel mills (Bangladesh has no natural iron deposits and so it relies on recycling steel for its growing steel industry).  The problem is that the toxicity of the chemicals in the ships has already been responsible for more than 400 deaths, as workers dismantle the ships by hand without proper equipment, protective gear, or training.

“It is a nightmare situation, as a consequence, with no formal appointments or arrangements for workers’ minimum needs, such as safe drinking water, food, toilet, living conditions. They toil amid blinding smoke and dust, suffocating fumes and burning heat, a virtual hell on earth, according to one witness. Workers rip apart the dumped vessels — from ocean liners to dirty freighters or monstrous tankers, weighing from a few thousand tons to as much as 60- 70 thousand, and costing millions of dollars to the importer — armed with just a blowtorch and other rudimentary tools.”

(Incidentally, the working conditions are no safer in the re-rolling steel mills).  Workers went out on strike earlier this year when the government tried to impose a decree requiring all ships coming into Bangladesh to be certified as toxic-free, since that would mean essentially that they would be out of work.  This week, the Department of the Environment imposed fines for the first time on a ship-breaking firm that dismantled a ship carrying toxic chemicals.

The machinations of Bangladeshi capital

In order to put the labor unrest to bed, the Bangladeshi government has been holding meetings with labor leaders and industry heads to make sure that the garment industry can get back to business as usual as quickly as possible.  This time, they met with the Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SKOP), the largest trade union federation in Bangladesh, to get all parties to agree to a joint front against labor agitation in the textile mills.

I can only speculate about the thinking here, but my guess is that SKOP has made a calculation based on the following: 1) a sense of competition from more radical trade unions in the garment industry, 2) accepting the logic of the bosses that the profits really are under attack and so workers have to get back to work, and/or 3) the presence of unions directly allied to the Awami League (Jatiyo Sramik League) within SKOP affecting the decision-making calculus.  I don’t know enough about the history of SKOP to conclude, but my guess is that it is a fairly conservative formation.  The bosses, on the other hand, are trying to find ways of spreading the costs of the minimum wage increase around internationally.  The government continues to have fanciful aspirations of impossible growth rates, fuelled primarily by textile exports.  All of this depends on keeping the peace in the garment industry.

Part of the reason that they have to get the larger unions to agree to hold the workers back is because the other unions in the garment industry are continuing to organize (as are bosses who are trying to roll back the minimum wages increases that were won in July).  I argued a few days ago that it looked like the repression was taking its toll on the more combative unions, and I still think that this is true, but the conditions in the garment industry are pretty miserable, and it’s unlikely that workers will continue to tolerate them much longer.

The workers in Bangladesh can at least have some confidence that they have magical supporters.  Harry Potter star Emma Watson recently toured the slums in Dhaka (where the majority of garment workers live) and was horrified by what she saw:

‘I had some preconceived ideas but nothing prepared me for the reality. It was upsetting to see the conditions in which these people live, but I was incredibly moved by their spirit and friendliness in spite of such apparent adversity,’ quoted her as saying.

‘Having seen the slums in Dhaka and the conditions in which these people live and work to produce ‘fast fashion’, I would say to those people that this is not the way we should be making clothes in the modern world,’ she added.

In another contradiction only capitalism could produce, ship-breakers in Bangladesh are caught between an industry that is poisoning them and an environmental movement that will cost them their livelihoods.  The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has had the foresight to impose strict environmental regulations on the highly toxic ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, but has given no forethought to the effects that this will have on the workers there (the deaths of many of whom are the reasons that the environmentalists became interested in the issue in the first place).  The logical solution would be to give the workers jobs to clean up the toxic sites, but that doesn’t seem to have entered into the calculations.  The more likely consequence will be the shift of the ship-breaking industry to countries without environmental regulations (lose-lose).

The hazardous conditions are not unique to the ship-breaking industry; Bangladesh has notoriously high-rates of job-related deaths and workplace accidents:

In 2000, the International Labour Office estimated that each year 11,700 workers die in Bangladesh in work-related accidents. In 2005, it also estimated that another 28,600 die from diseases caused by the industries they work in and 8.9 million suffer from work-related injuries.

