Revisiting “Culture of Poverty”: The Case Study of Bangladesh

Revisiting “Culture of Poverty”: The Case Study of Bangladesh
Taj Hashmi, Professor, Security Studies, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii

Despite optimistic assertions and wishful thinking by many scholars, many of whom are avowed patriots; it is not easy to be optimistic about the future of Bangladesh unless a sea of change takes place in the realm of the political culture and the consequential socio-economic development of the country - perhaps under a millennial leadership. Bangladesh is an important region to study for our understanding of the “culture of poverty” which is not only about the culture which is a by-product of poverty, but also about the culture , which many believe, promotes poverty and backwardness. We have every reason to investigate why East Bengal ( East Pakistan during 1956 and 1971) or Bangladesh since 1971, which according to a UN report had higher per capita income in 1949 than that of any contemporary Far Eastern or Southeast Asian country except Japan and Singapore [Department of Economic Affairs, UN, National and Per Capita Income of Seventy Countries in 1949, New York, 1950, pp.14-15], has emerged as one of the poorest, if not the poorest, in the Third World.

It is pertinent to ask why with better land-man-ratio than that of Japan or South Korea, for example, Bangladesh is beyond any comparison with Japan, Korea or other developed countries. We need to know why despite the abysmal level of poverty (around 50 per cent of the population living below the poverty line) a recent survey by the BBC revealed that Bangladeshis are the “happiest people” on earth. And most interestingly, consecutively for the last three years since 2001, the Transparency International has singled out Bangladesh as the “most corrupt country” in the world. One wonders as to why the “happiest people” are found in the “most corrupt” and poor country.

It seems, the culture of complacence and fatalism has a positive correlation with poverty and the vice versa. We need to understand whether the values which promote complacence and fatalism are conversely by-products of poverty or are derivatives of the overall socio-cultural and political situation of a country or region. According to Barrington Moore Jr., values do not drop from the heavens; they are acquired and can be taught and transmitted by leaders. Consequently, it can be assumed that the desired goals may be attained by the thorough transformation of the polity, mainly in the realms of administration, the belief systems, political culture and the levels of aspiration and expectation of the people at the grassroots level. If Moore is correct, nothing short of a miracle can transform the “culture of poverty” into that of growth, prosperity and development in the foreseeable future.
* Presented at the Bengal Studies Conference, University of Kansas at Manhattan, Kansas, June 2001


This is an attempt to understand culture as one of the determinants, if not the sole determinant, of good governance and development. The debate started by Max Weber [see his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism], correlating development and social change with religion and culture of the people concerned, was further participated by scores of scholars. However, the polemical discourse on the issue has not yet resolved the problem conclusively as there is no consensus among scholars on whether poverty is caused by a set of values and ethics, and if a particular religious belief system/culture is conducive to growth and development.

According to Weber, “rational organization” in the “ideal” state is the key to development. And this he thought reached its peak during the Calvinist Puritanism in Western Europe. While Weber has glorified Protestantism as the mother of “rational bourgeois capitalism” in Europe, he is dismissive of the Hindu (South Asian) disposition to bear with patience all worldly discomfort, eventually to escape it, as “traditional” and unproductive [Protestant Ethic, Talcott Parsons, Preface to New Edition, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937, p. XVII].

We may agree with Weber. However, we may assume that the problem of underdevelopment in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh could be slightly different from that of predominantly Hindu India. We may impute the backwardness of Bangladesh to what Weber has classified as “greedy adventurism” or the pirate mentality of the ruling elite, along with the mass inertia of the traditional peasant. And there is hardly any systematic study of the traditional, Muslim peasant in Bangladesh with regard to the backwardness of the country.

My approach is a bit different from what Oscar Lewis has done in his study of some poor families in Mexico. This is not only a study of the “culture of poverty”— the one that emanates out of poverty, but also the one which leads to poverty as well. We may agree with Lewis that: “Poverty becomes a dynamic factor which affects participation in the larger national culture and creates a subculture of its own. One can speak of the culture of the poor, for it has its own modalities and distinctive social and psychological consequences for its members. It seems to me that the culture of poverty cuts across regional, rural-urban, and even national boundaries” [Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, Basic Books, Inc.New York 1959, p.2]. This study, however, is neither ethnocentric nor oblivious of the fact that “the underdeveloped countries are not the same as pre-capitalist underdeveloped feudal countries [of Europe], but are the distorted, agrarian counterparts of the world capitalist system (italics mine)” [A. R. Desai, “Reliance on Rich Farmers for Development: its Implications”, in his (ed), Rural Sociology in India, Popular Prakashan, Bombay 1984, p.886]. This distortion has also been caused by the post-colonial “recolonization” of the Third World.

Although this is a case study of Bangladesh, the cultural dimension of underdevelopment in other Third World countries and regions may be understood from this study. It aims at correlating the overall human behaviour, determined by the belief system, traditions and customary behaviour of the people at the top as well as at the grassroots levels, with their social, political and economic behaviour, hope and aspirations, desire and expectation, throughout the region of this study. The understanding of the cultural dimension of underdevelopment in peasant economies, where the cherished “peasant utopia” of Wolf remains unattained [See Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, Harper & Row, London, 1969], is the focal point of this study. As Perez de Cuellar has observed, "failures and frustrated expectations of development" give rise to cultural tensions, wars and authoritarian regimes, disrupting the development process itself, "because the importance of the human factor… which lie at the very heart of a culture" has been underestimated in many development projects. [UNESCO, Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, 1994, p.7].

