BANGLADESH: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
A. F. Salahuddin Ahmed
The present state of Bangladesh has to be viewed in the light of the past because, as has been said, the present “is the child of the past and parent of the future”. In order to understand the problems and predicaments which confront the country at the present moment we shall have to turn back to the past. Without understanding the past we cannot understand the present. If we look at history we would find that during the past hundred years or so phenomenal changes have taken place in what may be called the psyche of the Muslims who form the great majority of population of this region. These changes have to be explained and analyzed in historical perspective.
After the establishment of the English colonial rule during the latter part of the eighteenth century the people of the South-Asian region came in contract with modern Western Civilization. The different responses of the two major communities of this region namely, Hindus and Muslims, to the Western impact led to uneven development of the two communities. The attitude of the Hindus in general was positive and pragmatic. During the long period of Muslim rule the Hindus were able to maintain their existence by cooperation with the Muslim rulers. Thus they did not hesitate to learn Persian, the court language of the Muslim rulers and were able to gain many advantages. They were able to win the confidence of the Muslim rulers particularly the Mughal emperors and were appointed to high positions in the state. During Muslim rule the Hindus also continued to practice their religious and social customs without any interference from the rulers. After the establishment of the British power the Hindus had no difficulty in adjusting themselves to the new situation. They readily cooperated with the new rulers and began to learn English and thus were able to secure many advantages. Through the medium of English language the Hindus came in contact with modern liberal and rationalist ideas of the West which greatly influenced their life and thought. This led to the renaissance and modernization of Hindu society.
The Muslim attitude to British rule and Western civilization was, on the other hand, largely negative and impractical. They regarded the establishment of British rule as a calamity and failed to adjust themselves to the new situation. They refused to break with the past. They were totally unable to understand and appreciate the fact that the British rule had brought in its train new ideas and new forces that were bound to bring about far-reaching and revolutionary changes in course of time. While the Muslims looked backwards and dreamt of winning back their lost power and reviving their past glory, the Hindus looked forward and made positive response to the challenge of the age. In course of time Hindu society produced such leaders like Rammohun Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore as their pioneers and pathfinders. These great men were not just leaders of Hindu society; they were harbingers of modernism and torch bearers of civilization. Leaders of such stature did not appear in Muslim society.
The backwardness of the Muslim community was due to various causes. One might say that Muslim society has always been confronted with a dilemma of being pulled from to opposite directions: the past and the present. On the one hand, there is the pull of the past; on the other, there is the call or pressure of the present. This absurd situation has produced utter confusion and disarray in the Muslim intellectual realm. The backward-looking and reactionary movements like the so-called wahhabi and faraizi movements of the nineteenth century which aimed at reviving the ancient Islamic order as it existed in the days of the Prophet Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, had done irreparable harm to the Muslim community. The great masses of Muslims inhabiting the rural areas of Bengal for ages had developed what may be called a non-communal and spiritual-humanist folk culture which they shared with Hindus and other communities of the region. Generally speaking, they lived in peaceful coexistence and harmony. Foreigners who visited Bengal in the eighteenth century were struck by the absence of any kind of communal discord or conflict in this part of the world.  This syncretistic cultural tradition and way of life came under virulent attack from ill-educated and fanatical mullahs and their indoctrinated peasant followers. The wahhabis and the faraizis of the early nineteenth century are the progenitors of the present-day exponents of the fundamentalist or radical Islamist such as Jamait-e-Islami and such other militant out-fits as Harkat-ul-Jihad, Jamait-ul-Mujahiddin Bangladesh (JMB).
