Shame vs. Shamelessness: Examples from Bangladesh


The Oxford Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour”. It could be self-inflicted, or an act committed by others leading to a loss of self-respect or self-esteem. “Shame on you” is something no respectful human being wants to hear from anyone. Self-respecting victims of shame sometimes kill themselves. Many Arabs, Pashtuns, and Chechens in the recent past resorted to suicide attacks to kill those who had brought shame on them. As psychologists and cultural anthropologists have put it, shame is a self-punishing acknowledgment of something gone wrong. It is a violation of cultural or social values. It comes when one discovers one’s defects are exposed to others. Psychologist Maria Lamia has aptly defined shame as “a concealed, contagious, and dangerous emotion which informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, dishonor, or regret”. She suggests those having shamed themselves by their behaviour “can step back and take a look at what is going on within them”

So, shame is another virtue like courage, honesty, kindness, hospitality. It is something that draws a line between animals and human beings. What Gono Forum President Kamal Hossain said recently after Gono Forum lawmaker-elect Sultan Muhammad Mansur Ahmed had illegally taken oath as an MP by defying his party decision is very instructive in this regard: “Heads of cattle can be bought, not human’s” [New Age, March 9, 2019]. Kamal Hossain is right that this person behaved like an animal. To be fair to animals, even animals like cats and dogs have a deep sense of shame, regret, or remorse. Interestingly, Sultan Mansur during his election campaign speeches used to defend Khaleda Zia as a brave and honest leader, ridiculed Hasina Government for bringing false corruption charges against her. Then came the volte-face! He took the oath as an MP and soon after, said he had always been an Awami Leaguer. However, he never mentioned why he had contested the election as a candidate of the BNP-led coalition against the Awami League!

It is sad but true! Of late politicians, professionals, teachers, journalists, and Bangladeshis as a whole from every walk of life have become thoroughly shameless to grab power, wealth, and fame in the most corrupt and vicious ways. They have no qualms with unethical, immoral, and illegal aspects of their shameful behaviour. As examples abound, one cannot catalogue the names of people – dead or alive – which include veteran politicians, businessmen, professionals, intellectuals, and journalists, Oxford / Harvard-educated scholars, military generals, newspaper editors, university professors, and others.

Now, in the backdrop of rising shameless behaviour among politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, and professionals in Bangladesh, one may attribute the syndrome to various socio-economic, cultural, and psychological factors, their plebeian background, bad upbringing, psychological disorder that destroys people’s self-respect and sense of judgement, and their criminal bent of mind being some of them. Most importantly, however, we have examples of elderly politicians, who had previously behaved as honest and respectable gentlemen, later behaved erratically as totally shameless, irresponsible people.

Late Ataur Rahman Khan (1905-1991), who was once an honest, patriotic, and competent leader up to the 1970s, all of a sudden started collaborating with the corrupt and convicted dictator General Ershad, so much so that he even served him as his Prime Minister. And interestingly, the day before taking his oath as the so-called Prime Minister, he was the President of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in Bangladesh to overthrow the same military regime he legitimized later by serving with his heart and soul. Captain Abdul Halim Chowdhury, a freedom fighter, minister in Ziaur Rahman’s cabinet, and a member of the same movement to overthrow Ershad along with Ataur Rahman Khan, also became a minister in Ershad’s illegitimate government.

There were so many other “luminaries”, including the “Leftist” labour leader Kazi Zafar Ahmed, Professor Wahidul Haque of Toronto University, Professor Abdul Majeed Khan, and Barrister Moudud Ahmed (who had once served President Ziaur Rahman as his Deputy Prime Minister) and too many to name here who shamelessly served Ershad in different ways. Allegedly, so many married and unmarried Bangladeshi women – celebrities and housewives – had very special friendship with the Dictator.

What is most striking here is not corrupt, greedy, and shameless people serving the corrupt Dictator – who pioneered the degeneration of the entire polity of Bangladesh – but the way people at large across the country continue their relationships with them as husbands, wives, parents, children, friends and associates despite their betrayal with the whole nation. The whole society seems to have no qualms with corruption and unethical behaviour in any name or form. As I recall, more than twenty years after the Liberation War, the late Abbas Ali Khan, the acting Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, handed me in his business card which read something like this: “Former Minister, Government of East Pakistan”. Incidentally, in 1971, he was a minister in the Pakistan military-led government in occupied Bangladesh. So, he was yet another example of a person totally devoid of any shame or self-respect.

As Ershad’s associates have had no guilt or shame in publicly bragging about in what capacities they served the corrupt dictator, similarly Abbas Ali Khan had no qualms with his dark past either! This is because to the bulk of the population in Bangladesh “shame” is something which is only about going naked or having sex in public. Consequently, the most corrupt politicians, businessmen, professionals, government employees, and others who resort to corruption to the tune of billions of dollars relish doing so shamelessly. Almost all their family members, friends, neighbours, and associates consider them smart, intelligent, and pragmatic. Again, close relatives and friends despise honest people as impractical, idiots, and worthless. Since corrupt and absolutely corrupt people –from the very top to the bottom rung – run the government machinery, a handful of exceptionally honest people are too powerless and ineffective to do anything about reversing the process.

One may come up with so many examples of shameless people in Bangladesh. Only Ershad has so far been designated as the “Vishwa Behaya” (the Shameless of the World) by the late artist Kamrul Hasan. From Gowher Rizvi’s “unthinkable” parleys with Ershad on the eve of the farcical polls in 2014 to Rashed Khan Menon’s recent comments that “the next time ballot paper stuffing will be done by daytime” are glaring examples of shameless behaviour of leaders.

One may cite the following examples in this regard: a) allowing retired Chief Justice Khairul Haque to sign documents to legitimise the scrapping of the Caretaker Government clause from the Constitution; b) dumping truckloads of sand in front of Khaleda Zia’s house on the eve of the 2014 elections so that she could not come out to address a scheduled public rally; c) the Skype Scandal; d) the Chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda’s recent comment that the EVM would be “an antidote to ballot paper stuffing the night before the elections”; e) singer-cum-MP Momtaz’s singing eulogy for the Prime Minister inside the Parliament, and the latter’s enjoying it in front of TV cameras; f) public defence of arrests and torture of dissidents like Mahmudur Rahman, Shahidul Alam, and Moinul Hossain by pro-Government leaders and intellectuals; g) Information Minister Hasan Mahmud public statement that the BNP was politicizing Khleda’s illness, “she was wearing sunglasses, and did not look ill at all”; h) rigging the national, mayoral, Upazilla (local), and even the DUCSU (Dhaka University Central Student Union) elections; and last but not least i) some pro-Government university teachers’ over-enthusiastic role in the rigging of the DUCSU elections on 11th March.

To conclude, there are socio-political and economic explanations for people’s shameless behaviour in Bangladesh besides the psychological disorder, which overpowers people’s normal behaviour, civility, self-respect, eventually destroying people’s morality and sense of judgment. The collective memory and experience of the people in the country who lived under most corrupt and ruthlessly extortionist foreign rulers for centuries – the nature of their rulers has changed very little even after the Liberation of 1971 – have taught people to become self-seeking opportunists, corrupt, and shameless liars. If post-colonial rulers could be extortionist, liars, and shameless, why the ruled be honest and self-respecting is beyond one’s understanding! This is, however, common to almost all post-colonial countries, there is nothing so unique about it in Bangladesh.

Dr. Taj Hashmi is an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is a historian, cultural anthropologist, security analyst, and author of several books. He regularly writes for academic journals and media outlets. He may be contacted at: [email protected]


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