'We gained independence, not freedom'

Renowned economic and intellectual Professor Rehman Sobhan delivers a lecture on ‘The Continuing War of Liberation’. Bangladesh Academy, Dhaka, 23 DecemberTanvir Ahammed

Renowned economist and former caretaker government advisor Professor Rehman Sobhan has said that we have gained independence, but not freedom. Over half a century has passed since independence, but the struggle for economic emancipation continues. Democracy, good governance, equity of resources, justice did not see progress as had been expected. However, over the last few decades Bangladesh has seen a lot of progress in the economic and social sectors. Bangladesh has surged ahead of Pakistan. It has even gone ahead of India in certain areas.

Professor Rehman Sobhan made these remarks while delivering a lecture on ‘The Continuing War of Liberation’. The programme was held at the Abdul Karim Shahitya Bisharod auditorium of Bangla Academy. The event was attended by economists, academics, writers and other eminent persons of various sectors of the society.

After over half a century since the emergence of Bangladesh, Rehman Sobhan spoke on the significance of the liberation war in an extensive context. In his lecture, he covered issues pertaining to politics, the economy, elections, disparity and justice.

Prothoma Prokashon has published two books sponsored by City Bank. The eminent economist Rehman Sobhan was speaking at the second part of the publication ceremony of the two books – ‘Ekattorer Dinpanji: Muktijuddher Dainik Ghatanalipi’, edited by Prothom Alo’s executive editor Sajjad Sharif, and ‘Muktijuddhe Shaheed Buddhijibi: Smriti Jibon Juddho’, edited by Prothom Alo’s managing director Anisul Hoque.

Professor Rehman Sobhan laid stress on two issues concerning a free, fair and credible election. He said one issue was to ensure the participation of two or three political parties with the capability of coming to power. The other was to ensure a smooth handover of power after a credible election.

Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman greets Prof Rehman Sobhan with a bouquet of flowers. Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 23 December
Tanvir Ahammed

Rehman Sobhan said, an environment should be in place so that if the opposition party wins, power will be handed over smoothly. This happened during the elections held under caretaker governments in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008. In each of these times, the opposition went to power after winning the election.

Injustice rises due to failure of institutions

Professor Rahman Sobhan felt that social injustice was on a rise due to the failure of various institutions of the government. He pointed to six institutions in this regard. These were the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Board of Revenue, the judiciary, the law enforcement agencies, and Bangladesh Bank.

Rehman Sobhan said, “I saw in the media that the wealth of a certain candidate of this national election had increased by 700 per cent. The Election Commission said it is not their task to look into how they increased their wealth. The Anti-Corruption Commission can look into this. NBR can look into whether tax has been paid against this wealth. Yet these three institutions are not carrying out such tasks. The Anti-Corruption Commission is seen investigating matters of the opposition. These institutions should have to power to independently investigate without fear or favour.”

Referring to the judiciary, Rehman Sobhan said, “The symbol of justice is to have both eyes blindfolded. You cannot establish justice keeping one eye open. The justice system cannot be effective in this manner. If the law and order system is to be effective, you must work with honesty. Political identity should not be given any consideration in running the responsibilities.”

Speaking about Bangladesh Bank, Rehman Sobhan said, “The culture of default loans began during the rule of Ziaur Rahman. This remained in place during Ershad’s role too. Later, after the government under the democratic system was installed down till today, it has not been possible to emerge out of the default culture. Quite to the contrary, default loans have increased. Bangladesh Bank over the past years has not been able to do anything about the loans. The default loan culture has become a part of the business culture now.” He went on to say, bank licences are handed out like candy is handed out to children. Bangladesh has more banks than India now.

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Parliament is a hub for opportunists now

Rehman Sobhan feels that the character of the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) is gradually changing. It has become a hub for opportunists. When Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmed contested in the election, they submitted details of their income and assets. Now the candidates submit records of their wealth and assets, but much less than actual. He said that the members of parliament cannot play an effective rile in parliament. There are no discussions on default loans, the health system and such national issues. There hasn’t been any meaningful discussion on the budget even for over a decade now. He says that there are a large number of businesspersons in parliament. They speak about their own interests in parliament.  The character of the people’s representatives down to the union parishad level has changed. Once in power, they amass wealth. Political identity is important in getting contracts for various projects.

Rehman Sobhan went on to say, “The ruling party is supposed to be accountable every day, but that is not so now. The other parties are now the ruling party’s election partners. They compromise and negotiate how many seats they’ll be given if they take part in the election. Even 52 years after the election we are looking for a credible system of election.”

We are ahead of Pakistan’s per capital income by 60 per cent. We have overtaken Pakistan in almost all areas. During Covid times, we overtook India in per capita income. Bangladesh is ahead of Indian in a number of social indicators. Food security has been ensured. Agriculture has diversified
Rehman Sohban, economist and chairman, CPD

Disparity grows

Professor Rehman Sobhan referred to the 7 March speech where Bangabandhu had said, “This struggle is now our freedom, this struggle is for our independence.” Bangabandhu believed that it was not enough just to be liberated from the hands of the Pakistani rulers. Bangabandhu spoke of establishing a justice-based society. The struggle for economic emancipation was still on. Disparity had increased, poverty was still there. A new wealth class had emerged. The struggle was with all this.

In his speech, Rehman Sobhan also highlighted the advancements made over the past few decades. He said, “We are ahead of Pakistan’s per capital income by 60 per cent. We have overtaken Pakistan in almost all areas. During Covid times, we overtook India in per capita income. Bangladesh is ahead of Indian in a number of social indicators. Food security has been ensured. Agriculture has diversified. The non-agricultural sector has gone quite forward in the rural economy. Globally, Bangladesh now ranks second in readymade garment export. Steel production has increased multiple times. Around 15 million people had gone overseas. The remittance they send back home plays a vital role in maintaining Bangladesh’s foreign transaction balance.”

After presenting these facts and figures on the advancements made in Bangladesh, Rehman Sobhan raised the question, has this advancement been in accordance to our expectations? Have these advancements managed to establish a justice-based society? He said, “Our aspiration is to build a democratic social order. Democracy will be just a part of this. A justice-based society will be established by means of economic emancipation.”

A section of the audience at the event. Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 23 December
Tanvir Ahammed

The event ended with a brief question and answer session.

Present at the event were veteran politician and lawyer Dr Kamal Hossain, former finance minister M Sayeduzzaman, human rights leader Hamida Hossain, political scientist Rounaq Jahan, former caretaker government advisor Rasheda K Choudhury, the Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam, Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman, vice chancellor of the Central Women’s University Parveen Hasan, theatre personality Ramendu Majumdar, Liberation War Museum trustee Sarwar Ali, director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) Binayak Sen, professor of gender and women studies at Central Women’s University, Maleka Begum, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Mustafizur Rahman and others.

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