And because the Minimum Wage Board is now conducting a review of 12 other industries which haven’t had minimum wages adjusted in some cases for more than 20 years, it’s quite likely that there will be labor actions in other industries as well.  The pattern will likely resemble the one in the garment sector: labor action, modest minimum wage increase, split in the labor movement, repression.  We can only hope that the more combative unions learn the lessons of the garment industry strike and organize more effectively.

Textile strike rocks Bangladesh

My piece in Socialist Worker on the garment workers’ strike in Bangladesh:


Snehal Shingavi analyzes the battle shaking Bangladesh’s textile industry–and the international manufacturers who set up shop there to take advantage of low wages.

August 24, 2010

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

OVER THE past month, Bangladesh’s textile industry–one of the most exploitative in the world–has been rocked by strikes and protests.

The level of repression used against the Bangladeshi textile workers, largely women, exposes the dark underbelly of globalization in Asia. Textile manufacturers have been flooding into the country in the last several years as workers in other countries, especially China, have successfully fought for higher wages. When the textile bosses came to Bangladesh, the minimum wage was less than 10 cents an hour.

The strikes began in mid-July when a massive general strike in the ready-made-garment industry shut down the capital city of Dhaka.

The immediate reason for the strike was the increase in the cost of basic commodities in Bangladesh, especially foodstuffs, which have quickly outstripped wages that haven’t risen since 2006, the last time that textile workers went on strike. Textile workers get 1,887 takas a month (roughly $25)–most economists put the basic income needed to survive in Dhaka at around 8,000 takas.

Even though the police attacked the strike and forced the workers back to work, the protests scared the ruling Awami League party into offering a minimum wage increase to 3,000 takas a month (roughly $42) at the end of July.

The workers had originally demanded an increase to 5,000 takas, and in disgust with the meager increase, the protests continued. The workers set up barricades and roadblocks, set fire to cars, and marched through the streets.

The mainstream press was predictably up in arms over the actions of the workers (calling it, in most instances, a “rampage”). They were less inclined to notice the excesses of the Bangladeshi police or of the bosses, who were lobbying to resist even this pay increase another 4 months, giving some of them enough time to move or threaten to move.

The textile mill owners shut down some 250 factories and asked for police support to crush the strike. Some 100 workers were injured in the clashes that followed, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against the strikers. There were also some fairly serious attacks on children who live in the area.

The government even called out the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit that normally deals with organized crime and terrorist threats, to go after the workers. Unsurprisingly, there will be no investigation into the workers’ claims that the bosses are the ones involved in organized crime to terrorize the workers. The workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assurances that wage increases would be forthcoming sometime in the next three months.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufactures & Exporters Association (BKMEA)–the two main organizations of textile mill owners–have both said that they will not raise wages higher than the 3000-takas level mandated by the government, and that it is the government’s responsibility to enforce discipline on the workers.

More than 4,000 workers were arrested, and others were later rounded up after the police used television footage to identify strike “leaders.” Key leftist figures associated with the strike’s more radical wing have been arrested or threatened with arrest.

Mantu Ghosh, head of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB)’s Narayanganj division and affiliated with the CPB-led Garment Trade Union Center, was detained earlier in the month. Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, president of the Narayanganj branch of the Bangladeshi Socialist Party and connected to the Garments Sramik Sangram Parishad, said that his offices and home were raided by the police.

Some of the more recent protests seem to have been a response to this direct attack on the workers’ leadership. This has also become a new point of organizing for the left in Bangladesh, organized in the Ganatantrik Bam Morcha, which has issued demands calling for the release of the arrested garment workers and their leaders.

It’s also clear that the protests are not spontaneous, at least not in the way that the media is describing them, nor are they work of terrorists, as the bosses have claimed. In reality, they are the result of some painstaking work by the leftist unions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE BOSSES have been desperate to get the factories back to work and get police protection for their investments.

Part of the reason is that the protesters have been targeting textile factories and have inflicted some serious damage. But the more important reason is that a slowdown in production in one of the most high-paced industries has a devastating effect on profits. The Bangladesh garment manufacturers are already claiming losses of around $113 million. That includes losses from lost work, damage to garments and property damage. Already, the textile manufacturers are threatening to leave Bangladesh, a country which they just moved to from China, citing the low cost of Bangladeshi labor as the primary factor.

This is why the attacks on the labor unions are so important for the state and for business in Bangladesh. It gives them some wiggle room in a tense economic situation. Part of the way police are making their case against the unions in Bangladesh is by torturing labor activists into making confessions against their respective organizations. As the New York Times reported:

[L]abor and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labor leaders before he escaped from custody. Advocates also said that they were worried about the safety of people arrested in recent days.

The Bangladeshi High Court had to order the police not to torture labor leader Mantu Ghosh, exposing what are certainly ordinary practices for the Bangladeshi police. This, of course, should make one wonder about the fate of the thousands of other laborers who were arrested. Home Minister Advocate Sahara Khatun has already said that she will punish everyone involved in the protests that took place in mid-August.

The garment industry is clearly Bangladesh’s most important export industry, accounting for some 80 percent of the country’s total exports, and the largest, employing some 3.5 million workers. That means that the fortunes of the Bangladeshi economy are intimately tied to this one industry.

In fact, it was the structural dependency of Bangladesh that prompted Bangladesh to try to attract textile manufacturers to the country in the first place. (The other way that Bangladesh makes a dent in its large trade imbalance is from its other major export: workers it sends to work overseas.) Textiles only account for about 5 percent of the economy, but they play a very large role in driving Bangladesh’s growth.

As a result, no matter which party is in power, it needs to woo the garment industry. This accounts for the vacillating position of the ruling Awami League, which relies on workers for votes, but has to do the bidding of the factory owners if it wants to keep the economy afloat in the short term.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE GLOBAL economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, and it is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages. As the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh, employing some 3.5 million workers, and responsible for most of the country’s exports, it’s unlikely that the state will intervene on the side of labor decisively.

But the garment workers haven’t disappeared quietly. On August 14, for instance, 4,000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, leading to a standoff with the police that lasted four hours.

Their demands included the implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place), an eight-hour workday (workdays are currently between 11 and 15 hours long), and an end to intimidation by factory owners (who have routinely used thugs to attack the workers). The protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh.

In an amazing show of solidarity, young workers, teachers, artists and writers formed a human chain at Shahbagh in Dhaka to demand that the garment workers receive a decent wage, and that the police stop the “capture and torture” of garment workers and union leaders.

In addition to coercion and repression, the state is also attempting to use divisions inside the labor movement–there are more than 60 unions in the textile industry–to its advantage. Most unions in the industry are illegal and are forced to operate in secret with shoestring budgets.

The new plan, it seems, is for Bangladesh to attempt to expand the base of workers that are represented by the government-backed unions. Labor Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has announced plans to get trade unions into the ready-made-garment industry. This would be good news for one of the most thoroughly exploited labor forces in the world–were it not for the fact that the unions are being set up to help the bosses keep production running rather than to help workers advocate for their interests.

The government is hoping that the minimum wage increase will seem like a better option than indefinite protests by workers who are already feeling the pinch. Unions like the National Garment Workers Federation are doing the bosses’ bidding in this instance by backing the 3,000 takas minimum wage and encouraging workers to return to their jobs.

This is a nakedly opportunist move: Increase the size of the unions in order to ensure the interests of the factory owners. After all, according to the government, it’s because there are too few labor unions in the factories that the protests became violent–and not because of the sweatshop wages and conditions that persist in Bangladesh.

The strategy is clearly designed to squeeze out the more radical sections of the union movement by making the government-backed unions larger and more “representative”–thus completing the pincer action on radicals who are already facing prosecution from the courts.

At the same time, the state is also committed to isolating the international labor movement, which has set up a number of NGOs to help textile workers organize. Arguing that labor unrest has been the work of outside agitators, the Bangladeshi government has criminalized working in unions as a foreign national and begun closing down offices. Many of these NGOs were set up by unions in the West in order to win better wages for Bangladeshi workers and improve the lot of workers in other countries.

The attack on NGOs in Bangladesh must also be putting a squeeze on the resources that unions could rely on in order to expand their organizing. The NGO Affairs Bureau closed down some 334 NGOs in the last four months, alleging support of militancy in many cases.

Even though the protests have gotten smaller and attacks on the unions continue, it is clear that the current stalemate is unsustainable. Workers cannot survive on the low wages that are offered in Bangladesh, and as long as the textile industry exploits its workers ruthlessly, the Bangladeshi working class will continue to fight back.