What differentiates Bangladesh from its erstwhile oppressors?
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was only 51 when he brought about the freedom of Bangladesh and the birth of a new people.
In 1948, when he became involved in the language movement and began to move toward the objective of an independent identity for East Pakistan, he had not yet crossed his 30s. It is amazing to think that, from that point onward, this man ever again led a normal, peaceful family life. Of his 55 years on Earth, 13 were spent in jail, and only 37 in the outside world.
Of these 37 years, if we disregard 18 years of childhood, we see that Mujib had only 19 years to reach his objective. In those brief 19 years he created a new country, and the Bengali race was born anew.
What did the people of Bangladesh give him in return? The heartless slaughter of nearly his entire kith and kin, and false malignment during his lifetime and after death.
March 17,2020 was this great man’s birth centenary.
By 1948, it had become clear to Bangabandhu that a union with Pakistan was not conducive to survival. Though Pakistan was founded on the basis of religion, a great number of Hindus live in that country.
Though numerous Muslims lived in India, within a short period of time, India was able to adopt a secular constitution -- meaning there was parity between all religious sections of society. Pakistan, just as rapidly, started conspiring to make democracy weak at the very roots.
It is believed that the father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was assassinated, in a manner of speaking, and there was also a conspiracy to oust Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan from power. All these years later, Pakistan has still been unable to promulgate a universally-accepted constitution. At the drop of a hat, the civilian government is overtaken by the armed forces and practically no civilian government completes its term.
Breaking through Pakistan’s military and civilian bastions of bureaucracy to establish a separate identity for Bangladesh and its people was no mean task. It came at the cost of nine months of warfare, 30 lakh murders, and the rape of 2 lakh women.
The cruelty was frightful, barbaric. If looked at proportionately, the killings during the Second World War were less than what took place in Bangladesh. Don’t forget, there were a number of countries participating in the Second World War. In our War of Independence, there was one primary antagonist, Pakistan. Eight months in, India too became a participant. (Many countries who supported Pakistan then are now eager friends of Bangladesh.)
In this oppressive environment, it was only due to Bangabandhu that the freedom of Bangladesh was possible. No one else could have united such a divided country and such a divided race.
These divisions were clear from the time of the Language Movement(Bhasha Andolan). Prior to that, Bangabandhu had worked for the cause of Pakistan. But he quickly realized that a momentous mistake had been made.
While accepting the reality of Pakistan, Mujib began working to free Bangladesh from its clutches. He waited for the right moment and, by sheer dint of his leadership qualities, he united the people. Despite being a politician, he surpassed any military strategist and became the “General” of the “general public.”
After Independence and the promulgation of the Constitution, saving the economy of a country regarded as a “basket case” was an extremely tough proposition. Bangabandhu proved to be successful even in that, within just a year.
In the midst of the turmoil of independence, Bangabandhu was successful in bringing East Pakistanis a global, secular identity. To escape the clutches of Pakistan, the identity of a Bengali Muslim who was free from religious prejudice was vital. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to obtain the support of India and the Soviet Union.
It’s an open question whether our independence would have been achievable without the backing of these two countries; Balochistan and Sindh provide two cautionary examples. They too crave independence, but no country has come forward to intervene on their behalf and none ever will. Pakistan has sadistically crushed the hopes and desires of these two nations since its founding.
These days you often hear the cry ”Make us a Bangladesh” from different quarters of Pakistan. But, sadly, this cry is made with rancour, and not due to any love for Bangladesh.
The trials and tribulations that Bangladesh faced were emphatically greater than those faced by Pakistan. Pakistan is bigger, has far more natural resources, and then you have the massive improvements in infrastructure that came at Bangladesh’s expense. Thanks to this exploitation, the international community blithely labelled our country a “basket case.”
Because of East Pakistan’s economy, it was possible to develop a modern city like Islamabad. But there is no record of another similarly modern Pakistani city rising in the past fifty years. The Gwadar Port has brought Pakistan some international limelight, but that development is entirely thanks to China’s anti-India financing; those loans will reduce Pakistan to a state of penury.
