Bangladesh At 40: Looking Back And Moving Forward-part I

The Spirit of the Liberation War

Professor Rehman Sobhan, one of the earliest proponents of economic justification for independent Bangladesh, and a member of its first Planning Commission, delivered a commemoration lecture yesterday at the National Museum on "40 years of Bangladesh: Looking back and moving forward." We publish its full text in a four-part series starting today, in which the author expounds the historical genesis and narrates the struggle that led to the Liberation War and discusses the strength and weaknesses of democracy in Bangladesh, the first of four founding principles of the nation.

OVER the last year we have been commemorating the 40th year of Bangladesh's independence. In these 40 years Bangladesh has registered many gains for which we should feel proud. We have established a globally competitive garment industry moved ahead of India in particular areas of human development and gender parity, extended micro-credit to 25 million women and drastically reduced aid dependence through an explosive growth in remittances by our hard working migrants. We have furthermore held four reasonably free and fair elections where incumbent regimes have been replaced by opposition parties through the ballot box. These are not inconsiderable achievements for a country once written off as a basket case.
But these achievements also remind us how much more we could have made of ourselves where Bangladesh could have fulfilled the promise which inspired our struggle for nationhood. My presentation today addresses the unfulfilled expectation of the generation which shared the privilege of participating in the liberation struggle. Had we been able to live up to these expectations Bangladesh would have been a very different place today. I will therefore explore this chasm which separates the hopes of yesterday from the reality of today and will then move on to offer some suggestions on what we may attempt to do to build a society which restores meaning to the spirit which sustained our struggle for liberation. In looking ahead we will need to recognize that both Bangladesh and the world around us have experienced seismic changes. We will accordingly need to calibrate our dreams of yesteryear to the world we live in today.
Bangladesh was not born because of an historical accident. Nor was it the gift of a departing colonial power grown weary of bearing its imperial burden. Our nationhood emerged out of a long process of struggle which culminated in a bloody war of liberation. To move large numbers of ordinary people to pledge their lives for a separate existence we needed to inspire them with a vision for a better world than the one they were repudiating. This inspiration was what came to be known as the spirit which inspired the liberation war, what we popularly term Muktijuddher-chetona. This is a phrase which is used so frequently and so casually as to be rendered almost devoid of meaning. We invoke this spirit as a ritual incantation and rarely bother to ask ourselves what this spirit embodies. I would argue that the spirit of the liberation war is adequately captured in the four principles which have guided our constitution: Democracy, Nationalism, Secularism and Socialism (which has later been elaborated to mean social justice). In my presentation before you, I will discuss why these pillars of our constitution capture the spirit of the liberation struggle, how far we have departed from these guiding principles and where we need to travel in order to restore meaning to the spirit of the liberation war.
Our emergence as a separate nation-state was the direct outcome of the persistent denial of democratic rights to the people of Bangladesh by the Pakistani ruling class. In 24 years of shared nationhood never once was central power in Pakistan exercised through the outcome of a free and fair election. The first such election in December 1970, 23 years after the emergence of Pakistan, led to the Awami League, under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, capturing a majority of seats in the National Parliament, with an electoral mandate from the people of Bangladesh to establish self-rule. It was the attempt by the Pakistani military junta to frustrate this democratic mandate, through the instrument of genocide, which inspired the liberation war. The liberation war was, thus, the final phase of our democratic struggle when the Bangali people had to come to terms with the reality that democracy could never be realised within the Pakistani nation state.
It is a tragedy for Bangladesh that our nationhood emerged out of our quest for democracy yet we have spent most of our national existence frustrating its realisation. We have lived through long episodes of martial rule and civilian autocracy. In 1990 when the Ershad autocracy was overthrown through a mass mobilisation the nation experienced the excitement of a second rebirth of democracy. But who would have imagined that within 17 years of this renewal of democracy our confrontational style of politics would have reached a point where the military were once again provided with an opportunity to intervene in the political process through the process of Emergency Rule. The military may have overstayed their welcome and overtaxed their mandate. But, fortunately for democracy and quite exceptionally in our historical context, the military, as promised, returned to the barracks within two years after helping to engineer a universally recognised free and fair election which enabled the incumbent government to return to power with a large plurality of seats in parliament.
