Rising to the Challenge
Kamal Hossain’s Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice has been billed as a shrewd commentary on state formation in Bangladesh after its independence from Pakistan. The book, however, goes beyond its remit and presents an in-depth assessment of Pakistan’s political landscape in the two decades after it gained independence from India in 1947.
It is easy to condemn history textbooks for fabricating details and overstating the impact of key political events. Hossain’s historical analysis of the people of Bangladesh’s struggle for justice and political recognition is different from the glut of biased textbooks. It chronicles the effects of key political developments through the lens of the author’s personal struggle with the political system.
Kamal Hossain is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and has been actively involved in various phases of the country’s struggle for democracy and justice. When Ayub Khan imposed martial law, he vociferously defended the freedom of the press and acted as one of the counsels for the victims of the Agartala Conspiracy case. Hossain’s involvement with the Awami League's team at the Round Table Conference and his association with General Yahya Khan in 1971 provided him with a holistic view of the 1971 War. Following the independence of Bangladesh, Kamal Hossain served as minister of law, chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee and minister of foreign affairs.
Owing to his concerted efforts to stabilize Bangladesh’s democracy through efficient state-building, Hossain has developed a fairly comprehensive opinion of the country’s quest for justice and stability. This book serves both as both an eyewitness account and an objective depiction of the major historical incidents.
The initial chapters of the book highlight the contribution of the ‘people of Bangladesh’ to the independence movement and, consequently, the creation of a new state. Interestingly, these sections portray the key milestones in Pakistan’s history from the perspective of the Bengalis. As a result, the readers may find that the book challenges the majoritarian view and draws attention to the predicament faced by the Bengalis in Pakistan. Hossain’s account provides a heart-wrenching reminder of a conflict that tore the nation apart in 1971 and explains its causes and effects. Historical facts presented in this book are not exposés that will surprise the reader. They seem to have found a niche in mainstream fiction such as Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography and have become a firmly entrenched – if not an altogether embarrassing – feature of Pakistan’s history. Without providing this historical background, the author would have failed to observe the crux of the problem: the ruthless struggle for identity in a democratic society.
Following the 1971 war, Pakistan’s east wing was now Bangladesh, a country in its own right. There were numerous challenges that had to be reckoned with. Bangladesh required efficient state apparatuses, a constitution, a viable foreign policy and widespread international recognition. Hossain has skillfully addressed these challenges by exploring the sequence of events involved in the early nationbuilding process.
State apparatuses available to Bangladesh during the time of its creation were inadequate to help the fledgling country develop a political identity. The resources and expertise inherited from Pakistan merely represented the infrastructure of what was once a “weak provincial government”. As a result, a series of alternative strategies for success had to be developed.
Kamal Hossain’s account evaluates the contribution of the government in mitigating the pressures of managing a new state. The book adopts a fairly neutral and balanced approach to its subject matter. It does not seek to sugarcoat Bangladesh’s achievements in the initial phase. To the contrary, it serves to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the government’s approach to addressing Bangladesh’s problems. For instance, the author categorically states that even though positive steps were taken to mitigate the risks to Bangladesh’s fragile economy, the government did not have control over ecological factors such as floods and drought. This led to a reduction in crop cultivation and produced a massive economic
crisis which undermined the goal of democracy and justice. Despite these setbacks, public administrators expressed the desire to rise to the challenge and move the country in the right direction.
The author has aptly described a constitution as the ‘autobiography of a nation’. Through a series of facts and personal anecdotes, Hossain considers how the overall structural framework of the constitution was established. Moreover, a careful examination of mechanisms proposed to give the constitution a democratic character has also been included. This offers an interesting historical overview of the genesis of Bangladesh’s legal history.
While Bangladesh’s struggle to maintain an internal commitment to democratic values posed a huge challenge, issues such as foreign policy and the new country’s representation in the United Nation formed the crux of its international recognition. In the last five chapters, Hossain highlights the major pitfalls involved in Bangladesh’s initial efforts to build good relations with its neighbors – especially India and Pakistan. Written in an objective
Hossain’s account provides a heartwrenching reminder of a conflict that tore the Bangladeshi nation apart in 1971 and explains its causes and effects. Historical facts presented in the book are not exposés that will surprise the reader.
and intriguing manner, the chapters offer a clear testament to the fact that a country’s ability to develop sound foreign relations strongly influences its stability and executive competence.
Despite the initial veto from China over Bangladesh’s entry into the United Nation, Hossain has described Bangladesh’s introduction to the world assembly as ‘befitting’. Interestingly, this observation appears to be carefully interspersed with the overall purpose of the book. By concluding this section on an optimistic note, the author shows that independence offers a means to realize the importance of democracy.
In order to develop a system in Bangladesh that favors the interests of the community and avoids the ruthless struggle for political power, it is important to ascribe greater meaning to the fundamental purposes of Bangladesh’s liberation movement. Only then can the quest for justice and freedom be realized.
Book Title: Bangladesh: Quest For Freedom and Justice Author: Kamal Hossain Publisher: Oxford University Press Pages: 316, Hardback Price: Rs.895 ISBN-13: 9780199068531
Reviewed by Taha Kehar