Bangladesh Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are the two political juggernauts who have ruled this country for about 40 years out of a total of about 50 years of history. Any established democracy in the world featuring two dominating parties usually has big ideological and policy-level differences. For example, the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States of America, represent the conservatives and the liberals respectively. The Conservative Party, and the Labor Party in the United Kingdom, Bhartiya Janata Party, and the Congress Party in neighboring India are some other relevant examples.
Now if we look back home, do we see any major ideological and policy difference between AL and BNP? What are those distinguishing dissimilarities? Political analysts at home and abroad have often commented on the similarities between the two parties’ policies like taxation and revenue, defense budget, etc. On the outlook, the two parties are aligned closely to the center in the traditional political analysis, with AL aligned to the center-left and BNP to the center-right. If dug deeper, many of their policy-level differences can be found integrated with the country’s political and socio-economic development. It is thus relevant to look further into the two major parties’ ideological and policy differences.
1. HOW DID THEIR RESPECTIVE POLITICAL JOURNEY START?
AL is one of this country’s oldest political parties. It was established in 1949 as an alternative to the then-dominant Muslim League after Pakistan’s establishment. Bengali Nationalism was at the forefront of the initiation agenda to oppose the ruling elite from West Pakistan and its discriminatory politics. On 23 June 1949, the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League was founded in a meeting at Old Dhaka’s KM Das Lane, chaired by Ataur Rahman Khan. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Shamsul Huq were elected the first president and general secretary of the party respectively, Ataur Rahman Khan was elected the vice-president, Yar Mohammad Khan was elected as the treasurer, while Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad, and A. K. Rafiqul Hussain were elected the party’s first joint secretaries.
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Since then, AL’s history has been embroidered with the history of the country. The word Muslim was dropped in 1953 and it became the secular AL. During the independence war of 1971 the name ‘Bangladesh Awami League’ was settled. From the 1952’s Language movement, the 1971’s War of Independence, 1990’s anti-dictatorial movement to the modern day’s achievement of graduation from the list of Least Developing Countries; AL’s name is there. The initiation history of the BNP is quite different from that of AL considering the party was established in a position of the ruling power. With the gruesome killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15th August 1971, military interference and control over the democratic process arose. In the aftermath of a series of coups and countercoups, then Chief of Army Staff, Major General Ziaur Rahman took control of the country with Marshal Law on 7th November 1975. Under his tutelage on 22nd February 1978, to bring the country back to the democratic process, Jatiyatabadi Ganatantrik Dal (JAGODAL), was formed with Justice Abdus Sattar as the coordinator.
JAGODAL was dissolved to create the Jatiyatabadi Front with Ziaur Rahman as head of the front on 1st May 1978. A major portion of the National Awami Party (Bhashani) and members of the Muslim League under the leadership of Shah Azizur Rahman joined the alliance. Ziaur Rahman became the candidate of the Presidential Election of June 3rd, 1978, and won against M. A. G. Osmani of Ganatantrik Oikya Jote (United Democratic Alliance) which was backed by the AL.
After the election, the party was again reformed into BNP on 1st September 1978. The BNP constitution was drafted in 21 days with 76 members in the convening committee. Ziaur Rahman as the party Chairman, M. Hamidullah Khan as the Executive Secretary, and Dr. A. Q. M. Badruddoza Chowdhury as the Secretary-General were appointed.
2. POLITICAL IDEOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY
AL styles itself as the leader of the pro-liberation forces in Bangladesh, promoting secular and social democratic ideologies. According to the party constitution, there are four fundamental principles to guide its philosophy and policies. They are:
The constitution states the party’s “Aims and Objectives” as
a) To consolidate the independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and to uphold its sovereignty as well as territorial integrity.
b) To establish and protect the people’s constitutional rights since all powers in the Republic belong to the people.
c) To ensure political, economic, social, and cultural freedom and welfare of all citizens.
d) To build a Secular, democratic society and state system imbued with the spirit of the Liberation War.
