At its birth in 1971,Bangladesh was as much a country as it was a bundle of promises. Promises of freedom,egalitarianism,equal opportunity,multiculturalism and,above all,of secular democracy. How many of those promises has the country lived up to? It has displayed remarkable success in the social sector,and recently,in the economy. Democracy,though still flawed in many ways,is taking firmer root even though the first 20 years were tragic. At 40,Bangladesh represents a country that is still struggling with some fundamental issues of development,yet it is doing so with a newfound confidence,based on its tested ability to face challenges.
Born as the eastern part of Pakistan in 1947 because of religious similarity,it broke away from that union because of cultural dissimilarity. It was the Bengalis fundamental affinity to culture that the Pakistani leadership never understood,or tried to understand. For Pakistan,religion seemed to define everything,whereas for the Bengalis,while religion was a very important part,it was culture that held centre-stage. The communal nature of Pakistani politics threatened to,if not destroy,then pervert the Bengali language and culture. This realisation awakened the Bengali middle class to claim separate statehood. It started with the movement to make Bangla a state language of Pakistan,extending to the demand for regional autonomy,Bengali representation in the bureaucracy and the armed forces and due share of public funds for development,and finally ending with the war for independence in 1971.
The Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) was supposed to be everything that Pakistan was not; democratic,secular,egalitarian and inclusive,especially of the ethnic and religious minorities.Disgusted with military dictatorship under Pakistan,freedom and democracy were supreme priorities for the new state. And we did begin well. The 1973 constitution incorporated the finest of liberal elements from other constitutions. By holding elections the same year,our democracy and representative government got off to a flying start.
Tragically,that start turned out to be short-lived. The first derailment of our nascent democracy was brought about by none other than the founder of our state,Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,in January 1975,when he turned Bangladesh into a one-party state and nationalised the private media. The brutal military intervention of 1975 that killed Bangabandhu destroyed whatever was left of representative rule and brought in a military government that lasted in one form or the other till 1991,when a massive popular uprising against General Hussain Muhammad Ershads rule restored democracy.
Since then,we have been able to preserve the elected and representative nature of our government. With an unbroken 20 years of elected government,alternating between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL),democracy appears firmly entrenched. But our democracy remains severely flawed because of the authoritarian manner in which our governments run the country,the institutional weaknesses and the dysfunctional opposition (be it the AL or BNP) that has emasculated parliament by constantly boycotting it for the last 20 years.
Regardless of all its faults,looking back at 40,Bangladesh can take pride in the fact that,given its huge population,widespread poverty,illiteracy and other developmental challenges,not to mention natural calamities,we have been able to retain the fundamental tenets of a free society. Today,this should be celebrated as one of our biggest successes.
Secularism is a promise that we have not been able to keep. With the assassination of Bangabandhu and the coming of the military into power in 1975,the secular moorings of our constitution promulgated in 1973 stood seriously compromised. First,General Ziaur Rahman,who ruled from 1975 to 1981,deleted the word secular from the constitution. He also removed the ban on religion-based parties,rehabilitated politicians who opposed the birth of Bangladesh and allowed people accused of war crimes to return to Bangladesh.
Then General Ershad,ruling from 1982 to 1990,introduced Islam as the state religion. These two military rulers also used religious parties to create their own support base and indirectly reinforced communalism in national politics. To current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinas tremendous credit,religious bigotry and fundamentalism have been severely countered,with widespread public support. Secularism is back in our statute books.
In the last 40 years,Bangladeshs economy has performed much better than even its ardent promoters thought possible. Average growth,close to 6 per cent in spite of the global recession,surprised many and has given Bangladesh a new and much-needed confidence. The most striking success has been in the ready-made garments sector,of which Bangladesh is now the second largest supplier after China. The country has also made a breakthrough in some non-traditional sectors such as pharmaceuticals and ship-building. Though malnutrition is still prevalent,spectacular strides have been made in food production,feeding a population that has doubled since independence,from 75 million in 1971 to 150 million now. There has also been a significant rise in earnings from the expatriate labour force .In the last one decade,Bangladesh has cut its poverty rate by 10 percentage points. It is a tremendous success given the size of its population,resource constraints and limited land. Bangladeshs major challenge is the abysmal condition of infrastructure,namely electricity,gas,roads,highways and railways. Mobile phones stand out as an exception in terms of quality of service,dependability and reach.
NGOs have been a source of outstanding success for Bangladesh and responsible for much of its positive global image. From literacy,healthcare and education to the empowerment of women,NGOs have brought about a dramatic change. Their work is one of the underlying reasons that fundamentalism has not been able to penetrate rural society. However,in governance,we have been relatively less successful. Corruption has spread abuse of power,nepotism and partisanship in awarding government contracts is the norm. There is very little accountability and practically no transparency in the governments decision-making processes. There appears to be no respite from the continuing confrontation between our two leading parties. By abolishing the caretaker system to hold the next general election,the present Awami League government has drastically reduced the prospect of peaceful polls. Confrontation will probably intensify.
The normalisation of relations with India and the prospect of much greater regional and inter-regional connectivity have further increased the possibility of growth for Bangladesh. Political unrest at this juncture cannot but be bad news for the country. But then our politics has seldom showed sensitivity for the economy,as other democracies do.
At 40,Bangladesh is a confident,competent and competitive country. Given visionary,patriotic and honest leadership,Bangladesh could surprise the world. But the past tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot is still alive. Corruption and political conflict between the two major parties are among the darkest clouds on the horizon and our future depends on how we handle them.
The writer is editor of The Daily Star,Dhaka
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