A day of great achievement
National professor and educationist Anisuzzaman had travelled from Chittagong to Agartala in order to take part in the liberation war. From there he went to Kolkata and joined the Bangladesh government-in-exile. He translated the Bangladesh constitution, originally written in English, into Bangla. In an interview on the occasion of Victory Day, he speaks about his thoughts and aspirations concerning the nation.
Prothom Alo: Today, 16 December, is the 48th anniversary of Victory Day. How do you feel? Have the aspirations with which you fought the liberation war been fulfilled?
Anisuzzaman: Victory Day always evokes a sense of happiness. It is a day of great achievement. However, we have not really achieved our objectives. In 1971 we wanted to free ourselves from the oppression of Pakistan. We succeeded in doing so. The People’s Republic of Bangladesh at the time declared three principles – democracy, secularism and socialism.
When Bangabandhu was released from jail in Pakistan, he returned and added another principal – nationalism. These were the principles upon which the nation was run, as enunciated in the constitution. However, we have failed to fully implement these principles.
The country has faced military rule several times. Even when democracy was ushered in, the foundations of the democratic institutions remained fragile. Secularism was defined by some as peaceful coexistence of all religions, and some saw this as a separation of religion from the state. So on one hand we have this unclear idea about secularism, and on the other communal forces are raising their heads. As a result, we see the religious establishments of the minorities and their homes being attacked. Many are even physically assaulted at various times.
Prothom Alo: The constitution of 1971 only acknowledged Bangalee nationalism, no other ethnic identity. All of Bangladesh’s citizens were sweepingly called Bangalee nationals.
Anisuzzaman: After Bangladesh’s independence, the issue of the ethnic minorities came forward. So Bangalee nationalism does not seem adequate to encompass all. We have not been able to establish equal rights for the ethnic minorities. The concept of socialism has been discarded, even more so after the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of globalisation. We talk about a welfare state, but amassing personal wealth has taken precedence over all.
Secularism was dropped from our constitution. It has now been restored. At the same time, Islam has been retained as state religion. All this indicates that Bangladesh has moved away from its declared objectives and there are no efforts to reach those goals.
Prothom Alo: You all had submitted a writ to the court against having a state religion.
Anisuzzaman: We had submitted a writ to the High Court as establishing a state religion was contrary to the basic framework of the constitution. Those of us who filed this writ included Justice Kamaluddin Hossain, Sufia Kamal, Debesh Bhattacharya, KM Sobhan, Kabir Chowdhury, Shamsur Rahman, Badruddin Umar, Barrister Ishtiaque Ahmed, Fayez Ahmed and me. The hearing was taken up after long. The court felt that we did not have the right to file such a case and so it was discarded. We could not appeal.
Prothom Alo: In 1971 we fought against the Pakistanis and won the war. But why have we failed to succeed in nation building?
Anisuzzaman: An effort was made in 1971 to establish a national identity. During the liberation war we were united. After the war we failed to remain united. We united again in the movement against autocracy. But that unity did not last long either. Bangladesh today stands as a divided nation. The people cannot reach a consensus even on fundamental issues. This does not bode well for the country. There will be difference, political parties will be active, but there needs to be public consensus on certain basic issues.
Prothom Alo: Culture was one of the main weapons of the liberation war. It was the struggle for language and culture that led to the political movement. But this cultural uprising fizzled out after independence.
Anisuzzaman: During the rule of Pakistan, our political consciousness was awakened through cultural movement. Culture was a basic component of our life and state. But there was so major cultural movement in independent Bangladesh and culture has failed to play a vital role in the country. During Nababarsha (the Bangla new year) and 21 February there is a flurry of cultural activities, but there is no efforts to imbibe this in our everyday lives. Culture remains outside of our lives, not a part of our lives.
Prothom Alo: Coming to education, why can be not prevent this downslide?
Anisuzzaman: A major problem in our education is that we follow several different systems. There is English medium, Bangla medium, general madrasa and qawmi madrasa. There is state support for all these systems accept English medium. There is no satisfactory answer as to why there are so many educational systems in the same state.
People became more eager about education after independence. Schools and colleges were established in growing numbers. The number of students increased. The number of girl students has been satisfactory too. But we have failed to create teachers capable to imparting quality education to this large number of students.
Education at the early stages of schools is far from satisfactory. Language studies alone are enough to indicate this. Our students are neither sufficiently proficient in Bangla or English. There are many universities and other institutions of higher education, but not all have competent teachers or academic environment. We have many meritorious students, but most of them go overseas. This creates a serious crisis in the education sector.
Prothom Alo: Our economic growth has been good, but inequality has increased too. Is this consistent with the spirit of the liberation war?
Anisuzzaman: Bangladesh has made amazing success in the last 48 years, but disparity has increased along with development. We must always aim at keeping people above the poverty line and at reducing the economic disparities.
Prothom Alo: Despite our economic growth, we fall back in values and principles. How do you view that?
Anisuzzaman: Our education system has failed to imbibe our students with a sense of ethics and human values. This has given rise to all sorts of social crises. Everyone must have human values in order to build a developed nation.
Prothom Alo: Our democratic institutions are steadily weakening.
Anisuzzaman: The foundation of our democracy is weak. The democratic institutions are week and so we fail to reap benefits from democracy. Sometimes we see an acute absence of democratic values. If the organs of the state ran independently, democracy would flourish. On one had we say that a strong opposition is needed for a healthy democracy, yet on the other hand we are threatening to obliterate the political opposition. This cannot be any democratic ideal. The Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) still is not the centre of our politics. That is unfortunate.
Prothom Alo: Intellectuals play a special role in every democratic society, but what about Bangladesh? Have they been able to do so?
Anisuzzaman: Our intellectuals remain divided. Many of them are affiliated with one political party or the other. It does not seem that they are able to rise above the political divide and work for the greater benefit of the nation. We can hope that this changes.
Prothom Alo: The country is going through a political crisis. What is to be done?
Anisuzzaman: I wouldn’t call it a crisis, but there are problems. The problems are multifarious. There is that matter of democratic values. We must resolve these problems and go to the people with a credible policies and programmes.
Prothom Alo: I am sure you will agree that the space for free expression in the country is shrinking.
Anisuzzaman: I believe there is freedom of expression in Bangladesh. However, there are obstacles in many instances. Some laws even hamper the right to free expression.
Prothom Alo: On this 48th anniversary of our victory, what legacy are you leaving behind for the next generation. What message do you have for the youth?
Anisuzzaman: I do not really have any message for the new generation as we have not been successful in our work for our own generation. I can only hope the new generation will succeed where we have failed. They have a patriotic drive which I believe they will use to build the nation.
Prothom Alo: Bangladesh will celebrate the golden jubilee of its independence within two years. What are your hopes?
Anisuzzaman: I hope that on the golden jubilee I can speak with more joy about our country’s progress.
Prothom Alo: You taught at the university for long and have even served the state when required. Which gave you more satisfaction?
Anisuzzaman: Teaching gave me joy. At the same time I must say, if any duty I perform serves the country well, that is a great achievement for me.
Prothom Alo: Right-wing conservatives are seeing victory all over the world. How will Bangladesh protect itself from this trend?
Anisuzzaman: This surge of right-wing conservatives all over the world is a matter of concern. I can only hope our country does not proceed in this direction.
Prothom Alo: India recently amended its citizen’s act, saying that non-Muslims who had come from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan would be given citizenship. This is a reinstatement of the two-nation theory, the theory which India had rejected in 1947.
Anisuzzaman: This news has been extremely disturbing. If religious extremism rises its head in a country like India, that would be very unfortunate. It may have an impact on Bangladesh too. However, I believe no intelligent person of Bangladesh will proceed towards any form of extremism.
* This interview appeared in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.