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Bangladesh’s chequered past

Many anti-liberation elements, that had been silenced, have become active to prove that the liberation had never taken place

Gulf News

When revolutions are in quest for freedom and justice, even after four decades of their happening, it means that they have gone awry. If hartals (strikes) and demonstrations are staged with the same frequency, the scenario becomes all the more sombre. This is what has taken place in Bangladesh.

Kamal Hussain, the country’s first foreign minister, has written a book to give an account of it. I wish he had said more about the birth of Bangladesh and the failure to sustain the spirit of secular democracy it had evoked. This was a rare revolution which rose above fanaticism and factionalism and beckoned a democratic structure without the pull of religion. Hussain’s story is inadequate and does not tell why a country, which fought against bigot so resolutely, caved in when extremism reared its head.

Not long ago, when Bangladeshis freed themselves from Pakistan in 1970, they rose as Bangladeshi. A Muslim nation fought against Muslims to make religious appeals meaningless. Unfortunately, after the liberation, the Bangladeshis got lost in religious warfare and parochial assertion. Hussain should have underlined the fact that the dream got shattered because religion had the better of secularism. The scene in today’s Bangladesh seems to suggest that extremism is nearly indelible and very few people rise above it.

To trace the movement for liberation is to applaud the Bangladeshis’ triumph over passion and prejudice. It was an ideology which conquered petty considerations. Yet, the story of independence was not that of a struggle alone to liberate oneself from distant Rawalpindi. It was the birth of an ideology of egalitarianism and a society which would fight against sectarianism and religious divisions. The nine months of operation by the Pakistani Army tore all tiers of administration and the machinery of governance and imposed a dictator-like rule. There was also an element of hatred towards the weak and poor Bangladeshis who dared to assert their identity. The only way they had was to revolt. “What could we do when the Pakistan government”, as Shaikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the father of the nation, said “tried to kill every Bengali and destroy Bangladesh”?

When Mujib took over, he explained that it would take time to set things right. But his appeal had little impression on the people who wanted the revolution to show results. They had seen one miracle happen — the liberation — but wanted another: Economic prosperity. Building it takes time, but the public had no patience. Also, the fire of freedom that burnt fiercely in the hearts lessened as days went by. On the other hand, many anti-liberation elements that had been silenced became active to prove that the liberation had never taken place and that the link with Pakistan should have never been broken. The more radical among the liberators also expected improvement from those in power.

The country had too many guns. The radicals were not the only ones to find them useful. There were others of different shades of political colours and there were plain brigands without any politics. They did not give up arms. Mujib’s personal magic worked up to a point. According to one estimate, 100,000 to 200,000 arms were never surrendered. Violence lay latent in the land and it appeared with a vengeance when the liberation was over.

However, the most disconcerting development for the Bangladesh leaders was an incipient anti-India feeling, a country which had helped them to become free. “I wish I could die now because relations between India and Bangladesh are so good today that I do not want to see them deteriorating,” Tajuddin Ahmad, once the prime minister, told me.

However, Mujib was not worried when I met him. He said: “I know that some elements, assisted by international interests, are indulging in a whispering campaign against India, but they cannot sabotage the relationship between your great country [India] and Bangladesh. A Bengali does not forget even those who give him only a glass of water. Here, your soldiers laid down their lives for my people. How can they ever forget your sacrifice? You fed ten million refugees for more than ten months. Even now you are giving us food and other assistance. I can assure you that my people are not ungrateful. Therefore, those who are trying to foment trouble will not succeed in their designs.”

Dhaka’s Foreign Office is still peeved over the remark of foreign countries that the policies of Bangladesh are “New Delhi’s carbon copy”. A Foreign Office man told me: “If only we could oppose you somewhere, so that we project an image of our independence.” He betrayed a small-nation complex and it appeared that to prove their country’s separate identity, officials are tempted at times to adopt an anti-India posture.

India’s size looks large. Many civil servants, suddenly becoming conscious that they were employees of a small and yet not prosperous country, indulge in anti-India talk. “Your country is too big,” they say. “Whether your neighbours like it or not, they have to be subservient to you.” Was this the assertion of old parochial sentiment or a complaint against their country’s inadequacy?

All this is missing in Hussain’s book, the feeling of elation and the frustration after its failure. There is not any disclosure as such books promise. Hussain says something about Mujib, but skips the much-talked-about weakness in his capacity to administer. Hussain should have also confirmed or denied the rumour that Mujib was sentenced to death by Pakistani’s military rulers and spared due to the intervention by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s popular leader. Maybe, Hussain has yet to publish the untold story of Bangladesh. We should wait for that.

Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.