VOL 20 NO 157 REGD NO DA 1589 | Dhaka, Saturday, February 09 2013
The role of Muhammad Yunus in the Bangladesh Liberation War and thereafter
Published : Saturday, 09 February 2013

Rashidul Bari

While millions of his supporters, including Biplobi Binod Bihari Chowdhury and Hillary Clinton, respect Muhammad Yunus as a freedom fighter and as a champion of the poor, some outliers, including Prime Minster Shikh Hasina and AMA Muhith, think he's nothing but a "blood sucker of poor people. Who is right: Clinton or Hasina? Let's see:

Yunus, a Fulbright scholar with the flair of a camarade and a classical economics student of Vanderbilt University schooled in the tradition of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, was actually a gifted writer who became a revolutionary journalist during the Bangladesh Liberation War. During this nine month-long war, which started in March 1971 and ended in December 1971, the Pakistani army killed more than three million Bengalis. To fully understand the role Yunus played before and after the Liberation War, it is important to know what actually led him to become the editor of Bangladesh Newsletter before the war and what led him to found Grameen Bank after the war. Only an investigation of Bangladesh Newsletter's contribution to the defeat of Pakistan and Grameen Bank's contribution to defeating poverty will help us understand the nature of Yunus' attempt to make the long-cherished dream expressed in "Amar Shonar Bangla" a reality

Yunus was born in 1940 in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in what was then British India. Several major developments altered the framework of the South Asian sub-continent within the first seven years after Yunus was born. The year 1947, in fact, opened with the end of British Empire, which led to the creation of India and Pakistan. Although East Bengal was culturally and ethno-linguistically tied with India; geographically it became the eastern wing of Pakistan-a state based on Islam. Bengali politicians had assumed that the East would emerge as an economic power as a result of identical religion. However, these dreams were short-lived. In fact, it became nightmare when Pakistan unofficially imposed economic discrimination against its East wing. The destructive consequences for Bengalis were severe socially, politically, economically, and psychologically. Nationalism emerged as a tool to deal with segregation and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib) became its leader. Bengalis deeply despised discrimination and were willing to take great risks to gain independence. This nationalist spirit was given high visibility in the Bengali nationalist revolt led by Mujib during the 6th decade of twentieth century. Mujib was arrested on March 26 and flown to West Pakistan for trial. Meanwhile, Major Ziaur Rahman, an army officer, proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Mujib. Then war broke out. Many organizations formed outside Bangladesh to support the war.

Unity as a people and pride in the Bengali heritage led to the creation of the "Bangladesh Citizen Committee" in United States, led by Yunus, who then was teaching economics (i.e., from 1969 to 1972) at Middle Tennessee State University. Over the next few months, he wrote articles in newspapers, appeared on American television, and arranged a demonstration in front of Capital Hill to promote the message of Mujib, who by then regarded as father of nation, with an international angle. Like Marx, Yunus then turned to journalism, and for a while, he was the editor of Bangladesh News Letter, which he regularly published from his Nashville apartment. Yunus' article against Pakistani genocide was widely lauded in the Bengali community as well as in mainstream newspapers. Yunus was also involved in organizing a major charity concert, The Concert for Bangladesh, with George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and Bob Dylan, on August 1, 1971 in Madison Square Garden, which caught worldwide attention regarding the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh.

He followed with increasingly more radical articles throughout the war, from August 1971 to January 1972, producing a 10-part series on empowering oppressed Bengalis. His prophecy inspired Bengali-Americans, and this positive response to the articles served to increase the paper circulation. Soon his apartment became the hub of the North American-based Bengali nationalist movement. Just as the fledgling U.S owed its final victory to the timely military intervention of France at Yorktown, so did Bangladeshi independence came about as soon as it did because of the swift and successful campaign against West Pakistan from India, Europe, and the USA. However, the Bengali freedom fighters gave more than did anybody else, in the form of their lives in staggering numbers, to make a reality of the long cherished dream of Sonar Bengla. Finally, the state of Bangladesh was born at the end of a nine-month liberation struggle, in which more than 3.0 million Bengalis died at the hands of the Pakistan army. This was the 16th of December, 1971.

Meanwhile, Yunus was caught up in the euphoria of nationalism: his country fought against Pakistan to become a state based on equality, justice, and social harmony, echoing the sentiments dear to the heart of every Bengali. Now, it was no longer ruled by British or Pakistani dictators, but by its own people. This was why Yunus returned home: to join his countrymen who had been working tirelessly to rebuild the nation. However, by then, the country's economic structure was on the verge of collapse. "Its labor force grows by 2.4 per cent annually but whose agriculture, wrote Yunus, "industry and service sectors can accommodate annual growth rate of only 1.2 per cent". It is worth noting that agriculture was the biggest economic sector, which itself supplied more than 80 per cent of the rural employment. Intending to address these issues, Yunus joined as a head of the economics department at Chittagong University, which was located in the southeastern edge of the country. However, by then, the country had already been caught up in famine, resulting from years of segregation and the 1971 Liberation War.

Upon witnessing such hungry people, Yunus lost interest in the abstraction of classroom economics. In fact, he started doubting all the well-designed economic theories. He eventually abandoned these theories because nothing in them had a pledge for poor people. As a result, he went to Jobra, a remote village close to his university campus, to examine the real economics of a poor person's existence, in the belief that he would find the cure of poverty if he studied it from a close distance. He realized that these poor people of Jobra do not know magic that would allow them to rise from their impoverished roots to break the cycle of poverty. Hence, they deserve effective tools and skills. He founded Grameen Bank to provide these types of tools (e.g., means of production).

In fact, Yunus nurtured Grameen with his two world acclaimed concepts: microcredit and social business. There are actually two theories to explain the influence of Grameen: (1) microcredit, an innovative idea to spur entrepreneurship in poor people, formulated in 1974; and (2) Social Business (SB), a visionary new dimension for capitalism, in 1981. In my new book, Grameen Social Business Model: A Manifesto for Proletariat Revolution-I show how these two concepts i.e., microcredit and social business- have gone from being theories to become an inspiring practice adopted by leading universities (e.g., Glasgow University), entrepreneurs (e.g., Franck Riboud) and corporations (e.g., Groupe Danone) across the globe. One of the conclusions of Yunus' concepts is that the poor are like a "bonsai tree," and they can do big things if they get access to microcredit.

However, that does not mean microcredit is the perfect remedy to end all poverty, nevertheless we have no better alternative. In fact, microcredit is just an economic theory that does not work unless one tries hard enough and goes the extra mile with it. In this way, microcredit is no different from education; one can succeed only if one puts in the extra effort. In fact, building more schools, for example, in remote villages does not educate everyone, although it does increase the chances of that happening. By the same token, Grameen does not turn everyone into a successful person like Taslima Begum, for example; however, the microcredit loan it dispenses increases an individual's chances of rising out of poverty. For example, Taslima, who lives in Shibganj upazila, took a loan worth Tk 1,500 from the Grameen in 1991 to help her husband Abu Hanif run a mechanic's shop, and the two are now self-reliant.

When Grameen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the Bank randomly chose Taslima Begum to represent the bank at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. In fact, Taslima received the Nobel medal and award on behalf of Grameen from the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, at Oslo City Hall on December 10, 2006. If we multiply Taslima by 8.3 million borrowers, we get a sense of how Grameen successfully empowers women. However, this does not mean every single borrowers of Grameen (i.e., 8.3 million) can become as successful as Taslima Begum. What's remarkable is not how many failed to become Taslima but rather, how many poor women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of nowhere like Taslima Begum. It also means that the opportunity exists for 8.3 million borrowers to rise out of poverty to become as successful as Taslima. This is why, Yunus and Grameen's 8.3 million borrowers became a family. For the last three decades, they worked together, they prayed together, they struggled together, they attacked poverty together, and they even won the Nobel Prize together.

Although Yunus both contributed to the liberation of Bangladesh by defeating Pakistan and contributed during rebuilding of the war-torn nation by helping to defeat poverty, some people still hate him, especially Shikh Hasina and her supporters. This political vendetta against Yunus could be understood as a modern-day replay of the famous conflict between Socrates and Alcibiades. Socrates was sent to trial on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety. A majority of the 501 dikastes voted to convict him and forced him to drink hemlock, which killed him. In a similar reactionary spirit, Hasina, the one who labeled Yunus a "blood sucker of poor people," ordered Bangladesh Bank to remove him from Grameen Bank.

My new book, Grameen Social Business Model, suggests that democracy, especially democracy in a third world country like Bangladesh, can sometimes descend into mob rule where even a Nobel Peace Prize winner who fought to liberate his own nation in 1971 can become a victim. Let's hope Hasina won't use "sucking the blood of poor people" as an excuse to force Yunus to drink the hemlock, as Alcibiades forced Socrates to do some 2600 years ago.

The writer, Rashidul Bari, is a biographer of Muhammad Yunus and most recently authored the Grameen Social Business Model: A Manifesto for Proletariat Revolution . He is currently collaborating with Dr. Daniel Kabat to complete a physics book. Email: [email protected]

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