In recent years too many optimistic writings on the future of Bangladesh have come off the press to digest. Since most of these works are full of wishful thought, derived from the patriotic-cum-optimistic bent of mind of the authors, I propose to approach the problem of poverty and underdevelopment in the region in the light of historical sociology and anthropology. Without being prejudicial to the economists one may agree with the view that “social development is inseparable from economic development, and…that the latter cannot be left to the attention of economists alone” as it is quite “common for economists to note the importance of (non-economic) considerations, but usually only to ignore them” (Henry Bernstein (ed), “Introduction”, Underdevelopment & Development: The Third World Today, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1978, pp.13-15.) “Development” goes beyond the economic well being of a given population. It is pertinent to our understanding that “the aspiration to change, and institutional means for achieving it, is central to present day conceptions of development.” [Ibid, p.13]. Both the quantitative “growth” in economic terms as well as the institutional development leading to the qualitative changes in the domains of politics, culture and society are essential for attaining peace, stability, good governance and the rule of law.

I insist on using the expression "underdevelopment" rather than the euphemism, "developing", not because I do not see any sign of improvement in both the urban and rural areas, in different sectors of Bangladesh, but my observation is based on the overall situation of the country economically, socially and politically. While half the population lives below the poverty line without any access to running water (about one-fourth of them drink arsenic-contaminated water), electricity, healthcare and other basic amenities for sustenance, there is no point in not calling a spade a spade. There is also no point in believing the fictitious and misleading statistics that portray growth, development and prosperity. The post-Cold War world is going through the self-deceptive (and destructive for the poor nations) trend of portraying absolute poverty as the "state of low calorie intake", famine as the "non-availability of food", rapacious NGOs as the "harbingers of civil society", extortionist Grameen Bank as " the poor man's bank", prostitutes as “sex workers” or smuggling as “informal trade”. Nowadays, hard-core criminals in Bangladesh are known as "armed cadres". In short, this paper is going to juxtapose the "culture of poverty" and the "poverty of culture" to understand, if not solve, the perennial state of underdevelopment and backwardness of Bangladesh and countries in a similar situation.

We know that just as individual achievements are subject to one's behaviour and belief system, so are the collective achievements (and failures) of groups, communities and societies dependent on collective beliefs, attitudes, norms and values or the culture of the people belonging to a particular region. Culture is again rooted in people's ethical values and "moral economies". These values again, are neither immortal monoliths nor eternal. They are subject to change and not independent of economic and political institutions, just as economic and political institutions are not extraneous to culture. An "underdeveloped "or "backward " region can always overcome its "backwardness" under the influence of the "culturally advanced" and "progressive" elite who quite often culturally hegemonize the masses through various social, political, economic and religious ideologies, so long as the latter are not resorting to "wrong ideologies" and arousing "false consciousness".

This project is, however, not about how to transform the culture of the region of this study by replicating certain aspects of the "culture of progress and prosperity" from the so-called global and universal values like liberal democracy and market economy, in a half-hearted, selective way of doing things, as is done by many development agencies, donors and NGOs. One is not aware if any such global or universal culture of the "unipolar world" exists, as one is not prepared to accept the doctrine of "the end of history", as propounded by Francis Fukuyama either. We must wait and see if liberal democracy and free market economy emerge as our ultimate destinations in the 21st Century. Instead it is easier to agree with Perez de Cueller that the “culture of peace” is essential for human and economic development and that the neglect of human development leads to wars and devastation. In the post-Cold War era, the predominant threat to stability comes from "within countries and not between them". The key to defuse the intra-state "clash of cultures" lies in the development of the "culture of peace", which again is contingent upon the concerned people's respect for pluralism, the rule of law and respect for authority. This, however, does not mean that the intra-state conflicts of cultures are not related to the global "clash of civilizations". Local representatives of "Western" or "Islamic" cultures may clash with the indigenous norms and behaviours, and vice versa. Iran and Algeria in the recent past may be cited in this regard. Mere replication of liberal democratic institutions by countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, among others, does not guarantee either peace or the rule of law, essential preconditions for running a working democracy and generating economic growth. Unlike environment, culture is very broad and abstract. Hence the interactions between culture and development are so difficult even to describe, let alone measure. Significantly, anthropologists have come up with "11 to 160 definitions of culture" and it seems that no aspects of culture are common to all human societies [Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity, Penguin Books, 1995. p.33].

The understanding of culture in the "humanistic sense" of the expression [Marshall Sahlins," A Brief Cultural History of 'Culture' ", UNESCO Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, 1994, p. 21] is essential to understand the complex relationship between culture and development. Like culture, "development" is also a loaded concept. According to Boutros-Ghali, we must give new meaning to the word, as "development" is emerging as "the most important intellectual challenge in the coming years" [ibid, p. 23].

As we know, much has been written about culture, "Protestant" and "Catholic" ethics and "Asian" values with regard to growth and development mainly in the West and East Asia by scholars like Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, and in the recent past, by Gunnar Myrdal, Barrington Moore, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen and others. Hegel and Marx have hardly any kind words about South Asia and its peasant mode of production. However, almost nothing substantial has come off any press analyzing the backwardness of Bangladesh holding its culture and values responsible for the malady. Consequently, it is not an easy task to arrive at the right analysis of as to why Bangladesh, along with certain other sub-regions of the subcontinent, has not only remained underdeveloped - socially, politically and economically - but has been in a state of stagnation and even retrogression.

It is pertinent to our understanding why Japan, South Korea and Singapore, for example, with poorer land-man ratio than that of Bangladesh, are far more developed than the latter (and is in fact, cited as the best examples of what "Confucian" and "Asian" values can attain). Although one may agree with Fukuyama that: "A study that tries to compare and contrast different cultures with respect to economic performance is an open invitation to insult virtually everyone it touches upon" [Fukuyama, Trust, p. xiv], one cannot understand the "Bangladesh syndrome" without a comparative study of both the Western and Asian values with those of Bangladesh and other underdeveloped regions of the world. We need to understand if Bangladesh (and countries/regions in similar situation) is just going through a short transition of chaos and anarchy or, is destined to be a "basket case", to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, or a "luckless" country in the language of Eric Stokes [Eric Stokes, The Peasant and the Raj: Studies in Agrarian Socie ty and Peasant Rebellion in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1978, pp. 280-2].

