Originally Published in Suddhashar.
Killings without trial, stolen elections, a tamed judiciary, co-opted movements–our country is witnessing the rise of an all-powerful Authoritarian regime. How did we get here?
“Men look not at the greatness of the evil past,
but the greatness of the good to follow.”
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
More than fifty people killed in a week. It’s all over the news. The Prime Minister has ordered a national campaign against narcotics and bodies have been dropping like flies ever since. While many have noted that the politically renowned and criminally infamous drug lords still roam free, many more have expressed joy and gratitude to the current Prime Minister for taking such a bold step against the damned and the unrighteous. These, the naively grateful hand over their most basic human liberty to the leviathan in whose shade they scrabble in exchange for nothing more noble or glorious than a shroud of paternalistic protection. They sacrifice at this unholy pyre their right to not be written off as a victim of crossfire. They have done so because the glare of reality is too harsh a light for sore benighted eyes. Life is nasty, brutish and short. And that un-Godly Leviathan arises to quell the suffering necessitated by a cruel world.
A republic-with a well functioning legal system, with separation of religion and state, with checks and balances between the branches of the government has long been forsaken in the country. People have come to see so much degradation of these values that they see them as unattainable. The regime has been unchallenged for so long that it has become the new rules of existence. Like life and death, the certainty of the regime seems greater than our strength to change and the citizens become state existentialists. So long as the regime is not going anywhere, let’s make it work for us: becomes the new motto. So long as we cannot bend the rules back straight, let’s bend them in our favor: all think.
Out of this sentiment, petit oligarchs are born, made up of middle-class citizens who believe that if they can play the cards right, they may become the oligarchs some day. Therefore, they cradle the state and enrich its broken grotesque form and hustle to become the masters of the monster. But the country was not always this way. The students used to protest, the peasants used to rebel, the intellectuals used to criticize. What has happened to all of them? Has the greed of growthtaken over the souls of the brave? Students now dream of becoming civil servants, intellectuals dream of becoming laureates and peasants dream of becoming urbanites. And they feel that the state must remain unperturbed for all their dreams to come true. I must concede here that there is some truth to this belief. The country has seen growth and some upward mobility has taken place. Most of the people have indeed benefitted from the economic liberalization and the foreign investment that the party had inherited from the dictators of the pastwho found out that the trick of sustaining brutal regimes is to free the market for economic boom. The growth that the trick brought gave the party the idea to play even more tricks. It decided that the poor of the country were the most raucous of the country-so they need to be shipped away and their societies need to be broken apart. Turning population to people-power they called it. The party leveraged its relationships with the foreign governments to facilitate the exodus of millions of people to other countrieswhere they can live and work and send money back home. The upper classes fled to colleges and universities while the lower classes fled to the factories, construction sites, and rich households. The institutions, the opportunities, the income–all of it seems much better. Why fight to improve things if you can move to where things are already improved? And the scheme worked. The regime stays happy and the poor become happier. The horrible working conditions, the sexual and physical abuses the ungodly living conditions notwithstanding, the poor could earn in foreign currency which inflates into a three-storied house in the village.
The more peasants are drawn into this way of life, the more become zealous. Fleeing to a foreign land seem more reasonable than demanding rural development. Poor villagers sell their landed property and go into uncharted waters. Those who cannot afford to cross international borders cross-national ones. All of them crowd to the capitals. Here they live as if they have never had an identity and no claim to the structures of citizenship. Their whole existences become precarious. They do whatever work they find and if they don’t, they take away slices of the works of others. They submit themselves to the mercy of the oligarchs. They live in a land that is not theirs, they pay bribes to everyone they meet and they do the bidding of anyone who can afford to bid. The rural migrants become the
minions of the urban overlords. The capital becomes a metropolis of desperation. And soon, the capital withers. Potholes flood with sewage water and the citizens float on the streets along with the plastics and excrements they had discarded days before.
But certain parts of the city are spared from the waste. Certain people of the city seem untouched by the filth. They live in tall buildings and ride in shiny cars. Everyone else in the metropolis observes them in awe–the rural migrant, the civil servant and the aging student– as they ride in their shiny cars through the wrong side of the road, as they ride in their powerful motorbikes over the sidewalk and the wide crowds make space for them. As they pass by through the muddy waters, the brown thick liquid spill over the bodies of the citizens. But instead of rage, this gives them hope. Hope: that one day, they would be the ones riding through the mud, they would be the ones raging through the sidewalks-with the power and prowess of those who got this country as patrimony. And thus, their humble roots would be absolved.
So the young adults sign up for the youth wing of the party in hoards. They sign up to get the taste of power, to get the taste of control of their fates and their lives. They sign up because they want to be on top of whatever game this is. They are given hockey sticks, and knives and pistols. Then they are sent out to the wilderness–to hunt. Hunt those who can be hunted. Prey on those who have something to prey on. Raise funds for the party and you would be rewarded accordingly. The very idea of willful donation withers and the only method of fundraising becomes extortion. While the higher-ups extort the wealthy, the lower-downs mug the poor. Some of the money they submit to the party’s coffer, others they keep for their own maintenance. Parties are thrown, alcohol is chugged, narcotics are enjoyed.Who move the necessities for these parties? The rural migrantswho would take any job to move out of his shanty and into a house that won’t flood in the monsoon.
