BANGLADESH was born out of an extraordinary war of liberation, fought primarily by ordinary people, against the professionally trained occupation forces of neo-colonialist Pakistan 49 years ago. The libertarian spirit that inspired the ordinary people of the country to fight the extraordinary war was generated out of the official Proclamation of Independence made in the second week of April which made some great promises for the people of the post-independence country. The historic proclamation clearly said that Bangladesh was to be ‘a sovereign’ people’s republic ‘in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice’. Exposed to brutal genocidal campaigns of the Pakistan army in the last week of March 1971, on the one hand, and inspired by the great promises made by the Awami League’s government-in-exile in the second week of April, on the other hand, the ordinary people, who had never been ensured ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’ within Pakistan, successfully took up arms against the occupying Pakistan army and liberated Bangladesh in the third week of December the same year, obviously at the cost of enormous sacrifice.
The people did discharge their patriotic duties, but the country’s ruling class/es, who have been managing the affairs of the state for the past 49 years under various banners, civil or military, have almost consistently worked against the great pledges that the Proclamation of Independence made. The result is obvious: inequality among citizens, the indignity of the vast majority of the people and injustice in society are so visible and so pervasive that it hardly needs any statistics to prove the menaces.
Equality, after all, is a political concept of egalitarianism that envisages the equality of status, rights and opportunities of all the citizens of a country, irrespective of religious, ethnic or gender identities of the citizens concerned. Then, ‘human dignity’ remains a universal democratic concept that underlines the inalienable right of every human being to be valued and treated respectfully, in the first place. The concept also encompasses the idea of the ‘dignity of labour’, particularly when it comes to the sharply stratified societies, which stresses the occupation of all kinds to be treated equally while no work, profession or job to be considered superior or inferior. Then again, ‘social justice’ is a democratic concept that calls for fair and just relations between individual citizens, society and the state while the principles of social justice could be materialised through an equitable distribution of public wealth in society and providing equal opportunities for citizens to fulfil their social roles, on the one hand, and ensuring the receipt of what is their due from society, on the other hand.
Given the simple definitions of the three ‘promises’ of the official Proclamations of Independence, the spirit of Bangladesh’s liberation war, in other words, even the biggest liar among elites, political or otherwise, whose governments have run the affairs of the state for the past 49 years, would not perhaps claim that subsequent governments have ever honoured any of the great promises while in power. Instead, all of them have practised, to varying degrees, the politics of public deception: pursuing social, political and economic policies that effectively strengthen the privileged minority while making rhetorical speeches about the great spirit of the liberation war. The result is there for all to see.
The inequality of income between the rich and the poor has consistently been widening since independence. While the richest 5 per cent of the households were 32 times richer than the poorest 5 per cent in 2010, the richest 5 per cent became 121 times richer than the poorest 5 per cent in 2015. Subsequently, Bangladesh’s ultra-rich with net worth of $30 million or more swelled at the rate of 17.3 per cent over the five years between 2012 and 2017, which is the highest in the world.
The minority rich and its state machine hardly think about the ‘human dignity’ of the poor. Industrial workers, particularly apparel workers, migrant workers and poor peasants, who remain the lifeline of the national economy, are pathetically looked down upon in society of the rich. Slum dwellers in cities and towns, who are great in numbers and keep the city life going in many different ways, live the most undignified life.
The question of ‘social justice’ for the vast majority of the poor is simply irrelevant in the country.
Be that as it may, a section of the ruling-class intellectual elite, particularly those having political allegiance to the Awami League that presided over the country’s liberation war, tends to reject the historic promises of the proclamation made in 1971 — equality, human dignity and social justice — to be the ‘spirit’ of the liberation war. They, rather, frequently argue that the ‘spirit’ was encapsulated in the ‘fundamental principles of the state’, adopted while formulating the constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1972. However, given the constitutional ‘promises’ that the ruling elite refer to as the ‘spirit of the liberation war’, which are still there in the ‘fundamental principles of state policy’, the ruling-class parties and governments have not only pathetically ignored the ‘promises’ enshrined in the constitutional provision in question but also pursued policies contradictory to the historically promised ‘fundamental principles’.
The constitution of the republic adopted in 1972 promises that ‘the principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism […] shall constitute the fundamental principles of state policy’.
Has this constitutional promise ever been honoured by the ruling-class political parties and establishments that have run the affairs of the state for the past 49 years?