Till the middle of nineteenth century they had in general shunned English or modern education. During the second half of the nineteenth century some Mulsim leaders like Nawab Abdul Latif tried though belatedly to promote English and modern education among the Muslims. But his efforts lacked sufficient commitment and support. Besides, there was much contradiction in Abdul Latif’s ideas. He advocated English education solely out of material consideration as leverage for jobs in the colonial service. But he would have nothing to do with English liberal or reformist ideas. Abdul Latif feared that the religious belief of the Muslims would be greatly weakened if they came under the influence of modern Western education through the medium of the English language. Thus, while Abdul Latif advocated English education for sheer practical reasons, he strongly upheld the out-moded and traditional religious-based Madrasa education system. Abdul Latif bitterly opposed the progressive views of his two other contemporary Muslim leaders, namely, Syed Amir Ali and Delwar Hossain Ahmed who had advocated the abolition of the Madrasa education and replace it with modern English education. The British government did not want to antagonize Muslim public opinion which was then very much conservative. In fact, it was chiefly due to the influence of conservative Muslim leaders like Abdul Latif that two parallel systems of education, one traditional religious-based Madrasa system, and the other, modern secular education, were perpetuated in Bengal. This had an adverse consequence on the intellectual development of Muslim community.
In fact, the coexistence of two distinct trends in Muslim thought, religious and secular, have deeply affected the subsequent development of the Muslim community. This dichotomy is noticeable in the national consciousness and political development of the community.
South Asia had developed along two parallel and distinct trends. One trend of nationalism which was secular in character was represented by the Indian National Congress. It was established in 1885. Those who upheld this trend of nationalism believed that since the Indian subcontinent was the homeland of different religious communities, their religious, political and economic interests could be preserved only through secular nationalism. Although an overwhelming number of members of the Congress came from the majority Hindu community, a considerable number of Muslims had also joined the Congress and a number of them were even elected President of that body such as Badruddin Tayabjee, Maulana Mohammad Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr. M A Ansari and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. These Muslim members of the Congress believed that the mixture of religion and politics would be harmful to both. They maintained that the interest of the Indian Muslims and for that matter all religious communities could only be effectively protected by secular nationalism and not by communal or religious nationalism. But for a variety of reasons political and economic, as well as religious exclusiveness and communal feeling which had overwhelmed the minds of the great majority of Muslims, they eventually turned towards separate Muslim nationalism. This was the second trend of nationalism which was upheld by the All-India Muslim League which was established in 1906 at Dhaka. It was this feeling of Muslim separatism that eventually led to the creation of the strange and cumbrous political structure called Pakistan.
The basic idea which created Pakistan has now proved to be a myth. The demand for Pakistan was based on an unhistorical assumption that Muslims of Indian subcontinent since they adhered to one common religious faith-Islam, they belonged to one separate and distinct nation and represented one separate and distinct culture. Therefore, their hopes and aspirations could only be fulfilled if they could establish a separate homeland of their own, that is, Pakistan. But history tells us that Muslims living for ages in different parts of the subcontinent have never formed a single homogeneous community. This is particularly true of the Bengali Muslims who constituted more than half of the total population of South-Asia. Their language, culture and way of life were totally different from Muslims of other regions of the subcontinent. Muslims of the north-west and upper regions of the subcontinent generally are very orthodox and conservative in their religious belief and social practices. They strictly adhere to the classical or fundamentalist tenets of Islam. Their social attitude is exclusive and uncompromising. are extremely intolerant of other religious faiths. The Bengali Muslims on the other hand, are much less conservative in their religious views and observances. They are also tolerant towards the non-Muslims. In their social practices the Bengali Muslims are much closer to the Bengali Hindus then they are to the Muslims of other regions. In fact, Bengali Hindus and Muslims have always been proud of their common language and rich cultural tradition. The two great Bengali poets Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam both have been adored as their common national poets.
