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Two Pictures

[Views expressed in this article are solely of the writer’s and Bangladesh Defence Journal in no way responsible for any comment or view expressed here]

Look at the two photographs, A and B above. You can see two gateways with captions above each gateway. The caption in Photograph-A is in German which translated into English stands as, “Work Leads to Freedom”. The caption in Photograph-B is in Bangla; translated into English it stands as, “We keep you Safe and show you the Path to Enlightenment”. Looking at and reading the captions one would think that these are gateways to universities but they are not. These captions are meant to deceive.

The gateway in Photograph-A leads to the German Nazi era concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here during World War II (1939-1945) well over a million men, women and children were murdered through an industrial process which involved gas chambers and ovens for burning people. These people not only included Jews from all over occupied Europe but anyone the Nazis considered to be opponents, “undesirables”, “sub-humans”, traitors and “enemies of the state”. Being through and efficient, the Nazis did not waste anything – personal belongings, clothing, jewelry, hair, dental fillings, human fat, bones and ashes – all were put to use one way or another.

The gateway in Photograph-B leads to Kasimpur Jail (Unit-2, Dhaka Central Jail). There are such jails in every district of Bangladesh. The holding capacity of all the jails is 34 thousand persons but the jails are now holding around 74 thousand persons – this is as per the statement of the Inspector-General of Prisons given to the press on 23 April 2015. The vast majority of these prisoners are not criminals but political and other activists opposed to the ruling regime. The regime terms these people as “terrorist sub-humans”, “traitors”, “enemies of the state”, etc. All around the world, even in dysfunctional states likePakistan, universities are secure places of Enlightenment but inBangladeshit is not universities but jails which provide enlightenment!!

It is but a short conceptual step from Point-B to Point-A and I think thatBangladeshis getting ready, since the last 45 years, to take that step. Here is the story.


Forty five years ago on the night of 25/26 March 1971 my father died fighting for the independence of Bangladesh; he was the first Bengali soldier to do so. The memories are fresh, made all the more poignant by the situation ofBangladesh today. I wonder what my father would have thought of present-day Bangladesh, a nation-state he had fought and died for.

An estimated 3 million people had died during the 9 month duration of the Liberation War. During the last 45 years of an independentBangladesh, I estimate that, an equal number of people have died due to: folds and cyclones; famines and starvations; political and civil conflicts, revolts, insurrections and mutinies; road, river and rail accidents; fires and collapsing buildings; criminal activities and acts of the state to preserve “law and order”. No count has been kept of exactly how many people had died due to the above-mentioned causes, just as no exact count had been kept of how many people had died during the Liberation War. All we have are estimates but as a pointer one many consider the fact that 60 Army officers had laid down their lives during the entire period of the Liberation War and in one single mutiny on 25 February 2009 of the Bangladesh Rifles, 57 Army officers were murdered.

Today our nation is fractured by dissension. Every institution of our state is corrupt. The nation is not only corrupt and immoral but invents excuses and justifications to perpetuate that corruption and immorality. And the people are as mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited as they have never been before. So, how did we come to this state of affaires?

A Principled Beginning

On 16 December 1972, exactly a year after independence,Bangladeshpromulgated its Constitution. The preamble to that constitution stated:

“…Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularity, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in the struggle for national liberation, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution;

Further pledging that it shall be a fundamental aim of the State to realize through the democratic process, a socialist society free from exploitation, a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedoms, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens;

Affirming that it is our sacred duty to safeguard, protect and defend this Constitution and to maintain its supremacy as the embodiment of the will of the people ofBangladeshso that we may prosper in freedom and may make our full contribution towards international peace and co-operation in keeping with the progressive aspirations of mankind...”

That constitution was amended 15 times. Except for the first three amendments, none of the other reflected “the will of the people” but they reflected the will of the ruling elites or coteries in power at the time. The slide down was quick and hard, as we shall see in the subsequent paragraphs.

Principles Gone Awry

1. Nationalism:

Although the constitution laid down Nationalism as the first principle, it did not define what nationalism meant to us or what its constituents were. Barely five years after independence the question of national identity was up for disputation.

