The victory and the 'defeat'
Victory requires defeat, just as correction requires mistakes. In 1971 there was a glorious victory in this land of ours and consequently an equally, if not more, ignominious defeat. The Bengalis won defeating the Pakistani occupation army. And the evidences and signs of that victory are many and some of them conspicuous.
A comparatively unknown and undeveloped land and its people have found a place of honour in the comity of nations. The semi-colonial domination has ended, yielding place to independence. And for the first time in history the Bengalis are ruling over themselves. The country has a flag, a national anthem, a constitution and a state language, all of its own. Avenues of development and progress have opened up. Bangladeshis have spread themselves to all parts of the world, working with efficiency, winning recognition and remitting foreign exchange. The country has made impressive economic strides. The rate of literacy has gone up, so has life-expectancy. Infant mortality has declined and growth of population is under control. Per capita income has gone up. Money has trickled down to the poor. We speak of an explosion in the field of education, and we have reasons to do so. Women have come out of their relative confinement and are visible in all fields of economic and administrative activities. They are in the army, the police, and are also working abroad. The manufacturing sector has flourished particularly because of the labour power provided by women. In the public examinations women are competing with their male peers, and sometimes faring better. Our writers have produced worthy works of literature, researchers have made noteworthy discoveries. Painters have done well, so have dramatists, film-makers and musicians. What is of particular significance is that people today are fully conscious of all that is happening in their own world and even abroad.
The Shahbagh uprising of youth last year was neither a freak nor a nine day's wonder; it was a spontaneous upsurge of the youth against heinous acts of the dastardly criminals of 1971. Having lost trust in the government's sincerity to try the criminals, the youth protested, displaying their sense of honour and readiness to act. Taking an over-all view of the situation, there is no denying that material and intellectual progress, even if tardy and jerky, is visible.
Developments in different fields are too well-known to merit counting. Abidingly important is the fact that with the resolution of the national question and the replacement of religion-based nationalism by linguistic nationalism, we have gained, as never before, the opportunity to look closely at our secular questions, including the very basic one of class-relationship. The spirit of liberation, which is indeed the spirit of social revolution, has come to the fore and refuses to be put aside, much to the chagrin of the ruling class.
But we have failed as well. The failures need inspection because they are both unexpected and dishonourable. The first failure lay in our inability to try the perpetrators of genocide. We allowed them to get away with impunity and did not put on trial even their ring leaders of whom 195 were conclusively indentified. What is more, we made it possible for their local collaborators to be rehabilitated — socially, economically and even politically. Trial of the genocidal criminals was necessary not to settle scores but to vindicate national honour internationally and to assure the people within the country that justice shall and must prevail.
Other failures have followed. The rightly-hailed constitution of the state continued to be amended with some of the cumbersome changes hurting the very principles of secularism, democracy and socialism on which the constitution itself was based. Economic advancement has not ensured equity in distribution. On the contrary, prosperity of the few at the cost of many has contributed to an increase in social inequality. As always, inequality has been more unbearable than poverty; those who are at the top of the economic ladder can in no way be called models of patriotism and social commitment. In fact, the rise in private prosperity has been marked by a decline in patriotism. That explains the why and how of the continuous draining of our scarce resources —material and human, known as well as potential. The custodians have not shied in acting as betrayers.
The Bangladeshi state that came into being through immeasurable suffering and sacrifice of the people has not fulfilled the expectation of a democratic society. Power has remained concentrated in the hands of the executive, resulting in continuation of autocratic rule. Legitimate and illegitimate governments have come and gone vying with one another to promote private interest and simultaneously, to act against public well-being. As far as interests of the people are concerned, these governments are all alike — sometimes the successor having been worse than the predecessor. The apparatuses of the state remained bureaucratic and oppressive. The ruling class rules without accountability, and, patently, politics has become the preserve of the rich. The roads to riches are paved with plunder and deceit.
The legislature is ineffective. Elections to the National Assembly have often been rigged and manipulated. In general this very important organ of the state has been unable to represent the electorate. There were times when it did not even exist. What is worse, its prime function seems to be not so much to put the breaks on the anti-people activities of the executive as to legitimize them. Abuse of human rights is rampant; extra-judicial killings and abductions are on the rise. The statutory commissions which are supposed to protect rights of the people work at the behest of the government that be, and, in consequence, act against public interest, assuming anti-people roles.
