The 26th of March this year marks the 50th anniversary of the country's independence. Various colourful events are being held across the country to commemorate this important milestone in the history of the country.
In this short span of 50 years, the country and the nation have witnessed many incidents and accidents, ups and downs. Some of these events at different points of its historic trajectory have shaken the entire nation and maybe changed its course. Sometimes the nation has been broken into tears; sometimes it has been aroused in anticipation of a splendid future. Although 50 years is not a very long range in a nation's life --- maybe just one generation in terms of average life expectancy, yet this half-century milestone must be raising this question in front of a nation that has a millennial tradition of self-respect and had to break the shackles of subjugation to regain its independence: 'Is the country on the right track?'
Bengalis is a fighting nation. They have never happily accepted in history the subjugation of an external force. After the subjugation of the British in 1757, they have desperately tried again and again to untie the shackles of subjugation through a number of movements including sepoy revolt, fakir-sannyasi revolt, bamboo fort movement of Titumir and Faraizi movement of Haji Shariatullah. It was none but the Muslims of Bengal who provided the main supply of the anti-British movement, through which the Muslims acquired for them the independent, separate homeland called Pakistan in 1947. The success achieved in Bengal in the elections of 1937 and 1946 served as the key driving force of the Pakistan movement of the Muslim League on those days. Unfortunately, in an independent Pakistan that had been achieved through so many sacrifices, they soon realized that the desired independence of the Bengalis had not yet been achieved.
What had been the aspirations of the people of this land? Why did they have to get independent twice? Why did they have to turn away from the Pakistan earned by themselves? The contempt to distinct ethnic identity and culture of the Bengalis and growing political-economic inequality between East and West forced them to feel neglected in the structure of Pakistan. The manifestation of individual identity through the language movement of 1952 took the form of a demand for self-rule in the late 60s through the 6-point movement of Bangabandhu. The refusal of Bhutto and Yahya Khan to accept the mandate given by the people in the elections of 1970 served as a firebrand. The demand for self-government turned into the demand for independence. When Bangabandhu shouted at the then racecourse ground on 7 March, 1971, 'This time the struggle is for our freedom, this time the struggle is for independence', the people of this land understood, even in the face of an uncertain future, that their struggle has reached a decisive stage. The crackdown of the Pakistani forces on the unarmed masses instead of stepping on the path of negotiation made independence inevitable. After a final defeat in the 9-month war, the Pak army ultimately realized that they were fighting against the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation, not just one or two political parties or their cadres.
As the country finally became independent in return for the sacrifices of innumerous martyrs and the honour of countless mothers and sisters and Bangabandhu returned to the country with skyrocketing popularity, the country now had to face a new but difficult challenge. The challenge was to restore peace and order throughout the war-torn country and to build this newly independent country up to the desires and aspirations of the nation. Many had weapons in their hands, which needed to be brought under state control as soon as possible. Due to the war, all kinds of infrastructures including roads, bridges and culverts were destroyed all over the country; many people became homeless; many farmers did not have the resources like oxen or plows for farming. The miscreants were looting the furniture and equipment of offices and factories in different parts of the country. The Pakistanis left the country's economy hollow. In the last days of the war, the West Pakistanis transferred almost all of their trade money to West. Consider an example: Pakistan International Airlines left exactly 117 rupees ($16) in its account in the port city of Chittagong. In addition to the economy, all sectors including food, education, healthcare had to be repaired and rebuilt. Besides, it was essential to build friendly relations with the whole world by promoting Bangladesh as a peace-loving country. Bangabandhu had only a short span of about three and a half years to face this huge challenge before his tragic assassination. History will judge how successful he had been in facing this challenge. However, there is no denying that whatever success was achieved, it was simply due to his huge personality.
The country has come a long way today. Kissinger's bottomless basket now holds the second highest foreign exchange reserves in South Asia (after India) ($43,823 / February, 2021). According to the IMF, the country's per capita income in 2019 was $1,906, with a GDP of $317 billion. The main source of foreign exchange comes from the remittances of 12 million expatriates working in different countries across the world and the export of readymade garments industry. On the one hand, while working people are working hard at home and abroad to supply the country's treasury, on the other hand, some people spend their busy time looting the financial institutions of the country or cheating/ trapping the common people to grab their last resources and smuggling the embezzled money to other countries. According to a report by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington-based research institute, $7,585 crore was smuggled from Bangladesh in the 10 years from 2005 to 2014, amounting to Tk 606,868 crore in Bangladeshi currency. This means the equivalent of two budget allocations in Bangladesh. During this period, Bangladesh had been the country from which the highest money laundering took place among the least developed (LDC) countries.
One of the major challenges of this country had been to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. There has been a significant progress in this area in the last 50 years. In the post-independence period, the production of food grains in Bangladesh was only 11 million metric tons. In the fiscal year 2019-20 it has increased to 45.3 million metric tons. According to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report entitled 'The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World', the production of staple food grains in the country has increased three to five times since independence. Bangladesh is among the top 10 countries in the world in the production of 12 agricultural products. However, despite self-sufficiency in food, according to experts, some people in the country are still suffering from food crisis due to poverty and income inequality. On the other hand, unscrupulous traders make adulteration and mix various harmful chemicals at different stages of food production, preservation, processing and marketing, making the availability of safe and healthy food rare in many cases.
Undoubtedly, the country has made a lot of progress in the field of education. In the post-independence period, Bangabandhu placed utmost importance on primary education. Thirty seven thousand primary schools were nationalized during his time in office. Following in his footsteps, his worthy daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is leading the country to his dreams and ideals by nationalizing 26,000 primary schools. The country now offers unpaid and compulsory primary education up to 5th grade. The literacy rate has risen to 74.7 percent. The country's progress in women's education is astounding. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), in 1970-71 28.4 per cent of the total students in the country were girls. In 2018, it has increased to 50.54 percent --- about 51 percent of the total students in primary, more than 54 percent in secondary and 48.38 percent in HSC level. Whereas in 1971 there was only 6 universities in the then East Pakistan, now there are 57 public and 107 private universities in independent Bangladesh. However, many academics feel very concerned, in terms of academic environment and priorities, at the level to which the political involvement of teachers and students has gained prominence in the country's academies, especially in higher education institutions, during the post-independence period and the way in which it has been found to turn out violent time and again in some institutions. Administrative positions are often gaining more importance than teaching or research and, as a result, despite having world-class manpower for conducting and guiding advanced research, the kind of culture expected to have grown up in this regard in higher education institutions did not flourish to the desired level.
Our achievements in medical education and health management are not bad either. In 1971 we had only 6 medical colleges. Now there are 36 government and 71 private medical colleges. In addition, the Institute of Postgraduate Medical Research (IPGMR), established in 1965 has been transformed into Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for creating a specialist physician workforce and conducting advanced medical research to modern standards. In the same continuity, 4 more medical universities have started their activities later. Apart from medical colleges and universities having their own hospitals, many government and private hospitals / clinics have been set up at the district and upazila level. In addition, quite a few specialized hospitals are working in different parts of the country, including the capital city, for the treatment of specific diseases. At the grassroots level, about 14,000 community clinics have been set up across the country with the idea of providing primary health care at the doorsteps of the people. Over the past few decades, Bangladesh has achieved significant success in reducing infant and maternal mortality rates. According to the World Health Organization, the under-five mortality rate has come down in the country from 143.8 per thousand in 1990 to 30.8 in 2019 and the maternal mortality rate from 574 per lakh in 1990 to 173 in 2017. Bangladesh's success in drug production is enviable. Bangladesh is exporting medicines to 160 countries of the world after meeting 98 percent of its own demand. However, the number of doctors in the country is still insufficient in proportion to the population - only 5.26 per 10,000 people. A large section of the population fails to receive the necessary treatment due to lack of financial means. In the absence of proper policy adoption and implementation, trained pharmacy professionals having degrees from the universities are not getting a chance to make the desired contribution to the health system of the country.
The foreign policy that Bangabandhu ushered based on the principle 'friendship to all, malice to none', has been followed more or less by all the post-independence governments till date. Bangabandhu, as the head of a Muslim-majority country, felt the need to establish contacts with other countries in the Muslim world. For this reason, he decided to attend the OIC conference held in Pakistan in 1974, but on the pre-condition that Pakistan recognizes Bangladesh. In the reality of that day, it was a very difficult decision to make, but today Bangladesh is enjoying the benefits of this far-sighted decision of him. Many of those who took a stand against Bangladesh during the war of independence, including the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, are today in close ties with Bangladesh and are important partners in the country's development.
In today's Bangladesh, the main tensions in international relations are with the two friendly neighbours, India and Myanmar. India is our born friend due to its great support in the war of independence in 1971. The major unresolved issue of the country with India is the water sharing of common rivers flowing between the two countries. In addition, Bangladeshis are often shot to death at frontiers by Indian border guards. Bangladesh's huge deficit in inter-state trade with india is also an unpleasant issue. Meanwhile, the other neighbour, Myanmar, has been torturing indescribably the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State since 1978, pushing them in several turns in scores of lakhs to Bangladesh and in turn creating a long-term humanitarian problem for the country. Bangladesh has been continuously making its highest efforts to resolve these issues with the two neighbours diplomatically, but the results are not very promising. Many believe that in order to resolve these issues, Bangladesh needs to build a strong national unity at home and launch a serious move to create strong public opinion in the international arena, so that the two friendly neighbours start to feel pressure and believe that if these issues are not resolved, they will suffer huge losses.
On the question of governance, the people of this country always wanted to keep confidence in the democratic system. Thus, military rule or any other kind of dictatorial system could not establish a permanent foundation here. In fact, the people of this country had to take up arms for independence in 1971 because the Pak generals tried to overturn the mandate given by the people in the 1970 election. Although there is no disagreement on the question of democracy, the country has failed to build an electoral culture acceptable to all in the last 50 years. Due to the intolerant and belligerent attitude of the rival factions to each other, muscle power is getting indulged in the political umbrella and some unscrupulous people in different positions are taking the opportunity of using political connections to embezzle people's money. According to many thinkers, in order to get out of here, the political parties need to build trust, respect and friendship between each other, so that a liberal democratic environment is created and they feel safe with each other. Only then can the country and the country's overall system get out of the grip of the grabby, ambitious musclemen and military-civilian bureaucracy.
The writer is a professor of pharmacy, Jahangirnagar University.