For various reasons chiefly political and economic, the Bengali Muslims had supported the demand for Pakistan. But soon after the creation of Pakistan Bengali Muslims were alarmed at the attitude of Pakistani ruling elite which was predominantly non-Bengali and Urdu and Panjabi- speaking. In the name of Islam and national integrity of Pakistan these elements sought to strengthen their hold over the whole region of Pakistan by making Urdu as its state language. The Bengalis particularly the student community bitterly protested against this move which they regarded as an attack on their language and culture. Until now the Bengali Muslims were somewhat oblivious of their Bengali cultural identity. They seemed to give more importance to their Islamic religious identity than to their territorial Bengali identity. But as a result of anti-Bengali attitude of Pakistan government the Bengali Muslims were beginning to be more conscious of their distinct Bengali identity and rich cultural heritage. It was in this context that the historic language movement had started. Badruddin Umar has aptly described this remarkable transformation in the Bengali Muslim psyche as evOvjx gymjgv‡bi ¯^‡`k cÖZ¨veZ©b that is, return of the Bengali Muslims to their native land.  In fact, it was through the language movement that Bengal Muslims began to discover their distinct Bengali identity. They were aroused by a new spirit of patriotism. The new Bengali consciousness which was aroused by the language movement was epitomized by the venerable Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, in his famous presidential address delivered at the concluding session of the East Pakistan literary conference held at Dhaka on 31st December 1948. He said Avgiv wn›`y ev gymjgvb †hgb mZ¨, Zvi †P‡q †ekx mZ¨ Avgiv evOvjx (While it is a reality that we are Hindus and Muslims, the greater reality is that we are Bengalis).  In these memorable words of the learned Professor were enshrined the core and sprit of the newly-awakened Bengali national consciousness. It was this collective consciousness of the people of East Bengal which constituted the eastern province of Pakistan. There is no doubt that this new consciousness of Bengali-speaking people of this region irrespective of their religious faith was secular consciousness which deeply affected subsequent political developments. It may be noted that some important leaders of the Muslim community like AK Fazlul Huq, Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani who had been hitherto strong supporters of Pakistan movement and without whose support perhaps Pakistan would not have been created-, they too were disgusted and disillusioned with the narrow and communal politics of the Pakistani ruling elite. They now totally eschewed religious-based communal politics and began to work for the establishment of a secular and truly democratic political order in Pakistan. This is how the movement for self-determination and autonomy of the people of the eastern region of Pakistan, that is, Bangladesh, had started. It was through this movement that the newly-awakened Bengali national consciousness gained momentum. As noted this consciousness was secular in character and it was fully reflected in the changing politics of the time. Thus out of the Muslim League was born the Awami Muslim League and very soon the Awami Muslim League was transformed into Awami League- a truly secular political party. By 1970 the Awami League had become the national platform of the people of Bangladesh and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman now acclaimed Bangobandhu (Friend of Bengal) had emerged as their undisputed national leader. Under his bold and charismatic leadership the people of all religious communities of this region- Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians as well as the people of tribal areas were united as a single nation as they were never before. They fought unitedly for establishment of democratic rights and self-determination. This struggle eventually led to the liberation war of 1971 which resulted in the emergence of independent and sovereign state of Bangladesh.
But there were some people inside the country who had opposed the independence of Bangladesh. They continued to nourish strong pro-Pakistan feelings. During the war of they had actively collaborated with the Pakistan army and had committed such inhuman crimes against the Bengali civil population such as murder, rape, arson. Again, Pakistan was eager to take revenge for its ignominious defeat in 1971 war. The enemies of Bangladesh lost no time in organizing conspiracy to overthrow the Mujib government by any means and install a pro-Pakistan regime in the country. The violent military coup of August 15, 1975 was in fact the outcome of this conspiracy. After the brutal killing of Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most members of his family the military junta who had seized power embarked on a systematic plan to reorganize the Bangladesh state on the model of Pakistan virtually transforming it into a second Pakistan. Within the next two decades they had nearly succeeded in doing so. The two army chiefs, General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussain Mohammad Ershad and also Begum Kahleda Zia during their tenure had out of intense hatred for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League deliberately undertook a policy of Islamization and Pakistanization of Bangladesh to such a ridiculous extent that it had made us the laughing-stock of the world community.
The Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina once again came to power in 1996, twenty-one years after the assassination of Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the forces of Islamisation and Pakistanization had been so deeply entrenched that it was not possible to rid the country of their baneful influence. Nor was it possible to restore the secular image of Bangladesh. The chief reason was that the Awami League did not posses two-third majority in the Parliament which was necessary for bringing back the secular Constitution of 1972. Nevertheless, the new Awami League government was able to achieve some notable success in certain fields such as i) signing of long-term accord with India on Ganges water issue; ii) peaceful settlement of the Chittagong Hill Tracts dispute; iii) initiating and conducting the trial of Bangobandhu’s assassination; iv) starting the process of trial of the Jail Killing of November 1975. Besides the Awami League government made some positive efforts towards disaster management, removal of illiteracy, alleviation of poverty and promotion of economic growth.
BNP and its supporters seemed to have been exasperated at these achievements of Awami League. All kinds of attempts were made by them to overthrow the Awami League government. The BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami members of Parliament deliberately started boycotting the Parliamentary sessions on flimsy grounds. They also started a smear campaign against Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League leaders. It appears that the Awami League had failed to counter the situation in bold and effective manner. What was needed most was to reorganize the party and strengthen the government by embarking on a massive programme of reconstruction and development particularly in the rural areas, root out all vestiges of corruption, strictly enforce the rule of law and project a clean and transparent image of the Awami League party and government. This was not done. To meet the opposition challenge and criticism the Awami League government took rather an over-cautious attitude of appeasement and compromise, vainly hoping that this policy would calm down the hostility of their opponents. But this not happen. On the contrary this policy proved disastrously counter-productive.
Let me explain this situation some what more clearly. As has been observed General Ziaur Rahman soon after coming to power towards the end of 1975 had embarked on process of bringing Bangladesh closer to Pakistan. This he sought through a massive programme of Islamization. Secularism which was incorporated in the Bangladesh Constitution as state principle was erased and in its place was inserted the opening verse of the Qur-an Bismillah hir Rahmanir Rahim that is, in the name of Allah, the merciful and the beneficent. The practice of beginning public speeches with bismillah was introduced, and all public meetings and functions began with recitation from the Qur-an. It should be noted that before 1975, no Muslim political leader such as AK Fazlul Haq, Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and even Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani who was a religious-political leader, did not use bismillah while addressing public gatherings. Nor was Qur-an recited in their political meetings and functions. The military rulers of Bangladesh had deliberately started a conspiracy to change the secular character of Bangladesh state and transform it virtually into a second Pakistan. They began the use Islam in an indiscriminate manner and spread the virus of communal hatred against non-Muslims and thus destroy the national unity of the Bengalis which had helped them to win their independence. Deliberate propaganda was made to arouse anti-Indian feelings among people. All kinds of machinations were employed to make Bangladesh dependent on Pakistan. Another military leader, General Ershad, who seized power after overthrowing the elected civilian President Justice Abdus Sattar, went a step farther towards Islamization by making Islam the state religion of Bangladesh. At his direction Friday was declared as weekly holiday instead of Sunday. In fact, through this process of Islamization Bangladesh under Ershad became, one might say, more Pakistani than Pakistan.
The Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina which came to power with slender majority in 1996 could not stem this backward trend. On the contrary, for somewhat strategic reasons it seemed to accept this unenviable situation. In order to counter the offensive and criticism of the opposition Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League leaders in their zeal to prove that they were not less Islamic, also started the BNP-Jamait practice of using bismillah in their speeches, Similarly the Awami League public meetings and functions began with recitation from the Qur-an. In the Awami League posters and notices Avjvn& me© kw³gvb, Bengali version of Allah hu Akbar (God is Great), began to be printed. But all these gestures not only proved ineffective but appeared to be positively harmful. Despite some concessions given to the BNP and its cohorts and compromising attitude shown towards them, their enmity toward Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League continued as strong as ever. In fact, the compromising attitude of the Awami League towards the BNP was taken as weakness. Sheikh Hasina the Awami League leaders should have realized that those who were using Islam for sheer political gain and self interest, as well as the reactionary and fundamentalist Islamic religious bigots would never give up their hostility towards Sheik Hasina and the Awami League despite the latter’s pretension to be champions of Islam. The Awami League’s debacle in October 2001 election clearly proved that the absolutely wrong and utterly immoral policy of trying to win popular support and gain political power by indiscriminate use of popular religious feelings of the illiterate, and semi-illiterate people and supporting their popular prejudices and superstitions would not bring fruitful results. If Sheikh Hasina and her party had during the period they were in power in 1996-2001 could boldly face the challenge of the forces of evil and succeeded in eradicating corruption and suppressing disorder, and by establishing what may be called good governance in the true sense of the term, then perhaps