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National Liberation as Social Revolution

While the West viewed Bangladesh as at worst a basket case and at best a test case, many involved in the liberation struggle took quite the opposite view, seeing it as the start of a social revolution. The nationalist movement relied on youth cadres of the left who had mobilized the rural masses on revolutionary platforms. For reasons of nation-building, political compromise, and ideological principle, the new government of the new country established 'socialism' among its four key principles (also 'secularism', 'nationalism', and 'democracy'). The Constitution adopted in December 1972 declared the provision of food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, jobs, and social security through planned growth to be the basic responsibility of the state (Maniruzzaman 1988; see also Sobhan and Ahmad 1981). 'A socialist economic system' was to be established with a view to ensuring a just, egalitarian society, with 'the people' controlling the means of production (Khan 1996, 206). Notably, given the significance of the Bhola cyclone in the 1970 election, the Cyclone Preparedness Programme started at this time, presaging Bangladesh's later disaster-management proficiency.

No notable 'socialist' agenda was achieved in the chaos of the post-war years, other than the nationalization of economic assets. Efforts at land reform failed to tackle asset inequalities (Jannuzi and Peach 1980), and Mujib's 'macroeconomic populism' proved unsustainable (Hossain 1996a; 1996b). Disillusionment with corruption and nepotism set in early. Economic crisis struck, and the new state deployed its paramilitaries to address law and order. And then, as Chapter 5 discusses, the famine of 1974 unfolded. By early 1975, a constitutional amendment had replaced Parliament with a presidential system and soon after a single-party state, under the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), intended to incorporate workers, students, farmers, freedom fighters. Donor pressure peaked, and before the end of Sheikh Mujib's regime the policies of nationalization and state-planned development had already been reversed: private investment ceilings were raised, public sector investment curbed, and the taka devalued in 1974-5 when the government agreed to limited reforms in return for aid (Sobhan 1982). This was not a total capitulation to donors, as many in the administration were leaning in this direction already. But the ideological tenor of the coups in 1975 indicated that there was still support, including within the political elite and within groups with control of the means of violence, for a radical economic agenda.

The rupture in development policy came with the emergence of the new political settlement when General Zia Rahman came to power in 1975, restoring control of the state in effect to the same class of people—military and civil bureaucrats—who ran Pakistan. This group was in power for the next fifteen years. Zia came to power on the back of a series of military coups during which Sheikh Mujib, his family, and other Awami League leaders were killed in particularly brutal acts of violence. The coup which eventually placed Zia at the helm of state was led by leftist military groups, radicalized by the experience of the Independence struggle, and linked to the Marxist Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) party. Zia was believed to be sympathetic (Lifschultz and Bird 1979), but as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue (see Jahan 1980; Franda 1982) he recognized the destabilizing potential of the situation, and the need to establish order. He purged the army of radicals and cracked down on the JSD, further fragmenting the left (Lifschultz and Bird 1979; Maniruzzaman 1980).

Zia's shift to the right surprised no one who was alert to the context. There were problems with India violating water agreements by diverting water away from Bangladesh during the dry season, and internal security was threatened by leftist and underground groups (with Indian assistance). The army remained divided and Zia himself was the target of twenty or more coup attempts in the months before his death. And the economy was still in crisis (Maniruzzaman 1988). The international community had been pushing hard for more market-friendly policies, and saw little benefit to aiding a country that showed signs neither of developing its economy nor of controlling its population (as we will see in Chapter 7). The international community apparently welcomed Zia after the 'democratic risks' entailed by Mujib (Sen 1986, 306)—Mujib was never popular with the US and Kissinger took a strong personal dislike to him (Chapter 8). Zia accordingly reoriented economic policy in the desired direction through the Revised Industrial Policy of 1975, as the World Bank had pushed for divestiture of state-owned enterprises and promotion of private industry. Many top-ranking former Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) officials removed under Mujib were reinstated by Zia, so that liberalization was also promoted from within government (Franda 1982; Islam 1986-7; Maniruzzaman 1988). State ideology was rewritten, with the Constitution amended in 1977 to reinterpret 'socialism' as 'economic and social justice' and replacing 'secularism' with 'absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah' (Maniruzzaman 1988, 215; Ahamed 1978;Jahan 1980; Kochanek 1994), in a bid to appeal to both the Middle East and the more conservative religious sentiment in the country.

