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Fifty years ago on 25 March, the Pakistan army cracked down and began a genocide in Bangladesh. The scenes are still fresh in the mind – people fleeing for their lives towards the border, in search of shelter. What an abomination of humanity!

On 26 March Bangladesh’s independence was declared. In accordance to Bangabandhu’s instructions, we began the liberation war to free the country from the occupation of the Pakistani armed forces. The people aspiring freedom – women, men, students, the common people, farmers, workers, members of the trained forces – began crossing the border to join the Mukti Bahini. They all had the same commitment – this was an ideological struggle, struggle for equality, human dignity and social justice (as in the declaration of independence), a struggle for liberation. That is why we call it the Liberation War.

We went to join the war, leaving behind our country, parents, friends and family. We had no idea if we would ever return. We did not know if we would be able to defeat the Pakistan forces and bring independence to Bangladesh. But we overcame all odds and today Bangladesh takes place of pride on the world map, illuminated in its own glory. We have proved ourselves in so many ways.

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Recently Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi said that Bangladesh could be a role model in South Asia, in its eliminating of child labour. The empowerment of Bangladesh’s women has amazed the world. Despite so many obstacles, Bangladesh is an economic ‘emerging tiger’. Bangladesh’s progress in other development sectors is significant too. Other than in a few areas, Bangladesh has done better than many countries in fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals. Bangladesh’s advancement is evident in various international and UN development indicators. Extreme poverty has been almost completely eliminated in the country. Economic growth has nearly met the target. People’s life expectancy has increased, many diseases have been brought under control. We have even tackled the Covid-19 pandemic admirably. There are efforts to ensure shelter for all. ‘Naked children by the roadside’ is now a rare sight.

Are the people actually no one to those in power, no matter from which party they may be? There is endless uncertainty about whether the government is bothered about any role of the people

We not only began the trial of the 1071 war crimes, but have completed a significant part of it. Bangladesh can no longer be ignored in international and regional politics. In emerging from a least developed country (LDC) to a developing country, we have proven our competence.

All of this is a matter of immense pride. That is why this independence day is particularly inspiring. And it is all the more glorious as we are also celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This commemoration is particularly significant as the ideals of independent Bangladesh, the spirit of the Liberation War and Bangabandhu’s thoughts, dreams and directives are coming into focus afresh. There had been a deliberate effort to erase all that during the 21 years following 1975.

All of that has changed and Bangabandhu’s vibrant presence is before us now. Our prime minister, the daughter of Bangabandhu, has reiterated that the country will run on Bangabandhu’s ideals. As a common citizen, it is essential to seek those ideals as part of the ongoing celebrations.

Those guidelines began in the speech of 7 March. We recall the words like verses of a poem – ‘The people of Bangladesh today want freedom, they want to live, they want their rights.’ He said, ‘The people of this country will attain economic, political and cultural freedom.’ Bangabandhu called for the overall freedom of the people of Bangladesh, not just economic emancipation.

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Two compassionate economists come to mind. In his report on human development, Mahbub Ul Haq said that human development was a process of enlarging people’s choices. And Amartya Sen said the pace of economic growth will have to be the only one part of a much larger – much larger – commitment.

These words have much resonance with Bangabandhu’s dreams.

Now it is the right and the responsibility of everyone, every citizen, to fulfill these dreams. However, the responsibility of implementing these dreams basically lies upon those who take responsibility of running the country. After all, they have volunteered to take on this responsibility. That is their duty. The people have the constitutional right for the demands and their duty. But it is the elected representatives who have the authority to carry this out. They will rise above personal, family and party interests to determine policies in the interest of the country and implement these.

In his unfinished memoirs, Bangabandhu said about himself that his loyalty to the party where his loyalty to the country began. How far is this being followed by those who claim to be his followers? It is painful to see a profusion of news reports every day about persons of the ruling party resorting to all sorts of crime and corruption, land grabbing, encroachment of rivers, hills and forests, extortion, violence against women, communal attacks and more.

It is scary, because they remain above the law. These incidents remain restricted to reports and arrests. There are very few instances where the victims receive justice. So much encroachment and occupation takes place with government patronage. Then again, the government itself is in a quandary over these matters. The policymakers seem least bothered about the people’s mandate concerning national resources. That is why one project after the other, which go against public interest, are so easily given approval.

It was for such reasons that Bangabandhu was so infuriated with the Pakistani rulers. In his unfinished memoirs he wrote that national resources belonged to a particular group, as if the people were no one.

Are the people actually no one to those in power, no matter from which party they may be? There is endless uncertainty about whether the government is bothered about any role of the people. This is evident in the various legal conditions, often unacceptable by the constitution, that are enforced from time to time, restricting the people’s right to speak and to build organisations.

President Md Abdul Hamid himself said from the commemoration platform, “Politics seem to be walking backwards nowadays. Certain opportunists have made politics their profession.” There are certain exceptions, but unfortunately these are just exceptions. Many of the bureaucrats are still imbibed in the perceptions of Pakistan times. In our experience we see many of the well-intentioned directives of the prime minister eventually never see the light of day.

We turn to Bangabandhu again. We read in his unfinished memoirs that one must never join hands with incompetent leadership, leaders with no ideology and cowardly politicians to do anything for the country. That does more harm than good for the country.

Today, 50 years since independence, pro-liberation forces have been in power for over a decade at a stretch and our development has much to be proud about. But then again, when we cannot even rank among the top 30 in the global index of controlling corruption, when we see a lack of action and accountability concerning human rights violations, when we see people being attacked for their difference in identity or faith, or those without identity living in deprivation, when we see progressive thought, women’s emancipation, secular education being suffocated by fundamentalism, the space for free thinking of people steadily shrinking, then we wonder what ideology of Bangabandhu is being followed in the country.

If we who believe in free thinking, who have won the liberation war under the leadership of Bangabandhu, want to implement the ideals of the liberation war, then we must question ourselves. It is just as Bangabandhu said on 7 March, the people of this country want to live as humans, with their rights. It is just as our respected martyred intellectual Shahidullah Kaiser said, ‘the life we follow’ -- that is the life we want to live, to live in human dignity.

In our search for such a life, we must repeatedly recall the ideals of the liberation war that we fought under Bangabandhu’s leadership, in exchange of the blood of three million martyrs, and the violence against thousands of women.

On this golden jubilee of independence, I honour all the martyrs and in commemorating Bangabandhu’s birth centennial, I pay my deepest respect.

* Sultana Kamal is a human rights activist and former caretaker government advisor

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