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Dhaka Tribune

Independence does not a citizen make

Update : 27 Mar 2014, 11:12 AM

When Bangladesh announced its intention to become an independent member of the family of nations on March 26, 1971, we, the people of Bangladesh, were tasked with the essential job of active citizenship. But 43 years after this People’s Republic was proclaimed, the enriching effects of responsible, active citizenship are yet to permeate our social fabric.

Bangladeshi nationalism contains copious amounts of flag-waving and anthem singing; we are quick to extol the virtues of our culture and way of life and we wax poetically about the elegance of our language. But most of us do precious little to include or encourage the most important ingredient in nation building.

Citizenship comes with a range of rights but it also comes with an equal if not greater number of responsibilities. Too often those responsibilities are neglected, either because they are not known or because they are not heeded, resulting in a nation that is handicapped by its own worst behaviour.

We have among the lowest rate of tax collection per tax base in the world, among the highest number of road fatalities from irresponsible driving, heavily adulterated produce, polluted rivers and skies, unchecked police brutality, rampant corruption, absent meritocracies, dysfunctional judiciaries, sub-standard education, frequent medical malpractices, extortion, terrorism, electoral fraud, non-existent civic sensibilities and a host of other problems that all stem from a lack of responsible citizenship. What we are desperately missing is a sense of personal responsibility towards the state and its people.

Responsible citizenship requires us to honour our social contract. To live healthily and harmoniously, we need to adopt attitudes that are more cooperative and less opportunistic than the ones we presently employ. Our society is infected with a “me first,” “winner take all” approach that is at constant odds with the notion of community.

And though we think as a community in our personal lives, we have yet to expand that to include the nation. We keep our houses clean but our streets filthy, our families fed, but the poor starving. We understand fairness among friends, but don’t do much to ensure fairness elsewhere.

In fact, the more we neglect our wider responsibility, the more it threatens our personal lives as well. Stories about extortion, enmity and predation even within families are on the rise and will continue to be so if irresponsibility becomes commonplace all around us.

So what does citizenship demand of us? Not a lot really, just the right sort of ethics in all our actions and interactions. Good citizenship is giving customers what they paid for, its driving according to traffic rules, its following the laws, paying taxes and not cutting corners or attempting scams.

Good citizenship is fulfilling our duties to the best of our abilities, paying our workers fairly, and participating in elections sincerely. It’s in neither giving or taking bribes nor using public positions for personal gain. Good citizenship is as simple as not littering and as elaborate as honouring things like Hippocratic oaths and oaths of office.

Citizenship means we aspire to posts we are qualified for and only accept ones that we have legitimately earned; it means we respect women and minorities, and treat each other with dignity. When it exists, it will exist everywhere - in schools, offices, civil services, courtrooms, businesses, roads, neighbourhoods and parliaments, and will help us build a country that is both reliable and responsible ... really the only sort of country that’s worth living in.

To encourage citizenship, school children should be taught both their rights and their responsibilities; it should be included in curriculums, as it is in countries like the UK and India (partially). People should be vigilant about breaches they observe, both in themselves and in the people they deal with. It can no longer be acceptable that we tolerate the lack of it, in virtually every sphere of our lives, after 43 years of being citizens.

Equally, our rights as citizens should also be defended. We have the right to good governance, to honest officials, to safe working environments and honest wages, to good roads and infrastructure, to clean water and unadulterated food.

We have the right to information and justice, to public transportation, to safety, security and freedoms of expression and assembly, to representation and protection abroad. All of these constitute the basic fabric of a society.

Yet we have done without them for far too long and the excuses are ceasing to hold water. After nearly half a century of being an independent country, we are well entitled to our rights, as are we mature enough to fulfil our responsibilities.

So when we think about what March 26 means, lets think about responsible citizenship.

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