Forty years ago, the then Eastern “Wing” of Pakistan was fighting for the same ideals people from countries in the Middle East are fighting for today. The fight was for freedom – the freedom to democratically choose their government, the right to hear their own voice, and the desire to shape their destiny. Like all great fights, the fight began in the hearts of ordinary people, eventually boiling over into the streets. Just as those in East Pakistan, facing genocide may have wondered why the world stood in silence and why no one came to their support, those in the Middle East may be asking us the same questions today.
Throughout history, those with courage stood on the right side of history, while the silent majority opted for the easier option and watched with inaction. Bangladeshis need to stand in support with the people of the Middle East, especially given its own history from just 40 years ago. By standing with the people of the Middle East, history will judge Bangladeshis to be on the right side of history.
As the people’s movement in the Middle East takes hold and spreads, those in power will do whatever is necessary to crush the movement, the same way the dictatorship in unified Pakistan had. The circumstances that led to the liberation movement in Bangladesh may be different from the circumstances that are driving the movement in the Middle East, however the thread that unifies all revolutions are typically the same.
In 1970 when the Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman clearly won the national elections (the first election in unified Pakistan in over 10 years), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People Party refused to allow the East Pakistan leader to ascend to prime minister. The leader from the Eastern Wing was a challenge to the status quo and the establishment of the Western Wing. Mr. Bhutto’s diplomatic “compromise” was to have co-prime ministers (one in the Eastern Wing and the other in Western Wing of Pakistan). As ridiculous as this idea was, it only highlights how the mind of dictators work; they will do whatever is necessary to hold on to power. In the end, the uprising of the ordinary Bengalis (and those of East Pakistan) led to the second partition of Pakistan in less than 25 years (India and the two wings of Pakistan were partitioned for the first time in 1947).
Today in the Middle East, leaders such as Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Bashar al-Assad of Syria and King Abdullah II of Jordan have a grip on power without being elected. Some of these leaders are charismatic and speak as if they are the rightful voice of the people they oppress and suppress. Many of these leaders are supported by the same democratic governments (of the West and East) that speak of universal freedom, liberty, and justice. These Middle East rulers are given the highest level of reception when they make state visits, while other leaders of the same stripe are vilified as oppressive dictators.
Sure, there are different shades of dictators and authoritarian rule, as there are different shades of democracies; but we cannot support these unelected leaders regardless of the justification they give us or benevolence they claim to have.
Hosni Mubark of Egypt was recently ousted after 30 years as a career dictator, while Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was forced to step down after nearly 25 years in power. Both of these leaders were brought down by the extraordinary will and power of ordinary people. But why did it take so long? This is the same question the independent nation of Bangladesh asked in 1971 after its bloody revolution to free itself from Pakistan. Time was the price of silence, inaction, and the lack of courage; people from other nations stood on the sideline instead of raising a voice for the people of Bangladesh, for freedom and democracy.
This is precisely the reason the people in Bangladesh must stand in unity today with the people in the Middle East, regardless if the government or politicians of Bangladesh support the movement or not. What people often forget is that the government and politicians are our servants, and that the power they hold comes from us. History has shown us that the brave voice of one individual can lead the way to a chorus and the eventual toppling of unjust systems.
After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, many nations were late to recognise Bangladesh – among those were China and Saudi Arabia. Foreign policies and existing relationships dictate the steps nations take, and often what is compromised are principles for short-term gains. This was the same reason the US Government supported the dictators of West Pakistan instead of supporting the democratic movement that took hold in East Pakistan. Although the US Government’s policy did not support the democratic movement, individuals such as Archer Blood (the last American Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan) were forceful (and risked his own career) when he on April 6, 1971 worded “the Blood telegram” to the US State Department:
“Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya Khan a message defending democracy, condemning the arrest of a leader of a democratically-elected majority party, incidentally pro-West, and calling for an end to repressive measures and bloodshed….But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected.”
Following the telegram, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger acted swiftly, but irresponsibly; Archer Blood was recalled from his position. The US Government’s action was guided by the desire to establish a closer economic tie with China (and distance itself from Indira Gandhi’s India). In essence, foreign policy gave way to moral principles.
Four decades have now passed, and Pakistan still finds itself in a downward spiral of chaos, and China is still repressive of human rights. Saudi Arabia continues to have an open door policy with former dictators such as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunasia); and in the past Saudi Arabia was the home to Idi Amin (“the butcher of Uganda”) among other dictators.
We have to realise, it is often the action of few men (and women) who shape the course of history of an entire nation, so I do not mean to castigate entire nations, but hold individuals responsible.