Although the state of governance depends on the cumulative political culture of the people concerned, this, however, does not mean that a well-entrenched oligarchy or Plato's "Philosopher King" cannot transform the cumulative culture by establishing the rule of law, accountability and meritocracy. However, it is also true that the prevalence of the rule of law does not necessarily entail growth and prosperity in a region. The will to grow and prosper among the people plays the most important role in improving the overall socio-political and economic conditions of a region.

Consequently, there is no room for ethnocentrism in any objective study of "democracy", "growth" and "prosperity". Not only that, "democracy" and "development" do not always have positive correlations, but also the cultural constructs of the two may vary from place to place, country to country and time to time. Just as democracy and economic growth do not have positive correlations the same can be said of autocracy and economic decline and poverty. Mere change of governments through ballots does not entitle a country the epithet "democratic". Contrary to what Fukuyama and others have to say with regard to the universality and inevitability of liberal democracy, one may understand the problem of cultural dimension of underdevelopment with recourse to cultural relativism.

In view of the above, it is relevant to ask the following questions with regard to the overall backwardness of Bangladesh: What is wrong with the popular culture of the people of Bangladesh? Is the popular culture really a hindrance to good governance, growth and prosperity in the region? Is mass literacy good enough to transform the popular culture of the region, which among other things, promotes next worldliness, fatalism, escapism and glorifies death, not life, and poverty, not prosperity? Can modern elite - intellectuals, professionals and politicians, along with entrepreneurs - transform people's culture at the grassroots level or nothing short of a Reformation, a la Martin Luther, can change the situation? Is there a way to get rid of the culture, which promotes, protects and glorifies corruption, often by rewarding highly corrupt officials and elected representative of the people, including heads of governments and state in Bangladesh?

Any magic formula that provides clues as to how to get rid of the "pathetic contentment" of the people would provide answers to most of the above questions. If the prevalence of so much of corruption, violence, poverty and misery of the people does not breed discontent among the bulk of the population, one is not sure if they are really interested in changing/improving their lot. One is not sure if the so-called state of contentment is partially a reflection of their utter frustration and helplessness as well. Are they fatalists by default or choice? is the question. The average Bangladeshi (one may read "Indian" and "Pakistani" as well) is fatalist by choice as well. He has learnt from the half-educated mullah that accumulation of wealth is not virtuous and to "treat this world as a musafirkhana [or an inn/a temporary abode]". Bauls (mendicants), rural bards and writers like Hasan Raja have advised him not to build beautiful houses as death is imminent and this world is temporary. Kazi Nazrul Islam, the National Poet, has also glorified poverty, which according to him has elevated him to the status of another Jesus Christ. Rabindranath Tagore is possibly the only modern writer who writes: “I do not want to die in this beautiful world". No one like Ulrich von Hutten, German poet and humanist of the Renaissance era, has ever sung in the region: “It is a joy to live!”

A look at its recent history and an empirical study of the present state of chaos, lawlessness and abject poverty of the people shows that Bangladesh has never enjoyed peace and prosperity in the last two hundred odd years. The "Golden Bengal" or Sonar Bangla of Tagore is an ahistorical concept, a myth, which never existed, at least not for the ordinary Bengalis. However, this myth of abundance and prosperity, as expounded by Paul Greenough [Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-1944], has been the steering force behind all "nationalist" movements in the region since the mid-nineteenth century. The peasant masses' desperation to get their mythical land of abundance led to the formation of Pakistan in 1947 in the region that is now Bangladesh. They in their quest for equality and justice - social as well as economic - targeted Hindu landlords and professionals, and finally created the eastern wing of Pakistan.

Soon the marshy, over-populated, underdeveloped predominantly Muslim region, which had been just a jute-producing hinterland of the industrialized, urban and predominantly Hindu region of western Bengal up to the partition of 1947, again became disillusioned with Pakistani rulers. As the Pakistani ruling elite, predominantly non-Bengali Muslim Punjabis and north Indians, did not treat East Bengali Muslims as equal partners, the latter were forced to fight for independence. And thus Bangladesh came into being after much bloodshed in 1971.The creation of Bangladesh, despite all the promises made by its founding fathers, did not improve the lot of the ordinary people. Rather the bulk of the population became much poorer and malnourished than what they used to be under Pakistani rule during 1947 and 1971. The malady was not caused by a single factor.

Firstly, the region was not self sufficient in food and secondly, the leaders were neither experienced nor qualified to run an independent country. Along with their incompetence were their avarice, nepotism, clannish/tribal behaviour and lack of political will, long-term economic planning and sense of belonging to a nation. Consequently, despite attaining self-sufficiency in food and marginal growth in per capita income and GDP/GNP in recent years, the inequitable distribution and primitive accumulation of wealth through corruption -- bank default, smuggling, bribery, extortion (chandabazi), grabbing public or private land and assets by abusing power and using connections with government high-ups – has left the average Bangladeshi among the poorest and most malnourished, illiterate and backward in the world. It is not surprising that while mega NGOs like BRAC and Grameen Bank have been portraying a rosy picture vis-à-vis the future of Bangladesh, their unaccountability and self-aggrandizing propaganda have not helped the country to reach the “take off stage” in relation to development in the true sense of the expression.

What happened in the region in the post-Liberation period was not altogether unexpected of a predominantly peasant economy like Bangladesh with rural-based, petty bourgeois leaders dictated by the ethos of peasant culture and idiosyncrasies of the lumpen proletariat. In short, ever since 1971, loose conglomerates of petty bourgeois-peasant-lumpen proletariat elements, which constitute the vast majority, are running Bangladesh. This happened after the eclipse of the established middle class as the only dominant force-culturally, politically and economically - not long after the emergence of Bangladesh. The ascendancy of these classes as the political super-ordinates signaled their predominance in the socio-economic and cultural spheres as well. The rise of these people, who until 1971 had been the mainstay of the hoi polloi under Pakistani overlordship, led to the emasculation, if not the total destruction of the middle classes in the country.

The eclipse of the budding and not so well entrenched Bengali Muslim middle classes eventually led to the eclipse of the middle class values, norms and culture. The middle class political culture that promotes tolerance, trust, mutual respect, the rule of law, and other prerequisites of democracy has been supplanted by “pre-political” culture of violence, mistrust, intolerance, defiance of law and authority, which promotes anarchy nourished by the marginalized underdogs like peasants, lumpen proletariat and perpetually unhappy and incompetent petty bourgeois classes.

The new elite emanating from peasant background has indigenized peasants’ envy and contempt for the non-peasant super- ordinates. Their poor educational background and the overall incompetence have been reflected in their contempt for higher education, especially English medium institutions. The upshot has been the degeneration of education, art, music, cinema, literature and creativity as a whole. Ironically, these latecomers in the arena of politico-economic power soon promoted English-medium schools and started sending their children to prohibitively expensive schools and universities both within and outside the country, albeit by shunning their hitherto ultra-nationalist stunt for “Bengali (Bangali] Nationalism”. However, their own drawbacks and inefficiency are well reflected in their rusticity, vulgarity, lack of respect and trust for others, parochialism, unrefined language, lack of refinement in taste and behaviour and proclivity to violence.

Almost everything having a bearing on “pre-political” and pre-modern/pre-capitalist ways of life can be traced here. Consequently politicians, members of parliament, teachers, students, priests, bureaucrats, businessmen, bankers, drivers, cooks and people in general are calling names and portraying each other as “traitors”, “liars”, “conspirators”, “enemies of the country”, “half-educated”, “lame”, and what not! The way the prime minister and the leader of the opposition portray each other may be cited in this regard. What is reflected in the culture of name calling and undermining each other is typical peasant behaviour. A peasant not only does not know how to respect, tolerate, thank or congratulate another, he is also unaware of the virtues of trust and peaceful co-existence with others besides his own clan members and immediate patrons. Hence the prevalence of the “holier-than-thou” mentality in almost every section of society. Trustlessness is so pervasive that most commercial transactions are done through cash, as hardly anybody is willing to accept payment by cheques.

The lack of trust for the law-enforcing agencies and the government itself is inherent in the popular culture of the people. Their folk traditions have taught the peasants that governments -- whether those of the Mughals, Nawabs, British, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis -- have always been alien and extortionist. One is not sure if the peasants’ collective memory reminds them that the pre-colonial Mughals and Nawabs used to collect at least 50 per cent of the yield as the land tax (kharaj) along with numerous abwab (illegal exactions) and that zamindars during the colonial period were exacting and oppressive as the post-colonial government officials and landlords have never been that benign to them either. They have also learnt from their collective memory that the police are exacting, the magistrate is corrupt and other non-peasant outsiders are not trustworthy at all. Consequently, almost an unbridgeable gulf has been created between the peasant and the government or sarkar, in his parlance. So, “do not expect anything from the sarkar and do not hesitate to destroy the sarkar’s property, as it does not belong to you”, so goes the conventional wisdom of the people.

This culture of alienation has justified both extortion and bribery. Government officials, members of parliament and ministers are expected to make money as they invest substantial amount of money to get these positions. It is not uncommon that candidates bribe high ups in the police, customs or taxation departments to get the aspired positions which guarantee them good return in the form of bribe and other illegal gratifications. The average Bangladeshi considers those who do not make money by abusing power as boka or idiots, not as honest and normal people. Honesty is no longer considered the “best policy” among the hoi polloi. Consequently one comes across the Bengali saying: Churi bidya baro bidya jadi na paro dhara (stealing is a great art or technique unless you are caught). This attitude is reflective of the people’s sense of deprivation and alienation from the polity. “Sarkari maal, dariya mey daal” (throw away government property into the river), so goes the folk adage throughout the Subcontinent.

This alienation from the government has led them to the destruction and vandalization of public property and to the mentality of not paying anything to the government. One may cite the example of an East Bengali peasant who in the 1920s defined swaraj or self rule in the following manner: “The Swaraj stands for a golden age when prices should fall, taxation should cease, and when the State should refrain from interfering with the good pleasure of each individual man” (Taj Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia, Westview Press, Boulder, 1992, p. 49). This may reflect the peasants’ “hidden transcript”, to paraphrase James Scott, indicative of their alienation from and anger with the state machinery ; nevertheless this is also reflected in the nouveau riches’ reluctance to pay income tax, customs duty, electricity and telephone bills in Bangladesh. The newly entrenched elite do not want to pay anything to anybody. They even do not want to repay their bank loans. In general, the newly emerging Bengali Muslim elite are not interested in doing any philanthropic activities unless they get some advantage out of such “acts of charity”. The peasants’ low expectations from the government (as they have learnt through history that the governments only take, do not pay) are well reflected in the following writing on a faculty bus of Dhaka University: “A Gift from Prime Minister Khaleda Zia”. As if the bus was a personal donation from the Prime Minister!

The peasants’ clannish mentality and loyalty to their immediate patrons and clan members, a by-product of their “we-versus-they” mentality, is evident from their parochial and nepotistic behaviour. They justify crimes committed by a fellow villager outside their own village and his getting indulgence and support from his own clan members and patrons only as natural. The village community traditionally protects many robbers and anti-social elements, which do not harm their “own” people. Consequently, one often hears on the streets of Dhaka or elsewhere people bragging about what they can do -- kill someone, kidnap someone, destroy someone’s property with impunity -- as they know some influential politician, government servant or gangster or they come from the same clan, village or belong to the same political party/faction.

