Beyond nationalism, within aspirations and achievements
As an independent state Bangladesh came into existence through a war of liberation led by nationalists. The national aspiration was, at the beginning, for full provincial autonomy, but as the movement gained momentum, the aspiration widened to incorporate the vision of independence . The war of 1971 made it clear that the people would not be satisfied with political independence, and that they needed total emancipation. And that was the reason why the war itself came to be known as a war of liberation. But liberation required a social revolution which was not, as it could not be, on the nationalist agenda. The nationalist vision was of transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people. A transfer of power had happened in 1947, resulting in the creation of the independent state of Pakistan. But the new transfer had to be different from the rejection of the 1947-transfer by the Bengalis. In the process of that rejection the two- nation theory had been discarded to be replaced by the secular idea of language-based Bengali nationalism. Nevertheless, the state remained as capitalist as it was before. This happened because the Bengali leadership, not unlike its Pakistani counterpart, believed in Capitalism.
It has to be admitted that the writing of the four state principles in the original constitution of Bangladesh did not signify the promise of a social revolution, it represented only a willingness of the new rulers to listen to the liberated voice of the people. The feelings of a people who had just defeated a fearful occupation army needed appeasement. Therefore, a concession had to be made. The Provisional Mujibnagar government had spoken of three, and not four, state principles, namely, secularism, democracy and socialism; but the full-fledged government at Dhaka decided to add nationalism to the other three. It is possible to argue that this inclusion of nationalism was unnecessary for the simple reason that the state was the outcome of a nationalist war. It could also be said that calling the state a democracy would be enough, for it is imperative for a fully democratic state to be both secular in character and socialist in intent. But the fact of the matter is that the new rulers had no commitment to socialism; in fact they had been, and were even after the war was over, opposed to it. This is hardly surprising, because for a nationalist socialism is usually a detestable bugbear. On the question of secularism too their stand was not firm, and by secularism they seemed to mean equal rights to all religions rather than separation between the state and religion.
The nationalist leaders certainly believed in democracy to the extent of the people's right to vote them to power, but were unprepared to be thrown out once they had gained power. This is borne out by the fact that the Awami League leadership did not respond to the call from many quarters to form a national government during the war. The Consultative Committee that was put up hurriedly with Moulana Bhasani as Chairman met only once, and did not have much business to transact. Clearly the purpose was to counter the enemy propaganda that the liberation war did not have any support beyond that of the Awami League.
Whereas the independence of 1947 incorporated a compromise among the three contending parties, no such compromise was possible in 1971 between the people and their killers. However, the new masters of the state had to make a concession to the aspirations of the people. The constitution was particularly notable for this accommodation. But why did they find it necessary to include nationalism as one of the state principles? Maybe it was the product of their anxiety to remind themselves of their nationalist identity. It may also be that they wanted to establish Bengali nationalism as the binding tie for the people. In their enthusiasm they were oblivious of two ground realities. Firstly, that there were non-Bengali small nationalities living within the territory of Bangladesh, and secondly, that in the modern world a state with a single nationality is not a viable proposition. There is, however, an unconscious display of nationalist chauvinism in the idea advanced in the constitution to the effect that all citizens of the state would be called Bengalis. The framers of the state principles must also have been unaware of the fact that the mixing of the nationalism with socialism could result in the production of what has come to be known as Nazism. As it so often happens, the liberation-seekers themselves were in need of liberation.
The challenges before the government were many. It had to keep the administrative machinery running and, at the same time, meet the aspirations of the people. There were international forces acting against the state. The economy was in shambles and required immediate attention. The war criminals had to be handled; captive Bangladeshis were waiting for repatriation. Protection had to be given to the Urdu-speaking people. Relationship with nations opposed to the creation of Bangladesh had to be improved. Indo-Bangladesh cooperation called for careful examination. Families devastated by the war, particularly women, had to be rehabilitated. The framing of a constitution was an urgent necessity. The bureaucracy, the judiciary, the army and the law-enforcing agencies had be reroganized, and, if possible, overhauled.
In all these difficult areas the state authorities functioned properly. There was great enthusiasm everywhere. People were cooperative and prepared to make sacrifices. Because of collective effort, the country has made significant progress. To be sure, the unexpected had happened. For the first time in modern history, the Bengalis had set up a republic of their own. The feeling of being independent, of gaining self-respect and of being recognized by the entire world was no mean achievement.
Today more than 26 crores of people speak Bengali; they are spread all over the world, but they have a cultural linkage and the awareness that there is a state where Bengalis rule. Bengali is used in Bangladesh as the language of the state and much creative and academic work has been done in it since independence. The Bengalis have reasons to feel proud for the recognition of February 21 as the International Mother Language Day. And Bangladeshis are doing well both at home and abroad.