There is no evidence that we have learnt the right lessons from our most recent malfunction of the democratic process. The politics of confrontation and intolerance appears to be once again permeating our political culture. The political opposition, over successive regimes, has been marginalised, partly as a result of its own political immaturity in boycotting parliament thereby violating its democratic mandate. As a result of these endemic boycotts four successive parliaments have been rendered virtually dysfunctional in their incapacity to discharge their primary mandate of keeping the executive accountable to the will of the voters.
The malfunctioning of our democratic institutions remains compounded by the continuing inability to strengthen democracy in our principal political parties. The principal political parties, in turn, reflect the gradual ascendance of money and muscle power as the driving force in democratic politics. Whilst some effort was made by the current ruling alliance to induct some candidates of modest means into parliament, politics in Bangladesh has remained largely a rich man's game where both women and the financially deprived have been effectively disenfranchised.
The proliferation of violence, which becomes more pernicious when it is patronised by the state, continues to be deployed to further political and personal objectives. The purveyors of violence, the mastaans, have served to undermine our public educational institutions, interfere with the working of the administration, challenge the credibility of our institutions of law enforcement and compromise the vitality of our investment climate.
In such a distortion of the democratic process every institution of governance tends to be compromised. Our administration has become ineffective where both recruitment and advancement have been politicised and divorced from performance or norms. As a result virtually all public services as well as law enforcement have become partisanised and commoditised to a point where the machinery of government has lost virtually all capacity for functioning as an instrument of public service. The last remaining bastion of the rule of law, the judiciary, is now under threat. Over the years, the lower judiciary has degenerated into a politicised instrument of the ruling party. The once independent upper judiciary, which served as a bastion of our democratic freedom, is being exposed to a process of creeping politicisation.
The appointments to the Election Commission (EC) had been similarly politicised upto the tenure of the last elected government. It remains to be seen how far the new appointments to the EC, who are expected to preside over the next round of elections to parliament in 2014, will be selected on the basis of merit and consensus. The integrity of the very institutions to safeguard the democratic credentials of our electoral process needs to be protected.
However, the independence and credibility of the EC may not be enough of a guarantor of free and fair elections. Experience over the last three decades has established that prior to a national election all recruitment and postings in the police force, upazilla administration, schools, and now the armed forces, which can in any way influence the direction of the national elections, have tended to be politicised. In such circumstance, the scope for a free and fair election, where the role of money and ruling party patronised mastaans could be contained, have compromised the freedom of action of the EC. It was this exposure to the influence exercised by a partisan administration which inspired the Awami League and its allies in 1995 to initiate the campaign for institutionalising the system of holding elections under a non-partisan caretaker government. This system was incorporated in the constitution in 1996 and has, with some limitations, ensured three relatively free and fair elections over the last 15 years. The logic and wisdom of the present government's decision to do away with the very system it had politically sponsored remains questionable and is unlikely to be compensated by a strong EC. The history of electoral politics in Bangladesh, going back to the period of Pakistani rule, indicates that in the absence of a non-partisan caretaker government no incumbent government has ever vacated office through defeat at the polls.
The last recourse of democracy, the free media, is demonstrating considerable resilience. But the security of journalists has been periodically endangered and the independent press itself faces a constant struggle to secure itself from both state pressure and private terror. Here again, people with money and state patronage are making inroads into the media and are investing both in the print and electronic media with the expectation of "managing" the news in the service of partisan and private gain. That our institutions of democracy and governance should have degenerated to a level where the very sustainability of the democratic process is endangered is particularly distressing when we consider our long and painful struggle for democracy.
The writer is Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue.


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