Eminent political scientist Dr Rounaq Jahan speaks to Shuprova Tasneem about Bangabandhu and his lasting influence on the political system of Bangladesh
What was Bangabandhu’s role in nation-building and creating political institutions in the newly-formed state of Bangladesh?
Bangabandhu’s first and foremost role immediately after independence was to firmly establish the authority of a sovereign state. He did this simply through his mere presence, as his moral authority over the new nation was uncontested and total. Before his return to Bangladesh from Pakistani prison on January 10, 1972, there was a great deal of fear that this newly created state would break down in chaos as there were many factional fights within the ruling party, the AL and also between various groups of freedom fighters. The Indian army stayed back to ensure law and order. However, as soon as Bangabandhu returned he was able to control the various feuding groups. When Bangabandhu said something everybody listened and obeyed. Different Mukti Bahini groups surrendered their arms, civil administration was put in place and Indian troops were withdrawn. The new state, which looked shaky prior to Bangabandhu’s return, soon emerged as a stable entity.
In the first few months Bangabandhu ruled by means of his charisma but he also began a deliberate process of building a political structure. He clearly indicated his preference for a parliamentary democracy. The day after his return as president of the country he issued a provisional constitutional order which stipulated a unitary and parliamentary system of government and guaranteed fundamental rights. The following day, Bangabandhu stepped down as president (he was made the president during the Liberation War) became the prime minister, swore in an extended cabinet and thus within forty eight hours of his return became the effective head of government.
There were some who argued that Bangabandhu, because of his charisma and mass appeal, should have played a Gandhian role and only acted as a moral authority, without state authority. There were others who argued that he should have more centralised power. However, he insisted on a parliamentary democratic system, and in my opinion, that was the right decision, because a consensus had already developed about the parliamentary political system during the two decades of our nationalist movement. In his firs public speech on January 10, 1973 he also clearly outlined the principles to be followed by the state - socialism, secularism and democracy.
Since at that time institutions were not functioning effectively - we couldn't have done without Bangabandhu’s charismatic leadership, and personality. But when all problems have to be solved with the strength of a leader’s personality, the task of strengthening institutional ways of behaviour also becomes a challenge.
Are there any policies created by Bangabandhu and his government that you think continue to impact us even today?
The basic structure of our political system and economic and social policies were laid during our foundational years under Bangabandhu. Our constitution was framed within a year which provided for a parliamentary democracy. Though from 1975 onwards, we deviated and adopted a presidential system we again moved back to parliamentary democracy, after the return of electoral democracy in 1991. The 12th amendment of the constitution which brought back parliamentary form of government, demonstrated a rare example of bi-partisan support between the AL and the BNP.
In terms of economic policy, there was a focus on poverty reduction from the beginning that has continued throughout. One of Bangabandhu’s favourite expressions was a beautiful and poetic one -“ami dukkhi manusher mukhe hashi phutate chai” (I want to bring smiles to the faces of the miserable). Of course you can’t just explain misery simply in economic terms. But the focus on “dukhi manush” means that the priority attention should always be given to people who are at the bottom of the tier. Over the years we have achieved some success in reducing poverty, but the challenge of bringing smiles to the faces of “dukhi manush” remains. In recent years we have seen steady economic growth but at the same time economic inequality has widened.
In terms of social/cultural policy, when we began our journey after independence we started with a commitment to secularism. Bangabandhu’s commitment to secularism was always very strong. Anyone who has read his unfinished memoirs can see many examples of this. Despite working for the Muslim League in pre-partition days, he rescued Hindu families during the Calcutta killings. During the riots in 1964, he strongly stood against communalism. Secularism was made one of the four guiding principle of state in our constitution. However after Bangabandhu’s assassination successive governments brought back religion into our politics. Secularism was deleted as a guiding principle of state by the first military dictator Ziaur Rahman, and Islam was made the state religion by the second military dictator Ershad. We now have a peculiar situation. We have reinstated secularism as a guiding principle of state but we have kept Islam as a state religion.
How do you think Bangabandhu contributed to women's empowerment?
After Bangabandhu returned, he showed a lot of courage and compassion in acknowledging the mass rape of women in Bangladesh by Pakistani soldiers. We have to remember the context - in the 70s, even using the word rape was a problem. In 1973, I remember being advised by a journalist to use the word ‘dishonour’ instead. There was immense social stigma associated with rape and many of these women were abandoned by their families and the approach at the time was silence.
Bangabandhu showed them great honour by coining the term “Birangona” and putting their sacrifices side by side with those of “bir mukti joddha”. Rehabilitation centres were set up in different parts of the country to provide direct assistance to them.
He also introduced some affirmative action policies to empower women. For example, provision was made for women’s reserved seats in parliament. Many of us at that time wanted the women’s quota to work in a different way, such as direct elections for women’s reserved seat and women’s quotas within the party organization. But I guess our voices in those days were not loud enough to create enough pressure to provide for a different kind of quota system.
Do you think there was a shift in our relations with other countries after the assassination?
After independence we began with friendly relations with countries who supported our Liberation War, India and the Soviet Union, and Soviet bloc countries. USA recognized us after four months and China recognized us only after Bangabandhu was assassinated. Pakistan immediately reacted positively to the assassination. We now have declassified documents from the US government that show Khondokar Mushtaq’s connections with the US during the Liberation War in an effort to maintain a ‘loose’ connection with Pakistan and stop the creation of independent Bangladesh. After Bangabandhu’s assassination relations with India and the Soviet Union became somewhat strained, and relations with the US, China, Pakistan began to gradually improve.
What impact did Bangabandhu's assassination have for Bangladesh, politically?
After Bangabandhu’s assassination all four guiding principles of state enshrined in our constitution faced threat. We fell under military rule when democracy was banished for fifteen years. The military rulers introduced some outright autocratic practices such as suppression of people’s voice. But it was some of the more devious undemocratic practices they introduced such as election engineering, use of intelligence agencies, party building through state patronage, that have left a deep imprint into our politics.
After Bangabandhu’s assassination, the basis of our national identity became a contested issue. We re-opened the old battle that was won decisively in favor of negating a place for religion in our politics. We abandoned socialism as a guiding principle and embraced market friendly economic policies. Our priority gradually shifted to economic growth and not how benefits of growth are distributed.