such humiliating and unbelievable defeat in the 2001 elections would not have taken place. Putting the blame on others for one’s own failure does not help. Taking advantage of the Awami League’s weakness and short-comings and using all kinds of machinations and subterfuge the BNP under the leadership of Begum Khaleda Zia won spectacular success in the elections of October 2001 and formed a coalition government in partnership with Jamaat-e-Islami, which had opposed the liberation war of 1971. Within a short time however, the people were disillusioned. They were tired and exasperated at the limitless corruption and misrule of the BNP-led coalition government. The image of Bangladesh in the out-side world was greatly tarnished. After the government completed its five year term, a Caretaker Government according to the Constitution took over power. Its main responsibility was to hold the next election within three months. But on the issue of forming the Caretaker Government the BNP and Jamait had begun to indulge in such dirty and dangerous game that it brought the country on the brink of anarchy and civil war. Fortunately at this critical juncture as a result of the intervention of the Bangladesh army the situation could not deteriorate and the country was saved from a major catastrophe. Here it would be necessary to explain the great change that has taken place in the character of the Bangladesh army itself during the last two decades or so. As has been said after the 1975 coup the Bangladesh Army had taken over the state power. In order to consolidate its illegal action it had begun to indiscriminately exploit the religious feelings of the people. The entire state machinery and society were Islamaized and brought closer to Pakistan. The military rulers taking full advantage of the international cold war situation and obtaining support from China, USA and Saudi Arabia took up a strong anti-Indian stance. Later, after the cold war had ended and the rise of Islamic religious militancy emerged as serious threat to the Western powers, there was a major change in the international scenario. Since there was a wide-spread suspicion that the Islamic militants were receiving protection and assistance from the military intelligence services of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Western powers were alarmed. Pakistan because of continuing violence and disorder came to be viewed in the West as a rogue state and Bangladesh chiefly because of misgovernment and corruption, a nearly-failed state. As a result, both Pakistan and Bangladesh faced the danger of becoming isolated from the developed countries of the West. This situation threatened the special interest of the Bangladesh army. A great many of them had actively fought against Pakistan during the 1971 liberation war and still nourished the ideal of secular Bengali nationalism. They did not to toe the very negative anti-Indian policy of Pakistan. They believed that if Bangladesh followed an independent foreign policy solely in accordance with its own self-interest, it would gain much benefit in the changed world situation. Already the Bangladesh army was largely dependent on Western aid. A great number of Bangladesh army personnel were serving in the UN Peace-Keeping Force which had proved to be very lucrative. army feared that the pro-Pakistan policy of the BNP regime would harm its special interest. The fear greatly increased after the most daring attacks made by the Islamic militants on the World Trade Center in New York and also on the Pentagon in Washington DC on 11 September 2001. The apparent failure of the Muslim states to curb the terrorist activities of the Islamic militants had already affected their relations with Western powers. This situation also affected Bangladesh. We have seen how during the BNP-Jamait regime the Islamic militants under different names such as Harkat-ul-Jihad, Jamait-ul-Mujahhiddin Bangladesh (JMB) had greatly increased their activities. These elements had been operating under the protective umbrella of BNP and Jamaat as well as certain sections within the civil administration and the armed forces who still nurtured pro-Pakistan and anti-Indian feelings. In recent years quite a number of noted intellectuals and liberal and secular-minded politicians had been killed by these fanatic militants. Among the victims were noted writer Professor Humayun Azad of Dhaka University, well-known economist Professor Yunus of Rajshahi University and widely respected Awami League leader Shah A M S Kibria. Bomb attacks were also made by the Islamic militants on the former British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury injuring him seriously. Attacks were also made on cinema halls, cultural institutions like Udichi and Chayanot and also on the Communist Party office. The chief target of the Islamic militants however has been Sheikh Hasina. There have been several attempts to assassinate her. In one such attack made on August 21, 2004, one of her close associates and a top Awami League leader Mrs. Ivy Rahman (wife of Mr. Zillur Rahman, President of Bangladesh Republic) along with many others were killed and many more were seriously injured. The failure of the BNP-Jamaat coalition government to arrest the culprits and bring them to trial greatly tarnished the image of the regime.
