It was the ‘declaration of independence’ on 17 April 1971 that gave us the strength, courage and inspiration to achieve independence for Bangladesh through a war of liberation, requiring much blood and sacrifice. It affirmed Bangabandhu’s declaration of independence made on 26 March for ‘the establishment of people’s lawful rights to achieve self-determination.’ At the same time, it declared Bangladesh as ‘a sovereign people’s republic for the equality, human dignity and social justice for the people of Bangladesh.’ In other words, the ideals and values recognized by our first constitution are the people’s right to self-determination, equality, human dignity, social justice and so on.

It was these ideals and values of the declaration of independence that were later more cogently defined as the fundamental principles of state policy in Article 8 of the constitution adopted in 1972: nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism. And it is these pledges which are basically the source of fundamental human rights, political and civil rights and the rule of law, much of which were made justifiable by recognizing as fundamental rights in articles 26 to 47 of our constitution.

These four fundamental principles of the state policy are further elaborated in articles 9, 10, 11 and 12 of our constitution. Article 9 enunciates that unity and solidarity are the basis of Bengali nationalism. Article 10 pledges to establish a socialist economic system to attain a just society free from exploitation. Article 11 clearly states, “The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed.”

Article 12 pledges the elimination of all forms of communalism. It further pledges not to grant special status to any religion, prevent the use of religion for political gains and end discrimination against or persecution of persons practicing a particular religion. The fundamental principles included in the declaration of independence and the rights enshrined in our constitution, have remained largely unfulfilled even after 50 years of our independence. None of the past governments showed seriousness in honouring these rights of the citizens.

However, the violations of these rights have been most flagrant over the past decade, during the rule of the ‘grand alliance’ (mohajot) led by Bangladesh Awami League. Our voting rights and many other important civic rights have been trampled during this regime. Suppression and repression have been the chosen tools to deal with dissenting voices and the political opposition. The constitutional bodies have lost effectiveness due to naked politicisation and incompetence. The poor state of these institutions along with the flagrant violations of civic and political rights of the citizens are clear indications that we as a nation have lost our path, as laid out in our declaration of independence and subsequently in our constitution. As a result, Bangladesh is now branded as an ‘authoritarian state’ by international think-tanks such as the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

The government then came up with a faulty and suicidal slogan of ‘democracy vs development’ and turned to creating dazzling and exorbitantly expensive infrastructure with foreign loans having mostly unfavorable terms

Another reason why we have lost our path as a nation is the proliferation of political, religious and ethnic conflict and violence. During the independence war, the people, regardless of class, creed or religion, fought together against the common enemy, yet today we seem to have become enemies of each other. Our politicians, particularly the two major political parties – Awami League and BNP – are out to annihilate each other. The grenade attack on leader of the opposition Sheikh Hasina in 2004 was a heinous and naked manifestation of such politics of annihilation. Unfortunately, this type of despicable politics has continued unabated during the present regime. We have been witnessing how various strategies have been applied to use the administration, the law enforcement agencies and the courts to perpetuate the culture of repression and oppression of the opposition. In fact, politics has been made into a blood-sport. Although Bangladesh was born as a secular nation, today we are standing on a powder-keg, created by identity-based politics and religious hatred, signs of which we witnessed in Cumilla during the Durga Puja of 2021. In such an explosive situation, any vested interest group can throw a lighted match into the powder-keg, setting the entire nation on fire.

The present ‘grand alliance’ government came to power in a landslide victory through a fair election in 2008 with an election manifesto called ‘Dinbodolar Sanad’ or ‘Charter for Change,’ promising to bring fundamental changes in all aspects of our nation, including changing our existing political culture and bringing an end to politicisation of institutions. But due to the lack of democratic values and misgovernance, combined with abject incompetence, the dream of such change did not materialise. Failing to deliver the promised changes, the government then came up with a faulty and suicidal slogan of ‘democracy vs development’ and turned to creating dazzling and exorbitantly expensive infrastructure with foreign loans having mostly unfavorable terms. This resulted in the proliferation of cronyism, with almost unchecked corruption, criminalisation, looting and money laundering to foreign countries. This misguided development strategy caused GDP to grow without causing big changes in the quality of life of the common people.In fact, in many cases there have been deterioration in the state of their well-being, caused by trampling of their rights, deterioration in the quality of education of their children and safety and security of their own lives. Massive social inequity has also emerged defying our founding principles of equality and social justice.

Extreme mismanagement and lack of accountability have caused the economy to stumble, which is now exacerbated by the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia war. The prime minister herself has been repeatedly speaking of a possible famine ahead.

In such circumstances, in order to remove the ‘authoritarian’ stigma and prevent economic meltdown, the government needed to be more accommodating, reaching a political settlement with the political opposition and undertake some deep reforms. It needed to take effective measures to meet the ‘democracy deficits’ and to rectify the ‘governance failures’. But the recent events centering BNP’s rally in Dhaka indicated that the government and the ruling party have taken a hard stance.

The government is even unwilling to take into consideration the demand of most of the citizens and development partners for fair elections, protection of human rights, rule of law, and bring an end to criminalization and corruption. In fact, the government considers anyone making such demands as the foe and uses the administration, law enforcement and the party goons to take them to task. It seems that efforts are also on to get Jatiya Party on board. Almost all opposition parties, local and foreign human rights organisations, the media and even many foreign embassies are now viewed as adversaries of the government.

Many supporters of the government feel that the prime minister has the magic wand to resolve all these challenges and she can bring any situation under control. But our present challenges are extremely difficult, risky and multidimensional. For example, the economic problems are not wholly under the grip of the government and can easily spiral out of control. In addition, if the doors to peaceful change of power by means of a free and fair election remain closed, it will only be a matter for time for an eruption of unpeaceful means for transfer of power. If power changes hands through extra-constitutional and violent means, no one will remain safe and even the ‘development’ that has been achieved so far will not sustain. No one wants such a situation to unfold. That is why we feel that, in the interests of our future generations, the path of peace and harmony is the only way to get our derailed, out-of-track nation back on track. And for this, what is needed most at this time is the prime minister’s sagacity, and courage.

* Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN)

Source: Prothomalo | December 20, 2022