Consequently, there has been a tremendous rise in violent crimes throughout the country -- including gang rapes and acid throwing on women. The organized mafia and not-so-organized criminals belonging to particular districts or faction chiefs have proliferated in the dormitories of colleges and universities. According to some estimates, there are more than 100,000 illegal arms in the country, 50,000 alone in the capital city. The political use of these criminals has been so endemic that gangsters and armed criminals have been glorified by their respective patrons as “armed cadres” with a view to justifying their crimes so long as they are committed outside the perimeter of the faction, group or party. Many hardcore criminals and professional killers from different social backgrounds, mainly lower peasant and lumpen elements, have become mafia bosses. Some of them since the late 1980s have been sitting in the parliament as “elected representatives” of the people. Influential political leaders, including ministers, harbour these criminals as their “armed cadres”. Thus terror and extortion, killing of political rivals and others in public, often in front of media photographers, have lost their novelty since the 1990s. Never before in the last two hundred years of its history, was this sort of violent crimes by party or clan members justified by anybody in the country.

The politicization of crime and criminalization of politics in the names of “preservation of democracy”, “freedom and sovereignty of the country”, “the spirit of the Liberation War”, “Islam”, and “Socialism”, among other things, have turned “politics” into the by-word for everything that is despised by every urban, refined and civilized person. According to Professor Muzaffar Ahmed, a renowned Bangladeshi economist: “While politics in the country is a business, the parliament is the market place, where members of the parliament call names at each other and spend seventy five percent of their time in praising their own leaders and party”[Prothom Alo (Bengali daily), May 8, 2001].

In view of the above, it is pertinent to ask: What are the people of the middle class doing? Why is the civil society so dormant? The answers are not far to seek. The Bengali Muslim middle classes have never been as well entrenched as their counterparts in some other states and regions of the Subcontinent. The emergence of the Muslim middle classes in the region took place not long before the Partition of 1947. The sudden prosperity of the jute-growing cultivators during World War I and the foundation of Dhaka University in 1921 had been instrumental in the formation of these classes in what was then East Bengal. However, they were never totally detached from the rural hinterland, their desher bari, and culturally, hardly that different from the peasantry. Again, unlike their counterparts in West Bengal (and the declining Hindu middle classes of Bangladesh) and some other regions of the Subcontinent such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, East Punjab, and certain parts of West Punjab and Sind (mainly Karachi) in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, East Bengali Muslim middle classes did not come into being through hard work, education and fair competition, the main pre-conditions for capitalist growth and development. The bulk of them remained pre-capitalist with avowed loyalty towards the British raj and feudal elements in the culture, day-dreaming the attainment of the lost glory of the mythical Muslim world. These extra-territorial Muslim elite or ashraf until the Partition of 1947 lived in the past, considering themselves as descendants of Arabs, Iranians, Turks or Afghans. In short, their ascendancy in the wake of the Great Divide of 1947, along with that of the lower-ashraf, rich peasant (jotedar) and middle peasant categories (proja), who considered themselves as Bengalis, was through loyalty to the raj and anti-Hindu communalism. Hindu communalists also played an important role, may be the most important one, in communalizing and alienating the bulk of the above categories of Bengali Muslims [See Taj Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia, and Joya Chatterjee, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947,CUP, Cambridge, 1994, passim].

What history tells us about the Bengali Muslim middle classes’ characteristics and origin is that they were comprador in character and opportunistic, non-committal and artificial by nature. They became rich and powerful by grabbing Hindu property, and taking up newly available jobs after the mass emigration of Bengali Hindu bhadralok (professionals) from East Bengal to India not long after the Partition. They are not that different from their modern counterparts, the newly emerging middle classes of Bangladesh. The latter are also comprador by nature as they enriched themselves by robbing government property, usurping billions of taka in the name of bank loans and by the ruthless expropriation of the so-called Biharis or non-Bengali Muslim minorities who migrated to East Bengal from India after the Partition [See Taj Hashmi, “ ‘Bihari’ Minorities in Bangladesh: Victims of Nationalisms”, in Mushirul Hasan (ed.), Islam, Communities and the Nation: Muslim Identities in South Asia and Beyond, Manohar, Delhi, 1998]. Many of them are in the “NGO-business”, making money by selling the poverty of Bangladesh. They are neither accountable nor honest in their assertions. Consequently, the vacillating and opportunistic nature of both the old and new middle classes has totally de-legitimized them to represent the so-called civil society. One analyst has recently portrayed the NGO-Wallas as corrupt and hence totally incapable of representing the civil society [Holiday, May 4, 2001].

Although the vast majority of the middle classes supported the Liberation War of 1971, most of them lost edge and pre-eminence as they remained within the boundaries of Bangladesh during the nine months of the War by working for the government or private organizations, or by running their own business. Some of them actively collaborated with the Pakistani occupation army. Consequently, the newly emerging elite, mainly emanating from the petty bourgeois classes, bypassed the hitherto dominant Bengalis. They had two powerful weapons to dethrone and de-legitimize the old elite-firstly, by portraying themselves as “freedom fighters” (many of them crossed the border and stayed in India during the Liberation War) and secondly, by introducing Bengali as the official language not long after the emergence of Bangladesh.

In short, the “vernacular elite” [as Oliver Roy has used the expression in his The Failure of Political Islam, I.B.Tauris Publishers, London, 1994, passim] has successfully toppled the Western elite by staging a coup d’etat in the name of Bengali (Bangali) nationalism, as it would appear later, without meaning any harm to English or Western language and culture. As discussed earlier, once they managed to install themselves to power, the new elite did not lag behind in sending their children to English-medium schools and universities. However, this time education in a foreign medium became too expensive to afford for the bulk of the population. One with hindsight may surmise that the demand for introducing Bengali as the medium of instruction without any corresponding preparation was firstly, a gimmick to strengthen Bengali nationalism at the fag end of Pakistani rule. Secondly, those who demanded this had been aware of their limitations or lack of proficiency in English. So, vernacularization, in a way, paved the way for upward mobility for the petty bourgeois, peasant and lumpen classes immediately after the Liberation.

