The disparity between the rich and the poor widened because of dependence on the World Bank and the IMF. The state of social equality and social justice became vulnerable because of income disparity, Rashed Khan Menon, the civil aviation minister who is also president of the Workers Party of Bangladesh, tells Mustafizur Rahman 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?
Rashed Khan Menon: The spirit of the independence war was largely compromised during the military regimes post independence the way the constitution, which enshrined issues of social justice and equality for the people, was changed. The scenario regarding the values of independence changed in the 15 years of military rule.
Cultural development, which began during the independence war and flourished through the movements against military dictatorship in late eighties, faced fresh challenges with the open-sky policy. Cultural aggression, particularly of the Indian channels, had an adverse impact on small children. There was decadence in all areas of society. We thought during the independence war that we would establish a humanitarian society. But it does not mean that we have not done anything.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
Rashed Khan Menon: We could not achieve human dignity in the real sense of the term although it was promised in the proclamation of our independence.
After 1990, people again started looking forward and expected that pledges of the independence war would be fulfilled. But the Bangladesh Nationalist Party began to use its political power with backing from Jamaat-e-Islami as the BNP took over in 1991. The anti-liberation force began to get the upper hand.
Consequently, the whole situation changed and Sufism was gradually replaced with the Wahabi ideology and a kind of religious extremism got into politics. Saudi Arabia is reported to have patronised the anti-liberation forces and also provided them with funds to spread the Wahabi ideology here.
We saw the humanitarian demand for the trial of war criminals being ignored during the 1991–96 BNP tenure. The dependence on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that began with the military regime continued.
At least 90 per cent of the country’s economy was dependent on foreign sources during the military regimes while during the time of Saifur [Rahman, who was finance minister of the BNP-led government], the percentage came down to 49. It was said that time that if farmers were given more subsidies, Bangladesh would become self-reliant in food and we would get no more foreign donation.
So it is true that the pledge for establishing equality in society has not been fulfilled. But it does not mean we have gone backwards in all respects.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
Rashed Khan Menon: The disparity between the rich and the poor widened because of dependence on the World Bank and the IMF. The state of social equality and social justice became vulnerable because of income disparity.
The Awami League-led government after assuming office in 1996 took some initiatives to establish social justice although there had been no significant progress in its five-year term as those were again halted by the BNP-led alliance government in the 2001–06 tenure.
In the past seven years, the AL government has allocated more funds for social development programmes. The poverty rate has come down to 22 per cent from 49 and the percentage of hardcore poor has been reduced to 8. Moreover, there has been no monga [a famine-like situation] in the north.
The number of seats for women in the parliament has increased while a third of the positions in local government bodies are now held by women representatives, which obviously paints a positive picture. But incidents of violence against women and the mentality to confine women are still widespread.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
Rashed Khan Menon: We must launch a strong ideological and cultural struggle alongside the political movement to build a society that would ensure equity, human dignity and social justice.
The values and ideology of the war of independence have to be restored. Majority of the people of Bangladesh like liberal Islam. We should also bring them back into liberal Islam to fight Islamic militancy.
Moreover, we will have to include the lower class in politics to achieve the spirit of the independence war.