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Bangladesh@50: The nation’s success story relies on its focus on the twin pillars of secularism and economic stability

From a war-ravaged nation struggling to find its feet to South Asia’s leading economy. Premier Sheikh Hasina has been leading the pro-independence front for three decades, aiming to preserve the nation's sovereignty, independence, and the citizens' fundamental rights


Updated: December 13, 2021 3:21:23 pm
dhaka, bangladeshA new day is born: Dhaka at present (Getty Images)

By Muntassir Mamoon

When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, it was a devastated country. Pakistani military force massacred more than three million people and raped more than five lakh women. Besides genocidal violence, there was massive destruction of infrastructure, food shortage, and collective depression. When Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father) took over the reins of the country, he even declared that he would not be able to provide anything within three years. The international forces at that time widely regarded Bangladesh as an “empty basket”.
However, within three years, and before his assassination in 1975, he was able to restore some stability in the country. Bangabandhu ensured an exemplary constitution within nine months. There were four principles in the constitution: democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism. The capitalist and Islamic worlds were unhappy with the last two principles. Domestic and international conspirators, along with the military, brutally murdered Bangabandhu with his family. It is to be mentioned, he was the first statesman who banned religious parties and the use of religion in politics.
After his death, Bangladesh was ruled by the military, parties allied to the military, and even the killers and collaborators of 1971. But the common people always struggled against these rules. From 1981, the fight for democracy and secularism went on under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina. She came to power in 1996, and again in 2008. For the last decade, she has been leading Bangladesh.
Remarkably, Bangladesh has turned into a developing nation in the last decade. The basic principles of the 1972 Constitution are being restored. Fundamentalism and religious terrorism, which held sway earlier, have been subdued. For the first time in South and South-East Asia, an International Crimes Tribunal was set up in 2009, whose main object was to investigate and put war criminals to trial.
A considerable change has come in infrastructure. Bangladesh’s GDP has been above six per cent for almost a decade. Let me give an example. The population was seven crores in 1971. Now, after 50 years, it has become almost 16 to 17 crore; cultivable land has decreased almost 20 per cent. Nevertheless, it is evident from the agricultural output that Bangladesh is almost self-sufficient in food. Statistics also demonstrate Bangladesh’s overall development. Our per capita income has now reached $2,554, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics data.
Bangladesh has achieved a growth rate of more than seven per cent per annum for three consecutive years. It has the highest growth rate in Asia. Although the growth rate in 2019-20 fell from the projected 8.2 per cent due to the COVID-19 pandemic (in which Bangladesh’s response has been exemplary), it is expected to exceed 6.54 per cent in the coming year, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics estimates.
The average life expectancy has increased to 73 years; the literacy rate has reached about 75 per cent; the number of students in the age group of 5-12 years going to primary school has increased to almost 100 per cent. Despite the decline in agricultural land owing to industrial expansion and urbanisation, Bangladesh ranks second in food surplus, garment exports, and internet-based employment. Bangladesh is now the third-largest freshwater fish producer globally, fifth in goat-meat production, fourth in rice production, seventh in mango production, third in vegetable production, third in leather-products export, and first in jute export. Development in different sectors, including agro-industries and services, has led to an expansion in GDP and a significant reduction in unemployment and poverty rates.

sheikh mujibur rahman, dhaka, bangladesh, sheikh hasina Sheikh Mujibur Rahman waving at people at his Dhanmondi residence in 1971, with his daughter Sheikh Hasina

It is widely known that Bangladesh’s politics is divided into two polar streams: pro-independence versus pro-Pakistani. Sheikh Hasina, as a worthy daughter of Bangabandhu, has been leading the pro-independence front for three decades, aiming to preserve the sovereignty and independence of Bangladesh and to establish the fundamental rights of citizens. Domestic and international agreements like Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (1997), Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (1996), The Land Boundary Agreement (2015), etc., were signed under her government.
However, the journey of Sheikh Hasina, and the journey of pro-independence politics has been thorny and dangerous. Like her father, she has continuously struggled against military rule and dictators. From the ’90s, fundamentalism and terrorism became one of the largest threats for Bangladesh’s stability, which Bangladesh eventually suppressed. Proper steps in fighting militancy and terrorism and focus on development in economy, healthcare and gender issues has increased the acceptance of Bangladesh in the international arena. The impact of overwhelming development is evident in every sector, from the literacy rate to women’s empowerment.
The trend of rising religiosity in all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations continues to generate tension in Bangladesh, where religious and communal conflicts have happened off and on. Nevertheless, Bangladesh holds on to its secular identity and did not become an Islamic state though 90 per cent of its population is Muslim. Although there are a lot of mainstream political parties that uphold an anti-secular political position, there is huge protest from civil society against these parties. The current regime also supports and facilitates secular values. As a result, Bangladesh has maintained secularism as a state principle that is widely regarded as an essential criterion of the modern state.
At its inception in 1971, most people reckoned Bangladesh would be a failed state. Fifty years later, it is now evident that though Pakistan is a failed state, in contrast, Bangladesh is an economically and socially developing secular country. That’s the beauty and achievement of Bangladesh.

Muntassir Mamoon is a Bangladeshi historian, scholar and the founder of the Genocide-Torture Archive and Museum in Khulna, Bangladesh. He is currently the Bangabandhu Chair at Chittagong University

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