When President Ziaur Rahman was killed, he was only 45. But within this short life span he contributed enormously to Bangladesh. His catalytic role in initiating the mass revolt among Bengali members of the armed-forces after the brutal military crackdown of 25th March 1971, and his contribution as a military leader of Bangladesh’s war of independence distinguishes him as one of our top national heroes. Zia’s post independence role in building modern Bangladesh brick-by-brick by revamping all sectors starting from mutiny-ridden ‘broken-chain-of-command’ military, to her global image, to initiation of open-market-economy, are enough to immortalize him.
Yet, Ziaur Rahman’s lasting legacy will be his contribution to give the people of Bangladesh an identity — ‘Bangladeshi’ — that is inclusive of all the races, ethnic groups and religions. This identity emanates from Zia’s political philosophy of Bangladeshi nationalism, which was embraced very enthusiastically by an overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis. The political philosophy of ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’ was expressed as his forward looking, conciliatory, inclusive and tolerant modus-operandi of nation building.
In an orientation session for the newly-elected BNP members of the 2nd Parliament, Zia explained Bangladeshi nationalism the following way,

“Now the question is, what is nationalism? If we study history of the world, we will see rise of different sorts of nationalism at different times and places. In this regard, first comes ‘racial’ or ethnic identity based nationalism. Arab or German nationalisms are prime examples of this kind of nationalism. German nationalism is based on Arian race. Hitler might not have talked about German nationalism if after World War I; parts of Germany were not occupied and shared by states like Britain, France and Poland. This act prompted Hitler to promote race based German nationalism. And we all know of Arab nationalism. … The late president of Egypt, Mr. Jamal Abdul Nasser was able to give a significant shape to Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism still exists and stands tall proudly with all other races in the world.
Next comes language-based nationalism. The slogan of Bengali nationalism is built on this philosophy. And for this reason, Awami League still dreams of establishing Bengali nationalism.
And then Muslim League, IDL and the Jamaatis talk about religion based nationalism. At the beginning of this century, Jamal Uddin Afghani preached Pan Islamic nationalism; the spirit of religion-based nationalism originates from that pan-Islamism. To be frank, since inception of Pakistan, Bangladesh was exploited and ruled in the name of this religion-based nationalism. But the ‘politics of exploitation‘ in the name of Islamic Nationalism could not keep Pakistan intact. Independent-sovereign Bangladesh was born.
Politics can be based on regional identity also, thus creating a new regional nationalism. In this regard we can mention the name of EEC (European Economic Commission). EEC has her own parliament i.e. the European Parliament. Many EEC countries are not even connected via land, yet they were able to bring forth new spirit and new idea of cooperation among themselves. They are collectively trying to give themselves a distinct identity as Europeans. Broadly one can assume that they are moving towards a new nationalistic identity.
War can be the base of nationalism too. But that is not a ‘compulsory’ or essential pre-requisite of nationalism.
Bangladeshi nationalism is based on all of the above components of nationalism…. We have ethnic heritage, a rich language and religious tradition. We all live in a single important geographic location. We have the dream of building a new economic order. And the blood-drenched spirit of our war of independence motivates us all. Presence of so many nationalistic elements is unprecedented in one nation’s identity.
When people say that Bangladeshi nationalism is not embracing religion, they are wrong. Religious identity and fidelity to faith is a great and historic trait of Bangladeshi nation. It has been mentioned in the Holy Quran that ” La Iqra Fidweene“, ‘religion should not be forcefully imposed’. Hence Bangladeshi nationalism is neither religion based nor religion averse. This nationalism ensures each and everyone’s faith and religious rights. And Bangladeshi nationalism is also not a purely language based nationalism. …
The philosophy of Bangladeshi Nationalism has ‘absorption power‘ and ‘elbow room.” [Translated into English from original Bangla speech by the author.]

Zia responded to the call of Bangbandhu to take up arms and lead the fight for Bangalee nationalism. But in an independent Bangladesh, he understood the need for an inclusive nationalistic identity for people of erstwhile East Bengal / East Pakistan who are predominantly religious Muslims Bangalees but very tolerant and accommodating to the rights of non-Muslims and or non-Bangalee ethnic groups.

Even today, over 30 years after his death, changes in Bangladesh constitutional framework initiated by Zia has been the basis of governance in Bangladesh. Zia re-introduced multi party democracy and press freedom back to Bangladesh. Thanks to some activist judges and an overwhelming parliamentary majority of currently ruling Awami League, a big push is being made to remove Ziaur Rahman initiated changes in the constitution of Bangladesh. Despite all the vicious attacks on late President Ziaur Rahman from the highest levels of the government, Zia introduced constitutional changes enjoy enormous public support and it is very likely that practically most of his changes will remain in the constitution. This is the ultimate success of Ziaur Rahman’s political philosophy, Bangladeshi nationalism.

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