Tuesday, 25 January, 2022
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Between a ‘Hindu India’ and ‘Buddhist Myanmar’, a secular Bangladesh is under pressure

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Bangladesh’s independence came with a lot of losses, but a lot of hope. Forty-six years later its economic prospects remain bright, its democratic ideals have been hit.

I remember 16 December, 1971 very distinctly. I was in an Indian army camp in a place called Murti, north of Shiliguri, near the Bhutan border. It was a special camp set up to train freedom fighters, including the two batches of commissioned officers recruited from various camps spread along the bordering areas. I was a member of the second group.

Our training was just about complete when the war ended with the surrender of 93,000 well-armed Pakistani forces, to the joint command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini under Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora, the Commander of the Eastern Command of the Indian armed forces.

The events of that chilly wintry evening of 46 years ago are vivid in my mind. It was well after 3pm and the late afternoon rays of a setting sun draped the surrounding hills in a golden hue that gave the place a beauty supremely fitting for the glorious news that was about to reach us. We all had crowded around a one-band radio, intently following the surrender ceremony taking place at the Dhaka Race Course Maidan (now Suhrawardy Uddyan).

We were straining our ears to gather every word the commentator was saying, made difficult by his own uncontrolled emotions and the faintness of the air signals caused by the undulating mountains that surrounded our camp. The moment the instrument of surrender was signed in Dhaka several hundred kilometres away, we—a group of indomitable youth gathered from all parts of Bangladesh, from all strata of society, with varied educational qualifications and who formed the nascent group of future officers of the Bangladesh Army—burst out shouting in unison “Joy Bangla”. And the surrounding hillsides reverberated the battle-cry that had sustained us for the nine months of our Liberation War. It was perhaps among the shortest wars of liberation, but definitely one of the cruelest ever—millions were killed, about 20 million became refugees in India, more than two hundred thousand women raped and millions of others internally displaced, all in a space of nine months.

That evening was a dream come true in two distinct ways—first it signalled the beginning of Bangladesh as a free and independent country; and second, it gave us a feeling of tremendous relief for the safety of our families, whose physical survival we constantly worried about as the days of Pakistani occupation were coming to an end. We feared an intense battle for the capture of Dhaka, as there was a large contingent of Pakistan army present there. It was due to the superb endgame diplomacy on India’s part that prevented the massive spilling of blood that would have inevitably occurred in any battle for such a densely populated city.

As we hugged and jumped with joy, my thoughts, as a politically conscious young man, came naturally to focus on the future of the country that we had just freed. I remember my strongest sense of the moment was that whatever else we would be able to achieve or not, Bangladesh will be a country whose strongest creed would be secularism—that in the future, no member of any minority community would ever have even the slightest of reason to feel anything but an equal citizen of the country. I had doubts about our effectiveness in poverty eradication, removal of illiteracy or achieving the other desirable goals. But about ending discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity or gender, I had no doubt. Bangladesh would show the world how to treat its minorities. I remember feeling proud at this thought.

Forty-six years down the line, this dream of mine and of the freedom fighters, remains fundamentally unrealised. The reason for this are many and multifaceted, not the least being the murder of the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with most members of his family and the replacement by military governments who, like their Pakistani counterparts, always used religion to gain support. Over the years, as military and semi-military governments continued in power from 1975 to 1991, religion was ever more frequently used in politics. This led to the rehabilitation of forces that opposed the creation of a secular Bangladesh, and to the empowerment of those who practiced religion-based politics.

Today BNP, the country’s second largest political party, is in an open alliance with fundamentalist forces, including the Jamate-e-Islami, a party that participated in the genocide of Bengalis along with the Pakistani forces. There is no evidence of any weakening of that alliance in the near future.

Sheikh Hasina, though professing secularism, has made serious and fundamental concessions to fundamentalist forces, especially Hefazat-e-Islam. It is a madrassa-based, loose political force, whose support she is seriously courting with the coming elections in mind that are scheduled for December 2018 or early 2019. Seen in the context of India’s credentials as a secular force lying in tatters, and the rise of “cow protection” and other similar forces, Sheikh Hasina’s task is becoming increasingly difficult.

