How would we like to define Bangladesh?
Forty-nine years into the declaration of independence by the Father of the Nation, in this centenary year of the birth of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it makes sense to sit back and reflect on the future we would like to see define this country.
As we recall 1971, that year of death and destruction, of arson and pillage let loose by a marauding army of occupation from Pakistan, and eventually our annus mirabilis, it is only proper that we go into introspection.
In these 49 years that have gone by, we have lost to conspiracy and assassination the Father of the Nation and the illustrious men who provided leadership to the Mujibnagar government. We have been witness to the liquidation of the heroic soldiers -- Khaled Musharraf, Ziaur Rahman, MA Manzoor, Abu Taher, Najmul Huda, ATM Haider, Mohsenuddin, and a host of others whose exploits during the war kept our dreams of freedom alive.
In these 49 years, we have observed democracy being turned on its head more than once; we have watched helplessly the foisting of extra-constitutional rule on Bangladesh. We have felt the necessity of non-accountable and non-elected caretaker administrations to preside over the onerous job of ensuring free and fair elections in order to give to ourselves a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
And then there have been the other tales. The constitution has been tampered with many times over; socialism has been thrown out the windo; and secularism to all intents and purposes has been undermined.
We have experimented with presidential and parliamentary forms of government. We have lumbered through military rule. We have had men and women of questionable intent play truant with our history. We have passed through a long, dark phase in time through the assassins of 1975 being given legal cover in the form of the Indemnity Ordinance.
We have experienced the grave misfortune of the collaborators of the occupation army being rehabilitated in national politics through the machinations of military regimes. We have had war criminals get their comeuppance. On a positive note, we have seen morality restored somewhat through justice being meted out to some of the murderers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But more remains to be done.
The past is, of course, another country. The future is a landscape that waits to be mapped out and designed in line with the aspirations we hold in our souls, for ourselves and for the generations to come. Those aspirations are simple and uncomplicated, for they spring from somewhere deep within our hearts.
They are a manifestation of the many ways in which we would like to see our dreams shaped in 1971 take form again, to persuade ourselves into believing that this republic is indeed for the people, that it is a People’s Republic to the nth degree.
We would like to see democracy dig deeper roots in the country. That depends on how purposefully a parliamentary government, with all its norms and conventions, we can have in place. A functioning, vibrant parliament, with lawmakers engaging in serious conversation and debate on issues of public concern, is what we need today. There is a requirement of constructive politics in the country, with ruling parties and opposition working together to advance the national cause. Majoritarian politics damages the nation’s raison d’etre.
It is imperative for this nation to promote the growth of institutions in the land. A working legislature keeping checks on the executive, a powerful and fully independent judiciary taking those failing to govern to task, an executive that governs -- and does not rule -- through absolute competence are the aspirations we hold dear as we move into the future.
We are in grave need of decentralized government, of local bodies that wield real authority and bring real benefits to the doorsteps of citizens. We look to the day when the police will exercise authority that is derived not from the powers that be but from the nation’s constitution. We expect to see in place a civil service that behaves as the servants of the people, that does not provoke the beating up of journalists, as happened in Kurigram, that abjures the elitism which has till now underpinned it.
In the republic we expect to take shape and form and substance all these 49 years after March 1971, we know a liberal society must not be built on laws that transgress against values. It is thus that we expect the rise of a free media that will keep those in power and those aspiring to power in check if they demonstrate tendencies toward authoritarianism, that will not have arbitrary laws clamped on it, that will not see its practitioners disappear or made to explain their journalism to those offended by it.
We imagine a future where citizens will not disappear, where families will not have to wait, in tears, for the return home of their loved ones, where families will not have their lives torn apart.
In clear, patent and unqualified terms, the future we envision is one that will be based on the rule of law, that will respect every citizen, that will penalize every individual guilty of criminality, that will speak truth to power.
Ministers will resign or be compelled to quit office when they are caught indulging in wrongdoing; the powerful everywhere will remember that all power belongs to the people; robber barons will not masquerade as entrepreneurs; elections will be fair and free and beyond taint or question; the political opposition will not be suppressed; primary school teachers demanding a raise in financial benefits will not be beaten up by the police; journalists will shed their raiment of political partisanship; education will generate the best in terms of ideas.
These are our aspirations in this 49th year of the declaration of independence. And there are more. Let our universities have scholars serve as vice chancellors. Let us have sycophancy give way to meritocracy. Let obscurantism be shown the door and liberal secularism make a return. Let the faiths of all citizens be accorded the sanctity and the respect they call for. Let democracy work the engines of the nation’s political parties, the better to have new and enlightened leadership grow in the way leadership grew in the distant 1950s and 1960s. In March 2020, the dreams we forged through the darkness of March 1971 are rekindled -- for all the right reasons.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.