1971 and the present crisis

by Afsan Chowdhury

Is there any link between the history of 1971 and the present situation?
spc02NOT directly but history is a process, a continuous journey and 1971 was a product of the previous history and the events afterwards, that is now, are a product of 1971. That is always inevitable. History is not a series of isolated events but a single stream with dips and peaks. But there are many interpretations and approaches to the study of history. What we do know is that the promises of history of 1971 were never realised as far as ordinary people are concerned. That is universal knowledge and much has been said and written on this but not enough work has been done to ask why this was never realised. If we could detect that, we could find many answers. However, I should mention that detection doesn’t mean our problems would be solved. We probably would understand our present better but how much our today would change is not clear.

Broadly speaking, we did begin with great promises. What happened?
WE BEGAN with great expectations and of course that never materialised because nobody worked towards that. Or, should we ask if promises were made or not? We are quite vague on this and talk about the ‘spirit of 1971’. Where was it in a concrete form? We had a high opinion of ourselves so our constitution was a lofty one in terms of principles but we killed it almost at birth. It’s like we wanted to commit constitutional infanticide. So while we spoke of nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism, we never really subscribed to any of them. I would say that we probably never considered the country we always say we never achieved was not a priority perhaps. Or even if we did we didn’t know how to realise them. Our journey from 1972 to present shows that.

How can it be explained?
DID we really mean them? Do our aspirations and ambitions check out against achievements? Take the four major principles.
Our nationalism meant we excluded many others and that led to the reduction of the rights in general which we have either justified or were ready to accept because we felt we had a right to be intolerant. But I believe we not only denied rights of minorities such as Hindus and adivasis but also of other groups that are disadvantaged, particularly the poor. So, we are not only Bengali nationalists but also part of a privileged nation. It’s this belief in privilege that breeds partisanship, the kind we have now. We have to belong to the nation of privileged as a matter of ideology. Or we perish.
Our participatory democracy is the least participatory of them all. Not only did we have one-party rule and martial law but our parliaments are not even talk shops. They practically don’t exist. Now, we have to listen to TV chat-shows or read interviews to get the opinion of both sides on any issue.
Socialism as a constitutional direction never worked for a day. It was absurd as a principle because there were no socialist concept in ruling party politics and it only served as an excuse to justify excesses against political enemies. And ultimately one-party rule was offered to the people as a socialist aspiration. Of course, the demise of international socialism ended the matter but no one was ever serious about socialism.
Finally, the concept of secularism was used and misused. It was not necessary in a country like Bangladesh where almost everyone is religious and doesn’t like to be told by the government about how to conduct faith-based issues. The insertion of this clause in the constitution only created suspicion that the state was going to interfere in a personal matter. And now we ended up having Islam as a state religion. The main thrust which was protection of the vulnerable was never carried out. Power is the ultimate religion.
There is a peculiar disconnect between what we say we aspired for and what we actually got or achieved. I think we should consider the fact that we probably didn’t mean any of them.

And why did that happen?
I THINK that is traceable to 1971. The division within that event needs more analysis and exploring. It is seen as a monolithic war where the people were one but this is an argument of convenience. People fought the same enemy but the war was experienced differently by different people. Within that we had a formal and the informal war. The group(s) who were powerful during the war whether because they were more official than others or led the war or had groups under their command subsequently developed the narrative that described post-1971 Bangladesh. It’s their history that we inherited and it’s their ideas that we relied upon to build Bangladesh. I see them as privileged groups in waiting in 1971.
These are people who ran and controlled the war and ultimately benefited most from it. This is natural in a nationalist war and obviously that is also what happened. But our analysis faces problems because our ‘nationalism’ prevents us from observing that while everyone participated in the war, it was in the interest of the few. This has resulted in the gap, in the construction of the state where a tradition has developed going deep into the national structure. So we did something unusual: a jana juddha, people’s war, in the interest of an elite. That dichotomy has dictated our history, our past, our present.

Was this deliberate?
I THINK it was inevitable as the war was obviously fought under the leadership of small elite as it happens in most such wars. But the factors that controlled the progression of the war, the many conflicts including class conflict, social conflict or even international conflict shaped the patterns that emerged later on. For example, the pro-Soviet groups were by themselves not significant during the war but their influence due to India’s proximity to Russia had a contingent effect on Bangladesh and helped shape one-party rule, provided the then national leadership with a false sense of security and national unity but finally finished the pro-Soviets as a credible political force.. Similarly, the pro-Chinese groups fought against Mujibnagar in 1971 and in the process lost the public space. The kind of politics they followed which was very alienated from the people ultimately ended their politics too.

Then who gained from the war?
WELL, it’s so obvious that we don’t have to discuss that. All we have to do is trace the process which began right after independence. One doesn’t see any break in the continuity of the rise of the elite who are not affected by history. Having ignored history once they know its role is limited so they can get away with it. I believe that when we say ‘is this the Bangladesh that we wanted?’ it carries pain but is also a painful reminder that we probably did want this type of a country which causes so much pain to so many.

What then should we say we fought for in the war?
DIFFERENT people and groups fought the war for different reasons. The upper class has seen their dreams realised. Let’s hope others who wait in the wings of history can also realise their dream.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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