Is our generation ready for future challenges?
History is filled with the tales of struggles against oppressors, and to a neutral observer, Bangladesh's momentous victory against Pakistan in 1971 may be viewed with no particular proclivity. To the wartime veterans, however, the sentiments, the memories, and the embodiment of the spirit of the struggle in their own actions speak of a story that those who did not see the war would never comprehend. Having celebrated the 50th anniversary of our independence last year, we must also confront a sombre truth: the future of our country will soon experience a change of guards. As if in a relay race, the baton shall pass to a generation distanced by time and memory from the struggle of Bangladesh against the Pakistani usurpers. This is a generation which has only heard stories, read or seen disparate representations of the great war. Our generation, thus, must engage in soul-searching and ask: what does the spirit of Liberation War mean for us in performing our duties? And how can we nurture it within ourselves to help Bangladesh become the Sonar Bangla envisioned by Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—a dream which inspired hundreds of thousands to fight to their death for the country's freedom?
The question of the change of guards bears extra significance for Bangladesh, because its socioeconomic and political journey has been shaped by our leaders in the government and society at large, who were mostly witnesses of and/or active participants in our struggle for becoming the masters of our own fate. They have seen how our hopes have transformed, how we have strived to overcome the unforgiving inheritance of a devastated, war-torn country, and how we have reached where we are. This close "eye-witness" experience has seeped into their motivation for pushing towards welfare-based policymaking in a way that the current generation will find challenging to emulate. The emotional distance among the future politicians, policymakers and the countrymen is likely to increase. This might result in a certain dehumanisation of the welfare policies and reduce their fortune-changing effect on the poor and vulnerable people. The psychological drive of a leader of the country to improve the lives of the country's people is an important cog in the wheel of the development process. If the policymakers lose touch with the pulse of the people, policies will be misplaced and the results will be unexpected and dire.
The Americans have personified "The American Dream," which is a national ethos of the US—the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. However, how do we define the "Spirit of the Liberation War"? Beyond the goals envisioned by Bangabandhu, the spirit of the Liberation War has no measurable definition of an ideal. This lack of clarity will be problematic for the future generations, who have known the history of war through scant exposure to stories, movies or books.
The historic speech of Bangabandhu on March 7, 1971 was a culmination of emotions and insights gained through the feeling of being at one with his own countrymen. Together, the leadership of Bangabandhu and the determination and sacrifice of ordinary folks who rose to his call ensured that we won an almost unwinnable war. This togetherness also contributed to Bangladesh's meteoric rise to becoming a socio-economically developing country, in many respects even surpassing India and Pakistan, who had achieved their liberation much earlier, in 1947. Bangladesh has fared better in improving life expectancy (72 years compared to 69 years in India and 67 years in Pakistan), and Gender Gap Index (ranked 65th whereas India ranked 140th and Pakistan ranked 153rd), to give a few examples. Recently, Bangladesh also surpassed India in terms of GDP per capita, as reported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These numbers speak volumes about the enormity of our achievements within a much shorter time span than our South Asian neighbours, having inherited a land ravaged by war and looted by the Pakistan Army.
Our generation, as well as our successors, have much to learn from the war veterans who have been at the helm of the country's socioeconomic progress. The spirit of the Liberation War must translate into tangible goals, rooted in empathy for the people and an unwavering reverence for our past.
I conclude with a sobering observation: the dark forces do not go away easily. They persist, and when one group of oppressors are vanquished, another is already lurking behind to fill the gap. Bangabandhu, the larger-than-life figure, the towering man who orchestrated the movement for our freedom, fell to the machinations of such dark forces. Thus, we, and the generations to come, have to be careful safeguards of our freedom. Thomas Jefferson once said, "Every generation needs a new revolution." Our elders had theirs. What is our revolution going to be? Can we carry on and carry the spirit within ourselves?
Mahir A Rahman is a research associate at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS)..