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WEDNESday, MARCH 26, 2014 |

Independence Day 2014

Standing on the shoulders of giants

F Cover design: Syed Latif Hossain l Photo of freedom fighters: Anwar Hossain

n Zafar Sobhan

or those of us born into the post-1971 generation, Generation Bangladesh, we can only look back at 1971 as a mythic time and at the 1971 generation, the one that brought us freedom and liberty, as a generation apart, a generation to whom we owe our entire independent existence. In the US, the World War II generation is known as the Greatest Generation for their sacrifices in war and peace, and what they did to create the America that we know today. Steadfast on the battle-field and stoic and hard-working back home, they built the edifice of modern day America. For Bangladeshis, the 1971 generation will always and forever be our Greatest Generation, and those of us fortunate enough to have been born into the peace and potential that they gifted to us have much to live up to. Nor did their contribution end

with the end of the war on December 16. One can argue that the burden of forging a new nation, creating Bangladesh anew from the ashes of nine months of devastation and two centuries of neglect and oppression was no less a task than the war itself. I was born in 1970 just ten months before the birth of Bangladesh, and the closest I ever came to the glory of those times was my encounter as a baby with the Pakistan army when they came to my house on the morning of March 27 to try to arrest my father. When I speak to people like my father or others of that generation who were participants and first-hand witnesses to history, it is hard not be moved by the enormity of what this generation of Bangladeshis achieved for the rest of us and awe-inspiring to reflect just how much blood and heroism went into the creation of this nation of ours. Four decades on, the time has come for the post-1971 generation of Bangladeshis to pick up the torch

and continue the nation’s long march to greatness. The older generation is fading into the twilight, their job well done. They have bequeathed to us a proud and independent nation, one that can stand on its own two feet and take its place on the global stage, an equal partner with all the nations of the world. The heavy lifting of nation-building may have been accomplished, but the next phase, our ascent to greatness as a nation, will be no less arduous and no less important. We all have our role to play, and in playing it we will be fitting heirs to the legacy of 1971 we have inherited and will do the memory of our martyrs proud. On this day 43 years ago, an entire generation of Bangladeshis rose up as one and dared to be free. Now it is our turn. The future is ours. On this March 26, let us reach for the stars, let us dare to dream, let us dare to be great. l Zafar Sobhan is the Editor, Dhaka Tribune.




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bangladesh in the world economy

A n Alam

s Bangladesh reaches its 43rd Independence day, it stands on the threshold of a new era of growth, which will lift its economy towards middle income status. Bangladesh has a population larger than Russia in a space similar to England and Wales. It has the 57th biggest GDP in the world with a s $127bn economy on an upward trend, averaging c.6% growth in recent years. As home to the world’s eighth largest population, it has plenty of potential for growth. Nominal GDP per head is above the $1000 per year level and in purchasing power parity terms, the economy is already ranked in the global top 50 by the World Bank. There are sound reasons then to expect growth to continue. The combination of the strides the country has

made on improving social indicators, meeting Millennium Development Goals and achieving self-sufficiency in key areas such as rice production and pharmaceuticals, together with the demographic dividend of a large number of people entering the workforce, with more than half the population aged under 25, all provide cause for optimism. For these reasons, forecasters at Goldman Sachs named Bangladesh as a Next-11 emerging economy in its follow up to its famous BRICS report, and JP Morgan ranked the country fourth in growth for economically active population, as one of its ‘’Frontier Five’’ states. Recent analysis by HSBC’s October 2013 Global Connections report forecasts that, with the help of continued infrastructure improvements, the country’s competitive advantages will assert themselves to keep export growth very positive and to generally lift the economy overall. This section notes some of Bangla-

desh’s leading export industries and emerging industries. It is headed by the garment industry, where Bangladesh is of course well known as a major production base for global brands in textiles and readymade garments, and is the world’s second largest exporter of garments after China. The RMG sector is presently the focus of worldwide attention for initiatives to improve safety and working conditions. Like environmental standards, labour conditions are a global issue of concern affecting all countries and industries in some manner. It is interesting for observers of globalisation to note how Bangladesh is on the frontline of many of the key challenges facing the world, from climate change and corporate responsibility to debates about secularism and democracy. As the country urbanises and industrialises, its economy and en-

vironment will doubtless face many challenges. How Bangladesh will meet the challenge of tackling these issues and raising living standards for all of its 160m people, will be watched with great interest in coming years. The spread of improvements to communications and technological innovations can all be expected to play their part in helping to lift standards. Export sectors are of particular interest as they are key to economic growth and will be the means by which Bangladeshi businesses become known as brands around the world. For the millions of Bangladeshis who are still underemployed or on low incomes, their importance should not be underestimated. These industries are not the only means by which Bangladesh interacts with the world economy. Over 8m Bangladeshi expatriates provide the country’s second largest source of foreign exchange, with officially recorded remittances totalling around $14bn in 2013. Remittance flows have been a key factor in enabling the country to build up foreign exchange reserves and to vastly reduce the significance of aid to the national economy, further helping it to shed the ‘’basketcase’’ tag of the 1970s. As remittances have largely grown through both good economic times and bad, they can be expected to stay important as the country’s biggest single net inflow of foreign exchange. Finding ways to utilise remittances more effectively and to tap the reservoir of commitment to Bangladesh shown by its diaspora, has the potential to provide new sources of inward investment, as has been shown in countries like China and India. It is not all just about cold hard cash however, as people to people contacts can be just as invaluable. The spread of Bangladeshi communities around the world has built much cultural exchange and interaction, which can only be expected to grow further. Bangladesh is also an exporter of ideas. Perhaps the most familiar is the popularisation of microcredit by the Grameen Bank. It is worth noting also that BRAC’s retail arm, Aarong, was as

much a pioneer of what is now known globally as Fair Trade as any Western organisation, with Aarong starting to sell co-operatively produced handicrafts to Bangladeshi consumers as early as 1978. Although it is well appreciated how Bangladesh contributes to the global economy via the clothes it provides to people around the world through its garment industry, the contribution of its ship breaking industry to globalisation largely goes unnoticed. Most public debate about the country’s ship breaking and recycling industry, focuses on either safety and environmental impacts, or on its economic benefits for Bangladesh as a supplier of raw materials and steel for the national economy. What is often overlooked however, as the former BBC correspondent, Roland Buerk, pointed out in his book on ‘’Breaking Ships in Bangladesh,’’ is that the industry forms a key link in the global logistics chain; as goods in shops all around the world are shipped in container vessels, the ship breaking industry here directly benefits all global consumers, by keeping the costs of scrapping ships down for global ship-owners. Bangladesh is hence already a key and important part of the global economy. With its large untapped potential, its economy and exports can all be expected to grow much more in the years ahead. l

