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A Flat and Fluid Society

The elite has been comparatively close to the masses partly because Bangladesh has been comparatively equitable in economic terms.[1] Bangladesh probably started life with the lowest levels of economic inequality in the region (excluding 'foreign' business elites), but income inequality rose after independence, particularly in the early 2000s. Since then, there has been a slight improvement in the share of income going to those at the bottom, particularly since higher agricultural commodity prices raised rural wages after 2007.[2] Bangladesh now has similar levels of income inequality as India or Nepal, although (surprisingly) higher than those of Pakistan; it compares favourably with neighbours Thailand and Vietnam and low-income comparators such as Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Zambia.

But standard inequality measures provide no sense of how economic inequality actually works to protect and reproduce itself.[3] For Bangladesh, it is obvious that small economic differences translate into minute but vital gradations of social hierarchy and status; there can be few contemporary societies so mindful of personal status and standing, perhaps the cultural manifestation of an acutely clientelistic society. But the ritual enactments of privilege and status that are so striking to the outsider are not the same as economic or political power.[4] It is often argued that the relative flatness of Bangladeshi society is not the point: small differences in wealth—in particular in land ownership—have been leveraged into large differences in class power (Wood 1994, 45-8). Inequality is so striking a feature of social organization in Bangladesh that a wave of village studies in the 1970s challenged assumptions that 'class divisions within the "peasant economy" were structurally insignificant' (Wood 1994, 137). These generally failed to replace myths of social harmony with evidence of hard and wide class-type differences,[5] but they drew attention to how small advantages of wealth empowered and enriched local landed elites. This group then used the opportunities of social and economic development to diversify into agro-business, local politics, and the aid industry. Bangladeshi land values have increased so dramatically in the past decade that people who simply sat on medium-sized landholdings for the past thirty years are now rich by world standards (Mahmud 2013).

While by no means an egalitarian society in everyday practice, political culture favours egalitarianism in theory, expressed as acceptance of upward mobility via educational and business success. For the 'intermediate classes' after independence, success in business was associated with exploitation by non-Bengali Muslims and trade and industry were socially inferior compared to the attractions of state employment. Distaste for business has now dissipated; leading business houses are from established families, and make it a point to promote philanthropy and high culture.[6]

The elite faith in meritocracy through education represents it as a society that rejects the unfair advantages of inherited wealth and position, rewards hard work and effort, and believes mass education is a solution to poverty and underdevelopment. It also relates to the formative experiences of elites who themselves experienced upward social mobility. In the 1950s and 1960s, stellar academic performance by sons of the rich peasant and lower-middle classes in East Pakistan village schools granted a special few entry to the prestigious Civil Service of Pakistan. One political leader whom I interviewed in the late 1990s recalled how 'in our day, bright boys could come out of remote villages'. A highly respected former civil servant had 'joined the civil service in Pakistan in 1967 through an open competitive examination... Twenty of us were selected for this cadre from all over Pakistan that year, out of several thousand who took the written and oral examinations' (Chowdhury 2009,1). The importance of this route to upward mobility helps to explain the urgent power of the language movement of the 1950s: for the upper peasant and middle classes of East Bengal, the imposition of Urdu would have closed off one of few channels of advancement.

The possibility of social mobility, however unlikely now, resonates with nationalist emphasis on the homogeneity of Bangladeshi society. Faith in social mobility helps affirm a sense of social cohesion between rich and poor by highlighting the ways in which Bangladeshi society is egalitarian. It gives it a modern quality compared to caste-bound India, feudal Pakistan, or royalist Nepal. Social historians note that upward mobility was always theoretically possible, citing the optimistic proverb: 'last year I was a weaver ( Jolaha), now

I am a sheikh, and next year, if the crops are good, I shall be a Syed.'[7] An emphasis on the absence of rigid social distinctions stresses the absence of a basis for class conflict, which in this region has had a strong but not exclusively communal character (see Bose 1986; Cooper 1983; Custers 1987; also Hashmi 1988; 1994). The protracted, two-part struggle for national independence meant liberation from 'foreign' oppressors—from the British and Hindu landlords and moneylenders, and then from non-Bengali Muslims. Since we have all become 'Bangladeshi', the social differences to which it was once possible to attach class conflicts have been less salient.[8]

  • [1] Despite its popular image. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article entitled a story about USCongressional district inequalities 'The U.S. Has Higher Income Inequality Than Britain. AndBangladesh. And Ethiopia', the surprise being that the US was more unequal than the leastdesirable places in the world (Chemi and Green 2014).
  • [2] See World Bank (2008);World Bank (2013). On rising rural wages, see in particular Zhang et al.(2013), who tell a remarkable story about the rapid changes in the rural economy.
  • [3] Among their other failings;see Wade (2013) on how the Gini measure underestimatesinequality.
  • [4] A member of the Bangladeshi elite (or the Bengali bhadralok) would not traditionally carryheavy or bulky items, even their own bags. In the most progressive of NGO offices, an assistant willferry the senior executive's briefcase from car to desk. This aversion possibly reflects the lingeringeffects of a Bengali cultural worldview that glorifies mental and disdains physical labour, no doubtalso the source of the 'effete babu' of British imperial racism (Rosselli 1980). Disdain for manualwork (particularly agriculture) was a feature of the ashraf worldview (see Eaton 2001).
  • [5] See Jannuzi and Peach (1980), 17;Jansen (1986), 300-1;Van Schendel (1982), 293-8. Therewere cases in which class-type structures were identified around irrigation infrastructure (e.g. Arensand Van Beurden 1977;Hartmann and Boyce 1983). See Adnan (1990) for an overview of thevillage studies literature.
  • [6] Most notably the Bengal Foundation, which hosts the highly popular Bengali Classical MusicFestival as well as fine arts exhibitions and other events. See (accessed 29 September 2015).
  • [7] Cited in Van Schendel (1982), 295;Jansen (1986), 750;see also Ahmed (1981), 21-2. A 'syed'was at the top of the socio-political and economic hierarchy, associated with land-owning andpossibly aristocratic status, and a 'shaikh' could be a local religious leader, with independentlandholdings.
  • [8] For Bengali-speaking Muslims, that is. Note that 'Bangladeshi' (as opposed to 'Bangalee' or'Bengali') is itself a political intervention, a neologism of the Zia regime to distinguish from the'Bangalee' label of the nationalist struggle and from Hindu Bengalis (Chowdhury et al. 1996). It hasbeen pointed out to me that discussion of the homogeneity of Bangladeshi society is offensive to themany millions of citizens (and denizens) whose primary identification is not as Bengali Muslim andwho face multiple modes of exclusion, marginalization, and repression as a result. Among them arethe indigenous or adivasi hills or plains communities, including the Chakma, Garo, Hmong, Mro,and other groups;the twenty million or so Hindu citizens;and the Buddhists, Christians, and Urdu-speakers still now dismissed as 'Biharis' or Pakistanis. My point here is that the numerically andotherwise dominant majority of Bengali Muslims is internally relatively undifferentiated, that thedominant elite group is very similar to them, and that this comparative homogeneity is highlypolitically salient.
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