Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thoughts on Independence

The Independent, March 26th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

One of the many thoughts that come flooding out my memory to my consciousness when I think about 1971 is the evening of March 25th, 1971. A friend and I were in the Dhaka University Club close to what was then Iqbal Hall (presently Sergeant Zahurul Huq Hall) that was the base camp of the students who were preparing for the fight ahead. A lawyer, now quite a well known one, who those days was closely involved with the negotiating team of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman told us that if a document had arrived that mid-day at Road Number 32, all the waiting would be over. He then paused for a moment and said, if it had not, then “keep your finger crossed.”

I arrived home in Dhanmandi RA around 9pm that night. Soon afterwards, a friend who was an Army Captain made a call from Dhaka cantonment. He asked me to stay home, under no circumstances to look out of the window and if possible to hide under the bed. The phone went kaput soon afterwards. That night and the next day and night, we stayed home with curfew clamped over the city, terrorized beyond expression, with incessant gunshots making that terror eerie and unbearable.

When curfew was lifted on the third day briefly, a friend and I surveyed the horror of the two nights in which the Pakistani Army killed innocent Bangalis of all background and left many of them dead on the road. We then returned to my home and sat with my father who was speechless. My father was an educationist, a retired Principal of Comilla Victoria and Government Commerce College, Chittagong. He was one of the 10 East Pakistani economists who signed the “Two Economy” paper at the annual conference of the Pakistan Economic Association in Peshawar in 1958. He knew of the economic disparity. He also believed in Pakistan and actively supported the cause of Pakistan’s independence in 1947. He did not lose that faith even in March, 1971.

But after those two nights and a day of carnage, my father sat before us in a pensive mood. After a while, he told us in a firm voice that Pakistan was dead and Bangladesh’s emergence was just a matter of time. It was just moments later that the three of us listened to that famous broadcast from Sadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in which then Major Ziaur Rahman declared the independence of Bangladesh in the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. My friend and I watched my father’s face and we did not need any more convincing that Bangladesh’s birth had taken place.

Those days, we who were in Dhaka used to share secretly whatever information we could gather from personal sources. In particular demand were newspapers and magazines like Time and Newsweek. I can still close my eyes and read in my mind one particular story carried by one of these two well known magazines. It was about a village in Bangladesh where the previous day, the Mukti Bahini had ambushed some Pakistani soldiers and killed one of them. The Pakistani army returned the next day and collected quite a few middle aged and old men as the young men had all vanished, many having joined the Mukti Bahini. A Pakistani army captain demanded from them information about the Mukti Bahini, threatening to kill them if they did not cooperate. One by one, they were killed yet no one betrayed the Mukti Bahini.

It was also the time when people of all background followed one voice, the one they heard on March 7th of their leader Bangabandhu asking them to unite for freedom. It was a call that united a nation of 75 million in a manner that did not unite any people in history. The people of Bangladesh responded to his call in a manner that has few parallels in world history. There were collaborators but their numbers were insignificant and although they assisted the Pakistani army in crimes against humanity, committing such acts themselves, they had no impact on the determination and resolve of the people of Bangladesh in fighting for their independence.

During my career as a diplomat, I have served in many stations where Bangladeshis reside in significant number. I always used to feel proud seeing that Bangladeshis far outnumber Bangla speaking people from West Bengal in these cities. I now travel frequently to Washington. Events of either the Bangladesh Embassy or of the many Bangladesh associations or organizations there invariably draw more people than the organizers can accommodate. The Bangla speaking people from West Bengal in Washington also hold functions of their own but they come nowhere near the number and the fanfare that accompanies those organized by our expatriates.

As a diplomat in Washington, I still remember the words of Mr. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then the Indian Ambassador to the United States, at our National Day Reception in 1991. All the guests had left except Mr. Ray who had remained with us the Embassy officials. He told us that he was nostalgic and finding it hard to leave, because he did not want his “dream” of attending such gorgeous reception in Washington with so many ladies wearing the sari and speaking Bangla to end!

In the pre-1947 days, our elders grew up and lived in a British India where they were dominated in almost all spheres by West Bengal. In fact, because of the lack of development of East Bengal in those days, our cultured, well-groomed and well spoken Bengali compatriots of West Bengal used to refer to us in a rather derogatory manner as Bangals because in addition to our lack of development, we could not speak the Bangla language as they could. We spoke in local dialects that they thought was a distortion.

How much we have progressed in comparison to West Bengal was driven home when I was a member of the Prime Minister’s entourage to Kolkata where she was invited to that city’s famous Book Fair in 1999. I was a Director-General for South Asia at that time. In one evening of the visit, a group of us were in the hotel office room at Taj Bengal. We received the West Bengal Chief Minister Mr. Jyoti Basu and his Deputy Mr. Buddhudev Basu. We also received Ms. Mamata Banarjee (she was then not a central Minister) and we talked with them before taking them to the Prime Minister like they were simple visitors, without any disrespect to any of them. Nevertheless, we felt we were representing a sovereign government while these individuals were representatives of a provincial government of India. At the reception given to the Prime Minister by Kolkata’s social elites, we could feel by their show of respect to her how big strides our independence has given us in international affairs.

West Bengal is a province of India. Thus it is not a fit subject of comparison. Nevertheless, to our generation who went to the Universities in the 1960s and generations who came before us, it can be a measure of judgment of the fruits of our independence. To leave West Bengal behind and so substantially is no small measure of what we have achieved as an independent nation. It is also the opportunity to pay them back for calling our fathers and their fathers and perhaps also their fathers, Bangals.

These are some of the thoughts that come in a hurry in my memory as I look back to our glorious war of liberation and our independence with pride. Nevertheless, as we celebrate our 40th National and Independence Day and pay our homage to those whose sacrifices have earned us our independence, I cannot help feel sad and sorry that the unity that brought us together and earned us the respect of the rest of humanity has all but been exhausted. Instead, we have divided ourselves over issues and matters so trivial that it is indeed tragic for such division stands in our way to achieve our true potentials. We should spare ourselves a moment and harp on the unity and how dearly we need it today. In fact, it is this unity that is what we need to achieve the Bangladesh for which we fought in 1971. Without that unity we will remain independent, be better than West Bengal but never fulfill the dream and vision for which we created Bangladesh in blood and fire.

The writer is a former secretary and Ambassador to Japan and can be reached by email

No comments: