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Bangladesh still far from achieving founding father's dreams

The country faces massive corruption, inequality and a rising tide of Islamic radicalism

Bangladesh still far from achieving founding father's dreams

A woman walks past a large cutout of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the nation marks his 101st birthday in Dhaka on March 17. (Photo: AFP)

A festive mood prevails in Bangladesh despite a sudden, rapid rise in Covid-19 cases in the country in recent weeks.

The nation is celebrating the 101st birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding leader and father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League.

A 10-day nationwide celebration from March 17-26 marks the conclusion of the year-long observance of Mujib Borsho (Year of Mujib) and the beginning of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

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The main programs are being held at the National Parade Ground in capital Dhaka, where a host of sociocultural shows are on display in the presence of national and international dignitaries including the heads of five South Asian countries — India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.

Popularly called Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal), Mujib deserves such high-flying tributes from Bangladeshi people because it was his seminal leadership that materialized Bengalis' dreams of independent statehood in 1971.

As exemplar of a great, visionary politician, Mujib always stood by the people through thick and thin, mostly against oppressive regimes. Thus, he spent most of his adult life in jail.

Mujib was born on March 17, 1920, in the Gopalganj area of the Bengal region of British India and studied at a Christian missionary school before moving to Kolkata for higher studies.

His political career started with the Muslim League, a party devoted to the idea of a separate Muslim homeland in India leading to the creation of Pakistan. In 1949, only two years after Partition, he left the increasingly Islamist party and joined the Awami League, then an avowedly secular party.

It was his dynamic, courageous and grassroots politics that made him a champion of poor and oppressed Bengali people who rose against the discrimination of the civilian and military establishments of Pakistan.

A man of incredible bravery, his political career evolved around his love of the people based on equality, dignity and justice for all. His visionary leadership led the Awami League to a landslide victory in Pakistan’s first national election in 1970.

However, Pakistan’s ruling elites, dominated by West Pakistani politicians and the influential military, refused to transfer power, sparking a massive nationalist movement.

On March 7, 1970, Mujib delivered a historic, inspiring speech to galvanize public support against the political conspiracy. Following the speech, Newsweek magazine termed Mujib “the poet of politics” and in 2017 UNESCO recorded the speech as a documentary heritage.

Mujib was soon arrested and flown to a jail in West Pakistan, while the military sought an armed solution to a political crisis, launching a genocidal crackdown in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on March 25. Hours before his arrest, Mujib declared independence for Bangladesh.

During the ensuing nine-month civil war, about three million people were killed, tens of thousands of women were raped and about 10 million fled to India as refugees. Bengali guerrilla fighters defeated the Pakistan army with support from India on Dec. 16, 1971.

Released from prison, Mujib returned to war-ravaged Bangladesh to lead the country on Jan. 10, 1972. Less than a year later, his government promulgated the country’s first constitution with four principles — nationalism, socialism, secularism and democracy.

Though a devout Muslim, Mujib was a strong advocate for religious pluralism and liberalism his entire life.

In a country totally destroyed by the war and grappling with over 70 percent of people facing poverty, hunger, disease and death, Mujib never lost hope. He unified people for a dream for better days that he called Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal), which is free from poverty, hunger, corruption and injustice and only achievable by honesty, sincerity and hard work.

But his efforts came to an abrupt end on Aug. 15, 1975, when a group of misled military soldiers, backed by conspirators at home and abroad, assassinated him along with most of his family members. The killings led to 15-year military rule until the 1990s when democracy was restored. Military rule saw Bangladesh’s secular constitution amended to impose Islamic identity and the reintroduction of banned religion-based politics.

Now, 46 years after Mujib’s demise, Bangladesh has made significant strides in socioeconomic development that has brought global praise.

The nation has successfully tackled high rates of infant and maternal mortality, reduced poverty from about 70 percent in the 1970s to about 25 percent today and achieved laudable gender equality.

Bangladesh is considered an emerging economy that has been booming thanks to the burgeoning US$30 billion garment industry, $15 billion in remittances from migrant workers and its agricultural sector. The nation is well set to graduate from the United Nations' least developed countries category.

Rising authoritarianism 

But that’s not the complete picture. Bangladesh has been constantly faltering to uphold human rights and human dignity and to stop corruption and rising authoritarianism in the absence of effective democracy.

The ruling Awami League, in power since 2008, has exploited the state machinery to destroy political opposition. The two latest elections, in 2014 and 2018, were rigged to keep the party in power. Opposition leaders and supporters have been jailed, tortured and killed.

All democratic and constitutional bodies including the judiciary have been made subservient to toe the government line.

Draconian laws, such as the Information and Communication Technology Act and Digital Security Act, have been passed to muzzle dissent, criticism and to censor media and social media, violating the constitutional right to freedom of expression. The recent death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in jail showed the worst form of abuses of the laws.

Law enforcement agencies are widely accused of hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances but enjoy near impunity.

The country has seen a rising tide of Islamic radicalism and attacks on liberals and religious and ethnic minority groups in recent years. Many blame it on the government’s appeasing of Islamic groups for political dividends.

Back in 2013, when Islamic extremists started killing atheist bloggers, the government rebuked bloggers for crossing the line instead of backing free speech. It frustrated bloggers and writers, forcing many to flee the country for Europe and America.

Despite making some progress, the country still reels from endemic corruption, which was once again exposed during massive anomalies during the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bangladesh is poised to achieve the third-fastest growth in the number of high-net-worth individuals in the world in the next three years, but it is also among countries with the highest levels of social inequality in the Global Inequality Index. 

A group of extremely rich and well-connected political and business elites reap the dividends of socioeconomic development and the poor remain neglected and exploited.

Socially, the nation has been experiencing a horrific and exponential rise in violence against women, girls and children, triggering condemnation at home and abroad.

The most worrying fact is that progressive student groups, civil society and concerned citizen groups are largely silent about such grave anomalies and injustices, either fearing a backlash or losing what they have gained. Christians including Catholic Church officials have joined the same tide.  

Mujib’s life and works are an inspiration for millions even if they don’t support the party now led by his daughter. Sadly, under the helm of the same party, the very basic foundations of the nation that Mujib propelled to independence are under threat.

There are area reasons to be cheerful about Bangladesh's recent socioeconomic advancement, but the sorry state of affairs in terms of human rights, justice and democracy is the complete opposite of Mujib’s coveted Golden Bengal.

Bangladeshi people still face a long journey before the dreams of the great founding father can come true.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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