Sunday, 4 June, 2023

Bangabandhu’s Thought on Education

Abdul Mannan

It is not known whether the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ever read any of the works of the renowned Lebanese born American writer, poet and visual artist  Khalil Gibran (1881-1931) who wrote, “the true wealth of a nation lies not in its gold or silver but in its learning, wisdom and in the uprightness of its sons”, but when Bangabandhu spoke on Wednesday, 28th October, 1970 on radio and television of Pakistan  as the President of Awami League before the scheduled constituent assembly election of 1970, he laid out the detailed plan of his future government for the people,  specifically for those of Bangladesh. It was and still is customary for participating political party chiefs to speak before the people on radio and television before a national election. Mujib’s speech on 28th October 1970 was no exception. As there was no private electronic channels the speeches were broadcast over the national radio and TV.

The 1970 assembly election was the first general election of Pakistan after partition based on universal adult franchise, which meant the electorates of the then East Pakistan would be electing more members of the Pakistan’s constituent assembly, in this case 169 out of 300 as the total population of East Bengal superseded that of the West Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was the first party chief to speak. The speech was broadcast both in Bangla and Urdu for the benefit of the people of both wings of Pakistan. Though 1970 constituent assembly election of Pakistan was intended to elect the framers of the constitution of Pakistan for the people of East Bengal, it had a different significance. The creation of Pakistan in 1947 promised economic and social freedom of the people of the territory that constituted the two wings of Pakistan, but in reality that did not happen. Out of the five provinces that constituted Pakistan, Punjab became the de facto ruler of Pakistan and the governance was dominated by Punjabi civil and military bureaucracy and the elites.

The scheduled election was preceded by the struggle of the people of East Bengal to free itself from the dominance of the ruling class and be able to shape its own destiny. The people lay trust on Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujib. Since 1947 the people of East Bengal saw that it was only one person who fought for the emancipation of people of this wing of Pakistan and for this he spent thirteen years of his life in Pakistani prison risking his life, at least on one occasion, in 1968, when he was accused of treason in the so called Agartala Conspiracy case.

By 1970 Awami League, Sheikh Mujib and the emancipation of the people of East Bengal became synonymous. When election was announced the Awami League Chief announced that his party would participate in the election even though it was being held under the military ruler General Yahya Khan and he would contest the election using the Six-point programmes of Awami League announced in 1966 as his election manifesto. The Six-point programme was virtually a prescription to make Bangladesh an independent nation, separate from Pakistan.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman interacts with students


Bangabandhu’s speech on the evening of 28th was one of the most brilliant speeches he ever made in his political career, perhaps only to be superseded by his speech of 7th March 1971. He narrated in details how the people of Bangladesh were deprived of their legitimate rights during the twenty three year rule of the Pakistan’s civil-military axis. Awami League President on that evening was very emphatic when he laid down his priorities for the people, more specifically for the people of East Bengal once he is voted to power.   In his speech Bangabandhu mentioned how the people were subjected to deprivation and discrimination over the previous twenty years of rule by the central government of Pakistan and how the people of Bengal were ruined both in terms of economic and social development.

Among other issues one major issue that Mujib raised in that speech was the issue of neglect of education in the eastern part of Pakistan, the present day Bangladesh. Mujib said in clear terms that for creation of wealth of a nation it is imperative to convert its people into human resources and for this the only alternative is to have a time befitting education system and see that everyone has access to it. He said, ‘no investment could be better than investment in education. The decline of the total number of primary schools in Bangladesh is a stark realty as compared to 1947. 80 per cent of our population are illiterate. Every year one million people are added to the number of illiterates. Half of the country’s children do not have access to primary education. The access is confined to only 18 per cent boys and 6 per cent girls.  I think 4 per cent of our GDP should be spent for education. We must increase the number of colleges, schools and more specifically primary schools to improve the situation. Illiteracy must be eradicated. We must introduce a crash programme to introduce a compulsory free primary education for all five year old children. We must establish new medical colleges, engineering and general universities as quickly as possible. It must be ensured that poverty should not deprive anyone from getting quality education.’ (Translated by the author from Bangla)

