CLOSE READING - Rethinking Bangladesh : Syed Bashir

Bangladesh: Politics, Economy
and Civil Society
David Lewis
Cambridge University Press, 2011
£55, 308 pages
Hardcover/ Non-fiction

For those who lead the global efforts against terror, Bangladesh is a key link

40 YEARS after its independence, Bangladesh gets much less importance in the South Asian context as compared to India and Pakistan. No one can disagree with David Lewis when he argues that the global community needs to pay much more attention to Bangladesh – nor can one disagree with the reasons he brings to bear in support of his contention.

Lewis is Professor of Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics. He specialises in development policy, especially in rural development, and management as well as organisational issues in development agencies, NGOs and civil society. An anthropologist by training, he usually approaches development from an anthropological standpoint. He has undertaken extensive field research in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, and that is where his knowledge of the country originates.

In this book, he takes us back to the country’s past and also brings us a picture of its present socio-economic and political scenario. Contesting the notion of the country as a failed state, Lewis tells us why and how Bangladesh is growing in importance for the international community. Four decades after Bangladesh achieved its independence wading “through a sea of blood”, one would feel this is the right time to assess “the impressive transformations”  made by it, overcoming its 'basket case' status of the 1970 and ‘80s, and to consider the many lessons the country may now offer the rest of the world.

There are many reasons why it is important that we look more closely at Bangladesh today. Its population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Yet, unlike other Muslim majority countries of the world, it is making good progress building a stable democratic system. It is also achieving increased economic growth and human development. Over and above this, the country has long served as an incubator for many key development ideas that have emerged over the past 40 years. It is a useful case study into understanding the way globalization affects people in the world's poorer countries, and how they cope with these ill effects. Despite its poverty in many sectors, present day Bangladesh is taking a leading role in dealing with climate change.

One could add to this list–  geographically, Bangladesh sits midway between the Islamic or Muslim-predominant nations of West Asia and Southeast Asia. The country is therefore considered strategically placed by the pan-Islamic radical forces. So for those who lead the global efforts against terror, Bangladesh is a key link. For their purposes, it should never be allowed to become the playing field for those who uphold the legacy of Bin Laden. It is therefore that the world supports the forces of secular democracy in Bangladesh. The liberal elements within the country and outside it do not encourage the people, organisations and factors that promote radical Islam openly or covertly. Perhaps David Lewis could have dwelt on this aspect in more details in his book.


  1. Thanks for covering the book, and I hope it achieves a wide readership in India, with the South Asia edition to be published next month.

    I guess my only comment is that one of the arguments of the book is that there is so much more of interest in relation to Bangladesh than these longstanding and slightly paranoid discussions of Islam and terrorism (such as democracy, secularism, innovation, tolerance, poverty reduction, human rights, gender, creativity, ecology, culture etc etc). The reviewer focuses rather narrowly on the Islam theme...

  2. Dear Professor Lewis,
    How can you say the reviewer focuses rather narrowly on the Islam theme in Bangladesh when I clearly write :"Its population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Yet, unlike other Muslim majority countries of the world, it is making good progress building a stable democratic system." I just bring up the Islamic radical element in my last para because no serious Bangladesh watcher can wish this away. This is a matter of serious concern for minorities and secular Muslims, who are penalised for their convictions whenever the country is ruled by BNP and Jamait . Haroon Habib , whose interview featured in this Postscript , lost his job as chief of Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha just after the BNP-Jamait coalition took over in 2001 , just because he is a secular freedom fighter with a deep commitment to the spirit of 1971. Can you say that all the constitutional amendments that Hasina's government is now undertaking will remain intact if the BNP and Jamait get a decisive majority in the next election -- or the one after that ?
    Syed Bashir