Administrative Philosophy of Bangabandhu

Dr. Syed Anwar Husain

9 April, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Administrative Philosophy of Bangabandhu

Dr. Syed Anwar Husain

Bangabandhu was a political leader par excellence, not an administrator; not even a philosopher of any description. Nevertheless, a people-centric (not a populist in the usual parlance) as he was, he did have ideas about an administration that would redound to the benefit of people. By any assessment, Bangabandhu was an icon, and as such, had ideas, and performed actions for the country and its people. But to say that he did all well and he did not have any failing, would be doing injustice to the man he was. As Bangladesh started on its journey as an independent country, Bangabandhu appeared to be the beacon-light for administration diffusing requisite ideas, which may be lumped together as his administrative philosophy for working purpose. Generally speaking, however, he, like any enlightened and socio-politically conscious person, had a philosophical bent of mind, manifested in his speeches and statements. A window to look into his personal philosophy was opened by himself as he spoke on 12 October 1972, in the Bangladesh Constituent Assembly, "I am not impatient. I am not adventurous." On 26 March 1975, he had more candour, as he admitted, "I do not jump." The pieces of his mind as these were, his work in every field, including administration, was conditioned by such a mindset.

This mindset, or even if we call it a philosophy, was the outcome of his life-time experience starting from having been a concerned watcher and victim of the British and Pakistani administration through to being in the saddle to run the new country. Therefore, what we fondly call as Bangabandhu's administrative philosophy, was, indeed, a conglomeration of experience – hardened ideas, which were put, as it were, to litmus-test as Bangladesh started its tortuous journey into future.

This is an exercise mostly relating to gauzing the mindset of Bangabandhu vis-a-vis administration of a literally fragile country. The involved task was extremely daunting and challenging as the country was a heap of rubbles, with everything gone awry. The resultant challenge was responded to with a firm determination spanning over 1,314 days he was allowed to work before his dastardly assassination on 15 August 1975. Divided into two discernible phases, Bangabandhu went about his way in revamping the administrative apparatus he inherited. Apparently, there were trials and tribulations in the first phase; but the latter phase was the upshot from the experiences gathered during the first phase. It may be said with hindsight that the earlier phase witnessed a determined effort to put the inherited machine to good work, which, however, produced mixed results; and the latter was one of a new beginning required of a blood-stained independent country.


1972-1975 Phase

Bangabandhu started calling his country to order even since 8 January 1972, when he addressed the first press conference at the London Claridges Hotel. A journalist put to him a question, "What would you do by getting back to Bangladesh? The country is totally devastated." Bangabandhu's repartee in his usual determined voice was, "We will rise again if we have land and people." On his return home, he found nothing except land and people. Indeed, while answering the journalist, Bangabandhu envisaged a Phoenix-like rise of Bangladesh from ashes.

Bangabandhu's 10 January 1972 homecoming speech at the then Race Course was the first shot at giving necessary directives on the rise of Bangladesh as he had foreshadowed in London. He unequivocally stated, "Bangladesh will be an ideal state." It is agreed on all hands that an ideal state defies any precise definition and connotation; but it may well be inferred that Bangabandhu, in fact, planned for an egalitarian state, something unlike the anathema that the Pakistan state had been. As to the rationale for such a state, he, in the same speech, came up with a staccato statement, "My life-long toil has been for the purpose that people would live in a free environment, and they could live happily well-fed and well-clad." On 14 March 1972, at the gathering of Awami League Volunteers, Bangabandhu coined the slogan: "The struggle this time is for building the country." The 9 May 1972 Rajshahi Speech was the most candid insofar as the goals of an ideal state were concerned, "What do I want? I want the people of Bengal get two square meals a day. What do I want? Let the unemployed youths of my Bengal get jobs. What do I want? Let my people of Bengal be happy. What do I want? Let my people of Bengal move about smilingly and sportively. What do I want? Let my people of Golden Bengal laugh to their heart's content." Such candid statements were a recipe for Bangabandhu's ideal state – Sonar Bangla. Inherent in these statements was the core message for a people-centric administration, as day to day administration was the apparatus through which the lofty but doable goals were to be achieved. It must, however, be mentioned that as the fountain-head in the state, Bangabandhu was the source of necessary direction and inspiration; he was not the one to be concerned with the nitty-gritty details of the avalanche of jobs that was being performed to put everything on an even keel in a war-devastated country, and herein was a lurking problem – the leader was not either followed properly or misunderstood to the extent of creating administrative log-jams at the field level. As an astute observer, Bangabandhu was fully aware of such an anomalously functioning administrative machinery, but his options were limited; as it were, he was making the best possible use of what he was left with.