With a “Hindu India” on one side and a “Buddhist Myanmar” on the other, a secular Bangladesh is under two-pronged pressure.

Two bold actions by Bangladesh’s present ruling party have strengthened the country’s secularist forces. The first was the highly popular trial of the war criminals (the trial of people who participated in the mass killings in 1971 of Mukti Bahini and the Bengali people seeking independence) that was held over the last several years and the actual execution of some of the most notorious persons, who personified the atrocities committed during our Liberation War.

The second was a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards the extremist forces whose most grotesque manifestation was the brutal killing of 24 people at the Holey Artisan Bakery and Restaurant in 1 July, 2016. So far, most extremist outfits have been destroyed and their leaders killed or captured.

Today, the challenges before Bangladesh remain fundamentally the same—continued economic growth with the institutionalisation of democracy.

Broadly speaking, our growth story is a bright one, but our democracy story is running into greater and greater deficits.

At the time of independence our GDP was $7 billion, ADP was $120 million, literacy rate 20 per cent, poverty was 71 per cent and life expectancy just 50 years. Today they stand, respectively, at $250 billion (GDP), $20 billion (ADP), 72.76 per cent (literacy), 24 per cent (poverty) and 72 years (life expectancy). Exports stood at $35 billion last year and is estimated to be nearly $40 billion this year. In the last two decades we had an unbroken growth of over 6 per cent in spite of the ups and downs in the global economy.

Sadly, our democracy story is not so bright. Sheikh Hasina’s two consecutive terms (2008 to 2018) may give the appearance of stability, but it has come at the cost of draconian laws, narrowing of political space, severe police actions, no accountability and a serious lack of governance. Parliament has no opposition worthy of mention.  

While the ruling party, and all its affiliated bodies, regularly occupy the streets to hold activities, the opposition political parties and all dissenting groups can only hold rallies with police permission and that too under dozens of conditions. Fake cases keep opposition politicians running from court to court and the fear of arbitrary arrests keeps many from opening their mouths. Journalism is mired in steep self-censorship.

Such is Bangladesh’s story on its 46th Victory Day.

Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star in Bangladesh.

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  1. Bangladesh is a Muslim country. India is secular. Better read Indian constitution and don’t be a foolish writer.

    • Secular Bangladesh!! and it’s proved by the fast dwindling minority population, especially Hindus……..both headline and content are highly misleading…………………….

  2. Bangladesh is not a first world country that has a fully developed political system and opposition parties are often controlled by external agents, who only want to cause havoc and instability, who are willing to sell the country off for money and power. So its best to have a single dominant party that actually cares for the people. I think we need to be real about our expectations and support Bangladesh as it appears to be doing well after so long.

  3. It is a very good analysis of present day socio-politico-economic analysis of the Bangladesh! Despite a visionary and wise political leadership BD is progressing well on many accounts! But I would strongly disagree with Mr. Anam regarding sham and politically motivated trial of opposition! All international forums have denounced this trial as flawed and lacks international standards! Except India who helped creation of BD all major countries have raised their concern of mass political killing of opposition in the name of trial! It is also shocking that all major media houses are complicit in this circus of trial! Nobody is above law be it liberal/seculars or fundamentalists! But in the name of upholding justice media and liberals have become an useful tool of Hasina’s personal vendetta! No accountability no rule of law is not only bad for opposition but bad for it’s cheer leaders! A democracy is flawed and sham where opposition voices are muted with violent state machinery. Disappearance of opposition is bad omen for BD! Independent intellectuals and well wishers of BD must be united to oppose this diabolical leadership of present day BD!

  4. The old is extremely reluctant to give way to the new,& primitivity to Civilization.
    Often the latter defeat the former,like it was for few centuries in the world, post enlightenment, American Revolution etc.
    But now once again the forces of old and primitiveness seem defeated civilization!

    India, USA, Myanmar, most of Europe example.

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