By Mahbub Leelen and Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh kicks off a 375-day mega-year marking the centennial of its founder’s birth on Tuesday, with some initial festivities scaled back because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The commemoration begins on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s 100th birthday, March 17, and is set to continue through March 26, 2021, the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence.
Early Tuesday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Abdul Hamid were scheduled to place wreaths on Mujib’s grave, about two hours’ drive north of Dhaka.
“They will take part in the prayers there and return to Dhaka the same day,” Kamal Abdul Naser Chowdhury told reporters on Monday.
After the wreath ceremony, Hasina was to release commemorative coins and stamps from her residence on Tuesday afternoon.
A fireworks display Tuesday evening was to be broadcast live from Racecourse Maiden, a stadium where on March 7, 1971, Mujib delivered a speech declaring Bangladesh’s independence from what was then East Pakistan.
A lifelong politician, Mujib had long campaigned for the rights of the people of what is now Bangladesh – starting as a student leader in 1940 when it was still part of the British Empire. As a result, he spent 11 years in jail, according to official accounts of his life.
On March 26, 1971, he was again arrested by the Pakistani Army and taken off to Pakistan, where he remained behind bars for the rest of the nine-month war of independence.
In 1972, he returned to Bangladesh and took the helm of the new nation but was assassinated along with most of his family on Aug. 15, 1975, by mid-level army officers.
Sheikh Hasina, his eldest daughter, was out of the country at the time, along with one of her sisters. Now 72, she is Bangladesh’s longest-ruling prime minister.
Chowdhury, the chief coordinator of the committee organizing the events, said programs planned this month at schools across the nation would not be held as the government ordered them closed to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A grand public ceremony and exhibitions of art and documents representing Bangladesh’s history in various parts of the country are now on hold.
Bangladesh on Monday confirmed eight coronavirus cases and has been following guidance of the World Health Organization and other health experts to avoid mass gatherings.
“We’ll hold the Mujib Year programs by rearranging the schedule and we’ll conduct the programs across the country accordingly,” Chowdhury said.
Critics have complained that Hasina’s Awami League government has not released complete details about the cost of celebration.
After allotting 1 billion taka (U.S. $11.76 million) for Mujib Year, the government requested an additional 1 billion taka in public funds in January – then solicited private donations in a statement released by the cabinet this month.
On Monday, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) called for all expenditures to be made public.
“A high standard of transparency and accountability should be ensured, including voluntarily publishing information on already-spent funds by the government and the use of those funds and transactions related to celebrating the Mujib Year,” TIB said.
The information should be posted on a website and in other media “in an easily understandable way for ordinary people,” it said.
It also questioned the request for private funding.
“Direct or indirect force should not be imposed by any political party, their allies, private institutions, non-government or any civil society organizations to collect funds to celebrate Mujib Year programs,” TIB said.
Meanwhile, an opposition leader complained that opposition parties had not been invited by the ruling Awami League to participate in the centennial, during which buildings and organizations across Bangladesh are displaying a government-issued logo and image of the founding father.
“The Awami League should have invited all parties, at least the major political parties, to get involved in the celebration program,” said Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a former leader of the ruling Awami League who now heads the Citizens Unity party.
“I do not see any justification of celebrating Bangabandhu’s birth centenary in such a way,” Manna said, using a widely used Bengali term that honors Mujib.
Citizens Unity is part of a cluster of opposition parties that hold no seats in parliament in a country that some critics say is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Awami League official Shajahan Khan said the party did invite some opposition political parties to participate in the celebration.
“We have not invited the parties who do not believe in the independence of Bangladesh,” he told BenarNews.
“The parties like Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and those with similar ideologies do not recognize Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the father of the nation and his role in the War of Independence,” Khan said.
Manna, meanwhile, said the Awami League had been working against the spirit of those who fought for Bangladesh’s freedom.
“There is the Digital Security Act where government officials can jail a person for up to 10 years if they think any comments are criticizing the government. This law is an impediment to guaranteeing freedom of expression and free thought,” he said.
“And this is not the spirit of the War of Independence.”