In important areas like food, economy and education the performance of Bangladesh has been worth noting. Food has always been a scarcity for us. In fact after 1971 there was a famine in which thousands died. Even then, thanks to our peasants, we have achieved self-sufficiency in food. Ours is an agricultural economy; it will remain so in the future. Agriculturally we have advanced. The poultry and fish-cultivation sectors have shown impressive resilience. With remittance from Bangladeshis working abroad and export earnings from Garments Industry our economy has thrived over the years. So far as medicine is concerned, we began with frustrating reliance on import, but are now exporting our own products. In the field of education, enrolment at all levels has been impressive. Women go to the educational institutions in an unprecedented number and sometimes perform better than men.
But quite inevitably many buts crop up. Economic development has caused disparity, bringing prosperity to a few and deprivation to many. In fact, inequality in society today is more widespread than ever before. The middle class has been split, with the smaller part climbing up and the larger part going down. The marginal farmer has been uprooted and thrown out
of the village to seek shelter in the hostile towns. The state has failed to provide the peasants with the support they need in respect of the supply of fertilizer, irrigation, seeds and pesticide. The market continues to act as the peasants' enemy, and the state does not care. Privatization, promoted furiously under the guidance of the World Bank and the IMF, has become the bane of the public in all areas of economy, including agriculture.
There are many disturbing questions to be asked and facts to be noted. The desire for education has spread. Students' scores are high, but the quality remains doubtful. Greater emphasis has been laid on higher education; ignoring the need for building up the primary base. Thus we have a top-heavy system resting on a weak foundation. Then there is the sad fact that in many villages there are more madrassas than primary schools. A survey by the Primary Education Directorate tells tells us that 40 percent of the class rooms in the primary schools are unusable. What is particularly alarming is that sending the students to three different and contrary systems of education we are widening and deepening the existing class division in society. The process seems to be irreversible. Instead of uniting which should be its social objective, education is dividing the people. What is more, despite the phenomenal spread in education, over forty percent of the working population in the country function without any formal education, and the contribution of the university graduates to the country's income is almost negligible. At the same time the fact remains that forty-two percent of the educated are unemployed at the moment.
Despite their remarkable performance women continue to suffer. It is reported that eighty percent of them are sexually harassed within the family, in the streets and in work places. The way a university teacher has been mortally attacked by her jealous and unemployed husband, causing the loss of her eyesight, should not be seen as an exception, for it is typical of the risks women are exposed to even inside the family. Their contribution to the economy remains undervalued and unadmitted. It is not only women, men too are not safe. Abduction, disappearance, extra-judicial killing, mass arrest and gang rape go on unabated. The incidence of such organized and widespread crimes, one recalls, was almost unknown during the colonial rule of the British and semi-colonial rule of the Pakistanis. This is indicative of the decline that has occurred in the quality of social life. Abuse of human rights has become normal, and is increasing by the day. Access to justice is difficult, if not impossible. An international assessment tells us that so far as a citizen's expectation of justice is concerned, Bangladesh occupies the ninety-second position among the ninety-nine countries surveyed. The Rana Plaza disaster may claim to be an exception, but is, nonetheless, indicative of the dangers to which the workers are exposed. Trade Union rights are denied to most workers, and the conditions in which they live are anything but human. But the irony of the situation lies in this that even then the workers in the industries consider themselves fortunate compared to those who are unemployed. We are aware that novels of enduring value have been written about the miseries of the working class and they have led to reforms, even to the preparation of the ground for revolution. But the situation in Bangladesh is perhaps too deep for even sympathetic writers to handle. Shocks are not necessarily conducive to the creation of literature.
The unemployed take to drugs, indulge in violence, droop in despair and even join the fundamentalist militants. Extortion has become common; so is toll collection. The Finance Minister's recent decision to collect toll from the private sector for the beautification of Dhaka on the occasion of T20 World Cup Tournament and the singing of the national anthem en masse is not unsymptomatic of what is being practiced — both with license and without.
To put it precisely, the state has not been able to meet the aspirations of the people. The aspirations were not high. They were not revolutionary, but they are alive, propelled by the remembrance that the state had come into being through a liberation war in which all the social classes had participated and made their sacrifices. The aspirations were not identical because of class division. The middle class expected promotion, better placement, opportunities to set up business, travel abroad, and, above all, to acquire property and get rich through trade and appropriation of social property. Compared with these, the peasants' hopes were humble and limited. They thought of freedom from their intolerable misery and the oppression perpetrated on them by the rich and privileged. Impatient to monopolize the new opportunities, the middle class created a situation in which the peasants were denied the assistance and protection they had expected from the state. They remain where they were. Frustration is widespread. The public would have accepted their suffering had there been an equality in the sharing of suffering. What stared them in the face was the rise in inequality. They feel betrayed.
