The nation needs reforms in society, changes in people’s mentality and the negative attitude that they have. In a country of 16 crore people, nothing can be changed overnight, Mohammad Nasim, the health minister who is also an Awami League presidium member, 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?
Mohammad Nasim: We fought against the Pakistani occupation forces under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the four national leaders in 1971, aiming to remove social and economic inequality to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens. During the Pakistani rule, people were facing huge discriminations in every aspect in terms of politics, economy, education, health and others. The nine-month war against the Pakistani forces actually took place to get rid of discriminations and injustice.
The promises made in the proclamation of Bangladesh’s independence were reflected in the constitution of 1972. We dreamt of establishing a secular state, which was one of the main principles of the constitution. But it was unfortunate that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the four national leaders were killed in 1975, just after three years and a half of independence, when the nation was progressing towards materialising the promises to establish an equitable society and a secular state under their leadership.
After their assassination, state power went to military rulers and anti-liberation forces. First they started to tear down the constitution. Amendments were first made to the constitution indiscriminately by the military and autocratic ruler Ziaur Rahman and later by HM Ershad.
The amendments not only changed the fundamental principles of the state but also destroyed its secular character, allowing for politics based on religion, and provided political rights for the anti-liberation forces and war criminals in their release from jail.
In their 21-year rule from 1975 to 1996, the anti-liberation forces not only destroyed the spirit of the war of liberation but also put in maximum efforts to destroy the democratic forces by killing most of the leaders who dedicated their lives and fought to establish an equitable society. Their target was to create a leadership vacuum in Bangladesh.
The Awami League assumed office in 1996 and started working on restoring the spirit of the war of liberation. We scrapped the indemnity act, which gave immunity from any legal action to the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and paved the way for their trial.
When people started getting back their lost confidence in a government under which justice was established in society, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party with Jamaat-e-Islami grabbed state power in a conspiracy in the 2001 general elections. As the BNP and Jamaat are anti-liberation forces, their government obstructed justice by halting the trial of the killers of Bangabandhu and others. They also ruined the people’s aspirations of building a secular society by patronising extremism and communalism. They destroyed all the achievements of Bangladesh of the period from 1996 to 2001.
Bangladesh suffered a number of setbacks and for a longer period after 1975 in materialising the promises of the proclamation of independence. We formed the government again in 2009 and for a second consecutive term in 2014. Since 2009, we have been working on materialising equality, human dignity and social justice in society. We need more time to completely do so because of the earlier efforts that had been made to make Bangladesh a failed state. We are now trying to emerge from that situation. We started the trial of war criminals and need more time to finish it.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
Mohammad Nasim: During the British and the Pakistani rule, human dignity of people of this area was quite largely harmed as there was no scope for all communities to enjoy equal opportunities. People were devalued and our human rights were ignored.
Our government believes that without ensuring human dignity in society, it would not be possible to materialise the dreams of Bangabandhu. The rural economy is getting stronger day by day. People in rural areas now enjoy opportunities, including electricity and communications, similar to those people in urban areas do.
Even poor families now earn a substantial amount of money and can improve their living standards. If you visit rural areas, you cannot find people available for work in your house or farm. Children from every family go to school and there is no discrimination among students in educational institutions. All are treated equally in society. Regional disparity has also been removed gradually. We are constructing the Padma bridge to ensure development in the country’s south. We are actually creating an environment everywhere in the country so that people can uphold their dignity in all spheres of life.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
Mohammad Nasim: We could not fully ensure social justice in the country because of the anti-liberation forces remaining in state power over a long period. We need more time to ensure it. But we have achieved a lot in the past seven years of our rule. Now all can enjoy equal rights everywhere, from jobs to businesses, on the basis of their qualifications, irrespective of their religion, faith and gender. Our government has ensured equal opportunity and participation of women in all spheres of life. Our chief justice is from a Hindu minority community. Women are now holding top positions. There was a time when no meritorious student from an ordinary family or a lower caste or a marginalised community could have a good job or hold any top positions. Discrimination was a common phenomenon in society. In our constitution, however, we ensured that the state will not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, etc.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
Mohammad Nasim: Our society is different from other societies in the world. We cannot change anything here quickly. We need reforms in society, changes in people’s mentality and the negative attitude that they have. In a country of 16 crore people, nothing can be changed overnight. We need time. Our prime minister with her bold leadership and wisdom is leading the nation towards materialising the promises made in the proclamation of independence.
All pro-liberation forces should cooperate with the government in rebuilding the nation for prosperity, considering that the anti-liberation forces have stalled the progress of the nation and destroyed the spirit of the war of independence. If we want to restore the principles of the 1972 constitution, people should give this government more time. If we are given time, we would definitely complete our mission to ensure a poverty-free Bangladesh and turn it into a developed nation.
I think we must give emphasis to social reforms as we have failed to work on it since independence. Here is where we are lagging behind other societies of the world. We are progressing fast in terms of development but progress has not been made in terms of our mentality. So, conscious citizens, especially professionals, politicians, cultural activists and others, need to work on transforming our society into a civilised one.