developments produced deep concern among the officers and the rank and file of Bangladesh army. By now they seemed to have realized that the United Nations and the world community in general did not favour military rule or army’s involvement in politics. They would strongly support democratically elected civil governments. Under the circumstances the Bangladesh army sought to preserve its interest and privileges by giving up political ambition. Many officers of Bangladesh army who belonged to the new generation were well-educated. Their outlook was modern and secular. They supported a democratic system of government under which their special privileges would be protected. They now tried to distance themselves from the reactionary and dirty religious-based politics of the BNP-Jamaat. One might say that General Moin U Ahmed, former chief of the Bangladesh Army, was the representative of this new generation of army officers. We have seen how in a very critical moment the army under General Moin’s leadership had intervened and compelled President Iajuddin Ahmed who had allowed himself to serve as a tool of BNP-Jamaat coterie, to resign from his self-appointed position of Chief Adviser of Caretaker Government. General Moin also had played a vital role in making the appointment of a new and truly neutral Caretaker Government under Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed as Chief Adviser. According to the Constitution the Caretaker Government was to have remained in office for not more than three months during which time the parliamentary election had to be completed. But this new Caretaker Government remained in power for long two years. One might say that this was the time when the country faced a very critical and extraordinary situation. Law and order had almost completely broken down and circumstances did not exist for holding a free and fair election. The new Caretaker Government had to remain in power for two long years solely on the ground of what may be called ‘doctrine of necessity’. However, during its tenure in office the Fakruddin government had achieved what had until now appeared to be impossible. For the first time the process of providing National Identity for every adult citizen was completed. Then the existing voter list was also updated. And, finally a truly free and fair election was held in a peaceful and orderly manner which won the praise of international community. This was certainly a great and historic success. There is no doubt that without the active support and involvement of the Bangladesh Army this stupendous undertaking could not have been completed.
But while we laud the achievements of the army and the Caretaker Government, we cannot help expressing our disapproval of some of their actions which appeared to blatantly rash and immature. Too much power like too much affection has a blinding effect. It is not uncommon to see that some people when they come to possess excessive power tend to lose their sense of proportion or common sense and behave like all-knowing pundits. This was reflected in a number of actions taken by the Caretaker Government. Thus by trying to implement the so-called ‘minus two formula’, two top-most leaders of the two major political parties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, were arrested and confined in special jails for nearly one year on corruption charges that could not ultimately be established. Also, quite a large number of leaders of both the political parties were arrested on charges of corruption and put on trail. Some of them were even convicted and sentenced to long-term imprisonment. But their cases too were conducted in such a clumsy manner that almost all of them through legal loopholes got acquitted. What the Anti-Corruption Commission could have done and this would have been more sensible, was to collect all information regarding alleged corruption and misdeeds of the political leaders and instead of arresting them and sending them to prison, publish a White Paper on all such cases with a irrefutable evidence and documents. The result of such action would have been spectacular. The politicians against whom charges of corruption were made would then had to face the court of public opinion. In that case these leaders would not have dared to move around in public masquerading as innocent victims of vicious law.
, all is well that ends well. For the first time in history national election was held in this country in such a grand, peaceful and credible manner. This was indeed an outstanding achievement of the army backed Caretaker Government.
In the parliamentary election the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership won a landslide victory. The Awami League had before the election formed a Grand Alliance with the Jatiya Party of General Ershad and a leftist party, the Workers Party led by Mr. Rashed Khan Menon. The Awami League now formed the government with two members from these two parties.
Time has not come to pass judgment on the performance of this new Awami League-led government. But my feeling is that Sheikh Hasina is trying to conduct the governmental activities with much caution. In fact, she herself is passing through what we call in Bengali AwMœcix¶v that is test of fire. She has inducted into her cabinet quite a number of persons from the younger generation who are highly educated and totally committed to the ideals and values of Liberation War. She has kept senior leaders of her party in good humour by making them Presidium members, Advisors and Parliamentary Committee members.
