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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

Our shared Bangladesh

A letter from Amartya Sen to Rehman Sobhan

Saturday 11 May 2024


08 Feb 2024

Dear Rehman,

I am hugely moved by your letter about our shared Bangladesh. It also made me think about our student days, when we had such dreams about a future Bengal and hoped that our anticipations and highest expectations would someday come true.

You were living mostly in Kolkata in those days, and I was, in contrast, mostly in Dhaka, on the other side of the east-west divide.

The familiar trains that left Dhaka railway station, which my freedom fighter cousins once succeeded in robbing, went past our neighbourhood near Tikatuli. (One of my cousins, who was dedicated to passing the wealth and ammunition from the trains to the Indian revolutionaries further east, did not survive the encounter with the British.)

Things moved on from there, and later, through the extraordinary leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh not only achieved independence, but also showed the world many exceptional gifts, varying from splendid literary creativity to superb organizational excellence, earning a place of its own in the cluster of civilizations.

We may have had some terrible developments from betrayal and bad fortune, but, remarkably enough, Bangladesh stood on its own, again with Mujib’s inspiration, and flourished as an astonishing country.

In all these achievements, the new leader Sheikh Hasina showed imagination and originality. There were initially very hard days, which Hasina and her much reduced family had to overcome, despite some regular attempts to cut them down.

I have been privileged to know Hasina well, and not only had the opportunity of visiting her in the abodes in which she has had such success, but also in her difficult and struggling days, when the world was often oddly unsympathetic to her predicaments.

Some of the great people of Bangladesh did not seem to share any sympathy that could have allowed Hasina safety and strength of her own, which is a pity. But, I believe, that combative experience gave Hasina a kind of power and extraordinary self-will.

Hasina’s independence became recognized and acknowledged widely, not only in Bangladesh, but also across the world.

Precarious Dhaka survived through turbulent times, despite the challenges it faced, and Bangladesh made huge advancements under the new leadership. The world was truly astonished by what could happen.

Hasina’s family tradition allows much generosity, and there is no reason why that wonderful quality should have been compromised by the new leadership of Bangladesh after it had overcome the barriers on the way.

Even though Hasina’s need to stand up to powerful opposition was clear enough, given her governing priorities, legitimate questions have been understandably raised about the way the opposition is often treated.

We cannot, in any way, forget the greatness of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. We also have to see why the world that celebrates Mujib can legitimately expect a bit more from today’s leadership of Bangladesh.

Given the creativity and success of Bangladesh, it could certainly avoid the small-mindedness — and what could look like vengeful behaviour — and accommodate varying national priorities with decency and firmness.

It is interesting that a country that had — and still has — reason to astonish the world about how much can be done by clear-headed thinking of the kind that Mujib helped to develop in Bangladesh, and from which Bangladeshis have benefitted so very much, gets such modest recognition.

As people rooted in Bangladesh, we have reason to want its powerful leadership to allow a more shared world, giving room for opposition, without in any way weakening the unique position that the inheritors of Mujib can legitimately claim.

It would not be odd for Bangladesh to encourage some sharing in the running of a country which has so much to offer. Bangladesh’s big achievements have come from many different directions, with much to celebrate.

A triumphant leadership of Bangladesh that can pay attention to the country’s many sources of strength can certainly allow broad-mindedness.

I am, of course, always impressed to see how easily the Bengali culture allows recognition of different priorities without becoming uniquely exclusionary.

In the spirit of Mujib’s affirmative approach to all parts of Bangladeshi society and culture, the running of Bangladesh today can be more welcoming and more enriched by contributions from different parts of society and culture, without losing coherence and leadership.

Bangladesh has achieved enormous successes, and can accomplish even more. To that old dream I remain as loyal as I was as a child.

Yours ever,


(Author: Amartya Sen is University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University and the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics. He wrote this letter to Rehman Sobhan on January 25)

[The above letter appeared first in Dhaka Tribune and is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use]

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