As a member of the Planning Commission to the Government of Bangladesh during the birth of the country, how did you tackle the gargantuan task of post-war reconstruction and state-building?
We were told by the government to come up with a short-term plan and a long-term one when we first established the Planning Commission – we called it the Planning Cell back then. We decided that we did not want to formulate a long-term plan at the very onset - we wanted to focus on the immediate needs of the newborn nation, once independence was achieved.
There were many aspects that needed to be considered and planned, such as the rehabilitation of the freedom fighters. We also had to plan for post-war reconstruction. What would happen to government salaries, like those of school teachers, during the year of war? What about the students abroad on Pakistani scholarships – what would happen when their funds would be withdrawn?
There were many other plans regarding the nation’s future and nationalisation of certain abandoned industries – some were put into place, some weren’t. One thing worth mentioning is the scale of the damage the war wrought on us. I remember planning for the repatriation of 10 million refugees. We estimated that 60 percent would be farmers, so around one million families – and if we gave each family a pair of cows for farming, it would require two million! Even for simple things like kerosene, the sheer number of people affected by war meant the cost of almost everything went up to giant numbers.
Our main problem was that we did not have enough facts – for example, we had no real numbers regarding how many bridges and culverts had been destroyed, so we had to work with estimates. In many cases, the reality was much worse. Building everything anew was a gargantuan task.
During the mass uprising of 1969, did you think independence could be achieved through democratic means?
When Yahya Khan first came to power and imposed military rule, my first thought was that it was no longer possible for us to stay together. After the elections of 1970, I believed that the Pakistani government would not be able to ignore such a huge mandate. However, when the National Assembly session was cancelled, we realised they would never handover power, and independence was the only way out.
I have always looked back and thought, what else could we have done? But even if we wanted to, we could not have armed a nation in those three weeks of March. It was also not possible to openly take preparations for a war. We did what we could. I think we also did not comprehend that Pakistan’s attack would be so violent, and they would unleash nationwide terror of this scale.
In 1971, I would tell my Indian friends that we would never have military rule and communalism in Bangladesh ever again. I was wrong on both counts, it seems
You were responsible for the Bangla version of the Constitution. Did you think back in 1972 that there might be objections to the term ‘secularism’ in 2017?
The rise of religious politics has definitely had an impact on people, but I don’t believe we have become communal. Of course, we are seeing communal violence in different parts of the country, but I think it is still the work of a few and not many. But before, neighbours and locals used to try and stop suchinstances, and now we see less of such initiatives. However, I think people want religion to be an important part of their lives, but they don’t want a state that is dictated and governed by religion.
Did you at the time, anticipate military rule?
In 1971, I would tell my Indian friends that we would never have military rule and communalism in Bangladesh ever again. I was wrong on both counts, it seems.
Do you think much has changed, in terms of how we perceive our identity as Bengalis and Bangladeshis?
Firstly, Bangladesh isn’t just for Bengalis - there are many communities of non-Bengalis here. During the Liberation War, we fought under the banner of Bengali nationalism, but we later realised that we could not go forward by excluding all other communities in Bangladesh. Secondly, even though we were mainly inspired by Bengali nationalism, there were still a fair number of freedom fighters from the indigenous communities of Bangladesh, and we had to give them that recognition. We realised that to include all communities into our nationalism, we had to find something other than Bengali nationalism.
Moving forward, how do we define Bangladeshi nationalism?
We need to move from a language-based nationalism to a state-based nationalism, and this has to be totally inclusive. In BNP’s nationalism, there is no room for non-Muslims. In Awami League’s nationalism, there is no room for non-Bengalis. Inclusive nationalism has to make space for all races and religions.
On the other hand, tolerance is being reduced in Bangladesh. If we had more tolerance, I’m certain we would be more democratic. Then again, we have very few avenues to turn to. We can’t ever accept parties like Jamaat-e-Islam, and it is natural to be wary of parties that align with them. Can we give power to war criminals in the name of democracy?
However, I do believe that we need to strengthen our democratic institutions. We have come very far in terms of economic advancement, but maybe not so much in terms of the political.