1971: OF REMEMBERING, OF NOT FORGETTING
Spring came to our courtyard on a long ago December afternoon. After all the weeks and months of murder and mayhem, of tears and travails, of homes burnt and women raped, of young men abducted and killed, of the elderly swiftly done to death by men calling themselves soldiers of the Pakistan army, Bangladesh emerged from the ashes of East Pakistan. And pure joy it was to be alive, to be young, to know that the land was finally ours, that we had indeed turned our backs on the pernicious two-nation theory which had kept us in its straitjacket for close to a quarter of a century. On that afternoon of 16 December 1971, it was Joi Bangla which reverberated all over the country. On the radio, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s ‘Srishti shukher ullashe’ came alive, in all the euphoria of freedom. Abdul Jabbar’s soulful ‘Hajar bochhor porey abar eshechhi phirey, Bangla’r buuke achhi darhiye‘ pierced the soul in all its poignancy.
Only minutes earlier the ‘brave’ soldiers of the Pakistan army, 93,000 of them, led by Lt. Gen. Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, had surrendered to the joint command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini. That one signature affixed to the surrender document by Niazi formally brought an end to Pakistan in our political and cultural ambience. Nearly twenty years after the Bengalis first asserted themselves on the question of their language in 1952, it was more than the language that was free. It was a country we could finally call our own. And to those who made it possible — Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the dedicated band of men shaping the Mujibnagar government in exile — we paid homage. It was homage they richly deserved, and much more. As the evening descended into twilight on 16 December, we reflected on the dramatic five years that had gone by since Bangabandhu first informed us of our road to emancipation through the Six Point programme of autonomy. We reflected on the irony of the circumstances. Bangabandhu had formally announced the Six Points in Lahore in February 1966. And yet it had been in Lahore where the resolution for the creation of Pakistan on the basis of communalism — that the Muslims of India were a separate nation — was adopted in March 1940. Lahore made Pakistan; and it was too the very place where Bangabandhu gave out the signal that Pakistan was soon to come to an end in its distant eastern province.
That was in 1966. On that first evening of liberation, we in Bangladesh dwelt on the moment we decided to call our land Bangladesh. Throughout history, in mythology and in our folk tales, Bangladesh had always been a reality. Tagore sang of Bangladesh; Nazrul depicted it in his poetry. And our fathers, when they referred to home, constantly brought up the image of Bangladesh. And so it was that in December 1969, on the sixth anniversary of the death of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman informed Bengalis that thenceforth East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. It was political judgement we welcomed, indeed cheered. A mere two Decembers later, there was indeed Bangladesh — not as a province of Pakistan but as a sovereign state based on the grand ideals of secular democracy. It was a principle Tajuddin Ahmed, the cerebral man who was prime minister in Mujibnagar, would reassert in the early hours of freedom. Through a decree, he clamped a ban on all communal political organizations in the new country. We were, finally and happily, on our own. We were on a journey, across a new landscape.
Even so, there was the anticipation of waiting for Bangabandhu to come home from his lonely incarceration in Pakistan. There was no knowing, in those early days of liberty, if he was alive, if he had been executed by the Yahya Khan junta. And in our hearts and souls there was worry about the tens of thousands of our compatriots trapped in Pakistan. With Pakistan defeated on the battlefield by Bangladesh’s freedom fighters, it was quite natural to suppose that our fellow Bengalis in Pakistan would be subjected to harsh treatment. We worried about them, justifiably.
In a larger sense, our tragedy would not end with the victory of 16 December. It would be two days after liberation that we would learn of other horrors that had been perpetrated by the Pakistanis and their local goon squads even as Bangladesh was emerging free. Scores of Bengali intellectuals, straddling a variety of professions, had been picked up over a period of three days and systematically tortured to death. Much of the euphoria attendant on freedom came to be suspended when the mutilated corpses of these leading lights of society were discovered in Rayerbazar. We wept, copiously.
And we would weep, down the years. Yes, we were free. Yes, Bangabandhu did return from Pakistan. Yes, we were citizens of a secular Bengali state. But, no, we did not know of the conspiracies that were yet afoot against us, against all the values we stood for. Enemies within and without were ranged against Bangladesh. Sinister men moved within the corridors of power, with daggers concealed in their cloaks. They murdered Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; and then they bayoneted and shot to a gory end the four illustrious men who had provided leadership to the nation in the shape of the Mujibnagar government. In the months and years after August 1975, we would lose our battlefield heroes to the depredations of their detractors. Khaled Musharraf, Abu Taher, MA Manzoor, ATM Haider, Najmul Huda and scores of others would die in the darkness imposed by neo-communalism. Bangladesh, a land of freedom, would become hostage at the hands of ambitious soldiers — on 15 August 1975, on 7 November 1975, on 24 March 1982 — and would careen down a bizarre alley of abortive coups d’etat, illegitimate government and questionable politics. Truth would be a casualty. History would be airbrushed out of our books.
Forty one years after that beautiful winter spring of December 1971, it is for us to reclaim the land and the legacy from those who would have it regress into communalism, into everything that militates against its freedom. Today, the message ought to be loud and clear: that Bangladesh, if it means to march forward in step with the rest of the world, must have enlightened leadership to guide it along. The time is here and now for a reassertion of history, for measures that will erase the falsification which has gone into a mauling of its cultural and political heritage.
It is time to sing of Joi Bangla again, of the spirit that led us to war against the denizens of the dark. It is time to remember. Forgetting is a sin. Looking the other way from truth is criminality that will not be condoned.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2012
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star