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In the Land of Fearmongers

May 8, 2015

We often become tired after groping for motives of molestation at public university campuses, ruthless petrol bomb campaign, disappearance of BNP activists and brutal killings of bloggers in broad day light. Every single one of them left us jolted and frightened.

Fear has become a powerful tool to attain political goals in this age of accountability, information and social networking.

The book ‘Bhoyer Sanskriti: Bangladeshe Atonko o Sontrasher Rajnoitik Orthoniti (Culture of Fear: The Political Economy of Terror and Violence in Bangladesh)’,written by Ali Riaz and published by Prothoma, tries to explore the magnitude of culture of fear in Bangladesh. It is a must read to better understand our social tensions, national tensions, contemporary violent political events, state’s responses to those events and how the culture of fear is shaping our individual and social lives.


The culture of fear and its various aspects are clearly defined in the first two chapters . The culture of fear rests on generation and regeneration of fear. In this culture of fear, anarchy and coercion are the keys to form relationship among different groups and people in a society.

The main objective of this culture is to silence potential dissent. Citing Gramsci, Ali Riaz says “if one group wants to dominate another group, then it has to dominate other group ideologically. In order to establish ideological domination the group has to prove that morally and materially it is far more superior than the other group.”

Then political economy of culture of fear is explained in the third chapter. Professor Ali Riaz observes fear, violence and coercion are common in the rules of different Bangladeshi regimes. The governing caste may be a class representing a group of people or a force that uses state organs to remain in power.

He then elaborates how the culture of fear gained acceptance among governing caste from the early days of Pakistan. During the period from 1975 to 1990, Bangladesh transformed from “Intermediate State” to “Administrative State”. The civil-military bureaucracy tasked with governing the country had the power of redistributing state resources. With the first free and fair election in 1991, Bangladesh transformed into a “Democratic State” from “Administrative State”. A new breed of capitalist class emerged and there was a possibility of consensus based governing system that would ensure rule of law. However, narrow self-interest and dynastic rivalry waned that possibility. And since then, governing caste has been depending more and more on repressive institutions and draconian laws.


After explaining the political economy of culture of fear, Riaz digs deeper. He explains how this culture quite successfully holds back dissent voices from opposing views and actions considered to be dangerous and menacing to authority.

The assassination of Pakistani Human Rights activist Sabeen Mahmud is worthy of mention here. She was murdered after holding a seminar , titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’,on the gross human rights violations in Belochistan in Karachi. Similar kind of conference at Pakistan’s prestigious university LUMS had been cancelled because of government’s arm-twisting. She also ran a literary café, The Second Floor (T2F), at the heart of Karachi , which became a meeting place for poets, singers , artists, and activists. Writer Salman Tarik Kureshi wrote the following lines in a well-crafted obituary piece for the Friday Times:

She was killed, finally, because freedom is an infection, and the places where this infection breeds need to be decontaminated to prevent its spread . Her murder is a warning to others.

Setting forth examples from Bangladesh, Riaz shows how the state and political actors not sharing power compete with each other for exercising intimidation to influence people. State forces’ heavy-handed approach meets brute anarchist responses from opposition forces.

Ali Riaz then discusses the enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killings, citing numerous news reports and presenting statistics. He draws a bottom line that this extra-judicial method creates a frightening situation in the society where people are frightened, helpless and submissive. Frightened people are vulnerable. They turn a blind eye to injustices and never stand up. This help tremendously to maintain the status quo. A society where an aura of fear prevails usually witnesses a sharp decline in the number of people resisting injustice.


Professor Riaz spends two chapters holding forth the impact of culture of fear on indigenous people in CHT and other parts of Bangladesh. Riaz thinks culture of fear is a social phenomenon revealed by practice and discourse. He resorts to French philosopher Étienne Balibar to make the explanation easier. According to Balibar, practice of racism includes violence, hate, intolerance, humiliation and exploitation. In addition, there are discourses that try to distinguish other groups from the dominant group by creating stereotypes .

This traditional discourse tends to silence other discourses. Ali observes in the culture of fear this kind of dominant discourses and practices makes the indigenous people marginal.

He also notes this imposition of culture of fear on indigenous community has three dimensions: first, denial of their existence in the constitution; second, elimination of their distinctiveness by undermining their tangible base; third, controlling their own experience in a bid to permanent colonization.


The domination of one group over other calls for unequal relationship in the society. Unequal right over resources, ideological domination and social institutions are prime reasons for creation of unequal relationship in social system. Unequal right over resources creates a hierarchy in the society where the class that has more resources enjoys a higher status. This holds true for gender relationship. Women generally have a lower status in the society as the existing laws do not ensure equal share of their hereditary property.

Dominant ideology in the society also plays a role for creating an unequal relationship in the society. It works two ways: first, creating and sustaining certain discourses; second, non-discursive affirmation and sanction of those discourses. In a patriarchal society like ours, discourses like “Men and women are not equal”, “Men are generally aggressive”, “Women will do this and they won’t do that”, “They should wear this” etc are accepted and consequently create an unequal gender relationship.

Riaz then describes how the state as a social institution creates unequal relationship by introducing discriminatory and contradictory laws.

Riaz then remarks “coercion, violence and terror are prerequisite to sustain unequal relationship in the society.”

Ali Riaz shows how the Hindu communities have become the biggest victims of political quagmire. Recurrent attacks on minority communities have become normal incidents and culture of impunity helps the attackers evading punishments. These attacks terrorize the Hindu community and create a sense of uncertainty. This sense of uncertainty makes them strangers in their own country. The outcome is mass exodus to neighboring country. Using population census and growth rate, Ali Riaz explains how a significant number of Hindus are absent from official estimates and what happened to them during the period from 1991-2001. Despite the absence of big communal violence, the presence of culture of fear actually forced the Hindus to leave their own country in big numbers during the mentioned period. Moreover, Riaz notes, state allows this culture of fear to fester by introducing discriminatory laws and biased amendments to constitution.


In the chapter on fatwa (a verdict pronounced by religious clerics based on the Islamic rules)and local level dispute settlement, Riaz illustrates how this unconventional dispute settlement system spread its arc to national level transcending local boundaries. And how the first one even gained a constitutional status. In its early days, fatwa dealt with individual issues at local level; gradually, it started dealing with issues pertaining to organizations. Ali Riaz observes fatwa often reflects a political perspective, which is dogmatic in nature. Creating and spreading terror and violence are the main forces of this dogmatic politics.


In the concluding chapter, Ali Riaz projects the end-result of this culture of fear. The overwhelming presence of fear, violence and terror in the society may lead to an authoritarian state. Creation of a theocratic state is another outcome, where both the fear of earthly life and fear of afterlife drive the citizens to be loyal to that state.

The culture of fear makes individuals frustrated and hopeless; Many of them embrace rigid beliefs. For this reason, dogmatic politics expands its spheres of influence across the globe.

As the fearmongers darken our skies of freedom, there is a silver lining. Riaz argues individuals have the power to resist this diabolic culture. One has to resist instead of surrendering, protest rather than tolerating and be active instead of being quiet. But before one treads on this path, Riaz frankly reminds all the message of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore: “If they answer not to thy call walk alone.”


From → Analysis, Book Review

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