By any indicator, it is obvious that Bangladesh is way ahead of Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan’s restless and underdeveloped people cry out to become another Bangladesh. These are hollow words of the inept.
Neither India nor Pakistan -- We are Bangladesh
Pakistan is primarily a unitary state. With the exception of Punjab, none of the provinces has a real say in the national conversation. Punjab has a voice because Punjabis, at 65%, make up a majority of the armed forces.
What is the greatest difference between Pakistan and Bangladesh?
While the military has ruled Pakistan for the greater part of 50 years, the armed forces haven’t been able to establish a political dynasty. Despite its control over national politics and finance, the military has been unable to create any kind of political regime.
Even now, successful political parties are either supported by the military or by dominant religious sects. There is simply no other option. It’s a saving grace that no Pakistani military chief has ever been able to establish a viable political party.
Still, militarism is forcefully inculcated since childhood, chiefly in the form of hatred towards India and scapegoating the political leadership for the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
The army is always one step away from power, and provides legitimacy for most governments. Even now, the cricketer who is prime minister has a political party built on the glorification of the martial force and religious dogma.
On the other side, what is happening in Bangladesh?
Though Sheikh Mujibur Rahman brought independence, national and international opposition intensified to such a degree that it became impossible for Bangabandhu to cope. I have already referred to the fact that he had called for a second revolution.
But, before that could begin, Bangabandhu, along with most of his entire family, was slaughtered. These killings were not merely a bloodbath, but a terrifying conspiracy.
No matter how loudly it is stated today that a few breakaway factions were responsible for the killing, what they actually wanted was to totally obliterate Bangabandhu and his ideals and principles.
This intention was made even more pronounced by the murder of four national leaders in jail on November 3, 1975, an act that was antithetical to the very idea of Bangladesh. Today, the self-proclaimed historians are composing a new history of Bangladesh.
No matter how big or small the progress of Bangladesh, we have also regressed to a large degree. On the 50th anniversary of independence the reasons must be analyzed, or for the next 50 years too we will be forced to carry this burden of moving backwards.
I had mentioned that Pakistan has been unable to form a military political party. Parties are destroyed, but they aren’t built. Just as Ayub Khan had done in 1958, the last —- General Musharraf — also behaved in a similar fashion. However, neither succeeded.
But in Bangladesh, swamped by a bloodbath and confronted by fiery shrapnel, two generals did not cry halt after wresting power, but actually formed two political parties. The basic damage to Bangladesh has been done through the formation of these two parties.
One of the oddest aspects of the creation of Pakistan, is the phenomenon of the ”mohajir” or refugees.
They are regarded as having a weakness for India; their political party in Sindh was, from the start, alleged to be working hand in glove with India. They failed to attain popularity in Pakistan. Ultimately, their leaders sought shelter in London. When the average Pakistani is asked about the mohajir, the response is always the same — they are traitors.
In 1971, a certain sect here not only opposed the independence of Bangladesh, but also killed freedom fighters and handed Bangladeshi women to Pakistani soldiers to be raped. Jamaat-e-Islami were rehabilitated after Bangabandhu was killed and given opportunities to become involved in politics.
The result was a desperate attempt to wash off stigma through multi-party democracy. Constitutionally, politics based on religion had been forbidden. However, nobody has ever brought up this constitutional injunction. Rather, a military chief gave up the four basic regulations of the Constitution through an ordinance; another strongman declared Bangladesh an Islamic state.
Despite the fact that they didn’t really revolt against the state, it was impossible for the Mohajir faction to play an active political role in Pakistan. By contrast, here, despite being anti-state, after only five years of independence, those who fought against the birth of our country were allowed to grasp the helm. This terrifying and fundamental truth can’t be denied.
According to globally accepted human development indicators, Bangladesh has moved far ahead of Pakistan.
The political groups of Pakistan continue to walk the path directed by their great-power patrons. They can’t overstep these boundaries or diverge from the interests of these powers. Thanks to the dual pull of China and the United States, Pakistan is sinking deeper into the mire.
