April 27, 2007

"Shushil Shomaj" - an emerging discontent

Development literature is loaded with references to "civil society". Some have critised how it has become a panacea, a quick-fix/quack-fix or a magical solution for the ills of developing countries. With our penchant for magic quick-fixes -from "Hindus and Muslims are two nations" to "Bengali nationalism" through "one-party state" into "making politics difficult" to "democracy" to "civil society" to "own brand of democracy", you name it we've done it! - we seized onto this one at some point in the 90s. Very few of us know what it means. A lot of us suspect that it is an imported product that fits badly with Bangladeshi society like a white dress on a Bangali bride (or, if you prefer, "sits as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire").

We have reasons for such suspicion. Let us dissect the "translation". Taking a cue from English subtitles in pirated DVDs of Hollywood movies, civil society is literally translated into Bangla as "shushil shomaj". And like such subtitles, they lose all meaning and become something completely different. "Onubadey haariye gelo" if you will.

Now the problem starts here, but by no means does it end here: "shushil" inevitably starts carrying connotations of "civilised" rather than "civil" in Bangla. And we all know what a classic piece of Victorian/Eighteenth century snobbery can be carried across in English through the phrase "civilised society" or worse "polite society". Salamdhaka complained about this on someone else's blog recently and his elaboration can be found here. He says:

Why is Dr. Debapriya B. part of it but not say Dr. Abdur Razzak, a politician, who has a Phd in agriculture from Purdue?

Why is say, Manzur Elahi of CPD, part of it but not say Saber Hossain Chowdhury, a politician and a decent size businessman.

"Members of Civil Society" - how exactly do you become a member of this 'society'?

To answer the first two questions: Abdur Razzak and Saber Hossain Chowdhury are politicians trying to take control of the state apparatus. In theory, civil society is defined as those organizations that occupy the space between the family and the state (definition 1). I made this clear in the comments sections, which I would highly encourage everyone to read the comments section where a vibrant debate takes place.

But it's that last part that bothered me, hinting as it did to an exclusive club to which one has to become a member. The conception of civils society is geared to be one in which everyone (with organizational acumen) can participate. An inclusive structure. Clearly the problem was more than one of semantics.

Enter another Asif on Drishtipat. Asif discusses the DS roundtable and says:

I thank the DS for taking this initiative. But please don’t try to create another Sushil Samaj junior where there is only a certain group or class of people who are trying to speak for a much greater population they don’t represent. Where is the student leader from Dhaka University? Where is the Madrassa student ? Where is the student activist ? Where is the young politician? Where is the grassroot NGO worker or the young government officer from Borguna? The list goes on.

"Sushil Samaj junior": notice the capitalization. Instead of making "civil society" inclusive, we have made it exclusive to such a point that a writer feels oblidged to capitalise it. Once again, this goes beyond simple semantics (which after all are nothing but indicators of how we think). His criticisms are spot on. Where is the Dhaka University student, the Madrassa student or I might add a representative of the slum dwellers who got evicted post 1/11? One can argue that the DU student and the Madrassa student are busy fighting each other (bad generalizations, but bear with me). But why the slum dweller or the grassroots activist (although Naeem Mohaeimen can count for one) is not part of the roundtable are damning questions. Indeed an amount of class discrimination has crept in, leading to well-deserved discontent.

How far is this the fault of the rest of "shushil shomaj" and how far is it a matter of media perception or our perception? Does it make the news that everyday thousands of NGO field workers are working their hearts out all over the land? Civil society is active everyday, but we choose to see it only when its most famous proponents do something.

That these proponents are all well-off, educated and urban should not come as a surprise to anyone. Indeed, there are fundamental structural reasons (at least in that generation) that organizations created by well-off, urban people such as BRAC, Grameen, Daily Star and Mati O Manush survived and organizations created by the poor failed. Number one structural deficiency: a political landscape in which any big organization is distrusted by the government: not just politicians, but bureacrats and the military. Urban (Dhaka-based), well-connected actors are more easily able to assuage such fears than rural ones. Plus, with our prejudice against rural institutions and people in general, it's very easy to dismiss such things as "village politics", external subversion, opposition subversion - in fact anything other than the wishes of the rural people and thus easy to dismiss. Kansat anyone?

