Celebrating 50 years of love, advocacy, and resiliency

It’s Bangladesh’s 50th birthday, and we are celebrating. 

Flags are flying high as Bangladeshis exercise their right to praise each other, critique one another, and speak in Bangla — a language that weighs much more on the heart than it does on one’s mind. A vernacular that hundreds of thousands paid the heftiest price for. A sum that could have been avoided if a room full of people showed love, kindness, and respect towards one another. 

History first

Seventy years ago, when a group of politicians decided to take freedom of speech into their own hands, students at the University of Dhaka would not take it sitting down. Tensions boiled over the next two decades, until the Bhola cyclone hit the coast of East Pakistan, wiping out more than half a million people over the next 10 days. The widespread criticism at the time: Central government failure during a natural disaster. 

The next month, the verdict of the general elections reflected the same. 300 constituencies voted, 162 in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan. 160 seats went to the major party in the east wing while the major party in the west grabbed 81. Political pundits called it a landslide, while the incumbent army government called for martial law. To add salt to the injury on the winning party, an army general affirmed: “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.” 

Sadly, the state acted on those words, peace offerings for a revised federal constitution were rejected, and the whole world read, watched, or heard about Operation Searchlight. 

It was time to draw the line. A declaration of independence coming from the confines of a jail cell made its way to newspapers around the globe. Bangladesh was formed. Millions of lives and nine months later, Pakistan was reformed. The rest as they say is history. 

Citizens step up

One cannot talk about love, advocacy, and kindness without thinking about those who safeguard those rights. Some wear uniforms, some wear suits, others go to work when those two fail. Beyond our justice system, politicians, and civil servants, there’s a group that’s less talked about when it comes to matters of independence. Volunteers by calling, citizens by nature, and advocates by choice, whether you call them social workers or community leaders, they all serve one purpose: To succeed, when governments don’t. 

When the cyclone hit, Red Cross, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, and many others worked together to create a Cyclone Preparedness Program, that was officially adopted as national policy in July 1973. An effective program that anchors coastal populations against the forces of nature till today.

Before the cyclone efforts could dry out, the genocide started, and an overwhelming majority of aid workers joined the war of independence. Disaster management at its truest. 

Upon securing victory, as the government got busy rebuilding itself, civil society shifted their focus to resettling returning refugees from India in 1972. This led to the birth of Brac, the largest social institute in Bangladesh today. Shortly thereafter, a famine in 1974 took millions of more lives, and society joined hands to fill the infamous bottomless basket many saw Bangladesh to be.  

Community functions perpetually shifted to aiding government efforts for poverty alleviation. As foreign aid combined with local will steered the ship slowly away from impact of the three disasters, civil society started filling gaps in infrastructure as well. 

During recovery, social workers realized the catch-22 of direct relief, that money alone can’t solve poverty. As such, Bangladesh saw the birth of Grameen Bank that extended credit where credit was due, hunted down borrower exploitation, and secured self-independence for rural populations in Bangladesh. The tone had shifted from disaster management to social transformation, a status-quo that was maintained till the late 80s. Today, the bank is said to run the largest micro-credit program in the world. 

The early 90s saw increased domestic unrest, and there was a radical shift towards filling gaps in justice, social, and community services through health interventions, family planning guidance, legal-aid, and informal education. A stance that reflected dearly on the values of our freedom fighters, going on to accept and advocate for indigenous populations, languages, and lifestyles in Bangladesh. 

Today, collectives like the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) continue expanding their role in litigating for the public good, and have secured grand victories in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh as well. 

In a new era

The new millennium featured a digital dash. Accelerated by their ability to connect to foreign organizations and forge international alliances, organizations priced up their bid for change, and citizens became a little more engaged — sometimes at the cost of transparency, which in turn gave rise to anti-corruption and trust advocacy groups. Combined with the growth of private school education, social change started becoming a cool thing. 

During this time a formidable alliance started to form between citizens from all walks of life. Organizations like Jaago had private schoolers fundraising on crowded streets to educate those not fortunate enough to attend school. Functions became more comprehensive to address the systemic inequities spurred by economic growth from bridges, trade, and t-shirts. And citizens started thinking about climate change – just five years after being lifted out of poverty. 

Fast-forwarding to the pandemic, yet another catastrophic example where average citizens stepped up to fill gaps governments couldn’t. Together, they got an extra oxygen cylinder into the hands of a weeping daughter as supply chains got tighter, they stood behind health care workers when they needed it the most and some even put on uniforms they had never worn before. It was just after the onset, that the public roared together to stop violence against women, taking matters to the Supreme Court. 

While many of the articles you have read this week on Bangladesh will talk about government successes, failures, or personal ambitions. One needs to talk about the collective power of our civil society. How it ebbs and flows across time, shaping itself to get things done. Fuelled by love, rising through advocacy, and flying with resiliency. That’s what I am celebrating today.  

Happy Birthday Bangladesh. 163 million strong.

Anil Wasif is working as a Senior Consultant at the Ontario Government. Anil is currently completing a Master of Public Policy at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University.

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