Democracy & Constitutionalism in South Asia: The Bangladesh Experience


Gowher Rizvi, 2005 

The purpose of this paper is to explain the failure of constitutionalism in Bangladesh, a country which -- except perhaps for brief interludes of constitutional governments -- has remained for much of its history under arbitrary and authoritarian rule, albeit often behind a constitutional and a democratic facade. Despite going ongoing popular fervor and passion for democratic government, the Bangalis have been subjected to authoritarian rule for much of the last half century. The commitment of the Bangali to constitutionalism is well known. It is evidenced by periodic popular movement against authoritarian rule, and most dramatically demonstrated by the war of liberation in 1971. Ironically, however, the quest for constitutionalism appears to have been derailed from the very outset. The central thrust of the author's argument is that in the period from 1947 to 1971, the constitutional debate became mired by an effort of the unrepresentative (those who were not popularly elected or did not enjoy a popular mandate) ruling elites to institutionalize their dominance of the government through the manipulation of the constitutional arrangements.

Their efforts to alter the facts of the national reality took the 'spirit' out the constitution and made a mockery of constitutional governance. This was done first by denying the Bangalis their majority status (they constituted more than half of the total population of Bangladesh) by thrusting on them the principle of representational parity with other smaller groups which placed the minority groups at par with the majority and were given representational weightage far in excess of their numbers; and subsequently, and more blatantly under the authoritarian rule of the military, by contriving to keep the authoritarian and unelected leaders in power by denying the very principle of popular elections. Once the ruling elite in Pakistan were able to do away with the need for seeking a popular mandate by various political gimmicks in place of popular elections - no general election was held in Pakistan between 1947 and 1970 - the will of the majority ceased to count.

The author also argues that it was this constitutional failure that led Bangladesh to secede from Pakistan. And yet devoid of any constitutional culture the country was back under authoritarian rule after a brief period of constitutional government between 1972-75. Even though the constitution was never formally abrogated, it was nonetheless seriously mutilated and only the most superficial semblance of a constitutional facade was preserved. Successive military rulers, backed by unelected and self-appointed representatives, abused the constitution and acquired untrammeled power to govern without popular mandate or due constitutional processes.

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Last updated on 09/29/2021