There are no two ways of saying this. I am proud of my parents. And it is not in a politely humble way that we are often taught to be. Both my parents are freedom fighters. I am proud that my father is a Bir Pratik, one of the three doctors in Bangladesh to have won a gallantry award in the Liberation War. I am proud that my mother was a nurse in a war hospital. My uncle is also a Bir Pratik. He was among the few war-time inductions of the First War Course, familiarly called the Murti Commission.
I had nothing to do with the events that happened before I was born and I have done nothing since to earn this pride. My exalted status, if I may say so, befell me at birth and I have embraced it as a birthright, just as it was my right to speak in Bengali or live in a free country.
My parents belong to that group who answered their calling. They would either go down as seditious rebels or gallant saviours. It was a gamble. They took it. They risked their life and limb for a cause they considered worthy enough to fight for, and quite rightly so. But why should I be rewarded for their actions? Why should that privilege extend to my children too?
The preference, in the form of special quotas, that freedom fighters were initially given in government institutions, was eventually allocated for their children and now for their grandchildren. Even today, 30 percent quota is reserved for freedom fighters’ families. It might have been acceptable if almost a third of the seat were reserved for a group of people who make up significantly less than one percent of the population if it were the freedom fighters themselves. After all, many of them gave up their opportunities for a better life. Many sacrificed bright careers to end up dead or, worse, crippled for life for the sake of what was to become independent Bangladesh.
In total, preferential quotas account for than half the government jobs with freedom fighters’ families still taking up 30 percent. Other groups include women, ethnic minorities and the disable. The provision for special preference through quotas has been typically applied at latter stages of the Bangladesh Civil Service examinations. But this year, according to a bdnews24.com report, the special quotas were applied from the very outset meaning that even those sitting for the preliminary examinations were put through the quotas, which would understandably eliminate a number of eligible candidates favouring those falling under one of the special categories. Many deserving candidates, therefore, feel deprived, and rightly so. They took a stand in protest at Shahbagh and brought the whole city to a virtual standstill on Wednesday.
The freedom fighters’ quota stands out for two reasons. First, that it is grossly disproportionate and eats up almost a third of all government positions. And second, because ‘freedom fighters’ family’ does not constitute a disadvantaged group by definition, as do ethnic minorities or the disabled.
The rationale behind these preferential schemes should also be quite clear. Beginning from the parliament to the primary school, women are given preference because that half of the population must be lifted up. The hill communities are remote and deprived of the civic amenities that governments are more comfortable providing the urban elite. It is difficult for such sections to compete with the more privileged sections on the same plane and prevail. Special quotas for such communities are commonplace in many other countries but only when such reverse discrimination becomes imperative for lifting the backward communities to a higher standard of living. And that too only after ensuring a minimum level of competence among the beneficiaries. But that cannot apply for freedom fighters’ children or their grandchildren. They cannot be considered ‘disadvantaged’ by dint of the mere fact that their ancestors had fought in the Liberation War. For instance, I am not disabled. I do not belong to an ethnic minority either. I have a stable job. I am reasonably well off, especially compared to the average Bangladeshi. I live in Dhaka, where the best of services and amenities are available. In fact my children, as was I, are already among the most privileged sections of this society. Any added preference on top of their natural advantage over their peers, will not just be unfair. It is criminal.
It is most likely due to the perceived political incorrectness that people, even those wronged and deprived, do not point their fingers at such gross injustice, lest they be labelled ‘anti Liberation’.
I heard it first, or rather overheard it, in an under-the-breath mutter. It did not matter that I was not meant to hear it. And my disclaimer that day, still stands. I don’t want this privilege. Nor do I want it for my children. I just want to stand proud.
There is no reason that I should be put ahead of my peers solely because of a decision my parents had taken years ago. There must be a concrete rationale behind giving privileges to certain underprivileged sections. That is where such preferences are perhaps more acceptable and better utilised.
Surely there are freedom fighters’ family members who are poor, disabled or disadvantaged or all three. But there are also separate schemes for such sections of the people. Admittedly, the government’s schemes are not sufficient compared to the number of people who need them. Nor are these schemes developed in such a manner that enables the disadvantaged groups to gradually gain self-sufficiency and enter into the mainstream or graduate to a better standard of living. But that is a different debate altogether.
Many would argue that freedom fighters deserve recognition. Sure they do. And those who were wounded in the war should have been rehabilitated long ago. The fact that freedom fighters still need government assistance to barely get by is enough of a testimony that none of the ruling governments since the country’s independence was sincere enough and whatever schemes or programmes there were, were merely an eyewash.
One need not go farther than the finance minister’s annual budget speech. The allowance for freedom fighters comes in the same section, which also announces allowances for the blind, disabled, widowed and the elderly. It appears that freedom fighters merely constitute another group that the government deems fit for giving alms. They constitute another group to provide the government with the ability to claim that it supports the spirit and cause of the Liberation War — and gain political mileage. This is no way to honour the sons of this soil.
By the same token special quotas for the freedom fighters’ families imply the presumption that they too are disadvantaged by definition. The government is in fact creating another privileged section out of the freedom fighters’ families. That is ironic, to say the least, since such undue privilege for certain sections of the erstwhile Pakistan was one of the ills that the freedom fighters themselves had supposedly stood up against. If anything, the Freedom Fighters’ quota is an affront to the spirit of Liberation War and an insult to the people who fought it.
This post was updated and revised on Saturday, July 13 2013.
Tanim Ahmed is a journalist.