Zia: The hero in Bangladesh’s history

Nationalism has long been a much-cited discourse in Bangladesh, with Muslim, Bengali and Bangladeshi identities being the subject of debates. Ziaur Rahman presented the idea of Bangladeshism to the people through his concept of Bangladeshi nationalism and its associated political and economic agenda. It was under the leadership of Ziaur Rahman that post-Liberation Bangladesh embraced a pluralist society. Nationalism is essentially an abstract matter. This abstract concept was given a concrete shape through a series of programs. A common perception is that nationalism creates divisions in society, and at one point assumes a Fascist character. This is certainly the case for ethnic and majoritarian nationalism. But it is also possible to go beyond this idea and establish a pluralist nationalism. A number of European countries saw the emergence of such pluralist, republican nationalisms in the post-colonial era after the Second World War. As a republican nationalism, Bangladeshi nationalism affirms the collective identity of everyone. This began to become apparent through the various actions and functions of the Republic, and over time this identity became known as Bangladeshi nationalism. The question on what will be the identity of the sovereign state of Bangladesh has been answered by the actions and functions of the state. The collective identity of everyone in Bangladesh is thus Bangladeshi. And our destiny would be Bangladesh.

It can be said that it is through Bangladeshi nationalism that the people of today’s Bangladesh, that is East Bengal, constituted their unique identity. The yearning for an identity of their own emerged back in 1905. The Muslims of East Bengal supported the partition of Bengal. In 1905 they were the majority in East Bengal. But in the United Bengal they became victims under the rule of the landlords and were marginalised. During the days of Pakistan they were subjected to the exploitation of Punjabis. During these periods, two different types of nationalistic ideas developed among them. The religious nationalism of an earlier era was followed by a mixture of ethnic and religious nationalisms. The problem was that none of these nationalisms is inherently pluralistic. The element of social division was clearly evident in both nationalisms.

When Muslim Nationalism emerged as a strong ideology in East Bengal in 1905 or later, Hindu populace and other religious groups naturally became minority. On the other hand, when Bengali nationalism developed in East Pakistan, the non-Bengalis became an ethnic minority. Neither nationalisms was secular in nature. Muslim nationalism is directly religion-based. On the other hand, the Dhaka-centred Muslim Bengali nationalism also had elements of Islam. Ethnic nationalism must be influenced by the faith of the majority of the ethnic group. This is because religion is key cultural ingredient that forms the ethnic identity. Ethnic nationalisms could never transcend this problem. Somehow or other, religion would be reflected in an ethnic nationalism. Religion’s influence was apparent even in secular ethnic nationalisms of the post-Renaissance Europe. In our region, the major example of this is Bengali nationalism. The Kolkata-centric Bengali nationalism had self-evident elements of Hinduism. And if we see the development of Dhaka-centred Bengali nationalism during the Pakistan period, elements of Islam were prevalent. Nationalism based on a single ethnicity cannot be secular in nature.

Republican nationalism rose to prominence as a result of the crises of ethnic or majoritarian nationalism. Ethnicity or citizenship alone cannot be used to define one’s identity. The state or the republic itself will be the basic identity of all its citizens. Here, no distinction is made between ethnicities and majority or minority groupings. With the engagement of all citizens, the republic develops a common identity. Here, the republic is everyone’s identity, and vice versa. The republican nationalism, unlike ethnic or majoritarian nationalism, does not divide society into “us and them.”

Pluralism emerges when there is no us against them cleavage in society. Bangladeshi nationalism, from that perspective, is a pluralistic republican nationalism. Many people still look to ethnic nationalism for solutions. However, it is conceptually impossible to build a secular society or achieve national emancipation through ethnic nationalism. National emancipation is about more than just obtaining independence. One of nationalism’s goals is to provide a solid and robust foundation for an independent state. In this aspect, ethnic or majoritarian nationalisms have achieved a lot of success. Nonetheless, a schism still exists in society. The republican nationalism has provided remedies in such cases. The republican nationalism leads the way to a pluralistic society by erasing the “us and them” line of division. Bangladeshi nationalism is an example of pluralistic republican nationalism. It directs the formation of a participatory nation by removing the divisions of ethnicity, religion and class.