Without exception, every citizen ofBangladesh agrees that the Language Movement was the first step towards our statehood but is or can Language be considered the sole determinant of national culture and identity? Some would insist that it is. Others would point out that there are 80 million Bangla speakers in the Indianprovince ofWest Bengal, none of whom even remotely considered the possibility of forming and living in a single state calledBangladesh. In fact the people of West Bengal had contended, often violently thatBengalbe divided along religious lines; the Hindu-Muslim divide being too wide to bridge by statehood.

Within the last one century, borders ofBengal have changed four times: 1905, 1916, 1947 and 1971; each time the determinant of setting borders was religion; not language. So, religion did play a determining role in the formation of the state ofBangladesh.

These contending points of view are reflected in the politics and society ofBangladesh today. Bangladeshi nationalism (Muslim-Bengali identity) is embodied by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) while Bengali (linguistic identity) is embodied by the Awami League (AL). So acrimonious is the ideological conflict between the proponents of these two opposing views that leaders of these two parties now openly talk of “eliminating” each other as the only solution toBangladesh’s political and social problems. As of March 2015, the 160 million populace ofBangladeshis caught in between this divide and are paying for it with their lives.

2. Socialism:

East Pakistan had no economy to speak of and an independentBangladesh had none. The Liberation War had utterly devastated the country, rendering millions of people homeless, without food or clothing. The Awami League (AL) government thought that nationalizing the economy was the sole way to provide the basic needs of the people and it was the first step towards socialism. TheAL government nationalized everything butAL personnel placed as administrators in industrial, agricultural and service sectors looted and robbed everything, right down to the nuts and bolts. The country went into an endless tail-spin. The looting, the mismanagement and misgovernance of that firstAL government had by mid-1974 brought about famine and starvation. People from the rural areas moved in their tens of thousands to the few cities in search of food and shelter but none were available and so many died. This dalliance with socialism was short-lived as in August 1975 a military mutiny wiped out the entireALleadership and government.

3. Democracy:

Following the chaotic conditions prevailing in the country the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Act 1975 was passed on 25 January 1975.  The presidential form of government was promulgated in place of the parliamentary system; a one-party system in place of a multi-party system was introduced; the powers of the Parliament were curtailed; the Judiciary lost much of its independence; the Supreme Court was deprived of its jurisdiction over the protection and enforcement of fundamental rights. This Act besides laying aside and amending many articles amended Chapter-3, Part IV of the constitution (Local Government) out of existence; extended the term of the first Parliament for 5 more years; and made special provisions relating to the office of the President and its incumbent Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

This amendment infact destroyed the Constitution. The President, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was given a life-time of absolute, dictatorial powers which he was free to exercise arbitrarily. The Act defied every criteria and every principle of rational, responsible government and yet the higher judiciary of that time did not feel the necessity of preserving the Constitution or the people by immediately declaring this amendment as unconstitutional, illegal and unlawful. Much later in Hamidul Haque Chowdhury v. Bangladesh, (34 DLR 381) the High Court Division merely “observed” that the Act destroyed the Constitution but did not feel the need to declare it illegal because of the lapse of time and the change of the political system and government.

The 4th Amendment was followed by a number of Acts and Ordinances which: (1) Banned all newspapers except three; (2) Imposed heavy censorship on all publications; (3) Banned all political and social associations and parties except one; and (4) established the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) as the one party allowed for in the amendment. Anyone not a member of BAKSAL could not stand for elections to the Parliament or could remain an MP. Members of the Civil Service, the Foreign Service, the Judiciary, the Police and the Military were invited to seek membership of the Party. It was tacitly and implicitly understood that whoever was not a BAKSAL member could seek government employment or for that matter any other employment because the government had nationalized all industries and services.