• Leading pharmaceutical companies and local investors are establishing new equipment and production facilities as it expected that the sales of overthe-counter medications and prescription drugs will increase to US$3.44billion by 2019


LEADING INDUSTRIES OF BANGLADESH MAKING A MARK GLOBALLY from a ready supply of raw materials. • Footwear and leather each account for over $300m worth of exports a year.


WORLDS 2nd LARGEST EXPORTER OF APPAREL OVER $21bn EXPORTS IN VALUE SECTOR RESPONSIBLE FOR OVER 80% OF BANGLADESH’S EXPORTS COUNTRY’S LARGEST INDUSTRIUAL EMPLOYER (c. 4 MILLION) Duty-free access to Western markets has helped make Bangladesh the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China. Around 60 percent of clothes made here go to Europe and 23 percent to the United States. • Garment exports totaled $21.5 billion for the financial year ending June 2013, up 13 percent from a year earlier. • The RMG (Ready Made Garment) sector is by far the country’s biggest industrial employer, with a largely female workforce of around 4 million people. • RMG accounts for around 80% of the country’s export basket and despite huge competition, remains on an upward trend. In July-February 2013-14, apparel export went up by 16.69% , with knitwear one of the largest export earners, registering 17.5% growth respectively in this period. (figures: Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry) Bangladeshi manufacturers are increasingly getting involved in higher value added aspects of the industry, such as design, marketing and high end fashion, as well as the global high street clothes for which the sector is best known. While Bangladesh’s emergence as a major global production base for garments by leading Western brands, is clearly an aspect of contemporary globalisation, historically it may also be seen as a reclamation of pre-colonial Bengal’s reputation for weaving cotton and Dacca muslins.



COUNT FOR NEARLY 5% OF EXPORTS (DCCI) Bangladeshi jute’s share of the world export market peaked in the Second World War (during which it was used for sandbags) before Partition and the substitution of jute by polypropylene products rapidly accelerated the industry’s decline. Latterly, the jute market has started to recover because it is once more in fashion and is tough and bio-degradable. It is no longer responsible for the lion’s share of the nation’s exports, but, as the world’s best known region for growing the golden fibre, Bangladesh’s jute industry stands to gain from growing worldwide demand. • Nearly 75% of jute goods are used as packaging materials, burlap, hessian and sacks. • Carpet Backing Cloth accounts for roughly 15% of the world’s jute goods demand. • Interestingly, the demand for jute also now extends to the aviation and car industries, who are increasingly using it as an eco-friendly material for aircraft and car interiors.

for investors seeking to export agricultural products, or to meet the large local demand.

• Around 90 percent of the leather and leather goods produced in Bangladesh come from Hazaribagh, where up to 15,000 people are employed in tanneries. • The planned relocation of tanneries from this central area should help to improve working conditions and reduce pollution and provide a boost for the industry ‘s exports in the long term

(Business Monitor International forecast)



The Bangladesh Pharmaceutical Industry is one of the most developed hi-tech sectors within the country’s economy. • It manufactures 5,600 brands of medicines, (including Insulin, hormones, and anticancer drugs) and provides 97% of the total medicine requirement of the local market. • The sector’s exports are starting to grow quickly. It is already licensed to export Active Pharmaceutical ingredients and a wide range of pharmaceutical products covering all major therapeutic classes and dosage forms to 79 countries

• LEATHER AND FOOTWEAR ACCOUNT EXPORTS GOODS WORTH OVER $600m • LEATHER AND FOOTWEAR FOR AROUND 2.5% OF EXPORTS (DCCI) Bangladesh has a long established tanning industry that already produces around 2-3% of the world’s leather

Approximately 30% of Bangladesh’s GDP comes from agriculture, making it the largest producing economic sector. About 60% of the Bangladeshis work in this sector, producing its main staple crop, rice (in which the country is broadly self-sufficient,) jute, wheat, tea, tobacco, pulses and tomato. With much fertile land and a climate allowing many different varieties of vegetable to be grown, there are still gaps that can be exploited to increase the country’s agricultural capacity. This presents many opportunities







• Emerging industries account for between 6-10% of exports. They cover a growing range of sectors, from sporting goods, to cement, fertilizer, electronic appliances, ceramics, automotive components and car batteries. • Consumer products are becoming increasingly high tech. Employment in the ICT sector has grown ten-fold in the last five years and IT exports are outsourcing exports are expected

From small beginnings in the 1960s when a, a Greek ship, the MD Alpine, washed up inland near Chittagong, a large industry has sprung up on nearby beaches to dismantle and recycle ships. • Steel from ship recycling contributes around 50% of the demand for steel production in Bangladesh according to the World Bank. More than 350 rolling mills use scraps from ships as raw materials, according to the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at BUET • The industry is iinherently high profile as it brings obvious safety and environmental risks – but as both a supplier of raw materials for the national economy and a key link in the global logistics chain, its economic importance is huge. It has also been a major factor in kick starting the building of ocean going ships to foreign buyers by Bangladeshi shipyards. • With Bangladesh itself currently accounting for over 20% of the ships dismantled globally, the sector is improving infrastructure, and working standards to improve safety and environmental impacts, as part of its goal of re-establishing Bangladesh as the top ship breaking nation in the world

to grow significantly in the next decade • The country’s leading car battery manufacturer exports batteries to 57 markets around the world and is recognised as one of the leading brands in this area, including to the exclusive Japanese market which requires the highest quality standards. • Further diversification and skills raising across the country’s manufacturing output can be expected to allow Bangladeshi businesses, entrepreneurs and workers to generate higher-value exports in future.




