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     Volume 9 Issue 48| December 17, 2010 |

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Cover Story

On the Road to Freedom

When Bangladesh freed itself from the clutches of the Pakistani ruling class 40 years ago, it promised to establish a society based on democracy and social justice. The call to bring about socialism and the economic emancipation of the masses was in the air. Democracy we have established, but its principles have remained merely on paper and with the birth of a perverted form of capitalism, the gulf between the rich and the poor is widening every day. How far away are we from the promised Golden Bengal, which thousands of martyrs of our Liberation War only dreamt of but could not achieve?


Photo: zahedul i khan

Democracy in the country has yet to get a firm footing, the primary reason being the military dictatorships that plagued the country in the first two decades of the country's existence that did not let the democratic institutions to flourish. The first blow, however, came from none other than the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself, when he ceremoniously imposed a one-party political system, which also banned all but four newspapers.

After the brutal and barbaric murders of Bangabandhu and all but two of his family members, the country plunged into an abyss of darkness. A string of coups and counter-coups followed, and Gen Ziaur Rahman seized power in a bloodless coup. The first military dictator in the country's history, Zia quickly dumped the founding principles of the country and made way for the rehabilitation of the collaborators of the occupying Pakistani army.

Zia also militarised the country's politics. The former military strongmen used to think that every politician carried a price tag and he could buy anyone and everyone if he met the price. Thus, using the military and political establishments in his favour, Zia used to buy politicians at random. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that he formed soon became a strange amalgam of former Pak-army collaborators, depressed Maoists and other opportunist politicians who participated in the sham of an election that was held in Zia's regime.

Zia was murdered in a failed coup in Chittagong, and, within months, Gen HM Ershad, another military man, grabbed power. Ershad followed his slain predecessor's footsteps closely. He bought politicians, bribed bureaucrats and introduced corruption at a mass scale. Ershad's rule had been synonymous with misrule, abuse of power and institutionalised corruption.

Democracy was restored in 2000 through a mass upsurge and the general elections that followed had witnessed the country's first democratically elected government in the last one and a half decades assume power. Even though parliamentary democracy has taken a firm root over the last 20 years and transition of power has been more or less smoothly, both the major political parties do not practice intra-party democracy. To make matters worse, power in both Awami League (AL) and the BNP is centred on the top party leaders. The party forums remain tightly controlled, and any kind of internal dissent is quickly squashed. The rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia has indeed been a bitter affair. In fact, the acrimonious relationship seeps through to the grassroots, snowballing into violent clashes in the streets.

The AL and BNP, whenever they are in power, have set a trend of boycotting the proceedings of the parliament. With the left benches remaining empty, it is always difficult to make the floor function smoothly and the last four parliaments have been no exception. The general tendency of the opposition benchers have been to drag an issue from the floor to the streets and the ruling party gives the opposition ample excuses, legitimate or otherwise, to bring out violent processions in the streets or to call hartal. The motto is to keep the morale of the party workers high, and the parliament's otherwise boring proceedings do little to that effect. So, although we have a parliamentary democracy in which power has never been changed in any other way but elections, hartals are called, meetings are held in the streets, blocking the way of the general people, the very people both the parties so feverishly want to save from each other.

With the left benches remaining empty, it is always difficult to make the floor function smoothly and the last four parliaments have been no exception. Photo: zahedul i khan

As democracy is not practised in their folds, both the parties lack fresh blood in their leaderships. Gone are the days when student politics have given birth to politicians like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Matia Chowdhury and Mujahidul Islam Selim, who, against all odds have always set their priorities right--emancipation of the masses that is. Student politics is now plagued by thugs and goons who see politics as a quick means of earning a few millions. Clashes between rival student groups, sometimes belonging to the same party, over domination of dormitories or share of government tender are rampant.

Another alarming tendency in the country's politics is the presence of an overwhelming number of businessmen in the parliament. Business interests at times overlap politics and in some major cases have taken over the nation and its people's concerns. There are deplorable examples in which businessmen, by virtue of money and muscle, have been given precedence over seasoned politicians while giving party nominations. Politics has become a new form of trading for some, a profession where one starts as a local thug, and if luck has it, one can gradually upgrade oneself and make it big, and can win a ticket from one of the major parties.

However, one of the major successes that the country's polity has achieved is the trial and punishment of the killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But investigations and trials of other political murders and the trial of war criminals who actively participated in the murder and rape of innocent Bengalis in 1971 has not yet started. There is mistrust in the air too, as no significant progress has been made on the trial front; many remain sceptical as to whether the government is sincere in continuing with the trial of the war criminals.

Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, had always run the risk of getting influenced by hate preaching or abuse of the religion that the people deem sacred. One reason why the country's politics has never followed the footsteps of Pakistan, its infamous predecessor, is because ordinary Bangladeshis never entertained any violent ideology. The worst form of violence that the country has seen in the name of religion was in Khaleda's last term in office. Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the group that carried out some suicide attacks at that time was patronised by a major political establishment, and when that support was withdrawn, the JMB found itself without any popular support. In fact, almost all the major arrests of terror suspects that law-enforcing agencies have made have been based on tip off from ordinary people who themselves are deeply religious.

Despite bumper crops price of rice and other essentials keep sky-rocketting. Photo: zahedul i khan

Both the major parties, while in power, politicise the civil administration heavily, so much so that an Adviser to the Prime Minister has publicly said that no opposition party member will be given job in the government service. The inevitable result of this by-partisan actions have resulted in erosion in public trust in the civil service, which has remained as corrupt and lethargic as it has always been.

Judiciary, another major organ of the state, is also facing testing times. A few months ago a former judge of the country's highest court has called some of his ex-colleagues corrupt and a recent opinion poll done by Transparency International Bangladesh has put judiciary in the list of five most corrupt sectors in the country. Seventy nine percent of Bangladeshis have also thought the police corrupt. This is, however, no news, for ordinary Bangladeshis know it for sure that the men in uniform regularly takes bribes and the country is littered with stories where the cops, in connivance with criminals, have falsely implicated innocent individuals or changed the course of justice by issuing made-up investigative reports. As they blindly follow the command their political mentors, a type of inter-dependency between political thugs and some policemen are at work here too. Police are always soft on thugs belonging to the ruling party, and the establishment, for its turn, helps the partisan officers with promotions and turns a blind eye to their misdeeds.

It is not as dreary, however, on the economic front. The country's growth rate has remained steady compared to the era of military dictatorship when it was a meagre 4.5 percent. The growth rate has shot up to 6, but lack of infrastructure and proper vision have kept the dream of a double-digit growth at bay. Forty years since its independence, the country still faces acute energy crisis, and power supply to the towns and different industrial zones has to be stopped at the peak seasons when major crops are sowed to ensure uninterrupted power supply to the farmlands.

Agriculture, over the years, has shown robust growth, and for several consecutive years the country has attained food autarky. But it has never been a consistent phenomenon. Garment and manpower have remained the country's two major bread earners, and the absence of any government assistance to the latter, let alone any proper policy, means migrant workers are abandoned on foreign soil, without any support whatsoever from different Bangladesh missions that are strewn across the globe.

Garment and manpower have remained the country's two most major bread earners. Photo: Amran Hossain

What hinders economic growth most is perhaps corruption and nepotism, which makes Bangladesh one of the most difficult countries to do business in. Foreign investment in the country has not increased to the extent it should have because of bureaucratic tangles, which sets one hurdle after the other before prospective businesses.

In fact, for such a densely populated country it is a must that the policymakers find alternative markets for manpower export or build necessary skills to arm the populace to face the challenges of the new century. That, however, has remained a far cry. The subsequent governments have flirted with different types of education policies and none of them has so far been successful in establishing a knowledge-based society which will be forward looking, yet rooted in the culture and heritage of this land.

The present government has taken some initiatives to meet the country's energy need. But no policy initiative has so far been taken to tap the country's huge mineral resources to meet the crying need of the country's economy.

The country's stock market, which has shown steady growth, has remained unregulated and volatile. Markets are also plagued with unnatural pricing, making it difficult for conscious buyers to make a decision.

Prices of essentials have been skyrocketing in the last couple of years, and the government's inability to intervene into the markets is worsening the plight of the poor who are shelving protein nutrients from their grocery list.

Solar power should be part of the solution.

The country, however, has made some remarkable breakthroughs on the health sector, bringing down significantly child mortality rates and also successfully fighting some fatal illnesses. Despite this, proper healthcare facility has remained in the hands of the rich, who can afford designer hospitals or can fly off to foreign hospitals when they are sick. Public hospitals are filthy, unfurnished and are the only option open to the poor. Even though some NGO-run hospitals are giving rudimentary facilities to the poor in the villages, basic healthcare, for which the state is pledge-bound, is still far beyond the means of the masses.

Different micro-lenders have made significant inroads into the villages, which otherwise would have remained outside the reach of traditional banking system. But whether these institutions have made an impact on the lives of those who rely on them is still a matter of conjecture.