This promotion of separation between the rulers and the vast majority of the people is indicative of the veering of the state's movement away from the expected socialist goals toward a capitalist destination. In rejecting Pakistani nationalism, the liberation war had signified the discarding of the Capitalist system itself. This was because it was their Capitalistic grooming that had prompted the Pakistani rulers to make political use of religion. Capitalism was the disease, communalism one of its symptoms. As the state took the wrong turn, all the weaknesses of Capitalism manifested themselves. Profit for the individual rather than collective welfare became the guiding principle of all of activities of the leadership, and the gulf between the rich and the poor widened instead of being bridged. Capitalism is anti-people, and the state, under its surveillance, began to move away from the masses and to engage itself in the pampering of the rich.
The priorities were wrong. Immediate attempts should have been made to put the Pakistani war criminals and their local collaborators on trial. The state seemed to be indifferent to that imperative. Instead, the left elements were identified as the enemy and hunted down, prompted by the unspoken consideration that they were opposed to Capitalism. The process of eliminating the leftist forces began right after 1972 and continued furiously during the successive regimes. The elimination process included both physical annihilation and enticement to join the ruling class. Within that process the collaborators found the space to rehabilitate themselves — socially at first and politically later. The state power was intolerant of criticism and believed in one-party rule in substance if not in form. In its journey along the Capitalist road the state found it useful to throw away the hindering principles of Secularism and Socialism. And it is not without significance that although governments have changed, the state has remained the same. Democracy has been allowed to stay more as a cover-up for the undemocratic work of the ruling class than as a commitment to democratic practice.
The Provisional government at Mujibnagar pledged not to accept any aid from the Americans; the new government at Dhaka said, more realistically, that it would accept American aid provided it was given unconditionally. And, the Americans as well as the Indians, were relieved to see that the leadership of the liberation war had not been taken over by the leftist extremists. Even then the Americans were impatient. They wanted to make sure that state was moving in the right direction, i.e., towards Capitalism, and finding Sheikh Mujibur Rahman speaking of Socialism thought it wise to have him replaced by someone they could depend on. It was inevitable, therefore, that the Sheikh would be killed and Khondaker Mustaque placed on the driving seat of the state.
The state should have mobilized in the interest of the country was mobilizing all the available resources. Instead it encouraged, plunder, corruption and nepotism. The state's interest in foreign assistance allowed those very powers who had worked against the creation of an independent Bangladesh to interfere in national affairs. Gradually the situation has taken such a turn as to permit the big powers, including our next-door neighbour, to have their say even in the formation of governments. These developments signify a tragic isolation of the rulers from the people. For their stay in power, the rulers rely not so much on people's support as on the effectiveness of the coercive agencies of the state and the good wishes of foreign mentors. That is why more attention is given to the building of cantonments than to the construction of infrastructure necessary for industrialization.
We are not at all happy with what is happening; many are in despair, some indifferent, only a few optimistic. The optimism has only one real ground — the people. It is the people who make history, and the people in Bangladesh do inherit the tradition of a struggle for liberation through the ages. There is the awareness that we must continue to strive for liberty. The recent Shahbagh uprising of the youth assures us that the spirit is not dead, and that it would respond, should the call come. Surely, the call will not come from the established political leadership tied to Capitalist preoccupation, it has to come from those who believe that the struggle for liberation has to be, by its very nature, anti-establishment. The Shahbagh Uprising also confirms the truth that a people's movement needs leadership with the vision of a fundamental change in society and the state.
Shahbagh lacked that vision, and was, therefore, unable to go very far. What is also significant is that Islamist bigots joined together and dubbed the uprising as the work of atheists. There is a clear message in this for the progressive forces, which that over the years the Islamist militants have found for themselves a footing in society. That the terrorist outfit of the JMB should have been able to organize a serial bombing throughout the country and to manage the snatching away of three of their convicted leaders from police custody, should work as an eye-opener. While it is true that these elements get support and inspiration from sources outside our borders, the disturbing fact is that a fertile breeding ground exists within.
Those who ought to know tell us that in the villages for every two students who go to a primary school one goes to a madrassa. Whereas the two who receive primary education are likely to leave the village, it is almost certain that the madrassa-boy will stay put in where he has been and will find himself unemployed. His rising frustration with, and dumb anger against, the system may push him towards Islamist militancy, should that outfit be available. Frustration and anger are not limited to the madrassa-educated only; it is visible in English medium-educated youth as well. That explains why boys from well-to-do families join the militant bigots. Both groups have strong, albeit unconscious, feelings against the existing system which find ventilation through wrong openings.
Islamists militants belong to the right, representing the extreme fringe. There is no doubt that the rightists are anti-people and that they want to ensure the continuation of Capitalism in the guise of fighting it. Ideologically, the ruling class and the Islamist extremists find a common enemy in the leftists. The left suffers. The irony of this relationship lies in this that the marginalization of the left widens the rightist space for operation.
The question that confronts the patriotic forces in the country is whether they would help the pro-people political elements to grow or allow the anti-people rightists to flourish in the manner they are doing. The future of us as a people really depends on the answer we give to this pressing question. The liberal stance of sitting on the fence will be counterproductive.
The writer is Emeritus Professor, Dhaka University