“Equality, Human dignity and Social justice” – the visionof independent Bangladesh, stipulated at the Proclamation of Independence by the Bangladesh Government-in-Exile on 17th April, 1971 in Mujibnagar
In recent times, similar to Trump’s ‘Making America Great Again’ (an exclusionary ultra-right slogan) or Modi’s ‘Achche Din’ (promise of good days through Hindutva ideology that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life in a multi-faith Indiaas the panacea, is exclusionary), the slogan, the “Muktijuddher Chetona” – MC- (‘Spirit of Liberation war’) which is being promoted by the ruling party, the Awami League (AL) in Bangladesh in the guise of patriotism is equally exclusionary.
While it is true that Bangladesh came to being through a bloody liberation war (Muktijuddho) and that the war was inspired by a number of motivational factors or ‘chetona’ (spirit)and thus Mukitijuddher (Liberation war) Chetona (Spirit) is real, current use of the term that gained much currency during the last decade or so of Awami League’s (AL) rein and more precisely,during the ‘Shahbag movement’ of 2013 where the movement’s leaders promoted it as a rallying tool to push through, some say with behind-the-scene support of the government, their demand for extreme punishments for the under-trial 1971 alleged war criminals who were Islamists and belonged to the opposition political parties, harboured an agenda which was and is more political than universal.
Most of these alleged war criminals have since been tried and hanged but the slogan, ‘Muktijuddher Chetona’ has not died, it continues to occupythe political space, evidently to serve two opposing but inter-connected purposes – to project the ruling AL, as the sole owner and champion of the liberation spirit (‘chetona’) and liberation of Bangladesh and secondly, portray all others especially the mainstream opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and their allies as anti-liberation or ‘chetona’-less forces. This is inconsistent with the true meaning of the term, Muktijuddher Chetona.
From slogan to substantive
Leaving aside its current opportunist and divisive use,Muktijuddher Chetona or the spirit of liberation has been and still is real and thus defining the term in a more concrete and substantive manner may be good way to restore the real from the fake.
In order to do this, we generated a debate on the subject in a social media. Some responded with sarcasm and dismissed the whole idea by saying “Is there any document regarding ‘muktijuddher chetona’?” and therefore, “should we bother?”Others have argued that the whole idea of “chetona” is a shenanigan because, “US also achieved its independence through a war, I mean shooting war and achieved great success without pursuing any ‘Chetona” and therefore, “Is it possible we can do the same without any “Chetona” or not. If not why not?”
Others have however, responded more positively and offered the following definition, of real Muktijuddher Chetona which is about establishing “….an exploitation free” Bangladesh,a country “…where people can develop economically and politically …where, Rules of law prevail, ….[where citizens] can express his/her political opinions freely orally and in writing, and critique actions of the government….the right to form political associations and parties and organize meetings….seek redress of his or her grievances and social injustices through legal means in the court of law without threats and harassment. No discrimination, based on religion, sex or political faith…. Institutions are developed to protect and safeguard rights described above.”
This definition has indeed captured some of the true aspirations of the 1971 liberation war and this became evident when some suggested and quite rightly that instead of speculating, a more credible and substantive way to define the concept would be to consult,as source materials, the documents and pledges that helped crystallising the spirit (‘chetona’) of liberation and the liberation war (‘Muktijuddo’) and liberation itself. These documents include but not limited to:(i) the pre-independence 6-point movement document that for the first time promoted the vision of an autonomous and‘discrimination free’ self-governing East Pakistan within Pakistan; (ii) the All Party East Pakistan Students 11-point demand that articulated more explicitly a vision of an ‘exploitation’ free society for the then East Pakistan; (iii) the 17th April, 1971 war-time ‘Proclamation of Independence of Bangladesh’ by the Bangladesh government-in-exile that delineated a vision of Bangladesh as a society based on the principles of “equality, human dignity and social justice”; and (iv) finally, the 1973 Constitution of independent Bangladesh that outlined in its preamble the following guiding principles of the independent Bangladesh – “free from exploitation in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens.”
Based on these pledges and commitments,Muktijuddher Chetona(Spirit of Liberation War) is defined more substantively, as a spirit and/or a vision of Bangladesh where citizens live in freedom,with dignity and with equal rights,in democracy that guarantees equal opportunities to all to advance economically, politically and socially, equitably.
