NO TURNING BACK
The concept of the good war may sound oxymoronic to some across the political spectrum, the kind of term peddled by some slick operative of the war industry of the West, or one of its couriers in the form of shady arms dealers who are the illegal beneficiaries when nations go to war, maybe some misguided ideologue who wouldn’t know what to do with himself if all the wars suddenly wrapped up in the Middle East. One of the keys to understanding some of the newer groups like the so-called Islamic State (variously ISIL, Daesh, etc.) is that they are now offering careers in terrorism. With attractive benefits.
In 1971 though, the war fought in these lands that would go on to form an independent Bangladesh for its 75 million residents, at least from their side on the ground and humanity’s point of view, was every bit the good fight. Our cause was just, and our hands were forced. Despite all the post-war efforts at constructing an underlying theme of Bengali nationalism by tracing its origins right back to the Language Movement of 1952, over time all of these have unravelled. While it is true that some of the more radical student groups were pushing Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to declare independence outright in the lead-up to his historic March 7th address at the Racecourse Maidan, our leader clearly was not convinced by such urgency. Like a true democrat, he wanted the path of dialogue to exhaust itself before moving to such a course. No-one knew better than their own ‘Mojibor’ of old, the pulse of the people of Bengal.
It was the commencement of Operation Searchlight, and the serial atrocities committed by the Pakistani army in its first phase (till early May) that provoked such a collective outrage on the part of the population that no army in the world could hope to suppress while at the same time holding on their own sanity. They were destined to fail, and so they did, spectacularly. Today as a result 160 million Bangladeshis wake up every morning entitled to expect the same freedoms as others who belong to independent nations, that we believe to be democracies. But can they really? From its politicians (not including the rulers of the day obviously) to its journalists and human rights defenders, its hopelessly repressed minorities, and perhaps most frustrating of all, the politicised bureaucracy, is it Bangladesh that is failing to live up to the promise of liberation, or Bangladeshis?
No turning back
In 1971, there was a degree of clarity on the issues that were in play. I suppose it should always be easier to be clear that one cannot stand for outright savagery, be it in atheltic settings or more hostile situations, from those expecting to then govern over you. And what the Pakistan army unleashed from practically the first hour of March 26th, 1971 after the failure to find a political solution to the crisis – one essentially of democracy following the refusal to honour the results of the 1970 election – fails to qualify as anything less than the savage and brutal reaction of a schoolyard bully who has had his day, because school always ends when the bells rings. And Pakistan rang its own bell as the night March 25th gave way to the 26th, Pakistan’s own date that will live on, in infamy. It is difficult to glean what may have induced the Pakistanis into thinking they could butcher an entire population and take over their land. Yahya Khan possibly felt encouraged by the suppression of an earlier Baloch revolt through such use of force. Certainly the subsequent appointment of General A.K. Niazi, who had led the army operation in Balochistan, as the head of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, suggested the existence of such a line of thinking. Once again, given that was indeed the case, it would just end up confirming the chauvinistic, borderline racist thinking that is the likeliest contributor in the grandest, most vicious crime of them all – genocide.
As the Pakistanis subsequently learned, to their eternal cost that they too commemorate on December 16th every year as The Fall of Dhaka, it merely pushed a far greater proportion of the population into action than could ever have been possible, with those who couldn’t join the armed struggle firmly committed to doing whatever else they could to help the Mukti Bahini. Musicians churned out songs that still stir the soul, broadcast over the historic Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. Footballers (again as Shadhin Bangla) toured to create awareness of the cause. Artists depicted the horrors on vibrant canvases that abounded with possibility. Villagers sheltered freedom fighters in their humble homes. It was a time of extraordinary cruelty, yet underpinned throughout by a solidarity not seen since on these shores. Just the sense of almost everyone being “in this together”, made it a magical moment to be alive. Ours was always the good fight. There is really no way to see it otherwise.
“Beyond a certain point, there is no turning back,” wrote Franz Kafka, the celebrated Czech writer, in Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way, before shattering any preconception from forming with the refrain: “That is the point that must be reached.” The generation of ‘71 who fought for and attained our vaunted independence, were undoubtedly pushed to that point. Yet once they were, the result was always inevitable. Overnight, throughout Bangladesh, the most ordinary, easygoing, peace-loving souls of the Bengalis were transformed into a ferocious form of indignation. And from that point onwards, there was going to be no turning back.
It almost required a sense of certainty, for as one of the sub-sector commanders during the war said, “I left home to fight, and knowing I wasn’t seeing mother again without returning victorious.” This is one of the abiding feelings of what informed the original spirit, or, inspiration, today’s much-distorted concept of muktijuddher chetona, that one recalls from the period. There was also the sheer unacceptability across the entire population regarding Islamabad’s actions, which were grossly unjust. So there prevailed a degree of consistency among the population on what constituted right and wrong.
Today, almost no such consensus exists across the population on almost any issue. In 1971, let me assure you, it was inconceivable that more than four decades down the line, the fault lines in our society would still be defined along the lines of “pro-liberation” and “anti-liberation”. How can we still accommodate that rhetoric? It is high time however that we begin to display some of the maturity necessary to rise above the maelstrom of party politics, for there is nothing that seems to accentuate our differences more in this day and age than the AL-BNP divide.
And today again under the leadership of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government, we find ourselves standing over another point from which there is no turning back – only this time in the field of developing our society while growing our economy for maximum benefits to the most number of people. That holds true across the border as well. Whether or not we now proceed to advance from it, or fall off and get written off into history’s dustbin as “the nation that could’ve been” will depend mainly on whether we can summon some of that clarity we had in ‘71, or let our petty differences pull us asunder.
DECEMBER 16, 2015