Isha khan’s Weblog

A Nationalist Agenda for Bangladesh
September 1, 2008, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Bangladesh

A Nationalist Agenda for Bangladesh


By MBI Munshi  Bar-at-Law 


The installation of the Caretaker Government after the proclamation of emergency on January 11, 2007 by military fiat provides an excellent opportunity for the conscientious citizen to thoroughly reappraise and also reassess our political ideals and national objectives prior to the return of democracy. While the political parties have been striving to reestablish their credibility and relevance to a disillusioned and apathetic public the issue of what ideological principles the nation should rest upon has been largely set aside although this is the most important question of all for the nation to tackle.


This article is intended to provide an intellectual framework upon which nationalist debate may take place and covers the political arena occupied by the BNP, Jatiya Party and Jamaat-i-Islami and to some extent the now defunct Freedom Party and other smaller nationalist entities such as Gen. Fazlur Rahman’s newly established nationalist formation.


What is common to all these parties (except that of Gen. Fazlur Rahman which has only begun operations in Bangladesh) is that they have all failed miserably to uphold the nationalist ideal. The obvious reason for this failure is that there is no single accepted document or formal expression of the terms of the nationalist agenda for the 21st century (although there exists many outdated opinions on the subject) and the majority of the general public has largely relied on intuition to determine a party’s nationalist credentials in the modern era. There are several important books on the subject of Bangladeshi nationalism but they tend to over intellectualize the concepts and the basic principles put forward appear contradictory after closer examination. More often than not they involve matters that are subsidiary or ancillary to the main tenets of the ideology. This vagueness and ambiguity has allowed scope for the corrupt, opportunistic and mediocre to thwart and misuse the ideals of nationalism in favour of self-interest and greed.


The main cause or reason behind this lack of ideological commitment is the absence of an objective standard or criterion for determining the legitimacy of decisions or actions approved by the party hierarchy when set against the requirements of nationalist ideology. A major consequence of this is that there exists an absolute minimum in ideological content and understanding within the party and an over reliance on charismatic leadership for guidance, however, misguided or irrational it might actually turn out to be for the country as a whole. It is due to this ideological failure that the Freedom Party and Jatiya party both fractured and then collapsed in quick succession during the early 1990’s and is also the cause of the BNP’s dramatic downfall after the 1/11 takeover by a military-civilian conglomerate.


The terms of the nationalist ideal according to this author may be explained through the use of the following four broad tenets or core elements of Bangladeshi nationalism–


1.   Honouring the nation’s independence and sovereignty achieved through immense struggle, blood and sacrifice in the 1971 Liberation War.


2.   Non-interference in the Islamic values and beliefs of the people as enshrined in the constitution [Art. 8 (1A) – Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions]. The emergence of Bangladesh is a direct consequence of the Two Nation Theory and the Lahore Resolution. The war of 1971 was not intended to negate either of these ideas. Bangladesh remains a majority Muslim nation and the nationalist creed requires the respecting of Islamic values with particular emphasis on the virtue of tolerance which is a peculiar characteristic of the people of this region who generally abhor all forms of fanaticism. It is for this reason that compared to the secularist approach the non-interference method can accommodate Muslims, non-Muslims and even people of no faith since none will be interfered with provided that all practice tolerance towards each other and adopt the policy of mutual respect [i.e. Art. 2A – The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic] (see below).      


3.   Adherence to the inclusiveness of Bangladeshi nationalism which is based on territorial exclusivity rather than on ethnic exclusivity. In other words, a Bangladesh national should be appropriately described as Bangladeshi [i.e. Art. 6 (2) – The citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshi] rather than a Bengali which tends towards territorial inclusiveness with West Bengal which is a part of India and where the Bengali identity is subservient to the superior and universal Indian one. A Bangladeshi can never accept his identity to be subsumed into a larger Indian one which is an entirely separate nation as per the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 into three separate territorial parts and two political entities (India and Pakistan). This separate consciousness of Bengali Muslims began during the 1905-1911 partition of Bengal which was vehemently opposed by the upper-class Hindu landlords whose power and influence over their Muslim tenants dwindled during this period but Hindu dominance again reasserted itself once the partition was rescinded seven years later and the Muslims were returned to their former slavish existence. 


