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Representation: how drama reveals everyday democracy

with Professor Zahir Ahmed

When thinking about what MPs do in their work, in this case representing those that elect them, some academics tend to list activities, construct categories and create a ranking of which task receives more time or attention. They are inclined to consider improvements based on the reform of structures, clarification of responsibilities (as if this was like any other job) with the creation of job descriptions or better information and training.

But if you consider the claim of elected politicians to ‘represent’ others, such an approach misses a critical point. Part of the rigour of anthropological inquiry it is continually ask what matters most; it can be political dramas that reveal this. We are alert to this in our research on democracy in Bangladesh.

Two weeks ago an MP in Narayanganj humiliated a Hindu head teacher for making comments against Islam. He forced the teacher to stand and squat holding his ears with his two hands (kane dhore uth bosh kora) until he was too tired to continue, and fell down. Only a Bengali can comprehend the severity of this punishment. The Daily Star (Bangladesh) editor Mahfuz Anam explains ‘Culturally, there cannot be a more humiliating act that one can be forced to perform in public…. This is what is done when we want to rob a person of all his sense of dignity and self-respect’, (DS, May 18, 2016). Even the most hardened of criminals has a right to the due process of law before being punished. And yet the MP meted out the cruellest punishment, claiming that he had to humiliate the teacher to "save his life", otherwise the mob would have killed him. Some Islamic groups in the local area came to the MP’s defence and demanded capital punishment for the teacher. But the story exploded on Facebook and Twitter, with 10,000s posting photos of themselves holding their ears and saying “sorry sir” in solidarity with the teacher. Young people formed human chains across the country in protest and students showed their anger by holding their ears on campuses.

This story illustrates the complexity of ‘representation’.  MPs claim to represent the interests of their constituents but in this drama this particular MP was hero to some and villain to others. Rather than representing interests as if they are homogeneous (as if they ever could be), he privileged the demands of a school committee, who wanted the teacher sacked, over those of the teacher (and by extension the Hindu community he belonged to), exacerbated divisions between communities in his constituency. Those MPs at the national level who kept silent in the face of this provocation were also encouraging societal divisions, standing by while a minority was being alienated. This should be a warning to politicians in Bangladesh. When democratic representation fails to at least aspire towards respect for diversity, then the risks of conflict will intensify.

When political scientists emphasise the idealized structural roles and duties of MPs, they can miss the symbolic and practical significances of stories, performance and disruptions. Crucially, when telling this story it becomes clear how it is inherently social embedded in everyday life of the constituents and MP relations with representation (or failure of representation) at its core. The story itself, and stories in general, can function as political tools, in this instance used to undermine the claims made by the teacher when challenging power and authority. So a question for us to ask is, how do MPs make choices between competing and conflicting interests within their constituency? How do they find out about them? How do we know what MPs are up to, who they are listening to and what choices they are making? Anthropology as a discipline has become good at seeing the significance of local events to wider patterns at the national level and finding out what is going on for different groups. It is well worth listening to the anthropologists in Bangladesh.

Recommendations for funding for research

The head of the £1.5b Global Challenges Research Fund, Dr Mark Claydon-Smith, met with academics last night and we offered some recommendations about good grant-making. Mine were based on the experiences of a collaborative research project (2014-2017, ESRC/DFID-funded) posing the over-arching question, what is the relationship between Parliament and the public when they are aiming for poverty reduction? Our coalition of political scientists, public policy / administration scholars, and anthropologists in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the UK are exploring how MPs interact with each other, their constituents, party workers, and CSOs and what this means for democracy.

Here is a summary of my recommendations:

Collaborative planning and review: We had no money for planning as a team before Ruth Fox (Hansard Society) and I submitted our proposal so at the start of the project it was hard to convince our colleagues in Bangladesh and Ethiopia that it was their project as much as ours. We all met in Dhaka as soon as we could, so at least we planned the project together in great detail in month two. This meant we could set limits on what we studied as well as plan to achieve some comparability. We realised that colleagues wouldn’t make progress if they did not own the plan. Plus we created incentives for them to commit the huge amount time required to do the research well, making sure they knew that they would be the ones publishing their findings. We keep in very regular contact through visits and Skype to keep the collaborative show on the road.

  • Recommendation 1: research grant-makers might consider creating small-grant schemes for the development of coalitions and projects so that researchers in the South get better opportunities to design and lead research.

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