By Bhaskar Roy
I would be morally remiss if in my article on Bangladesh (my first article on the country this year-2017) I did not revisit the torture and trauma the Bengali people suffered in their struggle for freedom from Pakistan. The Liberation War was fought on the plank of ethno-cultural independence and secularism. Unfortunately, that war is not yet over.
In 1947, when India was divided by the British on the demands of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan was formed (West Pakistan in the West and East Pakistan in the east) on the basis of religious (Muslim) majority areas.
The Bengalis of East Pakistan soon discovered that their language, culture and diversity were under threat from the dominant western wing. And thus started the long arduous and “bloody” struggle for a Bengali identity that ultimately led to independence. The resistance to the imposition of Urdu started in the 1950s, by both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis who shared the deep bonds of language, ethnicity and culture.
In their long struggle for independence of Bangladesh, the following dates are of critical importance:
February 21, 1952 – Language Movement Day
March 25, 1971 – Operation Searchlight
December 14, 1971 – Martyred Intellectuals Day
December 16, 1971 – Surrender by Pakistani Forces
August 15, 1975 – Assassination of Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
November, 1975 to December, 1975 – Coups Counter Coups and trials by ‘Kangaroo courts’ of liberation fighters later brutally assassinated by Zia-ur-Rehman
1952 was the watershed moment for Bengali aspiration. The call was to oppose the imposition of Urdu, an alien language which brought with it the subtle infiltration of an alien culture. On February 21 of that year several protestors in a peaceful anti-Urdu demonstration were killed in police firing. Bangladesh observes this day as Language Movement Day. February 21 has been recognised by UNESCO (1999) as International Mother Language Day in a tribute to the Bengali language movement and the linguistic rights of people all over the world. (The government of Bangladesh must be credited for this).
In 1970, the Awami League won the Pakistani general elections. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, its leader of the Awami League should have become the prime minister of Pakistan. But that did not happen; instead he was arrested and imprisoned and the elections rescinded.
Responding to widespread protests in Bengal, the Pakistani army of Gen. Yahya Khan launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ on March 25, 1971 – it was a planned military operation to wipe out the Bengali nationalist movement. The Pakistani army perpetrated a reign of terror, ably assisted by their local henchmen, mostly members of the right-wing fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. The massacre continued till the Pak army surrendered to joint Bangladesh-India command on December 16, 1971. Over 90 thousand Pakistani military personnel, including officers and other ranks surrendered to the Indian army, which had to give them protection, otherwise they would have been torn to bits by the Bengali people. The surrendered Pakistani personal were brought to India and later repatriated to Pakistan.
‘Operation Searchlight’ had a much larger agenda. The West Pakistani generals realized the impossibility of retaining East Pakistan, and therefore adopted a scorched earth policy. Their aim was to leave the newly independent country maimed and destroyed. More than 3 million people were massacred and over 3 thousand women raped. The economy was destroyed. On December 14, Bengali intellectuals both Hindu and Muslim were rounded up and brutally murdered by the Jamaatis who had formed killer organisations called Al Badr and Al Shams, under the generic nomenclature of Razakars. Intellectuals are the backbone of a nation and eliminating them would set the nation back by a generation or two. Hindus were a specific target, the aim being to kill as many as possible and drive the rest to India. Millions of refugees, both Hindu and Muslim, poured into India. Many did not return.
The story did not end with liberation. On August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated with his entire family, including his 10 year old son, Sheikh Russell.
Only two of his daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana survived, because they were living in West Germany then.
The group of army officers who killed Bangabandhu and his family and others close to him, were not alone. Turncoat Awami League leaders, the Pakistanis and the Americans were part of the conspiracy. It was a personal act of revenge for Henry Kissinger, (U.S. National Security Advisor under President Nixon) who was rabidly pro-Pakistani, pro-dictatorship and anti-democracy in countries that the Americans wanted to control.
The era of betrayal had begun. It divided the nation and remains a festering wound to this day.
Major Zia-ur-Rehman, highly decorated “freedom fighter” was, perhaps, the biggest betrayer of liberation. Soon after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination four national leaders of Bangladesh were also killed. The date August 15, 1975 has another significance. It is India’s Independence Day and India had supported Sk Mujib and the liberation fighters. What better way would there be for the anti-liberation forces to “thumb their nose” at India?
Several Bangladeshi friends have remarked to this writer that they had expected Indian tanks to roll down the Jessore Road to Dhaka, to help Bangladesh to consolidate its independence. And they were dismayed when that did not happen.
Information available now suggests that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had overstretched herself in 1971; global dynamics had shifted and India would have been labelled an aggressor in the UN Security Council.
Returning to Zia-ur-Rehman. He seized power in a coup in November 1975. He quickly moved to annul the collaborators (Special Tribunal) order of January 1972, released all convicted and under trials for their role in collaborating with the Pakistani army. Zia reinstituted the banned Jamaat-e-Islami party for a support base and floated his own party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which had many anti-liberation elements.
Zia strengthened the political assassination culture, executing hundreds through closed door trials. Judicial assassination of Col. Abu Taher, a highly decorated freedom fighter (who had helped free Zia after his arrest post Sheikh Mujib assassination) was a sickeningly brutal act. Abu Taher, a Bangladeshi patriot with a vision for a modern and progressive country was completely opposed to Zia’s blueprint of making Bangladesh a protectorate of Pakistan.
And the young army officers who killed Sk. Mujib and his family were not free radicals out to save Bangladesh, but part of a large conspiracy to sabotage liberation and secularism. Many of them were sent on diplomatic assignments by Zia, to keep them out of harm’s way.
Ultimately Zia was killed in an attempted coup. Historians have a sacred responsibility to delve much deeper into Zia-ur-Rehman. His abhorrent role still remains a riddle to be solved by Bangladesh’s educated to take the liberation forward.
Decades of military rule and rise of religious extremists have harassed Bangladesh. In the past 4 years on more, reasonable secularist voices dared to come out in the open to claim their space, but some of them, as we know, were brutally murdered by extremists.
Today, vote-bank politics seems to have shrunk the space for free independent thinking and secularism. This is a dangerous trajectory for the nation.
Recently, the Bangla Academy attempted to impose a two year ban on the publishing house “Srabon Prokashoni” till public outrage forced the Academy to step back. The reason, according to Bangladeshi media, was that the owner of this publishing house Robin Ahsan expressed solidarity with writers and activists defending the right to free speech, life and liberty (Dhaka Tribune, January 3, 2017).
Several of these activists including atheists were assassinated by religious extremists like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). This organisation is known to be linked to the Al Qaida. Investigating into these incidents have been tardy. Regrettably, government entities have warned free thinkers not to provoke those opposed to secularism and freedom of speech.
Sadly, news now comes that 17 topics which dealt with educating school children on various neutral topics including one on Hinduism and another of a travelogue to north India, have been deleted in school text books. It is believed that the government has succumbed to the demands of Hifazat-e-Islam, a Madrassa based organisation that believes in a purely Islamic Bangladesh. The organisation believes that these topics are pro-atheism and anti-Islam.
In 2013, Hifazat-e-Islam held huge rallies in the capital city of Dhaka demanding an anti-blasphemy law and changes to text books.
In recent months attacks on Hindu temples and Hindus have sharply increased. This brings back the spectre of 1971 when Hindus and their places of worship were similarly attacked but on a much larger scale. In the bloodshed of India’s partition in 1947 a huge Hindu migration from Bangladesh (than East Pakistan) took place. The next large scale migration of Hindu population occurred in 1971 during the war of liberation.
Even now, Hindus who can afford it, trickle into India. But many Hindus still feel strongly that Bangladesh has always been their home from an astral times and want to remain there.
The textbook rewriting many become an incremental step towards provoking more Hindu migration. This will change the characteristic and secular credentials of Bangladesh and rooting out the vision of the founding fathers of the nation.
What will it do to future of the youth of the nation? To be a part of globalisation and achieve the development agenda of the nation, this can be a major setback.
The youth, the future leaders of the nation must be educated without bias. Clamping down on intellectuals, independent thinkers and a multi-religious and multicultural people is antediluvian.
The government must do a rethink. Accommodating the pressures of obscurantists even as a tactical political move is self-defeating. They will demand more and more.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected])