|Volume 5 Issue 12| December 2011|
SIRI STAFFORD/PHOTODISC/GETTY IMAGES
Forty Years of Bangladesh:
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY evaluates the growth of good and evil in the country, four decades into independence.
On December 17, 1971, the day following our incredible victory over the occupying forces of Pakistan, Dhaka was a city of mixed emotions. On the one hand we had these spontaneous processions of joy of citizens who were suddenly released from confinement in their homes since the war began 16 days before. On the other hand there were very disturbing happenings of random killing and looting in the city that shocked the citizens. Although some of the violence resulted from encounters of the Mukti Bahini with the Pakistan Para Military personnel who could not retreat to the cantonment in time, there were other instances of violence where people suspected to be Razakars were given summary justice by personnel claiming to be Freedom Fighters. Shops and establishments that were believed to be owned by so-called Pakistan sympathisers (most cases Non-Bengalis) were attacked and looted. The situation was so chaotic for the first few days following liberation that it was difficult to tell whether the armed groups of civilians roaming the streets of Dhaka were Freedom Fighters or hooligans who had acquired firearms from fleeing Pakistani soldiers and the Para Military.
The jubilation of December 16 suddenly started to yield to fear and uncertainty for Dhaka citizens, for a good part of December and January that period. The owner of a snack shop at Dhaka Stadium, which I used to visit, captured the sentiment of the moment in the following sentence: “I lived through the terrible nine months with the hope that the Pakistani monsters would leave one day, and we will get our independence. Now that we have our independence, who will get us rid of these new monsters? They are from us!”
What the snack-shop owner saw and reacted to were the acts of violence and mayhem from some unruly elements who took the garb of Freedom Fighters. We thought the phenomena were temporary, which would go away as we stabilised as a nation.
Unfortunately, some 40 years after that euphoric 16th day of December of 1971 we are still struggling with monsters in different forms and of different kinds. These are the children of the 16th Brigade (a term coined for the free lancing armed gangs that roamed Dhaka city that time), but they have been raised without any values and nourished in a culture of corruption, political patronage and absence of rule of law.
The founding father of the country Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had many dreams for his nation and his people. Among these were lifting his nation from poverty to wealth, and giving people a country that respects democracy, rule of law, and life and property. He did not live to see if his dreams of Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) were fulfilled and what stormy path his beloved country travelled in the last 40 years. His life was cut short early in a violent and cruel manner -- an ironic end for a man who believed in non-violence.
Had he lived he would have seen some realisation of his dream as the country has risen from an economic morass of the post-liberation days to a moderately stable stage. Our industrious people have been resilient to come back every time they have been struck by calamities whether man-made or natural. Our resourceful and talented people have devised ways to overcome adversity and use limited means to build for growth. We built a burgeoning garment industry from a practically non-existent base and competed effectively with our skills and productivity. We created a contingent of work force that now serves overseas as a model of skilled and dependable workers. Our people built models of micro credit that have been emulated globally as poverty eradication tools. Our people gave birth to ingenious ways to promote female literacy, reduce child mortality and improve water supply and sanitation in rural areas. Our national wealth has increased six times in the last 40 years, our exports grew 10 times, and the rate of literacy has grown.
But along with these happy statistics the Father of the Nation would have also seen how we have grown in corruption, violence and absence of rule of law. Some of our brightest minds have put us on the world map with innovative ways to fight poverty and raise level of literacy. But the crooks and their political masters have also put us up on the world map for endless corruption and mindless violence.
A few years ago we were dubbed as one of the 10 most corrupt countries of the world by the International Watch Dog on Corruption, Transparency International. Our political leaders at that time derided the evaluation by the world body as biased and untrustworthy. Instead of looking inward for correction, we blamed others for giving us a false image. The result is that we are still in the top quintile of nations identified as corrupt. We seem to have turned a blind eye to corruption in our bureaucracy, business and politics despite knowing how injurious such a label is to our national image. It is equally appalling to observe how impervious our leaders have become to such accusations and tarnishing of national reputation. We may protest that corruption is confined only to a segment of our population; we may point to our neighbouring countries and declare in somewhat righteous indignation that they are no better. The crude reality is that it does not help to shake off this pariah image. Finger pointing of one regime to another, from one leader to another, as the origin of this evil does not free us from the consequences of the evil.
Violence in politics and social life has been another growth area in the last 40 years. Politically motivated violence has been on the increase over the last several years. The pattern seems to repeat itself with every change in government with opposition party supporters claiming harassment by ruling party supporters. According to Odhikar, the Human Rights Watch Group in Bangladesh, 220 deaths were suspected of being politically motivated last year, compared with 251 the previous year. Extra judicial killing by law enforcing agencies also contributed to the increase in violent deaths. In Bangladesh we became familiar with a term called “crossfire” during the previous political government when accidental deaths of “rogue “individuals were reported when confronted by police. However, this was no ordinary police. A special force was created by the government to combat crime especially in big cities. According to a report provided by this agency to the media, 60 people were killed in such encounters or crossfire in 2009, and 83 people in the year before.
Our wealth has increased in the last 40 years, but nothing of value happened in these decades that could shake a stoical view that we cannot rid ourselves of corruption and political violence. With each change in political government there would be hope that the next cast of characters would make some efforts to stem the tide. Indeed, there would be election promises of sorts to that effect. In reality, the party that came to govern would use its new found power to chase and harass its political foes from the past regime -- all in the name of fighting corruption. This charade would be so habitual with every new political government that even legitimate cases of corruption charges levelled against politicians became suspect in public view. They were seen as a vendetta of one political party against another.
Forty years in the history of a country is a small drop in the ocean. But for those of us who had witnessed the brutal war of liberation and the pitiful conditions in our fledgling years, this is a long journey. It has been a journey on a road that was not paved with roses. Our young democracy was mangled and mutilated within a few years of the country's birth. We had to suffer two decades of military rule and quasi-dictatorship before we regained the democracy. At the same time, we also witnessed rebirth of the forces that we had to contend with to gain our independence. We witnessed birth of politics of corruption, violence, opportunism and shenanigans.
Yet we have miles to go to sustain our hard-earned freedom, and ways to keep the momentum of our growth and achievement so far. The first step in this direction is to change the political culture rooted in corruption, nepotism, violence and lack of respect for human life. Our leaders need to rise above their own narrow and short term political gains and address these vices starting with themselves and their political parties. We, like Bangabandhu, had many dreams for our fledgling nation; but these did not include seeing the country's name muddied for corruption, violence and politics of retaliation. As we enter into the fifth decade of our independence, we pray and hope that our leaders will guide the nation in the right direction so that along with economic growth we also can see growth in our core values.
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in USA. The title of the article is from the author's forthcoming book.
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