THE DAY HISTORICAL DISTORTION SET IN
SYED BADRUL AHSAN
THE assassination of the Father of the Nation on 15 August 1975 was but the first step in the distortion of national history. Sit back and reflect on all the falsehoods that have been disseminated in these past thirty-four years by elements who have clearly derived benefits from what is truly the worst episode in free Bangladesh’s history. Moments after the soldiers completed their macabre mission, it was given out on the radio that Bangladesh had been declared an Islamic republic. That, of course, was not true, as later events were to prove. But that the country had been forced at gunpoint to take a regressive step towards what would amount to communalism was made clear through the religious invocations of the killers.
Suddenly, the state did not appear to be for Bengalis any more. The Bengali battle cry of Joi Bangla was supplanted by the Pakistan-inclined Bangladesh Zindabad. The broad hint was there that the largest religious community, in this case Muslims, were in the ascendant.
One of the more eerie aspects of the bloody coup was the patent glee with which Pakistan welcomed the fall of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his government. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cheered the rise of an ‘Islamic’ Bangladesh and announced a dole of rice and cloth for the Bengalis. And then came the radio and television address by Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed, the commerce minister who had suddenly turned into ‘president’. Broad overtones of rightwing religious politics underlined his remarks.
The queasy feeling was there among citizens that Bangladesh had taken a wholesale journey back to darkness. But if that was the beginning of a rejection of history as it had shaped up in 1971, there was worse to come. The infamous indemnity ordinance was but a stepping stone to the insidious things that were yet to be. And yet hope of a sort dawned, feebly, when Khaled Musharraf put the killers out to pasture through his coup of 3 November 1975. Four days later, he was dead. And those who had felled him raised all the communal slogans reminiscent of Pakistan’s perverted politics in the pre-1971 era. All-enveloping darkness threatened to consume secular values in the land.
Villainy was in the air; and it came through a dishing out of more untruths. Bangabandhu, it was whispered in Iago-like fashion, had surrendered to the Pakistan army in March 1971, that he had had indeed little intention of securing Bangladesh’s freedom through a war of liberation. Meanwhile, with the Zia regime firmly ensconced in power, larger plans were being made to strip the country bare of the basic decency it had historically symbolized. M.G. Tawab, heading the air force and operating as a deputy martial law administrator, organized a ‘seerat’ conference that left few in any doubt about the military junta’s intentions. In February 1976, matters became a little clearer. Khondokar Abdul Hamid, a journalist and Zia acolyte, spoke of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, a mishmash of ideas intended to drill holes in the Bengali nationalism that had propelled the nation to war against Pakistan in 1971. Then came Zia’s unilateral act of tampering with the constitution.
Secularism, socialism and nationalism were prised out of it and replaced with themes that were a clear negation of Bengali history. The parliament that was elected in February 1979, stacked as it was with apologists for ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, adopted the fifth amendment to the constitution. Included in it was the indemnity ordinance. Bangabandhu’s killers were safe, for no court could bring their misdeeds into question. Many of them were sent off abroad, to serve as diplomats at various Bangladesh missions!
A definitive manifestation of the distortion of history came through the reluctance of the regime to identify the Pakistan army as the perpetrators of the genocide in 1971. On Independence Day and Victory Day, the reference was only to an ‘occupation army’, never to Pakistan’s soldiers. Through a repeal of the Collaborators’ Act of 1972, the door was opened for the old, active supporters of Pakistan’s genocide to re-enter politics in independent Bangladesh. Under the cover of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, which clearly espoused non-secular causes, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League and other Pakistan-friendly parties swiftly occupied the political arena. Known Pakistan supporters joined the regime as ministers. On state-controlled radio and television, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman turned into a non-person, a fact that persisted for as long as General Zia held on to power. Absolutely no mention of the Mujibnagar government was there; and sanitized versions of national history made their way into school textbooks.
Ziaur Rahman’s murder in May 1981 only speeded up the process of historical distortion. General H.M. Ershad, the nation’s second military ruler, pushed the country even more into a communal corner when he decreed that Islam be the religion of the state. It was on his watch that Bangabandhu’s killers were permitted by the authorities to form a political party, which then fielded one of the assassins as its presidential candidate at the 1988 elections. Politics was made to stand on its head when another assassin was made a member of parliament. And then, in a moment of supreme irony, the dictator went all the way to Tungipara to pray at the grave of the Father of the Nation.
The mauling of history simply intensified with the rise of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to power in February 1991. Suddenly, it was being given out that Ziaur Rahman had declared Bangladesh’s independence in March 1971 while the political leadership was busy trying to save itself from the wrath of the Pakistan army. Curiously, though, that was a half truth. The other half was that Zia had made the announcement on 27 March 1971 on behalf of ‘our great national leader and supreme commander Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’ (his words). That other half has never been revealed. In all the years that Zia and his political descendants held power, the 27 March announcement was never played on the radio.
Distortion took its worst form during the period of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government in 2001-2006 when moves were made to peddle the untruth that Zia had declared Bangladesh’s independence on 26 March 1971! Covert steps were underway, toward the end of Khaleda Zia’s government, to meddle with the April 1971 Proclamation of Independence and supplant it with Zia’s alleged call of freedom to the country.
We rest our case.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star
AUGUST 15, 2009