So the army of young’uns grows. The dealers of narcotics grow. And on their backs, the state grows and the party grows. Dealers from other trades soon realize that if they are to pay the party, they better get more benefits out of it. So they now pay the party even more and start demanding even more. In exchange for the contribution, they ask for benefits in the deal. The leviathan grants him the trades of the state. The state-owned operations become owned by the dealers. And then the dealer pays even more, directly to the overlord and cuts out the politician in the middle. He himself becomes the politician. The parliament gets filled with rent-seekers and aged foot-soldiers who have now turned dealers themselves. They finance the party and the party protects their business from failure. It strangles new competition, it gives out advantages. The dealers can now steal from the banksand call them unpaid loans. The dealers then decide to start their own banksand steal from the central bank. Then the dealers steal from each other, and when the vault is empty-the central bank is ordered by the party to refill it. The central bank must print more money to be sent to be looted. But even the new money vanishes before anyone from the outside can loan and invest. Why loan if you can steal and get away? So they steal. And then they pay the party with the stolen money. The party, in turn, protects them from prosecutionand pretends as if the theft never happened. Everybody gets rich, except for those who don’t.
And those who don’t get rich quick, get stuck in the daydream of better days. They dream of building things, of starting voyages and creating institutions. But their dreams are abruptly canceled by the government’s regulations and structural inefficiencies. It takes forever to get the permission for a new institution, loans are impossible to find, electricity takes too long to connect and the tax for new businesses are too high. So, all the youth can venture in is small shops and restaurants. And the others come there to eat. They come, they eat, they take photos and they talk about how their lives are shaping up, how their parents want them to become successful and how the only success they know comes from government jobs. They say how it’s risky to start a business and how the life of a civil servant is so cushy. They all dream how they would get the best government job of the land, of how they would have a subsidized car, a subsidized house, a subsidized phone and a subsidized life. They speak of how they would never have the fear of getting fired and how they would find the best partners to marry and settle with. They speak of how safe and sound their life would be. And they dream a different dream that is dreamt from their brains. Their hearts seize to be a source of courage and aspirations and reduce to a simple meaty blood-pumping organ in their chests. And with the help of that organ and the many other organs in their bodies, they prepare for the exam–the exam for becoming civil servants.
But the common dream of the brainiacs is denied. The party must reward those who fill its coffers–its foot soldiers and dealers. It cannot let too many commoners into civil service because their entry to these jobs are valueless. They owe no debt to the party and are no asset to it as a result. The soldiers and the dealers are valuable asset on the other hand. They have grown together with the party. For one to exist, the other must prosper. So the party decides to choose the latter over the former. It reserves the government jobsfor its favorites. The commoners must now fight over the leftovers after the partisans get their stab. But the students wouldn’t let this stand. They rise up,they stand up. Yes, this is the time of a new beginning. A change is afoot. After years of subservience, the youth is ready to strike back.
But no! They stand, but they stand under the shadow of the leviathan. With the tragic memory of the others were blinded in the sun, they stand in the shadow of the party. And then they kneel at the footrest and beg for her gratuity. As if they want to say that their whole uprising was a performance to impress the lord, not to intimidate her. They plan to regain their dream through incessant begging, not deliberate desperation. For if they do follow a path of strength, they would be crushed without mercy. But if they beg mercy, the party would spare the use of force. So even when the masses of the movement are crushed the leviathan’s army–made of civil servants and party soldiers–they chant the praises of the leviathan. They make sure to let the regime know that they are not political. All they are doing is but a performance to attract the attention of the great ruler. They are common pure students–untouched by the filth of politics that is seen as a cornucopia of narcotics and arms.
Then the leviathan is pleased and she decides to grant their wish. She accepts the movement as an immolation to her greatness and she grants the rent the performers seeked. At this, the performers are quickly pleased and disperse at a great speed, lest the state wrongly thinks that they want any more. Meanwhile, the initiators of the protests get abducted. They are threatened, molested and taught lessons.The movement still stays silent. No matter what happens to the comrades, the movement replies in monotone: “The Show is Over”!
So the students go back to their living quarters, where they are served with lucid lentil soup with the side of the spirit of the liberation war. This they must swallow and regurgitate every once in a while in order to exist in the university. They must attest that they accede to the spirit which the party has come to own. Bowing to the holy spirit means bowing to the party. The party outlaws reneging allegiance to the holy spirit. Nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows that speaking against it would be translated into blasphemy to the highest degree. Thus blasphemy and treason are equated and are prosecuted as thought crimes. And when someone commits them, they never even go to the courts but are persecuted on the streetswhile the state watches as the sentries of the minions of the dark crawl out of the sewers and deal their blows of death. The state, however, forsakes its responsibilities to the citizens who spoke the unfavorable words and implies that what was done was, somehow, just. The law works outside of the legal system. It becomes but a shroud for the crooked to legitimize its violence and a means for him to claim that he was only doing the bidding of the state–or of justice.