Immediately after Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971 and soon after forming the government on 12th January 1972 Bangabandhu set to implementing his plans to rebuild a war-torn nation. One of his priorities as mentioned in his speech before the 1970 election was to reform the education sector and make it more meaningful for an independent nation. He realised that Bangladesh is not endowed with natural resources and to make it an economically viable nation, he must make and implement plans to transform the country's youth force into human resources. Bangabandhu began overhauling the education system of the new nation first by nationalising the primary education of Bangladesh. This was a historical decision and a decision in the right direction. There were 37 thousand primary schools at this time where approximately one hundred thousand teachers taught. From now on all the cost of running the primary education of the country would be borne by the government. The country had about three hundred colleges, four general public universities and two specialised universities in the tertiary education sector where a total of thirty five thousand students, of whom only ten per cent were female, were enrolled.

The universities did not have any academic freedom. Anything that the Pakistan government thought went against the so called spirit of Pakistan and Islam were forbidden to be taught or even discussed in the universities. Discussing Marxism or Darwin was considered a crime. For years university teachers demanded a complete academic autonomy in the universities. Bangabandhu had a high respect for the university teachers. In 1974 he formed an eighteen member Education Commission with the eminent scientist Dr. Qudrat-e-Khuda as its Chairman with the task of framing a long term modern, progressive and human resource development oriented education system appropriate for an independent country ensuring academic freedom and freedom of thought and expression.

The Commission discussed matters relating to education and human development with all stakeholders and came out with an exhaustive report. The Commission met Bangabandhu and submitted the report to him and while handing over the report to Bangabandhu the Commission Chairman Dr. Qudrat-e-Khuda requested Bangabandhu to review the report and suggest if any change is needed. Late Professor Anisuzzaman, who was a member of the Commission, told me that on hearing this Bangabandhu said, ‘I am not qualified to either review the report or suggest anything new on something compiled by the competent members of the Commission. Dr. Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission report included extensive plans to introduce vocational training from primary level, women education, madrasa education, specialised education, agricultural, medical, technical, general, and university education. Everything relevant at that time was included. It recommended that the four general universities (DU, RU, CU, JU) must have complete academic autonomy and, to ensure this, four separate ordinances were promulgated which later on became Act of parliament, commonly known as 1973 University Act. The most revolutionary step was to establish the University Grants Commission (UGC) with a separate Act, known as the UGC Act of 1973. UGC was created as an independent organisation and not as an extension of any ministry. University Grants Commission was expected to act as a buffer between the government and the universities at all times.

The Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission Report was accepted by the government and all the relevant Acts were adopted in the parliament with effect from 31 December 1973. Before the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu on 15th August 1975 he made extensive plans practically for all essential sectors needed for a new nation, giving a top priority to human resource development as it is considered the most valuable resource for nation building as said by Khalil Gibran.

After the killing of the Father of the Nation, Awami League was out in the woods for twenty one years. Progress in education sector virtually came to a standstill. Things only started to change when Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina was voted to power in 1996. Again when she was voted out of power in 2001 things virtually took a reverse turn. Now it is back on the track. New educational institutions, including universities are being established with technical and vocational education getting top priority.

A revolutionary change has taken place in primary and women education. From 20 per cent literacy rate in 1972 the current literacy rate is 72 per cent and approximately fifty per cent of enrolled students in the tertiary level education are girls. The number of students at territory level currently stands at four and half million up from thirty five thousand in 1972. However, the current challenge is not only the spread of education but improving the quality education at all levels. Bangladesh also suffers from an education system more focused on examination and earning a degree. The priority should be on creating a nation of good human being as envisioned by the Father of the Nation. He proved within his short three and a half years of rule what a competent leadership can do for a nation.

Unfortunately he is no more living but his daughter Sheikh Hasina is at the helm of affairs of the country. She has made many of her father’s dreams come true, from economic to social development.  Further development in education, the key to national development, is possible only through her intervention. For this she will have to put the responsibility of development and expansion of education in the hands of educationists and rely less on a bureaucratic system.


The writer is a former Chairman, University Grants Commission of Bangladesh.