The government-run television and radio are still tightly controlled and the way news is treated in these two mediums are eerily similar with the days of the military dictatorship. However, the country now boasts an independent media, which does not shy away from catching the governments on the wrong foot. Even though intimidation of different forms still exists, print and electronic media has grown to become a formidable watchdog.

the absence of any government assistance to the manpower sector, let alone any proper policy, means migrant workers are abandoned on foreign soil. Photo: zahedul i khan

With the spread of the Internet, blogs like Blogger, Wordpress and Shocholayoton have made new grounds. People can express their opinions freely and frankly, and thoughts against the establishment that some media-houses will not entertain make their way to this websites. The country has also gone through a cellular revolution, which has seen a boom in the country's telecommunications sector. On the other side of the coin, crimes related to technology are also on the rise, which the existing laws are turning out to be inadequate to fight.

But, as rate of poverty remains high and the number of people who can access the Internet has been markedly low, the impact that these sites can make are only on arm-chair revolutionaries who belong to a particular class. The civil society in Bangladesh has also morphed from a mere paper tiger into a formidable voice in the country's politics. Different organisations such as the TIB and Centre for Policy Dialogue are putting pressures on the government and errant policymakers. But their presence in the social spectrum is yet to challenge the existing political establishment.

The key to this controlled chaos is in politics, which has to go through a sea change. Democratic principles need to be established in the parties and a common ground needs to be reached on the burning issues of the time so that come what may the major policy decisions do not change. There is nothing called partisan administration or judiciary in democracy; bureaucrats must be allowed to work freely; judges need to be appointed on the basis of merit alone.

Agriculture, over the years, has shown robust growth, and for several consecutive years the country has attained food autarky. Photo: zahedul i khan

The party in power has to separate itself from the government and the set of people who hold government posts should leave their party positions before taking oath to office. A temporary moratorium needs to be slapped on student politics and the mother parties must separate themselves from different professional bodies. After the last general elections, there are reasons to believe that the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) is going through stagnation. The ACC has to be revamped so that it can act neutrally and can deal with institutionalised corruption in different government offices.

It is true that the problems that Bangladesh faces in the prime of its youth are manifold in nature, but its solutions, like all problems in life, are simple. The politicians must stop squabbling over petty personal matters and strike a consensus on the issues of national importance.

Bangladesh is a country brimming with potential and it is also plagued with problems. The onus lies on the people of Bangladesh and their political leaders to rise up to the challenge that a new globalised world has thrown before them. The beacon of hope in these bleak days is the indomitable spirit of ordinary Bangladeshis, who strongly believe in democratic principles. In fact, the people have always voted for change; they are politically conscious, and even though they have been fooled many a time by the politicians, the masses of this country have put their trust in democracy by turning up at the polling booths in overwhelming numbers, making their silent but firm voice heard. In the last four parliamentary elections a party has never been sent to the office twice in a row, which shows the voters sheer disillusionment. The resilience of people has been the cornerstone of the achievements of the last 40 years. Despite all the betrayal by their leaders, the people have hoped against hope, have gone to the polling station en masse at a time when voter turnout is declining even in western democracies. And our politicians have been persistent in dashing all their hopes.

Photo: zahedul i khan

The brightest stars in the country's economy are the small and medium enterprises, which, if they are given the proper patronisation, have the capability to bring about a change in the rural economy. But for that to happen, the government needs to make the necessary amendments to law to make sure that new businesses can be easily set up. Government-run banks can start giving away interest-free loans to the SMEs that work in manufacturing sectors and those who have the potential to go for large-scale employments in famine-prone poverty-ridden areas. A mini share market where the SMEs can generate a quick few million or two can be set up. But at the end of the day what is needed is the goodwill and vision that our political leadership lacks.

At 40, Bangladesh stands where it was when a new dawn broke on the picturesque green of Racecourse in Shahbagh on December 16, 1971. Bangladesh was full of pride and passion, but it all went astray because of lack of visionary leadership and political will.

The country, immediately after its independence, was dubbed a bottomless basket; its economy was in such a shambles that there were serious speculations in many quarters on how many million US dollars the country would need should a natural disaster struck next. From that Bangladesh now hopes to become a middle-income country in a couple of years. The country, which was infamous for political murder and military coups, has become a leading democratic nation in the world, an example for developing nations. It took us as long as four decades to get an inch closer to the promised Golden Bengal, but the dream of a society free from exploitation, a country where freedom of people will be celebrated, still remains as distant as ever.


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