When revolutions flounder in their quest for freedom and justice even after four decades of their occurrence, it means that they have gone awry. If hartals and demonstrations are staged with the same frequency, the scenario becomes all the more sombre. This is what has taken place in Bangladesh.
Kamal Hossain, the country&’s first foreign minister, has written a book on it. I wish he had said more about the birth of Bangladesh and the failure to sustain the spirit of secular democracy it had evoked. This rare revolution rose above fanaticism and factionalism and beckoned a democratic structure without the pull of religion. Hossain&’s story is inadequate and does not state why a country that fought against bigotry so resolutely caved in when extremism reared its head.
Not long ago, when residents of that country freed themselves from Pakistan in 1971, they rose as Bangladeshis. A Muslim nation fought against Muslims to make religious appeals meaningless. Unfortunately, after the liberation, Bangladeshis got lost in religious warfare and parochial assertion. Hossain should have underlined the fact that the dream was shattered because religion had the better of secularism. Today&’s Bangladesh seems to suggest that extremism is nearly indelible and very few people rise above it.
To trace the movement for liberation is to applaud the Bangladeshis’ triumph over passion and prejudice. It was an ideology that conquered petty considerations. Yet, the story of independence was not that of a struggle to merely liberate oneself from the distant Rawalpindi. It was the birth of an ideology of egalitarianism, of a society that would fight against sectarianism and religious divisions.
The nine months of operation by the Pakistani Army tore all tiers of administration and the machinery of governance and imposed a dictator-like rule. There was also an element of hatred towards the weak and poor Bangladeshis who dared to assert their identity. The only way they had was to revolt.
“What could we do when the Pakistan government tried to kill every Bengali and destroy Bangladesh?" Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, father of the nation, had reportedly said. During the operation, 2.44 million of the nation&’s 14 million farmers were ruined; the rest lost bullocks, ploughs or seeds. Fifty-six million dwelling units, including pucca houses and thatched huts, were demolished.
In addition, according to Mujib, “Pakistani sol-
diers destroyed 12,000 trucks out of the 18,000
we had. They burnt currency notes and took away all our foreign exchange. Our food go-downs were demolished.”
Disruption on such a scale made restoration of normal life impossible when Mujib took over. He explained that it would take time to set things right. But his appeal had little impression on the people, who wanted the revolution to yield results. They had witnessed one miracle ~ the liberation; but wanted another ~ economic prosperity. Building takes time, but the public had no patience. Also, the fire of freedom that burnt fiercely in hearts lessened as days went by. On the other hand, many anti-liberation elements that had been silenced became active to prove that liberation had never taken place and that the link with Pakistan should have never been broken. The more radical among the liberators also expected improvement from those in power.
The country had too many guns. Radicals were not the only ones to find them useful. There were others of different shades of political colour, as well as brigands without any politics. They did not give up arms. Mujib&’s personal magic worked only up to a point. According to one estimate, 100,000 to 200,000 arms were never surrendered. Violence lay latent in the land and it appeared with a vengeance when the liberation was over.
However, the most disconcerting development for the Bangladesh leaders was an incipient anti-India feeling; an antipathy against a country that had helped them to become free. “I wish I could die now because relations between India and Bangladesh are so good today that I do not want to see them deteriorating,” Tajuddin, once Prime Minister, told me.
But Mujib was not worried when I met him. He said, “I know that some elements assisted by international interests are indulging in a smear campaign against India. But they cannot sabotage the relationship between your great country and Bangladesh. A Bengali does not forget even those who give him only a glass of water. Here, your soldiers laid down their lives for my people. How can they ever forget your sacrifice? You fed ten million refugees for more than ten months. Even now, you are giving us food and other assistance. I can assure you that my people are not ungrateful. Therefore, those who are trying to foment trouble will not succeed in their designs.”
Dhaka&’s Foreign Office is still peeved over the remark of foreign countries that the policies of Bangladesh are “New Delhi&’s carbon-copy”.
“If only we could oppose you somewhere, we could project an image of our independence,” a Foreign Office man told me. He betrayed a small-nation complex; it appeared that to prove their country&’s separate identity, officials are at times tempted to adopt an anti-India posture.
Many civil servants, suddenly having become conscious of serving a small and yet-not-prosperous country, indulged in anti-India talk. “Your country is too big,” they said. “Whether your neighbours like it or not, they have to be subservient to you.” Was this the assertion of old parochial sentiment or a complaint against their country&’s inadequacy?
All this is missing in Hossain&’s book, the feeling of elation and the frustration after its failure. There is not any disclosure as such books promise. Hossain says something about Mujib, but skips his much talked about weakness in administrative abilities. Hossain should also have confirmed or denied the rumour that the Sheikh was sentenced to death by Pakistani&’s military rulers, but was spared due to Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto&’s intervention. Maybe, Kamal Hossain has yet to publish Bangladesh&’s untold story. We should wait for it.
The writer is a veteran
journalist and commentator