As Bangladesh celebrates the fiftieth victory day this year, it is of paramount importance to look back and evaluate how far we have come in fulfilling the promises of our liberation war and indentify necessary steps to building an equitable and just society. With that in mind, this article will delve into the discrimination faced by the people of East Pakistan, the promises of our liberation war, and how Bangladesh can start implementing those promises in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
MAJOR FEATURES OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST THE PEOPLE OF THEN EAST PAKISTAN: The key reason for the liberation war was the discrimination, of course, discrimination by the ruling class upon the ruled classes, and the ruled classes were always there in both West and East Pakistan. But East Pakistan was doubly exploited. It was exploited as a whole as a nation, as well as a member of the ruled classes. In the ruled classes, there are workers, peasants, and the middle-class. Capitalists are generally not the members of ruled classes, but in the case of East Pakistan, the Bengali capitalists were also oppressed. That is why we are saying that the Bengali nation as a whole, all classes included, were exploited. Why was that so? Because the ruling class of Pakistan was a very small group of elites, who were large landowners and owners of big capital. In fact, there were only 22 families in entire Pakistan, known as Baish Poribar, who were the ruling class of the whole of Pakistan. These 22 families had ownership of 60 per cent of the total wealth of Pakistan, which included all major industries, banks, interest companies. There were very few big landlords in East Pakistan, mostly from the region of Northern Bengal, who were called Jotdaars, (large landholders who had more than 33 acres of land). This was also the legitimate ceiling that was put by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the post-independence period.
So in the market, the non-monopolist Bengali bourgeoisie had to compete. The state sometimes used to support them through EPIDC, to create some jute mills, some leather industries, some textile factories. This was state-sponsored capitalism, and that belonged to a few lucky comprador entrepreneurs from East Pakistan. Also, the economic mechanism was such that wealth was being regularly transferred from East Pakistan to West Pakistan continuously, through different means. For example, in the national or central budget, East Pakistan always got lesser budget allocation in terms of population, despite making up more than 50 per cent of the total population. This was one way of transferring wealth.
There was a famous poster designed by Bangabandhu, which posed the question "Shonar Bangla shoshan keno?" (Why is the Golden Bengal a crematorium?). The answers to the question were there in terms of discrimination of the West Pakistani elites against the Bengali people. Besides economic discrimination, which was the most major form of discrimination, there was also cultural discrimination. It was decided that Urdu will be promoted as the state language, so there was discrimination in terms of language as well. The education sector also saw discrimination in terms of investment and quality of education. The enrolment of students was also relatively less in East Pakistan. So West Pakistan accumulated knowledge capital, whereas East Pakistan could not. That was again reflected in the administration, where the majority of the CSP officers were from West Pakistan, and only a few were from East Pakistan. That was also reflected in the armed forces, where majority of the senior positions were occupied by West Pakistanis. So, the Bengali nation was discriminated against economically, culturally, educationally, and finally politically.
PROMISES OF THE LIBERATION WAR: Since there were both class exploitation and national exploitation, the issues of our liberation war were both class issues and national issues. We wanted to be independent of West Pakistan to become a free nation, and we wanted to become a nation where a mere 22 families will not rule an entire country. So the independence war was not only a war of independence- it was a war of economic emancipation. That is why in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's famous speech of March 7, he called for both independence and liberation. Liberation from hunger, poverty, exploitation, discrimination and inequality. If you look at the manifesto which was put forward by Sheikh Mujibhur Rahman in the election of 1970, he was found to be claiming that if he got elected in the election, he would create an autonomous Bangladesh, where he will introduce "scientific socialism". He clearly mentioned that if he became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he would introduce scientific socialism in Pakistan. Bangabandhu obviously knew that he would not be allowed to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but formally it was a national election, so if people voted for him, he could have claimed that position. He also promised special economic steps, for example, the nationalisation of all big industries in both West and East Pakistan, since it was a national election. He further promised to solve land disputes in favour of small and medium peasants. In addition, he promised he would follow non-aligned foreign policy.
Although our war of independence formally started on March 25, 1971, it had actually a long history of struggle behind it. In all those phases of struggle, the 6 point demand, the 11 point demand, Jukto Front's election demands of 1954 came to reinforce the liberation struggle and was reflected in the final slogan of independence.
CHALLENGES IN THE AFTERMATH OF INDEPENDENCE: The constitution of 1972 contains the promise of our liberation. Now the question is, how far was it fulfilled? If one takes a look at the four fundamental principles, one can easily estimate how far those promises have been fulfilled. The country was promised nationalism, which at that time meant the power of self-determination. Self-determination was possible since Pakistan no longer had the power to dictate us. But the question arises, what about India, the USA and other big powers? Were they somehow dictating our nation, and were we being obliged to follow it? In the question of the USA and the capitalist institutions like the World Bank and IMF, initially, they did want to dominate us. Up to 1975, there was huge bargaining with them. For example, WB and IMF wanted to have multilateral meetings with Bangladesh in Paris, but Bangladesh argued that it would not attend a meeting where all the donor countries would be seated on the other side of the table collectively exerting pressure to go by their words. That is why, Professor Nurul Islam, the then Planning Minister argued that Bangladesh should have these institutions pitting bilaterally in Bangladesh. Sometimes they won, and sometimes they were defeated. Sometimes the economic need was more powerful than the wishes to be politically independent. However, we were largely independent in terms of policy matters. We nationalised the big industries, despite the negative attitudes of WB, IMF and the capitalist bloc. India at that time during Indira Gandhi's rule believed in a mixed economy, so there was not much pressure from that end. Even though we nationalised those industries and tried to follow an equitable path of development, we also put a ceiling on the investment, above which limit no one could accumulate wealth. We also said that there would be three ways of ownership-- state, co-operatives and private ownership. State and the co-operative sector will be given a larger incentive. A ceiling was also imposed on land ownership, with anyone owning more than 100 bighas of land would have the extra land confiscated. The confiscated land was then to be distributed among the landless. TCB was created, rationing and minimum wage were introduced, workers were given the power to form trade unions, among other things. The salary gap between top and bottom government employees was much reduced.
