I remember the day distinctively. It was a day that made me think I no longer belonged to Bangladesh, a day that I felt I was still living in the state of Pakistan. It was a couple of days after the historic event of Gano Adalat (Peoples’ Tribunal) — the 1992 mass gathering in Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka where millions of people responded to the call of Shahid Janani, Jahanara Imam, the mother of freedom fighter Shafi Imam Rumi, to raise their voice for the trial of war criminals. In the peoples’ tribunal, several well-known people were invited to be witnesses. Among them were members of Projonmo ’71, the organisation of the children and families of martyrs. I was among them.
The then ruling BNP regime had at that time instructed the police to stop such a mass gathering, but millions defied to throng Suhrawardy Udyan. It also happened to be the 26th of March, our independence day. The ruling BNP regime sought to write off the whole gathering as something else! The ministers said the people had come to Dhaka to witness the illuminations of Independence Day. Then there was something more serious. Rumours had it that the organisers and witnesses of Gano Adalat would be tried for treason! The whole idea seemed preposterous because there were many on the list who had contributed to drafting Bangladesh’s constitution. Then there were others who were freedom fighters as well as acknowledged patriots in public life.
Then one evening I received a telephone call from a reporter of a regional newspaper Dainik Karatoa. The reporter said they had just heard from the Attorney General’s office that the government was going ahead with the charges of treason. The Attorney General who was a man of great honour and believed in the ideals of the Liberation War was so annoyed when he got the order that he threw his law books against the wall. The reporter told me to get out of the house and go into hiding, since as one of the witnesses, there may also have been a warrant issued for my arrest. My heart sank low. Everything seemed meaningless: the Liberation War, my father’s death, my mother’s struggle to raise me as a worthy citizen of this precious land which her husband has given his life for, my own budding career as a University teacher all disappeared into a black hole. I turned to my mother. She too found it unbelievable. We made several phone calls, but nothing definite was known. Then at the spur of the moment I decided to go to a cousin’s place for the night leaving my mother to hold the fort. Later that night I spoke with Dr. Kamal Hossain, a lawyer of great repute who led the authors of the nation’s constitution, for advice; he too suggested that I wait out the time till things became a little clearer. After a restless night’s sleep, I decided to go over to another cousin’s place. It was then that the morning papers came with the list of people accused of treason and my name was not there, nor the names of other members of Projonmo ’71. The Government must have realised at the last moment how ludicrous it would all become if we were to be charged with treason!
Later on that day a large group of eminent citizens were charged. And they came from all walks of life — teachers, cultural activists, lawyers, poets. Jahanara Imam, leading all these luminaries, appeared before the Supreme Court to turn themselves in and sought anticipatory bail.
Though I heaved a sigh of momentary relief, the pall of gloom that fell over the city was interrupted only by spontaneous outbursts of outrage and protests at the turn of events. Ghulam Azam, now a legally-proven war criminal, who was sentenced to death by the peoples’ tribunal and who came from Pakistan in 1978 and was declared Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami in 1991, had has citizenship restored through an order of the High Court. To make matters worse, he was being held by the government in what was described as protective custody, while all the noble people who had fought for the independence of this country were being held for treason! To me, it was the biggest ‘blasphemy’ ever!
The recollection of these events is important today when the nation hears the verdict on Ghulam Azam. The day is important for various reasons: in Bangladesh, the powers that be have had an amazing record of betraying the trust of the people time and again; in this country, too, the people have risen again and again, generation after generation, to remind the state of its duties. What will the people of this country do now?
Meghna Guhathakurta is the daughter of the late Professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, martyred in the early days of 1971 war.