Like the young American President Barrak Obama, Sheikh Hasina has come to power with the slogan of bringing about change in the existing order. It is indeed a very uphill task. Change cannot be imposed from the above. The desire for change, the will to change existing order must be created in the minds of the people before any change could be introduced. Only through a process of self analysis, self examination and self purification one can attain inner strength which is essential for embarking on a great venture for change. Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League leaders and workers must realize this fundamental maxim. We get very much upset when we see that the Awami League government is unable to control the abnormal rise of prices of essential commodities causing immense suffering to the common people; when in the name of Chattra League and Jubo League miscreants indulge in unlawful and criminal activities such as extortion, snatching of tender papers, abduction and other criminal activities, while the law enforcing authorities remain silent. Such incidents certainly tarnish image of the government. The government must therefore strictly enforce law and order. What we call good governance should be established in every field of administration. There should be absolute transparency in the performance of the government. People must come to believe that this government is absolutely impartial and can truly deliver the goods.
we have to tackle a big administrative issue. Without decentralization of power democracy in the real sense cannot be established. In Bangladesh we have in the name of parliamentary system established a strange kind of administration. Instead of parliamentary democracy it could be named Prime-ministerial dictatorship. All power is concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister and since it is not humanly possible for her to look into every detail of administration, the Prime Minister’s Office is often crowded by people some of whom could exercise baneful influence. Under the circumstances the ministers cannot act independently. If we look at history we would see that the parliamentary or constitutional system of government came into existence in early eighteenth-century Britain in a very special historical circumstance. The characteristic feature of the British Constitution is that it not a written constitution. It is a conglomeration of customs and usages developed through the exigencies of times. In fact, British Constitution consists of series of unwritten conventions. The British Cabinet functions on the basis of collective leadership. The British Prime Minister holds the position of ‘first among equals’. He dose not generally interfere in the activities of his other colleagues in the cabinet. The ministers are independently responsible to perform their functions. The Prime Minister merely coordinates their activities. This system is more or less followed in a quite successful manner in India.
is another matter which has to be addressed. In modern democratic system it is the major political party which forms the government which again functions in accordance with the political ideals and programme of the party. The party’s secretary general or chief executive dose not normally hold any government position such as cabinet minister. He has to act as a watch-dog of the government. In fact, the party serves as a bridge between the government and the people. If the party executive becomes a cabinet minister he cannot give his fulltime and attention to the organizational work of the party. Consequently the party is neglected and faces the danger of being isolated from the people. This is a situation fraught with great danger for the ruling party. We remember that in 1956 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman then a young leader, resigned from the post of Provincial minister to become General Secretary of Awami League with a view to strengthen the party.matter of serious concern is the growing unrest and discontent among the students and youth resulting in their involvement in disorderly activities and various kinds of corruption and crime. I believe this unfortunate situation has arisen chiefly because we have not been able to put up before them any lofty ideal nor have we been able to engage them in any constructive and useful activity. A national volunteer corps could be raised with senior level students who enjoy a long recess immediately after their final examination and have practically nothing to do, as well as unemployed youth, and involve them in a well-conceived and integrated programme of national reconstruction particularly in the rural areas. I believe it would not be difficult to get international assistance and cooperation in undertaking such a project.
Finally, I would make some observations on our foreign policy. In modern times the foreign policy of a country is conducted in accordance with the country’s national interest. In diplomatic parlance this is called ‘enlightened self-interest’. Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s political mentor Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy who became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1956 though for a short period, had initiated a somewhat radical change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. This was the time of the Cold War. Pakistan was then a close ally of the United States. Suhrawardy, however, believed that because of special geo-political and strategic considerations Pakistan should cultivate good relations with Communist China. Pakistan has consistently followed this policy ever since and has obtained much benefit from it. In Suhrawardy’s own words Pakistan’s foreign policy was to be based on the principle of ‘friendship towards all and malice towards none’.
