Serajul Islam Chowdhury
There is no denying that things in Bangladesh today are not as they ought to be, let alone what they promised to be. What is particularly frightening is the prevailing sense of insecurity of life and livelihood. The two, of course, go together. Factors responsible for this sad state of things are many; but two failures stand out, one of leadership, and the other in respect of achieving unity. The nationalist leadership which was in command during the war of liberation had vague dreams but no vision of what the state and society would be like after independence. The leadership was belonged to the upper echelons of society both in statues and outlook. It neither wanted, nor had the capacity, to promote the interests of the less privileged sections if the community, which constituted the vast majority of the people.
Nationalists speak of the nation, ignoring the fact that the nation is divided by class interests and that without social transformation — revolution, if you like — national unity remains nothing but a rhetorical sound. What had happened in other countries, happened in ours as well. That those who have been running the state, politically, are committed only to self-aggrandisement is borne out among other things, by the ease with which they change their party affiliations. They are not liberated, and are very much prisoners of their own greed. And it is their competition to grab public wealth and opportunities that has, more than anything else, divided the people who were united in 1971 against a common enemy. The selfish and irresponsible leadership has been duly, busily and faithfully replicated in all walks of life, and what we are faced with at the moment is stark absence of role models. It will not be illogical to be pessimistic.
But surely there are positive qualities in us to rely upon, if not to be proud of. At least there are three resilience, resistance and enterprise. And indeed these are no mean virtues.
People in Bangladesh have known disasters, one after another, sometimes in quick succession. Some of these have come from hostility of nature, and some are man-made. Cyclones, tidal bares, floods, droughts and pestilences have tried to beat us down, causing misery, death and devastation. Man-made disasters like famine, violence, riot and war have not been less frequent. After they have been more harmful than the natural ones. But people have not surrendered. Every disaster was a new test of endurance, but even the worst sufferers have not given in. Quietly but resiliently they have tried to stand up, building their nests, burying the dead, adjusting themselves to new circumstances.
For long we have been a marginalised people. Foreigners have invaded the country and set up their kingdom. Local rulers — chieftains, landlords, moneylenders — have not been any the less exploitative. But people have said no to them, even if silently. The rulers have ruled through coercion, but have seldom, if at all, won the heart of the people. People have defended the independence and integrity of their culture, which explains why Bengali language and literature have flourished, despite invasions and encroachments.
People in this land of ours are religious, but in a rather secular sense. Politics, they have always felt, should be kept apart from religion; and to religion itself they have turned for shelter and justice, which they have found difficult to be assured of in the material would they live in. But there is in us as a people a deep distrust in society and even fate itself fatalism in this country is not at all based on faith in fate; in the contrary, it signifies disbelief in fate itself. We are, indeed, a faithless folk, the rulers have ruled not through leave, which is capable of producing hatred also, but through sheer difference of the public. This indifference is very near cynicism, if not apathy. Rulers have come and gone but society has gone on as before. Men and women have feet lonely. They have spoken in the first person singular number, without, of course, being predatory.
The rejection of the rulers has therefore been natural. In 1946 the people voted for Pakistan, which was, in fact, saying no to British rule as also to those connected with it — the landlords, bureaucrats and the moneylenders. And only a year after Pakistan was established East Bengal stood up against Pakistani on the language question. In the 1954 election people rejected the Muslim League under whose leadership the state of Pakistan was brought into being. Then there was movement against military rule in 1962, mass uprising in 1969, and finally the war of liberation in 1971. The autocratic regime of Hussain Mohammad Ershad was overthrown by a mass movement. People have said no to the proposal of exporting the very scarce and necessary resource of gas to India. A citizens’ movement had forced the government design of destroying the open space called Osmany Uddyan, situated at the very heart of the overcrowded city of Dhaka. Girl students of Jahangirnagar University have driven out a group of rapists from the university residential halls — when police went on rampage at midnight in a girls’ residential hall at Dhaka University, the students came out forcing the government eventually, to bring about a change in the university administration and sent up a judicial enquiry commission to investigate into the matter. When heinous assailants made a murderous attempt on the life of the writer Humayun Azad the protest was as spontaneous as it was widespread. The way garment workers in Narayanganj came out in the streets demanding punishment of those accused of killing some of their fellow workers was, in a sense, reminiscent of the workers’ mobilisation in New York on May 1 more than a hundred years ago.
Bangladeshi folks are supposed to be lazy. That this is a lie is proved everyday by the way people work for themselves, often on their own, here at home and also abroad. Opportunities are limited, the fields are narrow; but men and women in the country have never been shirkers, they have to work, and are disappointed to find themselves unemployed or rendered jobless. Jute cultivation in Bengal owes not so much to favourable land and climate as to the sheer labour of the producers.
Thrown out of employment, the industrial worker weeps, not only because he is being driven into a life of uncertainty but also because he had developed a fondness for his work and his fellow workers. Bangladeshi workers have earned reputation abroad for their dutifulness and diligence. Women are working today in garments factories and building sets; this work is noticeable, but they never been reluctant to work at home.
The middle class is doing very well abroad in both professional and academic fields. People have the enterprise, what they lack is capital and atmosphere. Craftsmen and technicians are doing excellent work not only in keeping production going, but also in inventing new techniques.
These are indeed positive qualities in us. They are there — often actively, sometimes potentially. Qualities like these are even more valuable than our natural and mineral resources. What is sad, and certainly disappointing, is that these we have not been able to develop fully and bring about a radical change in our life.
For achieving that objective. What is needed is leadership, at all levels, but particularly, and most importantly, at the political level. The goal has to be something greater than more good governance, it has to be transformation in society and in the character of the state itself, so that all our creative energies can be released, and our sense of belonging, which is another name for patriotism, gains in both depth and intensity, that transformation is, after all, what we have been struggling for decades. Pakistan has failed us, but we cannot allow Bangladesh to fail, simply because this is where we all belong. The struggle to build up a democratic society and state must continue.