A Relentless Pursuit
wenty years after its independence, the people of Bangladesh attained another major victory in
1991: the establishment of democracy. Like all positive changes in history, it didn't come as a gift, nor
was it brought about by people with power and privilege. Rather, it was the outcome of a prolonged
struggle, in which countless unknown people-workers, labourers, students, farmers, academics, doctors,
lawyers, journalists and artistes fought to end the longest dictatorship in the history of Bangladesh, the Ershad
regime. People who protested Ershad's autocracy, both men and women, lost their lives, served years in prison
and got maimed by state sponsored terrorists and law enforcers, but they relentlessly pursued their dreams.
The period of Ershad's rule was characterised by widespread corruption, nepotism, repression and
militarisation of the administration. The 80s was also a period of economic liberalisation and the beginning
of an era of financial deregulation and privatisation on an unprecedented scale. With the implementation of
neo-liberal policies, stateowned industries were privatised or closed down at a fast pace while other productive
sectors faced subsidy cuts that rendered hundreds of thousands unemployed across the country. An obvious
outcome to all these was growing unrest. During the late 80s, popular resistance movements were
repeatedly organised and were met with batons, bullets and political conspiracies. But the dictator finally gave
way to the resistance in 1990.
However, Ershad was not the first dictator in the history of Bangladesh. His devastating economic policies
and the repressive nature of his administration were a continuation, or more correctly, an extension of the former
In 1975, through the fourth amendment to the constitution, the Awami League government
designed and implemented a one-party rule under Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League
(BAKSAL) and banned all oppositional political parties. Then, probably due to the fear of becoming
politically irrelevant, the "progressive" and "left" parties, such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh
and the National Awami Party also joined and merged into BAKSAL. However, later that year, a group of
army officers overthrew the government and seized power in a bloody coup. Thus began a dark
chapter in the history of Bangladesh, signified by military might, bloody assassinations and violations
of elementary human rights.
After a few years of coups and political assassinations, the then Army Chief Ziaur Rahman declared
himself the president and began another regime which was characterised by legitimisation of religious
politics and the abandonment of the secular and socialist ideals of the state. His erroneous state policies were
cloaked under the rhetorical flourishes about "Bangladeshi nationalism". Again, some "progressive" and
"left" parties were wise enough to support the military ruler.
After the assassination of Ziaur Rahman in 1981, Lieutenant General HM Ershad became the
president of Bangladesh in 1983.
Coming back to the revolution that ousted Ershad, the people who sacrificed or risked their lives had
high hopes and aspirations about a democratic state. Indeed, the parliamentary democracy that has been
established in Bangladesh since 1991 has more or less ensured parliamentary election every five years,
people's right to vote, individual freedom of choice and freedom of speech. But there is more to the concept
of democracy than these rights, which are the elementary conditions of a functioning democracy. These rights
only become meaningful when people have a say in the economic and political system of the country.
To this day, an overwhelming majority of the population have no control over the political and economic
policies of the country. In other words, the decisions that enormously affect the lives of common people are
still made by the select few. In the political system, the general public is a tool for the leaders to ascend to the
parliament. Tremendous disparity in wealth and power still characterise our society. Needless to say, the class
divide has only deepened over the decades as the top one per cent of the population accumulated more
wealth and control over resources.
Although there has been euphoria of privatisation of public utilities over the last three decades, the
state, generally speaking, has sunk deeper into bureaucratic and military quagmire. High government
offices are increasingly being populated by military personnel. Moreover, the recent trend in political
parties across the spectrum is to give nominations to candidates contesting parliamentary and other elections
or choose party leaders in exchange for money. On the whole, the avenues and institutions of the former
despots have remained untouched-and, for that matter, unchanged-after the revolution of 90.
Throughout our history, what is remarkable is the unbreakable spirit of common people. As made evident by the
people's movement that put an end to military dictatorship for good, the people will never accept a subservient
role again. It is the struggle of the common people that will give democracy the respect it deserves.