Along with the religion-dominated countries of the Middle East, Pakistan is turning into a live and ticking religious time bomb. Since the 1990s, in the international arena, the country is seen as a self-destructive nation of bombers.
What’s behind this negative slide? The Pakistan military’s one true victory has been over the development of an open, democratic state. Whatever progress has been made in Pakistan was made for the benefit of military and bureaucratic elites.
No country can move forward if the majority are neglected and persecuted. And so, though Pakistan wants to become another Bangladesh, that goal is impossible as long as its raw display of military power continues.
In Bangladesh too a similar attempt was made after 1975 to control the state. It took five long years for politics to even make a start. By then, the damage had already been done. Politics had to remain the hands of despotic rulers -- a state sponsored economy, and groups formed by the military that were opposed to Independence: Razakar, Al Badr, and Al Shams.
By then the liberal leftist political parties of Bangladesh, the true allies of the Awami League, had withered.
In fact, after its defeat in the 1991 elections, the Awami League had to depend on bureaucrats, retired army personnel, and even businessmen. As with Pakistan, Bangladesh had to contend with permanent damage to the social infrastructure, economy, politics, and culture in the aftermath of two military regimes and their aligned political groups.
During the period from 1990-1995, the political infrastructure was totally destroyed -- either deliberately or by chance. It was a Bangladesh that was made as ineffective as Pakistan, run by the military and the bureaucrats.
First you had the killing Bangabandhu, followed by the jailhouse murders of the four national leaders. Then you had the assassination of General Zia and the grab for power. Since then, the claimants to military power have continued to target the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina. The pattern of slaughter has a Pakistani character.
Bangladesh has never found the strength to turn this pattern around, nor has it been permitted to do so. We must analyse and evaluate this inability of the people to make vital changes 50 years after independence.
Bangladesh is being freed from autocratic politics
Many regard 1991 as a milestone on the journey to a new democracy. Personally speaking, I am not ready to accept this.
Why? Because among those who started this journey, the three principle factions were not supposed to participate in national politics at all. Look at the manner in which the Bangladesh National Party was born.
• If Bangabandhu and the four national leaders had not been killed, would this faction have had any identity? Perhaps the majority of these politicians would have sought shelter with the Chinese Maoists and that would have done Bangladesh no harm -- on the contrary, it might have been good.
• If the BNP had not been born under the guise of a multi-party democracy, there would have been no need to bring them back to power. Ghulam Azam and other Jamat leaders would have breathed their last in London, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan.
• If General Zia had not formed the BNP, General Ershad would not have had the gumption to form a National Party. As a result, the Awami League and new groups following the socialist way of thinking would have had space to develop.
Political groups aided and sponsored by the military-bureaucratic combine would not have had the opportunity to bring the political state of Bangladesh to where it is today.
Even if our democracy would not have been as stable as India’s, it would have at least been independent. At this stage we must ask why Bangladesh’s politics followed the trend set by Pakistan and not India.
When Bangladesh attained independence, the entire country, particularly a major percentage of the intelligentsia, had dreamed of a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. It was the kind started in India right from 1947. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s democracy was basically secular. It acted as a protective amulet for many.
Among all the activities that Nehru undertook, democratic institutions like the judiciary and the electoral process were given such a strong foundation that India was able to endure. Not even Nehru’s best friend would claim he was without political flaws. But his greatest achievement was keeping India’s democracy away from the tentacles of the military and the bureaucrats.
On the other hand, right from the very outset, Pakistani democracy stumbled. The military and the bureaucrats had discovered the weakness of the politicians, their greed and their fear. The way Pakistan’s military and bureaucrats toyed with the national interest is almost without parallel.
Perversely, the Western democracies not only wholeheartedly supported Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic leaders, but also their unethical tactics. No matter how much Nehru moved towards the democratic world, he also tried to build up a neutral alliance, while Pakistan favoured militarism and was rewarded with Western support.
Needless to say, the unrelenting stance of Bangabandhu and his fellow leaders was instrumental in freeing Bangladesh from the tentacles of Pakistan.
The decision to take was whether independent Bangladesh would follow Indian democracy or, like Pakistan, move towards a strange mingling of guns and red tape. Bangabandhu decided to move in the direction of Westminster-style democracy.
But the generals and the bureaucrats led the country down a fearful path of instability. Right at the very beginning, Bangladesh was confronted by a famine-like disaster thanks to the non-cooperation of the Western democracies, along with stagnation within the country.
Like any other country embroiled in a war for independence, Bangladesh faced a deep ravine. To cross it, Bangabandhu called for a second revolution. But his homegrown enemies joined hands with international adversaries and Sheikh Mujib, his family, and the four political leaders were destroyed.
The military-bureaucratic combine established two political factions. The Awami League had to confront this trio of forces. While in power, the military was fundamentally destructive and remained indifferent to development and welfare.
The military didn’t only support religion-based politics; by the 1990s, it supported a terrorism-based politics. A swathe of local elites and the West supported this -- sometimes by pretending not to see.
It is the misfortune of Bangladesh that, for 21 years, Bangabandhu’s opponents were successful in thwarting the Awami League. The Awami League strove hard to attain power, made compromises, and won the electoral mandate in 1996.
From 2008, the AL has governed with progress as the only objective. There has been success as a result, and Bangladesh is no longer “a basket case.” The dawning sun of Asia, Bangladesh is now compared with Singapore or Malaysia in the 1980s.
What was lost during those turgid years of military-bureaucratic domination has yet to be calculated.
But I would like to end this discussion by saying that the project of once again vesting the people of Bangladesh with power began in 2008. Democracy and development must go hand in hand. As in the West, democracy can only flower when the economy is sound.
British democracy is in large part thanks to the wealth that was siphoned from Bengal and other colonies. That economic growth led to universal suffrage, women’s rights, and greater income equality in the UK.
Perhaps there will be many who don’t agree, but it can be proven that Bangladesh too is walking a similar path of economic development and democratic expansion. In a world full of disparity and division, of naked competition for power and wealth, democracy and human rights are merely tools to keep control.
Whenever the screws need to be tightened on Bangladesh, in New York, Washington, or London, seminars are organized. It might also be that The New York Times or The Guardian publish a negative column.
It might also be that a TV channel like Al-Jazeera produces a documentary like All the Prime Minister’s Men. (Qatar, of course, cannot be regarded as a democratic country by any means. Al-Jazeera survives on money from the Emir.)
Sheikh Hasina’s government has worked from the start to raise the standard of living; next, she has worked to create true democracy, though via a top-down approach. Yes, there is “system loss” thanks to corruption -- there are many examples.
But there are many like me who believe that a system like this will work in Bangladesh. Bengalis who are habituated to travelling to Singapore and Malaysia want development like these countries have to appear at the drop of a hat -- and Bangladesh is rapidly moving in that direction.
Perhaps in just a few years, Bangladesh will reach a new level of economic prosperity. From that point on, there will be a renewed democratic journey.
50 years after independence, it’s clear that 35 years were lost trying to establish the right direction in which Bangladesh should move.
The remaining 15 years have been spent strengthening our prospects. Though the direction in which to walk has still not been fully ascertained, it can be said that the people of this country have come to understand that they can no longer give any credence to the political legacies of two military leaders.
So far, the Bengali has been unable to come to a decision about a religion-based political system. Rather, we can observe a tendency to repeatedly try and compromise with this force. We can definitely hope on this anniversary that one day religion will be kept within the confines of the home, and Bangladesh will step forward with the power of true democracy.
National and international groups used all their might to make Bangladesh into a ‘basket case’. Two military-based political groups tied the albatross of extremism around the Bengali’s neck.
Despite all this, how did Bangladesh make so much progress? Western researchers call it a paradox. It is not a paradox, but only what the Father of the Nation said on March 7, 1971, just 10 days before his birthday: “It will not be possible to suppress us any longer.”
That is what happened! It was not possible to suppress Bangladesh any longer.
Happy Birthday my beloved Bangladesh, my beloved Motherland!
Masuda Bhatti is the Editor-in-Charge of the daily Amader Notun Shomoy, writing from Rochester, Kent. She can be reached at [email protected]