My personal journey into internalising the spirit of 1971 (one may say it’s the cliché idea of “muktijuddher chetona”) began at a very early age – since the time when we read the stories of “Bir Sresthas” in our textbooks, and then moved on to reading books borrowed from Bishwa Shahitya Kendra program. Not to mention the Bijoy Dibosh celebrations we would organise with emotionally charged enthusiasm – all throughout my school, college and university years.
I somehow happened to be the initiator in most cases and there was never a dearth of eagerness among my peers in trying to make each event a unique one! We would sing revolutionary songs in chorus and savour the tremendous energy created around us. We would share the despair of missed opportunity that we were not born early enough to take part in the liberation movement. Even in my years away from Bangladesh, I carried with me this strong sense of nationalism and an unquestionable glory that surrounded the idea of 1971.
During my times spent with my expatriate Bangladeshi friends, in the celebration of independence and victory days, we again sang in chorus and orchestrated performances like “Daam Diye Kinechhi Bangla”. We ourselves were overwhelmed with emotion and could see that this force was transmitted into most of the audience before us — some of them made no attempt at hiding their tears or sobs. Those were magical moments.
As time went by, I realised that this magic was fading. Listening to “Amader shongram cholbei, cholbei” or “Bangla maa’r durnibaar amra torun dol” – did not spark the same kind of fire any more. Would I just attribute this to my age and maturity, or was there more to it? I guess I’m trying to reflect on that realisation as I compose this piece.
As I engaged in cultural and intellectual spaces that dealt with revisiting the liberation movement, I observed that the younger generation was disinterested, and sometimes even adverse towards the whole discourse of 1971. Various surveys and polls also reflected how indifferent the masses were to the idea of “liberation”, and how little people really cared about whether 26th March is the Independence Day or the Victory Day. At first, it came as a shocker and disappointment; but then I started to make an effort to understand this phenomenon.
Since the democratic regimes began after the fall of Ershad’s autocratic rule, the Liberation War was being projected through various formal and popular media with a deliberate attempt at polarising opinions. Extreme non-objective views started to become a strong political currency. Muktijuddho has always been at the core of our national identity as the liberation struggle was a way of establishing a statehood of the Muslim Bengali nationalism. But, over time, this greater cause got reduced into a political capital where the so-called “pro-liberation” and “anti-liberation” forces became more and more at loggerheads with each other, and where the officialised “muktijoddha” certificate became a sought after “benefit”, and not a symbol of genuinely verified recognition from the state.
The actors who made the nine-months’ struggle a worthwhile sacrifice, with their courage, dedication and timely strategic thinking were the people who were sidelined and their roles discounted and distorted in order to serve certain political interests. In this effort of conveniently changing angles in the narration of this recent history, debates persisted on the basic factual elements and the mainstream 1971 dialogue became inconsistent and contradictory, and therefore unreliable. Now, even the most authentic narratives are taken with a pinch of salt.
As an obvious outcome, it is perfectly understandable why the post-71 generation is generally disinterested in any form of discussion around the Liberation War. Plus, it’s not jazzy or relevant for them any more – there are so many other life priorities and challenges to combat – where is the space to dwell on some obscure history! On the other hand, a larger majority is busy capitalising on the benefits attached to being (or acting as) a pro-liberation force or being a next to kin of a “certified” muktijoddha.
In the backdrop of the war crimes trial taking place, we really don’t have an option but to engage in and revisit this unresolved history. And since a trial has to take its own legal course, factual evidences are vital to the process. It is time we questioned ourselves as to how well we have done in terms of preserving and producing evidences over the last 40 years. When we see that a key debate on the actual number of deaths in the war has not been resolved, and we don’t have irrefutable evidence to defend our estimate, we have to admit that we probably haven’t done too well in this regard. Same goes for having hard evidences against the collaborators – which allows them the opportunity to claim that there is no way of proving the allegations against them.
My recent effort at cataloguing UPL books on the history of Liberation War was an eye-opener and also a process that helped me think clearly. I realised what a treasure trove we have that only awaits exploration by the war crimes tribunal and also the younger generation – who harbour many questions in their minds about the convoluted history. The answers are right there in some 70 plus books that have been produced to preserve the accounts by various key actors and analysts of the liberation struggle. My belief was strengthened that we really cannot have a well-grounded self-identity and move forward without a strong knowledge base of our history.
We’ll carry a legacy of a confused sense of who we are and why we are – which may either manifest in a shallow and inflated expression of nationalism (the “Grameen Phone or BanglaLink portrayal of patriotism”, as a friend calls it!) or a deflated self-esteem/inferiority complex. This tendency simply plagues our sensibility and makes us want to get as far away from the country as possible and not hesitate to speak ill of everything that’s so wrong with the nation and it’s politics – without taking any responsibility as a citizen who also has a role in changing the status quo. We fail to understand how badly it reflects on us in the global scene.
How do we rise from this? There is certainly no shortcut. Seeking out relevant knowledge on the history of our land and our people is the only way to gain strength from within and to believe in ourselves and our abilities as a nation. This journey into seeking knowledge cannot begin with a pre-determined idea – one has to be open to the fact that histories and wars are messy, and there is never a hero without his/her flaws or a villain who have not a strain of humanity in them. Accepting that while 1971 (and the years that led to this juncture) was a glorious era – powered by unparallel patriotic emotions, there were also inglorious episodes weaved into those times, and every single Pakistani was not necessarily our enemy.
Justice has to be sought for what was clearly a genocide – not with hatred and overflowing emotion, but with irrefutable evidence. As well-planned, disciplined and carefully orchestrated the crack-down was by the Pakistani army in March 1971, followed by their judicious recruitment of collaborators, our approach to seeking justice has to be undertaken with much more rigor and discipline. We have to rise above differences in opinion and understand and respect the intent of the other person who is equally committed to seeking justice. Our petty differences can only jeopardise our chances at proving the war criminals’ offences.
We often forget that we did not suddenly start existing in 1971 – the subcontinental legacy is something we negate very easily. What were the factors and historical events that gave rise to the Bengali Muslim identity? How did it evolve? Historians may have different views, and we ought to be open enough to process these differences and realise that truths are many and not just one. Who were the unsung heroes? Why is there a deliberate attempt at erasing the names of people like Moulana Bhashani and Tajuddin Ahmed? We understand at a surface level, but don’t we also have the responsibility to dig deeper?
Our father’s generation lived as citizens of three different countries – they were born as Indians, grew up as Pakistanis and became Bangladeshis in their flaming youth. The task should be easier for us to know who we are and be proud of our identity, only if we are willing to open our eyes a little wider. We need to accept the ambiguities in history, reject the exploitation of distorted facts, and move forward with a fresh mission – without any baggage and with a clear conscience.
That’s what we owe to ourselves. Only then will our souls be liberated.
Mahrukh Mohiuddin is a director of University Press Limited (UPL).