History of Bangladesh: First Decade
The first decade's history of Bangladesh is most consequential but often politically coloured. This historical commentary is different in two respects. First, it recounts the decade through the lens of ordinary citizens whose perception is truer than reality in politics. Second, it avoids straitjacketing of history by simultaneously acknowledging the contributions of a regime and drawing lessons from its mistakes.
Bangabandhu's regime actually started in 1970 with the sweeping victory of Awami League in the general election. Bangabandhu's political affiliation really didn't matter then since his personal charisma and the cause he championed inspired the people. Nonetheless, the Awami League party apparatus definitely played a crucial role during the Liberation War, but importantly far from being an exclusive or existential one.
Bangabandhu's greatest post-liberation legacy is the enshrinement of Muktijuddher chetona or the spirit of the Liberation War (a predominantly Bangalee but otherwise secular democratic society with unfettered freedom of expression and an equitable economy) into the 1972 Constitution. But Bangabandhu's regime faced sky high expectations from the people while challenged with the stark reality of little domestic resources and foreign reserves, incapacitated factories, broken infrastructure, and inexperienced business and administrative leadership; the 1974 famine and the dwindling foreign aid flow did not help either. With Awami League left unchallenged except from the JSD, the political vacuum degenerated into internal power struggle and distanced the party officials and activists from the electorate. This, along with the economic chaos generated by the post-liberation mixed economy venture, was perhaps instrumental in Bangabandhu's introduction of the single party BAKSAL system in 1975. Tragically, Bangabandhu's assassination shortly thereafter, did not leave enough time to see if the BAKSAL system would have redressed the dire problems of the time.
A few lessons to glean from Bangabandhu's regime. First, the absence of a competitive multi-party political environment, by design, inattention or enforcement, is unhealthy for the nation and can be disastrous for the lone governing party. Second, the process is no less important than the end. The BAKSAL amendment to the Constitution was done without a clear electoral mandate for such a sea change. Third, concentration of power in a single position, either constitutionally or from the singularity of dominance within a party, is contrary to the development of a thriving democracy even when it is nested in a benevolent leader. Fourth, the economic pie needs to be sizeably enlarged first to achieve the eventual end of an equitable economy. Slicing a shrinking pie makes everyone worse off.
The abhorrent assassination of Bangabandhu shifted the power struggle to the new governors, the armed forces. Most of us, ordinary citizens, were not privy to the reported rampant executions. What we know is that the internal strife claimed the lives of a number of liberation war heroes and culminated in General Zia ascending to the helm.
General Zia's contribution to the new nation started in March 1971 with the announcement of an independent Bangladesh on behalf of Bangabandhu. To most people, Bangabandhu's March 7 speech is the de facto declaration of independence although his reported formal declaration directive during the night of March 25 was not heard by many. Major Zia's declaration, in Bangabandhu's name, from the clandestine radio station in Kalurghat, Chittagong, was the first widely reached declaration of an independent country. It was important in inspiring the people into the armed liberation war and enormously boosted their morale.
Following Bangabandhu's 1975 assassination, General Zia established a firm hold on military governance, and became President Zia using a questionable referendum. He launched a new political party of his own, the BNP, and revived other political parties including Awami League to reorganise and emerge from the BAKSAL imposed freeze. The previously banned anti-secular and anti-liberation parties like the Jamaat and their war-crime laden leadership found their way back in. To build a separate electoral clientele for BNP, General Zia appealed to the religious sentiment of the Muslims and introduced the concept of Bangladeshi nationalism, a state-based identity instead of a culture-based one. To court experienced leaders and activists into BNP, he offered generous economic benefits.
President Zia encouraged transition to a private enterprise-based economy that was also open to foreign partners including those opposing the liberation movement. Partisan critiques may argue that the shift in economic and external relations paradigm would have happened anyway. Perhaps so. But what we factually observed is that the privatisation and internationalisation that started during President Zia's regime had been important in launching private sector led growth. The roots of vibrant private banking system and capital markets, the making of the world's second largest RMG exporter, the beginning of enviable foreign exchange reserves from Middle-East wage remittance, and the inception of mechanised and high-yielding agriculture, were all spurred by the policies adopted at that time.
A very important but shameful legacy of President Zia, however, was the introduction of the Indemnity Act in our Constitution, giving legal protection to the self-professed killers of Bangabandhu and his family. Some key lessons to gather from the aftermath and after-shocks (to date) of President Zia's regime are as follows. First, commercialising politics and merging the interests of business and governance is a slippery slope that bankrupts the nation ethically. Second, inviting religion to the political/governance arena is a toxic elixir that instigates division, intolerance and violence. Third, if crimes against the people or in governance go unpunished, the culture of impunity spreads like a virus, infiltrates the deepest of veins and shreds the moral backbone. Fourth, constitutional amendments without a meaningful electoral mandate leads to centripetal governance and dictatorial democracy. It can set forth a fatal appetite among others to reach, exercise and retain that sole authority, as demonstrated by the power struggles that claimed the lives of President Zia, among others. Fifth, Bangladesh should not hesitate to forge ties with previously adversarial countries if it is beneficial for the country. That is, there is no permanent friend or foe in international geopolitics. Lastly, private entrepreneurship and generation of external income and resources are vital to keep enlarging the pie to be sliced equitably over time.
To conclude, it is most instructive for Bangladeshis to recollect the tumultuous first decade of Bangladesh with integrity. There is nothing to gain from the politics of blame and a lot to learn from a factual assessment of the past.