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Biopolitics and Sovereignty

Edkins argues that modern famine should be viewed as akin to mass murder, and that famine should be viewed as the 'commitment' of acts of mass starvation (2006). If famine is state failure, neither ultimately due to natural disaster or Malthusian effects, this implies that the state must at least have the capacity—if not the will—to act. But as Khondker notes, 1974 was 'more of a sin of omission' (1985, 137), evidence the new state lacked basic capacities to reconcile demands on its capacity with the balance of political power. As the Bhola cyclone showed, the failure to protect the population against the risk of annihilation by ecological disaster or external economic shock was a sufficient mandate for political liberation. Pakistan had lacked the means and the motivation to protect its East-wing citizens from the disasters they faced, and that was an important reason why Pakistan could not rule.

And so the 1974 famine was not just another disaster; it had to be the final one. It signalled that the Bangladesh state was not properly sovereign; it lacked the control over the life and death of its population, or the 'biopower' that is characteristic of the modern state (Rabinow and Rose 2006). At its lowest point, the Awami League regime 'committed' starvation when in early 1975 it expelled 200,000 slum-dwellers from Dhaka, herding around 50,000 into a camp in Demra, outside the city. There, conditions were harsh, meals meagre at most, and health services notional. 'Either give us food or shoot us', one inmate told a Guardian journalist (Leslie 1975), succinctly summarizing the biopolitical dilemma facing the state that lacked the power even to encamp its population. To emerge as a sovereign state within the modern global system, the people of the Bengal delta had to better their chances of bare survival in a hostile setting.

We are used to thinking of a state in the Weberian sense as a monopolist of the means of violence over a territory; but what about when the forces that kill are the elements or faceless international markets? A state that faces not military invasion but tidal bores and commodity price shocks is not sovereign unless it can manage, at the least protection against mass annihilation from invaders, whatever form they may take. Foucault specifically cites famine as an example of how human life 'escapes' governance and administration, arguing that a society only reaches its ' "threshold of modernity"... when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies' (Foucault 1978, 143). A state that cannot decide who lives and dies cannot be sovereign, nor can it be integrated within the modern world order (also Nally 2011).

To expand its sphere of biopower, the Bangladesh state had to abandon hopes of independence from western powers and seek aid, in which it succeeded to the extent that Bangladesh's development policies moved in the donor-desired direction. The international community, or at least the Western powers, had also taken lessons from the famine. But Bangladesh was not alone in struggling with food crisis in late 1974; as the World Food Conference in November that year showed, Bangladesh was one of several Third World countries struggling to feed its population after the OPEC oil price crisis of 1973 (Gerlach 2015). The Bangladesh famine confirmed what was already believed in Washington: that in a context of global commodity crises like those in 1972-4, even the US might struggle to supply all the foodgrains needed; humanitarian concerns could compete with business interests in the allocation of scarce grains, and unalleviated hunger could potentially lead to revolution or mass migration (CIA 1974). Other lessons included that food aid could be used to discipline recalcitrant governments, and that even pro-Western hungry nations did not need to be lavished with aid. So even though the US was more inclined to aid Bangladesh after Mujib was gone, the Bangladeshis were still going to have to work for it.[1]

The short-term effects of the famine tied Bangladesh more tightly by the bonds of aid, but in the longer term, the famine expanded its sphere of sovereign action over its own population. As we will see in Chapters 7 and 8, transforming vulnerable bodies into resilient Bangladeshis capable of self-protection has been central to the human development project since the mid-seventies. Even if the main political parties represented distinctively different elite interests (they did not), they all shared an interest in growing the capacity for 'more or less rationalized attempts to intervene upon the vital characteristics of human existence' (Rabinow and Rose 2006, 2); in other words, an interest in building biopower. The subsistence crisis contract was a matter of sovereign power, or of biopower: the capacity to keep the population alive by changing how they live and reproduce, quite distinct from the politics of party, regime or aid. International aid proved to be very supportive of this project of transforming Bangladeshis, as we will see in Chapter 7.

  • [1] Hours after Mujib's assassination, an exchange between then-Secretary of State Kissinger andAssistant Secretary of State Arthur Atherton gives a flavour of the US mood. Kissinger describes thecoup as 'absolutely inevitable' and notes too his view that Bangladesh could just as easily havetilted pro-China as pro-US, signalling his concerns about the revolutionary potential on thiseastern edge of South Asia. Atherton sees this as an opportunity to increase aid to Bangladeshbut Kissinger sees no need to rush in—while some recognition of the new regime's new tilt is inorder, even a pro-US Bangladesh could not expect generous aid terms in a time of global food stress(United States Department of State 1975).
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