Nationalism, to be brief, is a historically developed sense of ‘oneness’ among a people, based primarily on the common history and heritage of the people having same linguistic and cultural practices. Politically, the ‘national self-consciousness’ generated among a people not only helps them to achieve freedom from colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the coloniser/s, it also contributes to the creation of their own sovereign ‘nation state’ to protect and promote their collective political, economic and cultural interests in the global community of states. However, a ‘progressive’ nation state not only upholds the collective interests of its ‘own’ nationality, but also respects the dignity and interests of ‘other’ nationalities, if there is any, within its territories while a ‘reactionary’ nation state patronises a ‘jingoistic’ form of ‘patriotism’ that breeds in the larger society a false sense of ‘superiority’ over ‘other’ nationalities within and without its territories.
Bangladesh was liberated from the neo-colonialist Pakistan based primarily on Bengali nationalism. It was the ‘Bengali self-consciousness’, developed through various intellectual activism and political movements, which gradually drove the people of East Bengal to decisively fight against the political, economic and cultural chains of Pakistani colonialism and emerge as an independent state. In the long process of the Bengali struggles for autonomy and independence, particularly during the country’s liberation war, significant sections of ‘other’ nationalities of the country, the country’s national minority communities, in other words, fought against the occupation forces of Pakistan while many of them embraced martyrdom in the war. But when in power, the Awami League, the protagonists of the Bengali nationalism, refused to recognise duly, and they still do, the national minority communities. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which preaches ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ which is practically a kind of ‘Muslim nationalism’, also fails to politically recognise the separate ‘ethnic’ cultural identities of the national minority communities. In the process, while the preachers of Bengali nationalism ‘exclude’ the non-Bengali nationalities like the Chakmas, the Santals, the Garos or the Marmas, the protagonists of the Bangladeshi nationalities exclude the non-Muslim communities like Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities. Thus, ‘nationalism’ of both the principal political parties of the ruling classes boils down to a kind of jingoism, which can hardly unite the people of a country for achieving great goals.
Meanwhile, the ruling parties in question have hardly succeeded to display their ‘nationalist pride’, which usually generates out of a great war of national liberation like that of Bangladesh, particularly when it comes to power struggles. They hardly take time to seek foreign ‘interference’ when they are in trouble to retain, or return to, power in the face of political crises. It is only understood that the types of rulers who need ‘foreign support’, instead of the support of the nation, cannot pursue policies in the best interest of its people in running the affairs of the state; and, thus, they practically cease to be ‘nationalist’ power, no matter what ‘nationalist’ rhetoric they publicly utter day in and day out.
Then comes ‘socialism’, which the ruling party constitutionally adopted as a tenet of ‘fundamental principles’ of the state to pursue. The ‘principle’, after remaining out of the constitution for several years, has resurfaced in the constitution under the incumbents. This principle is, perhaps, a fundamental example of the ruling class politics of public deceit.
Socialism, to put it in simple political terms, is primarily about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, vis-à-vis the dictatorship of the bourgeois perceived to be exercised in the name of liberal democracy, in which the political party of the working classes establish and run the socialist state. In socialism, the state takes the means of productions of a country under its control and provides basic needs of life such as food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care for the people. However, since the ‘state’, any state for that matter, be it of the bourgeois or of the proletariat, always remains a coercive apparatus of the class in power, the ‘socialist state’ suppresses the bourgeois power in order to expand the hegemony of the proletariat — poor classes of the people, particularly industrial workers and peasants — and, thus, serves the interest of the larger society. However, the ‘socialist state’ is being built up only to be ‘withered away’ in the process of an egalitarian political, economic and cultural journey towards a classless communist society.
The Awami League, primarily the representative of the rising Bengali bourgeoisie within Pakistan that politically presided over Bangladesh’s liberation war, consolidated power in the post-independence country. The League at the time accommodated the idea of ‘socialism’ under certain circumstantial political compulsion, for the leftwing forces were quite influential in Bangladesh those days while a significant number of freedom fighters were under the influence of leftwing political philosophy. Under the circumstance, it would not have been easy for the League to ignore the popular idea of ‘socialism’ those days. Besides, the now-defunct United of Soviet Socialist Republic helped Bangladesh to get liberated when the capitalist United States of America helped Pakistan to suppress the Bangladesh liberation. In those days of the ‘cold war’ between the two camps of states, led by the USSR and the USA, the post-independence leadership of the Awami League had hardly any option but to join the Soviet camp. However, by joining the Soviet camp and adopting socialism as a state principle, the League leadership successfully disarmed thousands of members of the pro-Moscow Communist Party those days. However, the BNP regime under General Ziaur Rahman, which did neither have any headache about socialism nor did have any political compulsion to accommodate the communists at that point of history, struck down the principle of socialism, along with secularism, out of the state’s constitution in 1979.
