August Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Published 15 years ago

“We are still strangers in spite of so many feasts together,
After how many meetings shall we be friends again?”

Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote this couplet after a visit to Bangladesh in the seventies.

That was then. Today after ‘the cruel birth of Bangladesh’ 38 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 history. The wounds inflicted by a 10-month military operation in 1971 have healed, only leaving some scars on the older generation.

Even today, most of the people I met in Dhaka last month were of the view that East Pakistan would not have separated had power been transferred to the Awami League. They also believe that Mujib-ur-Rahman was willing to be flexible on some of the six points, but in the Constituent Assembly and not outside of it as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wanted.

To discuss where Bangladesh stands today as an independent state, a quick look into its 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 into the East and West wings, with the blessings of the British Raj. Then, when Pakistan was created, Jinnah made the mistake of insisting that “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the national language of Pakistan.” He failed to recognise the difference between a lingua franca and a 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.

Back in 1956, Professor Hans J. Morgenthau of the University of Chicago wrote: “Pakistan is not a nation and hardly a state. It has no justification in history, ethnic origin, language, civilisation 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 the 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.”

Del294926-300x198Though much of this observation is true even today, it does not explain why the people of East Pakistan did not join West Bengal after its independence in 1971. This question had always bothered me, so I decided to put it to the businessmen and journalists I met during my visit. Reazuddin Ahmed, editor of The News Today, explained that the people in East Pakistan were not willing to exchange their subjugation by West Pakistan to that by  India, and West Bengal was not interested in separating from India. My take was that the fear of the Hindu still persists, otherwise East Pakistan would have joined India. Their strong dislike for India’s big brother attitude also explains why Bangladesh did not join India, although its war of liberation was supported militarily by Indira Gandhi.

At the same time, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh remains secular in character with its population comprising 10% Hindus and 2.5% other minorities. This does not mean, however, that Bangladesh’s secular politics had since not suffered any setbacks it acquired independence.
During the military operation in 1971, there was a systematic killing of Hindus, which scared many into fleeing to India. Again, in 1992, the Islamic parties went on a rampage against the Hindus of Bangladesh in retaliation for 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 out of Bangladesh by the religious extremists from Bangladesh on frivolous charges of blasphemy. The actual fact, according to a senior Bangladeshi journalist, is that the BJP in India tried to capitalise on her book and distributed free copies in India. This rattled the Bangladesh government and it collaborated with the Islamists in victimising Taslima Nasrin). As a consequence, the Hindu population of Bangladesh has declined from 30% in the 1950s to 10% today. Under pressure from the fundamentalists, Bangladesh changed the secular character of its constitution in 1978 by making Islam the state religion.

The most burning issue in Bangladesh today is the construction of the mega Tipaimukh Dam, on the Barak River, by India. This is the second time after independence that Bangladesh is facing a water dispute with India. The first controversy, which still simmers, was on the construction of Farakka Barrage that squeezed ‘the East Pakistan rivers’ life-giving flow.’ Unfortunately, Ayub Khan’s government did not include the rivers of the eastern wing  in the water accord with India when he had a chance. The World Bank loan to Pakistan for the Tarbela Dam only benefited West Pakistan.

The construction of Tipaimukh Dam, according to Bangladeshi politicians across the political divide, 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 to divert 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.
Pakistan is reluctant to allow land transit facilities to India to trade with Afghanistan in spite of the agreement signed in Washington recently, Bangladesh , too has 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 this route as it would boost their economy as well.

As far as Bangladesh’s internal politics is concerned, it has followed a path similar to Pakistan’s. When we were one country it was generally believed that East Pakistan was in  the vanguard of the democratic movement in Pakistan. So, when East Pakistani leaders 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 bidding of the establishment. Most of us who eventually supported the Bangladesh liberation following the military operation, believed that Bangladesh politics would at least be free of military interference after the independence. Sadly, we were wrong.

Bangla-Pak08-09-300x242Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, who was forced by the circumstances engineered by General Yahya and Bhutto to declare independence, was murdered along 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 deserted the Pakistan Army. He was also killed by the people from his forces. Like Pakistan, army intervention in politics has been frequent in Bangladesh. The justification has also been the same: restoring peace in the country and weeding out 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 rejoin politics there. The PPP returned to power here (but unfortunately, Ms Bhutto was assassinated). The Awami League is back in power there, led by Sheikh 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, Bangladesh is still behind Pakistan, though 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 to 5.9%. They are aiming at over 6% growth during the current year, as against our target of 3%. They have managed to contain inflation to around 5% to 6% in a sharp contrast to 17% to 20% in Pakistan. However, Bangladesh’s per capita income on purchasing power parity basis is $1,155, in contrast to Pakistan’s $2,361. At the time of independence, East Pakistan’s per capita income was about 40% less than West Pakistan’s, although its exports income was much higher than ours. Even other economic and development figures highlighted by a group of Viennese scholars in 1971 reflected the glaring injustice done to East Pakistan.

The same is the case if the 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% in Pakistan. Its total army strength, including the reservists, is 200,000 while ours is 600,000.

Del283305-201x300bBangladesh still has 45% of its population living below the poverty line. The wages are very low. For these poor people not much has changed after independence — they were the poor cousins of West Pakistanis then

and remain 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 enamoured by the ‘trickle down theory.’

Most businessmen and intellectuals have pinned a lot 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 rogue elements of the Awami League by bringing in new faces in the cabinet. Whether she will be successful in this effort remains to be seen.