The nationalist elites in what was then East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) believed that the people of Bengal could not achieve any of the desired goals – democratic participation, economic security and human development – within the framework of an integrated Pakistan. This realisation prompted them to move toward a separate independent state that ultimately resulted in a bloody civil war and the creation of Bangladesh. Now, after 50 years of separation, we sought to discover how much of their desired visions the people of Bangladesh have attained compared to their counterparts in Pakistan.
We used three main indicators – democratic participation, economic security and human development – to compare Bangladesh and Pakistan in modern terms. We posit that despite the incessant media hype about Bangladesh’s gains in development, in reality, the country has not progressed much over the past 50 years in terms of democratic participation, but they have outpaced their Pakistani counterparts in the other two indicators.
Illusion of democracy
The state’s role regarding religion was one of the bickering points between the East and West Pakistani political elites. Disintegration shook the religion-based foundation of Pakistan but opened up an opportunity to establish a secular democratic state in Bangladesh. The Pakistani leadership chose to further Islamise the state and society, bolstering the politics of Islamism – an ideology antithetical to secularism, which many believe is the basic foundation of a functional democracy.
On the other side, Bangladesh chose the secular democratic route after independence, but its flirtation with the secular government was brief. It soon followed in the footsteps of Pakistan, opted for authoritarian military rule and made Islam the state religion.
Bangladesh and Pakistan have experienced more or less the same issues in terms of tackling the challenges of nation-building. They both faced the difficulties of reconstructing the nation, repeated military interventions, the rise of militant Islamism, the inability to institutionalise a democratic system and lack of progress in the equitable distribution of wealth.
Both countries have fallen short in attempting to build a democratic state that could ensure sustainable economic and human development through equitable participation of all segments of the population.
The integrated state of Pakistan was under direct military rule for 13 of its entire 24 years. The Bengali elites were prevented from getting their fair share of political representation in a system monopolised by their West Pakistani counterparts. They believed that an independent Bangladesh could be democratic and secular, thereby ensuring a fair stake for all segments of society across religious and ethnic lines. The Hindu community in particular had experienced severe economic and political deprivation in Muslim nationalist Pakistan, prompting the Bengali political elites to strive for a more secular nation.
The political elites in Bangladesh have so far failed to implement their promise to establish a democratic polity in line with the Westminster system. Soon after independence they had already strayed from their brief foray into liberal democracy and succumbed to one-party rule, followed by –like Pakistan – repeated military interventions into politics.
The nationalist elites across the political board have failed to develop an essential culture of democracy where the ruling party would conduct a free and fair national election, and if they were defeated, they would accept the result.
Bangladesh has simply emulated the same political practices they fought so hard to reject, resulting in the strong influence of military-civil bureaucrats in the political system, which Pakistani scholar Hamza Alavi dubbed as the “overdeveloped” state.
The absence of all the basic elements of democracy – strong Opposition parties, a viable civil society, a credible election commission, the ideology of secularism, a free press – indicates that the state of Bangladesh has not attained the primary objective of the war of liberation. It has instead resorted to the same political practices inherited from Pakistan.
Although Bangladesh has failed to establish a free democratic society and has instead mostly followed in the footsteps of Pakistan, it has outpaced its former partner in the economic sector. Economic deprivation was a major concern for the Bengalis in united Pakistan. Most of them believed that an independent state would create opportunities for better financial prospects. And it has.
Bangladesh outpaces Pakistan across all standard economic indicators, including nominal gross domestic product, GDP per capita, GDP’s growth rate and foreign reserves. It has now become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
A GDP of $411 billion, compared to Pakistan’s GDP of $347 billion, makes Bangladesh the 33rd largest economy in the world. Experts forecast that the economy’s size could double by 2030. The garment industry, which includes nearly 25 lakh of the 42.2 lakh females in the workforce, undoubtedly contributes significantly to the transformation of Bangladesh from a “basket case” into a robust economy, thanks largely to less Islamisation of the state and society compared to Pakistan.
Women from all corners of the country have come out of their traditional work roles to join the garment and other formal sectors of the Bangladesh economy. This massive female workforce has become the cornerstone of the country’s economy. They are also, unfortunately, part of the “cheap” labour force and are easy targets for exploitation by the entrepreneurs who hope to make high profit margins.
Although the feminisation of the economy has contributed significantly to GDP growth, it has not helped the vast majority of women to uplift their positions in society vis-à-vis the state. The state’s highly discriminatory family and property laws disproportionately favour males.
Bangladesh’s economic progress has ironically bred even more inequality than in Pakistan. For example, in 2018 the Gini coefficient – an economic measure of equality where a lower number is superior – was 39.5 in Bangladesh, compared to 31.6 in Pakistan. This is a sad development for a country that was established on the promise of equality. Many benefits and privileges are still enjoyed only by society’s elites in both Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Human development paradox
Bangladesh has also made more progress in human development in some areas compared to Pakistan, for example in the infant mortality rate. In 2018 there were 22 deaths per 1,000 live births in Bangladesh, compared to 57deaths in Pakistan. The current life expectancy in Bangladesh is 73, compared to 67 in Pakistan, but the maternal mortality rate per 1,00,000 live births in Bangladesh is higher than in Pakistan – 245 versus 186 deaths.
Bangladesh has made notable progress in elementary school enrollment, reaching almost 100% in some forms of elementary schools, whereas in Pakistan 44% of students aged five years to 16 years are currently out of school – the second-highest number in the world. However, despite Bangladesh’s success in elementary school enrollment, like Pakistan, it cannot accommodate many of its students in the formal education system due to a lack of investment in the necessary education infrastructure.
As a result, more than 60 lakh students in Bangladesh – the second-highest globally – and 41 lakh in Pakistan attend school in the madrasa system. Almost all madrasa students come from a lower rung of society.
Neither state has shown any interest in breaking the class-based dual education system to integrate all students into the formal school system. Extreme economic and social inequality is reflected in the education system, thus perpetually prohibiting the marginal pupils from becoming economically competitive with other more privileged students.
Past haunts Bangladesh
After 50 years of independence, like Pakistan, Bangladesh has not established even minimal social and economic equitability – one of the most fundamental principles underlying the war of liberation. Bangladesh also portrays an eerie resemblance to Pakistani-style political practices.
In his famous book The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, Ashis Nandy investigates how colonialism damages the colonised societies by creating permanent marks in their psychological mindset and cultural structures.
This observation could apply to Bangladesh, where the spectre of Pakistan still haunts Bangladesh’s political, economic and social arenas even after 50 years of separation. To pull away from the ghostly presence of the Pakistani past, Bangladesh must institutionalise an inclusive secular democratic system. This would open up avenues for implementing the desired socio-economic equitabilities across all spectrums – which was the fundamental ideal behind the war of liberation.
Sayeed Iftekhar Ahmed teaches international relations at the School of Security and Global Studies in the American Public University System. He is the author of Water for Poor Women: Quest for an Alternative Paradigm.