Towards a future full of promises and challenges

It is upon us to carry on the legacy of our forefathers, who gave their lives to bring us freedom, to make this country prosperous and just. Illustration: Manan Morshed

How time flies.

As an old-timer, I vividly recall that wondrous day. On the glorious morning of December 16, 1971, like millions of Bangladeshis, a pre-teen kid (yours truly) waited with nervous anticipation.

Later in the day, the wonderful news reached us that the Pakistan Army in erstwhile East Pakistan had surrendered to the joint command of Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army. This was way before the time of the internet, social media and mobile phones. Yet, the news travelled like wildfire, and the nation erupted in joy and relief.

Freedom at last! Now a newborn nation could chart its own path in the world. But for that we paid a terrible price—millions dead, a nation in ruins. How would the country get back on its own feet?

Half a century later, it is impossible not to be impressed by the strides the nation has taken. This is especially true for us old-timers who lived through those difficult early years. Bangladesh, you have to remember, started off as a nation devastated by war with empty coffers. It had to survive a terrible man-made famine exacerbated by a Cold War-era US administration under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that withdrew critical grain supplies out of a fit of mean-spirited pique.

Decades of political turmoil followed, marked by bloody military coups and extended periods of autocratic rule.

Today, 50 years down the road, Bangladesh is at a crossroads again. As veteran bureaucrat-academic Akbar Ali Khan has astutely noted, the economic strides and advancement in human development indices is something he could not have imagined when the nation won its freedom. On the other hand, the challenges that the nation faces now are also quite serious, and it can ill afford to rest on its laurels.

I shall talk about the challenges presently, but ask for the readers' indulgence for a moment as I reflect upon the breathtaking strides that Bangladesh has made. To fully realise the enormity of this achievement, I suggest we look further back to 1947, when the British ran a cartographer's knife and ripped apart Bengal to create East Pakistan.

The new province lacked even a Bangla-speaking Muslim middle class, which evolved later through the University of Dhaka. The predominantly Muslim Bengali population was largely of peasant stock, in sharp contrast to our ethnic/linguistic brethren in the neighbouring West Bengal, which had a distinguished tradition of excellence in learning that had given rise earlier to the Bengali Renaissance.

To their credit, the (predominantly Muslim) Bengalis in erstwhile East Pakistan ignored the siren call of communal, majoritarian prejudice, as over the years they fashioned a political ethos that was based on language and culture. It was an identity which was humane and inclusive in the finest traditions of the titans of Bangla literature.

The movement culminated in a liberation of a country who proudly proclaimed its guiding values defined by its national anthem by Rabindranath Tagore: "Amar Sonar Bangla."

Bangladesh's spectacular strides in economic development had to wait until some time after independence. A series of circumstances brought this about: the massive influx in foreign exchange remittances resulting from the growth in expatriate workers, the rise of entrepreneurship pioneered by the ready-made garment industry, and the extraordinary gusto with which Bangladeshis took to entrepreneurship. A nation of people, who barely two generations ago were farmers, ended up spearheading an entrepreneurial revolution that changed the country beyond recognition. Bangladesh became a leading global exporter of a slew of products, ranging from textiles to pharmaceuticals, and massive indigenous corporate houses engaged in a diverse array of activities. It's a modern-day economic miracle.

However, as we take justifiable pride in what Bangladesh has achieved, we ignore its serious challenges at our peril.

The challenges that the country faces today are also rooted in its history. One of the less salubrious developments in the recent past has been the moral bankruptcy of post-colonial elites. All over the developing world, the soaring rhetoric that accompanied the independence of former colonial nations stands in stark contrast with the sordid reality of independent nations deeply mired in authoritarian repression, political intolerance, and rampant corruption. Bangladesh, alas, has not been able to escape this curse, which continues to cast an ominous shadow on its future.

The sobering fact remains that Bangladesh's achievements, spectacular as they are, rest on a precariously fragile framework of governance whose quality in terms of accountability and transparency leaves a lot to be desired.

There is an oft-repeated facile contention that once we achieve economic progress, it will take care of everything else. This is a dangerous myth. The underlying fault lines in governance, left unaddressed, have the potential to bring down the entire edifice tumbling down.

These challenges are all the more alarming given the current noxious post-globalised climate, where the rise of an intolerant majoritarianism finds easy prey in restive populations which are angered by the unconscionably uneven distribution of the spoils of economic globalisation.

At this historic juncture, we contemplate Bangladesh's future with hope and some concern. Bangladesh has taken enormous strides in the past, and there is absolutely no reason why it cannot cross the hurdles it faces today. What we have to remember, however, is that this will only happen if we recognise the challenges and make a committed effort to address them.

Today, however, I wish to take a moment, with a heart filled with poignant affection and eyes misty with tears, to thank those who made this golden future possible with their enormous sacrifice. To those valiant, departed souls who brought us our independence, I join my nation in saying, "Amra tomader bhulbo na (We shall never forget you.)"


Ashfaque Swapan is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, US.


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