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bangladesh: Beyond Resilience Back-handed one. It implies that things are not good here, and may often become catastrophic


n K Anis Ahmed

try in 1991 (see chart).

angladesh has often been praised for its resilience. If it is a compliment, it is a back-handed one. It implies that things are not good here, and may often become catastrophic, but somehow the sturdy Bangladeshi can manage to smile through it all. In truth, while a great deal still needs to improve, and vastly so, much has already gone right. And it has not gone right either by accident or due to the largesse of others. So, as Bangladesh celebrates its 43rd independence anniversary, it’s time to take stock also of other qualities of Bangladesh that have helped us achieve so much and promise yet more to come. Bangladesh has by now raced ahead of Pakistan and India on most social development indicators. There is a narrative favored by both Western governments and media that claims that this progress is mainly due to NGOs, and no thanks to the government. In truth, since the ‘90s, many NGOs have moved away from traditional development work - literacy, birth control, sanitation, etc. - to focus on microcredit. While some NGOs still do important work that directly relates to human or community development, the majority of them now act effectively as a financial sub-sector. One needs an analytically more sound understanding of howBangladesh has posted impressive growth in human development since the advent of democracy in the coun-

Bangladesh’s development has been propelled by four key factors:

None of this is to say that we can’t and don’t need to do far better, but it is high time we also acknowledged our gains

a. Stable macro-policies by successive governments b. Private entrepreneurship c. Remittance earnings d. NGO interventions. Government should get a lot of credit, though it’s rarely given, for stability of macro-policy on human development issues - such as female literacy or maternal health care - and for building infrastructure (while the latter still leaves much to be desired, that is not to say that nothing has been done). Jobs and income have been powered by the private sector. Consumer spending has been heavily boosted by remittances from abroad; ideally more of these funds should go towards investment too. And finally, NGO’s engaging women has helped attitudinal changes on many issues where other Muslim (and non-Muslim) countries struggle: women’s empowerment, valuing girl children, and much more. Iteration of the policy context may seem prosaic, but it is indicative of something beyond mere resilience and reflex: an evolving self-identification and capability building as a place of enterprise. Bangladesh is not about radical or rash reforms; it is a society of moderation but also of immense ability to make and sustain quiet change: a Muslim country that agitates for secularist goals and has a deeply rooted sense of social justice. Our history is one of a long and continuous struggle for representative governance. It culminated with the Liberation War of 1971, but the struggle for rights and equity both pre-dates that great moment by decades and has continued since. From the Fakir-Sannyas rebellion in the early days of colonialism to the Tebhaga movement (for share-cropper rights) on the eve

of Partition, among numerous other instances, mark a history of collective assertion for rights. Since 1971, our self-identification as Bengalis, rather than as Muslims in the communal sense, has survived foreign-funded revisionist politics. What also needs to be noted is that Bengali nationalism has always been animated by a strong strand of seeking rightful autonomy

silience) nor one over-acclaimed sector (NGOs). It is a sign of a culture that took shape through struggles against deeply unjust rules and has continued to evolve into a constructive model of self-propulsion.

WEALTH AND HEALTH Income per person, $PPP*

















Infant (aged <1) deaths per 1,000 live births









Child (aged <5) deaths per 1,000 live births









Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births





















Infant immunisation rate, % Female (aged 15-24) literacy rate, % Underweight children, % of total

both for the nation and for individuals. The brief excursion in history is meant to illustrate that the kind of participation we see in our citizens today in most social development initiatives be they ushered by the government or by NGOs - has a long cultural basis of activism and of rights consciousness. To compliment us only on “resilience” every time we withstand the battering of a natural - or political - storm thus misses the point. To express admiring puzzlement at how we could have made such progress - ahead of India and Pakistan - is also disingenuous. Given that the rapacious rule of first the British and then the Pakistanis had left the eastern half of Bengal more badly damaged than many other regions of India, our progress is powered neither by one laudable trait (re-

Bangladesh 1990 1990

Life expectancy at birth, years

None of this is to say that we can’t and don’t need to do far better, but it is high time we also acknowledged our gains

the United States has spent trillions and failed to establish even the rudiments of a democratic and secular culture in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we take that price tag as the monetary index of what democracy and secularism are













Source: The Economist None of this is to say that we can’t and don’t need to do far better, but it is high time we also acknowledged our gains. Policy stability on key human development issues over the years marks a quiet consensus and desirable evolution of social sensibility that both underlies and survives our deeply riven politics. Given the odds we have overcome both to achieve our independence and then to put to lie insulting epithets like ‘a basket-case’, it’s also time we ditched stunted goals like “middle-income” status. We should dream instead of something much bigger: a place on the world stage befitting the history and chutzpah of our 160 million people. Think of it this way: a country like

*Purchasing-power parity †2011 worth, then what is the value of even our flawed democracy and struggling secularism? The lattice of social and cultural attitudes, and supporting policies, that make us one of the most progressive Muslim-majority nations in the world is reason enough to consider ourselves not merely resilient, but rich. It is also reason enough imagine the kind of future we have not dared to do so far: not just a Beautiful Bangladesh, but Big Bangladesh. l K. Anis Ahmed is the author of The World In My Hands (a novel) and Good Night, Mr. Kissinger (stories). He is also the publisher of the Dhaka Tribune. A version of this piece was first printed in Bangladesh Now.




