To understand one's history is as essential and important for a people as it is to live together. But then history, to be meaningful in a people's life, must be taken in its totality; not in the sense of pick and choose. Bangladesh is an example of a country where our awareness of history is as good as any people anywhere. Unfortunately, we also have the tendency to pick and choose.
Our love for history also has the unfortunate problem of being infected by partisan politics that has just not distorted our perspective but also has affected adversely aspects of our social and political life. In 1971, we fought arguably the most glorious war of liberation in the last century and defended ourselves successfully against one of the worst genocides in known history. Yet in our eagerness to give credit for it to individuals, we have failed to acknowledge the contribution of the people who faced rape, torture and eventually death without compromise that was the most important factor for our liberation. On the clarion call for independence by Bangabandhu, 75 million people of Bangladesh just threw Pakistan out of their minds and hearts once the Pakistani army started their carnage on the night of March 25th, 1971.
In the pick and choose method of accepting the importance of history in our lives, we have set aside the fact that we just did not free Bangladesh from the Pakistani oppressors only; 25 years before that we the Muslims of Bengal were also at the forefront of the movement for Pakistan. Even before that, Bengali Muslims led by Haji Shariatullaah and Titu Mir had led the fight against the British, and the Hindu Zamindars, long before the Congress and the Muslim League took up the cause of freedom. Bengali Muslims' yearning for freedom has been thus a long history and also an unfortunate one because we were not able to cash on after giving impetus to these freedom movements; in fact leading them. In case of the Pakistan movement, the outcome was indeed sad because the leaders of Bengal played a major role in the movement for Pakistan. The switch of Fazlul Huq from Krisak Praja Party to the Muslim League in 1940 and the support of Bengal for movement for Pakistan was what made Pakistan a reality. In Pakistan, that we created, we were treated as second class citizens. Our mother tongue was threatened and economic disparity between West Pakistan and East Pakistan was also stark and widening, facts that our democratic sprit did not allow us to accept. We needed our own space and our own country. So we created Bangladesh. One good thing happened for us though during the time we were a part of Pakistan; in 1951 the Zamindari system was abolished that freed the Muslim peasants from the stranglehold of the Hindu Zamindars that in any case would have ended in a predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
The emergence of Bangladesh finally freed the Bengalis of the British, the Hindu Zamindars and the Pakistani neo-colonialists. That should also have ended our many decades of fight for freedom and right of self determination for the establishment of a democratic society. True there were some elements who did not want the liberation, the Jamat/Razakars and their cohorts. But they were just too few in number to stand between Bangladesh and democracy. Unfortunately, that did not happen because Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation was killed within 4 years of independence, in too dastardly and heinous a manner even to transcribe. He was not killed by Razakars or forces who did not believe in Bangladesh or democracy; he was killed by the party he led, the party that led the war of liberation and a few disgruntled army officers.
The death of Bangabandhu naturally led Bangladesh to the lap of the military and put democracy in the backburner. After Bangabandhu's death, President Ziaur Rahman, who gave the call for independence in the name of Bangabandhu and led the liberation war from the front, was also killed, ironically at the hand of freedom fighters, to condemn Bangladesh to a decade of Ershad's military rule. These developments brought to the surface the fact that as a nation we lack the basic ingredients that are essential to lay the foundation of a democratic society; namely tolerance; compromise and accommodation of opposing views.
In 15 years of civilian rule after President Ershad's fall, one had hoped that democracy for which our spirits have yearned for decades and for which so many have given lives, would be finally established in Bangladesh. That also did not happen because the two mainstream parties, the Awami League and the BNP, fought between them to make democracy unattainable. One had hoped that the emergency or 1/11 that came as a consequence of the conflict between these two parties would make the politicians think that the people are not entirely happy with them; that they would reform to make democracy work. As days pass, the politicians seem in no mood to think that there is any need of reform; they have dismissed the efforts during the emergency to reform the political parties with contempt. In fact, in our politics, the word reform has been trashed in the trash bin of history; those who had wanted reform in the political parties during the emergency now have no place to hide.
The elections results have not helped either. The voters, as they had done in 2002, did it again in 2009, returning a political party to office with a massive mandate. In any system, a huge mandate for a political party is a very positive event as it lets that party carry out its agenda that it promises to the people to fruition. In Bangladesh, this did not happen when the BNP was given a huge mandate; and although it is too early to suggest whether the AL that has been given even a bigger mandate would also follow the BNP to the same fate, early indications gives a lot of people cause for concern.
One reason for this is a major mistake the parties in Bangladesh make when in power. They tend to equate their majority in parliament in the same proportion among the people which is not the case. When the BNP won the 2/3rd majority in 2002, its popular support was marginally more than the AL. In the last election, while the AL has won 3/4th of the seats in Parliament; its popular support among the people was far short of that percentage. Here is where history could and should have come to rescue of Bangladesh. That history is a history of sacrifice of millions that led to our liberation because of the unity that the people had shown for establishing in Bangladesh a democratic government. Unfortunately in the last two decades, neither of the two mainstream parties with known popular support that is neck to neck has shown any unity of issues fundamental to establishing and sustaining a democratic government. The two mainstream parties have governed without acknowledging the fact that in a democratic system, existence of and respect for the opposition is indispensable.
All these have created a political culture in Bangladesh where, when a party wins power, it believes that it has been given the right to govern as an authoritarian system. Any opposition is considered as opposition to the state. The name of the game is zero-sum which is the anti-thesis of a democratic system. This political culture is getting entrenched deeper and thus we are really moving away from democracy with each new election and unfortunately, the roots of this culture are embedded in pick and choose method of looking at history by the two mainstream parties.
History is important in a nation's life but when subjected to politics, it creates more problems than where history is disregarded. In Bangladesh, this is the case. History has divided the nation, instead of uniting it. That unity seems now farfetched but unless we achieve that unity, we would be playing name games; and politics will see all the distortions it has been witnessing since the fall of Ershad's military dictatorship and push our desire for a democratic system further and further away. May be we should for a while let history be the subject of historians and not a matter of politics to regain the spirit of 1971.
Published in The Daily Independent, February 26th, 2010