Bangladesh is predominantly a peasant economy where more than 90% of the population represents peasants, and lumpen elements in both the working class and petty bourgeois/lower middle classes. And we know, neither Marxist nor non-Marxist scholars have any kind words for the above three categories. All of the above categories are devoid of any long-term commitment to any ideology, and are opportunistic, incompetent and intolerant of others. Marx's peasants are not only "sack of potatoes" and "rural idiots" but are also "the unchanging remnants of the past" and cannot lead themselves, until paradoxically their non-peasant class enemies lead them. The above categories also do not trust anybody and have proclivity to violence, chaos and disorder. We see the state of trustlessness in the very absurd notion of a "care-taker" government, which has been supervising parliamentary elections in Bangladesh since 1996? If anarchy is ingrained in their nature, fatalism, escapism and apolitical ("pre-political") social behaviour are intrinsic qualities of the peasant-petty bourgeois-lumpen proletariat triumvirate.

Consequently, what one witnesses in contemporary Bangladesh -- political disorder, violence, defiance of authority, authoritarianism, factionalism, predominance of the patron-client relationship in the arena of politics, corruption, backwardness and "semi-feudal"/ "semi-colonial" social relationship -- are but symptoms of the ascendancy of the unrefined, pre-modern rural and peasant culture throughout the country. The ruling elite from time to time have been injecting elements of pre-modern, fatalist and escapist culture or the “culture of poverty”, to paraphrase Oscar Lewis [See “The Culture of Poverty”, Scientific American, Oct 1966, pp.19-25], into the body politic of the nation in the name of Islam or Bengali culture, often by glorifying rustic and escapist baul or mendicant ways of life.

A re-appraisal of peasant community and peasant culture leads us to the following characteristics and features associated with the peasant, who is factious -- the village is his world and he is loyal to his faction chief most of the time -- and is also fractious, litigious and vindictive. He does not trust others, especially outsiders; lacks commitment to ideas and people and is fatalist and escapist, cruel and violent, informal, superstitious, “pre-political”- wants immediate redress of immediate problems against immediate enemies/super ordinates, often by violent means. He is narrow in
outlook, considering ”agriculture is the best profession” and by nature is clannish, attached to land, parochial/regional, disrespectful to law and authority of non-peasant outsiders. Paradoxically, he hates outsiders but like them to be their leaders and aspires for himself and his children the lifestyles of non-peasant well-to-do outsiders. He does not want to pay any tax and is not accustomed to law and order. He is disrespectful of women and promotes patriarchy. He is self-centred, does not know how to thank and congratulate others. He glorifies pre-modern ways of life, the past and the hereafter and believes in millennial movements and a messiah/reliever. He is ethnocentric, jealous of others, arrogant and at the same time, suffers from an inferiority complex. He does not believe and respect individualism, and is over-curious and intrusive by nature.

We know that "the peasant has never made history" and civilization has always been an urban concept. Peasants work hard but are not as productive as the industrial workers. One may agree with Fukuyama that “modern wealth is based on human capital (knowledge and education), technology, innovation, organization, and a host of other factors related to the quality rather than the simple quantity of labor used to create it”[Trust, p.45]. As Max Weber has suggested, hard work alone does not guarantee prosperity -- “work ethic” is more important than work per se. And “work ethic” includes virtues like frugality, a rational approach to problem solving and a preoccupation with here-and-now inclining people to conquer nature through innovations and labour. Social virtues like honesty, reliability, cooperativeness, and a sense of duty to others are essential preconditions for growth and development. Peasants lack most of the above qualities. They are also lacking in “spontaneous sociability” -- they are shy and introverted (so are the average Bangladeshis -- one may find out how strangers normally do not socialize or talk with each other in parties, weddings and other social gatherings in Bangladesh). While “spontaneous sociability” leads to organizational innovation, the latter leads to growth and development. It is pertinent to understand that strong families but weak bonds of trust among unrelated people are one of the pre-conditions to underdevelopment [Trust, pp. 48-9].

Unless modernism and urban culture replace pre-modern, "feudal" and "colonial" elements from the socio-political stage of Bangladesh, good governance, growth and prosperity will remain elusive for quite some time. Democracy and capitalism (just like socialism) simply cannot be grafted on a polity. We have examples of failed economies and democracies in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Post-Renaissance, Post-Reformation and Post-Industrialization concepts cannot be appreciated by predominantly agrarian and illiterate communities like those of Bangladesh and many other countries, regions and sub-regions in the Third World. Unless one performs social-engineering like the "pressure cooker" method adopted by the Meijis in Japan, or finds a suitable alternative to what has been going on in the country in the name of "parliamentary democracy" with a view to establishing good governance and to promoting economic growth and prosperity like so many east Asian countries, there is no short-term remedy for the maladies of Bangladesh.

Last but not least, this study does not aim at correlating "natural resources" with prosperity as one knows, had there been a positive correlation between the two, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, among other Asian "tigers and dragons", would have remained inflicted with the "Bangladesh Syndrome" of remaining poor by " blaming others" or remaining contented and next-worldly. The culture of "blaming others" for their misfortune or suffering is typical peasant behaviour, from Indonesia to Mexico and Guatemala to Bangladesh. It is no longer possible to believe in the shibboleth of "economic backwardness", as there is only one type of backwardness and that is "cultural". And the "cultural" explanation may answer some of the questions as to why countries like Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, The Philippines and Vietnam are less developed than the other ASEAN countries. This may also explain why some countries gradually transform their culture in the broad sense of the term and attain growth and prosperity while countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are gradually regressing or stagnating in many areas. There does not seem to be any other way of explaining vote rigging, murder, rape and abduction in the name of politics and corruption in the name of business and governance, other than by appraising the cultural dimensions of the problems. Hence the study.