4.   Aggressive promotion and advancement of the national interest and an uncompromising attitude to national security.


While all the parties claiming to uphold the nationalist agenda have been more or less consistent in protecting Islamic values this has often been done opportunistically or exploitatively. All that this condition requires is non-interference as opposed to the ‘excessive’ or overt promotion of Islamic values which tends to have a negative effect (a major reason why Islamic parties do badly in elections) on public sentiment which is still very much influenced by the secularist/Indian propaganda about the 1971 war which illogically views Islam as responsible for the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army. Bangladeshis are by nature and temperament moderate in outlook and sentiment and are equally tolerant in matters personal and so a too rigid approach on religion normally gets a negative or unfavorable response.


Non-interference in Islamic values is the least onerous of the conditions in the nationalist agenda since it is a negative requirement requiring virtually no action to implement. This is not the same as the secularist agenda favoured by the AL and other leftist parties since they have promoted interference in the Islamic values of the people with the objective of eroding religion from society and rendering the state totally neutral in matters of faith and have even gone so far as to undermining Islam through propaganda and ill-motivated government policies – this is the complete opposite of non-interference and is widely resented by the general public.


The third condition has usually been a problem for the anti-nationalists such as the Awami League party as the notion of Bengali nationhood became untenable when West Bengal showed no signs of seceding from India after 1971 and even more importantly – from a nationalist perspective – after the CHT insurgency when the tribal groups refused to adopt Bengali customs even after the vocal and uncompromising demand of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that they do so. This issue was resolved when President Ziaur Rahman amended the constitution and designated all citizens of Bangladesh as Bangladeshis emphasizing the territorial rather than the ethnic aspect of our nationhood.


It is, however, in the area of national interest and security that sharply differentiates the nationalists from the other ideological inclinations. In the past, too much emphasis has been placed on the dichotomies raised by faith vs. secularism or Bengali vs. Bangladeshi but these are only indications of attitude and the real test is whether a party is prepared to assert the national interest and aggressively ensure the security of the nation and state. If the answer is in the positive in both cases then by necessity the party in power is advancing the majority faith and Bangladeshi nationalism as well.


All the nationalist parties (BNP, Jatiya and Freedom) were established on the twin pillars of national interest and security. The events of 1975 (both 15th August and 7th November) were attempts to reassert the national interest against encroachments and interference from India (this statement is not intended as approval or disapproval of either of these events but simply of their occurrence as a factual and important part of our history.  The question, however, needs to be posed whether the nationalist agenda could have reasserted itself so forcefully without these violent incidents having taken place. Similarly the ruthless suppression of communist revolutionary forces after Gen. Ziaur Rahman ascension to power could be described as a dire necessity since Indian infiltration into Bangladesh had been so extensive and pervasive that a lesser response may have been easily defeated)  and Ershad is claimed to have wanted to establish another army division to thwart any possible invasion by Bangladesh’s big neighbour.  It is the AL and other leftist parties that have continually compromised on the national interest and security in order to serve their real masters in New Delhi


The national interest and security involve by implication the most complex political, social, economic and military questions. It is for the country’s political leadership to determine which economic or political system best serves the national interest or which social policies should be implemented to advance overall national well-being. There is no easy answer to these questions but what is needed is a set of practical policies that can produce a dynamic and fast growing economy that will sustain an educated and healthy workforce and in turn finance the internal and external security needs of the country. Sectional interests must not be allowed under any circumstances to become an obstacle or hindrance to national development and economic prosperity.


Gen. Ziaur Rahman, Gen. H.M. Ershad and Col. Syed Farook Rahman when they formed their political parties had these objectives in mind but gradually overtime the ideological elements of their party program became diluted and the pursuit of money became more important. While Gen. Ziaur Rahman and Col. Syed Farook Rahman were personally incorruptible their followers and the subsequent generations of leaders were far less inclined to follow this lead and became addicted to the pursuit of wealth and indirectly compromised on the fourth tenet of nationalism – national interest and security. It was with this new generation (especially in the case of the BNP) which saw the sidelining of committed nationalists and the promotion of the most disreputable and corrupted elements of the party and this is the surest sign of internal decay and clearly indicates the disintegration of the party as a united political force.  


In conclusion one should evaluate where Bangladeshi nationalism stands today and especially in the light of the 1/11 change over. It is grievously unfortunate that even without the anti-nationalist parties (i.e. AL, JSD, Workers Party etc) at the helm of power Bangladesh has drifted very far away from all the four core principles of Bangladeshi nationalism. The most obvious failure of the caretaker administration in securing our national objectives appears to be the appeasement of India and the adoption of their foreign policy as our own. This assimilationist agenda has adversely affected our national interest and security and must be reversed if Bangladesh is to remain an independent nation.