This was ultimately reflected before the death of Bangabandhu, when he lamented, 'I have failed to make Awami League follow my policies, so I am transforming Awami League to form a united national front of all political parties called Bangladesh KrishokShromikAwami League (BAKSAL).' The new one party system had a rather radical programme termed "Second Revolution". With the introduction of Baksal when Bangabandhu himself changed the constitution to institute one-party rule, one of the pillars of the four principles, democracy, got scrapped, of course by the consent of parliament and in that sense, formal democracy was not violated in parliament. Later in certain speeches and private interviews, he said that this was a temporary arrangement since his enemies were getting too much power, conspiring against him and killing his political allies, as well as burning the jute fibres and other subversions. Along with these, there was also rampant corruption. Bangabandhu thought that with a one-party system, he could deal with these problems with a stern hand. But this logic could not be tested. There are two opinions regarding this logic. Some people thought that BAKSAL was composed of heterogeneous forces, where rightists, leftists, centrists all got together to form a hodgepodge, not a socialist one-party system so that it would have failed. Another group thought that it was not a liberal democracy, so this would not only fail but also destroy democracy. Those who wanted pure democracy were strongly against this system, and those who wanted non-democracy for economic emancipation were sceptical. Bangabandhu lost support from both sides, which was a difficult time for him. The extreme reactionary forces thought that if Bangabandhu succeeded to manage things, the country would go along the lines of socialism and the elites would be losing their power permanently.
His death was a very tragic incident that went largely unlamented at that time. If he had compromised with the ruling class, the new rich class that developed during his rule within his party, with Khondaker Moshtaq and others, and also with USA and Indian monopoly capitalists, he could have survived. But he happened to be determined to follow the path of the people to whom he was committed. Once during his interview with David Frost, he said, "My greatest strength is the love for my people, my greatest weakness is that I love them too much." By people, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman meant perhaps the Bengali nation as a whole, among whom were people like Khandoker Moshtaq, and his allies whom Bangabandhu could not get rid of, before they could strike him down. Unfortunately, Tajuddin Ahmed was left out. There was an internal contradiction in the whole scenario: you were following radical policies, but you were not consolidating your camp with radical people. So you wanted to do the job of lions with foxes. In the last few months before the formation of BAKSAL, he recognised that problem with bitterness, and said that he only had sycophants around him, and he would clean them.
FACTORS BEHIND WIDENING INEQUALITY: The distribution of growth will depend upon the growth process itself. If the growth process is inclusive in the fields of production, distribution, exchange and consumption, if it is labour intensive, if in the growth process the pricing of the factors of production is in favour of the majority i.e. labour, that means if the wage is fair and high, then the whole growth will be distributed more equally and we will have growth with equity. But if the growth process is non-inclusive and capital-intensive, and the owners of capital have a larger rate of return, and if it bypasses the unemployed people and the informal sectors, then the size of the pie may increase, but that will not be shared by the larger majority of the people. Something will be going to these people still, but that is a trickle-down approach, which can at best raise their present status at a snail's pace. But in the modern sector dominated by the big money holders, those powerful people's growth of prosperity will happen at rocket's pace. So inequality will increase. Precisely that is what is happening now under crony capitalism.
PROGRESS TOWARDS ATTAINING THE PROMISE OF INDEPENDENCE: Despite many negative features, Bangladesh has still some positive scores of development. For example, just the day before yesterday, the Padma Bridge was constructed. That is a good achievement despite the negative position of the World Bank and others. We managed to do the project with our own money, which was possible due to the changed situation where the Chinese have become more powerful than the World Bank. That was said by our Prime Minister very cleverly, to get their help to do this thing. An infrastructure such as this is a national asset. It will connect the Southern part of Bangladesh with the Northern part. It will create an integrated market and will have a spin-off effect on growth and unemployment. We have also achieved some progress in certain social indicators, like infant mortality rate, low population growth rate. We are now in the demographic dividend stage, and the primary school enrolment rate has already become almost 100 per cent. In the health sector, diarrhea and certain other diseases have decreased, and life expectancy of people has gone up. We have already promulgated many laws, which are good, but the main problem is that those laws are not being implemented, because of the power structure and the systemic constraints of a crony capitalist system.
LOOKING AHEAD: POLICY MEASURES FOR RECOUPING Covid-19 LOSSES: First, you will have to recognise that we were not prepared to fight Covid-19; our health sector was not prepared to fight it. So the health budget and the health programme should be revitalised so that it can handle the follow-up duties of Covid-19 and also get ready for future pandemics like this. Secondly, due to Cobid-19, there will be a medium-term slump or depression in the economy, which is already going on, for which expansionary monetary and fiscal policy will be required. Third, those who have lost their jobs and capital will need special assistance. So, social security allowances, social security budgets should be increased, and the credit to the SMEs should be increased. The problem is that the government has already taken steps towards these and has given also some lip-service or policy declarations. But because of its unfavourable, unprepared and corrupt administrative structure, they are not properly implemented.
Even then, one thing is good. Our peasants did not wait for government intervention. Using their intelligence and to some extent, the help of our agriculture extension services, and perhaps the leadership of the Agriculture Ministers - first, Matia Chowdhury and now Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, this is where we could find some sunshine. But the dark side is that the real producers are not yet getting a remunerative price for their products.
Dr. M. M. Akash is the Chairman of the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka. [email protected]