The interpretation of AL constitution is vast. At present, it can be said that AL has shifted to a more economically liberal position than that of pure Socialism stated in its constitution. But it can be safely said that the party is the flag bearer of secularism in the country. On the other hand, the interpretation of ‘Nationalism’ in AL constitution is vague. Nationalism was defined by the Bangla-speaking people of the land which was the group AL championed in its initiation. But that left out other ethnic minorities. Presently, we can find that AL has taken a broader interpretation of Nationalism which incorporated all the people of the land.
In clause ‘(b)’ of its aims and objectives AL constitution specifies that it is to “establish and protect the people’s constitutional rights”, which in sense incorporates the entirety of the Constitution of Bangladesh. The Constitution of Bangladesh was also adopted after the independence when AL was in full political control of the country, thus both the country’s and party’s constitutions are ideologically mutually inclusive and supplementary. Unlike AL, the BNP constitution does not have any guiding principles. But it has more detailed “Objectives and Aim”, a total of 17. We are selecting the ones here which best describe as both principles and objectives:
a) To fortify and strengthen the independence, sovereignty, security, state integration, and democracy of Bangladesh through strong mass unity based on Bangladeshi nationalism.
(b) To protect Bangladesh from colonialism, expansionism, neo-colonialism, authoritarianism, and attack of external forces through the economic solvency of the united and revived nation.
(c) To acquire pro-people economic development and national progress based on social justice through politics of production, the free market economy, and people’s democracy.
(e) To create such a healthy environment where democracy will reach the mind of the common people.
(f) To ensure such a clear and stable social and political system through which the people themselves can bring their humanitarian, social and economic development.
(g) To establish stable democracy through parliamentary democratic government elected by direct vote of the people based on multi-party politics and bring equitable national progress and development.
(k) To establish an equitable economy based on justice in national life through a realistic, effective development process so that all Bangladeshi citizens get the chance of fulfilling their minimum demands of food, cloth, habitation, and education.
(p) To preserve the age-old human values of the Bangladeshi people through the teaching of Islam-religion of the majority of Bangladeshi people and other religions, expansion of education for the backward people and giving them more facilities and chance to take part in greater national life.
(q) To protect and establish international friendship, amity, and equality in foreign policy based on non-alignment. To fortify and strengthen relationships and friendships with neighboring counties, friendly countries of the third world, and friendly Muslim countries based on sovereignty and equality.
BNP’s constitutional aims and objectives are very much detailed but without any guiding principles remain to individual perception. ‘Nationalism’ is for example engraved in BNP’s name. A widespread part of Bangladeshi citizens and even many BNP leaders have given into the school of interpretation that “Nationalism” only entails Bengali-speaking Muslim citizens.
The abstinence of secularism from BNP’s constitution also brings it to a collision course with the country’s constitution. If we see its initiation history, we can find the incorporation of Muslim League leaders to BNP. The first prime minister of BNP, Shah Azizur Rahman was from the Muslim League, which has always promoted the influence of religion in democracy.
3. MILESTONES ACHIEVED
4. ORGANIZATION AND LEADERSHIP PRACTICES
AL is constitutionally obliged to convene a National Conference every three years. The constitution gives the National Conference responsibility as below:
• ELECTING THE PRESIDENT
• ELECTING THE GENERAL SECRETARY
• EXAMINING THE REPORT OF THE OUTGOING CENTRAL WORKING COMMITTEE
• DISCUSSING AND ENACTING PARTY POLICIES
• REVISING THE PARTY’S CONSTITUTION
The constitution exudes detail of the party organogram. In section (4) ‘The Procedure of Formation’ it states: The organizational strata of the AL shall be of the categories hereinafter following, namely:
a) The AL Council;
b) The AL National Committee;
c) The AL Executive Committee:
I) President, II) Presidium, III) General Secretary, IV) Secretaries; V) Treasurer, and VI) 26 Members;
d) The AL Advisory Council;
e) The AL Parliamentary Board;
f) The AL Parliamentary Party;
g) The District ALs, Metropolitan City ALs including Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, Barisal, and Sylhet, and AL Branches approved by the AL.