In the newly formed Bangladesh, there were two types of crises concerning the Bengali nationalism. First and foremost, there is a Bangla-speaking ethnic Bengali community in India. As a result, Bangladeshis are not the only bearers of Bengali nationalism. Bengalis live on both sides of the border. This nationalism cannot take shape with only half of the population, as nationalism is essentially political in nature. Second, Bengali nationalism necessarily turns other ethnic groups into minorities. They would then become more vulnerable. On the one hand, there are ethnic minorities, and on the other, there are religious minorities. From these perspectives, Bangladeshi nationalism avoids the crisis of ethnic identity by preserving everyone’s identity, implying that everyone is Bangladeshi. When the identity of the citizens of the state is to be formed as Bangladeshis, there would be no distinction between the citizens on the basis of ethnic identity. Many, including Professor Amena Mohsin, have commented that Bangladeshi nationalism is pluralist nationalism.

Bangladeshi nationalism has pursued a multidimensional program of pluralistic nationalism through numerous policies and plans. This new nationalist thought has been concerned with the establishment of both a universal identity and a strong state. First, the administration and bureaucracy was reorganized. The military was then strengthened. Bangladeshi nationalism was implemented in a manner similar to that of Western European countries by subjugating the administration and military. One of its dimensions was social participation, and the other dimension was military training. But it was not a bureaucracy-dependent nationalism like that of Russia’s Tsars or Japan’s Meiji Empire.

The implementation of Bangladeshi nationalism happened through active public participation. Citizens participated directly in numerous programs like canal digging, mass education, village government, and VDP. Several programs were developed with the rural people at their core. The economy and agricultural sector saw dramatic transformations. Agriculture improved significantly during the first phase of the application of Bangladeshi nationalist principles. That period in the country’s history is known as the Green Revolution. Furthermore, investment in the military was increased and the defence forces were restructured.

People-oriented programs were an integral element in Bangladeshi nationalism. Ziaur Rahman once advocated that borders around arable lands be removed. Many people believe that a plan to implement a collective-farm system in the country’s agriculture sector might have been on the cards. Ziaur Rahman made a direct reference to agricultural cooperatives. This could have been inspired by the initiative of integrating a liberal economy with a socialist agriculture system. Bangladeshi nationalism can thus be described as an inclusive system. By activating the grassroots, an attempt was made to support a bottom-up strategy for central decision making. Aside from that, the development of a regulated private sector was promoted. For example, prior to his presidency, the irrigation and agricultural machinery sectors were totally controlled by the state.

But during Zia’s tenure, private enterprises were welcomed in the agricultural sector. In the rural areas, small groups were created to work on irrigation. One would acquire an irrigation machine and irrigate other people’s land. These mechanisms of people-based production were found in the socialist era. However, in the socialist world of that era, these were closely regulated by the state. These were left to the people in Bangladesh under a rigorous regulatory structure. That is why, Bangladesh was able to build Western Europe styled model of the economy that moved away from both the excessively profit-oriented capitalism system or a very tight centrist approach of socialism. This new economic framework caused radical changes in the country’s industrial and agricultural sectors. Before 1947 or during the Pakistan period, the backward rural population began to move towards the cities. The farmer’s son was no longer engaged in agriculture and found employment in the offices and factories. As a result, a new generation of professionals emerged and urban lifestyles began to take shape. This new middle class created new ideas everywhere, from education, culture, research to economy. Micro-credit, ready-made garments industries and social enterprises are some of the examples.