This sharp shift to the right was politically possible because this was a new authoritarian regime taking office after profound economic and political crisis (Franda 1982). The re-installed upper bureaucracy were predisposed to this redirection, but the position of other interest groups on the need for reform is less clear. Although observers have claimed that Zia's policies were the outcome of a 'bureaucratic-industrialist nexus' (see, for example, Islam 1984 and 1986-7; Zafarullah 1987; Quadir 2000), there is little evidence that Zia even tacitly struck bargains with the tiny demoralized industrial elite, who proved unsupportive of initial reforms (Humphrey 1990). The decimated left and other opposition groups were in no position to oppose this shift. But although reform may have been politically possible because the authoritarian government was insulated against potential opponents, it seems to have been motivated most by the need to legitimize the regime with the Bangladeshi people, by providing stability and avoiding a repetition of the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, and with the international community. Zia's reforms were cautious and limited, but they signalled a break with the past ideology that attracted aid (Humphrey 1990; Kochanek 1994). Notably, food security took top billing.

This book argues that the famine played a significant part in this policy rupture. It did so in a general sense, in that the declining legitimacy of the government and perceived threat of insurrection and instability directly caused by the famine were among the factors contributing to the long political crisis of 1975.[1] Under the political settlement that finally emerged, there was both a move towards liberalizing economic policy in general, and new organizations and institutions to protect against crises of subsistence specifically. The famine had demonstrated that protection against the hunger and health crises associated with commodity shocks, wars, and natural disasters was an important lower-level institution on which the overall balance of political power rested. The need for aid in general and food aid in particular pushed the new government into the laps of the aid donor nations, predominantly North American and European, after the initial attempt at independence from Cold War alignments showed the lengths or depths to which the superpowers were willing to go even in a geostrategically unimportant country.

Zia was assassinated in 1981, and was replaced by General Ershad in 1982. The move towards the market gathered pace under Ershad's National Industrial Policy. Denationalization, privatization, and the promotion of foreign investment were key elements of this policy, which initially were only really popular with the World Bank (Kochanek 1994). Apart from devaluing the taka, Zia had done little to liberalize the financial sector, but Ershad attempted to do so with his Financial Sector Reform Programme, which was later stepped up considerably under Khaleda Zia's first government (1992-6; Quadir 2000). The weakly authoritarian Ershad regime was sensitive to public pressure, particularly from organized labour and professional elites (Humphrey 1990; Maniruzzaman 1992), but enjoyed considerable support from the small new business elite with whose emergence the regime is closely associated (Dasgupta 1996). By the end of the Ershad era, in 1990, the market orientation of economic policy was firmly established. Trade unions gradually accepted the inevitable (see World Bank 1994, 49-53), and other groups adapted to the new situation in the absence of alternatives (on the position of farmers, see Abdullah and Shahabuddin 1997). By 1988, 'people [had] come to believe that drastic reversal of the privatization program [was] neither possible nor desirable' (Humphrey 1990, 90).

Economic reform has been slow and uneven (see World Bank 1994a; 1994b; Quibria (ed.) 1997), but it has consistently pushed a growth agenda, and one which is labour-based and therefore broadly pro-poor in orientation. This process has continued through more than two decades of multiparty democracy, and despite chronically violent political transitions. The government of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) under Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-6) accelerated the policy regime it inherited from Ershad's civilianized military regime (1982-90). The Awami League briefly lived up to its reputation as the more left-leaning of the major parties, embracing the market only after it lost the 1991 elections on a platform of renationalization. That the most left-leaning of the major parties had finally signed up to liberal economic reform may also reflect the fact that India's Congress Party, on which the Awami League patterned its policies, had discarded its more statist left policies. But on assuming power in de facto coalition with Ershad's Jatiya Party in 1996, the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001) also fell in line, and resolved not only to pursue but to speed up market-based reforms (Economist Intelligence Unit 1996; Baxter 1998). It is not clear that there is much to distinguish the major political parties when it comes to economic development policy, and only slightly more on social policy. Viewed over the past half-century, the country has enjoyed a rising and stable economic growth rate in the past thirty years, compared to its striking volatility before 1980 (see Figure 2.1).

A significant feature of the political settlement in Bangladesh has been the caretaker government institution. This system, in place from 1996 until 2013, provided for a non-party appointed caretaker regime to oversee political transitions, agreed as the new rules of the electoral game after a deadlock confrontation in 1996 resulting from the incumbent BNP attempt at rigging the general election. This worked well for all of two general elections. By 2006, it was clear that the ruling BNP were again trying to rig the election, this time by manipulating the leadership of the caretaker government; this deadlock was resolved not with a new agreement between the parties, but through a military-backed extension of caretaker rule to two years. This period was notable mainly for its largely failed anti-corruption drive and political party reform effort, and in particular for the comparatively peaceful resumption of multiparty rule within two years. Donors financed a sophisticated electronic voter list that generated an accurate electoral roll for the 2008 election. The BNP had been particularly weakened by the wholesale assault on the political classes, and that election was won overwhelmingly by the Awami League, on a manifesto that included tackling the food price spike that had plagued the unfortunate caretaker regime. During the Awami League's term starting in 2009, their large parliamentary mandate enabled them to remove the provision for a caretaker government and to establish a long-overdue process of justice for the war crimes of 1971. The war crimes tribunal posed a major threat to the Jamaat-i-Islami, the well- organized centre-right Islamic party, with their strong links to Pakistan and the anti-liberation counter-struggle; several of their top leadership have now been convicted and hanged for war crimes. This in turn has helped stir up

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GDP growth rates, Bangladesh and comparator regions, 1960-2015

Figure 2.1. GDP growth rates, Bangladesh and comparator regions, 1960-2015

Source: World Development Indicators. Accessed 17 April 2016. data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators.

fundamentalist sentiment and sharpened the divide between (substantially educated middle-class) secularists and Salafist tendencies and Islamist groups. Since 2014, a series of high-profile murders of 'atheist bloggers', some of them foreign nationals, has encouraged the government to clamp down on freedom of speech, targeting in particular social media. In a significant break with the quarter-century history of democracy, the Awami League won an unprecedented second term, in an effectively uncontested (yet formally legal) election. As of late 2015, the political settlement was increasingly shaping into a system with a single dominant party, after twenty-five years in which politics had been a competition between well-matched opponents.17

While the rules of the political game appear to grow more dysfunctional, it is the democratic period that has presided over the most rapid progress on

For core definitions, concepts, and phasing and characterization of different political settlements, this draws on Khan (1995;2011;2013). I rely on BRAC University's State of Governance reports for details of events since 2006.

Table 2.1. Selected human development indicators, 1961-2011

Human development indicators







GNI per capita, PPP (current international $)




Adult literacy rate, population 15+ years, both sexes (%)




Mortality rate, under-5 (per 1,000)







Pregnant women receiving prenatal care (%)



Life expectancy at birth, male (years)







Fertility rate, total (births per woman)







Source: World Development Indicators, accessed 23 December 2015.

human development. Table 2.1 offers some insights into selected areas. Human development performance has become an important domain in which governments can demonstrate their guardianship of the national development project, as well as the commitment and capacity of the state to delivering services that primarily benefit the poor segments of society. This includes relatively impressive rates both of economic growth and, perhaps more to the point, of poverty reduction and human development. Since the early 2000s, the pattern of economic growth has become more pro-poor, and, compared to others in the region, the pace of poverty reduction both faster and with a slower rise in inequality (World Bank 2013).

  • [1] As, it seems, was a desire to re-establish Islam as a governing principle. See Shehabuddin(2008).
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