Vol. 5 Num 295 Sat. March 26, 2005  

Thirty-four years of independence
Where we should have been
Almost three decades and a half ago today we took the most momentous decision as a people to launch an armed struggle to wrest out a homeland from the Pakistan occupation forces with the blood of genocide in their hands. It was, however, not merely physical independence we had to fight for, there were certain accompanying ideals we had nurtured early on with a deep yearning for realisation as soon as we freed ourselves from the clutches of the then Pakistani establishment.

The aspirations bred in the nursery ground of experiences with Pakistani rule were simple, unambiguous, clear-cut and straightforward. The chief among the goals we set ourselves for attainment in a free Bangladesh were to build a society free from authoritarianism, racism, religious bigotry, communalism, cultural imposition, economic exploitation, poverty, hunger and squalor.

Our Muktijoddahs comprising peasants, workers, students, listed soldiers, military and political leaders, the shelter seekers in the refugee camps of India and the people breathing the forbidden air in Bangladesh under occupation had one thought in mind: Once free, they will have a system, political and economic, in which their creative energies would find the most constructive expression through nation-building efforts leading up to collective good of the nation, based on the principles of equity and justice.

Much of that original vision seems to have been overtaken, even endangered by negative developments, some of them of relatively newer origin. For instance, tendencies, more overt than covert, are in evidence towards using religion for political purposes.

The BNP-led coalition government comprising far-right Islamic parties looking askance at the early manifestations of religious militancy linked by an association of thoughts, to grenade attacks etc. have allowed extremism to grow to a recognisable height. Although the government has banned some of the groups and ordered arrests of leaders, picking up some already, the existence of a small minority extremist group is a stark reality. They are a minority on the fringes but a potent threat nonetheless to the stability of the society.

Unless neutralised soon enough they could burgeon into monstrosity and put a spanner on the vision of a forward-looking progressive Bangladesh. We shall be doing ourselves a great disservice if we should dismiss it as a law and order problem.

We have struggled with the form of democracy while the substance of it has eluded us through the obsessive pursuit of a political culture of mutual distrust and intolerance. The unbridled weakening of institutions has left them in extremely fragile conditions. The executive, legislature, judiciary and the fourth estate are yet to develop healthy equations between each other.

The rich-poor gap has yawned instead of diminishing over the years. Ironically though, the size of GDP has grown and the rate of its growth is sustained at above five per cent.

We are not at all oblivious of the achievements however slow-paced these have been over a long period of time. The scorecard on the positive side includes food self-sufficiency and the positive readings of socio-economic indicators including drop in child mortality through successful immunisation programmes, increase in female literacy, women's empowerment and lower birthrate.

These advances have been tallied in spite of mis-governance, political unrest and lopsided service deliveries. Had the back-pulls been avoided, the progress in the socio-economic area would have been so much the greater. At any rate, what is important to note is that the human asset which has proved its utility regardless of the constraints remains our biggest endowment.

But let us not forget at the same time that if corruption and wastes were minimised, hartal renounced and rule of law existed, the GDP growth rate could have been a few percentage points up enabling us to compare favourably with that of the fastest growing China and India.

That Bangladesh which at birth stood out as a symbol of people's struggle against injustice all over the world, would have an image problem down the road is simply unthinkable. Let's face it, much of it has been our own doing. But overcome we must -- by setting our house in order.

Thirty four years is no small time in the life of a nation when one computes it in terms of the economic miracle performed by some South East Asian countries -- Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand -- which compressed it all in half the time we have passed as a nation.