Are we holding up the values our nation was founded upon?
December 16 is our Victory Day, a joyous remembrance of the deliverance of a nation from nine months of repression and tyranny by a military junta. It is also a sad day because it is a constant reminder of the millions who lost their lives, and the millions who became destitute in a short period. It is also a day that came with the promise of a country that would end tyranny and domination of people by any individual or political group.
It is a day that ushered in the minds of a people and the birth of a new nation that valued rule of law, good governance, social justice, and equality and protection by law of all, irrespective religion, ethnicity, and economic status. In other words, December 16 gave us a dream of a new society based on these values.
But where do we stand today on this 48th anniversary of our day of victory?
Every nation that won its independence after a struggle against its occupiers or overlords went through a substantial sacrifice in life and property, and Bangladesh was no exception. What separates Bangladesh from other such countries is the length of this struggle and its nature.
Other countries that got their independence endured years of struggle against their colonial rulers and occupiers and faced myriads of political obstacles, spread over decades in many cases. Bangladesh had a relatively short war lasting only about nine months.
But in those nine months, Bangladesh lost more lives than other countries lost over decades of struggle. Those nine months conveyed more horror and destruction than other wars for independence. More importantly, those nine months carried on their back decades of oppression and subjugation of a people by a power that denied their separate identity by force.
The spirit of independence and the values for liberation were not born in March 1971 or December 1971. These were born from the idea of giving birth to a country and nation that firmly believed in democracy, economic and social justice, and equality of all, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, and social status.
And we did achieve this on December 16, 1971, with Bangladesh. But as we look back on that day, do we have this nagging worry that perhaps we are still struggling to achieve that dream?
Our first constitution of 1972 enshrined four principles of state policy, nationalism, democracy, socialism, and secularism, essentially reflecting the core values of struggle for freedom from a country that fostered everything our core values stood against (except perhaps nationalism of a different kind). The founding father of the country and his associates had fought for these values and engraved these in our constitution. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years after the birth of this nation, and of the constitution that followed, we cannot claim with any degree of certainty that we have actually been able to follow the core values of our freedom struggle and of the constitution.
We have diluted, if not corroded, these values over time instead of safeguarding them. The state principles have been altered, some by leaders who captured power through undemocratic means, and by others for political exigency.
Socialism gave way to unbridled capitalism, secularism succumbed to dogma, democracy was brutally stifled by autocracy, and nationalism was diluted to accommodate the politics of anti-liberation forces. Religious forces surfaced again to negate cherished ideals of secularity. Our dream for a democratic country was not just anchored to a secular and egalitarian society, but also an exploitation-free country that is based on the rule of law, good governance, and transparency.
We did not want the replacement of a venal country with the hallmarks of nepotism, corruption, and depravity with another with similar attributes. But, unfortunately, government after government that followed the brutal change of 1975 paved the way for a re-emergence of political shenanigans of pre-independence days and the return of elements that ruled the country back then.
We would soon be engulfed by similar political elements that put self-interest above the country, the elements whose main objective was exploiting the masses with empty slogans. Not only did we part company with lofty state principles, but we let our politics be run by power-grabbing, grand larceny, corruption, and lawlessness. Our GDP may be growing, but, morally and ethically, we are stooping lower and lower.
Rule of law is more observed in its absence for people, and transparency in governance is replaced by opacity in governance. I have an anecdote from the Victory Day week of 1971 that I often refer to underscore the situation we are facing today. I used to visit a tea stall in Dhaka Stadium, in the dark days of 1971, that was owned by a very cheerful young man.
He kept his stall open even at times when the Pakistani soldiers were prowling in adjoining areas looking for the Mukti Bahini. He kept his clients (mostly residents left over in Dhaka looking for a break in the stadium area) informed with his reports on Mukti Bahini operations in other districts.
He was proud of their operations and predicted that the end of the Pakistani army occupation was near. I could not visit him after the actual war began on December 3. I went to Dhaka Stadium a few days after December 16 hoping to visit the tea stall. To my delight, it was there. I thought I would see the owner celebrating the freedom that he had been predicting all those months. He was there, but not his cheerful disposition.
When I asked him why he was so morose, he replied sadly that two days prior his shop had been looted along with a few other shops. Some young men with guns came and looted the hapless shop keepers. Who were they, not Pakistani soldiers? I asked.
No, they were long gone. These were people pretending to be Mukti Bahini, he said.
They were nothing but hooligans who had helped the Pakistani army before as spies.
And now they have turned into Muktis, he added. The young man then said something that always remained in my mind: “Sir, the Pakistan Army looters have gone back from where they came. They were here for nine months. But how can we get rid of these new looters? They will be here forever.”
The anecdote need not define our current state after nearly half a century of our liberation. But it does tell us that our dreams of a country that upholds the core values of freedom, rule of law, and good governance are still far away.
As we step into the next 50 years of our nation, all we can hope for is that our politics and government will work hand in hand with people to fulfill our dreams.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.