The executive committee is also known as the Central Working Committee. In between National Conferences, the Central Working Committee is the highest decision-making institution. AL, in its 73 years of existence, has held 20 National Conferences to elect new leaders of the party. There are some criticisms about the conferences regarding the lack of voting in the election process, but intra-party politics and agreements come into play to produce a united front.
AL also has six officially endorsed wings or subsidiary parties for different groups of people. They are:
Although at present there is a strong influence between AL with the Sheikh family, its leadership history has been in fact quite diverse. A total of 8 people have held the position of party President and 9 people served as the General Secretary. Present Prime Minister and AL President Sheikh Hasina have held the top party position since 1981, the longest reign. Before that, even during the lifetime of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Presidentship changed.
BNP’s constitution has a much more expansive organizational structure compared to that of AL. Section (6), subsection (a) gives a bottom-up structure. BNP has 15 constitutional committees compared to Al’s 7. They are:
(1) Ward council and ward executive committee of union
(2) Ward council and ward executive committee of pouroshova
(3) Union council and union executive committee
(4) Upazila/thana council and upazila/thana executive committee
(5) Pouroshova council and pouroshova executive committee
(6) Zilla council and Zilla executive committee
(7) Mahanagar ward council and Mahanagar ward executive committee
(8) Mahanagar thana council and Mahanagar thana executive committee
(9) Mahanagar council and Mahanagar executive committee
(10) National Council
(11) National Executive Committee
(12) National Standing Committee
(13) Parliamentary Board
(14) Parliamentary Party
(15) Organizations abroad
BNP’s National Executive Committee has a massive 351 members according to its constitution. On the party’s official website, it has 502 members listed under its National Executive Committee as of 2016. The constitution gives the party Chairperson the power to extend the number of members if he or she finds it necessary. Besides that, there is a 73-member advisory council to the Chairperson.
BNP’s National Standing Committee is the most powerful authority with executive, policy-making, and punitive powers. So, far it has remained the only constitutional body with the preferred number of 19 numbers according to the party constitution.
BNP 7 affiliated and 2 associated wings comprising different professions and age groups. They are:
BNP’s chairperson and secretary general through National Council meetings. But in its 44 years of history, BNP has had 6 national council meetings. Although constitutionally it is bound to have it every three years, the national council is sparse. The latest, the 6th National Council, was held in March. 2016. The 7th National Council has been on political talks and media for almost three years now, with no date fixed yet.
Exception of Abdus Sattar’s three-year reign a member of the Zia family has held the post of Chairperson. BNP has had 9 General Secretaries until now. Former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, the wife of the founder Ziaur Rahman, is the Chairperson of the party since 1984. After she was sentenced to imprisonment in a grafting case in 2018, the eldest son of Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman has been performing the duty of the Chairperson in charge. Tarique Rahman is also convicted in several cases including money laundering and terrorist activity. He is now exiled in London from where he conducts party affairs.
5. SECULARISM AND RELIGION-BASED POLITICS
AL has secularism as a guiding principle in its constitution. But the definition of secularism in the context of Bangladesh is different compared to the Western definition of secularism, where the state is separate or distances itself from the church/religion, Secularism in Bangladesh interprets as Dharmanirapekkhata (religious neutrality). The Bangladeshi state does not separate itself from religion; rather it acknowledges the role of religion in public spheres. The Constitution of Bangladesh, in its preamble, declares secularity as a basic constitutional principle. Secularity is further explained in Article 12 of the constitution. Article 12 sets out several goals, including the elimination of inter-religious conflict, the prohibition of religious discrimination, and the discouraging of the use of religion in politics. The article is quoted below:
The principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of-
(a) Communalism in all forms;
(b) the granting by the state of political status in favor of any religion;
(c) the abuse of religion for political purposes;
(d) any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.
The constitution of Bangladesh is the first country to specify secularism in its text. A decisive change in post-war Bangladesh under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was that religion-based political parties were banned. This meant the theocratic Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed Bangladesh’s independence and faced allegations of involvement in the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, was banned. But the AL government of the period led Bangladesh to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1974. The Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh was established to regulate the collection of zakat, religious matters, and fixing dates for Muslim holidays. BNP’s founder Ziaur Rahman was declared the Chief Marshal Law Administrator. On 4 May 1976, Proclamation Order III issued by Ziaur Rahman revoked the ban on religion-based political parties. It brought back Pakistani zombies like Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim League into political play once again. On 23 April 1977, Zia inserted the Islamic phrase Bismillah in the constitution’s preamble and replaced “secularism” with “Absolute Trust and Faith in the Almighty Allah” under Proclamations Order 1977 (also known as the 5th amendment). On 9 June 1988, another military dictator Hussain Mohammad Ershad forced the 8th constitutional amendment to insert Article 2A to declare Islam as the state religion.
In 2005, the High Court of Bangladesh declared The Fifth Amendment of the constitution illegal. Under AL’s leadership in 2011, Article 2A was amended to read “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.”
6. ADDRESSING CHITTAGONG HILL TRACTS ISSUE
The Chittagong Hill Tracts, consisting of the Rangamati, Khagrachari, and Bandarban districts, are the most ethnically and religiously diverse region of Bangladesh. It is also unfortunately historically a conflict region. The root of the conflict goes back to pre-liberation Bangladesh with the construction of the Kaptai Dam, Rangamati in 1962. A widespread resentment occurred over the displacement of as many as 100,000 of the native peoples who did not receive compensation from the government and many thousands fled to India.
After the independence, during the drafting of the constitution, the term of citizenship was given as “Bengali”. Manabendra Narayan Larma, a Jumma Chakma politician who later was elected as an MP, made an impassioned appeal to declare the term of citizenship as “Bangladeshi” instead of “Bengali”. He argued that it is discriminatory against non-Bengali communities to label all citizens as Bengali. Mr. Larma went on to found Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) in 1972, to build a political organization representing all the Jumma Peoples of the Hill Tracts. He also created an armed wing named Shanti Bahini for PCJSS. The Shanti Bahini started an armed conflict after attacking a Bangladesh Army envoy in 1977.
In 1978, the BNP government led by President Ziaur Rahman created a Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board under the direction of an army general to address the socio-economic needs of the region. But the entity proved unpopular and became a source of antagonism and mistrust amongst the native people against the government.
It is reported that in the following years, the BNP government took the policy of settling Bengalis in the region, causing the eviction of many natives and a significant alteration of demographics.
BNP looked for a military solution to a primary civil problem. The policy continued throughout the 1980s under H M Ershad’s militarybacked regime. The Chittagong Hill Tracts districts were virtually under military governance.
After the restoration of democracy in 1991, a peace negotiation was initiated between the Bangladesh Government and PCJSS.
But as the elected BNP government of the time followed more or less the same policies of the previous regimes, little progress was made in the peace talks. When AL came to power in 1996, fresh rounds of talks begin under the direct supervision of AL president and prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord or Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty, 1997 was officially finalized and signed on 2 December 1997.
The agreement recognized the distinct ethnicity and special status of the tribes and indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and established a Regional Council consisting of the local government councils of the three districts of the Hill Tracts. The central government would be required to consult the regional councils over all issues concerning the Hill Tracts. The agreement also provided for the setting up of a central Ministry of Tribal Affairs to be headed by a person of tribal ethnicity to administer the affairs concerning the Hill Tracts. There are plans to return land to displaced natives and an elaborate land survey to be held in the Hill Tracts.
The peace accord is a major success for AL’s political capacity to resolve a domestic armed conflict. AL took an organizational drive to integrate native peoples of the region into the party. Many peoples of different tribes are participating in national and local elections with AL’s ticket. Meanwhile, BNP’s lack of penetration in the area shows a lack of prudence in setting up long-term policymaking goals. BNP’s policy in the late 1990s and early 2000s of only championing the Bengali settlers’ issues has not proven to be pragmatic, as AL has also considered the group. AL with its pragmatic policies in the hill tracts has not only helped solve a national issue but also gain a distinct advantage on electoral grounds in those constituencies.
7. HOW DO AL AND BNP FARE IN TERMS OF FOREIGN POLICY?
Bangladesh’s independence came in a bipolar geopolitical environment with the cold war between the USA and the Soviet Union at its height. The country’s birth from war and genocide also had to face a defensive foreign policy strategy from Pakistan which had a strong lobby in the western and Islamic bloc countries. AL faced a huge task ahead to rebuild the country from the war’s devastation which was impossible without foreign partners. Bangladesh’s first leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formulated a foreign policy with the basic principles of ‘Friendship with All, Malice Towards None’ and ‘Friendly Coexistence’. This de facto became AL’s foreign policy also.
The biggest challenge in the newly-born country was the Indian troops stationed in Bangladesh and the Pakistani soldiers as prisoners of war. The presence of Indian troops on Bangladeshi soil was facing both domestic and international pushback. The AL government successfully reached a bilateral agreement with the Indian side. India announced the withdrawal of troops from Bangladesh on 1 March and the withdrawal was completed by 15 March.
During the 4 years tenure of the first AL government, all the countries of the world except Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and China recognized Bangladesh as an independent state. In that short time, Bangladesh signed more than 60 agreements and memoranda of understanding on various issues of cooperation with different countries of the world. Many countries and organizations such as the Soviet Union, Sweden, Germany, United States, Japan, Poland, United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Australia, France, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bulgaria, Belgium, Algeria, Netherlands, United Nations, UNICEF, DWP, UNHCR, etc. provide billions of dollars in various types of loans, aid, and economic assistance to Bangladesh. AL’s ideological principle of Socialism made economic partners with the Soviet bloc and India. But recognizing the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement, decided to join the movement as early as 1973 at the Algiers’ Summit. Under Ziaur Rahman foreign policy shifted toward BNP’s constitutional aim and objective, “To protect and establish international friendship, amity, and equality in foreign policy based on non-alignment. To fortify and strengthen relationships and friendships with neighboring counties, friendly countries of the third world, and friendly Muslim countries based on sovereignty and equality.”
BNP moved towards developing closer relations with the United States and Western Europe, Africa, and the Middle East under Ziaur Rahman’s tenure. His government moved to harmonize ties with Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan’s ally who had opposed Bangladesh’s creation and had not recognized it until 1975. Zia’s Islamic policies improved the diplomatic relationship with the Middle East. One major foreign policy during BNP’s first tenure was opening the Gulf states to manpower exports. The policy was successful, and remittances by exported manpower are still an important part of the Bangladeshi socio-economy.
BNP continued almost the same policies of Ziaur Rahman when it returned to power in 1991 and 2001 under the leadership of his wife Begum Khaleda Zia. The relationship with neighboring India improved compared to that of Zia tenure, but it was not based on close cooperation in different sectors. During the 1990s and 2000s India emerged as an economic regional superpower, lack of close cooperation in economic terms was stagnant for the Bangladeshi economy. BNP’s foreign policy during this time was mostly reactionary. The diplomatic pursuits were mostly targeted with manpower and garments exports. But at the same time, the geopolitical factors around the world became multi-faceted.
AL’s return to power in 1996 and 2009 was under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina. The continuous reign of AL since 2009 has helped them to take the foreign policy with nation-building and long-term relationship. Sheikh Hasina continued his father’s philosophy in foreign policy but broadened the scope of bilateral, multi-lateral, and international diplomacy and cooperation.
The foreign policy known as the ‘Sheikh Hasina Doctrine’ emphasizes that “foreign policy and domestic policy are the two sides of the same coin as foreign policy implements domestic policy.” It continues that, “the reputation of a country doesn’t only depend on the economic and social status quo but also on the ability of the government to establish a connection with the international community by materializing their ability, resources, and importance.” With both foreign and domestic policy in tune, AL has been able to transform the country’s foreign policy from dependency to cooperation.
8. COMPARISON IN TERMS OF ECONOMY & DEVELOPMENT
AL inherited the country in 1971 after its economy, infrastructure, and manpower were ravaged after the war. Bangabandhu and AL with their ‘Socialist’ principle implied their 1970’s election manifesto to rebuild the country. Bangabandhu’s vision influenced fundamental policies in five different areas.
