State vs. People: Through the prism of mass movement

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The 1969 movement for freeing Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from jail. Photo: Collected

Mankind has seen many mass movements in recent years all over the world. But they have seen almost none succeeding in these days. It was not so in the past. Masses usually did not rise against governments. But whenever they rose, governments had hard times to stay in power. People in Bangladesh have witnessed such mass movements in its history. The 1969 movement for freeing Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from jail was successful and even soon led to the independence of Bangladesh. But this law of mass movement is changing and failing to be applicable nowadays.

The Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 ended in strengthening the position of the Chinese authoritarian government. It is true that movement against the Ershad regime in Bangladesh saw its success in the benevolent dictator’s stepping down from power. This type of experiences is becoming rare day by day. The recent wave of mass movements sweeping across a vast region in the world was the Arab Spring. The latest ones are the Black Lives Matter movement, Hong Kong uprising, Belarus uprising, Indian farmers’ protest and the current mass movement in Myanmar.

We in Bangladesh have our share of a number of mass movements without expected results. We had Shahbagh movement, movement of adolescents and such others in the recent years. But since the anti-Ershad movement, almost no other movement has been able to bear considerable fruits. This country is not exceptional in this regard. The fate of mass movements almost everywhere is the same. Although all these movements across the globe have drawn widespread attention, their successes are small. These movements have failed to achieve their end results. It was unthinkable in the past.

Why does it happen nowadays? There are some faults in recent mass movements and also some causes imposed from outside. Problems within are: absence of a central leadership, lack of a broad demand, no plan for what to do after the change, increasing reliance on digital technology, etc. Protestors often go to the street for being discontent about some issues and they want corrections of those. Usually they do not demand change of power though they may want it. They want it to happen from within the power structure. They give signals to the rival factions in the power corridor to step forward and ensure them moral support. But they do not want to take over power themselves. Gilbert Achcar has described the situation elaborately in his interview taken by Jeff Goodwin (The Arab Spring, a Decade Later, Catalyst, Vol 4 No 3 Fall 2020)

Let’s see what happened in case of the Arab Spring which contained a lot of potential at that time but later veered away from the right course. It started in Tunisia and spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen and other countries. Ben Ali, Gaddafi, Mubarak and Abdullah Saleh had to leave power for the movements. But the sad thing is that most of the countries that went through the movements known as Facebook revolution have fallen into chaos. Only Tunisia has made some progress regarding democratic elections. For others some groups from within the former ruling clique have occupied power or forces from outside are calling the shots.

The reason lies in the fact of the separate evolutions of the state and people. States have accumulated enormous power in the recent decades. Compared with this, peoples have become weak and unequal and divided. Many countries in the world are now watching George Orwell’s ‘1984’ being staged with the rulers turning into Big Brothers. Technologies for monitoring, supervising and surveillance of people have developed to a great extent and are developing at an increasing rate. But the power of people has remained static for many decades. The tension that naturally exists between the state and people is worsening, therefore. State’s control over lives of people is increasing whereas people are losing their grip on the state. States are gradually falling into the hands of profit-seeking coterie groups who are putting the large majority on the margin.

Digital technology and artificial intelligence with their continuous watch over people is making all this possible to a good extent. Special forces are doing their job in the field by spreading fear among the population. Widespread media capture is suppressing dissents and the government’s voice alone can be heard on any issues. Thus autocracy wearing the garb of democracy does whatever it likes in a country under its rule. Mass movement is relying on the government wish to keep it alive. In recent years governments are usually not so worried about the mass movement itself, but are anxious about it going off track. When governments find a movement turning bitter, they can switch it off with modern technologies and repressive systems which are at their disposal. Since last year governments everywhere have also found COVID-19 as their true friend and assistant in suppressing the mass movements though the rise of movements have been frequent across the globe.

This trend of state becoming more powerful and people becoming weaker is not any local matter, just like everything in the world nowadays, it is also global. Now there is a big disparity between becoming global for different things or factor. Commodities and laborers are not at the same level on the scale of globality. Commodities and capital are more global than labor and people in their mobility. And so states are more global than its peoples. Drivers of states move around the globe and meet in clubs for discussion, sharing ideas, negotiation and taking decision for war and peace 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year. On the other hand, their peoples can rarely do so.

So the current dominating trend in the world is mass movements without any central leadership and big goal and relying on the mercy of the incumbent power for sustainability. They usually do not go far away and when they go, they often fall into ditches. Protestors and thinkers of people have to find a proper way and right strategy to come out of this predicament.

The writer is Editor of Biggan O Sangskriti, a little mag on science and culture.

  • Through the prism of mass movement
  • State vs. People
  • Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

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