In December 1990 with the fall of the dictatorship and in February 1991 with the first ever parliamentary elections held under a neutral administration, Bangladeshis – home and abroad – were encouraged and energized about the future of Bangladesh. More than two decades on, the same Bangladeshis are demoralized and despondent.
The frequently asked question is: what is the fate of their beloved country for which their fathers and forefathers made supreme sacrifices and which, four decades ago, came into existence through a painful birth? Where does Bangladesh go from here?
165 million people in a small delta with green paddy fields and rivers crisscrossing its fertile lands, the country attracted famous travelers like Hiuen Tsiang in the 7th century and Ibn Battuta in the 14th century. It was a land of plenty. In 1757 when the British East India Company colonized Bengal, it was the wealthiest nation on earth. By the time the British left in 1947, it had become one of the poorest regions in the subcontinent. Although Bangladesh has come a long way from the ‘bottomless basket’ case of the seventies, it has yet a long way to go.
The tale of Bangladesh is reminiscent of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”. Bangladesh has passed through its worst winter of despair, and is now passing through the worst of times. If Bangladesh is sinking, it is sinking because of its sick politics that eats away at society like a cancer. This sickness, however, is not incurable.
Bangladesh is a homogeneous country without any sectarian divide. We have ethnic minorities but no ethnic tensions. Our politics however, are divisive, and it is these divisive politics that is dividing our country, forcing society to become split across party lines. Social unity is at present all but lost, and this is a tragedy.
The main contributing factor, is that there has never been an effective dialogue between the party in power and the party in opposition. To take Bangladesh to the path of prosperity, we need harmony, and harmony cannot be achieved without respecting and accommodating the views and ideas of others. In the current Bangladeshi, the concept of political harmony may appear utopian. However, just as other countries have achieved it, there is no reason why Bangladesh should not too.
We live in a country where confrontation is all too common and compromise is all too rare. To build a stable and prosperous nation, we need to begin the culture of dialogue and compromise. Compromise should not be seen as cowardice, in reality it can be the opposite; in times of crisis, it can save a nation. But for Mandela’s wisdom and willingness to compromise, South Africa would have been a blood bath. Tunisia, where the “Arab Spring” began, is the most recent example.
The present state of affairs in Bangladesh is unprecedented. Never before – not even during the colonial period – has there been so much unaccountability. In 1919 General Dyer was made accountable, albeit inadequately, before the House of Commons for the massacre of Jalianwallabagh. Will the killers of Narayanganj and Feni be brought to justice as well as numerous other examples of extra-judicial killing? Time will tell, but the people remain skeptical. The manner in which the party in power has returned to Government, and the manner in which it is running the country is, to say the least, far below the dignity of a political movement that played a leading role in our struggle for independence. The Awami League on present standing, appears to be in power for all the wrong reasons.
On a different note, we are in danger of losing our dignity as a nation. It is simply not honorable the way in which open discussions took place in Bangladesh on the eve of India’s national elections regarding the probable attitude of the new Indian government towards Bangladesh.
India is a big country and throughout history, small countries have suffered many disadvantages of living alongside a larger neighbor. It is of little surprise therefore that Bangladesh has many concerns with India. It is accepted, that there is resentment against India, there is Indo-phobia, and there is misunderstanding about India. India on the other hand, is concerned with border “terrorism” and the security of her seven North-Western States. These are realities. It is true that Bangladesh cannot afford to antagonize India, but Bangladesh can certainly deal with India effectively and honorably, but only if its policy is sensible and bipartisan. The relationship with India affects all Bangladeshi’s, regardless of political affiliation. Perhaps it is here that true co-operation between the parties can begin. Such an approach is essential, because Bangladesh needs India, and conversely, India needs Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is for all Bangladeshis. People and politicians from all shades of opinion whether they belong to the right, left, Center-right or center-left, whether they are Islamists, secularists or socialists, have to unite on common grounds, to preserve and protect the sovereignty of the nation, to safeguard democracy and ensure economic development and justice. There cannot be an Awami League Bangladesh, a BNP Bangladesh, a Jatiyo Party Bangladesh or a Jamaat- e- Islami Bangladesh. There is only one Bangladesh: The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, which belongs to all 150 million Bangladeshis.
Our Constitution begins with ‘We the people’. Any attempt to turn it effectively into ‘I, the State’ would be suicidal. In the decades since the establishment of democracy, Bangladesh has failed to come out of the vicious circle of political instability, in spite of that it has a steady growth rate of close to six percent.
God has gifted Bangladesh with an army of talented young people – which includes the Bangladeshi diaspora. But they are frustrated with politics. The manifestation of this frustration is a huge loss. These Bangladeshis should be persuaded to take interest in Bangladesh, incentivized to take pride in the development of what can be a great nation, and not lose heart given the divisive way in which it is governed.
It is quite possible for Bangladesh to return to the path of dignity and prosperity which it once enjoyed. Not all is lost.