• Promoting agrarian reforms;
• Reviving the industrial economy;
• Preparing the First Five Year Plan (FFYP);
• Establishing independence about external partners;
• Laying the foundations for a more independent Indo-Bangladesh relationship.
AL government nationalized all banks, insurance companies, and 580 industrial plants. The fiveyear plan released in 1973 focused on state investments in agriculture, rural infrastructure, and cottage industries. Landowners with more than 25 bighas were subjected to taxes, effectively ending the Zamindari system. The ceiling for private investment was set at 2.5 million BDT restricting private investments. Bangabandhu’s murder in 1975 and the subsequent hiatus of AL from governing authority meant the socialist policies undertaken had only four years to fruition. As the policies were revised almost in their entirety after 1975, the outcome and long-term effects can only be hypothesized.
BNP’s economic policies under Ziaur Rahman from 1977 to 1981 were the complete opposite. Bangladesh’s economy went through a transformation from a socialist economy to a capitalist pro-market economy. Ziaur Rahman denationalized many sectors including the banks and industries by promoting investment and trade. The ceiling on private investment was abolished in 1978. The major success of Ziaur Rahman’s economic policy was the initiation of the RMG sector which is at present the largest contributor to Bangladesh’s economy. New industries like the RMG sector benefited from policies like a 7-year tax holiday and concessions on energy bills.
BNP government in 1991 took a major economic reform policy with the introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) which became a new source of government revenue. The policy to codify the business laws with the Bank Company Act in 1991 and Financial Institutions Act in 1993 helped to regulate the business sectors. But BNP failed to take major policy reforms in a changing geo-economic scenario when it came back to power in 2001. During this term, the share of domestic resources in economic development efforts grew but only to the already advanced industries. The lack of policy to develop new industries and infrastructure to support a modern economy was evident although Bangladesh maintained a GDP growth of above 6%. The major policy failure of the tenure was not to focus on digitalization and the ICT industry at a time when the entire world was focusing on that.
AL’s return to power in 2009 was on the back of an election manifesto declaring huge economic and development policy reform dubbed ‘Vision 2021’. AL envisioned a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ at forefront of its new economic strategy. It empowered entrepreneurial activity in the ICT, energy, regional economic integration, and infrastructure sector with easy funding and investment. Connecting the foreign and domestic policy in supplementation played to create a diverse portfolio of foreign investment and international trade. The AL government undertook many mega projects in infrastructure and energy sectors such as the Padma Bridge, Padma Bridge Rail Link Project, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Dhaka-Chittagong 4-lane highway, etc.
Not forgetting its socialist principle, the government also took initiatives such as the Ashrayan Project to transform the lives of landless citizens into landowners. AL under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina created achieved the goal of ‘Vision 2021’ by graduating from United Nations’ Least Developed Countries (LDCs) list. AL has taken a new target of socio-economic development of ‘Vision 2041’ in which it is taking policies to graduate from the list of developing countries to a wealthy economy. Some of the major policies announced by AL in its election manifestos are:
• Investment rate should be increased to 40 percent of GDP by 2041
• Turning 70% of the population into manpower
• Reformation of Tax and VAT code
• The scope of plans and programs undertaken to eliminate economic discrimination will be strengthened by increasing the allocation of funds.
• Green growth strategy will be adopted in all areas of development activities
9. SEEING TWO THRU THE LENS OF EDUCATIONAL ENDEAVOURS
In 1971, the overall literacy rate of Bangladesh stood at a mere 17.6%. In 2020, it was 74.7%. The targeted genocide of intellectuals on 14th December 1974 crippled Bangladesh’s education sector for years to come. But after 50 years of independence, net enrolment in primary education is now over 96%, the adult literacy rate at 73%, and the rural literacy rate among adults is 67.8%.