After independence Sheikh Mujib used to quote these very words of Suhrawardy to enunciate the foreign policy of the new Bangladesh state. In fact, Sheikh Mujib dreamt of building a much closer friendship and promoting much beneficial cooperation of Bangladesh with her immediate neighbours in South and South-east Asia. Thus, during his first visit to India as Prime Minister of the newly-independent state of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib in a speech delivered at Kolkata on 6th February 1972 had expressed the hope that Bangladesh would respond positively any move to establish permanent peace in the South Asian region. He declared:
Let us bring to an end once and for all the sterile policy of confrontation between neighbours. Let us not fritter away our national resources but use them to lift the standard of living of our people.
But Bangabondhu did not get time to take any concrete step in this direction. Those who seized power through violence and murder in August 1975 repudiated Mujib’s policy. Though subsequently in 1985 at the initiative of the Bangladesh Government SAARC came into existence with the object of promoting cooperation among the South Asian nations, it was virtually the fulfillment of Bangobandhu’s dream. But the SAARC despite it lofty pretension could not become an effective organization like the ASEAN chiefly because of the short-sighted policies of the military dominated governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Bangladesh occupies a unique strategic position in Asia. It is a sort of a bridge between South and South-east Asian regions. Thus, although the majority of the people of Bangladesh are Muslims, a considerable number of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and even tribal animists are also citizens of this country. In the liberation war of 1971 they had fought unitedly as single nation against the Pakistani military junta.As we have noted, the Bengali Muslims have a distinct identity. In their religious practice, culture and way of life they are different from Muslims of other parts of India, Pakistan and West Asia. Unlike Muslims of other lands the Bengali Muslims are not very orthodox and communal minded. Their attitude towards other religious communities is tolerant and accommodating. One might say, in their religious and social thought the Bengali Muslims have been influenced more by the spiritual-humanist teachings of the Sufi saints such as pir-darvish, Faqueers and awalias than by the orthodox and fundamentalist preaching of the fanatical mullahs. Bangladesh would greatly benefit if she could develop close and friendly relations with her neighbouring countries.
India is the closest neighbour of Bangladesh. Therefore, it is essential for Bangladesh to maintain friendly relation with India. We can never forget that in 1971 during our liberation war Indian government and almost all sections of Indian people had given us massive support with out which we could not have achieved our independence in nine months time. Both India and Bangladesh adhere to common ideals of secularism and democracy. Both countries share a common cultural heritage. Both have chosen their national song from lyrics of the same poet-Rabindranath Tagore. Besides, geographically Bangladesh is bounded on three sides- east, west and north- by Indian territory. Even in the south the Bay of Bengal is dominated by Indian naval presence. Again, although India is a Hindu majority country many millions of Muslims inhabit this land and are its citizen and enjoy equal rights. Since independence three Muslims have been elected President of India. At present the unique feature of the Indian political scenario is that the ruling Congress Party’s President is a Christian of Italian origin; the President of the country is a Hindu; Vice-President is a Muslim while the Prime Minister is a Sikh. Under the circumstances Bangladesh can never remain in peace by nourishing anti-Hindu and anti-Indian bias. Of course, Bangladesh has to maintain good relations with India without harming least of her own independence and sovereignty.
The near-eastern neighbours of Bangladesh are Buddhist majority Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. In the south-eastern side of Bangladesh are situated Malaysia and Indonesia. These two countries though Muslim majority regions, have many cultural similarities with Bangladesh. The Muslims of these countries like those of Bangladesh are not very conservative in their religious faith and practice and have always been tolerant towards other faiths. Throughout the ages the people belonging to different religious creeds have co-existed peacefully in these countries. In fact, religious and cultural pluralism are firmly rooted in the civilization of this whole region. It should be noted that Indonesia and Malaysia have adopted secularism as their state principle.
Therefore, in order to meet the many-sided challenges of the twenty-first century and put up her respectful image before the world community, Bangladesh should project herself not as Muslim majority state but as a modern, secular and democratic state. If the present political leadership of Bangladesh, both in office and in opposition, could display a little more sagacity and foresight, a little more realism and common sense- then we could perhaps look towards the future with confidence.