Bangabandhu is, in fact, a namesake of Bangladesh. He created the concept Bangladesh for which millions shed blood in 1971. He was a born leader who could inspire his fellow countrymen and women with a dream. That dream was of an independent ‘Sonar Bangla’ (the Golden Bengal’). People rose to his call and finally got their heard-earned freedom. The fight for this freedom was led by him from thousand miles away as he was put in jail in West Pakistan. The people of Bangladesh joined the war of liberation for freeing both occupied Bangladesh and its namesake Bangabandhu. This was indeed a journey ‘from darkness to light’ for him. And thus began the journey of rebuilding a post-war Bangladesh literally from ashes. His tireless steady leadership began to yield results and the country began to move towards prosperity. But this journey was suddenly cut-off on August 15, 1975 when Bangladesh lost its greatest son in the hands of a few betrayers. They wanted to trash him and said ‘he was nobody’. Yet, the poets said the opposite. Even a global gallop poll conducted by the BBC Bangla service identified Bangabandhu as the greatest Bengalee. This happened at a time when Bangladesh was reeling under the grinding wheel of a group of betrayers who used to trash Bangabandhu as nobody. No doubt, one of our renowned poets Mahadeb Shaha wrote:
“They say you are nobody, but two hundred and a half rivers say,
You are Bangla’s rivers, green meadows,
You are songs of Bangla’s ‘charjapad’, you are Bangla’s alphabet,
They say you are nobody, but the hilshas start dancing on the sound of your feet’s movement,
You are nobody-they say, but the songs of Rabindranth and ‘Rebel’ the poem of Nazrul say,
You are the heart of Bangladesh.” (My translation of ‘Ei nam satotsharito’).
On this historic day (10 January 2020) when the countdown for his birth centenary will begin, let me take you through a journey of his life-long commitment for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden. His daughter Sheikh Hasina wrote about him in these words:
“ … Bangabandhu, used to bring his friends home. He had the habit of eating milk and rice after he returned from school. He shared this food with his friends. I have heard from my (paternal) grandmother that they had to buy quite a few umbrellas for my father every month. The reason was that if he saw any poor boy in his class who could not afford to buy an umbrella, my father gave away his own so that he did not have to suffer in the heat or rain. Sometimes he even gave away his text books. … One of his teachers had started a small organization and collected donations of money, paddy and rice from different houses to help the needy students. My father had joined him as an active worker from the beginning.” [Sheikh Hasina, ‘Sheikh Mujib Amar Pita’ (‘Sheikh Mujib, My Father’), Saptahik (weekly) Bichitra, August 16, 1996].
And that bias of Bangabandhu for the downtrodden was reflected throughout his life both as a student leader and rising political star of East Bengal. He embraced his jailed life off and on as there was no word of compromise in his stock. The jail became his second home and ordinary jail mates like ‘Ladu’ became new members of his ‘jail family’. Even the jailors were his great fans and well-wishers. They all respected him for his uncompromising stance on the honor of Bangla as a state language, the autonomy of East Bengal (later he called it Bangladesh), the stance on equality as reflected in the historic ‘Six-Points’. He used to speak out for the peasants not only in public meetings but as well as in the parliament. Back in January 1971 when he was elected overwhelmingly as the leader of the National Assembly of Pakistan he categorically said he would not compromise on the interests of his people. He said:
‘I do not aspire to be the Prime Minister. Prime Ministers come and go. I shall remember the love and respect my countrymen have shown for me all my life. I do not fear the torture, oppression and the solitary cell of the jail. But the love of the people seems to have made me emotionally weak.’ (Bangabandhu: At the Swearing-in ceremony of the MNAs and MPAs, Race Course Grounds, Dhaka, January 3, 1971)
After returning from captivity to an independent Bangladesh on 10 January 1972 he promised to build a peaceful egalitarian Bangladesh following a homegrown development strategy based on the fertile land and entrepreneurial people. The developmental journey under his leadership started in difficult global and natural shocks. There was not a single dollar in the reserve of the central bank in 1972 and the total size of the economy was only eight billion USD. There was a huge shortfall in food and other daily necessities in addition to the challenges of rehabilitating millions of refugees and displaced people. The country had to start from the scratch as most roads, rails and ports were dysfunctional due to war. No doubt the State Department of the US government under Henry Kissinger ridiculed Bangladesh as an ‘international basket case’ which was likely to fall into the ‘Malthusian Trap’ of too many people living in a disaster-prone country with too little resources.
Bangabandhu pledged to develop this Bangladesh despite so many visible and invisible challenges. On the first independence day speech Bangabandhu declared, ‘We want to build up a Golden Bengal on the ruins of this Bengal, now in wilderness. The mothers of the future will smile and their children play in that Bengal. We will build up a society free from exploitation.’ (Radio and television address, March 26, 1972). The first thing he concentrated on was writing a constitution for the republic which gave broad directions to his people about the fact that he wanted to take the country forward. Simultaneously he started preparing the first Five Year Plan which gave a solid foundation for the egalitarian economy which he envisaged. But he was also mindful of the interests of the nascent entrepreneurs who needed space for development. So by the fourth budget (1975-76) he started deregulating the process of industrialization which was essentially concentrated in the public sector.
However, his interest in improving the fate of the peasants was deep-rooted. He came out with various input supports for them in a substantial way so that they could produce enough food for their own survival. He was visibly annoyed with the state of governance of the country as the corruption was showing its ugly head in many parts of the society of his beloved independent Bangladesh. He blamed the educated people for this evil practice. He said,
“The peasants of Bengal are not involved in any corruption. The workers of Bengal are not involved in any corruption. … We, those who are studying with their money, are involved in corruption.” (Bangabandhu: National Parliament, January 25, 1975)
He remained steadfastly engaged for the betterment of the disadvantaged segments of the population. The infrastructures were rebuilt. Institutions were reorganized. The country was marching forward. Yet, he was removed physically from his dear people all on a sudden by the conspirators. But he is omnipresent throughout Bangladesh and it was sheer luck that two of his daughters survived as they were out of the country. The eldest daughter Sheikh Hasina took charge of his Party at one stage and reorganized it with full support of the people. She won the general election in 1996 and formed the government. Prudent statesman Sheikh Hasina brought back the wheels of the country on track. Despite a setback in 2001, she came back to power in 2009 following a landslide victory in late 2008 election. And she has been repeating victories in the subsequent elections. This continued rule has given an opportunity to her for designing a long-term development strategy for Bangladesh. She has been able to start implementing mega projects including the Padma Bridge and larger power plants. The development of special economic zones could prove to be a game-changer as well. The continuity of a pro-liberation government has led to a set of spectacular outcomes encompassing, of late, eight plus percentage of growth rate, halving of poverty to 20.5 per cent, more than halving of infant and maternal mortality rate, tripling of consumption and quadrupling of investment during the last decade. The life expectancy has gone up to 73 years, the highest in the region.
Despite these spectacular gains we still need to be mindful of some of the challenges that we will have to overcome. We still need to create 1.6 million jobs annually, develop alternative energies as natural resources like coal and gas are depleting, export markets ought to be diversified, agricultural productivity has to be doubled, the quality of education has to be enhanced with a focus on embedding it with technological diffusion, rapid urbanisation has to be disciplined for making it sustainable and financial stability has to be ensured for the desired inclusive and sustainable development.
If we remain focused on the above strategies, I feel confident that Bangladesh will move forward in the direction as envisaged by our Father of the Nation. Certainly, we will be able to walk with Bangabandhu towards prosperity. And this will be the best tribute to Bangabandhu on his glorious birth centenary.
Dr. Atiur Rahman is an eminent economist, a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank and currently Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University.