After Independence in 1971, Bangabandhu formed an education commission headed by Dr Qudrati-Khuda, whose main task was to evaluate the existing education system and make recommendations for introducing an appropriate system. The key observations by the commission included
• Facilitating training for teachers,
• Ensuring good remuneration for teachers to attract talented people to the teaching profession,
• Taking steps to make Bangla the medium of instruction at all levels of education,
• Emphasizing learning English and other important international languages,
• Emphasizing technical and vocational education,
• Building a higher education system as a facilitator of national development through study and research,
• Emphasizing applied research for national development and creating a research environment in universities,
• Ensuring equal education for all,
• Considering education as an investment.
The commission further recommended that 5% of the national income be spent on education every year and gradually increase it to 7%.
In his speech at the first convocation of the BUET on 20 March 1973, Bangabandhu’s philosophy on education can be elaborated. Speaking at the occasion, Bangabandhu told the new graduates and teachers, “the education system of 200 years of British colonial rule and 25 years of education in Pakistan had only created clerks, not human beings.” Bangabandhu emphasized the need to produce skilled human resources for ensuring political and economic development and implementing socialism. He also established the University Grants Commission in 1973 as the apex body of all the affiliated public, private and international universities of Bangladesh.
Under Ziaur Rahman’s rule, the education policy shifted to massscale literacy and adult literacy programs. The faith-oriented changes in state principles found reflection on the education system as well. A committee on curricula and syllabi was created by Ziaur Rahman’s administration with this objective in mind. Subsequently, the syllabi and curricula committee in question recommended compulsory Islamic courses for Muslim students of all grades from Class I to VIII, and as an elective course for grades IX and X. Similar courses on other religions were recommended for students belonging to non-Muslim faiths. When BNP came back to power in 1991 under Begum Zia’s leadership it took big steps for education reforms. Her government took major policies such as:
• Free primary education for all
• Free education for all girls until grade 10
• Emphasize vocational training
in 1994 the allocation of budget in the education sector was increased by 60% and received the highest allocation among other sectors. In 1990, only 31.73% of students passed the SSC examination and the rate was 30.11% for females. In 1995, thanks to her policies, 73.2% of students passed the SSC examination and among the female students, 71.58% passed.
AL pioneered two major changes in the education system as well when it was in power from 1996 to 2001. 1) Introduction of English Version of the national curriculum for primary to higher secondary level and 2) Introduction of Grade Point Average (GPA) system as the grading system for primary to higher secondary level Under AL’s Vision 2021, education played a big role in its Primary Education for All initiative. A National Education Policy was formulated in 2010 which envisages education that helps build a poverty-free, secular, progressive, and democratic society in the long term. The NEP gives utmost significance to pre-primary education.
The main features of National Education Policy 2010 are:
• Shifting primary education from 5th to 8th class
• Distributing modern and rewritten books among the students at the first day of the year
• Integrating Madrasa education and vocational education into the general education
• Establishing mandatory core subjects for primary-level education: Bangla, English, Mathematics, Bangladesh Studies, social environment and climate change, and ICT
• Every School will have a mandatory library equipped with necessary books.
• More scholarships for the poor meritorious
• No physical punishments for students
• Arrangement of lunch for the students
• Education for indigenous students in their mother tongues.
• Facilities for the disabled
• Standardization of teachers qualifications
• More training for the teachers and promotion will be connected with experience and training and many more
The major success highlights of AL government since 2009 are:
• Infrastructural Development – Rebuilding, and providing furniture to, 3.447 public primary schools; primary Education Development Project 2 and primary Education Development Project 3
• Codification and Integration of Qawmi Madrasah Education
• Distribution of Free Textbooks – Distributing free textbooks to all students from Class 1 to Class 9
• Incentives for Teachers – The government brought 1624 private schools under the provisions of Monthly Payment Order (MPO)
• Abolishing Corporal Punishment
• Digitalization of the Education Sector
• School Feeding Project
The education sector has gone through some major changes since the country’s independence. Both parties have contributed at the policy level to the development in a different way. But a major failure by both parties is the lack of a “Study and Research” based higher education system.
10. COMPARING ROLE IN WOMEN EMPOWERMENT
During the War of Independence, women were the major victims of many atrocities and war crimes including rape by Pakistani forces and their collaborators. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman termed the victims as ‘Birangana’ in 1972 and instructed all state facilities helped the women who suffered social prejudices due to being rape victims.
