Fifty years is not a long time in the life of a nation. But when that is the life span itself, a golden jubilee is an appropriate time to look back, to take stock and look to the future.
The year was 1971. For over two decades, resentment had been simmering in East Pakistan at economic exploitation and efforts to deny the natural linguistic and cultural expressions of a people. In the general elections of December 1970, the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had won a resounding victory and a majority of the seats for the whole of Pakistan. But every subterfuge was deployed by President General Yahya Khan, in collaboration with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to deny the Awami League its right to form the government. Multiple rounds of discussions led nowhere and, finally, on the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army was let loose on the people of East Pakistan.
It was genocide. Equipped with modern weapons of warfare, the army let loose a reign of terror which had no precedence. The avowed intention was to kill in numbers suficient to ensure submission. Countless were killed and uncounted women violated. Ten million fled for refuge to neighbouring India. Nations big and small met in endless conclaves in the hallowed precincts of the United Nations but provided no respite from the continuing carnage. Peasants, students, Bengali officers and men of the Pakistan army, paramilitary and police and common people banded together as the “Mukti Bahini” to free their motherland from the barbaric forces. India provided arms and training as the freedom fighters kept the occupying forces under relentless pressure. In a desperate gamble, Pakistan attacked India on December 3. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan surrendered unconditionally to the joint command of India and Bangladesh.
At that blood-soaked yet golden dawn, the challenges before Bangladesh were immeasurably daunting. It was a nation ravaged by a war within for nine months, its infrastructure in tatters. Its emergence had been cynically and strongly opposed by the richest and most powerful country in the world. Famine was soon ravaging the country. External assistance was tardy. Henry Kissinger gleefully described Bangladesh as an international basket case.
And then there were issues of governance. Political considerations did not allow the criminals of 1971 to be brought to account, and justice speedily delivered, so that elements opposed to the very emergence of Bangladesh were allowed to hibernate. It was the beginning of a long era of impunity, which benefited the killers of Bangabandhu and the four leaders in jail. It would have encouraged Ziaur Rahman’s assassins and emboldened those then in government, who attempted the decimation of the Awami League leadership in August 2004.
The military and quasi-military rule in the years that followed the assassination of Sheikh Mujib saw assaults on the values of the liberation war. But the spirit survived. In December 1990, South Asia was set an example of an autocratic government brought down by the power of the people. Years later, this was to be emulated in the Jana Andolan II in Nepal. The return to elected government in 1991 set a new template in governance in Bangladesh. Even earlier, non-governmental efforts had established Bangladesh at the forefront of rural credit. Women had come to the forefront, whether in seeking justice or empowerment. Relations with India, presently on an even keel, have fluctuated over the years. The conclusion of the Ganga Waters Treaty a quarter-century ago had laid to rest a source of deep discord. As both governments justifiably underline the increasing levels of mutual confidence and cooperation, the potential of the relationship, as well as mutual sensitivities and core interests, would need continued attention.
A major challenge for Bangladesh in recent years has been jihadi terrorism, often nurtured by external forces. Unfortunately, this was for a while supported by an elected political party. The present government has taken strong steps to push back against these forces. But the use of religion for achieving their ends will continue to make this a matter of fraught national importance.