It is inspiring to consider just how unique Bangladesh’s liberation was in 1971
Only one year and nine days separate the December 1970 Pakistan General Election from the victorious end of the Bangladesh Liberation War on December 16, 1971.
Such is the scale of suffering endured by so many people for the cause of Bangladesh’s independence, that with each year that passes, their legacy looks ever more remarkable.
As it should. Bangladesh today proves the most basic of cases for independence. Average life expectancy has grown from the mid-40s during the 1960s to over 72 years old today, which is a few years higher than both India and Pakistan, the states with which it was once combined under various forms of colonialism and monarchical rule.
Likewise, the nation’s relative success in managing population growth is giving it an edge in per capita GDP over the two larger countries.
It is a pity that the Bangladeshi independence struggle is often viewed abroad more through the prism of superpower intrigues and Indo-Pakistan conflicts and less as the culmination of long-standing aspirations for self-rule.
The victory of 1971 accomplished far more than simply changing the maps of the world. It was a true victory of the people by the people and deserves to be discussed that way.
At every stage, the ideals of liberty and democracy held centre stage. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won an overwhelming democratic mandate in December 1970, calling for the implementation of the Six Points charter for maximum autonomy in East and West Pakistan. This was both a common sense assertion of reality in the face of a flawed exploitative centralized state and a peaceful pragmatic call for federalized fairness. It was clearly endorsed at the ballot box by universal suffrage, not a violent call to arms.
It was the cynicism and genocidal bloodlust of Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that led to an intensely violent war against the people of Bangladesh starting in March 1971.
Amidst the brutal killings and mass rape that saw nearly 10 million (out of 75 million) people seek refuge in India, Bangladeshis demonstrated the best qualities of humanity in the face of its worst. There was nationwide popular resistance at all levels.
Despite intense pressures and incentives to collaborate with the junta’s occupying forces, the mass of people, most of whom lived in villages much poorer than today’s, showed much fortitude in refusing to support oppression. Joy Bangla, national solidarity, and picking right over wrong were the order of the day. The fight for freedom had the hearts and active support of the people, and with Indian help, defeated the occupiers before the year was out.
Within three months of victory, two-thirds of refugees had already returned from India and Indian troops had gone home, and in November 1972, Bangladesh formalized its constitution citing the “high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism.”
In all this, the founding generation of independence followed long cherished ideals. Bangladesh’s political history is built on popular movements for freedom from colonialism, exploitation, injustice, and poverty, the brutality of the war merely concentrated minds.
Due to the Muslim majority of pre-Partition Bengal being concentrated heavily in the poorer more agricultural East Bengal, opposition to feudalism and promoting the aspirations of Bengali Muslims has been an integral part of this political history. For the most part, the voting power of Bengali Muslims was expressed via the progressive and pragmatic politics of the Krishak Praja Party and the Bengal Muslim League.
The Awami League and its election win of 1970 emerged directly out of this history. The ideals of the People’s Republic and democratic, secular constitution of Bangladesh have deep, diverse roots.
As we all know though, idealism and national unity soon withered away after liberation.
Ever since, to the question “are we worthy?” of the founding generation’s ideals, it has been all too easy to answer no. For all the gains made since independence, inequality, injustice, and corruption run rife and politics remains dysfunctional. Bangladesh is full of paradoxes.
It is inspiring still though, to consider just how unique Bangladesh’s liberation was in 1971.
The US war of independence took over seven years to end. Turkey’s war of independence to evict occupying Western powers after the First World War lasted four years. And while “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the world’s most inspiring phrases, the US constitution of 1788 was never intended to grant universal suffrage, let alone abolish slavery or protect the rights of Native Americans.
This may be what Bernard-Henri Lévy was thinking of when I interviewed him for this paper in 2014 on his first visit to Dhaka since 1972, when he had worked after liberation for the Bangladesh Ministry of Economy and Planning:
“Principles are never practised perfectly. In America, the American creed is not practised in the jails of Nevada or in Guantanamo. In France, under Vichy, the French creed was nearly dead … between creed and reality, there is always a gap.” https://www.dhakatribune.com/uncategorized/2014/05/27/bhl-in-dhaka
While it is logical to think of principles as a lodestar to guide us, I fear this can also be used as an excuse for missing the target.
The people of today definitely need to do more to live up to the values upheld by the victory of independence. I think this is vital not only as a means of paying respect to the past, but as a means towards building a better tomorrow.
It is the generations to come that will benefit most from ideals being put into practice.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.