This is an attempt to not only understand why Bangladesh is one of the least developed regions of the world but also why many observers, both indigenous and foreigners, have remained skeptical about the viability of the nation-state. One Bangladeshi “development practitioner” has recently posed the question in a local newspaper article if the country is “on the road to a failed state” [Ali Ahmed Ziauddin, “On the Road to a Failed State?” Daily Star, September 16, 2000]. He has rightly pointed out what the average Bangladeshis believe, that since independence in 1971, there has been a “steady growth” of terrorism and corruption in the country dragging the nation to the dogs. Further agreement with the article leads to the conclusion that like several central African countries, Rwanda for example, some South Asian regions, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, became nation states before going through the process that transforms communities into societies, rural into urban, subsistence peasants into capitalist farmers and tribes into nations. Almost all the Indian states and sub-regions, especially Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal, can also be added in the category of ungovernable, perpetually underdeveloped and culturally backward / pre modern regions of the world. This study, in short, is trying to understand the problem of underdevelopment, not only as Andre Gunder Frank has tried to understand as reflected in his, Development of Underdevelopment, or as Alan Winter has portrayed poverty in his The Poor: A Culture of Poverty or a Poverty of Culture? But it also is an attempt to understand the problem of underdevelopment and poverty in Bangladesh (which is just a case study to understand the issues in the global perspective), with the hindsight of a social historian and the “looking-cum-magnifying glass” of a cultural anthropologist.

Through this study, it is possible to try to answer some of the pertinent questions of whether (a) “the Bangladesh Syndrome” is typical of the country under review; (b) the way the region has evolved from an agrarian hinterland to a nation state in a short span of time is responsible for its poverty and backwardness; (c) “the culture of poverty” of the people is mainly responsible for the malady; (d) the “peasant way” of doing things, as reflected in the political culture of patron-client relationship, factionalism, regionalism, lack of trust and mutual respect, the primitive urge for accumulation of wealth and power in the state of perpetual uncertainty (and scarcity of resources) and the “we-versus-they” mentality of the peasants, is at the root of Bangladesh’s misery and (e) the last but not least, the culture of fatalism and next-worldliness which glorifies death not life and poverty not prosperity, typical of any pre-modern/pre-capitalist community, has an important role in keeping Bangladesh where it is stagnating today. One believes that the eventual ascendancy of the petty bourgeois to power in collaboration with the lumpen bourgeois and lumpen proletariat after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 is also responsible for the backwardness of the polity.

This study is an attempt to examine the following hypotheses:
1. The topography of the country, shaped by the endemic flooding, has led to the culture of isolation from each other as individuals could not/cannot move from place to place during the long monsoon and floods. This has promoted regionalism to such an extent that a different dialect is spoken beyond every 20/30 miles (not very dissimilar to Papua New Guinea). Such variation is not noticeable elsewhere in the Subcontinent. Physical isolation from each other has strengthened regionalism and “tribalism” to such an extent that the average Bangladeshi still regards his village or cluster of villages as his desh or country, unlike the average Bengali from the Indian state of West Bengal who lives in a more urban and dry region with better means of communication. Consequently, nationalism or the sense of belonging to a nation state is not that strong among the bulk of the rural and quasi-urban population in Bangladesh. Thus, unlike the average Bengali from West Bengal, mentally the average Bangladeshi does not live in his bari or permanent abode/home but in his basha or temporary abode while staying on his own property in Dhaka or anywhere in the urban areas. His bari is always in his ancestral village and his “own people” or trust-worthy attiya-sajan always come from there. Whereas the average Bengali from West Bengal lives in his bari not basha and consequently Calcutta does not look deserted during national or religious holidays while “half” of Dhaka is deserted during holidays as millions rush to their desher bari or “original” home in the countryside. Regionalism is so strong in the region that even the average, college educated Bangladeshi can hardly speak his mother tongue without the sub-regional accent unlike the average South Asian from India or Pakistan. This also explains the strong clannish behaviour and nepotism in the arenas of politics, business and administration. Hence the state of never ending corruption, favouritism and lawlessness.

Mass illiteracy, among other problems, has also led to the preponderance of the “little traditions” at the cost of the “great traditions”. Consequently, what goes in the name of religion, especially Islam, is not only syncretistic but also reflective of peasant/tribal belief system, superstitions and traditional way of life.

As historically the region had always been under foreign rule (Marx would have been more accurate had he not generalized Indian history as “history of foreign rule” but used this epithet with regard to eastern Bengal or present Bangladesh) until 1971, there is hardly any tradition of self-rule and familiarity with government machinery, governance, urbanization and the concept of the rule of law. As foreign rulers, including the average West Pakistani administrator and politician, always treated Bengalis as their subjects/tax payers, “government” has always remained elusive to the people. Again, as rajniti, the Bengali equivalent of “politics”, literally means “policies or principles of the rulers”, “politics” or governance is not something the ordinary people should be involved in or take interest in, so goes the Bangladeshi tradition (same is the situation elsewhere in the Subcontinent). Thus, “self rule”, “democracy”, “elections”, “parliament”, “legitimate government” etc. have remained elusive and alien concepts to the people. Neither the British colonial rulers nor their Pakistani successors cared much about introducing proper democracy and legitimate governments in the region. There has been only an incomplete and partial introduction of the concepts. We should not forget that while Europe took several centuries to introduce democracy and accountable government in the wake of the Renaissance, Reformation, Industrial Revolution and the revolutions of 1688 and 1789, it is too ambitious to replicate democratic institutions in a country like Bangladesh or Pakistan, which are culturally not that different from Britain in the days of Cromwell or France under Napoleon Bonaparte. We should not lose sight of how the average Pakistani welcomed the latest military takeover in his country in October 1999 or how the average Bangladeshi remained indifferent to the corrupt and illegitimate military regime of General Ershad during 1982 and 1990. It is not possible to simply replicate modern, urban and capitalist concepts in a traditional, peasant/rural and pre-capitalist society. It may be cited how the villagers in the vicinity of Plassey (the British defeated the last independent ruler of Bengal at Plassey in 1757) remained indifferent to the installation of a new ruler after the battle of Plassey and the eventual ascendancy of the British to political power. Although the situation is slightly different from the 18th century in relation to mass awareness and political consciousness, yet the ordinary people in Bangladesh do not want to interfere in the running of the state-craft by the mandarins -- elite patrons -- unless there is extreme hardship, terror and lawlessness in the country. Their political culture justifies corruption, bribery, debauchery, nepotism, dynastic rule and most pre-modern institutions. This is reflective in the popularity of dictators like General Ershad in Bangladesh, General Zia-ul-Huq in Pakistan or dynastic hegemons like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. One wonders how democracy can blossom in a country like Bangladesh where no political party in the country is run democratically.