Despite the much-vaulted rise in the students' examination performances, the average academic standard has declined. And, irony of ironies, the advancement of education, flowing as it does along three contrary streams, is tearing the people asunder on class-; lines instead of bringing them together. This does not bode us well, to say the least. Then there is the problem of cultural development. Unbelievably, the public universities, the best among the seats of learning, have been without elective students' bodies for decades. One has to admit, is precisely the reason why these institutions have turned culturally, into modern slums for the bright youth on whose leadership our future depends. In keeping with the same dispensation, the workers have been denied the right to form unions. Women are active and visible, but they are more vulnerable today than they were in the pre-liberation days. They are harassed, subjected to all conceivable kinds of violence — at home, at work places, on the streets and in the society at large. The extraordinary rise in the use of hijabs and burqas does not speak of the emergence of a new fashion or of indulgence in luxury, but displays the sense of insecurity women suffer from. The curbing of their freedom should have put the men folk to shame; shamefully, it does not.
What do these and other failures, tedious to recall as they are, add up to? Clearly a defeat. There was a gloom even at the dawn of liberation. The damage — human and material — has been enormous. The figures we cite to indicate the loss of life and abuse of women does not plumb the depths of suffering we had gone through. Later, as the years rolled on, failures piled up, and the joy of liberation was darkened. There were weaknesses in the liberation war itself. Of these three were basic. Firstly, neither politically nor strategically were we prepared for an armed uprising. It was forced upon us. And taken aback, we were obliged to depend heavily on Indian assistance. Secondly, although all our democratic movements had drawn their strength from leftist participation, the war was fought under a nationalist leadership that was positively allergic to the idea of a social revolution.
Thirdly, we were indifferent to the prevailing urge for liberation in the other oppressed nationalities of the bureaucratic-capitalistic state of Pakistan, i.e. the Sindhis, the Beluchis, the Pathans and the Mohajirs. Had we given timely support to them, our own struggle would have been different with the likely refusal of the non-Punjabis to participate in the genocide of the Bengalis. Perhaps, there existed the possibility of a massive and united uprising against the Punjabi clique that ruled over Pakistan. Had we met these deficiencies, the story as well as the outcome would have been different and the victory would have been total.
The question that needs to be asked and answered is who is it that defeated us even after we had vanquished the mighty Pakistani army and its cohorts. There are those among the liberals who take the easy view that it is the Pakistani ideology of Islam that has, willy-nilly, subverted our much-cherished spirit of liberation, and that this had happened owing to Islamic proclivities in a section of the ruling class. To be sure, the Pakistanis were not without ideological commitments; but to suggest that they were promoters of Islam is to give them undue credit. Because they were in no way Islamic ideologues, and the fact of the matter is that most of those they fell upon in Bangladesh were better Muslims than they were. These killers were crass materialists, and the ideology they were firmly wedded to was of Capitalist exploitation.
Capitalism was not a Pakistani invention. It had prevailed before; its ideals were practiced in the sub-continent by the British colonialists. These were subsequently adopted by the Pakistani rulers and and put into operation in all their governmental activities, including the genocide in 1971. Capitalism is anti-people; it has to be. We in Bangladesh have vanquished the Pakistani occupation army, but not their ideology.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we were British Indians; in 1947 we turned into Pakistanis; and after 1947 we have, finally, become Bangladeshis. The flags have changed and the state has gotten smaller in size, but inside the super structural façade the character of the state has remained unchanged. The old rulers have been replaced by their successors; but the relationship between the rulers and the ruled remains as of before. It is one of exploitation guaranteed by the continuation of the state's bureaucratic-capitalistic nature.
The pre-1947 bourgeois leaders of the struggle for independence sought to drive away the British rulers with the expectation of gaining state power. They were not interested in overhauling the social system. On the contrary, they wanted to keep it as it was, because it suited their purpose excellently. The decisive force within the Independence Movement lay in the antagonism between an occupying foreign bourgeoisie and the one rising within the country. During the process of that struggle a contradiction developed between the advanced Hindu bourgeoisie and the advancing Muslim bourgeois, resulting, ultimately, in the setting up of two separate states of Hindustan and Pakistan. In Pakistan the Bengalis were deprived and exploited; they wanted a change in their fate and a new struggle began, the leadership of which was taken over by the Bengali bourgeoisie. And it was this new struggle that brought Bangladesh into being. The nationalistic leadership and the people whom it led did not, however, share the same agenda of expectations. The leadership wanted prosperity for itself; the people expected an improvement in their intolerable conditions of living. The two were contrary to each other. In the absence of a social revolution, the rich in Bangladesh continued to be richer, with the poor getting poorer by the day.
