Eminent educationist Serajul Islam Chowdhury , tells New Age.
Interviewed by Mir Ashfaquzzaman
You were culturally/intellectually active before and during the country’s war of national independence, which was a culmination of a series of social, political and cultural movements against the Pakistani military rulers of the day. What were the political motivations behind your active role in the war of national independence?
The movement for independence was a national movement. We had realised, even if not clearly, the principal contradiction within the Pakistan state was between the Bengalis in East Pakistan and the Punjabis in West Pakistan . The Bengalis constituted 56 per cent of the population in Pakistan but they were being deprived of their rights and exploited. So, that was the common feeling. The independence movement, as I see it, was a continuation of the Pakistan movement itself. For the Bengalis, who had voted for Pakistan , the promise was of economic emancipation, which was not realised. The desire of the Pakistani rulers to impose Urdu as the only state language made it clear to the rising middle class that they would continue to be exploited and that their status in Pakistan would be of second-class citizens.
Now, the general public was also disappointed. They had expected economic emancipation which was not taking place. On the contrary, their economic condition was worsening. So, the contradiction was between the ruling Punjabis in West Pakistan and the Bengalis in East Pakistan . The ruling Punjabis included the civil/military bureaucracy, businesspeople, industrialists and, of course, the politicians. What we were looking for was independence, which would be different from the independence of 1947. I call it a continuation on the ground that the desire for economic emancipation continued to be present. What we had in view was a change in the economy and independence would now be real, political, economic as well as cultural. The question of culture had by then become important, particularly for the middle class. Culture is indeed an important factor because it represents identity. The middle class realised that the attack was on their very existence – political, economic and cultural. The political motivation was not absolutely spelt out but gradually it was becoming clear that independence was necessary for economic emancipation and cultural freedom. Although it began as a movement for regional autonomy, it gradually transformed in itself into a movement for independence.
The people had voted in 1954 for the United Front. That vote was not only against the Muslim League but also against Pakistan itself. That result was annulled by the imposition of first a governor’s rule and later the martial law of Ayub Khan. There was then the movement against Ayub Khan. What had happened during the period was the parity, which meant that politically East Pakistan with its 56 per cent of the population had become equal to West Pakistan with its 44 per cent of the population. The movement was thus against the parity and there should be universal adult suffrage, which was very central to the movement. Ayub Khan’s constitution had denied that, established parity and basic democracy.
In the 1969 people’s uprising, the desire became more focussed toward a social revolution than autonomy. The class question was important. Within the political movement, the middle class and the working class had worked together. In the 1969 movement the working class was more aware than ever before. There was increasing awareness within the working class that frightened the rulers in West Pakistan . It was significant that Yahya Khan decided not only to hold the elections in 1970 but also to grant universal suffrage.
Why have we not yet been able to institutionalise representative democracy in the true sense of the term? How much responsibility would you attribute to the political class for this failure? What about the role of intelligentsia?
The responsibility for the failure to institutionalise representative democracy lies primarily with the ruling class. The ruling class was not and is not interested in democracy. What they wanted was their rule. During the British colonial rule, the growing middle class in Bengal wanted independence in their own interest. They wanted to get better jobs and greater opportunities, and wanted to be economically more free. There was then the rivalry between the established Hindu middle class and the growing Muslim middle class, which resulted in communalism and ultimately in the partition of Bengal . In East Bengal , the rising middle class wanted power. In undivided Bengal , the Hindus were the competitors. In Pakistan , the West Pakistanis, especially the Punjabis, became the competitors. There was the contradiction between the middle class in East Pakistan and the ruling class in West Pakistan . The middle class was not particularly interested in the welfare of the common man. What they wanted was is their own development, self-aggrandisement and perpetuation of the rights it had and the privileges it had. That middle class gave leadership to the war of independence. The war of independence was a people’s war but the people were not in the leadership. The organisation that provided the leadership, the Awami League, was a political party of the middle class. It was interested in the prosperity of the middle class. Others who joined, for example the army and non-political elements, those who came from the middle class, also wanted prosperity for themselves, and not the nation as a whole. So, democracy was not on their agenda.
In the original constitution of Bangladesh , socialism was stated as an objective. But no one in the ruling class really believed in socialism. The ruling class accepted socialism just to satisfy the public, just as the Pakistani ruling class had used Islam to placate the feelings of the masses. The people’s agenda was social revolution but the leading political parties’ agenda was transfer of power. There was this contradiction within the liberation movement itself. What happened on December 16, 1971 really was transfer of power. Pakistan as a state had fallen but the character of the state remained the same. It was the same bureaucratic, capitalist state, in a smaller form, that we got after liberation. The bureaucratic machinery remained and so did the capitalist economy and ideology. These were the things that the ruling class believed in. Far from desiring to have socialism, the ruling class did not even want democracy. Democracy means granting of equal rights and opportunities to every citizen, and also decentralisation of power. The ruling class was not interested in these and nor was it interested in proper representation of the people in the national assembly and other institutions, which is again a pillar of democracy. So, the elections were not meaningful and the old system remained – the old political system, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the army, and also the relationship within society. Society did not change at all. The privileged got more privileges, the rich got richer. The general public got frustrated, as the common dream of the masses made way for the private dream of individuals.
The intelligentsia did not play a significant role, either. The intelligentsia’s role in the liberation war has been over-glorified. The Pakistani rulers also thought that the intelligentsia was behind the liberation movement, which was why they killed university teachers and intellectuals at the beginning as well as at the end of the war. It was a people’s movement; it was students rather than teachers who took the movement forward. The intelligentsia did not propagate the idea of liberation; it came from the people, it came from the people’s verdict in the 1970 elections. The intelligentsia failed even after the war of liberation. The nationalist movement had achieved independence, politically, but this achievement had to be taken further ahead. It was necessary to take this movement towards democracy, which ultimately meant towards socialism. The intellectuals failed there. The nationalists were satisfied with what they had gained. They were more interested in consolidating their own positions. They were not interested in a social revolution. What the country needed was a social revolution and the intelligentsia had a role to play in bringing about that social revolution. They could make the idea clear, propagate it and rouse interest and enthusiasm in the people for such a social revolution.
What is worse, some intellectuals became collaborators. In the Pakistan days, we had intellectuals collaborating with the Pakistani rulers. After liberation, we had intellectuals collaborating with the ruling class. There were pro-Awami League intellectuals, later pro-Bangladesh Nationalist Party intellectuals. The intellectuals have been politicised. As a result, the people are not as aware or conscious of their rights as they should be. The people do not have access to ideas and do not have even the literacy to organise themselves as a political force. The patriotic and democratic intellectuals should have gone to the public and created a political force necessary for a social revolution. The ruling class was anti social revolution. What we needed was a people’s movement. That movement would have been a continuation of the liberation war.
Many people argue that it is the weak political institutions and lack of democratic practices in and among the political parties that has always paved the way for military intervention, direct or indirect, in the country’s political process time and again. What should the political parties/parliament do to ensure civilian control over military establishment at the moment, and stop recurrence of any extra-constitutional take over of power by the military in future?
The intervention in the political process by the army has been possible because of the character of the state. The state is not democratic. The power belongs to bureaucracy, both civil and military. The civil and military bureaucracy has been more powerful than the political parties. The political parties have been elected and gained state power. But they have been decided; they quarrelled. Besides, they are interested in self-aggrandisement. The mainstream political activism has degenerated into a very dirty struggle for power and material gains between the two major political parties. So, when they quarrel, military interventions become easy.
Moreover, the structure of the state is bureaucratic. It is the civil and military bureaucracies that have controlled the state. When the political system seems to be working and the parliamentary democracy seems to be in charge of the affairs of the state, it is the civil bureaucracy that has real power. When a military intervention takes place, the military bureaucracy takes over, with the collaboration of the civil bureaucracy. There is always the collaboration between the civil bureaucracy and the military bureaucracy because the state is essentially bureaucratic. So, the character of the state needs to change. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had the power to change the structure of the state. He could have decentralised state power, given more power to local government, weakened control of the civil/military bureaucracy over state power and could have made the political system and the elective machinery function properly. He did not have the capacity or the vision to change the state.
A promise of the independence movement was abolition of economic disparities among citizens. But the promise still remains unmet. What, in your view, are the weaknesses of the economic policies pursued by the subsequent governments of Bangladesh that have failed our people to get their economic aspirations met?
The economic policies of the successive governments have followed the model of capitalist development, which means development for the few at the cost of the many. What we have in Bangladesh is prosperity for a few and poverty for the majority. It is the handful of people who enjoy the benefit of the economic growth. What these policies have failed to do tragically is to create employment opportunities. Successive governments have remained indifferent to this problem. This ideology of development has encouraged private profiteering and privatisation of public property.
Such a model of development has also induced class disparity, which is dangerous and creating discontent in society. We are not building a future for ourselves but a problem. The education system has also contributed to the widening of disparity. We have three streams of education – the affluent section of society is sending their children to English-medium schools, the middle class to Bangla-medium schools and the poor to madrassahs. Such an education system is creating a cleavage between the classes. In other words, the existing system is widening disparity in the name of educating the nation. Education should bring unity but is actually creating division. Education itself is thus being the producer and promoter of disparity, which is a potential source of danger for the state.
Secularism was one of the fundamental principles of Bangladesh during its emergence as a nation state. But, the state has deviated from its original commitment, and finally a military ruler made Islam the religion of the state. Now that an elected government is in power and that too with a three-fourth majority in parliament, can the secular-democrats expect amendment to the constitution to restore the secular principle of the state?
Secularism does not ensure democracy but you cannot have democracy without secularism because it establishes that religion is a matter of private practice and belief and the state is not interested in religion. In other words, the state does not promote inequality among the people in respect of religious belief and faith.
Secularism was withdrawn from the constitution because the ruling class wanted to make use of religion. These rulers promoted madrassah education and the use of religion in politics. As a result, we now have Islamist extremists, who have become a threat to the security of the state. What is more ominous is that these extremists are providing an excuse for an intervention by the Americans, as has happened in Pakistan . Americans have interest in our mineral resources, the Bay of Bengal and the Chittagong port for strategic reasons.
The Awami League is committed to secularism. Bangladesh was established discarding the two-nation theory, which was based on religion, and the nationalism that inspired us was secular. The Awami League has a responsibility. Now that it has the opportunity, it should take up the issue. The trial of war criminals is necessary but should not make us lose sight of the fact that secularism is a basic tenet of the state and the liberation war loses its meaning, if it compromises on this ideological question. The ideology that inspired us was secular nationalism in face of religious nationalism. There is therefore an opportunity and it is a responsibility of the Awami League to revive secularism as a state principle.