50 Years of Bangladesh

Column by Mahfuz Anam: What got us here will not take us there

The Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban illuminated and decorated as part of celebrations marking the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence. Photo: Rashed Shumon

My generation and others close to it formed the bulk of the Mukti Bahini in 1971. The majority of Dhaka University students of the time were an integral part of it, as it was my distinct privilege. Most joined in the field but many others played key roles while living where they could carry out courageous acts of collecting money, medicine and supplies for those taking up arms. Some from this group carried out dangerous sabotage operations that form part of the heroic tales that we are so proud to recount today. Every turn and twist of the war reverberated in our hearts at that time because someone amongst us—a Mukti Bahini member—were involved in it, either making that "supreme sacrifice" or suffering grievous injury or teaching the enemy a rare lesson in courage and determination.

One such case was of my close friend and neighbour Nizamuddin Azad, son of Kamruddin Ahmed, a politician, diplomat and author of the seminal book "Emergence of Bengali Middleclass". Azad was warm, generous and had a most disarming and hearty laugh, and was the epitome of sincerity and earnestness. We formed our local cricket club, played together and spent all our spare time together, as neighbourhood friends usually do.

I got him involved with the activities of East Pakistan Students Union (EPSU), popularly called Chhatra Union, the preeminent left-leaning student organisation at that time. We would attend all the EPSU activities, especially street processions. But soon, he became far more involved than me. His sterling qualities of feeling for the poor and the downtrodden surfaced brilliantly when, during the terrible cyclone of 1970, he fully immersed himself in the relief work. With time, he involved himself more and more with the underground work of EPSU.

When the genocide started after March 26, 1971, we lost touch with each other, and our joining the war took place at different times and through different routes. He joined the armed unit of Chhatra Union and was killed during an operation. He never received the recognition that he so richly deserved for his sacrifice.

There must be thousands of other similar cases of patriotism, determination, selflessness and supreme sacrifice remaining unsung. Maybe this could be a worthwhile project to be taken up by our Liberation War Ministry on the occasion of the golden jubilee of our independence. I recall Azad on this occasion for all his love for the country and his courage to take up arms and sacrifice his life so that we could all live with freedom and dignity.

Thus, the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's birth resonates with a far deeper meaning for our generation. We can personally relate to many events and have authentic accounts of many others. We were there at the time of the preparation, the unfolding, the cruelties inflicted by the enemy, and at the conclusion of our freedom struggle. It is also our privilege to have lived through the first half-century of independent Bangladesh—some of it tragic and heartrending, and others most exhilarating.

In these fifty years, we had very hopeful beginnings, like our constitution and first election. Then tragedy befell us through the most brutal and tragic assassination of the Father of the Nation along with his whole family save two daughters, the present PM and her sister Rehana. This was followed by two successive military-sponsored regimes accounting for a total of 16 years. These two regimes gave birth to two political parties—the BNP and JP—that have had their own impact on our political evolution.

The military interlude was followed by 30 years of democracy, triggered by the fall of the autocratic regime of Gen. Ershad. Though freer at first, our democracy became generally restricted to holding elections every five years with the latest ones becoming more and more questionable. This period can be divided into two parts: the first—from 1991 to 2009—during which the governments oscillated every five years between the two rival parties, BNP and AL, and politics was highly combative and mainly consisted of mutual vilification, destructive hartals and boycott of the parliament, making that central institution of democracy all but dysfunctional.

This brand of politics had a terrible impact on our economy with frequent interruptions to all sorts of production and transportation disrupting export, import, retail business and the service industry. It is to the credit of our workers, entrepreneurs and industry owners that they devised ways—like keeping factories open and transporting products at night during day-long hartals—to navigate through the political minefield and somehow keep the economy moving.

The second part—from 2008 to present—saw the gradual demise of our highly acrimonious two-party system. A massive electoral loss by BNP in the 2008 election and its boycotting of the one held in 2014 literally gave the ruling Awami League a walkover, resulting in the latter having an iron grip over all types of political activities. In the following years, nearly all opposition activities became severely controlled and expression of dissent throttled, as aptly epitomised in the enactment of the Digital Security Act.

Contrary to its impact on politics and dissent, the economy told a remarkable story of success with all important indicators foretelling the emergence of Bangladesh as an inspiring case of struggling out of poverty. The graduation to the status of a developing country, though not unique among LDCs, is remarkable considering our large population, limited land and vulnerability to the vagaries of the nature. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must be credited for having inspired a "can-do" mindset—akin to Barack Obama's "Yes, we can" slogan—galvanising our people, especially women and youth, into an engine of advancement not before seen in post-independence Bangladesh.

However, now is the time to forge ahead and our golden jubilee provides the perfect occasion to think anew how best to move forward. So far, we have made a remarkable journey. The challenge now is to make the coming one more meaningful and more equitable. The future must be dedicated to greater freedom and democracy and also to building a more inclusive society with a far greater awareness of the environment. We cannot continue to destroy the environment for economic gains, which can be ephemeral as harming the nature always proves disastrous.

There is an interesting book titled "What Got You Here Won't Get You There", written by Marshall Goldsmith. It essentially makes the case that future successes cannot be achieved by replicating the thoughts, behaviour and mindset that brought the present ones. Though the book's focus is on individuals, I think it equally applies to nations and countries. For Bangladesh to forge ahead, we must first start by changing our mindset and being fully aware that the global situation under which we developed in the last three decades has completely changed, and will further change in the coming decades in ways that will far outpace anything we can imagine now.

According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, we have no idea what the job market will look like by 2040, a mere 19 years in the future. Consequently, we have no way of knowing what sort of education we will need to provide to our children so they can fit into that job market.

"The World in 2050", a publication by The Economist Newspaper, looks at the mega-changes that we should prepare for by the middle of this century. It also gives a good idea of which direction we should proceed in.

For us, the population, environment, economy and education should be the major areas to focus on. Population concerns us directly and immediately as we are among the most densely populated countries in the world. We may have managed our population so far but any lowering of guard on its future growth may prove extremely short-sighted. Hence population control, human resources development with a particular focus on women and youth, and health must form a far more urgent priority than it has been so far. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that message poignant and immediate.

We are among the few countries in the world at the frontline of climate change. Most scientific predictions say that 10-15 percent of our land areas will be directly affected by climate change with all its social, economic and human consequences, much of which is mostly unknown. We do not see the mobilisation of people and resources that is necessary to meet such challenges.

On the economy, the prediction is about the future being the "Asian Century", with China, India and Japan playing pivotal roles in it. Bangladesh is strategically placed between the two Asian giants—China and India—and with excellent relations with Japan, we are well-poised to gain from the shift in global economic power to the East.

On education, we have miles to go. Recently, we have fallen into the trap of promoting quantity at the cost of quality. This misconceived emphasis on numbers will prove extremely damaging for us as with the internet, information and communication technology making the world a global village, the standard of education too will become global (it already is in many senses). And the employability of our educated youth will more and more be determined on common and universal educational standards. We are not likely to fare well in that scenario.

While we celebrate our golden jubilee—and there is a lot to celebrate for—we must be fully aware of the arduous tasks that lie ahead. We must face those challenges, not with slogans or rhetoric, but with data-based analysis and well-calculated and sustainable options.


Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.



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