Some leading lights of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party are indignant at reports of a possible shifting of the remains of General Ziaur Rahman from the Jatiyo Sangsad complex. For its part, the government says it has come by an inventory of the original design for the complex as prepared by the American architect Louis I. Kahn in the early 1960s. The obvious purpose behind the government’s acquisition of the inventory cannot be missed: it would dearly like to have the parliament complex restored to what Kahn originally intended it to be.
That of course raises the grave question of what, if the government does mean to have its way, happens to the graves in the area. And it is not just Ziaur Rahman’s grave we speak of. There are seven others — of individuals such as Justice Abdus Sattar, Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Mashiur Rahman Jadu Mia, Khan Abdus Sabur, Ataur Rahman Khan and Shah Azizur Rahman. You thus have the image of a parliament complex looking almost like a cemetery, something that it ought not to have been. Louis Kahn certainly did not plan it that way when Field Marshal Ayub Khan instructed him to design the structure of a future national assembly edifice for Pakistan. The entire area was supposed to have about it a serenity which comes with democracy, though the extent of democracy in operation under the Ayub regime has been open to question. Besides, do not forget that the very first step toward slicing off an area of the parliament complex for burials of public figures commenced during the period of the Ayub regime itself. When the speaker of the national assembly, Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan, died in 1963, he became the first individual to be laid to rest in the area.
Controversy has dogged some burials in Bangladesh. In November 1975, when the four national leaders — Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M.Mansoor Ali, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman — were assassinated in Dhaka central jail, the demand quickly arose that they be buried in the mausoleum housing the remains of Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Khwaja Nazimuddin. Indeed, given their stature and place in history (read the story of the Mujibnagar government here), these illustrious men should have been interred within that complex. By the time news emerged of their murder in prison, Major General Khaled Musharraf had carried out a successful coup against the Moshtaq cabal at Bangabhaban. It was expected, therefore, that he and his colleagues would quickly concede the demand for a burial of the four leaders within the mausoleum. The mystery has never been solved as to what held Musharraf back from accepting what was certainly a popular demand.
Speaking of the mausoleum housing the bones of the three men, one is even now mystified around the issue of how Khwaja Nazimuddin qualified for burial beside Huq and Suhrawardy. Nazimuddin’s politics, both in pre-partition India and post-1947 Pakistan, was at a great remove from that of Huq and Suhrawardy. In precise terms, Nazimuddin’s political record was one of identification with the feudal classes, to a point where he demonstrated not the slightest sympathy for the cause of Bengalis. His pronouncements on the language issue between 1948 and 1952 testify to his distinctly anti-Bengali politics. And yet the improbable happened when he was laid to rest beside two men who remain tall in the Bengali imagination. The truth is plain: Nazimuddin has never belonged with Huq and Suhrawardy, not in politics, not in that mausoleum.
If Khwaja Nazimuddin’s grave has raised questions, those of Shah Azizur Rahman and Khan Abdus Sabur have been reasons for scandal. These two men, notorious for their collaborationist role in 1971, were fortunate in that the military regime of General Zia went out on a limb to rehabilitate them in Bangladesh’s politics. Their luck held when they died. Who could have foreseen in the early days of a free Bangladesh that Shah Aziz and Sabur would be graced with burial within the parliament complex of the very country they had desperately tried to abort with the assistance of the Pakistan occupation army only a few years previously? The irony is all. In a broader perspective, though, not one of the seven individuals buried in the parliament complex should have been interred there. The cemetery not only mars the architectural appeal of the Jatiyo Sangsad but also does them grave disservice in death. The noise and din all around is a far cry from the respectful silence we expect to experience in a graveyard.
The matter of General Zia’s grave is important, for his mammoth mausoleum at Chandrima Udyan has taken away from the beauty of a park that ought to have been there but now is not. In the aftermath of Zia’s assassination in May 1981, acting President Abdus Sattar and army chief General Ershad did incalculable damage to the aesthetic appeal of the park when they literally forced Zia’s grave to be dug there. It is not a pretty sight anywhere in the world for a grave to suddenly rise out of an expanse of green and a lake of clear flowing water. Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, for all the emotions associated with their assassinations, were not buried in the centre of the city of Washington. Lincoln was laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois; and Kennedy found his place of eternal rest in Arlington. For that matter, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, despite his paramount place in Pakistan’s history, was not buried in a park in the centre of Karachi.
Corrective steps need to be taken where a restoration of the essential architecture of the Jatiyo Sangsad complex is concerned. In a country where too many things have gone wrong or have been made to go wrong since liberation, the danger lies in an inability or reluctance to undo such wrong. No one knows where the bones of General M.A. Manzur lie buried. General Khaled Musharraf’s resting place is not known to citizens.
And surely the biggest tragedy for Bangladesh’s people is that a bunch of conspirators and murderers, in the false belief that the nation would turn its back on its founding father, quickly and nervously had Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman buried in his village Tungipara. That grave remains a shining instance of patriotic glory. With tens of thousands of people praying for the Father of the Nation at his grave the livelong year, the place has assumed the quality of a shrine — which only goes to prove that a grave deep in rural surroundings will draw the multitudes into paying homage to the one resting in it for all time, while one imposed on an urban populace in the centre of a city can cause not a little irritation.
If the graves in the Jatiyo Sangsad complex need to be relocated in the larger interest of a restoration of the aesthetic charm and architectural grandeur of the place, let the job be done. That will not detract from the respect for the dead which is part of our cultural and religious ethos. Let our parks and lakes and meadows not be converted, for narrow political and partisan purposes, into cemeteries.