To enforce the BAKSAL writ a full-fledged military force by the acronym of JRB (Jatio Rakkhi Bahini) was formed through an ordinance titled “The Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini Order 1972” gazetted on 08 March 1972. An Indian Military Advisory Team was stationed inBangladesh to organize, equip and train the JRB. Initially a number of selected Bangladesh Army Officers, serving and retired were also deputed to the JRB. The JRB reported directly to the Prime Minister/President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman through his Principal Secretary. By August 1974, the JRB had 12 battalions, with 3 more being formed in Savar. The JRB battalions were equipped and armed like regular infantry battalions. The JRB’s 12 battalions were deployed throughoutBangladeshright down to the administrative sub-divisions

The overt mission of the JRB was to restore law and order. Its covert tasks, however were to root out all opposition to BAKSAL. The JRB went about its tasks ruthlessly, brutally and indiscriminately; its main brunt falling on the left and extreme left, who had by then taken up armed resistance to theAL. The JRB murdered as many of the leftist and their supporters as they could lay their hands on. Shiraj Shikder, the doyen of the extreme left was one such victim of extra-judicial killings, although he was killed by the Police and not by the JRB. This reign of terror within a year cost the lives of an estimated 3 thousand to 30 thousand people; many more were left permanently maimed both physically and mentally. The JRB was later, in late 1975, disbanded and merged within the Bangladesh Army.

On 15 August 1975, a portion of Bangladesh Army mutinied and murdered the entire political leadership of the AL and their families which included the Bongobondhu and his family. Since thenBangladeshhas tried every form of government: Parliamentary, Presidential, Military Dictatorship, Quasi-military and back to Parliamentary without in the least bit ameliorating the political, social and economic problems of country. As of January 2015 the country is yet again in a violent conflict as to the nature and form of democracy, government and governance and yet again the people are paying the price with their lives and livelihoods.

4. Secularism:

Secularism as a matter of state policy has not been well understood inBangladesh and it was a non-issue until in 1977, when President General Ziaur Rahman decided to remove secularism as a state principle through the Fifth Amendment to the constitution. Instead, “Islam is the state religion” ofBangladeshwas incorporated in the constitution, largely paving the way for the rise of religion-based parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islam.

Proponents of secularism insist that religion ought to play no part in public life – political, economic and social and that religion must be kept confined within the realm of the private otherwise the society and the nation will fail to progress in a globalised world dominated by the West. The opponents of secularism with equal zeal insist that we are surrounded by religion from our births to death and therefore, religion must find a place in both our private and public lives otherwise Western model material and economic progress will lead us to corruption and immorality; religion, they contend, anchors us to our culture and behavioral norms.

Over the last two decades these two positions have been so radicalized that now secularists deride all religion, denigrate all beliefs and practices, their ire particularly directed against Islam. Their opponents on the other hand now claim that the state must change its very nature and form and be converted into an Islamic state with Sharia laws. The secularist view, as has been mentioned in paragraph one above, is supported by theALand the religionist view is supported by the BNP. As of March 2015, such is the mutual animosity that each wishes to eliminate the other entirely and infact is in the process of doing so with scores of people dying or maimed everyday.

Concluding Remarks

As for the other flowery words in the preamble to the Constitution such as fundamental rights, freedom and liberty, justice and equity etc, they are not worth the paper on which they are printed. Neither do these principles find any reflection in the institutions of our state or in our public life. Quite the opposite is the case.

The AL often invokes the “Spirit of the Liberation War” to garner support for its ideology of “Bengali” nationalism but it is the AL which right from 1974, perhaps earlier, had thrown all that the Liberation War stood for into the dustbin. So how can theAL today invoke the Spirit of the Liberation War with any credibility when theALitself denied that Spirit any role in national life and tore apart the Constitution in 1974 and instead imposed the totalitarian BAKSAL state.

Religious fervor led us into becoming a part of Pakistan and linguistic fervor led us into forming Bangladesh. So, 45 years after independence What are we now? Where do we stand? Where are we heading? I, for one, do not know and I doubt whether anyone else knows either. If attaining 6% to 7% of yearly GDP growth is our sole national aspiration, then we all ought to be happy. Why are we killing each other?

Latest from Col Mahmud ur Rahman Choudhury, psc (Retd)