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Thursday 12th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Seventy years on from independence from Britain, SYEDUR RHAMAN says the prospects of progress in Bangladesh are rosier than they have been for decades

THIS year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent and the subsequent partition, which led to the creation of the states of India and Pakistan.

The two areas of East and West Pakistan were combined into one nation. This despite the fact that they are situated 1,380 miles apart and there are differences in history and cultural practices.

A major difference was language — in west Pakistan they spoke Urdu and in east Pakistan Bangla. This difference led to discrimination when Urdu became the state language despite an undertaking, in 1956, that both Urdu and Bangla would have parity as official languages.

In fact 52 per cent of the overall population spoke Bangla. However, many speakers of Bangla were effectively denied positions of power and authority despite the fact that east Pakistan’s production and export of jute and tea was a major earner of foreign currency. The benefits of this trade were largely spent in west Pakistan. The inequitable situation was a powder keg of growing tension and resentment.

At the 1969 Pakistan national elections, the Awami League (AL) party led by an east Pakistani, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won 167 seats out of a total of 300. Normally, this should have led to him becoming the legitimate prime minister of Pakistan. However, the elites of west Pakistan conspired to deny handing him power and as a result an independence movement in east Pakistan grew and in 1971 it lead to a split in which the nation of Bangladesh emerged with military help from India.

During the nine-months-long war three million people lost their lives and one million were displaced.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became the first president of the new nation and had the title of Father of the Nation conferred on him.

The British journalist Cyril Dunn described him, as “the tallest Bengali for a thousand years.”

However, as Rahman was striving to rebuild and develop a badly damaged and war-torn country the seeds of political turmoil were being sown.

A violent insurgency against the government of Rahman was instigated by a new political party Jasad.

To compound matters in 1974 a man-made famine was created when the US withheld 2.2 million tons of food aid on the initiative of the then US ambassador to the country because of Bangladesh’s policy of exporting jute to Cuba. By the time Bangladesh succumbed to US pressure and stopped jute exports to Cuba, it was “too late for famine victims.”

Tragically it was shortly after this in 1975, that Rahman and 19 of his family were assassinated by a faction within the military. Only his daughters Sheik Hasina — who is the current prime minister of Bangladesh — and Sheik Rehana survived by virtue of being abroad.

This conspiracy to murder the founder of Bangladesh was backed by pro-Pakistan elements from within the Bangladesh army, led by Khondakar Mushtaq Ahmed a minister in Rahman’s government.

Ahmed seized power and imposed martial law. He also forbade the trial of the alleged assassins, allowing most of the suspects to go abroad. In addition his government imprisoned AL leaders, who were brutally killed while in detention.

Ahmed later appointed General Ziaur Rahman as chief of the army. In an ironic twist, the general overthrew the Ahmed government in 1977 and assumed the presidency.

General Ziaur Rahman formed his own party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and granted immunity to the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and rewarded some them with ambassadorships at various Bangladeshi foreign missions.

During this time original opponents of independence were allowed back into politics and a growth in Islamic fundamentalism followed.

Still the general only lasted three years before he was assassinated by fellow army officers in 1981 allowing General Ershad to seize power and impose martial law in 1982.

Like others before him he created his own political party the Jatio. After all these years of suffering and a rule by a succession of dictators, the people of Bangladesh launched an intense campaign of opposition.

Many lives were lost in the struggle, but ultimately Ershad was forced to step down in December 1990 and was imprisoned. This deadly continuous political unrest, a chain of political coups and killings created a bitter legacy — a bitterness that still pervades to this day.

That year after 15 years of dictatorship Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy and has, since 1991, been ruled alternatively by the AL and the BNP. Although there was a two year period between 2007 and 2009 of an interim caretaker government.

Crime and corruption in the country have been reduced, but still remain a huge challenge for any government. Additionally, Bangladesh faces the full force of climate change with rising sea levels and drought a major threat — yet more challenges to overcome for this developing nation.

Notwithstanding, the country has, since 2010, made huge progress that has seen a reduction in poverty, the empowering of women, improved education and increasing economic development mainly through agricultural and clothing exports.

According to the World Bank’s October 2016 annual report, Bangladesh’s track record since Independence in 1971 has shown impressive growth and development. The country has emerged as a global leader in poverty reduction and in creating wide opportunities for improving the livelihoods of its people. Rapid economic growth at nearly 6 per cent a year has propelled it from a low-income to low-middle-income status.

With the right policies and investments the country is poised to achieve upper middle income status by 2021.

Bangladesh’s next general election is due in January 2019 and will hopefully be contested by all parties.

Perhaps at last the future holds more promise of democratic and economic stability than at any previous point in Bangladesh’s short history.