Dhaka was a distant dot on India’s map when I was living in my home town, Sialkot. Partition pushed me to Delhi and, happily for me, the dot came closer. I took the first plane to Dhaka as soon as it became the capital of the liberated Bangladesh. For the first time, I heard Joi Bangla, a slogan or an invocation, from the weary Bengalis returning home. The airport was littered with luggage and looked disorderly with long queues before the immigration desks. Yet every face was writ with determination to make the freedom meaningful for the sacrifices they sought to offer.
That was nearly 40 years ago. Whenever I went to Dhaka I looked for that spirit. Now I find the same urge of Joi Bangla returning. Most of the 180 million people feel the same sense of pride and proudly find that the idealism within them has not extinguished. In the three-week-old stir, they have proved that their fight against fundamentalism, something they witnessed when they separated from West Pakistan, is still raging. It seems that a country which had lost its ethos is returning to the right path.
That Jammat-e-Islami should oppose a secular ideology is understandable because the party does not believe in pluralism. Yet its use of violence to deny the country its ideology of liberation is to deny the very baptism of the nation. The liberation struggle represents the revolt against the colonial rule which East Bengal suffered at the hands of West Pakistan. It also negates the two-nation theory, Pakistan’s raison d’etre. When Bangladesh became independent, more Muslim population walked away from Pakistan which hugged to the thesis based on religion. Religion doesn’t make nations; in fact, nations make religion. It is futile to keep Muslims and Hindus apart on the basis of their beliefs.
For people who had staked all they had to wrest themselves from the unwilling hands of Pakistan could not stay away long from their three basic demands: death sentence for the perpetrators of war crime committed during the liberation struggle of 1971; a ban on the Jammat-e-Islami and its students wing, the Islami Chattar Shivir, both involved in war crimes against the Bengali population; and, boycott of companies controlled by the Jammat.
In 1952, Pakistani soldiers had shot and killed seven young Bengalis at Dhaka University. Those killed were protesting against the imposition of Urdu as a compulsory language. Language, culture and ethnicity were staking their claim. In a sense, February 21, 1952 was Shahbag Square before its time. No wonder, Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, founder of the country and father of Sheikh Hasina of the Awaami League, insisted on calling the then eastern part of Pakistan ‘East Bengal’. Today, of course, this is Bangladesh. He anticipated that Pakistan would rather give up Bangladesh than Urdu. And this is precisely what happened.
It has taken the nation some years to realize that it cannot sustain its secular as well as liberation spirit without punishing those who had usurped power in the name of liberation. But they were not the real liberators. The youth, which must get the credit for leading the movement, has forced their people to see their face in the mirror and recognize that the real liberators had been pushed aside while they should have been the real beneficiaries. In the process, the anti-liberators have seen during the years they were in power that the original commitment to stay pluralistic would be mixed with religion, just as Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jammat did.
The youth have made the country realize that those who opposed freedom for Bangladesh, plotted in conjunction with the military Junta in West Pakistan and oppressed their own people must be separated from the liberators. The latter see the Jammat as a part of the Razakar militia that was an ancillary to the Pakistan army and are determined to punish those who sided with the aggressors. They consider it essential to remove the stranglehold of the Jammat from politics, economy and society. Make no mistake, these are not the only young people in Bangladesh at Shahbag, the venue for the agitation, who is against communalism but they seem to be the only ones who count.
The situation is not easy when huge money is pouring into the coffers of the Jammat and when the only viable opposition BNP, have moved closer to the fundamentalists. Against this background, it was natural that Begum Khalid Zia would cancel her appointment with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee who was visiting Dhaka last week. Khalida looked like conveying to New Delhi that the fight against the Jammat was motivated by India. For her, even this far-fetched argument means a lot because the elections are only a few months away when she would polarize the nation along with the Jammat.
What the two, more so the Jammat, do not seem to realize is that the demand for death of the collaborators has not been encouraged by India in any way. Bangladesh is fighting for its identity—an identity that inspired it to be free which it has forced now to refurbish the wherewithal of freedom. The more the issue is clouded the louder would be the voice. The Bangladeshis have got awakened.
There is a lesson for us to learn. We too have left our basic commitment far behind, that of pluralism and democracy. Electoral politics has mutilated them and what has come to be known as the vote bank politics has let communalism, caste and regionalism emerge. We demolished the Babri masjid at Ayodhya and killed the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. We have practically destroyed the pluralistic society that we had built since independence. Can we retrieve pluralism and democracy that our forefathers envisaged in the constitution and placed before us like a pole star?
Bangladesh looks determined to reclaim the purpose for which it was constituted. In contrast, we think we have all the time to hark back on the old values as well as ideals of our freedom struggle. Bangladesh means business. We have not yet begun to feel what we have lost. EOM