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Bangladesh’s Independence Day The rapes were not shocking to me, but the fact that people actually mentioned


n Saim Saeed

was watching a satirical play recently in Karachi in which the actors alluded to the widespread rapes that the Pakistani army committed in 1971. I was shocked. The rapes were not shocking to me, but the fact that people actually mentioned them. In public. Even as the play continued, I looked around to see the audience’s reactions, fearing that there might be a very uncomfortable, seething army officer getting ready to interrupt. With a history as redacted, edited and proofed as Pakistan’s, hearing the truth can be a shocking experience. Here, even the play itself had to get a “No Objection Certificate” issued by the government. (I don’t know how the producers managed). When the truth is mentioned, it silences everyone. There’s a brief pause when every edifice, every bit of scaffolding and furniture of fibs, half-truths and blatant lies we’ve told ourselves to live in this house of make-believe, is shattered. And then we scurry around trying to rebuild, or pretend like it never fell. Pakistan’s attitudes towards 1971 and Bangladesh’s independence is like that. In India, we found a scapegoat, so we blame the partition on the wily Hindus and their malevolent intentions. In the razakars, we found the loyalists – those that worked tirelessly for a united Pakistan. The traitors? The people who joined the Indians, the Mukti Bahini. Who won the war? Indian tanks and gunships. Pakistan’s

lesson: Get more tanks and gunships. Absent from the narrative are the Bangladeshis. 1971, then, was a military loss, nothing else. If only we had bigger guns; if only America helped (staying silent over a bloodbath doesn’t count). Still, when half the country is lost, one must develop some kind of narrative to explain it, to understand it. Our narrative: “Good riddance.” It’s easy to maintain. Only Bangladeshis and the Pakistani army are privy to what happened in Bangladesh; my parents were

written about when we couldn’t clothe a defeat as victory. The ‘loss’ was an artificial one; the lessons, never learnt. Which is why the rapes, the murders – the genocide – are belittled, obfuscated, neutered. They are reduced to sentences like: “While the possibility of some excesses in a warlike situation cannot be ruled out, the figures quoted [by Bangladeshis] seem to be of mythical proportions.” In a space of a sub-clause, war crimes are explained away; the number of dead

The rapes were not shocking to me, but the fact that people actually mentioned them. In public

fed headlines such as “Victory on All Fronts” up until Pakistan surrendered, and the surrender itself appeared as a footnote. The majority of Pakistanis were sheltered from it by distance. Wives and mothers continue to believe their husbands and sons were fighting to “save Pakistan,” not wiping out their countrymen. Pakistan shared hardly any of their resources with East Pakistanis anyway. East Pakistanis were effectively barred from positions of power in the civilian bureaucracy, and of course, the military. So when Bangladesh did separate, life hardly changed. Sure, the history books had to be rewritten, “bravery” and “insurmountable odds” had to be

become “mythical.” Our unlearnt lessons are the reason why we protested Qader Mollah’s execution; not because of any principled stand against capital punishment or insistence upon his innocence, but because Mollah continuously professed his “loyalty to Pakistan.” Today, the way Pakistanis talk about Bangladesh is very similar to the way men talk about women: they patronise, belittle, offend, claim ownership, and don’t understand consent. Perhaps that’s why our soldiers felt so comfortable doing what they did. With such attitudes, Pakistanis also fail to see how Bangladesh has far overtaken Pakistan in the indicators that matter:

women’s employment, literacy, infant mortality, fertility rates, religious tolerance. Even the figures that politicians are concerned about – GDP growth, exports, currency exchange – Bangladesh is ahead. That means the image of the poor, dark – yes, there is a racial element to the prejudice as well – fisherman can’t stick any more. So what do we have left to feel better about ourselves? “Dhaka Recaptured [by Afridi].” All that said, Bangladesh is hardly a finished product. It is a nascent democracy that has seen its fair share of military rule. It has a divided electorate led by two dynastic political parties – one just having indicted the other one – an extreme right-wing, and an increasingly insecure Hindu minority. These challenges are numerous, and grave. The choices that ordinary Bangladeshis make, including the politicians they choose, will determine how they navigate a (increasingly inundated) terrain that they have so dearly fought for. Still, Bangladesh’s consistent (if not always successful) attempts to keep the country secular are enviable. (In Pakistan, we’re currently trying to convince the Taliban how Sharia-compliant the Pakistani constitution is). In dealing with all of these issues, Bangladesh has shown greater resolve than Pakistan ever has. It’s been 43 years of well-deserved and well-lived independence. Still carrying a Pakistani passport myself, I am left to reflect on how I can declare mine. l Saim Saeed is a journalist at The Express Tribune in Pakistan

March 7 March 1

General Yahya Khan calls off the session of National Council to be held on March 3 in a radio address.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - leader of Awami League party that had won a landslide victory in East Pakistan in the Federal Elections in 1970, but never been granted authority - announces to a jubilant crowd at the Dhaka Race Course ground, “The struggle this time is the struggle for our emancipation! The struggle this time is the struggle for independence!”.

March 10 March 9

Workers of Chittagong port refuse to unload weapons from the ship ‘Swat’.

Expatriate Bengali students demonstrate in front of the United Nations Headquarters and calls for UN intervention to put an end to violence on Bengali people.

March 16

Yahya Khan starts negotiation with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.



Wednesday, March 26, 2014


A history yet to be told H

n Syeda Samira Sadeque aving grown up in the 90’s, with the growth of Bangladesh as a country itself, I was ripe with a spirit of patriotism. It was easy, always, to claim myself as a proud Bangladeshi – a fact I, along with so many others, reiterated especially on the March 26ths and December 16ths of every year, respectively. With this came a latent interest in history that I myself didn’t know I had until I left for my International Baccalaureate Diploma (equivalent to A-Level degree) in India. I was excited with the history syllabus – it would cover Stalin’s regime, Hitler, Mao Zedong – so much more. But when we were assigned to write a research paper in history on any topic, as a Bangladeshi, with my so many

ong many of us who studied under the curriculum of the mainstream English medium system. However, for those in Bangla medium schoo

years of pride in a history I was used to boasting around, my choice was only ever so obvious: the Liberation War of 1971. In retrospect, my interest in writing a research paper on a war whose stories we anyway were fed to every year does not make sense. Why couldn’t I have picked another topic? Eight years away, I now realize it may have been the factor that eventually caused my paper to be as ridiculously biased as it came out in its first – and second and third – draft. My research focused on the role of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s speech on the culmination of the war. This was the history I had been taught for ten years in a row in school. I couldn’t go wrong.

