The Osman Dynasty: The Making and Unmaking of a Political Family

AuthorArild Engelsen Ruud
Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterSpecial Section on Dynasticism in Politics
05INP797453_F.indd Article
The Osman Dynasty:
Studies in Indian Politics
6(2) 209–224
The Making and Unmaking of a
© 2018 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Political Family
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023018797453
Arild Engelsen Ruud1
The Osman Dynasty in Bangladesh is several generations deep and combines legitimate mobilization
politics with money-making businesses and ‘godfather’ tactics. This article focuses on two aspects of
dynasty formation: its relationship to the wider political context and the issue of dynastic succession.
The brittle nature of the national sovereignty in a traumatized postcolonial and post-war society of
1970s and 1980s constituted an environment in which local powerfuls could establish themselves
through a combination of legitimate political activism and muscle politics. And yet there were rivals and
challenges and succession was not assured. The reasons for the dynasty now seemingly unable to able
to pass the torch to a fourth generation, underscore the changed circumstances. This article will thus
argue that local dynasty formation constitutes a historically specific phenomenon.
Bangladesh, political dynasticism, dynastic succession, Awami League, godfather rule
In the provincial city of Narayanganj, in Bangladesh, six members of the Osman family have been
members of parliament (MPs). In addition, the family has played a substantial role in the political history
of the district also when not MP, including the early years of Awami League and the independence
movement. In some ways the family is Awami League in the district and city of Narayanganj. Over the
years the family has also invested heavily in the large garments industry, and it is accused of extensive
extortion and intimidation. Today the family is still dominant, but it is no longer unrivalled, and this
article asks how a dominant dynasty can lose its grip.2
1 University of Oslo, Norway.
2 The material for this article was collected during several field visits between 2015 and 2017. I am very grateful to all the people
who have adviced and informed. I am particularly indebted to Muhammed AbuBakar Siddique for invaluable assistance.
Corresponding author:
Arild Engelsen Ruud, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Norway.


Studies in Indian Politics 6(2)
The literature on dynasticism offers several explanations for the phenomenon of dynasticism in
politics. Some of the literature from the United States, for instance, suggests that political power is
somehow self-perpetuating. The longer a person holds power, the more likely it is that some form of
‘political capital’ will be formed and associated with the family name (Dal Bó, Dal Bó, & Snyder, 2009;
also Laband & Lentz 1985). This ‘brand name advantage’ works because the first holder of office comes
to represent symbolic values or ‘symbolic estate’ that is passed on to the heir (Feinstein, 2010; Kurtz,
1989). Another suggestion is that a family is identified with a particular line of trade as a ‘family business’
(Kurtz, 1989), not unlike families associated trades such as music or media. From Bangladesh it has been
suggested that ‘patrimonial leadership’ has taken root because ‘the people are emotionally attached
through patron-client relations’ to the top leaders of the two main parties (Rahaman, 2008), which seems
to be a South Asian variety of the ‘name branding’ argument. Another study suggested simply that
dynastic and family politics in South Asia are ‘vote catchers’ (Amundsen, 2013). The problem with these
explanations is that it is not clear why the electorate should believe a politician has the same qualities the
father had.
A second set of explanations points to factors within the electorate. Much of the material for these
explanations has been drawn from Asian examples and has a tinge of exoticism. The term ‘filiation’ has
been suggested to designate the cultural notion that personal qualities such as courage or assertiveness
can be inherited (Becket, 1993). Other studies point to traditional forms of authority (Patrikios &
Chatzikonstantinou, 2014). This seems to be borne out in a survey from the Philippines, in which it is
shown that dynastic representatives tend to be wealthier than non-dynastic ones and also to come from
poorer and less educated constituencies (Mendoza, Beja, Venida, & Yap, 2012). From Bangladesh it is
suggested that
[i]n the absence of social cohesion, political consensus, strong ideological commitment or effective organiza-
tional structures, charisma, patrimonialism, and patronage have become the only mechanisms for building and
sustaining political support. (Kochanek, 1995)
In other words, fragmented and politically uncommitted societies will tend towards strong leaders and
dynasties. But it is not clear how South Asian societies can be termed politically uncommitted or why
political disagreement should lead to dynasties rather than stronger political organizations (see for
instance Shastri et al., 2017). Village-level evidence from Bangladesh suggests instead that rural voters
tend to prefer candidates who are wealthy, well-educated and experienced in politics but that this has
more to do with a realization of the difficult and demanding game of politics than with inherited qualities
(Ruud, 2011).
A third set of explanations suggests that dynasticism is caused by political parties’ desire to survive
and grow. Thompson (2012) argues that dynasticism is widespread in modern Asian political systems
because notions of inherited charisma—however phoney—help legitimize leadership succession and
minimize internal conflict. Dynasticism becomes a strategy to consolidate political control. In a parallel
argument and from a comparison of Indian political parties, Chhibber (2011) points out that dynastic
succession occurs where party organizations are too weak to risk succession struggles. Robust party
organizations also make it more difficult for party leaders to handpick a successor. This argument has
much to commend itself also if seen from Bangladesh—where both main political parties have poor
organizations. But while Chhibber’s argument fits the top leaders, our concern here is with the formation
of dynasties further down—not party leaders, but regional dynasties.
The story of Bangladesh in the 1970s and the success and practices of local dynasty formation such
as the Osmans partly examplify what Hansen and Stepputat (2006, p. 300) call the postcolonial legacy

Ruud 211
of the colonial state’s incomplete, tentative and fragmented rule. The Osmans’ position in Narayanganj
has been that of rulers and de-facto sovereigns in a country where, at times and in certain places, the
national government’s writ has been fragile—‘palimpsest of sovereignty’ in Comaroff and Comaroff’s
terminology (2006, p. 9). Narayanganj is not the only place where such rule has been practiced in
Bangladesh, but it is a prominent example. A number of reports suggest high levels of entanglement
between the illicit and the licit in Bangladesh and Narayanganj is a good example of this development in
what in an Indian context has been called ‘Middle India’ (BRAC, 2006; Ruud, 2010; Suykens, 2016; for
‘Middle India’ refer to Harriss-White, 2015). Numerous studies suggest that illegal methods are
increasingly gaining a foothold and that the rule of strongmen is on the rise both in the world of electoral
politics and in the neoliberal economic enviroment of contemporary South Asia (Hansen, 2001; Hansen
& Stepputat, 2005; Harriss-White, 2003; Michelutti, 2008; Vaishnav, 2017; Witsoe, 2013). Harriss-
White’s evocative ‘shadow state’ is a world where deal-making and rent-seeking thrive on clientelism
and violence (Harriss-White, 2003).
And yet the Osmans are not crime-bosses of the kind found in Latin-America; they are politicians.
An earlier study on leadership and influence in South Asia highlighted how politicians may incorporate
elements of the fixer, the middleman, or the hustler (Price & Ruud, 2010). Their imperative is to gain and
maintain a domain (Price, 2005). In a forthcoming volume on ‘bossism’ in South Asia, it is suggested
that bosses do not seek money necessarily, but the command that money can buy. ‘This command is what
defines them. Bosses do not only want to make money, they want to rule’ (Michelutti et al., 2018).
The story of the rise and possible decline of the Osmans of Narayanganj offers two distinct but related
lessons for our understanding of the formation of political dynasties in a South Asian context. The first
lesson stems from the transition between the second and the third generations of the dynasty, and the
historical narrative will show that national circumstances played a crucial enabling role. Rather than
suggest universal mechanisms drawn from cultural notions or from organizational logics, the lesson here
is that the political development of that particular period was superbly conducive to a form of muscular
political mobilization and networking that helped the third generation to establish itself in politics,
business and crime. Local factors were also important, including a certain ‘strong-man’ cultural element
to which we shall briefly return, and more crucially the network of allies that the three brothers of the...

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