When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
So begins the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. After 195 years, Bangladesh was born. The strongest moral foundation of this new nation can be found in the Proclamation of Independence Order issued on April 10, 1971. The Proclamation was greatly inspired by the American Declaration (Barrister Amirul Islam's account in Muktijuddher Dalilpotro).
Following the Proclamation of Independence Order, the exiled government took oath at the Baidyanathtala mango grove of Meherpur District of Bangladesh on April 17, 1971. The Proclamation was formally read out by Professor Mohammad Yusuf Ali on this very occasion. The oath-taking was witnessed by hundreds of foreign journalists who had assembled there to hail the birth of a new nation. Tajuddin Ahmed named the place “Mujibnagar” after the indisputable leader of the Liberation War, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was the capital of the exiled government till December 16, 1971. The formation of the Mujibnagar government gave life and legitimacy to our liberation struggle both nationally and internationally.
On the dreadful night of March 25, Bangabandhu, before being arrested, declared the independence of Bangladesh. Top political leaders of the non-cooperation movement, before Pakistan's crackdown, had to cross over to India. Though spontaneous resistance arose in various parts of the country, it was too weak to counter the well-equipped Pakistani force. It lacked any clear war strategy as well as proper political guidance. The exiled political leaders felt the urge to form a government to continue the resistance and turn it into a national liberation struggle. On April 4, military leaders who revolted against the Pakistani Junta met at Teliapara, Sylhet. They also emphasised on the formation of a government to procure arms and aid for the national Liberation War. With the able leadership of Tajuddin Ahmed, a government came into being on April 10 with the Proclamation of Independence.
The logic behind the formation of a government was clearly delineated in the Proclamation document: "Whereas the Government by levying an unjust war and committing genocide and by other repressive measures made it impossible for the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh to meet and frame a Constitution, and give to themselves a Government, and whereas the people of Bangladesh by their heroism, bravery and revolutionary fervour have established effective control over the territories of Bangladesh, we, the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour-bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh whose will is supreme, duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice, declare and constitute Bangladesh to be a sovereign People's Republic," (Proclamation of Independence Order, Bangla Desh Documents).
The abovementioned words set the foundation of the birth of Bangladesh which continue to be a source of inspiration in the conduct of political and social life of its citizens.
The Proclamation substantiates Bangladesh's just cause in the war. It invalidates all the attempts to portray our liberation struggle as a secessionist movement. It delineates the ideals of self-determination: when a majority is denied its democratic right of forming its own government, the revolutionary right of the majority to dismember the country as a means of implementing self-determination can never be disputed. This is the inherent right of the people themselves. Since the Liberation War began, there were attempts to demean the liberation struggle by calling it a civil war, much like the American Civil War of 1861 and Abraham Lincoln has often been quoted to undermine the spirit of the Liberation War by portraying it as a secessionist movement. But they forget what Lincoln had expressed in his first inaugural address: "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it."
The evocation of the principle of self-determination also lays the groundwork for Bengali nationalism which needs to be properly understood and respected so that the false debate of Bengali vs Bangladeshi nationalism can be done away with. Nationalism based on self-determination does not express superiority of a nation over other nations; rather it recognises the equal right of every nation. So when we see racial discrimination in the CHT, that is not the consequence of Bengali nationalism but the violation of the very idea of Bengali nationalism.
The Proclamation also upholds the secular ideals of Bangladesh. It's the idea of “equality” that clearly abolishes the principle of religious difference and gives equal rights to every citizen irrespective of their religious identity. That's why religion-based politics is a contradiction to the spirit of the Proclamation of Independence.
The Proclamation suggests that the whole purpose of the government is to secure people's rights and that the government gets its powers from the “consent of the governed.” It discourages the idea of distributive equality where the state distributes equality to its citizens. That would be the liberal top-down theory of equality where it all begins with the state and then goes on to determine how people should be treated. Rather the Proclamation approaches the issue of equality as a bottom-up model. It starts from the people who engage in political action and bring changes in the state (or the economy, or the family, etc.) as a result. Though the current reality of Bangladesh suggests that we are yet to fully realise the ideals underlying our liberation struggle, we can take inspiration from the principles of the Proclamation of Independence and the history of the Mujibnagar government to carry out the unfinished revolution.
Dr Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury BB, who, as the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of Meherpur, played a critical role in organising the Mujibnagar ceremony, wrote in his diary upon his return from the oath-taking function: "On our way, we contemplated and realised that a nation had been born but it will be a long odyssey before we can establish this infant nation on the world stage."
This is a slightly edited version of an article originally published in The Daily Star on April 17, 2015.
Shamsuddoza Sajen is Supplements Editor, The Daily Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.