Manufacturing fear as a political tool

Fear is an instinctual, automatic response to the proximity of dangers and (socio-political) threats. While it is true that it can never be completely eliminated from the hearts and minds of human beings, there are instances of the heightened atmosphere of fear created by dictatorships and authoritarian rulers. Certain governments and other agents manufacture fear to ride to, and remain in, power and to pursue their evil ends.

A few years ago, an expatriate Bangladeshi known to me visited Bangladesh. He has been living outside the country for decades and is not a member of any political party. However, his family back home is known for its sympathy for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

One evening during the said trip to Bangladesh, the man made a brief visit to a childhood friend’s house in the neighbourhood. Since it was for a short while, just for an hour, he didn’t feel the need to carry his mobile phone with him. When he came back home, he found that his brother had gone out to look for him, and his deeply anxious elderly father was standing in front of the house shivering in anticipation of the safe return of his son.

The non-resident Bangladeshi felt sorry for his family members and realised his blunder of not informing them beforehand about his whereabouts during those sixty minutes. But in the past, he had spent hours in the evening with his friends in the neighbourhood and none in the family felt alarmed or the need to look for him.

This is how the changed political climate in present-day Bangladesh has impacted the lives of its individual citizens. With the worsening human rights situation, fear has gripped the country and a culture of impunity has contributed to a sense of frustration among its people. Professor Ali Riaz of the Illinois State University has articulated such fears in an academic way in the book under discussion here. It helps readers understand the pervasiveness of the sense of fear and vulnerability among the people of Bangladesh.

The first edition of Bhoyer Sangskriti: Bangladeshe Rastra, Rajniti, Somaj o Bektijibon (A culture of fear: state, politics, society and individual life in Bangladesh [Dhaka: Sahitya Prakash]) was published in 1994 with a different subtitle. The Prothoma Prokashon in Dhaka brought out a revised edition of the book with a modified subtitle in 2014 and then reprinted it in 2018. Prothoma’s third revised edition of the book that is in circulation now was published in 2021. That is to say, after a long gap of two decades from 1994 to 2014, the book was printed three times — from 2014 to 2021 — in a rather quick succession. This tells us about the enthusiastic reception of the book due to its greater relevance to the deteriorating socio-political situation in Bangladesh.

We would all be happy if the book’s overarching concern in relation to Bangladesh disappeared or diminished by this time. Reality is however quite the contrary. Especially for the last one decade or so, the country has been experiencing a surge in fear; a sense of helplessness and desperation is evident among the masses. There is a high prevalence of fear of falling victims to authoritarianism that characterises the current regime. This explains the reason why I have ventured to review the book even though it first appeared nearly three decades ago.

Fear is an instinctual, automatic response to the proximity of dangers and (socio-political) threats. While it is true that it can never be completely eliminated from the hearts and minds of human beings, there are instances of the heightened atmosphere of fear created by dictatorships and authoritarian rulers. Certain governments and other agents manufacture fear to ride to, and remain in, power and to pursue their evil ends.

The impact of fear on individuals is pernicious, searing and life-sapping. Unanticipated dangers are one-time happenings, but fear is a long-term experience that forces individuals to adopt strategies of withdrawal and avoidance. Its victims shrink and retreat from many normal activities and face an uphill battle to fit in and make the most of their potential. As a powerful de-motivator, fear kills freedom, confidence and the spirit of human dignity.

As Ali Riaz’s book shows, the sources of fear (its reasons) in contemporary Bangladesh point to one direction — the government in Bangladesh. They emanate from its state and non-state actors, that is, the security forces and ruling party people. And the expression of fear (its experience) is evident in the reciprocal behaviour patterns of the vast majority of the population. The book also examines the political economy of fear and how it has permeated Bangladesh society. It touches on the marginalisation of Hindu communities, women and the indigenous population, critiquing the role of the state in creating and perpetuating the culture of fear.

Some chapters of the book are conceptual in nature while others deal with the dire situations in Bangladesh, such as (political) kidnappings, forced disappearances, and killings in the name of ‘crossfires’ or ‘encounters’. These have become new normals in the country’s political climate and government-citizen relations, and do not need much elaboration in the current context. In places, especially in chapter ten and in the concluding chapter, the author provides advice on how to bring the climate of fear, victimisation and public insecurity to an end.

The book contains elements of prescience in the sense that what Ali Riaz anticipated in the 1990s is coming to pass now (in the 2010s and 2020s). He brings in a historical perspective and shows how the country has been on a slope of decline since its independence in 1971 after bloodshed and immeasurable sufferings of its people. Unfortunately, especially considering the current affairs of Bangladesh, those sacrifices did not lead to a stable and prosperous country and the sorrows of the people seem to have tipped the scales and outweighed their joys. As a result, a residual sense of insecurity and uncertainty has seized the people in Bangladesh.

Why does the government inflict fear on the hearts and minds of the citizenry?

Ali Riaz discusses in detail the reasons and the methods of inflicting fear in relation to the government in Bangladesh. In what follows, I bring in a slightly different but comparable discussion to better understand the culture of fear in general.

I was reading an essay titled ‘Commitment to connection in a culture of fear’ (2013), in which its author the American psychologist Judith V Jordan maintains that ‘the creation of fear is central to establishing control over others.’ She refers to a book on American slavery, The Peculiar Institution (1989/1956), which mentions that among the pieces of advice from a US slave master for controlling the slaves were to ‘[a]we them with a sense of their master’s enormous power’ and to impress them ‘with their helplessness.’ The author of the book, Kenneth M Stampp quotes another slave master who believed that ‘the principle of fear’ was the only tool to control the slaves. Judith V Jordan then adds:

Fear is not an accidental consequence of institutions that exercise power over others, it is the driving force that deepens and expands the power and the potential for abuse. Fear is first created within the non-dominant groups in order to control them, and then fear of the non-dominant groups is created within the dominant group to rationalise their control over the non-dominants.

These patterns of master-slave relationships seem to have been the main ingredients of the authoritarian rule that has controlled Bangladesh and has been dominating the country’s politics for years. This strategy apparently works, as the deafening silence of the survivors of the enforced disappearance suggest. Many victims of midnight door knocks have never returned. Those who have, remain largely hushed. So do their family members and near ones. People who learn about the ordeals of such victims take ‘lesson’ and choose the same strategy of silence. All these give the regime enough leeway to materialise their political goal of remaining in power and sucking the blood of the country’s economy.

Ali Riaz provides a pragmatic discussion of the theoretical and practical aspects of the prevailing panic, anxiety, terror, uncertainty and violence wrought upon the people by those in power. Given the current political situation in Bangladesh, indifference and inaction cannot be ways of countering the juggernaut that has gained momentum in the country. The challenge for those who want meaningful socio-political change for the better is to appreciate the nature and dynamics of the oppressive apparatus of the government. In that sense, the book Bhoyer Sangskriti is of immense aid to understand today’s Bangladesh and to allay her fears.

This essay first appeared in New Age (January 22, 2023)

Teaches literature at International Islamic University Malaysia. Previously, he was with the Department of English of the University of Dhaka.

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