The post-war administrative apparatus put together by Bangabandhu was ramshackle albeit without any alternative; and, at the end of the day, it would be found out that most of the functionaries of this apparatus did not heed the egalitarian directives of Bangabandhu, and went about their ways in a manner they had done in Pakistan days. Moreover, evidence galore to the effect that a good number of these bureaucrats served Pakistan even during the Liberation War. These bureaucrats, therefore, fulfilled the adage that the bureaucracy is like the socks of which one size fits all. They had the know-how of administration as per the Pakistani training; but failed to appreciate that there had been a paradigm shift – Bangladesh replaced Pakistan, and, in terms of ethos, Pakistan was an anathema to Bangladesh. Bangabandhu thus had an uphill task in shaping an administration as per his people-centric ideas. There was indeed a dichotomy between the leader and his workers; most of his political cohorts were no better either. By October, 1972, he had to sack 19 members of the Constituent Assembly on chargesincluding of corruption. Later even a cabinet minister was shown out because of corruption.

But as things stood, Bangabandhu was helpless, and in a strait-jacket position. He is on record of having explained his predicament on two occasions; and, on both occasions, he was warned against the pitfalls of such an administrative set-up. In January 1972, the Yugoslav delegation visiting Bangladesh, conveyed goodwill message from President Tito. They exhorted Bangabandhu to induct pro-liberation forces in civil administration, with the argument, "They may be inexperienced and may make mistakes. But their hearts are in the right place. They will learn quickly and they will push the country forward." But Bangabandhu made the point that, "in the context of the overall shortage of qualified civil service" these bureaucrats "by their training and experience, were indispensable."

At the Algiers 4th Nonaligned Summit, Fidel Castro had the same complaint against Bangabandhu's administration with identical arguments. Castro did not agree with Bangabandhu's argument that there had been a lack of skilled manpower in civil administration, and hence the induction of bureaucrats with Pakistani background.

An unconvinced Castro went on arguing that an unskilled patriot would turn into a skilled hand as he would have accountability. He continued, “An unpatriotic skilled hand would be anti-people and spell disaster in the end.” Castro was right in foreseeing the future; but Bangabandhu, in his simplicity, was circumstantially hamstrung. His apologetic tone was essentially an outgrowth of the huge circumstantial odds he was facing.

Anthony Mascarenhas lays bare the inwardness of the bureaucracy thus suddenly called upon to administer a new country. He writes, “During the crucial days of 1971 some of these provincial civil servants had shown themselves to be utterly selfish, opportunistic and alienated from the main-stream of the national upsurge. It could hardly be expected that they suddenly, overnight, become selflessly dedicated to the uplift of Bangladesh or, in circumstances, be immune to the immense opportunities for aggrandizement their pivotal positions in a state starting from scratch.”

With all these 'ifs' and 'buts', not certainly beyond the comprehension of him, Bangabandhu, at the start, had to make a beginning with the modest goal of making Bangladesh functional, administratively and otherwise. Keeping people as the central focus, some steps were taken posthaste, which included inter alia

1. National Pay Commission (NPC) was appointed on 21 July 1972 with two terms of reference such as (a) reviewing the pay structure of all employees in the public sector keeping in view government's policy of socialism; and

(b) recommending rationalization and standardization of pay scales of those who had served under the erstwhile central and provincial governments.

