Serajul Islam Choudhury, Emeritus Professor of Dhaka University, has been bringing out the journal Notun Diganta for the last 20 years. An advocate of social change, this writer and educationist speaks in an interview with Prothom Alo about the peoples' aspirations and achievements over these past 52 years of the country's independence.
It has been 52 years since the country gained independence. How far have the aims and objectives of independence been achieved?
We did not expect the aims and objectives of independence to be achieved overnight or in entirety, but whatever has happened is far from satisfactory. The aims and objectives were not simply to break up a big state and establish a small one. It was about freedom, that is, to build up a state and a society that would be socialist. We could not go there. The development that has taken place is of the capitalist model. That is why disparity and inequity has increased with development and so has exploitation.
Wealth is created by the labour of the working people and a part of this wealth is siphoned off overseas. Another part is used on the luxury and excesses of the wealthy class. The British rule had been colonial. The Pakistani rulers had also wanted to make Bangladesh an colony within the country. And in independent Bangladesh too, a sort of colonialism has emerged. This is the colonialism of the local bourgeoisie class. Exploitation and money laundering are going on in full swing.
On an individual level, girls are advancing ahead, but their security has diminished rather than increased in this capitalist patriarchy. There was rape before too, but gang rape hadn't really been heard of much. Now it has taken on alarming proportions.
Why has all this not been achieved? Are the politicians the only ones to be blamed? Did the writers and intellectuals not have any liability as leading citizens of the country?
Both have the liability. The main responsibility lies with the politicians, but the intellectuals also had the responsibility. They failed to carry out their responsibility. The truth is that they failed to convey to the people what sort of society we want in independent Bangladesh. Many simply dreamt of independence, forgetting the dream of freedom. They did not have a clear idea of social ownership of wealth. Many didn't even find this acceptable. A section of the progressive thinking intellectuals were martyred in the war. In the meantime, not even a bourgeoisie form of parliamentary democracy was established in the country. Independence ushered in unexpected opportunities for some intellectuals and they became greedy opportunists. The state did not encourage freedom of expression. Quite to the contrary, it gradually built up a culture of fear.
There has been economic development since independence, but why hasn't there been any development in democracy and culture? Why are we falling back in our thinking and intellect?
Those who became the rulers, did not display any tolerance. They did not want to allow independence of thought. They demanded subservience. They did not promote creativity. Greed for profit, consumerism overrides everything. The television and internet culture had given priority to individual appeasement over sociocultural practice. The three different streams in education are dividing society and culture in an extremely corrosive manner. The practice of Bangla language and literature is not at all satisfactory.
The pitiful predicament of the economy had given rise of distress among the people. Not only has money come in from the Middle East, but fundamentalism too. The pledge for secularism hasn't been implemented. Instead, religion is being used in politics. There has been more of an increase in qawmi madrasas than primary schools. Many of those who were expected to be involved in democratic and sociocultural practice, have opted for cinema and television. Again, many serve the purpose of the ruling bourgeoisie party.
The scope for cultural activities in the localities has shrunk. Even space for sports has decreased. On the other hand, misguided religious activities in the name of 'waaz' is promoting the spread of reactionary views. Humour has grown scare.
How would you identify our main achievements in the past 52 years of independence, and our failures?
The achievements are state independence, an opportunity to establish our identity on a global platform, and also various material developments. The failure is, shifting away from the spirit of the liberation war. Earlier we would think that the definition of the spirit of the liberation war lay in the four pillars of state mentioned in the constitution. Later experience indicated there was a lack of clarity there too. To put it clearly, the spirit of the liberation war is the spirit of a social revolution. And the ultimate objective of that revolution would be to establish social ownership in place of the private owners of wealth. We have certainly shifted away from that spirit. Even the original principles of the state are no longer in effect. And so a social revolution has become imperative to make the relations between people humanitarian. The driving force of the liberation war was to bring an end to the old relationship of ruler and the subjects and to ensure equal rights and opportunities for all. We have moved away from this objective of social revolution.
Why did those in Bangladesh whose politics was for the peasants and the workers, that is the left-wing politicians, fail to win public support? Why are they in a state of decay in national politics? Instead of emerging as an alternative force, many of them have merged and disappeared within Awami League and BNP.
The main weakness of the leftists is the lack of creative pursuit of knowledge. It is not only a lack of theoretical knowledge, but there is also a lack of knowledge earned though life experience. It took them time to gain the understanding that East Bengal was becoming a colony of the Pakistani rulers and that it was imperative to take over state power, break the state and establish a democratic state of the people. They also failed to tackle the nationality problems. The subcontinent was a multi-racial country and the rulers projected the Indian subcontinent as a two-nation country. Pakistan itself is an unrealistic, bureaucratic ruled sate of four different nations. It was the responsibility of the leftists to liberate people from that state rule. But they failed to carry out their responsibility.
They were certainly a part of the national freedom movement, but the leadership went to the hands of the bourgeoisie nationalists. In the British times, it was these leftists who had been the main foe of these nationalists, just as during the rule of Pakistan. The leftists want to bring about a social revolution and the bourgeoisie want to take over state power, keeping the social structure intact. There was no limit to state oppression of the leftists. The bourgeoisie rule did not end even in Bangladesh. The bourgeoisie rule oppressed the leftists. The media had unlimited influence at the time. And the rulers used the media machinery to project the leftists as traitors and atheists.
The politics of the leftists should have been absolutely different from that of the bourgeoisie, but that did not happen. They broke away from this particularly because of their eagerness to join the election. The British rulers laid a trap for the nationalists by giving them leeway in the election. The nationalists fell into that trap and moved away from the movement, eager to join the election. They then got divided on communal lines, ultimately leading to partition. The partition was most harmful to the leftists. Now they are being enamoured by the election. They had this penchant for the election during Pakistan times too. The local and foreign rulers, along with their supporters, had built up a cultural ideology which was hard to the material leftists to break.
Above all, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the most harm was done by the reformists propensities that emerged among the leftists, and also by the rift created by the China-Russia divide. It was easy for the bourgeoisie to identify the 'national' enemies because they were foreigners. But for the leftists, it was difficult to identify the class adversaries because these adversaries were local and often their 'own' people.
During the Pakistan rule, and even under the military government, the intellectuals played a courageous role, stood up actively against the government's actions. Why are they unable to do so during democracy?
Actual democratic rule in the true sense was never really achieved. The rulers in Bangladesh are extremely intolerant. They either lure people or coerce them. Some intellectuals give in to temptation and many remain in fear. A culture of fear has emerged in Bangladesh. Another fact is that there the intellectuals are not organised. They also have partisan divisions. Naturally, the tendency is towards joining the pro-government side.
The anti-government movement in the country is weak. That is another reason why the intellectuals' stand against the government's wrongs is weak. Again, the media is not too interested in publishing the opposition news. So even if an anti-government stance is taken up, this is not given coverage.
In many instances, intellectuals dispense of their responsibilities by merely issuing statements. They don't take to the streets. Is this due to opportunism or escapism?
There is opportunism. Fear also plays a part.
The ruling party and the opposition are at loggerheads with the election ahead. There is no sign of any understanding in the offing. Does that mean another conflict is on the cards?
Even if there is no violence, there may be anarchy. How far this anarchy reaches and where it will end, depends on the behaviour of the concerned quarters.
Awami League came to power with the call for 'change'. BNP is talking about 'state repairs'. Is there any fundamental difference between these two parties?
There is certainly a difference, but that is not fundamental. No matter what pledge they make, you cannot expect them to implement it once in power. It is also true that the bourgeoisie will remain in state power. There is no basic difference in their nature and character. They are not democratically minded and they have a lack of patriotism. And it is very visible that there is not democratic practice in their parties.
When the elections come around, there is a flurry of politicians rushing to the foreign diplomats. One party complains against the other. How do you see this trend?
It is shameful. We went through so much hardship to achieve an independent state. We are the ones to take all decisions of the state. That is expected. But that is not happening. The ruling class does not depend on the support of the people, they want the support of the foreign quarters. The rulers are not friends with each other, but they are ideologically the same. They all are capitalists and the capitalist system in our country is an extension of global capitalism.
The capitalists are imperialists too. They want to exert their own dominance. When the elections come around, the possibility of a change in government arises. The capitalists and imperialists want their favoured side to come to power and thus become active. The matter is mutual. The locals want support. The foreigners also are ready to provide support.
You all speak of social ownership in place of capitalism. Why were the socialist countries not able to establish that social ownership? Soviet Union disintegrated quite some time back, China has established state capitalism and the rich-poor divide is wide there too.
There were efforts to establish social ownership, and there was a degree of success. However, the system didn't last. The main reason behind this is the craftiness of the capitalists, their propaganda skills and power. People are not born socialists. They are born with capitalist tendencies. They must work hard to be a socialist. And so when socialism is established, it is not that the capitalist propensities vanish and this seeps into the party bureaucracy. Party bureaucracy is more powerful than general bureaucracy. This bureaucracy didn't nurture collective spirit, it suppressed it. And capitalism used it craftiness and power, appeasing workers, repressing leftists, and promoting consumerism. The fall of the socialist world also proved that, like capitalism, socialism must be made universal.
The history of human civilisation is also the history of private ownership. Capitalism is the ultimate outcome of that civilisation of private ownership.
Capitalism has given all it has to give. Now it has no power to give anything more than pain. Its contributions and exploitation has rendered the world almost uninhabitable for mankind and other animals, Civilisation will now proceed on the route of private ownership and will reach the brink. Or it will turn around to social ownership and a new civilisation of a different development will dawn. The whole world waits to see which way things will turn.
The Russia-Ukraine war has been on for a year now. People all over the world have been affected. The intellectuals in the country had been vocal in their protest against the Iraq war. Why are they silent now?
The intellectuals are not organised. They are afflicted by greed and fear. On top of that, the all-powerful media is run by capitalists and imperialists. That is why they are silent.
Why has it not been possible to instill the spirit of the liberation war -- equality, independence, democracy, non-communal values -- in the youth? The young generation is disinclined towards politics. How will you evaluate this failure?
The young are courageous. If they lose this courage, there is nothing left. Frustration sets in. That is happening in Bangladesh. The youth that once fought the liberation war, today are frustrated. Criminal teen gangs are being formed. The failure basically is of the political forces seeking social change. They failed to inspire the youth towards social change. The ruling class cannot be called a failure in this instance. It is only natural for them to want to misguide youth and lead them away from politics. They do not want youth to revolt. They fear the courage of youth. Student union elections are not held in the universities because the ruling class mistrusts the youth.
Do you see any hope for the country, the society, in this morass of hopelessness all around?
I certainly do. There are the common people, people who have consciences. There is the youth. They may have lost faith in politics, but they have not lost faith in themselves. They work, they dream. Their labour and their dreams are the causes of change. I trust they will stand up against the capitalist system, not just in our country, but all over the world. They will guide civilisation towards social ownership. People cannot live without dreams. For the sake of survival, the dream to build a new world will grow strong. Change is inevitable.
Thank you too