It is in the area of national security that Bangladesh must concentrate and policy-makers should not be fearful of offending India (which will naturally be the target of any security policy) since India has no qualms about offending Bangladesh which it often describes as a sponsor of terrorism and a threat to its security. The countering of Indian propaganda will also necessarily take a high priority in Bangladesh’s security policy but New Delhi’s canards against its neighbour has unfortunately been embraced by anti-nationalist parties such as the AL, JSD and Workers Party who have described the country as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and an exporter of terrorism.


Bangladesh has yet to devise a security strategy even after almost 37 years of independence which is quite astonishing and at the same time completely unacceptable. One of the principal tasks of a government is to ensure the security of the nation from external threats and this can be best achieved if those responsible for the defense of the nation have a detailed security policy to guide them. National security in this broader sense refers to the requirement to maintain the survival of the nation-state through the use of economic, military and political power and the exercise of diplomacy. This may be accomplished on several different levels and should include the following –

  • using diplomacy to rally allies and isolate threats
  • maintaining effective armed forces
  • implementing civil defense and emergency preparedness measures
  • ensuring the resilience and redundancy of critical infrastructure
  • using intelligence services to detect and defeat or avoid threats and espionage, and to protect classified information
  • using counterintelligence services or secret police to protect the nation from internal threats


To implement these features effectively in Bangladesh would require a National Security Strategy to be devised. The first step would be to set up a National Security Council which will bring together in one place all the relevant agencies, bodies and experts on this vital issue. This would include the President, Chief Executive, Chiefs of the army, navy and air force, intelligence heads, other security officials belonging to law enforcement, diplomats and experts from various fields who will be called in as the need arises or be allotted to an advisory board attached to the NSC. The NSC would be assigned the responsibility for coordinating policy on national security issues and advising the chief executive on matters related to national security. At regular yearly intervals the NSC would prepare a National Security Strategy document that will guide all elements of our defence, security and intelligence apparatus and also influence the manner and conduct of our foreign policy.


The advantages to such an approach would be consistency and comprehensiveness in our national security outlook. While I have tended to concentrate on the defence aspects of security the NSS would give equal priority to strengthening economic security, expansion of trade and investment, and promoting economic development. The NSS would provide guidelines and proposals on economic security, energy security, transport security and terrorism finance. This would involve the business community as stakeholders in the nation’s security with direct input in policy formulation. 


Probably the only reason that a National Security Strategy and NSC have yet to be established in Bangladesh is the apprehension of the adverse reaction it might generate in New Delhi. A truly nationalist party would disregard such considerations and put the nation’s interest and security first. India has never compromised on its national security requirements which usually targets Bangladesh so there should not be any hesitation on this side of the border in doing the same in regard to our own defense needs. Critics may argue that this would undermine democracy and put too much power in the hands of the military. This ignores the fact that political parties have continuously undermined the national interest requiring occasional interventions by the army.


To prevent such occurrences this paper argues for the institutionalization of the nationalist agenda so that each arm of the state apparatus and machinery works to fulfill that objective. It would, however, only work effectively under a democratic system as the people will be the final arbiters in determining if any particular government is actually living up to the nationalist ideal. An extended military role in state affairs should not be considered since the present army is not the same as the army of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, Col. Syed Farook Rahman and even Gen. H.M. Ershad which actually fought a war and understood the meaning of the words national interest and security (this statement will probably seem unpalatable to many because of certain actions taken by these individuals but those unfortunate but necessary incidents of our history constitute the basis of Bangladeshi nationalism and also its defence.


There is some dispute whether the Jail Killing incident of November 3, 1975 falls into this category since many suspect that this was orchestrated by RAW to prevent a strong leadership emerging around Tajuddin Ahmed. The acquittal of 12 accused in the case by the High Court lends credence to this view). The present army although describing itself as modern and democratic is actually more a peacekeeping force having the mentality of compromisers. The army’s approach to the national crisis since 1/11 has been superficial and wholly unprofessional (What is the objective and plan for this intervention and where is the exit strategy?). Rather than seeking the advice of committed nationalists and experts they have resorted to taking assistance from various individuals of dubious backgrounds and qualifications. A democratic political party representing the nationalist ideal would serve the nation better provided the top leadership remains incorruptible and appoints statesman to the helm of government affairs rather than amateurs and opportunists.

Posted by Isha Khan, who can be reached at


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