The Awami League has also changed over the past decades. It has unambiguously adopted capitalism as its economic model of development. Nevertheless, the party has reincorporated socialism, along with secularism, into the state’s constitution in 2011.
While the revival of ‘secularism’ in the constitution remains a praiseworthy democratic action, that of ‘socialism’ appears to be a politically empty, rhetorical step — the politics of public deception, for the League’s fundamental political and economic policies have nothing to do with socialist ideals. The League at the moment remains a political party of the ultra-rich while the national parliament has been reduced to a club of the rich. The post-independence constitution promised that ‘a fundamental responsibility of the state’ will be to secure the ‘basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care’, but none of the promises is still, 49 years after the national independence, has been made legally enforceable rights of the citizens. While the state has become a highly coercive machine of the rich classes, the economic policies of the state continue to best serve the rich minority, perpetually contributing to the widening of income gap between the rich and the poor. This is the League’s socialism.
The next fundamental principle of the state that the post-independence constitution adopted is ‘democracy’. The present state of affairs with regard to ‘democracy’ remains simply abysmal, to say the least.
While ‘democracy’ is primarily about the equality of political rights, the democratic system of governance is supposed to ensure, in the first place, equal opportunities for all the citizens in terms of access to national resources and, thus, help shape their future in accordance with their inherent abilities. In a democracy, people’s elected representatives are supposed to run the government while the elections are expected to be held in a genuinely free and fair environment — free from partisan intimidation and the influence of illegal money, at least. Then again, an elected government is supposed to remain ever accountable to the people, in general, and informed public opinion, in particular. Besides, in a democracy, the ‘rule of law’, the rule of the democratic law that is, should always be there in place, under which laws would be applied equally, without any prejudice, to all the citizens irrespective of their political and ideological conviction, religious faiths and ethnic or gender identities.
Democracy, perhaps, is the most uttered word that the Bengali/Bangladeshi society has heard for decades while the people of Bangladesh have never tested democracy in the real sense of the term. In the first place, political leaders, activists and supporters of opposition parties in Bangladesh have never enjoyed, under any regime, equal rights and opportunities or access to public resources that those of the ruling party do. The question of ordinary masses to enjoy those rights, therefore, does not arise. The rule of law, which ensures an equal treatment of law for all citizens, remains elusive here. There are examples that the hand of law does not reach an alleged criminal, if s/he belongs to the ruling coterie, while instances are there that many crime suspects, or even the innocent, having no political connection or having connection with the opposition, are ‘punished’ unlawfully.
Meanwhile, the concept of democratic elections has practically been ruined, with that the idea of representative democracy buried, over the past few years, for the elections have become a sole affair of an axis consisting of ruling party activists, the civil administration and the law enforcement agencies, in which the question of independent voting has vanished. It is true that election itself is not democracy, but election remains the first important step towards a democratic governance. The idea of democracy, with such disenfranchisement of people, therefore, is not even worth discussing.
The ‘promise’ of secularism has also been exposed to a similar condition. Secularism is primarily about the separation of the state and religion. In a secular democracy, the state is neither to recognise any particular religion nor patronise any religious faith while religion remains a matter of personal practice by citizens in the private sphere of life. Nevertheless, the ruling Awami League defines ‘secularism’ as the state’s equal respect for all regions, which practically provides the opportunity to mix religion with politics and, thus, frustrates the original secularist idea of separation between the state and religion, or in other words, politics and religion. However, preaching secularism, even in the Awami League way, is directly contradictory to the retention of Islam as the ‘state religion’, which was introduced by the military regime of General HM Ershad in 1988. The official recognition of any particular religion by the state, after all, automatically degrades other religions to a lower grade or demotes the practitioners of non-state religions to a second-grade citizenry. This is, indeed, a political betrayal of the religious minority communities, many a member of which fought the country’s liberation war.
Evidently, the ruling class political parties of the country, or their successive governments, have failed to honour all the great promises that Bangladesh’s liberation war offered 49 year ago. Under such appalling circumstances, Bangladesh awaits new political movements to get rid of the existing politics of public deception, on the one hand, and materialise the essence of the historic promises of independence, on the other.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
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