Further down his post, Asif raises the question of why madrassa and Islamic/Islamist institutions are not usually included in "civil society". A second definition of "civil society" defines this society in terms of "civility" that is tolerance. This is where our prejudice against Islamists dictate that we brand all of them as "intolerant" and thus not fit to be "civil society". And the majority of the population does this, even if they don't call themselves "secular" or "non-religious" or whatever. This is not to say that Islamists are the epitome of tolerance, just that ALL of them can't be intolerant. In other words, more exclusivity.

And this exclusivity, whether real or imagined, is what is damaging the very idea of civil society. Which is a pity, because if it is based on broad representation civil society provides a necessary counterbalance to the state and prevents it from abusing its power over citizens. If such exclusivity is real, then our current civil society leaders have a lot to do. If it is imagined, then once again the onus is on them to convince us that they believe in broad representation and not exclusivity (whatever such exclusion is based on: class, race, religion, education, political orientation). Either way, the ball seems to be increasingly in their court.


Probashi said...

You have nailed it bro. Love your writing style. I don't see that day far off when Sushil Samaj will be lumped together with the army and be chased away unless they wake up from their complacency.

Farhad Mahmud said...

As for translations, I have heard news commentators in UK refer to a 'civic society' rather than a 'civil society'. The former term has less danger of being miss-translated. I remember in my high school days in Bangladesh there was a subject called 'civic' which is similar to the subject 'citizenship' taught in schools in UK. This had nothing to do with being 'civilized' or assuming a 'holier-than-thou' aura.


Asif said...


Sounds interesting. Any links to the curricula of these courses, both in BD and UK schools? More info from you is welcome as well.

As for "civic society", my understanding was that it refers exclusively to charitable associations. "Civil society" refers to something broader... or should anyway!

Fugstar said...

I like the post, but when did the term get adopted in BD? What other language has been used to touch the same point?

I guess the real society doesnt really care if the WB, IMF, ADB development industry refers to them as civil society.

Maybe its very subjective and comprised of people we individually will listen too, as the DS definition would suggest.

In the grams, every educational and religious institution has a committee. ok this reflects mouza level power, but so what? Its the organisational life people are trying to get at no?

Citizenship is big amongst the social engineers of the UK these days. School kids are fed it, it wasnt the done thing in my time.

Its all about the very context specific relationship between citizens and between them and the state, responsibilities and rights. Thats a big body of work to develop, understand, digest, extrete, adopt...

(Though that doesnt have much chance of working at the moment as the intellectual elite of dhaka university are seen
as a 'bunch of nasthiks' or government plants by many in the general public)

Are the values and social vision of the elite shared by the general populace? Thats one think im hoping to find out from my own research. I suspect its not, though i hope i am suprised.

Im not sure why words like civilised or civilisational (Hadhari) seem holier than though.
Bit of a petty cop-out no? I mean the akhlaqi sciences are very well developed and intended to aid people in the quest for chivalry and higher spiritual station.

I guess the secularisation processes in education in desh mean s that nobody knows what im talking about.

SUSHANTA said...

There is a business named Sushil Samaj Housimg Ltd in BD. I think you will find all the members of CIVIL SOCIETY there.

Just kidding!


Asif said...

That is funny! But it goes to show you how easily the term "shushil shomaj" carries both meanings as I said.

Asif said...


Yes, it's true that I (and maybe many others)don't know what akhlaqi sciences are. Whether that's through secularization or not is the million dollar question.

Here's my basic objection. How do you KNOW those who have the necessary qualities from those who do not unless you give them all a chance? That's about it.

The problem isn't with civilizational, but it's "holier than thou" connotation which it has acquired over years of abuse. Why this is so is best left to the "civilised", who define all words.

Fugstar said...

Scholars and society recognise good character. mothers and fathers work hard to instill it in their kids.

I think its the essence of moral education. Most great islamic scholars of yore wrote books for students of this science. Its a disciplne, like tafsir, hadith studies and fiqh with roots in revealed knowledge.

Akhlaq translates to practical ethics. education without an emphasis on character formation has practically no value.

Ask an imam or a madrassa student about it.

Salam Dhaka said...

How do I get membership into the "Sushil Samaj" fraternity?

Apparently they even have representatives. I don't know how they were picked - elected or nominated?