In our liberation struggle, there were two active groups — nationalists and socialists. While the nationalists led the struggle, who were petty-bourgeois, and their aspirations were to become bourgeois, the agenda of the socialists was a social revolution, but they failed to take the lead in the struggle for historic reasons, Serajul Islam Choudhury, a professor emeritus in Dhaka University, tells Mohiuddin Alamgir in an interview with New Age
New Age: The ‘proclamation’ of Bangladesh’s independence, made on April 10, 1971, promised citizens ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’. Now, 44 years into the country’s independence, where does Bangladesh stand in terms of ‘equality’ — political, economic and cultural — of the citizens?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Forty-four years into Bangladesh’s independence, it is sad but true that inequality has increased. To me the spirit of the liberation war means that we fought the war for independence with expectations of a social revolution through which class inequality could be eradicated, but it did not happen.
We can see that 20 per cent of our total population is middle-class, along with the other 80 per cent more or less deprived or underprivileged. It proves that equality is yet to be established in line with people’s expectations. We can say that 2 per cent of the 20 per cent are very rich, but they are not patriotic; they do not see their future in the country, send their children abroad for education and transfer their wealth to foreign countries. This 2 per cent are the determining force; they determine politics and economy and control culture.
Eight per cent of the 20 per cent had aspirations to reach the level of the rich. Again, the other 10 per cent of the 20 per cent who, I will say, belong to the lower middle class always feel anxious about slipping down into the poor group and are in a struggle for existence, livelihood and survival although they mould public opinions. They are not effective as a class.
The remaining 80 per cent are underprivileged, poor; and we can see that the clear inequality and resolution of this unequal equation is the main problem for Bangladesh. If we look back to recent history, we will see that inequality in our land is increasing.
In the undivided Bengal, there were communal differences as the Muslim population was 52 per cent with the other 48 per cent Hindu. Although the difference was marginal, it was a tough resolve as the Muslims feared that they would be ruled by the Hindus. If India became independent, there would be a centralised government and the ruling power would be in the hands of the 48 per cent minority.
The partition took place without the resolution of marginal communal differences and as a result of that, Bengal was divided and the country was broken in 1947 when the British rule ended in the subcontinent, splitting it into two sovereign dominions, the Hindu majority state of India and the Muslim majority state of Pakistan.
After 1947, we again faced the question of inequality and the equation, as in Pakistan — 56 per cent of the people were Bengali and the other 44 per cent were non-Bengali and the margin of inequality widened further. The Bengalis were deprived and power belonged to the minorities. In trying to resolve the equation, Pakistan was divided.
In the undivided Bengal, the problem was between two communal groups and in Pakistan, the problem was between two nations — Bengalis and non-Bengalis.
Now, inequality has widened further, as in the undivided Bengal where 52 per cent of the people were deprived and in Pakistan where 56 per cent of the people were deprived; and now 80 per cent of the people are deprived. How the equation of inequality between the deprived and the rich will be resolved is a basic problem.
It is an economic problem as well as a political one. During the problem in the undivided Bengal, the partition took place; in the Pakistan period, the state fell apart. Now the question arises as to what will fall apart. I will say this time society will break down. There are some symptoms of social decay such as insecurity for women, gang rape and violence towards them. Women are wearing the burka and hijab in self-defence.
Our society is now fully capitalist. Capitalism took shape during the British imperialist rule, increased during the Pakistani rule and has taken its full shape now. In a capitalist society, inequality between the rich and the poor, man and woman and class is normal. The difference is widening with time. That we failed to resolve inequality is the principal political problem for us.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Human dignity of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has not been established. The dignity that we achieved through the liberation war and sacrifice has been eroding.
Insecurity, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearances, kidnappings, corruption, unemployment are all increasing; militancy is on the rise and education has been divided into streams. These are some symptoms of erosion.
Health care and education have become commodities; treatment is now fully a purchasable commodity. Public hospitals are ineffective. Serious privatisation has taken place in the healthcare and education sectors.
