What are the practices that turn young student men into political activists in Bangladesh? Here Morten Koch Andersen (Legal Researcher) explains what his ethnographic research on how everyday routines acts help politicise young male students into active political citizens in Bangladesh.
The political organisation of young men has often been associated with processes of exclusion and situations of survival as an overarching explanatory model and form of social action. Research on organisations that operate with and regulate young people tends to focus exclusively on groups of young men at the boundaries of the conventional social order in an investigation of their intentionality, motivation and life situations.
The difficulty for these youths to realise their desired future because of societal obstacles, be they processual (lack of voice and recognition), or structural (position within the political economy), is shared across literature and within policy. Often with a point of departure at the margins of society where questions of identity and masculinity arise in connection with changing social, economic and political conditions. And where organisations are able to attract somewhat marginalised individuals, who may be susceptible to financial incentives or perhaps are vulnerable to fundamentalist ideologies, often frame the involvement of young men for political ends.
In 2008, I began investigating how young men became politically organised in Bangladesh. However, my interest for political organisation of people for campaigns and violence was initially prompted by work in the western borderlands of Bangladesh a few years earlier. In 2005, I visited Khulna, to work with victims of human rights violations, including police and military violence and torture. I came to the area in the aftermath of two major security drives known as Clean Heart and Spiderweb, where military units were deployed to undertake police work because ordinary police were unable to uphold authority and security.
I worked with an organization assisting torture survivors and their families with legal aid and medical services and supplies. Through my interactions with the people, I learned that the majority of cases were motivated by politics and party-political rivalries in the local communities and antagonistic allegiances and divisions that dominates Bangladesh society. I wanted to understand this form of confrontational and violent politics and the people involved, and how it involved or got entangled with state, state authority and legal institutions. This brought me to the capital of Dhaka, and Dhaka University, being a historical site in Bangladesh politics and of political mobilization.
In the following years, I interacted with groups of activists of the Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), associated with the centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in opposition since 2009; and the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), associated with the centre-left government party, the Awami League (AL). Though, the two organisations dominate universities and other educational institutions, many other student organisations are active, from Shibir (the student organisation of Jamaat-e-Islami, despite being banned from Dhaka campus), to numerous cultural, regional and issue-based groups, and a plethora of left-wing organisations. Today, most of the activists have left the university; people graduated and moved on with their lives and into society, and others have made a transition into national politics in pursuit of party careers.
The focus on everyday practices in my work, rests on the recognition that political mobilisation occurs within organisations that offer opportunities and potential futures to the youth via access to networks of financial and human resources. It is a perspective that entails an emphasis on organisational practices of inclusion, not exclusion.
At the centre is the processes of individual involvement and mutual recognition through which particular political identities are formed, less about access to secret bodies of knowledge. It is about the practices that order intimate, often conflictual, relations and inject a sense of belonging to a collective and, at the same time, continually (re)construct relations of hierarchy within the organisational structure of the party-controlled student organization.
Over the years, I observed and participated in numerous political activities and events, within and beyond the university. Occasionally, encountering violent acts. Yet, most of the time was spent in the vicinity of the university, roaming the campus and adjacent streets and parks with activists, waiting for something – anything – to happen. A form of time and time-use, which I elsewhere, have used as an analytical lens bring out the agency of mobilisation in the form of predictions and projections of the near present and the distant future (insert link). Instead of the drama of violence, I focussed in on the everyday, almost routine, practices that I observed somehow brought order and meaning to a social field of hierarchical competition and confrontational conflict among the activists. I turned my attention to those practices that make and shape the organisations every day, involving and bringing people together in a collective of activism – thereby consequently excluding others. IT felt as a natural choice. This was what we did every day and similar to the experiences of other researchers (insert link-jefffrey, merut).
It was such, micro-practices of politics that emerged as a key component of political mobilization of male activists. The analysis departed in simple observable everyday practices: the meeting and greeting of activists and leaders; smoking cigarettes; and public flattering of leaders, known in Bangladesh as “oiling”. It is three non-violent, public practices repeatedly displayed by activists on campus, which I saw as an “acting out” of politics; both preserving and contesting hierarchies. It was this intersection of organisations and people, displaying individual status and position in public performances, that I suggest can be approached as the routinisation of youth politics – as disciplinary and relational affective practices.
It is such routines that continually reconstruct relations of hierarchy, organisational order and operation, which transform individuals from students into activists. They are based on particular registers of conduct and modes of behaviour that are acted out in the shared potentiality of upward hierarchical mobility.
Being in companion with the activists; having tea, smoking cigarettes and wasting time debating life and sports, I got an insight into how routine practices simultaneously establish and certify hierarchical positions and collectivities, yet contest and question their performances. Though, routines determine social boundaries and maintain normative regulators, they discipline and motivate actors through inclusion and potentiality. It injects a sense of belonging that ties the young activists together as political subjects. While participation dominate the activists’ lives on campus, it also builds a composite of network relations for exchanges of favours, distribution of benefits, and sharing of opportunities that later play important roles in the ways in which party politics is conducted and state institutions are run.
Somehow, the insights completing the journey of politics and violence, starting with my early experiences in the borderlands, to the centre of youth politics in Dhaka. Being bored with the activists day-in and day-out, observing the collective micro-practices, illuminated how student politics reaches beyond the university into party-political machineries, as a foundation in the formation of future political leadership and consequently for our understanding of the workings of state and governance in Bangladesh.
Read more about Morten’s research published in the Journal of Contemporary South Asia.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image: Person behind books. Credit: Pixabay.