Devout Without Beliefs: Translating South Asian Political Cultures in RSD

Flag of Bangladesh. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In recent years, asylum seekers from Bangladesh have comprised a significant portion of unauthorised maritime arrivals (that is, people arriving by boat without visas) in Australia. Their claims for protection have encountered significant resistance from decision-makers in refugee status determination (RSD), both at first instance within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and on appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT, or “the Tribunal”). In the financial year 2015-2016, only 11% of the 210 AAT decisions involving claims for protection by Bangladeshi asylum seekers led to findings that these individuals were owed protection.[1] (By comparison, in the same period, 66% of decisions on asylum seekers from Afghanistan, 61% of decisions on asylum seekers from Iraq and 46% of decisions on asylum seekers from Iran led to findings that protection was owed.

Many claims for asylum by Bangladeshis seeking protection in Australia have involved claimed fears of harm as a result of violence between the governing Awami League (AL) and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), with asylum seekers claiming to fear harm on account of their association with one or more of these parties. Many refusals (by the DIBP and the AAT) have been linked, at least in part, to a perceived lack of ideological commitment to, or knowledge of, the tenets of these parties. Representative findings (from three separate decisions) include the following:

[If the applicant had been a member of the AL in the manner claimed], the Tribunal would expect him to have had some knowledge of the AL’s policies and ideologies when interviewed [in] October 2014 particularly as he claimed to like the ideologies of the AL and because that interview was closer in time to when he was an active member of the Jubo League (JL)… When asked for details in relation to the AL’s economic policies, he gave a vague response and was unable to demonstrate an understanding of the economic policies.[2]

[A]lthough the applicant claimed to be strong in support of the Chhatra Shibir and actively involved with the JeI he could only provide very limited information as to what attracted him to the party and was unable to provide examples of any [particular] policies aside from the introduction of Sharia law. The applicant was asked about policies in relation to education, health, foreign policy or even small matters in his locality and was unable to identify anything[3]

The Tribunal acknowledges the submission made by the applicant’s representative at hearing that his apparent lack of knowledge of the BNP could also stem from his stated reasons for joining the party, namely the need for protection and a desire to get ahead rather than any strongly held political ideology. Nevertheless, given his claims to have formerly joined the party, to have been an active participant in meetings and to maintaining regular, personal contact with [Official D] the Tribunal considers he could be expected to have absorbed a greater level of knowledge of the party than demonstrated. The Tribunal has had regard to the applicant’s claims to have been actively involved in politics from 2008 to 2009 before taking a break until 2011 or 2012 when he again resumed his political involvement. The Tribunal acknowledges the length of his claimed involvement in political affairs but does not consider this overcomes or accounts for his almost total lack of knowledge of his party.[4]

In decisions of this kind, a perceived lack of knowledge (including ideological knowledge) of the parties to whom asylum seekers claim allegiance is one of the factors leading to findings that their claims to have supported (and in many cases worked on behalf of) these parties are not credible. In many cases, this may well be a plausible inference to draw. This post, however, suggests (in line with the submissions of many applicants’ representatives, as recorded in AAT decisions) that before making findings of this kind decision-makers must give an appropriate degree of regard to the extent to which Australian (ideological) political parties differ from their Bangladeshi counterparts in this regard, and, more broadly, the extent to which Australian political culture, especially at the grassroots level, differs from how politics is practiced and understood throughout South Asia. (In this regard, this post draws primarily upon the work of Mushtaq H. Khan of SOAS.)

Bangladesh’s major political parties undoubtedly profess particular ideological stances (including differing emphases as to ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ nationalism)[5] and are commonly portrayed (particularly in Western journalism) as left- or right-wing. To understand popular affinity for such parties as tied to (or as necessarily entailing knowledge and affection for) their ideology understates, however, the role of clientelistic relationships in practice[6] and the role that ideology actually plays. (Bangladesh is not unique in this regard – hence the reference to South Asian political cultures in the title – but is relevant for present purposes because of the number of asylum claims based upon partisan conflict.) Mushtaq Khan argues, for example, that in the debate as to above-noted conflicting forms of nationalism ‘the political process seems to be keeping alive an issue that has ceased to have any meaning for most people’,[7] with the currency of these disputes going beyond belief:

[T]aking the substance of the political disputes too seriously, whether secularism or nationalism, may be missing the point. There are clearly deep economic conflicts, and ideology plays a part in defining the competing parties, but the disputes are not really over the ideologies. Rather, the logic behind defining and re-defining one’s “nationalist” camp seems to be to contest the ruling coalition if one is in opposition, or to sustain the ruling coalition at least cost, if one is in power.[8]

(An analogy can potentially be drawn to religious affiliation; sincerity of belief, and indeed strong personal identification with a particular religious community, is not necessarily tied to a detailed or profound understanding of one’s faith.[9])

Assessing Bangladeshi politics as instead a contest of low-level factions fighting over disputed land (forming, at the national level, broader coalitions and ‘national factions’),[10] Bangladesh’s political and ideological conflicts are explicable as ‘redistributive conflicts between patron-client factions’[11] – with popular mobilisation behind one party or another instead attributable to various benefits from factional politics: an offer of protection or ‘credit at less than usurious interest rates’.[12] In this environment, one may support or even work on behalf of a political party without any necessary affinity for (or understanding of) that party’s professed beliefs; by extension, it may be posited that if one’s support is purely transactional (or primarily logistical – for example, attending or organising events), one would not necessarily be able to express the beliefs or history of that party in a particularly meaningful way. (This would not, of course, be the case in every instance – individuals may gain an understanding of the party’s belief, structure and history by working on its behalf even if they were not initially drawn by those characteristics – but this cannot be the assumed result of party activism.)

The limits to the above analysis must be made clear. Some Bangladeshi voters and activists undoubtedly do feel a strong ideological connection to their chosen political party. In many cases in RSD, the significance of a lack of knowledge of a party’s tenets is heightened by other lapses of credibility in an applicant’s evidence (whether through inconsistencies, implausibility or other instances of vagueness); a perceived lack of ideological fealty is seldom the sole or even primary reason why an applicant’s claims are refused. The existence of an innocent explanation for why Bangladeshi asylum seekers have encountered difficulty in explaining the history or beliefs of their political parties does not mean that they necessarily are telling the truth; each case must still be assessed on its own facts.

Nonetheless, it remains the case that claims for protection arising from partisan conflict in other nations must be assessed by reference to those nations’ political cultures, not that of the country in which asylum is sought. It is plausible for an individual to claim a strong connection to a party (particularly a large, ‘catch-all’ party), even to work or to undertake risks on behalf of that party, without any real fealty to the professed beliefs of that party – for example, if that individual’s affinity may instead be explained by clientelistic relationships (including the benefits that they or their family have traditionally gained through allegiance to a particular grassroots-level faction). The ostensible position of such parties on the ‘left-right’ spectrum, or the attitudes or policy stances of the party’s leaders, do not necessarily translate down to or bear upon low-level relationships of family and patronage. Devout support for a political party need not be ideological in nature.


[1] Of these decisions, 119 involved UMAs, whereas 91 involved applicants who had arrived in Australia by other means (most likely with lawful visas). The AAT’s figures do not disaggregate approval rates for these different cohorts.

[2] 1421186 (Refugee) [2016] AATA 4486 [23].

[3] 1421016 (Refugee) [2016] AATA 4269 [28].

[4] 1417195 (Refugee) [2016] AATA 3325 [32].

[5] Mushtaq H. Khan, ‘Class, Clientelism and Communal Politics in Contemporary Bangladesh’ (Khan 2000), 13-15.

[6] Ideology and clientelism are not, of course, necessarily mutually exclusive; for a discussion of the interaction of both in the Indian context, see Christophe Jaffrelot, ‘Voting in India: electoral symbols, the party system and the collective citizen’ in Religion, Caste and Politics in India (2010) 595.

[7] Khan 2000, 15.

[8] Khan 2000, 16.

[9] See e.g. Zhen Li Iao v Gonzales, 400 F.3d 530, 534 (7th Cir 2005).

[10] Khan 2000, 30.

[11] Khan 2000, 32.

[12] Khan 2000, 35.

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