For this I blame the capitalist system which is based on exploitation. In capitalism, the rich exploit the poor and become richer. In this system, people who are be able to purchase survives. Privatisation and profit-making are the basic principles of capitalism.
In terms of dignity, there is no place for the poor; they are carrying the burden of inequality and the state does not look at them.
Before independence, the class character of the ruling elite was petty bourgeois, their aspiration was becoming bourgeois. On the other hand, people’s aspirations were a complete liberation from the system and an economic liberation.
An independent and our own form of capital never developed in our country. Wealth is being transferred abroad. Banks are collecting money from ordinary people but that money remains idle with banks and are not being invested and used in production; and as a result of that, the country is facing an acute crisis of unemployment.
After independence, local capitalists came to be linked with international capitalists. Those in leadership fulfilled their aspirations by taking steps towards becoming bourgeois but the deprived remained deprived although the country was established through the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary people and the working class. The ruling class has no accountability and are enjoying the absolute power.
The character of development is pyramidical; it is not taking place equally and is not being distributed to all spheres of life. Development is taking place for the rich. In the absence of a democratic government, market-driven development is taking place without the proper distribution of wealth.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Social justice is following a decreasing trend. It is really important to know that privatisation and proper social justice cannot walk hand in hand. Privatisation is the order of the day as a result of the commodification of almost all basic rights such as right to education and health.
Formal justice is almost absent, courts and the organs of the government are functioning improperly; the executive has no accountability and it acquired full power and is abusing that power.
The executive fails to ensure security for the individual; moreover, the judiciary is more or less unreliable. Powerful quarters can get justice in line with their choice; access to the judiciary without money has become impossible.
The legislature is not functioning and although there is a parliamentary system of government in place, the parliament is not working properly. Farcical and incredible elections are being held and the defeated opposition in election are not accepting defeat. Amidst all of this, usurpers and the military in disguise grab power. There are no institutions to ensure social justice.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: To me, there is no different recommendation other than the continuation of the liberation movement; and I think that the spirit of liberation was for a social revolution. As I understand, after the Permanent Settlement in Bengal in 1793 [an agreement between the East India Company and Bengali landlords to set revenues to be collected from land], no social revolution took place. But political change, transfer of power and a change in the size of the state did take place.
Social justice and democracy cannot be established without social revolution. It should also be added that in the absence of social revolution, the state would never be people’s state.
In 1947, when we got Pakistan, we inherited a British state and the language movement first challenged the state. In Pakistan, there was Pakistani nationalism based on religion where we demanded secularism and the language movement was the first step towards democracy. The movement was also the first initiative for separating the state from religion.
The significance of the movement was that we thought that we got a state but we had to change the character of that state to a democratic one; so we demanded state recognition of the language of the majority. It was a movement for the secularisation and democratisation of the state.
Language is classless and all have access to it. Another objective of the language movement was a socialist one in which we thought all should have the right to speak in their mother tongue; all works would be done in the mother tongue and that would eventually bring equality to society.
This aspiration culminated in the liberation war and secularisation and democratisation were a couple of the main objectives. The struggle for secularisation and democratisation did not end on December 16, 1971.
A democratic system means that there should be equality of rights and opportunities and the nationalists either failed to take, or did not take, the responsibilities for creating a democratic and secular country.
The responsibility for making a secular and democratic country falls on the socialists; they failed to assume those responsibilities.
In our liberation struggle, there were two active groups, namely nationalists and socialists. The nationalists led the struggle, who were petty-bourgeois and their aspirations were to become bourgeois whilst the agenda of the socialists was a social revolution, but they failed to take the lead in the struggle for historic reasons. The nationalists headed towards their target of becoming bourgeois while the socialists failed to turn towards their target.
The socialists should have taken steps towards a social revolution from December 16, 1971 but they failed to do so. A fraction of the leftists surrendered, subsequently collaborating with the ruling class and another group was scattered due to ideological divides and state repression.