Friday, December 23, 2011

How important are our roots?

Daily Sun
Liberation Day Supplement
December 16, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A friend and I were talking on the current status of politics in the country at a gathering of friends recently. We both agreed it was in a sorry state of affairs and that the country was surely not moving in the right direction. A common friend, an active member of a political party joined us but we continued in our critical vein. He did not like our critical tone and said rather abruptly that we have to go back to our roots and those who do not believe in our roots must be dealt with.

I asked him for an explanation of our roots. He gave an instant reply. He said that our roots are Bengali nationalism and secularism. I asked him a few questions. I wanted to know more clearly what he meant by the roots because there was a threat implied in his tone that those who did not agree with his explanation of the roots would not be left alone. I also wanted to know by what mechanism he arrived so authoritatively on our roots.

My friend the politician is a straight forward guy. He did not take long to explain our roots and what would have to be done with those who did not believe in our roots. Our roots according to him are the divide that the two political parties have introduced in our politics; whether our nationalism is Bengali or Bangladeshi and secularism. His roots are, in fact, those that the Awami League explains publicly as essential forces that motivated our liberation and created Bangladesh.

I and my other friend had no problem in accepting one part of the “roots”; namely Bengali nationalism. We told him that on the face of it, no one should have any problem with Bengali nationalism. This root of ours was the prime motivator of our war of liberation, so much so that there is no point even in discussing it. Nevertheless, we also told our friend that this element of our “roots” has been made controversial by the two mainstream parties whose support among the people is roughly half and half. Therefore we told him that there is the need to take a serious look at it to arrive at some sort of a consensus because democracy demands that no one party should impose its views on another.
When the Pakistanis cracked down in that dark night of March 25th, 1971, their enemy was clear as day light; it was the AL led by Bangabandhu who showed, in the eyes of the Pakistanis, the audacity to divide Pakistan and create Bangladesh. The Pakistan Army had the easy option of going after the Awami League politicians who had taken the leadership to break Pakistan. There were 162 of these Awami Leaguers who were elected to the Pakistan National Assembly and 298 Awami Leaguers were elected to the Provincial Assembly who could have been targeted.

The Pakistanis took Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a prisoner who surrendered voluntarily. After this singularly civil act, the Pakistanis went about killing our people without consideration of political affiliation, sex, age, or whatever else distinguishes people. They killed us simply because we spoke the Bengali language that made their act the worst recorded and unanswered case of genocide in history. Out of the 450 plus parliamentarians, the Pakistanis did not target any and a few who were apprehended and/or killed were caught as Bengalis and not as Awami Leaguers.

The Constitution today identifies our nationalism as “Bengali” nationalism and our citizenship as “Bangladeshi”. The 15th amendment has been written entirely by the AL but may have opened the window to bridge the differences between the mainstream parties on the “Bengali” root. It has strengthened the AL stand that one of our roots lies in Bengali nationalism but has also accommodated the Bangladeshi character dear to the BNP in defining our citizenship. The “secular root” is divisive and more complex. My friend the MP was adamant that there could be no compromise on the secular root. He showed a definite contempt about the Islamic forces in the country. To him, the country must be secular.

We listened to our politician friend with apprehension. We told him that what he was getting at is his party’s public stand by which it has divided the country into what it calls pro-liberation and anti-liberation forces. He did not disagree with us. In fact, he underscored that those who believed that our roots are in “Bengali nationalism” and “secularism” are the pro-liberation forces and those who have doubts on these roots are anti-liberation forces.
We pleaded with him to consider that his party’s uncompromising stand on the roots is dividing the country into two conflicting groups and that the conflict is now destroying the country. We wanted to know from him how we have come to a stage where today there are 75 million or more people in the country who are so-called “anti-liberation” force according to his party when during our war of liberation; there were only a handful of such anti liberation elements.

My friend did not have any explanation but he did have an answer on what should be done to those who are “anti liberation” forces who do not believe in our roots the way he and his party believes. He simply said they had no right to live in Bangladesh. This friend had on an earlier occasion told me and a few other friends that dealing with these “anti-liberation” forces meant “sizing” them up and when asked to clarify what he meant by “sizing”, he said without batting an eyelid that these forces should be eliminated! Afterwards at home, my friend’s strong views had me thinking very seriously. If it had been just his views then I would have been able to lay it at rest even though his views were very discomforting to merely set these aside. I was alarmed because there are many in his party who do think the way he does and they are as compromising with our roots as he is.

