“We are still strangers in spite of so many feasts together,
After how many meetings we shall be friends again?”
Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote this couplet after a visit to Bangladesh in the seventies (translation’s mine).
That was then. Today after ‘the cruel birth of Bangladesh*,’ three decades and seven years ago, it seems we are friends again. The pain of economic and political exploitation of East Pakistan by the West Pakistan establishment is now a sad history. The wounds inflicted by a 10-month military operation in 1971 have healed leaving some scars on the memory of the older generation.
But all said and done even today most of the people I met in Dhaka last month were of the view that East Pakistan would not have separated, had the power been given to Awami League. And that Mujib was willing to give concessions on some of the six points but in the constituent assembly and not outside as Bhutto wanted.
To discuss where Bangladesh stands today as an independent state, a quick look into the history is appropriate. To begin with the seeds of its separation from India were sown in the early 20th century when its Muslim leadership supported the idea of dividing Bengal in East and West wings with the blessing of the British Raj. Then when Pakistan was made Mr. Jinnah made a mistake by insisting that “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the national language of Pakistan.” The Barrister failed to recognise the difference between a lingua franca and national language. Bengali was an older and more developed language than Urdu at that time. The result was the 1952 language movement in East Pakistan. After spilling the blood of students the government agreed to have two national languages in the country.
Way back in 1956 Professor Hans J. Morgenthau of the Chicago University wrote: “Pakistan is not a nation and hardly a state. It has no justification in history, ethnic origin, language, civilization or the consciousness of those who make up its population. They have no interest in common save: fear of Hindu domination … West Pakistan belongs essentially to Middle East and has more in common with Iran or Iraq than that with East Bengal. East Bengal, in turn, with a population which is one third Hindu is hardly distinguishable from West Bengal which belongs to India?” Though much of this observation is true even today, the question remains then why the people of East Pakistan did not join West Bengal of India after liberation in 1971? This question had always bothered me, so I decided to put it to the businessmen and journalists I met during my visit. Editor of The News Today, Reazuddin Ahmed explained that the people in East Pakistan were not willing to move from the subjugation of West Pakistan to India and West Bengal is not interested to separate from India. So there was not a possibility of having an independent state comprising of East and West Bengal. My take was that ‘The Hindu fear’ still lives otherwise East Pakistan would have joined India. Strong dislike for India’s big brother attitude also explains why Bangladesh did not join India, although its liberation war was supported militarily by Indira Gandhi.
But at the same time Peoples Republic of Bangladesh remains secular in character with 10% Hindu and 2.5% other minorities. This does not mean that Bangladesh’s secular politics had suffered no set backs after it acquired independence.
During the military operation in 1971 there was a systematic killing of Hindus, which scared away many to India. Then again in 1992 the Islamic parties went on rampage against Hindus of Bangladesh in reaction to the Babri Masjid demolition by the Hindu fundamentalists in India. (This sordid episode is best recorded by Taslima Nasrin in her novel Lajja. She was hounded away by the fundamentalists from Bangladesh on frivolous charges of blasphemy. The actual fact, according to a senior Bangladeshi journalist, is that the BJP in India tried to capitalize on her book and distributed its free copies in India. This rattled the government of Bangladesh also and it corroborated with the Islamist in victimising Taslima Nasrin). As a result of all this the Hindu population of Bangladesh has declined from 30% in the fifties to 10%. Under pressure from the fundamentalists, Bangladesh changed the secular character of its constitution in 1978 by making Islam as the state religion.
Most burning issue in Bangladesh today is the construction of mega Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River by India. This is the second time after independence that Bangladesh is faced with a water dispute with India. The first controversy, which still simmers, was on the construction of Farakka Barrage that squeezed ‘the rivers’ life-giving flow.’ Unfortunately Ayub Khan’s government did not include East Pakistan Rivers in the water accord with India, when he had a chance. The World Bank loan to Pakistan for the Tarbela Dam benefited West Pakistan only, while the loan liability was created against the country that included East Pakistan also.
The construction of Tipaimukh Dam, Bangladesh politicians across the political divide say would be environmentally and economically disastrous for the people of their country. India has tried to pacify them by claiming that the dam is being built to produce electricity and would not be used for diverting the water for irrigation purposes. Like Pakistan, which is also contesting the building of Baglihar Dam in Kashmir, Bangladeshis are not inclined to believe the Indians.
While Pakistan is reluctant to allow land transit facilities to India to trade with Afghanistan in spite of the agreement signed in Washington recently, Bangladesh has also not conceded to the Indian demand to open its land route for transit trade, which would make trade between West and East India much easier and cheaper. However, many businessmen and intellectuals in Dhaka are in favour of opening up of this route as it would give a boost to their economy also.
Now let’s have a look into the Bangladeshi internal politics from the perspective of a Pakistani democrat. When we were one country it was generally believed that East Pakistan is the vanguard of the democratic movement in Pakistan. So when East Pakistani leader were pushed to the wall where they could only fight for liberation, most of the democratic leaders of West Pakistan were pleading that power should be transferred to the Awami League to save the country. The only major exception was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP, which was doing the politics of the establishment. Most of us who eventually supported the Bangladesh liberation after the military operation started, believed that Bangladesh politics would at least be free of military interference after the independence. Sadly, we were wrong!
Shaikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, who was forced by the circumstances engineered by General Yahya and Bhutto to declare independence, was murdered with most of his family members in 1975 by the young Turks of the Bangladeshi Army. Another leader General Ziaur Rehman took over in 1976 from Khondkar Mushtaq’s government which came in after Mujib’s death. Zia led the armed struggle for liberation in 1971 when he reneged from Pak Army. He was also killed by the people from his forces. Army intervention in politics like Pakistan has been frequent in Bangladesh. The justification has also been the same — restoring peace in the country and weeding out the corruption. The story continues and runs parallel — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were allowed to return to politics by the junta here, Hasina Wajid and Khaleda Zia were permitted to politics there. Peoples Party returned to power here (but unfortunately Ms. Bhutto was assassinated). Awami league is back in power there led by Shaikh Mujib’s daughter Hasina Wajid. She was saved at the time of the coup because she was out of the country with her sister.
On the economic and human development count, though Bangladesh is still behind Pakistan, with the present growth trajectory, it is likely to catch up with us in a few years. While Pakistan’s economic growth has dropped to 2.3% in 2008-09, Bangladesh’s has grown by 5.9%. They are aiming at over six percent growth during the current year, as against ours three percent. They have managed to contain inflation to around 5 to 6 per cent in a sharp contrast to 17-20 per cent. However, Bangladesh’s per capita income on purchasing power parity basis is $1155, in contrast to Pakistan’s $2361. At the time of independence East Pakistan’s per capita income was about 40% less than West Pakistan, although its exports income was much higher than us. Even other economic and development figures highlighted by a group of Vienna scholars in 1971 reflected glaring injustice with East Pakistan.
Same is the case if Human Development Index is compared – Pakistan’s rank is 139 (not very admirable) while Bangladesh stands at 147. But the good thing is that unlike Pakistan Bangladesh is spending only 1.5% of its GDP on defence as against 3% of Pakistan. Its total army strength including the reservists is 200,000 as against ours 600,000.
Bangladesh still has 45% population living below the poverty line. The wages are very low. For these poor people not much has changed because of independence as they were the poor cousins of West Pakistani then and remains the same today. The new government says that it will concentrate on poverty alleviation. At present the fruits of faster economic growth are not flowing down to the poor as their economic managers are also enamored by the ‘trickle down theory.’
Most businessmen and intellectuals have pinned lots of hope on Hasina Wajid’s government. They say that it seems that she has learnt from her past mistakes and is trying to keep a distance from the corrupt and rouge elements of the Awami League by bringing in new faces in the cabinet. Will she be successful in this effort, where her father failed, remains to be seen. Unfortunately history of most developing countries has shown that in a democracy the process of cleansing the politics from corrupt and rouge elements is very long and is contrary to the impatient people’s aspiration. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
*(Title of a book written by Archer Blood, who was US Consul General in Dhaka during the days of liberation struggle. He had pleaded to the American government, in confidential memos, to intervene and support the transfer of power to Mujib. But Kissinger did not want to annoy the Pakistan government which at that time was the only mediator between the US and China. And then his master President Nixon had instructed “don’t squeeze Yahya).”