Until I did. The first draft came back brimming with red marks in every other sentences and you could almost read my professor’s panic in the words (marked almost everywhere): “biased language.” “Too emotional!” It didn’t make sense to me. What was wrong in writing – the way I had learned all my life – about the “Pakistani Army brutally killing innocent Bangladeshis”? It took me three drafts to understand. At this point, I’d already had one year of formal history education outside of Bangladesh, and was only beginning to learn about the significance – and implications – of secondary versus primary source, the biases involved in historical accounts etc. I finally realized what my paper so blatantly lacked: an objective, balanced historical account. I was writing the history of my country in the only kind of language and the only kind of words that I had been taught about it. Soon, I realised how my knowledge of the history of our war was so limited within a few (hundred?) words that Amar Boi managed to fit into one of its mere chapters for classes one to ten. Not only was the account that I had learned through school emotionally biased, but it was also limited only to the Amar Boi version. Our history texts taught us about the Roman empire, the Renaissance and every bit of ancient history which I cannot find much relevance to anything here in Bangladesh, really. Not to say that knowledge was (is) irrelevant – it was much needed, but so was a detailed, objective account of the 1971 war, the international debate about it, the role of the 1947 partition in it, and that we were, in fact, a part of India once. Until I left home, the “history” of our country was as though one war, one event that began in 1971 and ended in 1971 itself. It was as though without any build up or consequences afterwards. School specific This may, however, have been a problem largely in the English medium schools, which are now changing their curriculum with the recent inclusion of “Bangladesh Studies” in the

syllabus. Raidah Akbar, who also attended an English medium school and is in her final year of A-Levels, says of her experience: “I did not learn anything about the history of Bangladesh from our history textbook, but more from our “Bangladesh Studies: textbook.” She adds: “In fact, we were never even told about the history of our continent such as the partition or the Chittagong uprising. I learned about the uprising much later in life.” This lack of knowledge is experienced among many of us who studied under the curriculum of the mainstream English medium system. However, for those in Bangla medium schools, the challenge was different. Although they were given detailed accounts of the war, the details given were inconsistent. “My family used to move around a lot, so my schooling in Bangladesh was on-and-off. The school I attended during my time here was BNP-leaning and shaped their anecdotes according-

March 24

Pakistan Army opens fire on Bengali demonstrators in Syedpur, Rangpur and Chittagong. More than a thousand people are killed.

March 19

Nearly 50 people die as Pakistan Army opens fire on demonstrators at Jaydevpur.

ly. Depending on which government was in power, they would change the name of the leader who declared independence,” says Kazi Apurbo, a photographer in Dhaka. Kazi says he learned a balanced, objective version of the story from external sources but the history provided in school was only more confusing. This confusion, or lack of knowledge, has built a latent frustration among the students of our generation who, in global context, appear clueless about the history of their own country: a history rich with stories. A history brimming with facts. A history with its own set of histories and timelines from decades ago. A history we are not doing enough justice to by portraying it with emotional terms and factual inconsistencies. While it becomes common knowledge for any child living in Bangladesh that we had a war in 1971 which claimed lives of three million people, that appear to be the only knowledge – though tailored in different versions

each year – being imparted to the children. It is indeed a matter of shame, if not concern, that our national history – a cause for much pride in all of us – sways in different accounts and does not get told as elaborately as it should. Bangladesh has a rich, although bloodshed, history marked in colours of pride and if we cannot bask in these colours in as much detail as possible, aren’t our children being misdirected with a pride whose story is yet to be told? l

March 26 March 25

Pakistan Army starts Operation Searchlight in Dhaka and rest of the country, attacking general civilians, political activists, students, and Bengali members of armed forces and police

At 1.15 AM, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is arrested by the Pakistani 3 commando unit.Independence of Bangladesh is declared by Father of the nation BongoBondhu Sheikh Mujibiur Rahman few minutes before he was arrested by Pakistani occupation army. At 2.30 pm Independence of Bangladesh was declared by Awami league leader of Chittagong M. A. Hannan on behalf of Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Kalurghat. This is Bangladesh’s official Independence Day.

March 27

Independence of Bangladesh is again declared by Maj. Ziaur Rahman on behalf of Father of the Nation Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Where did our political leadership falter?


n Amena Mohsin here comes a time in the life cycle of individuals, social and political bodies, which calls for introspection and self- criticism. The state of Bangladesh today is indeed in that predicament. After forty-three years of independent existence it is torn with two fundamental questions, a) finding a permanent system for holding elections; b) the space and role of religion within the political domain. I would strongly argue that the failure of the political leadership to evolve and institutionalize democracy and supportive institutions has brought us where we are today. Bangladesh’s electoral democracy since 1991 has been devoid of democratic practices and culture. Personality cult was and is the order of the day. So where did we fail? Interestingly I have repeatedly heard political analysts defend the present system along with its varied forms of violence on the ground that western democracies too had to go through violent phases before democracy got ‘stabilized’ in those countries. My point of departure would be, it is not the same time period; Globalization despite its many limitations, has opened up several windows and resulted not only in death of distance but also time leaps. The case of Bangladesh is also different since we have gone through two very intense nationalist phases. First when we fought British colonialism and then

It is no surprise that after 43 years of our existence we have failed to evolve a viable democratic system


the Pakistani state. 1971 was not limited to a nine months war; it was a people’s movement for liberation based on the demand for autonomy that spanned over a period of over two decades. It began

hegemonic and exclusionary; and the Bengalis constituted the overwhelming majority. Indeed Bengali nationalism was the soul and spirit of the liberation movement; but having attained independence one needed