Moreover, the NPC was tasked to keep in mind such relevant variables as cost of living, government resources, the prime need to reduce income inequality, the overriding need to attract and retain highly talented people; and a pay scale that would ensure efficiency. Some of the recommendations were implemented; some others were slated to be implemented gradually, which, however, was not to be, as Bangabandhu's assassination supervened.

2. On 15 March 1972, a four-member Administrative and Services Reorganization Committee was appointed. Headed by the outstanding Professor of Dhaka University Political Science, Dr Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, the committee was tasked with five specific terms of reference, such as

a.  to consider the present structure of various services and determine the future structure keeping in view the fundamental needs and requirements of government;

b. to consider the amalgamation of all civil services into one unified service;

c. to determine the principles of integration of the personnel of various services in the new structure and to determine seniority of personnel of the different services having similar academic background and jobs experience in the process of merger or amalgamation;

d. to determine the future recruitment policy of government keeping in view educational and other job requirements; and

e. to prepare and recommend a comprehensive scheme for administrative reorganisation.

While submitting its report in 1973, the ASRC recommended a single, classless structure, covering all services in ten grades, with appropriate number of pay scales for different levels of skills and responsibility. The committee, however, made it a point that the grading of each post must be preceded by extensive job analyses.

3. The President's Order 7, issued in 1972, dissolved all the existing local government bodies. Certain committees were appointed to take over functions of the defunct local bodies. Moreover, the names of the Union Council and District Council were changed to Union Panchayet (later renamed Union Parishad, which now stands) and Zilla Board (later renamed zilla parishad, which now stands) respectively. But no such committees were appointed at the division and thana levels. The 1972 Constitution included specific provisions relating to the structure and functions of local bodies. Article 9, for instance, provided for the formation of local bodies at every administrative tier to be composed of elected representatives.

4. But the major achievement of Bangabandhu was to endow the country with a constitution in a remarkably short time of 325 days (actual drafting time), which was promulgated on 16 December 1972, the first Victory Day. In his own words, a nation without a constitution was a boat without a boatman. Now that a constitution – like boatman was handy, the country was provided with an apparatus to forge ahead in all sections, not simply administration. Indeed, by having a constitution, Bangladesh now had a way of life to tread on with a good deal of hope. We have to take note of the fact that this constitution, by Article 7(1), gave the ownership of this country to the common people.

5. The year of 1973 witnessed national and local level elections. The first ever general election in independent Bangladesh literally one year after the new government had started functioning, was a pointer to Bangabandhu's intent to make governance public opinion-based. Although not without criticisms, this election was symptomatic of Bangabandhu's people-centric views.

The elections to the Union Parishads (UP) were held under the presidential order. It was stipulated that a union comprising several villages was to be divided into three words, and each word was to elect three members, i.c. nine members in a union. The order also provided for the posts of chairman and vice chairman to be elected by all the voters within a union. The subdivisional officer and Deputy Commissioner were to be the ex-officio chairman of the concerned thana council and district council respectively.

This brief resume` of Bangabandhu's ideas and actions in administration makes it abundantly clear that there was no dearth of good intent and well-meaning interventions, but, which, as it was, did not filtrate downward to the field level; and hence there was created the yawning gap between what Bangabandhu sought and what he got. Such was the rationale behind the knee-jerking intervention of Bangabandhu in crafting the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BKSAL).


25 January 1975 – 14 August 1975 Phase

At the time of passing the 4th Amendment whereby the BKSAL system was constitutionally validated, Bangabandhu, in his statement, got across the background quite pathetically, "The amendment today has been done not without a good deal of sorrow. We have struggled all our life. If someone is of the opinion that we have taken away people's voting right, I would say this is not the case. Under the newly instituted system the members of parliament would be elected by people's vote." He further said, "The new system under the amended constitution is also a democracy – democracy of the exploited."