AL government under Bangabandhu’s leadership constitutional guarantee of women empowerment. Article 27 of the Constitution stipulates: “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law,” and Article 28 (2) says, “Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and public life.” Also, the Article 65 (3) in the Constitution also ensures reserved seats for women in the parliament. Important legislation such as the Anti-Dowry law of 1980 was passed under BNP’s tenure. Ziaur Rahman’s economic policy of promoting the RMG sector also empowered women into workforce. The labor force in the RMG sector is largely based on rural women joining the work force. In the 1990s BNP promoted free education for all girls until secondary education.
Both AL and BNP have been very liberal about women empowerment and leadership in political level. AL is under the presidentship of Sheikh Hasina since 1981 and BNP under chairpersonship of Begum Khaleda Zia since 1984. Begum Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister of Bangladesh in 1991. Bangladesh achieved a landmark in 2014 when all top parliamentary positions were held by women, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Speaker of the Parliament Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury and Leader of the opposition Rawshan Ershad.
During the second Sheikh Hasina administration the government and AL aligned its women empowerment targets with United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sheikh Hasina has taken many important national policies and action plans for women empowerment. Some of them are:
• National Women Development Policy 1997.
• Industrial Policy 2010 for industrial development of women entrepreneurs.
• National Health Policy 2011 for ensuring Health of Women and Children.
• National Plan of Action to implement National Women Development Policy.
• National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children 2013-2025.
11. IMPORTANCE OF POLITICAL IDEOLOGY, ORGANIZATION, AND POLICIES IN NATION-BUILDING AND DEMOCRATIC PROCESS
Voters in a healthy and mature democracy look toward political agenda and policies of a party or candidate to choose from. Bangladesh has been for a long time a least developed socio-economic country. Voting factors like social or religious issues and the cult of personality used to be the more important factors compared to the policies declared in the party manifesto. But with the growing economy is also growing the quality of education. And in a world of electronic and social media, the awareness of different issues is also growing.
AL is in power for 14 years in a row. It had the time to set up and implement policies that complement its political ideology. The organizational efficiency of AL as a political party also helped them to achieve the policy goals. AL produced visionary politicians such as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Sheikh Hasina from its ranks to help formulate policies in nation-building. BNP, who was last in power 16 years ago, has been accusing AL of disrupting the democratic process. The validity of the accusation is for debate at another time, but the fact is BNP has not published or announced any counter-policy to appeal to the voters until very recently on 19th December 2022. It proposed a 27-point outline to reform the country’s constitution, judiciary, and administration system. Out of the 27 points, the ones indicating policies are:
16. Every individual will enjoy the right to perform respective religious activities based on the principle of “Religion belongs to respective individual; state belongs to all.”
17. Fair wages of the working class will be ensured in keeping with inflation.
21. Local government institutions will be made more independent, strong and empowered for greater decentralization of power.
23. Modern and time-befitting youth development policies will be formulated in keeping with the vision, thoughts and aspirations of the youth. Unemployed educated youth will be given ‘Unemployment Allowance’ till he/she gets employed, or for one year, whichever occurs earlier. An increase in age limit for entry into the government service will be considered in keeping with the international standard.
24. Specific programs will be adopted to ensure women’s empowerment.
25. Need-based and knowledge based education will be given priority.
26. Based on the principle of “health for all”, universal health care will be introduced in line with “NHS” in the United Kingdom.
27. Fair price of agricultural produce will be ensured.
The points given by BNP for reform or policies are vague in many cases, but these should be seen as a good start. For example, its proposal of “health for all” or NHS like system akin to the UK can be a game changer in the country’s health sector. But the details of the policies proposed should be worked out in advance rather than formulating it once you are in power.
AL’s Bangladesh Vision 2041 is a set of sustainable goals for the country on its way to development.
BNP can complement the vision with the policies it sees fit to achieve the goals or can set a different vision.
If both parties are honest towards the democratic processes, the policies for a long term nation building is paramount.