In view of the above, it is possible to explain the state of terror, corruption at every layer of society, traffic congestion, pollution, or in short, the prevalent state of organized chaos in Bangladesh as symptoms of a pre-modern state or people who suffer from a tremendous sense of inferiority and deprivation (typical of peasants) and an endemic identity crisis. They are not sure if they are “Bangladeshis” or “Bengalis” (apparently the main bone of contention between the ruling party and its main opposition), Muslims or Bengalis. The state of violence and chaos is also reflective of what happens in a gemeinschaft (community), not in a gesellschaft (society), where everything is justified including murder and violence, as explained by Ferdinand Tonnies [See Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), Michigan University Press, East Lansing, 1964].

The mismanagement is also due to the wrong policies adopted by the various inefficient civil and military regimes that run the country since its emergence in 1971. The introduction of “Socialism” and “Secularism” by the founding fathers of Bangladesh in 1972 also divided the nation and led to the pauperization of the polity and state sponsored corruption, not very dissimilar to that of the Soviet Union. The overnight shift to the Bengali from the English medium of instruction in all public schools and universities in 1972 has led to the creation of a “vernacular elite”, which is half-educated and ill-equipped to run the administration. Side by side with the Bengali medium, private schools and universities are producing English-educated graduates from the well-to-do sections of the community. They are taking away most of the lucrative positions and thus dividing the polity between well-educated/employable and ill-educated/unemployable graduates. It is noteworthy that about three million unemployed youths are joining the work force every year and more than 30 per cent of the population is without any job. The latter have hardly any recourse to creating problems and disturbing the law and order situation by joining the underworld mafia and organized gangs. The upshot is the organized chaos and possibly another battlefield, not very different from those of Algeria and Afghanistan.

In short, the endemic struggle for scarce resources among the various corrupt and inefficient groups represented by political parties, NGOs and the powerful mullahs has made good governance and the consequential economic growth unattainable. Bangladesh cannot achieve these desired goals as stipulated by the World Bank and the various donors without going through a process, which the Asian “tigers” and “dragons” went through under different patriotic leaders with visions and knowledge.

Lastly, what is pertinent to our understanding that the so-called civil society, said to have the magic wand to right the wrongs, cannot be just created through an act of the parliament or be transplanted on the polity. Civil societies thrive in countries with durable social institutions shaped by those customs, norms, habits and ethics of a people who promote the culture of trust and mutual cooperation. Voluntary associations, educational institutions, media, charities, religious institutions such as churches and mosques, businesses and among others, cultural organizations, represent civil societies to transmit the values to the broader society. Only law and economic rationality are not enough for growth and prosperity. Growth and prosperity remain elusive without reciprocity, trust and moral obligations towards others in society.

These values, again, are habit-based intrinsic qualities of those people who nourish certain pre-modern ideas that are not necessarily “rational”. As Max Weber has pointed out, trust is not derived from rational calculation rather from religious habit. The apparently ritualistic Bangladeshis are at most “religious”, not “pious” in the true sense of the expression. It may sound paradoxical, but there is logic in the Weberian explanations of the Protestant ethic and its role in the promotion of economic growth. According to Max Weber the early puritans in Europe sought God by denouncing material goods and developed certain virtues like honesty and thrift that ultimately generated wealth, power and capital. Early Muslims as well, accumulated wealth and power by renouncing earthly possessions and glorified God and eventually accumulated knowledge, wealth and power. Weber took Marx to task for assuming that economic forces created religion rather than culture or religion produced economic forces and behaviour.

Neo-classical economists, Milton Friedman and George Stigler, among others, have stressed self-interest of the rational man as the steering force behind economic growth. Their undermining customs, traditions and habits of the given society as a factor of growth, is enigmatic. Adam Smith rightly understood the importance of customs, morals and habits in generating growth and development. One may find neo-mercantilists more acceptable in this regard. Chamers Johnson, James Fallows, Alice Amsden and others have argued that economic growth in East Asian countries has taken place not by blind compliance of the rules of the free market economy but by their violation of those rules, which undermine the authority of the government. Contrary to their beliefs, in East and Southeast Asian “dragon” and “tiger” economies, growth and prosperity came through direct government intervention and guidance. Consequently, in Singapore for example, government enterprises like the Singapore Airlines, Mass Rapid Transit, Housing and Development Board, DBS Bank, Singapore Port, Singapore Telecom, among others, are the most efficient and profit making establishments in the country. In fact, what Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are today, would not have been possible without the Meiji Restoration, Park Chung Hee, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Muhammad. The rule of law along with honest and accountable leadership, especially bureaucrats, led to their sustained growth. By maintaining the balance between reward and punishment, which is fundamental to Islam, Christianity, and Confucianism and by generating the culture of growth and prosperity, justice and equity, leaders like Park Chung Hee and Lee Kuan Yew, for example, have performed “miracles”. Wealthier nations like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Cambodia in the same region, and the countries in the South Asian Subcontinent among others, are still lagging behind, as they have not yet embraced the right culture under the right leadership.

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