The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh, as promised by Bangabandhu and aptly reflected in its preamble, aimed at translating the dreams of the emerging nation into desired action agendas. On the very first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, Bangabandhu reminded the members of this august body that, “Our people have paid with their blood for our independence…It is for us to ensure that the sacrifices of our martyrs will not have been in vain.” (Hossain, Kamal, ‘Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice’, University Press Limited, Fourth impression, 2019, p. 138).
The constitution was thus expected to empower the people for a radical transformation of polity, economy and society to reflect their cherished goals of equality of rights and opportunities that were denied to them by the colonial and neo-colonial rulers, in particular the Pakistani rulers. The preamble forms the very soul of the Constitution and talks about conferring all the power to the people.The preamble says, “We the people of Bangladesh, having proclaimed our Independence on the 26th day of March, 1971 and through a historic struggle for national liberation, established the independent, sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh; Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution; Further pledging that it shall be a fundamental aim of the state to realise through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation—a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and, social, will be secured for all citizens;…”.(Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972, see Bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd).
The four principles – nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism – on which the constitution of Bangladesh was based did not evolve overnight. They embodied what the Bangalees had struggled for since the 1940s. We have noted several times in this column that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been at the forefront of all these struggles for the rights and freedom of the people of Bangladesh. During his speech at the Constituent Assembly on 12th October 1972, Bangabandhu mentioned that the people had been fighting for a constitution for 20 years (Khan, D. A. H., ‘Jatir Janak Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon’, vol. 3, Ekattor Prokashoni, 2018, p. 83). According to Mujib, a country without a constitution is like a boat without an oarsman and a helm.
He said that the constitution will include the rights of the people and those rights will come with responsibilities and duties (ibid. p.88).
Part II of the constitution was titled ‘Fundamental Principles of State Policy’ and contained Article 8 to Article 25. Article 8.1 stated, “The principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, together with the principles derived from those as set out in this Part, shall constitute the fundamental principles of state policy.” and Article 8.2 stated, “The principles set out in this Part shall be fundamental to the governance of Bangladesh, shall be applied by the State in the making of laws, shall be a guide to the interpretation of the Constitution and of the other laws of Bangladesh, and shall form the basis of the work of the State and of its citizens, but shall not be judicially enforceable.” (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division website).
The struggle against the West Pakistanis began when they had attacked the identity of the Bengalis by making Urdu the only state language. The Bengali identity played a large part in the struggle for rights and ultimately in the struggle for liberation. As such, nationalism was adopted as a state policy to represent the feelings of people throughout the years. In his historic speech on the approval of the draft constitution on 4th November 1972 Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said that Bengali nationalism is based on the sentiment that led people to shed their blood to achieve independence (Khan, D. A. H., op. cit. p. 107). Bengali was made the state language of the country. Article 9 of the constitution stated that “The unity and solidarity of the Bangalee nation, which, deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bangalee nationalism.” (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division website).
Article 10 was titled ‘Socialism and freedom from exploitation’ and stated, “A socialist economic system shall be established with a view to ensuring the attainment of a just and egalitarian society, free from the exploitation of man by man” (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division website). Sheikh Mujib had advocated for the rights of the poor and exploited people of Bangladesh since the beginning of his political career. The state of Pakistan had promoted capitalism that allowed the top 22 families to accumulate most of the wealth. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Socialism was adapted in order to redistribute wealth among the poor and create a more just society. During his speech on 4th November, Sheikh Mujib said that the Socialism of Bangladesh meant a society free from exploitation. He said that he did not borrow socialism from others instead the socialism of Bangladesh would be established in the context of the environment, the mindset of people and the economic situation of the country (Khan, D. A. H., op. cit. p. 108).The people suffered massively due to the lack of democracy in Pakistan and were fed up with the continuous disruption and military rule. Article 11 of the constitution, therefore, pledged, “The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed and in which effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured” (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972 Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division website). Bangabandhu himself had said in one of his speeches that the democracy of Bangladesh would not protect the capitalists, instead, it was a democracy that was for the exploited (Khan, D. A. H., op. cit. p. 107).
The fourth principle of the constitution was secularism. The distress of the people that Bangabandhu witnessed during the communal riots had led him towards secularism. The dropping of the word ‘Muslim’ from the party’s name in 1955 showed that Awami League was a party for all the Bangalees in East Pakistan. Article 12 stated that secularism shall be realised by elimination of – communalism in all its forms; the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion; the abuse of religion for political purposes; any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion. According to Moudud Ahmed, “This was considered to be a bold and significant state principle embodied in the Constitution, and it was as progressive and idealistic as it could in the prevailing political context.” (Ahmed, Moudud, ‘Bangladesh-Era of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’, UPL, 1983, p. 115). In his speech, Bangabandhu mentioned that secularism did not mean irreligion. It meant that all people of Bengal were free to practice their religion and coexist. The principle of secularism would prevent people from using religion as a weapon in politics (Khan, D. A. H., op. cit. p. 109). Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist, praised profusely this interpretation of secularism by Bangabandhu in a recent webinar organised by the LSE, University of London. He also argued that Bangabandhu has been emerging as Biswabandhu (‘friend of the world’) for the universal appeal to his concept of secularism which does not negate access to religion and yet restrains it to be used for political purpose.
The four principles pledged in the Constitution of Bangladesh as advocated by Bangabandhu made sure that the rights of the people were of utmost importance and that they would live in a just society with dignity and honour. In other words, the Bangladesh constitution clearly laid the foundation of inclusive development with wider implications for socio-economic transformations for many and not a few. To quote Hossain, “Other basic principles, and social and economic objectives, were set out. This included the adoption of effective measures to remove disparity in standards of living between the urban and rural areas; the establishment of a uniform, mass-oriented, universal system of education based on the needs of the society; the raising of levels of nutrition and the improvement of public health. Further, it was provided that the State should endeavour to ensure equality of opportunity to all citizens and, in particular, to ensure the equitable distribution of opportunities in order to obtain a uniform level of economic development through (out) the Republic. The State was committed to adopting effective measures to reduce social and economic inequality. Work was recognised as a right, a duty, and a matter of honour for every citizen.’’ (Hossain, Kamal, op. cit. p. 146).
The above pledges truly helped make Bangladesh constitution an inspirational source of pursuing inclusive development. The First Five Year Plan, Kudrat-i-Khuda Education Commission and most of his speeches and policies speak a volume about his commitment to the spirit of the constitution as enunciated in the Fundamental State Principles. All this laid a solid foundation for the inclusive and sustainable development policies that have been actively pursued by his daughter Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina both in the national and global contexts. The whole world is now praising the legacy of this leadership and Bangladesh which has been boldly marching to become a prosperous country in the foreseeable future.
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]