Viewing Current Bangladesh from the Substantive framework of Muktijuddher Chetona (MC)
Important aspect of a substantive definition is this that it provides a framework that allows us to ascertain the progress of Muktijuddher Chetona vis-à-vis its core values, namely equality, democracy and social justice through verifiable indicators. Table 1 below presents the current status of Bangladesh vis-à-vis real MC (Table 1 has been compiled and interpreted by the author from various international sources):
Table 1: Verifiable Indicators of Substantively Defined Muktijuddher Chetona(Spirit of Liberation War) and Bangladesh
It is evident from the Table 1 above that Bangladesh has done well economically and the government can indeed claim some but not all the credits for it and this is because so far asthe economic growth is concerned the main contributors, namely the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) and manpower exports are predominantly private sector driven and furthermore,the policy foundations of these two sectors that have been laid decades ago, have been yielding dividends incrementally, since. On the other hand, where government could assist but failed and especially in the RMG sector is in the area of guarantee of fair wages for and safety and security of the workers. For years, conditions in RMG sector have been appalling. But it took the government a tragedy like collapse of Rana Plazabuilding (an unfit building owned by a ruling party activist that housed several RMG factories) in 2013 that killed scores and injured many and the international outcry atthesub-human conditions in the sector,to take notice and act. Things in the RMG sector have improved since but recent unrest and also a recent investigative report by the UK based newspaper, the Guardian indicate that conditions are far from ideal and given Bangladesh’s poor record on Human Rights, Civil Liberties and Rule of Law that are key to protecting citizen rights including labour rights, continued injustices in the sector are anything but unexpected. Worsening rights and accountability conditions in the RMG sector and in the country as a whole have also something to do with worsening corruption and inequality in the country.
Indeed, Table 1 shows that rise in inequality and corruption are happening in tandem with falling rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Corruption in Bangladesh has reached such an abysmal level and the wealth gap has become so huge that statistics often do not portray the real picture. At one end,while the garment workers are struggling to survive on a pittance, at the other, the extent of inequality has reached such a level that a friend who recently returned from Dhaka attending a wedding reported that among many dazzling and costly arrangements that the bride’s father had organized and paid for, the peak was the performance of a Russian Ballet group that he hired to entertain the guests at the reception, god knows at what cost.Looks like some of the reported $82.0 billion of stolen national wealth,most of which safely reside overseas, are finding their ways in dazzling weddings in Bangladesh these days.
Rampant corruption is also correlated with deteriorating rule of law, democracy and human rights. According to Patricia Moreira, current Managing Director of Transparency International (TI), “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions, and in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption” and this is evident in Table 1 where rise in corruption accompanies degradation of institutions of accountability, namely ‘State of Democracy’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Rule of Law’, ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Civil Liberties’.
Among these, human rights have suffered the most such that past decade has been a decade of countless extra-judicial murders, enforced disappearances, arbitrary jailing of political opponents, attacks on student and worker protests that have made rule of law, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly an anathema in the present-day Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Sk. Hasina however, has a different notion on human rights. In a recent interview with an Indian journal she argued, “We ensured people’s human rights. We always value the human rights for the people. Human rights do not mean security or safety only, it also includes people’s food security, their health security, their education, their housing and well being. A person wants a better life. If we can do it, it means we are ensuring human rights.”She is right to some extent but problem with such selective notion of human rights is that without the guarantee of safety, security and dignity of all citizens which she herself admits is lacking,albeit somewhat inadvertently,economic and social benefits flow only selectively and iniquitously and current spectre of rising inequality is a proof of it. More importantly, if the right to life and dignity is not guaranteed how people would benefit economically or otherwise is difficult to understand – after all, one needs to be alive to benefit, right?
Human rights prosper in countries that have functioning democracies and so far as Bangladesh is concerned its track record on democracy is anything but inspiring and it reached its worst state during the 2018 election which the London-based Economist has described as the most “transparent fraud.” In this election not only voting were doctored but free exercise of voting rights met with dangerous consequences – several women who casted their votes in favour of the opposition parties were raped and in one case, where a presiding officer, a school teacher that refused ballot fraud,was murdered and his dead body was found in a ditch with hands and legs tied. In current Bangladesh taking democracy seriously amounts to inviting serious risks to life itself!
In sum, when put against the substantive definition of the term,Muktijuddher Chetona(the real spirit of liberation war) and when measured against the indicators of core values of equality, freedom and democracy of the Constitution and the Independence Proclamation, the report card of the ruling Awami League that has given currency to the term and made the claim to be the concept’s sole custodian and uses it frequently as a rallying cry to glorify itself and demonize its opponents, portrays for itself an image that it rather not have and also not an image that befits a party that once championed the fight for freedom and led the country to independence with the promise to uphold the very values they have since compromised and this is sad.
Thus time may have come for all including the Awami League to join hands and move from slogan to the substantive and reject the path of ignoble for the true spirit of the liberation war- ‘democracy, human rights and social justice’ –, the real Muktijuddher Chetona that our founding fathers once led and inspired us with that we aspired, embraced,dared and fought for!
The author is a former senior policy manager of the UN. This article has evolved from a recent discussion conducted at a social portal called Advance Bangladesh