Thus, the very notion of justice changes. No longer is it a matter of legal deliberation in the court of law, but a matter of brute force on the streets. Perceptions matter more than terminologies, narratives matter more than facts. He who commits violence and can amass public support or at least public negligence for it defines the justice of this brave new world. In the court of the mob, laws are passed every day and sentences are served every minute–without the need for a government or a governance. The state watches from the sidelines as the mobs commit the sacrilege of the shrines of the marginalizedin the name of swift justice and only emerges to control the damage to the international image of the country after the harm is done. The only time the state takes steps of prevention is when the mob, by mistake, of course, chants against the ruling class–the powerful–the statesmen. Then the state resumes its role of the all-powerful and squashes the discontent with its iron fist in the name of stability in the name of growth-in the name of the country in the name of the country.
But the squashed anger remains protracted. The fire burns under the coal. And as the statesmen walk over them, they feel the heat under their feet. They feel the ground beneath crumbling to ashes. They feel that something could go awry at any time. Even though the rebellions had been squashed, even though the movements have been stolen and even though the leaders have been appeased and bought–the masses still long for a mean to vent. And they soon realize that the weight of the masses is the wait for the ballot. As soon as the ballot reaches the hand of the fire, the party will burn. No matter what is spilled into it, the fire would burn through it all. So the party skirts the ballot. They deny the vote. They keep the fire buried. Because they know that the fire has no means to come out on itself, and it makes no sense to give it away to come out. But the Leviathan, the one in this poor country depended on foreign debts, still needs the veneer of democracy and must maintain the performance of the vote. So the vote is performed, but the scores are stolen. The global overlords go back-pleased at the performance-and the masses fall back-disheartened and angry, but unable to move against the regime.
Yet the fire burns and the regime acknowledges this. The Leviathan draws its strength from the weakness of the masses and the strength of the masses causes its concern. And therefore, it plots to channel the anger, the strength, the power in a different route. A route that is furious, but would is outside of the route of regime challenge. They plan to provide something else to attack–someone else to hurt. The sacred cenote of the capital yearns for human blood. So the state looks into the alleyways and slums of the metropolis, for expendable lives–candidates for human immolation. And soon they find the sweaty brown desperados standing on the corner, selling pink pills handed down from the top of the citadel. Nobody knows his name, his birthdate is not registered correctly on the state records and his permanent address has washed into the river. He would die without notice one day-but the Leviathan decides to give him a notable death by ending his life. She makes him die a newsworthy death. He is killed to appease the gods of stability, of law and order and of growth and the greater good.
And deaths happen. Dead Bodies float down the river stream. The angered masses clamor. They see immediate results: countable bodies made of tangible flesh and bones. So they see that the state still works and it can still kill. It reassures them that what they have kneeled to is worth kneeling to. The state is as ominous as death, therefore as certain as it. When any fool raise questions basic human rights-such as the right to a fair trial-they all chaotically reply that say that such rights don’t apply to these scourges. They say that this matter of grave significance can not left to the folly of the court-that is broken, ineffective and inefficient. We need swift action-immediate justice-let the bullets fly and let justice be served, they chant. None of them ask: who broke the trust in the courts? Did they break it on purposeto turn themselves as the last available resource? Who is this all-powerful answerable to? What stops her from killing the falsely accused? What happens to her if she makes mistakes? And When did peddling pills that customers buy at their own will become a crime that merits instant death without trial? These questions are not asked. The challenges are not made. Only anger is aroused, only flame is harvested and only energy is burnt. The burnt energy of the masses turns into easy smiles of simple satisfaction and leviathan is now praised as the savior of the society. Afterall, she has brought prosperity to all, save those who have suffered, she has brought justice to all save those who were wronged, she has brought stability, law and order and growth and the greater good–for all save only a few. The tears of the few get lost amid the chants of the many. And so the state prospers, the regime develops and the Leviathan casts a larger shadow upon the land.
The citizens, now defused of their anger, learn to live in their under their adapted state existentialism, where the limits of their existence narrow every day. But they decide to make the most of it. They do what they must. The workers labor, the laborers toil, and the servants serve. The students kill, the intellectuals cover up, the dealers steal and the commoners dream. And together, they live, they prosper and they enjoy the growth: inconspicuously, apologetically, optimistically–in the hopes of an non-newsworthy death. In their dreams, they all repeat in a monotone “Until we die, we are not dead. Until we die, we have our state.”
And by the grace of the great Leviathan, they all exist–except for those who don’t.
And the shadow of the leviathan grows so large that the sun seizes to rise.
Anupam Debashis Roy is a student of International Affairs and Economics at Howard University in Washington D.C. He is the author of Opraptoboyoskota(Somoy Prokashon: 2016) and Sontan(Roy Prokashoni: 2014).