The unkept promises

The unkept promises

AS BANGLADESH reaches an historic milestone, the golden jubilee of its independence, it is time for the nation to rejoice and celebrate, because it is not a small fete for a state which was considered by many at the beginning as doomed to fail. The Bangladeshi state has not only survived but thrived, defeating adversities like natural disaster and lack of resources. This is also a moment for introspection, a time to look back at the history of the past fifty years. History is neither an abstract matter, nor only a catalogue of the obvious momentous events; it is not only the chronicles of lives of those who were at the centre of the events and considered as heroes. Their contributions and dedications notwithstanding, the nation must also acknowledge that the people are the makers of history. This is particularly important for Bangladesh which has emerged through a peoples’ war. People of all walks of life made sacrifices, millions have made the ultimate one. Faced with genocide, rapes, and displacement, millions joined the war to establish an independent state. As such, Independence Day is a day of joy and celebration of achievements, but it is also one of pain and sorrow. The celebration of the day belongs to all, even those who were born after 1971 and did not participate in the struggle. The significance of the day can be understood if there is a sense of belonging, if one feels the affiliation as a stakeholder, not as a bystander or a free rider, and understands how the past has shaped the present.

An introspection of a nation, especially on a momentous occasion like the golden jubilee, cannot be a list of what has been achieved, but rather a recollection of what were the guiding principles that brought the state into being and whether it has remained on the path to achieve those foundational principles. The war of independence began on March 26, 1971, but the aspirations and foundational principles had been in the making for a long time. These aspirations shaped the goals, objectives and promises of independent Bangladesh which was clearly articulated in the Proclamation of Independence of April 17, 1971. The document was adopted a week before by those who declared themselves as the members of the constituent assembly.

There could be a justifiable debate about the beginning of the formation of the nation based on linguistic identity within the geographical area we now consider Bangladesh. One of the key issues of nation formation is that at a particular moment of history not only one single imagination of nation exists within the community, but often there are various strands of thoughts and differing visions of a nation. Among these conflicting imaginations one strand can become dominant, establish its materials and moral authority, and become hegemonic. The formation of nationhood in the then East Pakistan was no exception. The fact that Pakistan could never resolve the national identity question accelerated the process of a counter-narrative, highlighting the ethnic dimension, among ethnic Bengalis. As I have mentioned elsewhere, what should have been an open discourse on national identity, and an effort to accommodate the regionally differentiated, economically disparate, and culturally different nations was wrecked by the Punjabi-dominated state machinery’s insistence that ‘Islam’ was the raison d’être of Pakistan (‘Nations, Nation-State and Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. XXII Nos. 1&2, 2002). Although there were a range of imaginations among the ethnic Bengali community in the then East Pakistan, the language based ethno-nationalism became the dominant one and the 1970 election provided juridico-legal legitimacy to this imagination and its fervent supporter, the Awami League.

There is no linear path between nation-formation and statehood. Imagination of a nation, whether based on religious or ethnic identity, and insisting on its recognition is not always meant to be a demand for a separate homeland. In the case of religion and ethnicity the issue is far more complex as these identities are not limited by geography, and often transcend the borders. There are ample examples around the world, but perhaps the most pertinent to us is the case of the emergence of Pakistan. Drawing on the history of the 1930s, I insisted previously that what the Indian Muslims asked for was an affirmation of their difference and recognition of their nationhood; what they got was a geographical partition of India and a division of their own ‘nation’. More Muslims remained in India than chose to become citizens of Pakistan. The quest for identity got entangled with power politics and political mobilisation and finally led down a blind alley (Nations, Nation-State and Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. XXII Nos. 1&2, 2002).

The absence of a path-dependent relationship between nationhood and statehood notwithstanding, founding a state, conceptually, is far less complicated than weaving a nation. State comprises population, territory, government, and sovereignty. Achieving these attributes makes a state. In the imagination of the people of East Pakistan, although the sense of a nationhood emerged well before 1971, the aspiration of statehood, or in other words, the coming together of these four elements began in March 1971. As it became evident that the Pakistani military-bureaucratic oligarchy was unwilling to respect the popular will and continue the internal colonialism in the eastern part of the country, the state of Bangladesh began to emerge. The declaration of independence on March 26, in the wake of a genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army the night before, made it legal. These four elements came together on December 16, 1971.

Why a state would become a state is determined by the purposes, objectives, and goals of the emergent state. Representatives of the nation, howsoever the nation has been imagined, come together to declare the intent of making a state and lay out the vision of the state. The moral basis of the state is created through the universality of it, that it is to serve the nation — not a few. The declaration also provides the legal and moral basis of the state. Although independence was declared on March 26, and all the elements of state came into being on December 16, the moral foundation of the Bangladeshi state was laid out in the document of April 17, 1971. As such, it is imperative that the state’s pathway and trajectory are assessed on the basis of the proclamation. The document has provided us with two criteria to be used for measurement: how the governance will be conducted and what the state will ensure for its citizens.

These two are laid out as: ‘We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh whose will is supreme duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice declare and constitute Bangladesh to be sovereign Peoples’ Republic.’