Economic dynamics affect cultural life in many ways. One of the cultural contributions of Bangladeshi nationalism is the celebration of Pahela Boishakh in style. Many may say that Pahela Boishakh is a part of Bengali culture. Of course, Pahela Boishakh is a reflection of Bengali culture. But Pahela Boishakh is a cultural celebration of the economic base that Bangladeshi nationalism built in the 1980s for the middle class, especially the urban population. The excitement, enthusiasm and frenzy at all levels of the society during Pahela Baisakh is not very old. In earlier periods, many people of the country could not buy new clothes even on Eid or Puja. Now the amount of financial transactions in the clothing market on the occasion of Pahela Baisakh is definitely an example of creation of a new culture and financial capability.

Even the Pahela Boishakh date is not very old. There are various opinions about Pahela Boishakh. Emperor Akbar introduced the Bengali calendar. Now the day on which Pahela Boishakh is celebrated was preceded by other festivals depending on the season. But there was no particular custom of celebrating  the first day of Baishakh. Once upon a time people of merchant communities used to observe Happy Halkhata on Pahela Baisakh. But on the occasion of Pahela Boishakh, the grand celebration is entirely a creation of Bangladesh. Pahela Boishakh has turned into a colorful festival. Bangladesh has built its own way of celebrating this festival.

Bangladesh is a notable example of social transformation. Bangladesh is developing its unique identity in many spheres of the economy and culture. The clothes manufactured by the country’s women are now praised all over the world. When it comes to dealing with natural calamities, agricultural production, and hilsa production, Bangladesh is now a model. Expatriate workers are well-known personalities in the international labour market. These are the steps involved in creating a new identity. Economic and social success show to the world the new identity developed in the political battle in a unique way. They sprang from the East Bengal people’s dilemma, whether before or after 1947. The new identity of the residents of this region is that they are all Bangladeshis. Everything revolves around an inclusive, pluralistic Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi nationalism can be considered as republican nationalism in the light of pragmatic approach and various programs. The tendency to form a state with everyone can be clearly seen in this nationalism. The economic, social and cultural elements of the nation-building process have been skillfully exploited. Ziaur Rahman’s name definitely comes as the promoter of this idea.

Ziaur Rahman has his own place in history. He ascended to power in a time of great uncertainty. He governed the country for almost five years by managing these crises, questions, criticisms and conspiracies from his opponents. He firmly established Bangladeshi nationalism. Bangladeshi nationalism managed to create its own trend in the country’s politics. People accepted the idea of Bangladeshi nationalism. The political aspirations of the people of this region dating back to 1905 were fulfilled under the leadership of Ziaur Rahman. However, the Muslim nationalism or Bengali Muslim nationalism that developed in the region failed because of the narrowness of those ideas. After independence, Bangladeshi nationalism replaced the earlier two nationalisms with pluralism. The identity of the people of this land was formed from the political and economic aspects.

And that is the biggest achievement of Ziaur Rahman or Bangladeshi nationalism. Despite hundreds of criticisms and condemnations, Ziaur Rahman and the party built by him, BNP, still have the support of a large number of people. What is the reason for this? There can be many answers to this question. One of them is that Ziaur Rahman built the foundation of the country’s economy. The country’s economy is based on the garment industry and remittances started flowing in during the period of Ziaur Rahman.

If Ziaur Rahman is to be analysed under the magnifying glass of history, his economic, political and social reforms will be noticed. Despite the criticisms, Ziaur Rahman emerged thanks to these reforms. And at the root of all this was the philosophy of pluralist Bangladeshi nationalism. Ziaur Rahman successfully applied a republican nationalism in the form of Bangladeshi nationalism.

Even after the formation of the state, the formation of nationalism is possible and Bangladeshi nationalism’s application is the best example. Politicians, rulers, and their political ideas and theories can be the matter of discourse. Bangladeshi nationalism and Ziaur Rahman can be discussed and criticised as well. But Ziaur Rahman was successful in implementing Bangladeshi nationalism as republican nationalism and this will go down in history.