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An Eloquent Silence

By the best estimates, one and a half million Bangladeshis—2 per cent of the population at the time—died because of the 1974 famine.1 And yet the fortieth anniversary of this event passed without marker. There were no newspaper articles or documentary films, no commemorative artworks or calls for memorials or commissions of inquiry. There were no statements in parliament. The exception, as ever, proves the rule: the critically acclaimed 2013 novel The Black Coat, the only recent and first fictional account of the famine of 1974, met a muted response in the country in which it was set.[1] [2]

It is easy to read this lack of public discussion as neglect or indifference. The famine is not part of public discourse or official history. But it is privately remembered by Bangladeshis of a certain age, with, I think, a mix of shame and guilt. The episode occupies part of the collective memory of that period, and for some tarnishes the glories of the liberation war victory. Far from being forgotten, the tragedy has left a heavy imprint on public policy and politics. We know this not because it is discussed widely and deeply—not since the early 1980s has there been much scholarly examination of the famine, and (unlike 1943) it has rarely been represented artistically and culturally—but because every so often governments face tests like those faced by the government of 1974, and in the responses of political elites and officials we can hear the repetition of the hard lessons of 1974. We hear them, too, in popular expectations of government. Occasionally, public figures refer to 1974 as a turning point in their life story. More often it is a silent signifier, the point that no one needs to make.[3]

Two factors shaped how the famine influenced the future direction of development. The first was acceptance that preventing famine was crucial to the legitimacy and power of rule; the second a more personal moral imperative at work in how the elite came to conceptualize their responsibilities as rulers, closely shaped by the relative affinity between the elites and the masses, a relationship that had been politicized by the contentious historical differences between (oppressive) ruling classes and ruled masses. That the famine meant the loss of legitimacy of the heroic nationalist leadership is common knowledge. It is well known that protecting Bangladesh against food shocks has been a policy priority since 1974, and the reasons why are no secret, either: no government could sustain rule over a population of this size and fractiousness without its consent. And that consent has come to rest, at a minimum, on action to prevent death by starvation. It seems a minimal commitment, but in an economy and ecology as fragile as that of Bangladesh, the assurance of protection against acute hunger has mattered, again and again.

What has not been appreciated is that it was in the aftermath of—and arguably because of—the famine that Bangladesh set out on its distinctive development pathway. It is the famine that added several vital elements to the Bangladesh success story, specifically a pioneering approach to the gender- poverty nexus and an early (compared to other LDCs) emphasis on food security and social protection for the poor and vulnerable. Underpinning these shifts in public policy was a tacit renegotiation of the political settlement. The experience of the famine crafted a political culture of accountability between ruler and ruled, which meant that whatever happened, and at whatever cost—whether to ideology, longer-term planning, short-term political expedience, the interests of the middle classes and the elites—action had to be taken to make sure poor people were not left hungry.

The political culture of accountability for hunger did not mean a rush to embrace neoliberalism in public policy, although a shift in that direction did follow. Nor did it mean the ideological opposite—greater control of the economy—although there were signs of that, too, in the food economy after the famine. What 1974 did was create a moral economic restraint on public policy, in which its pursuit of economic growth was tempered by distributive concerns, and its effectiveness in achieving national development goals judged against what was happening to the poor. Another way of saying this is that after 1974, policy and political elites knew they had to find a way of making it work for the poor, and this imperative opened the policy space up to a range of alternative approaches and innovations that were not on the policy table elsewhere. We will look at the effects of 1974 in Chapter 6. Here we focus on understanding what happened.

  • [1] There is no official history or account of the famine to my knowledge, but the figure that27,000 died, based on the recorded statement of Sheikh Mujib in 1974, appears to serve as anofficial statistic. It is most likely derived from langarkhana (feeding camp) records, but as these wereunder extremely weak administration, there is no reason to believe they are credible estimates. Asdeaths attributed to the famine according to conventional methodologies continued well into1975, and the 1974 famine is considered to be one of the best-documented famines of all time dueto the study by M. Alamgir (Devereux 2000), I refer to the more conventional assessment of faminemortalities, which is that 1.5 million people died from starvation or (as is more usual in times offamine) of starvation-related illness. The famine victims were already weakened by displacement,war, and the longer processes of impoverishment which they had faced and so were highlyvulnerable. The floods and food crisis of 1974 should probably be understood to havecontributed in part to these deaths, serving as triggers rather than supplying the full causalexplanation: if these people had not already been very poor, undernourished, and in bad health,the effects of the famine are unlikely to have been so catastrophic. SeeCurrey (1978) on the 'faminesyndrome'.
  • [2] Personal communication with the author, Neamat Imam, in 2014. Other observers agreethat the book has probably been deliberately overlooked; see (accessed10 December 2014). Although it was favourably reviewed in the Daily Star, Bangladesh'sleading English language daily, the reviewer was Indian. Imam has yet to be invited to the HayFestival of literature in Dhaka, which usually includes published writers of Bangladeshi originworking in English. I have no way of knowing if this oversight is deliberate or the effect of themiddle-class avoidance of the famine that I discuss above or some other factor, but it seemssignificant nonetheless.
  • [3] It seems the same is true of the Irish famine of 1848-52, which 'until recently was publiclyinvisible while, paradoxically, remaining part of most Irish people's consciousness' (Kinealy 1994).
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