December 16, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
As a diplomat abroad, I remember how my Sri Lankan friends regretted their ethnic division that took their country to the doors of doom. Although it has since returned from that predicament, it has been pushed back by many decades from reaching its fullest potentials due to its ethnic problem and division.
These Sri Lankan friends looked at Bangladesh from a perspective that we have not, at great national costs. They would tell me that as a nation, Bangladesh is indeed a creation of God because it has no inbuilt divisions to cause the type of problems that nations like Sri Lanka have faced in their development efforts. Bangladesh has no regional divide. Although there is a religious one where we have nearly 10% of our population who are different from majority 90%, historically there has never been serious communal or inter-religious strife in Bangladesh between the majority Muslims and the minority Hindus.
Our strongest God gifted asset is our ethnicity. We are all Bengalis, an ethnicity we derive from our language of which we are all very proud. We have a few additional advantages too. Of these, the egalitarian nature of our society is one. In Bangladesh, the rich poor divide is not class based as it is in India to a large extent. It is not at all that there are no poor people in Bangladesh. In fact, the vast majority of our people are poor. Nevertheless, the richest man in Dhaka has poor relatives living in the villages. The Zamindari system established after the Permanent Settlement of 1793 that ended in 1950 in the then East Pakistan did create a feudal class in undivided Bengal but the overwhelming majority of the Zamindars were from the Hindus religion.
These strengths came together to unite us in 1971 under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the history of nations that have fought for freedom, Bangladesh would easily head the list for the quality of the unity we showed in 1971 in fighting for our independence following the clarion call of Bangabandhu. The great and successful revolutions of the last century, like the Russian, the Chinese and the Vietnamese, have all suffered from inner divisions. In our case, barring a handful of misguided Islamists and collaborators of the Pakistani military, 75 million people came together like a monolith that no force then had the power to divide.
Yet four decades down the road, as the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of its liberation, it is anything but united. The unity that the nation showed the world in 1971 seems to be a dream of a distant past. Today Bangladesh stands broadly but clearly divided between two antagonistic camps, one led by the ruling Awami League and the other by the opposition BNP. The scattering of other smaller parties are allied with one of these two and often show the same antagonism that the members of the two mainstream parties show in public. The division permeates just not to all aspects of our politics but also to all the institutions of the government such as the bureaucracy, and under the present government, even the judiciary.
The main basis of the division is unbelievable and absurd. It is based in the first place on two individuals who in their lifetimes would not have even thought that after they were gone, their names and contributions to Bangladesh’s emergence would cause the nation they helped to create to be divided the way it has. It is our great misfortunes that a nation that was born in fire with such unity has chosen after Bangabandhu and President Ziaur Rahman were killed to divide itself on who was more important in the emergence of Bangladesh and in the process has wasted the opportunity of turning Bangladesh into one of the great success stories in modern nation building. While the two leaders were alive, President Ziaur Rahman had no reason but to accept Bangabandhu as the architect of Bangladesh for it was in his name and direction that he took up arms against Pakistan to liberate the country.
In a post-Mujib and post-Zia Bangladesh, the Awami League is uncompromising on the issue of leadership. It accepts no role for anyone except Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for the emergence of Bangladesh. It is not willing to give any space to any other leader. For the AL, it is a zero-sum game; all credit must go to Sheikh Mujib and none for anyone else. This stance has pushed the BNP to present President Ziaur Rahman, who declared the independence over the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, to claim part of the credit for the emergence of Bangladesh. However unlike the AL stance, the BNP does not claim all credit for emergence of Bangladesh for its leader alone.
If it was left to just claiming credit for their respective leader for emergence of Bangladesh, then perhaps the damage of this conflict could have been contained. Unfortunately, the two parties have allowed this division based on Bangabandhu and President Ziaur Rahman to affect all aspects of political and public life of the country. In creating this division, it has been the Awami League that has taken the lead with the BNP in a reactive role. From the same mindset of the zero-sum game in the context of leadership, the AL has claimed that it alone has contributed to the fight for Bangladesh’s independence and no other party could claim for itself any role in the emergence of Bangladesh.
It did not stop at that. The Awami League has followed this claim to reach at an illogical conclusion. It has claimed that as the party of Sheikh Mujib, the Awami League, its supporters and followers are the pro-liberation forces and those who oppose the Awami League are the anti-liberation elements. The Awami League has used the BNP’s alliance with the Jamat that had opposed the war of liberation to further nail the accusation that it is anti-liberation. In this accusation, the AL has set aside the fact that while opposing the BNP in its 1991-96 term of office; it had shared the same political platform with Jamat led in those days by Gholam Azam.
The Awami League has failed to acknowledge the meaning of its uncompromising stand. First, it makes roughly over half of the voters of the country who are not Awami Leaguers, anti-Bangladeshis! Second, the stand has destroyed the greatest asset we were given by our glorious war of liberation, namely our unity. Finally, it has created the politics of conflict that is now our most formidable obstacle to our development. The most illogical manifestation of this politics of disunity and conflict that is an anathema to the spirit of our liberation is the provision in the constitution it has made recently by being in government by which it is an act of treason to criticize the constitution! The ruling party has not bothered to find out that our constitution written by men is the only one in the world with such a provision, a sanctity given in some countries to books authored only by God!
Newton’s third law of motion says that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The BNP is now following that law, claiming loudly that it is the pro-liberation force and not the AL for which there is ample justification. They are saying that their leader President Ziaur Rahman led the war in the battle field and their supporters stayed in the country to battle it out to win the independence that their opponents cannot claim. This could be for a new dimension to the politics of conflict and could further disunite the country. In the midst of these conflicts, it is just not the unity critical for the country’s welfare that is being destroyed; the contribution of the people of the country for the success of the war of liberation without which or independence would not have been achieved, is being ignored.
Thus as we celebrate the 40th year of our liberation, we need to ask our mainstream parties to end their politics of dividing the country on issues of leadership and so-called pro-liberation and anti-liberation forces. Let these issues be discussed and conclusions reached in the four walls of the academic institutions. Let sanity return to politics where at the minimum, the two mainstream parties should make sincere efforts to achieve bipartisanship on issues of national development and foreign affairs.
The ball for this is in the court of the ruling party. This is the minimum the country expects of them for showing respect to the millions who laid down their lives for our independence. Our martyrs are turning in their graves over the ugly partisanship now being seen in our politics.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan