Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman introduced one-party system in 1975 knowing well that poverty and illiteracy would hinder the development of democracy in Bangladesh. As the Father of the Nation he was above politics and political divisions. That’s why he prioritized nation-building and economic sovereignty of a country that in 1971 only had geographical independence in its kitty.
Now almost four decades down the line, very few of the Awami League leaders have lived up to his level of dedication and patriotism. These leaders continue to behave like colonizers with minds gone corrupt from abuse of power. Changes in their demeanor have been evident, unlike Bangabandhu who held onto his greatness till the last. As soon as the adrenalin of independence ebbed, Sheikh Mujib’s love for his people became a problem for his party leaders.
Circumstances were spinned so as to keep the Father of the Nation cocooned from the reality of torture, tyranny and corruption carried out in his name. During his imprisonment in Pakistan, Bangabandhu chose Tajuddin to lead the Liberation War as well as his public office. The history of Bangladesh would have been different had Tajuddin continued to serve as his second-in-command, but he was a philosopher king and a misfit amongst the greedy beneficiaries of Liberation War. So Tajuddin took the noble way out: self-banishment.
Sitting in a war-torn valley and encircled by greedy sycophants, Bangabandhu went for plan-B. As the then US government ignored all pleas for help with reconstruction and food security, he consulted Fidel Castro and approached Soviet Union. A one-party socialist government was at that time perhaps the only viable option for nation-building. But most of Sheikh Mujib’s followers, who were politically uneducated and only had the experience of leading processions and giving lectures ala Bangabandhu style, took the new system to be a tool for exploitation and extortion. Army officers, who were front-liners in the fight for freedom, were sidelined so it wasn’t a surprise that at one point those officers became nostalgic for Pakistan’s military lifestyle.
Soon after Bangabandhu’s overtures for assistance from former Soviet Union, capitalist and regional conspiracies popped up to pre-empt any possibility of another Communist takeover. And this was in the backdrop of the assassination of Shiraj Shikdar, torturing of non-BAKSALIs, famine, disorder in civil and military establishments. The entire public wrath over this confusion got directed at Sheikh Mujib’s government.
Bangabandhu didn’t know that his trust and love for his countrymen would get the same return as Gandhi got towards his end. This is perhaps the fate of every patriot. Sheikh Mujib had opted to lead his people towards independence instead of compromising for the premiership of Pakistan. In return some of his followers, supported by war criminals and international interest groups, assassinated him in the name of revolution.
The nation made fatherless soon after its birth then had to take shelter under the umbrella of cantonments for more than a decade, when Ziaur Rahman was brought in to fill the vacuum after this Spanish Tragedy. This handsome man sporting sunglasses took over the care of the orphaned nation. Reminiscent of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, he was pro-Islamist, honest, firm, cruel and charismatic. His first action was to hang hundreds of army officers and thousands of socialist activists, including the yet unappreciated socialist leader Colonel Taher who was ironically instrumental in procuring the throne for Ziaur Rahman.
Contrarily, Ziaur Rahman was the leader who released democracy in Bangladesh. We got to see election shows on state owned TV and radio; his Bangladesh Nationalist Party was on the winning track with no viable politician to lead the Awami League. Ziaur Rahman also rehabilitated Bangabandhu’s killers and war criminals, while steering the country towards Islamisation. Sheikh Mujib was relegated to our collective subconscious. Everyone including Ziaur Rahman remained mum on the life and death of the Father of the Nation. But Bangladesh certainly owes credit to Ziaur Rahman for responding to the needs of South Asian regional cooperation.
At the personal front, he was no doubt an honest man who even deprived his son Tareq Rahman of ceremonial luxuries. In retrospect, such strictness probably backfired as this same son emerged as Bangladesh’s Mr. Ten Percent. Ruling from his whirl castle, Tareq is later alleged to have supported militancy for profit in the name of Islam. After the assassination of Ziaur Rahman, his wife Khaleda Zia had to rush from her kitchen to replace him in politics.
Then entered General Ershad, who snatched power from the BNP. He continued with the olive democracy, entertaining the nation with his election shows aired on state-owned media. Ershad’s forte was Ayub Khan-style governance: decentralization of the power game show. While Zia had made politics difficult, Ershad turned it into a power share market, where the corrupt could invest or bid in elections. He speeded up religious extremism in Bangladesh and continued to favor the Mujib’s killers and war criminals.
But Ershad, too, could not sustain his throne in the wave of BNP-AL-Leftists-Jamaat-led mass movement in 1990. Civilian democracy made a comeback and Khaleda Zia won premiership in 1991, but like all those before her she easily forgot that power is never permanent. The Zia-Ershad style election shows continued till 1996 when Sheikh Hasina took over the Premier’s office after elections. She tried to restore the distorted history of Bangladesh and the honor of the Father of the Nation, freedom fighters and Liberation War. By that time politics had contorted into a paradise of criminals and democracy turned into a money-making machine.
The seesaw of power once again tilted in favor of Khaleda Zia in 2001. This time real authority rested in the whirl castle of her son Tareq Rahman. War criminals shared in the public office and militancy was given a freehand. Naturally, corruption and conspiracy found a fertile breeding ground. In preparation for the next polls, every authority from the caretaker government to the election commission and civil administration was rigged to ensure indefinite success.
Democracy again had to look towards cantonments for relief. Media and the masses joined in the rescue efforts. As BNP-era misdeeds were still fresh, the Awami League-led alliance was expected to win the winter 2008 elections but its totalitarian victory was a shock, even to the most pessimists of its adversaries. At least it proved one thing: voters, especially in South Asia, do have short and selective memories. The new government announced its commitment to change. But can anyone dare to change criminals into patriots or vice versa? Tender terrorists, looters and land grabbers all have different gods.
Unwise leaders have seated themselves on wise men’s chairs, bullying Mujib and Zia, making a mockery of themselves and the very system that elected them, and unconscious of their lack of education and culture that is mirrored in the media.
Despite a government which has the comfort of an over-whelming majority, there is no room anymore for people’s welfare. There is only price hike, power shortage, water crisis, lack of health services & education for the poor, extrajudicial killings, extortion and the never-ending AL-BNP clan-fight.
The killers of the Father of the Nation have been hanged but the masterminds remain as untouched as the killers of Ziaur Rahman and the masterminds of the Pilkhana tragedy. The Awami League is preparing to try war criminals, finally some long-denied justice so that Bangladesh doesn’t slip back into the darkness of extremism. But after decades of disappointments how long will it take for the despair in democracy to dissipate? And after decades of disappointments, exactly when will we take off as a nation?