In his 26 March 1975 speech, Bangabandhu came up with his real intent as he fumed, "We want to hit this moth–eaten society hard. The way we hit the Pakistanis." As to administration, he declared his resolve that, "This moth–eaten English and Pakistan period administration would not do. We have to overhaul this administration; and this would bring some good to the people, otherwise not. I have tried three years, and I have reached the ineluctable conclusion." On 21 July 1975, at the inauguration of training programme of the newly appointed District Governors, Bangabandhu called upon the bureaucrats imploringly, “As government employees, you have to love the people and the country of Bangladesh a lot to serve the people and country. All government employees should be on duty twenty-four hours. Government should work corruption-free so that the value of public money is retained.”

In this speech, corruption was identified as the lead crisis; so, the exhortative words were, "Unite yourselves. Build fortresses in every house. If you can build such fortresses, 25 to 30 percent of the woes of the poor and hapless people of Bangladesh would go away. We have so many thieves in our midst! I do not know how these thieves are born. Pakistan has taken away everything of us, but we would have been better off had they taken away these thieves."

The system of BKSL was indeed a master– stroke to change the society and polity by wiping out bribery and corruption. Contrary to common misperception, the BKSAL was not a party; it did not fit into the definitional category of a party. It was, in reality, a national common platform created after three years of trials and tribulations, which, in Bangabandhu's perception, were an exercise in futility. Above all, the new system was necessitated in view of the exigencies of circumstances; and, it was also of temporary duration.

The core of the BKSAL was a thorough overhauling of the governance of the country, and this was foreshadowed by the division of the country into 60 districts. The earlier local administrative structure was done away with. The BKSAL had five specifies objectives: 1. elimination of corruption; 2. increase of production; 3. stop the profession of begging; 4. control population growth; and 5. overhauling of the colonial administration. It may be cogently argued that, were the BKSAL allowed to run its full course, the country would have been at the threshold of a revolutionary turn – around; but fate willed otherwise. Nevertheless, during the 233 preparatory days, the new system impacted positively; hard evidence galore to this effect. Bangabandhu had logic to support his euphoric claim that the system was a "second revolution." 

A thorough realist as he was, Bangabandhu did not vouch for the infallibility of either himself or his system. On 19 June 1975, while addressing the BKSAL Central Committee he said, “I am not an angel. I am not also Satan. I am a human being; I will certainly err. If I err, I have to bear in mind that I can rectify myself . . . . I am not an angel that I can do everything good. If the newly introduced system fails to perform, alright, we will rectify it. I have to save my people at any cost. There has to built an exploitation-free society in Bangladesh.” 

The last two sentences in this quote explain Bangabandhu's predicament and the consequent intensity of purpose.

Concluding Observation

Bangabandhu's dream ab initiowas to build an egalitarian Bangladesh – Sonar Bangla; and administration was to be the apparatus through which the desired goods were expected to be delivered; and hence, the emphasis on administration. The time and circumstantial constraints compelled Bangabandhu to start posthaste with the inherited administrative machine. It took nearly three years for him to come round to the truth shared by his foreign well-wishers that a colonial administrative structure did not go with the imperatives of an independent country. The BKSAL, ultimately destined to be a lost cause, was the outgrowth of Bangabandhu's new realisation; which, in its manifestation, was his autonomous, not a borrowed way of tackling home-grown predicaments. The BKSAL was, therefore, a Third World recipe for a Third World country.

Bangabandhu went through circumstantial odds, mostly created by those hierarchically down below him; they were supposed to have been imbued with the Bangabandhu spirit, which they did not, as they had their own work ethos. There was indeed a top–down dichotomy. When all these being said, Bangabandhu can never be faulted on his intent and purport. Pertinent in this context is the melancholy statement of Bangabandhu made to his nephew Hasnat Abdullah: “Nobody understands what I do for my country.”

As psychologists would suggest, there are supposedly three criteria for success: love of work, specialising in the work loved, and noble motive to serve people through work. Bangabandhu was a success in all these sectors.


The writer is Bangabandhu Chair Professor Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)