The moral right and legal basis of the proclamation of independence was the ‘mandate’ given by the people through an election. As in any republic, sovereignty of the people was the underlying principle of the state which was born through this proclamation.  As such, ‘the consent of the governed’ should have remained above all controversies and the only means to assume power. Yet, in the past fifty years the Bangladeshi state has, time and again, veered away from the principle of popular sovereignty and requirement of a popular mandate to govern. Incumbents had preferred to usurp and retain power through coercion. It was not only the first two decades of independence, when Bangladesh experienced the one-party rule in 1975 and the military regimes between 1975 and 1990, that such deviation was evident but also after 1991, when the country embarked on democratisation, the violation of popular sovereignty and absence of the mandate for the incumbent has become palpable. The February 1996 election is often recalled as an instance when the incumbent did not seek a mandate to govern but manufactured a victory. Unfortunately, that has not remained an exceptional circumstance; instead in the past 15 years popular sovereignty has been repeatedly violated to the extent that it has now disappeared. Two consecutive elections, held in 2014 and 2018, have delivered victory to the incumbents, but only at the expense of citizen’s fundamental right to vote. These elections are on the one hand devoid of moral legitimacy, while on the other hand created by a system of non-inclusive governance. This system of governance has the veneer of democracy, but it is essentially authoritarian in nature and unaccountable to its citizens. It is both ironic and pathetic that the fundamental way to gain a mandate — holding free and fair elections — has become a matter of the distant past.

In the past five decades, Bangladesh has achieved significant economic growth. The GDP growth rate in the past decade is often cited as testimony of this success. Undoubtedly, the economy has expanded, and the structure of the economy has witnessed changes. Once agriculture was the mainstay of economy, whereas now the service sector makes the largest contribution to the economy. These successes have engendered positive developments in the social indicators, access to education has increased, and women’s participation in education has grown. Take, for example, the child mortality rate. At independence, the child mortality rate was 222.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, which has come down to 30.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2019.

These successes, achieving economic growth and making dramatic progress in social indicators, have not been a result of the state’s exclusive endeavour, but due to the combined efforts of the state and citizens — through private entrepreneurship or contributions of groups such as development NGOs. It is worth mentioning that Bangladesh’s economic growth and social achievements began when the country embarked on democratisation and the door for popular participation was opened. However, what has not been achieved is equality, a promise made in the proclamation. Instead, the inequality has grown dramatically. As an analyst noted in 2018: ‘The latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey released by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) found that the income share of the poorest 5 per cent of our population was 0.23 per cent of overall income, a sharp fall from 2010 when it was 0.78 per cent. In contrast, the richest 5 per cent’s share of income grew to 27.89 per cent, up from 24.61 per cent in 2010. This basically means that the bottom 5 per cent’s share of national income has decreased, whereas the richest 5 per cent’s has increased. While the BBS survey mainly sheds light on growing income inequality, wealth inequality is even worse. According to estimates by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, wealth inequality in terms of Gini coefficient — an economic term to gauge income or wealth inequality on a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 represents perfect inequality and 0 signifies perfect equality — stands at a staggering 0.74, whereas the Gini coefficient for income inequality is 0.48’ (The Daily Star, May 12, 2018). The poor have become poorer, while the rich have gained more wealth. What is more disturbing is that the promise for equality has now disappeared from both political and academic discourses. In the early years of independence, political parties at least provided a lip service and mentioned growing inequality as matters of concern in their party platform and election manifestos. There used to be academic exploration of the causes of and conditions for this increasing disparity. But no longer is it viewed as a commitment of the state.

Human dignity, promised in the proclamation document, can only be achieved through establishment of the rule of law. The equality of citizens in the eyes of the law cannot be established without independence of the judiciary. Until the members of the law enforcing agencies and the civil service act as public servants, serve the republic rather than act as henchmen of the ruling party, and take it to their hearts that ‘All powers in the Republic belong to the people’, the notion of human dignity will only be rhetoric. The past fifty years of the nation’s journey has shown not only politicisation of the administration but the emergence of a partyarchy, that is complete control of various institutions by the incumbent through informal and formal means. The loyalty to the incumbent has imperilled any progress towards establishing a system which would consider citizens as equal. Five decades after a promise was made that it will ensure the dignity of the citizens, the country has moved away as further possible. The state and particularly the incumbent have dehumanised the citizens, their deaths does not matter anymore, and their voices do not make any difference.

That the Bangladeshi society has changed over the past five decades is not surprising. No society remains static. Independence was bound to bring a dramatic change in society. Subsequently, economic growth, globalisation, rapid urbanisation, changes in the rural power structure, return of religion in the political sphere have contributed to the transformation of Bangladeshi society. But the benefits of these changes have not been equally distributed among various segments of the society. Besides, the structures to deliver social justice have been weakened. Those who are on the margin of the society, not only economically but also because of religion and ethnicity, have been further marginalised. The treatment meted out to the indigenous people of the country, including the non-recognition of their existence, depriving them of their lands, is a case in point. State is not their protector but enabler of the marginalisation process. The ethno-religious majoritarianism, supported by the state and used by the supporters of incumbents for personal gains, has undermined the promise of social justice. The growing intolerance — in the name of religion and nationalism — is inimical to a society which values diversity and ensures justice for all.

In the wake of the golden jubilee of the independence, it is imperative for the nation to ask itself whether it has kept the foundational promises it made to the citizens.

Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, USA, and a non-resident senior fellow of Atlantic Council.  He is also the president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies. Riaz’s recent publications include Election in A Hybrid Regime: Explaining the 2018 Bangladeshi Election (2019), and an edited volume, Religion and Politics in South Asia (2021).

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