Between Liberation and Freedom: Reflections on the Constituent Assembly Debate
Liberation and freedom are not quite the same thing. The former primarily registers a sense of negation; the state of being emancipated from subjugation. Freedom, on the other hand, has more of an affirmative connotation, and yet its exact meaning, especially in regard to political freedom, rarely achieves a point of consensus. The minimal, if expansive, definition of freedom that one can begin with - and it is perhaps enough for the present occasion - is the autonomy over choosing agendas and deciding the course of actions. Liberation, once achieved, gives the impression of being accomplished, while freedom is always precarious, requiring as it does constant regeneration. Freedom cannot be conceived without the presence of liberty; nevertheless, liberty itself is not enough to guarantee the passage to freedom. Political communities that had gone through colonial rule historically encountered the question of freedom under the overarching reality of subjection. Liberation justifiably becomes the foremost objective in the colonised state, even as the practices and conceptions of freedom often take shape and consolidate through the anti-colonial struggle. The question of freedom appears with its full force and enigma during the time of writing a new constitution. Constitution is more of a political document than a legal one; it surely provides legitimacy to the laws, but the sources of legitimacy that it establishes are a matter of political decision. In this occasion commemorating the achievement of our national independence (the Constitution of the new-born Bangladesh was also adopted in the very same day of 1972), it is an opportune moment for us to revisit the Constituent Assembly debate over the Constitution draft and reflect on the promises and lacunas of the founding document.
Constitutions, especially the ones preceded by a revolution, are not merely the product of rational deliberation. Nor are they a sum total of public opinion. Being the legitimising background against which the new constitution itself is conceived, the preceding revolutions shape the questions regarding the source of sovereignty, the system of rule, guiding ideals and so on. That said, there always remains a gap between the declaration of independence and the constitution, for the latter is generally written and conceived in the aftermath of the attainment of sovereign autonomy. In the process, the open-ended plurality of the declaration tends to be consolidated in favour of the leading force of the revolutionary process. It is thus a matter of immense importance how the Constituent Assembly was formed and deliberated.
The Constituent Assembly that approved the Constitution of Bangladesh was formed with the representatives of the 1970 election. Although the formation of the Constituent Assembly with the representatives elected in the pre-independence time is itself not rare (Indian Constituent Assembly was also formed with the representatives elected in the British period), the overwhelming majority of the Awami League in the election of 1970 meant that the assembly was dominated by the party that emerged as the leader of the independence war. Yet, if we revisit the debates that took place over the Constitution draft, it becomes rather apparent that the proceedings had been marked by intense contentions. Two non-Awami League members of the Assembly - Suranjit Sengupta (who later joined the AL) and Manabendra Narayan Larma - repeatedly raised crucial objections, forcing the Awami League leaders to clarify and defend the founding principles and other central aspects of the Constitution. One recurring aspect of the debate unfolded around the question of janamat, or public opinion. Sengupta urged for the participation of parties and groups outside of the Parliament in the debate over the Constitution bill. By referring to the long history of liberation struggle, the AL leaders, in reply, maintained that the people have already spoken through the revolutionary war. To seek vindication again for what has already been said by the people that fought the war would imply doubt over the very authenticity of the revolution. This is indeed a problem that all constitutions that were preceded by revolutionary war face, for the very sovereignty of the Constituent Assembly is assumed in the name of the already accomplished revolution.
To re-read the Constituent Assembly debate after the long span of 44 years is to encounter the striking clarity that it had regarding issues such as secularism. That the State must treat its citizens equally irrespective of religious identities - a principle that cannot be achieved unless the state itself is religiously neutral - was not a matter of contention for the Constituent Assembly. And this was not because the Assembly was mostly comprised of Awami League leaders; there was no confusion over the validity of these issues precisely for the reason that the Liberation War itself embodied the principle of secularism in the eyes of the Constituent Assembly members. The same clarity, unfortunately, could not be found in the claim regarding the equal representation of ethnic minorities, a problem that was not at the forefront of the Liberation War, and the Assembly members, despite the passionate plea of Manabendra Narayan Larma, could not summon the foresight of dissociating the rhetorical name of the political community ("Bangalee nation") from its constitutional identity. The debate over the founding ideal of nationalism is a case in point. While the Assembly members did occasionally recognise the fact that the people of Bangladesh have sovereign claim because of the long-history of their common moevement and not because of any prior linguistic homogeneity, they struggled to disentangle the political claim from the ethno-linguistic ground.
Coming out of the colonial past as Bangladesh did, the theme of liberation unsurprisingly swayed over the Constituent Assembly debate. The all-encompassing nature of colonial rule resulted in the subjugation of the colonised society in most frontiers of socio-political life, spanning from the economic to the cultural spheres. With the political success of the liberation war, the task that the post-colonial politicians found to be of paramount importance pertained to the accomplishment of liberation in the supposedly non-political social spheres (most importantly, the economy). The rightful focus on the social issues - an orientation that later metamorphosed into developmentalism - was unfortunately coupled with a paucity of attention to the measures needed to safeguard and generate public participation in politics. Poverty, for sure, is a legitimate object of politics, but unless this object is accompanied by a democratic politics where the poor citizens can participate in politics and decide over their fate, the logic of economic liberation becomes susceptible to be used as a justifying reason for curtailing political freedom. Indeed, both the BAKSAL project and the subsequent military regimes sought to explain the suspension of political freedom as a necessary cost for maintaining order so as to ensure economic development. That Bangladesh witnessed a long period of extra-constitutional rule is not merely because of the power hungry politicians and the military. The very lack of attention to the practices of safeguarding and nurturing political freedom for its intrinsic worth laid the groundwork for authoritarianism in the name of order and developmentalism.
To go back to the founding instance of writing the Constitution is to confront the question: how does the present state of the polity reflect the promises of the founding document? In a time when the ruling bodies are increasingly severing themselves from the democratic procedures and when the political freedom of citizens has almost become a distant memory, the history of writing the constitution - and the ways in which it has embodied, however imperfectly, the promises of the liberation war - calls for renewed interpretation and appreciation.
The writer is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Chicago.