Many of us have lived through 1971 without being an Awami Leaguer. It was Bangabandhu’s 7th March, 1971 speech that boiled the blood in all of us and brought us all together under his leadership in believing in Bangladesh. It did not matter for us whether we were Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or Christians. It did not matter whether or not we voted or supported the Awami League. Barring a handful of collaborators and Islamic parties that had little support amongst us, we all united under Bangabandhu’s clarion call. The need to explain that the basis of our nationalism in those 9 months was we were Bengalis was irrelevant even to consider because it was as obvious as saying it is daylight when we are at mid-day and the sun is shining brightly on us. It was 25 years’ of deprivation as Bengalis as a part of Pakistan that made this factor irrelevant. Pakistan’s decision to commit genocide on us simply because we spoke the Bengali language was what has brought us together as a nation in 1971.

Nevertheless, since we achieved our independence, there have been good reasons for extending this Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi nationalism to make complete sense of what we are. First, without a Bangladeshi content to Bengali nationalism, there will be little to set us apart from the people of West Bengal who by the definition that our nationalism is determined solely by the language will have as much right to Bangladeshi nationality as we have. It is like the claim to Israel citizenship. Any Jew anywhere on the world has the right to become an Israeli citizen based on the right of return for the Jewish Diaspora. Second, by making the Bengali language as the sole basis of our nationalism, we will logically exclude the minority in the country who do not speak Bengali as a mother tongue to be a part of Bangladesh as a matter of right. Third, the many centuries of influence of Islam that majority of Bangladeshis follow will be lost by restricting our nationalism to language alone.

The issue of secularism during our war of liberation was far removed from the minds of the people because we were united by a fear of genocide that for us was the litmus test that transformed us from being Pakistanis to Bangladeshis. In the nine months of liberation, there was no force on earth that could not have divided us nor was any necessary to unite us. We were not bothered whether we were a Hindu, Muslim or a Buddhist or a Christian. Religion was no factor; it was the Bengali language that brought us together and kept us united as a monolith.

The claim of the two mainstream parties leaves a lot to be desired to be a conclusive explanation of our nationalism . It is a matter on which we can debate as long as we want to. Yet we will not come out with a consensus on it. But then is this an issue that should hold us back and make us fight and divide? One way of looking at this could be by asking ourselves why we needed to be independent. Here there no division of opinion. We needed to be independent to build a democratic state. Pakistan was a dictatorship that we did not want. Our attempt to make it democratic when we voted the AL to power was met with genocide. We created Bangladesh so that whatever differences there existed amongst us would be discussed in the democratic way; by listening to all shades of opinion and then deciding on the basis of majority verdict. The very thought of imposing an opinion without discussion and on pre-conceived notions is anathema to the very dream that gave birth to Bangladesh, to reject a dictatorship and live in a democratic country.

My friend the politician reflected to me the same mindset that the Pakistanis had when they tried to destroy our spirit and keep us under their domination. If a large number of people of Bangladesh believe that our nationalism is “Bangladesh nationalism” and that our Islamic belief must not be lost in our emphasis on secularism, then the only way to deal with it for the group that differs with it is political. The way is not by calling those who differ with both our roots as my friend described it as views of anti-liberation forces and most definitely not by sizing them up. Even the thought that any person or group, 40 years after we have liberated ourselves for our democratic convictions and beliefs, could believe that there could be a solution of a political problem by force is taking a stand against the very basis that united our people in 1971 to fight and liberate Bangladesh.

The roots are important no doubt. Nevertheless, we need to consider how it is possible that a nation that was united as a monolith in 1971 on the issue of independence and freedom, can now be, as the ruling party suggests, divided into half so called pro-liberation forces and half so called anti-liberation elements. The thought that it is possible that there are 75 million people in this country is absurd.

In the 15th amendment, while the secular root has been restored, the Islamic character of the society has also been retained. And, on the issue of nationalism, while the 15th amendment has underscored the fundamental importance of language it has also given space to the view of the BNP that we are Bangladeshi in defining our citizenship. The official stance of the ruling party on the roots therefore differs from the uncompromising stance of its members and activists like my friend. The difference provides the hope that despite the rhetoric, the AL may not eventually pursue our roots in a manner that would destroy the tree.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

No comments: