Building a “Shonar Bangla” was more than political rhetoric to him. He firmly believed if the people of Bengal could be led to a struggle out of this dire situation, if they could gain control of their own resources and utilize those independently, then regaining past glory was quite possible.
"I want the distressed people to laugh. I want the poor people of my country to eat adequately. I want them to have clothes, to send their children to schools. I want my people to live a happy life. This is my dream."
This is what Bangabandhu said just one year after the liberation of Bangladesh in Faridpur on 25 December 1972. He spoke his mind simply, as always. His desire had been lucid and straightforward of course. But fulfilling this ambition required a perilous journey. And Bangabandhu indeed struggled a lot to achieve this goal. His struggle had begun three to four decades earlier, when he was just a boy. He then witnessed the suffering of the poor and marginalized and was always eager to do something about it. This childhood aspiration to stand beside the downtrodden eventually made him not only the national leader of Bangladesh, but also a global figure, a person every freedom-seeking individual across the globe looks up to. He was destined to become a people's protagonist. And that he became. Fidel Castro unmistakably saw in him the Himalayan heights of leadership when he met Bangabandhu for the first time in Algiers.
Bangabandhu was well aware of the rich history of Bengal. Before going under the clutches of colonial domination this indeed was a land of plenty where people lived happily. But hundreds of years of colonial oppression sucked the blood out of this economy and left its people in grave socio-economic conditions. That is why Bangabandhu has written in his memoirs about the time during the famine of 1943: "When the East India Company had annexed Bengal following Mir Jafar's betrayal in the eighteenth century, Bengal was so rich that a wealthy businessman from Murshidabad had enough money to buy the city of London. And now I saw what we were reduced to mothers dying in the streets while their babies till suckled …". So building a "Shonar Bangla" was more than political rhetoric to him. He firmly believed if the people of Bengal could be led to a struggle out of this dire situation, if they could gain control of their own resources and utilize those independently, then regaining past glory was quite possible.
Bangabandhu started voicing the demand of the downtrodden through engaging the exploited people in different movements during the early days of Pakistan. Many of these movements focused on demands related to the livelihood of the poor and marginalized of Bengal in addition to the milestone Language Movement. For example, there is the Dawal (agricultural labor) movement and the movement of the fourth class employees of Dhaka University. Later, as he matured as a national leader, Bangabandhu mobilized larger and prolonged political movements that had a wider geographic spread and was intended to address deeper socio-political issues such as resource allocation, democratic governance and entrepreneurship development in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). His historic Six-Point program originated from his passion for equity and social justice. Finally, when the Pakistani elites repudiated the results of the democratic election of 1970, Bangabandhu led the nation to independence through the War of Liberation. Bangabandhu gradually scaled up his struggles by engaging more stakeholders, addressing a wider spectrum of socio-political issues, and all of these culminated in the independence of Bangladesh.
However, eliminating disparity in society and the country, where thousands of common people were left in peril while the privileged few enjoyed endless luxuries, was at the core of Bangabandhu's struggle from the very beginning. And as the leader of a newly independent country he prioritized addressing economic disparity above all. That is why after independence, when leading the country, Bangabandhu prioritized the needs of the downtrodden. That is why we heard him say, one year after liberation: "Send money to the villages, send relief to the villages, send tin to the villages, send food to the villages. Our villagers work hard and create wealth. Yet they suffer from hunger. We, the so called elites wearing clean clothes, engage in corruption. But the hardworking poor people of the villages do not get the bare minimum."
Bangabandhu's struggle to end socio-economic disparities can be segmented into three broad phases. The first phase spans the 1950s, when Bangabandhu as an emerging leader of the Awami League voiced the demand of the mass people in the National Parliament. During this period, while serving briefly as the Minister of Industries in the provincial government, he also attempted whole-heartedly to create an enabling environment in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) where businesses could grow. The business environment at that time always favored the entrepreneurs from West Pakistan without caring for the incipient small economic actors of East Pakistan.
The second phase spans the 1960s, when Bangabandhu brought forward the concept of 'two economies' and eventually led the historic Six Points movement. During this phase Bangabandhu led a decade-long political campaign, mobilizing civil society and the mass people alike, to establish the economic rights of the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan).
The third phase spans the period 1972 to 1975, when Bangabandhu, as the leader of a newly independent Bangladesh, led the nation from 'ashes to prosperity'. This was, indeed, a decisive phase where he demonstrated traits of his transformational leadership.
By the beginning of the 1950s the people of Bangladesh had already realized the fallacy of Pakistan. Bangabandhu, who himself was an ardent activist in the Pakistan movement, also realized the mistake. Yet, instead of being frustrated, he tried and succeeded in understanding the discontent among the people and mobilized them, especially the youth through numerous movements against the Pakistani elite rulers. Bangabandhu clearly understood that Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was not going to be treated equally by the Pakistani authorities. He perhaps was among the first few who identified the economic dimensions of this inequality. Bangabandhu understood that Pakistan was merely an oligarchy which served the interests of only 22 families of West Pakistan. Politics, administration and economy were being controlled by West Pakistani bureaucrats, business tycoons and their accomplices. Industrial growth was sharply focused on West Pakistan. For example, between 1953 and 1956, 35 crore taka was allocated for 150 industrial units in West Pakistan, whereas only 2 crore taka was allocated for 47 industrial units in Bangladesh. In the same manner, the greater agricultural potential of the East was being ignored and West Pakistan's agriculture was being prioritized in development planning and allocations.
In this context, Bangabandhu pursued his political campaign with the commitment of addressing these disparities. And naturally he managed to gain momentum in the form of popular support. He eventually became the Provincial Minister of Industries and Commerce. And as Minister, he focused on the industrial growth of East Pakistan. He bargained with the central government, though unsuccessfully, for a fair share of the economic benefits for the entrepreneurs and people of the then East Pakistan. According to Bangabandhu's proposals, East Pakistan was to gain full control of its industry and trade from January 1957. He even asked for constituting an Economic Commission to identify the sources of disparity. The central government pretended to have responded positively to his proposal and an Economic Commission was constituted where economists from East Pakistan echoed his views. The Commission Report, where Bengali economists and bureaucrats participated with high hopes, was soon sent to the cold storage and never saw the light of the day. This further exacerbated the frustration of the members of that commission from East Pakistan and, of course, Bangabandhu.
The next phase of Bangabandhu's struggle to end disparity began in the 1960s. He realized that the Pakistani elites were not willing to give up their monopoly over the economic resources of the country. He saw economic separation to a certain extent between the two parts of Pakistan as a viable way forward. Hence, after leaving ministerial office in the late 1950s, he said: "East and West Pakistan being 15 hundred miles apart is a geographic truth. Hence, there is no alternative to develop separate economies for these two". This is how the 'Two Economies Thesis' came into being. Of course, it was the economists who translated this vision into a solid technical proposal. Bangabandhu provided his full support to these economists. However, as always, the Pakistani rulers were not ready to pay heed to his proposal. But Bangabandhu kept on pushing. On 5 February 1966 in Lahore, Bangabandhu announced his historic Six-Point program aimed at removing disparities between the two wings of Pakistan. This program was firmly based on the 'Two Economies Thesis'.
The Six-Point program intended to ensure that East Pakistan had effective control of its own future. It was an unconventional demand for autonomy. In fact, it was just a few bricks short of a demand for independence. And hence, the Pakistani autocrats rejected and resisted this program as hard as they could. The veteran economist Professor Nurul Islam has rightly said:"… The Pakistan military and civilian leadership, aided by their experts, fully understood, right from the beginning, what the program was for in reality, i.e. one country in name but a very small step for independence of East Pakistan."
The Pakistan government eventually attempted to subdue Bangabandhu's leadership through the Agartala Conspiracy Case. And Bangabandhu overcame this hurdle with massive support from the people. He later won the election of 1970 as expected. Yet the evil Pakistan rulers did not hand over power to the elected leaders. This eventually led to the liberation war. Bangabandhu led the war virtually while being held in jail by the Pakistani junta, with the support of his potent colleagues. His co-leaders were equally prudent and led the War of Liberation most efficiently on his behalf. The country got independent and Bangabandhu came back as the leader of the newly independent country.
The third phase of Bangabandhu's struggle began after liberation, when he started a perilous journey of rebuilding the war-ravaged country. Instead of protesting against atrocities and corruption, instead of voicing the demand of the people, Bangabandhu was now in the position of deciding the future of the downtrodden of the country himself. And he expectedly started working hard to translate his commitments to the people. He prioritized agricultural development as it ensured food for a vast population and ensured supply of the emerging industrial sector. He went for full-scale nationalization of major industries as a matter of both necessity since there was a complete void of entrepreneurial leadership in the industrial sector abandoned by the West Pakistani stakeholders and as well as for fulfilling his embedded desire for ensuring social justice.
Industrialization was perhaps the biggest challenge for him. In this context, state-led growth of the industrial sector was the only viable option for him. However, at the same time he created enabling environment where private sector could grow in the smaller and medium-sized industries. His strategy yielded magnificent results. Within four years since independence, the per-capita income almost tripled to USD 273. This dropped to USD 138 in 1976 and USD 128 in 1977 following his killing. Many years later during the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, Bangabandhu's strategy to allow private sector growth in SME sector was proven to be the right option for sustainable growth.
Bangabandhu indeed followed a prudent pro-people development policy that prioritized the needs of those belonging to the bottom of the social pyramid. Sayeduzzaman, former Secretary of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Planning, has pointed out the medium-to-long-term targets of Bangabandhu's development philosophy. These are: 1) Self-reliance (depending on national resources as much as possible); 2) Welcoming conditional support from the development partners, but eventually reducing such dependence; 3) Promoting private sector through increasing the lower limit of private investment from 2.5 million to 30 million BDT at the beginning of FY 1974-75.
All these indicate that Bangabandhu indeed thought, struggled and worked relentlessly to address socio-economic disparities and to ensure a fair share of benefits of development for the downtrodden without undermining the growth of national entrepreneurs. We today are also committed to "leave no one behind" in our journey of inclusive and sustainable development. Hence, Bangabandhu's thoughts and philosophy of development remain guiding beacons for us in our journey towards 'Shonar Bangla'.
The writer is Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]