As politics took several twists and turns, the political leadership also turned secularism into a contested term

with the demand for cultural autonomy in 1948 and later added economic and political autonomy as its major demands. In its essence it was supposed to be liberal and liberating. For me, Ekatturer Chetona, (spirit of ’71) implies pluralism as opposed to homogenization, decentralization as opposed to centralization, and indeed not using religion as a tool of hegemony. Movements indeed are different from state building. The political leadership, with all its good intent, has failed to transform the ideals of ’71 into a reality. The state took a conservative turn. The constitution that was adopted was embedded with ideals that reflected the hegemony of the Bengali nation. Nationalism was defined as Bengali nationalism. The latter took its roots from Bengali language and culture. Despite its political connotations, one needs to remember here that Bengali is an ethnic and cultural category, who constitute the majority of the population in Bangladesh. This homogenization was against the spirit of ’71, cultural autonomy has been a founding plank of the autonomy movement of the Bengalis. Yet the new state turned itself into an imagined reality of the Bengalis only. Consequently Bangladesh faced an armed insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), located in the southeast of Bangladesh for over two decades. This region is home to eleven ethnic communities. One indeed may question the exigency for the insertion of this principle, since nationalism is essentially

to move towards a more composite form of nationalism that could have accommodated the different ethnic communities in Bangladesh. The insertion of Bangladeshi nationalism later by the BNP regime did not do away with Bengali hegemony, instead religion, that too Islam, the religion of the majority was added as an element of nationalism. The state right from its inception took a turn towards the majority, and the process continues. Pluralism, an essential element of democracy, a critical grain of ’71 was sacrificed. As politics took several twists and turns, the political leadership also turned secularism into a contested term. The first constitution had secularism as one of the state principles. In order to implement the above Article 12 of the constitution stated: The principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of communalism in all forms; the granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion; the abuse of religion for political purposes;any discrimination against, or persecution of persons practicing a particular religion. Article 38 para 2 of the constitution further stated: No person shall have the right to form or be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of, any communal or other association or union, which in the name or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues a political purpose. The BNP regime had dropped secularism from the constitution. Later HM Ershad made Islam the state religion.

20130413-Latif_Hossain-tr-0063.jpg There was no popular demand for it. The military generals turned politicians had taken these measures for popular support, since Bangladesh is an overwhelmingly Bengali Muslim state. The two identities had existed side by side and indeed individuals do have multiple layers of identity. Secularism translated into Bengali as dhormoniropekkhota came to be interpreted as dhormobipokkhota or anti religion by a section of political leaders who used religion to gain political support. Bangladesh politics has become a hotbed where terminologies are used at the level of rhetoric for nar-

row political ends without going into the politics and deeper understanding of the terminologies. Post ’71 Bangladesh failed to make a distinction between being religious and communal. The political leadership continues to play the populist majoritarian card making compromises at each twist and turn for power. This has turned both religion and politics into a contested terrain, and the society is witnessing divides along pro liberation, anti liberation, religious ethnic and now atheist non-atheist lines. The divides can go on; but then where do we stand today? The major political parties project themselves as the true defenders of religion. The 15th amendment to the constitution did reinstate secularism as one of the state principles, but retained Islam as the state religion. Through this process we keep on orbiting within the vortex of religion, with the religious minorities feeling increasingly insecure. Religion keeps on reappearing as a political tool of hegemony. Apart from the broader framework within which politics is operating, one also observes extraordinary powers being concentrated within the institution of Prime Minister through the constitution. The Ministers serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister may at any time request a Minister to resign, and if such Minister fails to comply with the request, may advise the President to terminate the appointment of such Minister, (Article 58, clause 2). Under the same article clause 4, if the Prime Minister resigns or ceases to hold office each of the other Ministers would also be deemed to have resigned from office. The President (Article 48, clause3) in the exercise of all his functions, save only that of the appointing the Prime Minister (clause 3, Article 56) and the Chief Justice (Article 95, clause 1) shall act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister. One may argue here that such concentration of power has made the position of Prime Minister a major contentious and obstructionist issue

towards the resolution of an electoral mechanism. The rest of the cabinet becomes a mere puppet government. The President literally has no power at his disposal, yet the people expect him to exercise his powers as the guardian of the state. The political parties lack internal democracy. It is not surprising that we have been seeing the same faces at the helm of party leadership for almost four decades now. The political parties have turned into dynastic rules. Lack of political reforms and democratization within the parties have turned the parties into autocratic institutions, devoid of idealism or vision. Retaining and attaining power have become the sole objective of the major political parties. Article 70, clause (b) of the constitution also makes internal democracy within political parties an impossibility. It clearly states that if a member of parliament votes against the party then he has to vacate his seat. In other words, the “democratic” politic parties are authoritarian bodies. The non democratic nature of political parties, lack of trust among the political leadership and above all politics devoid of idealism has stalled the state machinery today. It is no surprise then that after forty-three years of our existence we have failed to evolve a viable democratic system, which can ensure us social justice, give guarantee of a normal life and death; instead of standing on the ashes of charred bodies we the citizens ought to demand a return to the values that we had fought for, which the political leadership has charred so brutally in their lust for power. It is time for self criticism, a dispassionate critique of our state, politics, the processes, cycles and systems that we as citizens are also responsible for evolving and changing. The change has to come from within, citizens power, social sovereignty must come to the fore. l Amena Mohsin is a professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.



Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Remembering March 1971 and all that followed


n Julian Francis he month of March is here again and it brings back vivid memories to me which are linked automatically with many others. In March 1971, I was working on an Oxfam-UK supported Gandhian village development project in Bihar, India, where I had been for almost 3 years. Through the BBC and some sketchy Indian newspaper reports, I learnt about the unrest in Dhaka in the early part of March 1971 and Sheikh Mujib’s speech of March 7 was well reported by The Statesman newspaper which always reached us one day late. However, nobody was prepared for what would unfold later that month. Soon after the night of March 25, our office based in Ranchi, Bihar, which, at that time, covered Eastern India and East Pakistan, began to receive reports by telegram from some of its NGO partners near the India/East Pakistan border that hundreds and thousands of refugees were streaming across the border every day. Immediately, some of us visited the border areas and our reports back were so alarming that some people at HQ refused to believe the details. While reporting numbers of refugees crossing the border each day, the head office officials thought that we had added zeros by mistake. The newly appointed field director for Eastern India and East Pakistan had worked in East Pakistan from 1958 to 1965, and suggested in the early days of the refugee exodus that “up to 10 million” might come to India. Again, HQ in Oxford found this figure difficult to accept. He asked some of us, already working in Bihar, to move to Calcutta and work out what Oxfam could do. With our close connections to Gandhian organizations like the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Gandhi Peace Foundation, we consulted them while proposing a program that we might support. While most of the other aid organizations were flying in teams of expatriates, we took the decision that it would be far better to work with all the Indian organizations which we already knew. As a result of this decision, we first started to support the work of Mother Teresa’s medically trained sisters to visit the camps close to Calcutta on a daily basis. For the first two or three weeks, Mother Teresa herself would phone me at the same time every morning with a shopping list of what supplies her sisters needed and how many taxis they needed, as we had not at that time procured any vehicles of our own. As soon as I picked up the phone each morning, she would say not “Good morning,” but “God Bless You” and then give me the shopping list. It became very clear to us that most of the foreign aid organizations were working in refugee camps near to Calcutta, such as Salt Lake where about 250,000 refugees were living, so we decided to recommend that we try to support the camps much further away from the city. At that time, there was a dire threat of cholera, and we needed to work out how to organize Indian medical teams as well as to ensure the correct medical supplies. We were informed that Sanghamaitra Desai (Uma), the daughter of a dynamic Gandhian leader, Narayan Desai, was a final year medical student at the Nilratan Sircar (NRS) Medical College in Calcutta, and I remember, as though it was yesterday, that we went to meet her one evening and had tea in the student’s canteen to brainstorm. I remember the bubbling effervescence and enthusiasm with which Uma and her NRS colleagues were able to obtain permission for medical students to be members of mobile medical teams going out to the camps

ANWAR.DOHARmktjdh71 (5).jpg by rotation and the authorities of Calcutta University formally agreed that their work in the camps would be officially recognized as the practical social and preventive medicine part of their MBBS. As a result of Uma’s untiring work, the other Calcutta medical colleges also supplied medical teams. By the end of June, we were supporting the work in refugee camps all round the border area as far as Tripura and the need of medical teams and other volunteers to cover sanitation and feeding programs was never-ending.

with new intra-dermal jet sprays under high pressure. Another problem was that there were not enough bottles of intravenous saline available with which to treat cholera patients. Saline could be produced safely in Calcutta but there were not enough empty bottles. So, we flew in a plane load of bottles of saline from the UK and kept recycling the bottles and refilling. There are so many individual memories still clearly etched on my mind: I remember digging graves for cholera victims in a refugee camp in

Maionse consequis ped molese quaspis vel iliquid et perrum alit as sitate omnimagnimi, suntis adi opti oditis autesti scient.Dae exerspe rciento magnam quis ea con necea volupta velia quibus. Is rae pa sape nis quostiorem con By this time other medical colleges had heard of the success of the Calcutta medical students’ teams and we began to receive monthly contingents from the Bombay medical colleges and the Cuttack Medical College. Medical personnel also came from Ludhiana Medical College in the Punjab and from the Gujarat Branch of the Indian Red Cross. Teams of volunteers to cover the non-medical needs of the refugees were sent on a regular basis by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in Orissa and from a number of Gandhian organizations in Gujarat and teams of students came from as far away as Udaipur in Rajasthan. These volunteers injected life into the camps setting up schools, organizing weekly cultural programs, specially singing, and organizing regular cleaning and feeding activities. The work that these young Indians undertook was very difficult and exhausting and conditions worsened with the heavy and early monsoon flooding many camps. The logistics for which I was responsible were daunting. At one time, with the Calcutta authorities scared of cholera sweeping through the city, I was asked by the director general of West Bengal Health Services if I could arrange an airlift of cholera vaccine to allow a buffer vaccination zone to be organized around Calcutta. Oxfam was able to buy up over one million doses and get them to Calcutta within 72 hours. Oxfam also arranged mass cholera vaccination at the border crossings

Jalpaiguri, North Bengal. I remember the pride with which many of the refugees kept their camps neat and clean despite the very heavy monsoon of that year which flooded many areas forced us to use amphibious vehicles. I remember that most of the 36 staff I had at that time were refugees who had come across the border, some losing family members with heart attacks, etc on the way. Other members of my staff were West Bengalis with Bangladeshi family links. I remember buying 125,000 saris, 125,000 lungis, 125,000 ganjis and 350,000 sets of children’s clothing of various sizes. It was a commercial nightmare, but it was achieved. I remember how we helped to facilitate the visit of Edward Kennedy to the refugee camps where we were working and what an impact his visit had. I remember assisting with the collection of powerful personal statements that were included in Oxfam’s moving publication, A Testimony of Sixty I remember being worried about the cold winter of 1971/72 in some border areas and the campaign we had to supply blankets and clothing to the refugees. All through the relief operation we tried to find relief supplies within India rather than bringing them in from abroad which was expensive. We wanted to put as much into the Indian economy as we possibly could. Tons and tons of bleaching powder and

thousands of litres of ascabiol, used for the treatment of scabies. Items such as these were always in demand and kept Calcutta businesses very busy. For those of us who have forgotten or are too young to remember, there was an estimated 10 million Bangladeshis, most of them existing in over 900 refugee camps, others with friends and relations. The logistics of feeding and caring for such a large number of people even now, after so many years, are difficult to comprehend. How was it done? It was done through the heroism of so many, and these men and women never sought fame or credit but insisted that they were just doing what had to be done. It was difficult to keep the crisis on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The news of the genocide of March 25 put it on the front pages and with outbreak, in May and June, of cholera, it was front page news again. Again when the camps got flooded it was front page news. But by September 1971, Oxfam decided that it must find a way to shock the world’s leaders, to make them open their eyes and wake up. In a surprisingly short space of time eye-witness accounts of the tragedy were collected and published as “The Testimony of Sixty on the crisis in Bengal” and handed over to all heads of governments. Its publication coincided with the opening of that year’s session at the United Nations.

As winter approached, we were making plans to continue the work in the camps for another 6 months. However, with the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh became an independent nation much earlier than we had anticipated. I remember bursting into tears with my Bangladeshi colleagues when we heard that the Pakistani forces had surrendered. They were tears of relief and exhaustion as well as emotion, but we soon found that very hard work lay ahead. We had to look ahead to what we might be able to do in the field of rehabilitation in war-torn Bangladesh. As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in India in an orderly way. One day in February 1972, I was called out of the office and there in the garden were about 500 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, had made some woolen flowers. These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment. Working with the Bangladesh people in 1971 changed my life as it must have done for many others as well. If there had been no Liberation War, I might have returned to UK in 1971 to do some rather boring animal husbandry research. I have instead en-

Maionse consequis ped molese quaspis vel iliquid et perrum alit as sitate omnimagnimi, suntis adi opti oditis autesti scient.Dae exerspe rciento magnam quis ea con necea volupta velia quibus. Is rae pa sape nis quostiorem con It is interesting to record is that although the US was firmly supporting Pakistan in 1971, Senator Edward Kennedy brought The Testimony of Sixty to the attention of the US Senate and it was published in full in the Congressional Record. It is important to record that although the US government supported Pakistan at that time, there was a huge outpouring of generosity and concern by the American people. In addition, over one million dollars of donated medicines were sent for use in the refugee camps.

riched my life by sharing the struggles of the very poorest and disadvantaged for over 40 years, most of which have been in Bangladesh. l Julian Francis has worked for many years in Bangladesh with poverty alleviation programmes and disability related programmes. In recognition of his work in 1971, in 2012, The Government of Bangladesh bestowed on him ‘The Friends of Liberation War Honour’. The same award was also bestowed on Oxfam and the Gandhian Leader, Narayan Desai, mentioned in the article.




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Independence does not a citizen make



n Zeeshan Khan



hen Bangladesh announced its intention to become an independent member of the family of nations on March 26, 1971, we, the people of Bangladesh, were tasked with the essential job of active citizenship. But 43 years after this People’s Republic was proclaimed, the enriching effects of responsible, active citizenship are yet to permeate our social fabric. Bangladeshi nationalism contains copious amounts of flag-waving and anthem singing; we are quick to extol the virtues of our culture and way of life and we wax poetically about the elegance of our language. But most of us do precious little to include or encourage the most important ingredient in nation building. Citizenship comes with a range of rights but it also comes with an equal if not greater number of responsibilities. Too often those responsibilities are neglected, either because they are not known or because they are not heeded, resulting in a nation that is handicapped by its own worst behaviour. We have among the lowest rate of tax collection per tax base in the world, among the highest number of road fatalities from irresponsible driving, heavily adulterated produce, polluted rivers and skies, unchecked police brutality, rampant corruption, absent meritocracies, dysfunctional judiciaries, sub-standard education, frequent medical malpractices, extortion, terrorism, electoral fraud, non-existent civic sensibilities and a host of other problems that all stem from a lack of responsible citizenship. What we are desperately missing is a sense of personal responsibility towards the state and its people. Responsible citizenship requires us to honour our social contract. To live healthily and harmoniously, we need to adopt attitudes that are more cooperative and less opportunistic than the

ones we presently employ. Our society is infected with a “me first,” “winner take all” approach that is at constant odds with the notion of community. And though we think as a community in our personal lives, we have yet to expand that to include the nation. We keep our houses clean but our streets filthy, our families fed, but the poor starving. We understand fairness among friends, but don’t do much to ensure fairness elsewhere.

Too often the responsibilities as citizens are neglected, either because they are not known or because they are not heeded

In fact, the more we neglect our wider responsibility, the more it threatens our personal lives as well. Stories about extortion, enmity and predation even within families are on the rise and will continue to be so if irresponsibility becomes commonplace all around us. So what does citizenship demand of us? Not a lot really, just the right sort of ethics in all our actions and interactions. Good citizenship is giving customers what they paid for, its driving according to traffic rules, its following the laws, paying taxes and not cutting corners or attempting scams. Good citizenship is fulfilling our duties to the best of our abilities, paying our workers fairly, and participating in elections sincerely. It’s in neither giving or taking bribes nor using public positions for personal gain. Good citizenship is as simple as not littering

and as elaborate as honouring things like Hippocratic oaths and oaths of office. Citizenship means we aspire to posts we are qualified for and only accept ones that we have legitimately earned; it means we respect women and minorities, and treat each other with dignity. When it exists, it will exist everywhere - in schools, offices, civil services, courtrooms, businesses, roads, neighbourhoods and parliaments, and will help us build a country that is both reliable and responsible ... really the only sort of country that’s worth living in. To encourage citizenship, school children should be taught both their rights and their responsibilities; it should be included in curriculums, as it is in countries like the UK and India (partially). People should be vigilant about breaches they observe, both in themselves and in the people they deal with. It can no longer be acceptable that we tolerate the lack of it, in virtually every sphere of our lives, after 43 years of being citizens. Equally, our rights as citizens should also be defended. We have the right to good governance, to honest officials, to safe working environments and honest wages, to good roads and infrastructure, to clean water and unadulterated food. We have the right to information and justice, to public transportation, to safety, security and freedoms of expression and assembly, to representation and protection abroad. All of these constitute the basic fabric of a society. Yet we have done without them for far too long and the excuses are ceasing to hold water. After nearly half a century of being an independent country, we are well entitled to our rights, as are we mature enough to fulfil our responsibilities. So when we think about what 26 March means, lets think about responsible citizenship. l Zeeshan Khan is a journalist.

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