Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned home from Pakistani captivity on 10 January 1972. He was received at Dhaka airport by a huge crowd which included a large number of his political co-travellers and colleagues. From the airport he was driven to the Race Course Maidan (now Suhrawardy Udyan) from which on 7 March 1971 he had delivered his celebrated address to the nation. In his speech of 10 January Bangabandhu sounded thoughtful and composed, as he proceeded under the weight of the moment and the heavy burden of leadership of a free nation. Bangabandhu was quite candid about the future that awaited us and the problems that we faced. He stressed on the individual and collective responsibilities and the need to forge national unity to overcome the obstacles that lay on our way. Although he reminded his audience to be truthful to history and responsive to the needs of the people, he didn't provide any concrete plan or guideline for collective action. This came later, in a series of policy decisions and actions stretched over the years, culminating in his call for a 'Second Revolution' in a speech he gave at the National Parliament on 25 January 1975. The aim of his Second Revolution was to materialize his dream of Sonar Bangla. He also provided specific plans for mobilizing the country's intellectual, cultural and economic resources to achieve the objectives of the revolution. Bangabandhu announced the Second Revolution roadmap in a speech delivered on 26 March 1975at the Suhrawardy Udyan. In both the 25 January and 26 March speeches, he provided a list of actions that the Second Revolution would aim to undertake. These included(i) ameliorating poverty, (ii) upholding the principles of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism, (iii) eliminating corruption, hoarding and black marketing, (iv) resisting the anti-liberation and extremist forces and their conspiracy against the country, (v) revamping the country's administrative set-up to turn its focus from governance to service delivery, (vi) substantially increasing ('doubling') agricultural output to provide food for everyone, (vii) introducing effective family planning and population control measures, (viii) increasing industrial production,(ix) setting up multipurpose cooperative societies in all 65,000 villages of Bangladesh, (x) providing quality education through a 'new education system' and involving teachers and educators in delivering the best education possible in their respective institutions, and (xi) restructuring the judiciary. Bangabandhu also stressed the need for national unity, decentralization of administration, raising revenues and national income and streamlining and activating national development plans. Within a few months of the launching of the Revolution, however, Bangabandhu was brutally assassinated, and all his policies and programmes including his blueprint for the revolution were scrapped. The end result was a slide into chaos and a return to the anarchy we had witnessed during the Pakistan rule. Corruption became endemic and politics became a venue of horse trading and selfish power mongering.
The two speeches referred to above also reflected Bangabandhu's lifelong passion for pro-people politics. In drawing the plans for the Second Revolution, Bangabandhu however, wasn't beginning from scratch: we must remember that by the time he announced its blueprint, the country's economy had been showing signs of recovery. In a speech on 15 December 1974, he had warned the people that the country was facing 'three enemies', i.e.,: (i) a global rise in inflation, which was increasing the price of oil, food and other necessities, and denting the value of our exports, (ii) natural disasters and (iii) corruption and the operation of black market. But despite these adversaries, Bangladesh was achieving success in certain areas of its economy such as reducing the cost of food import and increasing food production (the production of rice in 1974, for example, was 11,778,000 tons as against 10,459,000 tons in 1973), creating employment and reactivating ports and communication systems.
In the three and half years of Bangabandhu's rule, a number of plans were put into action which helped check the economic downslide and bring the economy back on its feet. These included setting up a sound banking sector overseen by Bangladesh Bank; as many as ten sector corporations, and a Planning Commission which came up with a pragmatic five year plan (1973-78), the country's first. He also undertook the following programmes to help the farmers and boost agricultural production:
1. Rebuilding the agricultural infrastructure and putting in place a support system for farmers (which provided farm machineries, pumps and tube wells)
2. Distributing crop seedlings free of cost or at a minimum price
4. Withdrawing nearly a million 'certificate cases' against farmers which the Pakistani government had filed against the farmers.
6. Introducing a rationing scheme for poor farmers to ensure they didn't go hungry
7. Opening the doors of schools and other educational institutions run by the government for the children of the farmers.
8. Raising the ceiling of tax exemption for agricultural land up to 25 bighas
The emphasis on agriculture, at a time when rural population constituted over 90% of the total population (a majority of whom were engaged in agriculture) and contributed more than half of the national income, was aimed at giving rural household economic solvency and social mobility. His call for a rural cooperative revolution was also directed at ensuring economic independence of the villages. And with his plan to provide free education for farmers' children he envisioned a future where girl children would find their place in the growing economy. His plans for the cooperatives were drawn with women's active participation in focus.
Bangabandhu made education the cornerstone of his national policy. He set up a commission under the leadership of Dr. Qudrat-E-Khuda, a renowned scholar and educator to formulate an education policy. The commission came out with a comprehensive report in 1974, which, if implemented, could have radically changed the country's education, and enabled students to attain excellence and become globally competitive. But after Bangabandhu's assassination, the rulers scrapped the Qudrat-E-Khuda report, and allowed the emergence of a triple-stream, education system which has blighted the country's education sector for a long time. the years between 1971 and 1975 were the "NGO gestation period" It is only in 2010 that a new education policy was formulated in the light of Qudrat-E-Khuda report, but its implementation has been thwarted by the beneficiaries of the divisive and flawed education system (private providers, coaching centres, religion based political parties and entities).
A third area where the country now rightfully claims enormous progress and global recognition is the Non-Governmental Organization or NGO sector. Although there has been a lot a debate and controversy over the NGOs (their connection with western donor groups, their distance from the structural causes of poverty etc., their conformity with critiques of neo-liberalism, even their legitimacy on the grounds of their adherence to donor objectives as against local imperatives and policies) by and large they have contributed to substantial improvement in poverty, health and education landscapes, and empowerment of women along with mobilization of the poor. Bangladesh has been justly praised for initiating the kind of pro-activism that made BRAC and Grameen Bank worldwide models for grassroots development. But what is largely ignored is the support that was provided by Bangabandhu's government to the growth of NGOs, despite many setbacks. Indeed, in the words of Manzurul Mannan, (who wrote in BRAC, Global Language and Women in Bangladesh)the years between 1971 and 1975 were the "NGO gestation period." Following the arrival of the NGOs, Bangladesh achieved remarkable success in microfinance, healthcare, nutrition, non-formal education, and many other fields with a sharp focus on the villages and communities at the grassroots.
Objective research on the period 1972-1975 tells us how, in spite of the long list of insurmountable problems facing the country, including the stiff and mounting opposition from the right and the left; international debacles (rising oil prices, for example) with crippling impacts on our economy Bangabandhu put Bangladesh on a foundation that, in future years, would allow others to build on. His successes, in hindsight, appear all the more spectacular, given the formidable odds he had to fight.
If we look at the last ten years, and the remarkable progress Bangladesh is making in wide ranging areas from economy to agriculture, women's empowerment to health and nutrition, from education to communication we realize that the forces at work now had indeed been activated long ago, in the years between 1972 and 1975. Those years set the benchmark, gave us a sense of direction and allowed us to imagine the impossible. That impossible, with each passing year, appears a little less so because we draw our inspiration from the war of liberation and from the legacy left behind by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Syed Manzurul Islam is a writer and literary critic. He was a Professor of English at University of Dhaka.