Bangladesh is a new country but an old civilization. No country, whether old or new, can remain disjointed from its civilizational quest. Indeed, in this quest, leadership plays a critical role, particularly in reproducing and carrying forward the civilizational quest of the people of the land. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman certainly provided the leadership, and this is evident not only from Bangladesh’s emergence as a sovereign country but also from the position it now holds, regionally as well as globally. The country, in fact, succeeded in making an enviable journey from being a ‘bottomless basket’, as it was labelled immediately after independence, to a developing country. Aided by an economic growth of over 6 percent for over a decade, Bangladesh succeeded in reducing poverty from 71 percent in 1971 to 44.2 percent in 1991 to 13.8 percent in 2016-2017. The economic growth, however, has slowed down because of the Covid-19 pandemic; yet the revised growth projection of the Asian Development Bank for South Asia had Bangladesh at the top with 4.5 percent growth in FY 2020, 6.9 percent in FY 2021, and 7.1 percent growth in FY 2022.
But then, what made this possible? When did it all begin? What role did the Father of the Nation play in this journey? How did Bangladesh manage to steer through the polarised politics at the global level called the Cold War? What vision did Sheikh Mujib lay down to realize global peace? How did it relate to the rebuilding of Sonar Bangla? Any response to such queries would require a closer exposition of the civilizational quest of the people of Bangladesh and the leadership that Bangabandhu provided when it was required the most.
The Journey of the Republic
Bangabandhu delivered a memorable speech at the UN General Assembly on 25 September 1974, interestingly in Bangla, where he made an extraordinary statement, the meaning of which probably went unnoticed to many in Bangladesh and the world:
The Bangalee people have fought over the centuries so that they may secure for themselves the right to live in freedom and with dignity as free citizens of a free country. They have aspired to live in peace and friendship with all the nations of the world (emphasis mine).
Why did Mujib recall the democratic struggle of the people of Bangladesh as a struggle of ‘over the centuries’ and not limit the struggle to 25 years of semi-colonial rule under Pakistan? And despite the fact of facing a genocide and being opposed by many at the global level, what prompted Bangabandhu to flag the aspiration of the people of Bangladesh ‘to live in peace and friendship with all nations of the world’? Mujib certainly was conscious of the civilizational quest of the people of Bangladesh when speaking at the UN.
South Asian Exceptionality
Although a South Asian country, Bangladesh prides itself on its exceptionality. Three reasons for this could easily be flagged. Firstly, Bangladesh is the only country in South Asia which has both ‘people’ and ‘republic’ attached to its official name. In fact, the country is officially called ‘People’s Republic of Bangladesh’ and not just ‘republic’. Currently, only four other countries in the world are ‘People’s Republic’, namely, North Korea (since 1948); China (since 1949); Algeria (since 1962); and Laos (since 1975). What prompted Bangladesh to become a ‘People’s Republic’? Or, more specifically, why did Bangabandhu call the new country a ‘People’s Republic’ when declaring its independence on 26 March 1971 and had the name formally adopted in the Bangladesh Constitution of 1972? Could it be that Sheikh Mujib was attracted to socialist countries, even the People’s Republic of China, a country that impressed him immensely when he visited it in 1952? But the answer, I guess, lies more in the circumstances contributing to its birth.
Bangladesh is the only South Asian country where its people with the aid of its military launched an armed struggle to achieve independence. On this issue, Bangabandhu certainly had the foresight to warn people and make them aware of the arduous task that they would have to perform. On 7 March 1971, nearly three weeks before genocide was unleashed on the people of Bangladesh, Mujib delivered a historic speech at the Race Course (now Suhrawardy Uddayan) where he clearly instructed the people to carry out armed resistance or people’s war if the ‘enemy’—the Pakistan military—takes recourse to violence:
[If] a single bullet is fired upon us henceforth, if the murder of my people does not cease, I call upon you to turn every home into a fortress against their onslaught. Use whatever you can put in your hands on to confront this enemy…. Even if I am not around to give you the orders, and if my associates are also not to be found, I ask you to continue your movement unabated…. Since we have given blood, we will give more of it. But, Insha’Allah, we will free the people of this land! The struggle this time is for emancipation! The struggle this time is for independence!
When the Pakistan military attacked the people of Bangladesh on 25 March 1971 with genocidal intent, there emerged a fascinating civil-military relationship in Bangladesh, which still remains an exception in South Asia. The birth of Bangladesh therefore remains qualitatively different from the rest of the South Asian countries.