As the liberation movement in East Pakistan took its course, there were those from West Pakistan who spoke out against bloodshed, including the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His voice of dissent may have been the minority, whereas the vast majority in West Pakistan were silent. This is the reason why Bangladeshis today hold enmity to those in Pakistan for their lack of action. It may be true that lack of information, misinformation and propaganda made available to citizens of West Pakistan led to the inaction; but now, what will be our excuse? This is why it is important, that we as individuals participate by raising our voice when we see atrocities, no matter where we are.
The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913) had fond appreciation of Japanese culture and its people; but when Japan displayed military aggression and imperialism tendency towards China, Tagore protested through his words and letters. Tagore strongly criticised his friend, the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi, because Noguchi lacked moral principle when he justified and defended the atrocities of an unjust war. Tagore was saddened that an intellectual such as Noguchi could defend the actions of Japan; Tagore wrote: “It is sad to think that the passion of collective militarism may on occasion helplessly overwhelm even the creative artist, that genuine intellectual power should be led to offer its dignity and truth to be sacrificed at the shrine of the dark gods of war.” When Noguchi tried to defend his position, Tagore wrote back to him, “surely judgments are based on principle, and no amount of special pleading can change the fact.” Tagore was led by his belief in the “spiritual unity of all human beings”; and so it did not matter that he was neither Japanese nor Chinese, he defended his thought which were based on principle. It is for this reason Tagore is universally admired and respected.
As it is often the case when one takes a strong moral position, Tagore’s voice against Japanese aggression came at a cost; he lost the love and respect of many Japanese people. But in the end, it would be the Japanese people who would suffer the most as their country would soon be devastated by World War II. In 1938 Tagore wrote, “I know that one day the disillusionment of your people will be complete, and through laborious centuries they will have to clear the debris of their civilisation wrought to ruin by their own war-lords run amok.” As Bangladesh celebrates Tagore’s 150th birthday this May, politicians and others in power will try to align themselves as the defender of the logic and reasoning of Tagore, but unlike Tagore they will remain silent as history unfolds around them.
In no way am I trying to simplify the tangled debate of what is the “right” side of history, nor would I suggest that the magnitude of one event is similar to another event. The specifics are extremely complex, especially as relationships between nations become more interconnected. One person’s right side is often another person’s wrong side. It is precisely because of the complexity of issues we as citizens must not look through a prism but through a clear glass, and base our decisions on fundamental principles, logic and reasoning.
It was not too long ago when the world witnessed the Holocaust, and only 50 years later the Srebrenica massacre. In both cases, the vast majority of the world citizens participated in silence, even when there was a clear separation between right and wrong. History (as much as the present) is full of these moments where the world stood still for the right person to come and guide us towards the right side. Today, we are not separated by mountains and oceans; we are more connected through our access to information; and so we do not readily have the excuses we could reach for just a decade ago.
In 1776, the US Declaration of Independence declared, “all Men are created equal” — but it took nearly 100 years with the ratification of the fifteenth amendment, which prohibited the use of race, colour or previous condition of servitude to discriminate people. It took another 50 years (with the nineteenth amendment, ratified in 1920), which prohibited gender based voting restrictions. I draw on this history for two reasons. First, the transformation the US has gone through over the years is the reason its citizens have the rights they have today. It did not happen overnight. The Middle East and other parts of the world, where people do not have basic rights will also need to go through a similar transformation. Everything will not evolve in the same way, but that should not be expected; each nation has its own history and unique situation. Second, there are those who will say that the Middle East is not capable of having a real democracy, no matter what, so the best option is to support the dictators. These arguments come from those who are myopic, short-sighted in their vision and have no understanding of history; when we support these assertions, we only give legitimacy to the illegitimate rulers.
As people in the Middle East are fighting for their rights, Bangladesh must remember its own history, and the courage of individuals who shaped the destiny of a new nation. One must not forget that if the government cannot take the right moral step, individual people guided by fundamental principles must raise their voice, like Archer Blood, Tagore and histories’ other brave men and women. We must look inward and speak out against injustice at home and abroad. When ordinary people protest through words, thoughts or action for those who live in distant lands, we protect our own rights, as much as those of others. This call for action is guided by the simple principle, that it is not nations or boundaries that dictate our rights, but we as citizens of the world have an unalienable right in shaping the destiny of man. The time for action is always now, and the choice is always ours to stand on the right side of history.
Ikhtiar Kazi is an economist and capital markets professional.