The nation could not make the expected progress in removing social and economic inequalities although this is the fundamental responsibility of the state and pledges of Bangladesh’s proclamation could not be fully materialised because of ups and downs in politics, major general (retired) KM Shafiullah, Bir Uttam, who was commander of Sector 3 in the country’s war for independence in 1971, tells Mahamudul Hasan 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?
KM Shafiullah: We are still fighting for equality, human dignity and social justice. It was the fundamental responsibility of the state to adopt measures to remove social and economic inequalities from society by carrying out development works throughout the country. But we could not make the progress that we expected and struggled for because of ups and downs in politics. So, I will not tell you that we failed to materialise the pledges of the proclamation of independence. I would rather say that the situation did now allow us to do so.
As far as I am concerned, people of other religious faiths do not get the same treatment that the Muslims do in major political parties. Before the partition of 1947, there was a presence of strong communal harmony in society and spontaneous participation of people from all communities in religious festivals of other faiths. But after 1947, this has significantly waned. When I was a member of parliament, I made it sure that people irrespective of their casts and creeds could enjoy the same opportunity in terms of human dignity and social justice in my constituency.
There are economic differences in our society but those cannot be removed within a stipulated time. We need more time to remove the disparities. There are no restrictions here on people of any faith to improve their living standards or economic condition. If we mean social justice in terms of opportunities and privilege in society, we all enjoy the same rights to improvement in our economic condition.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
KM Shafiullah: What was the situation in Bangladesh if we go back 20 years? The denial of human dignity was part of daily life in certain regions. But a lot of improvements have taken place in the past 20 years. Disparities among people regardless of class, religion or any other divisions are being gradually removed from society.
I will give an example how the situation in rural area has changed since independence. In 1965, I was in Dinajpur. I saw huge disparity between the rural and urban people that time. But now drastic changes have taken place in rural areas. The Kantaji’s Temple was an old structure situated in a desolate area before independence. But now with rapid development, the whole area has become vibrant with people.
People of rural areas are no more deprived of basic rights and their living standards have improved significantly. I am proud that we, the Bangladeshis, are now in a better condition than the people of West Bengal are in terms of human dignity. The situation is gradually improving in Bangladesh.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
KM Shafiullah: There was a time when violence against Hindu community people had taken place frequently but nobody dared to protest against it. Over the years, the situation has changed and now people from all communities raise their voice against injustice against any communities and take side with the victims.
We could not establish total social justice in our society but it is being established day by day. Most of the people in Bangladesh now enjoy the same opportunities and privileges in improving their own economic condition and establishing their rights.
Actually, we always speak out when we do not get something but we do not do so when we are rewarded. Many improvements had been taken place in our society but we do not talk about those.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
KM Shafiullah: The present government is on the right track to materialise promises of the proclamation of Bangladesh’s independence. People should give the government of a certain period of time to attain the goals of turning Bangladesh into a middle-income nation by 2021 and a developed nation by 2041.
Without prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the nation’s dream of putting war criminals to trial would not have been possible. She did it even after all the war criminals were given indemnity by [former president] Ziaur Rahman. If she did not become the prime minister, none could dare to hang war criminals such as Salauddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mojaheed. So, people should give her more time to materialise the promises of the proclamation of Bangladesh’s independence.
Law and order as it now prevails is much better than that in other countries. It should continue for a stable political situation.
Although the holding of the January 5 general elections [without participation of majority of the political parties] was not a good sign of democracy, there was no option but to hold the elections. General elections in future should not be held in such a way as it would not be good for democracy. All political parties should play a positive role in ensuring the continuity of democracy in the interest of promises of the proclamation of Bangladesh’s independence. If political parties outside power do not play their due roles, it provides a scope for ruling quarters to act in an autocratic manner.