This brings us to the third exceptionality, and this is with reference to the principle of foreign policy. Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib, first outlined this principle in its Election Manifesto in June 1970, incidentally before the birth of Bangladesh:
In keeping with the basic principles of ‘friendship to all and malice towards none’, we wish to live in peaceful co-existence with all countries, including our neighbours, on the basis of justice and mutual respect for each other’s security.
Advocating this principle is remarkable, particularly as early as 1970 when the country was not even born! Such an exceptionality, however, is often ignored when discoursing on Bangladesh both within and outside the country. But it is not only in words, Bangladesh also put the principle of ‘friendship to all and malice towards none’ into practice, which, in fact, helped it to attain the prominence it currently enjoys regionally as well as globally. A closer exposition will make this clear.
Diplomacy of Recognition
Immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971, its most challenging task was to get recognition from the international community and become a full member of the United Nations. Such formal recognition of the country was required mainly to ensure its sovereignty and independence. The challenges were many but three issues stood out.
Firstly, the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was still on, which complicated Bangladesh’s position at the global level, as it meant that ‘if you are not with us, then you are against us.’ It is true that the Soviet Union had supported the freedom struggle of Bangladesh, and even backed India’s military intervention in favour of Bangladesh, while the US government ‘tilted’ towards Pakistan, but then Bangladesh had an economic relationship with the US previously. Moreover, Soviet-US rivalry kept many countries within the fold of either one or the other, but Bangladesh required the support of both to become a full member of the UN. Defying the Cold War at its height required extraordinary political acumen, and Bangabandhu provided that with success.
Secondly, Pakistan succeeded in befriending the Arab countries in the name of Islam. This created serious problems for Bangladesh not only because Bangladesh was the second largest Muslim majoritarian country; not being recognized by fellow Muslim countries had political implications at home, also because Bangladesh needed to purchase oil from the Arab countries for domestic consumption. The Arab countries, however, changed their position when Mujib reminded them of the true essence of Islam at the Second Islamic Summit in Lahore (Pakistan) on 24 February 1974:
A distinctive contribution of the Muslim people to the problem of our day can be made if we can contribute to the generation on the eternal values of human brotherhood and the dignity of man which the Holy Prophet bequeathed to mankind. It is upon these values that we can build a new international order based on peace and justice.
The summit brought Bangladesh back to the fold of the Islamic world. But more importantly, it created the conditions required by the Arab countries to recognize Bangladesh and for the country to enter the UN and claim its rightful place there.
Finally, Pakistan’s recognition was critical because the latter was in a position to divide the members of the UN at the General Assembly and the Security Council, both of which played a commanding role in the admission of new members. Pakistan, however, recognized Bangladesh in February 1974; indeed, prior to Mujib’s arrival in Lahore to attend the Islamic Summit, which incidentally was Bangabandhu’s ‘principled position that unless Pakistan formally extends its recognition, Bangladesh would not be able to attend the Lahore Summit’. Pakistan had little choice other than to agree to Mujib’s demand and make the summit a historic one for Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu played a decisive role in overcoming all these challenges. In fact, in less than three months of his return from confinement in Pakistan, the US recognized Bangladesh on 4 April 1972. Later, when meeting President Gerald Ford at the Oval Office on 1 October 1974, Mujib made a frank submission about the problems facing Bangladesh:
Bangladesh has resources. If we could control the floods, we could be self-sufficient in five years. We produce rice, jute, wheat, and tobacco. We have big gas deposits—10-20 trillion cubic feet. We were almost self-sufficient in fertilizer but our plants were damaged. With our own gas and fertilizer plants we could begin to export fertilizer, except for inflation.
On that day, Bangabandhu certainly won over the US, which soon led to the formation of the Aid-to-Bangladesh Consortium, and Henry Kissinger’s visit to Bangladesh in October 1974, both of which proved crucial in containing the famine, which itself had resulted from the much-maligned US policy of stopping food aid to Bangladesh when the latter entered a trade deal with Cuba in violation of the embargo declared by the United States. But more remarkable is the fact that despite being in a dire situation because of ‘inflation, drought and the floods,’ and the sudden US decision to stop food aid to Bangladesh, Bangabandhu remained firmly committed to having ‘good relations with everyone’.
Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations University of Dhaka
This piece is an extract from the author’s article in the book, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: Birth Centenary Volume, edited by HPM Sheikh Hasina (2022).