Reimagining the spirit of 1971 for the ‘millenial generation’

by Priyo Australia | January 4, 2009 4:22 pm

The Awami League-led alliance was delivered a resounding victory in the recently concluded parliamentary elections. AL’s massive electoral victory is a mandate for the platform upon which it had premised its campaign – to build the Bangladesh embodied in its Vision 2021. The outcome of the elections was equally an expression of optimism and desire to move forward, as it was a stern rebuke against poor governance. The participation of new and young voters, which by some estimates accounted for a quarter of the electorate, was critical in delivering this result. The outcome is also significant in that it illustrates a generational shift towards a new brand of political activism — one that bases its mandate on ideas and not ideology, on performance and not party loyalty. How then, can the AL, whose ideology had been instilled in the country’s historic struggle for independence, and has since defined not only its own but also its opponents’ politics, respond to this new brand of activism?

The history of the AL, as one of Bangladesh’s oldest political parties is inextricably linked to the nation’s struggle for independence. Its ideology of nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism were embodied as the founding principles in the country’s constitution in 1972. Even as subsequent administrations redefined and altered those preambles to our constitution, the philosophical and ideological battle of who we are as a nation were fought over those very principles. Today, the AL, the standard-bearer of the spirit of 1971 has been swept into office by a massive mandate from a youthful electorate who are not ostensibly driven by the ideological debate. Should the AL forsake its ideology, which admittedly was not a cornerstone of its recent campaign? And if not, how can the AL reinvent the spirit of 1971 for our ‘millenial generation’?

Millennial generation, a termed coined by social scientists, broadly refers to the population born in the 1980s and 1990s. In each society, the meaning and significance of the ‘millenials’ is varied and distinct. In the case of Bangladesh, our millenials were born long after the Liberation War, and the period of political instability that followed. Some of our millenials were infants or young children during the prolonged period of autocratic rule in the 1980s. Many came of age during a period of relative political stability and (albeit imperfect) democracy during the 1990s. Most formed their perspectives on our political system based on the corruption, violence and poor governance in the 2000s. Our millenials are educated and literate. Our millenials include high school, college and university students, and young adults entering professional life. Many of the more affluent millenials are tech-savvy. They are the ‘dJuice generation’ — a generation aware of the world through Google and Wikipedia, a generation more likely to organise on Facebook than on the streets. Unlike their parents’ generation — people in their fifties and sixties whose perspectives were shaped by the struggle for independence and the years that followed, the millenials are more realists than idealists, more global than insular in their outlook.

Bangladesh has changed materially between 1971 and 2009, and so has its demographic. Yet, the spirit of 1971 and the principles upon which the nation was founded remain as relevant today as they were in 1971. The reason is this: our fight for independence was never only a nationalistic movement; it was equally a struggle for economic freedom. And that struggle continues today, as a substantial population remains below poverty line, as a large youthful population remains unemployed or underemployed, as businesses remain capital-constrained and inadequately positioned to meet the competitive threats in a global marketplace. No generation is more impacted by these conditions than our millenials. Half of Bangladesh’s population is below the age of 23. A third is below the age of 14. In the next few short years, over 25 million millenials will be entering the workforce. For any nation, and certainly for a developing country such as Bangladesh, this is both a massive challenge and a compelling opportunity. The struggle for economic freedom is therefore a notion that resonates deeply with our millenials.

Nowhere is the liberation movement as a struggle for economic freedom better illustrated than in our Magna Carta – the Six Point Plan of 1966. The plan, which formed the basis for the liberation movement, called for (i) independent monetary policy to ensure access to capital, (ii) independent fiscal policy to ensure development of infrastructure and (iii) independent trade policy to facilitate growth of enterprise. The Six Point Plan was as much a charter for equality of economic rights as it was the foundation for political rights. It was not merely a reflection of nationalistic pride that emerged from the Language Movement of 1952 and was fostered through the opposition to autocratic rule by military regime. It was the embodiment of the rising voice against the economic malaise that engulfed the then-East Pakistan due to the vast disparities that existed between the two wings. It was this message of economic opportunity that appealed to the Bengali population and ultimately led them to rise against the very concept of Pakistan that they had acquiesced to, merely a couple of decades ago.

Just as the inherently economic basis of our nationalism resonates with our millenials, so do our founding principles of democracy, secularism and socialism. The millenials’ faith in democracy is self-evident in their wide participation in the recent elections that led to a record turnout. It is also reflected in their rejection of the non-representative governance of the past two years. Secularism, to our enlightened millenials, is an expression of personal freedom and a voice against not religion or faith, but rather obscurantism. Socialism, despite the anachronistic terminology, holds meaning to this generation, in its truest sense as defined in our constitution: economic and social justice. Education that enhances the productive skills, and economic opportunity in the form of employment and access to capital are the two most critical factors that can deliver economic and social justice to our millenials.

The worldview of the youthful demographic of today’s Bangladesh needs no reconciliation with the ideological foundations that led to our birth in 1971. We only need to remind ourselves why we came to be as a nation, and that those reasons continue to define us.

Fahim Ahmed is an investor based in New York

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