The independence of 1947 made its way through communal riots and that of 1971 was achieved through a people's war. Although the ruling class would remain unwilling to admit it, the 1971 war was in reality a peasants' war. The peasants fought and suffered and were, eventually, disappointed. The four decades of the progress of Bangladesh can hardly cover up the history of the misery of the peasants. Uprooted by hostility of the ruling class as well as that of nature, they have flocked in the towns in large numbers, only to find themselves living sub-human slum conditions. That the economy has not broken down is due not to the entrepreneurial undertakings of the rich but to the hard labour put in by working men and women in the agricultural, manufacturing and foreign-exchange- remittance sectors.
As far as governance is concerned what one experiences daily on the streets of the capital is symptomatic of the anarchy that threatens to engulf the country. While private cars overflow on the narrow streets, public transport remains scarce and risky. Bribes are openly demanded by the police and readily paid by the drivers. When someone is hit by a running bus or a car, sympathetic hands are slow in helping the victim. But beating up of the driver and the helper in case they fail to flee is as spontaneous as is the vandalizing of innocent vehicles plying nearby. Happenings such as these are not unrelated to one another and they encapsulate the misery, the insecurity and the discontent of the public.
History tells us that, after an initial hesitation in view of the pressure of public expectation of the people, the state accepted, even if surreptitiously, and privatisation as one of its guiding principles. To take examples: Nationalized industries were sold to influential parties at throw-away prices. Private Banks were set up and some of the government-run banks were privatized. Public hospitals lost their capacity to serve the public and health-care became a marketable commodity. Education has ceased to be a fundamental human right and has become a privilege to be paid for by those who can afford to do so.
Has the state failed? No, it has not. It has been serving the interests of the ruling class dutifully and well and in doing that it has become crueler with every change of government. The old machine hurts as it hurtles. The law-and-order situation continues to worsen. Society is dominated by local grabbers and goons who enjoy the freedom of war-lords puffed up by political support. Habitually, the ruthless capitalist system promotes self-indulgence, profit-making, and, above all, alienation. It remains engaged in transforming everything, including human relationships into commodities.
We are a marginalized people. The honour we had gained through people's victory in 1971 has largely worn out, so much so that it is tempting to call us incorrigibly cursed. The truth, however, is that we have been defeated by a system and its ideology..
Yet there is no reason to despair. We must live and be respected, not only by others but also by our own selves. The collective struggle is on. We drove out the 'invincible' Pakistani army in 1971. We brought down a dictatorial regime in 1990. Unfailingly, there has been local resistance to anti-people governmental acts. The people of Fulbari have not allowed their land to be spoiled by open-pit coal mining. The Osmany Uddyan in the capital has been saved from destruction. Then there has been the relentless countrywide movement forged by a people's committee against government's designs to hand over our mineral resources and the management of ports and electricity to transnational corporations. Such achievements are many, and none of them is insignificant, indicating as they do people's wide-awake vigilance.
Although the Shahbagh youth upsurge did not last long, owing to the limited nature of its objective, its spontaneity, youthfulness and commitment are not to be lost sight of. It assures us, that the spirit of liberation is alive and also, not less importantly, that the people in general, and the youth in particular, are prepared to rise up, should the occasion arrive.
It would be helpful to remind ourselves that considered in the perspective of our continued struggle for liberation we had won in 1971 really a battle and not an in-itself-complete war. To have thought that the victory was complete and that the war had ended was a grave mistake for those who really believe in liberation, because liberation requires more than transfer of state power; it calls for a social revolution. The nationalists were satisfied; they had achieved what they had pledged to themselves; but the socialists should have carried the war forward — a war that neither began on 25 March 1971 nor ended on 16 December the same year. In fact, it can never end. For in essence it is a continuous onward journey in which stations are not the destination, but successive stages of success. In failing to move ahead, we, all of us, have allowed the existing social order, shaken though it was, to defeat us. The struggle is really between the forces of life and those of death and we cannot afford to accept a humiliating existence under subjugation. Surrender would signify death, collectively speaking. Reforms will not do, because it is the system itself which is wrong. Corrections will only help it operate in the way it is doing now.
Much depends on the youth. They constitute the future and must build their own future too. Occasional outbursts would not be enough; what is required is a sustained and organized movement as continuation of the people's war of liberation. It is imperative for the urban youth to unite themselves politically with the working class in towns and villages and carry on the struggle. The right-thinking people owe it to the country as well as to themselves to help the movement gain momentum and move ahead.
The ruling classes are complacent because they neither believe in democracy nor in an accountable governance process. The slumberous liberals find it disturbing to look into the root of the malady. The witty cynics would promote despair and unwittingly play into hands of the plunderers that thrive on public apathy. But those who are patriotic and democratic can afford to be neither satisfied nor indifferent. History will not forgive them if they do. Forces of defeat must not be allowed to eat up our achievements.
The writer is Professor Emeritus at Dhaka University