Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > The Importance of Remembering

Mainstream, VOL L, No 17, April 14, 2012

The Importance of Remembering

Saturday 14 April 2012, by Nandita Haksar

The Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi phoned to inform me that Bangladesh had decided to recognise my father, Parmeshwar Narain Haksar’s contribution to the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. Would I accept their invitation to go to Dhaka and accept the Friends of Liberation War Honour as his daughter?

I asked for two days’ time to think over. I had just returned from a gruelling 105-day trip of the North-East region of India where the problem of influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh loomed in the background for the whole trip. Hundreds of communities with unique cultures and languages are threatened with cultural extinction because of this influx fuelling insurgency and armed resistance.
Memories of 1971 had faded and I felt the effort of going to Dhaka was too much. I was about to politely refuse the invitation. But that night the memories of 1971 came flooding in, keeping me awake and wondering how I could have even thought of not accepting the invitation of the Bangladesh Government. I read the letter of invitation sent by e-mail. It was from Dr Dipu Moni, the Foreign Minister, writing in her capacity of Convenor of the National Committee to Honour Foreign Friends of Bangladesh Liberation War.

The letter said: “We are cognisant of the fact that our decision to formally recognise your father’s contribution has come forty years since our achieving independence; but that omission today is set right forever for our posterity and for the world.”

At the Dhaka airport we were greeted with beautiful bouquets of roses with “welcome to Bangladesh” embossed on the petals.

Earlier in July the Bangladesh Government had conferred its highest award for foreign nationals, the Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona (Bangladesh Freedom Honour), on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi had accepted the award on her behalf and praised Mrs Gandhi’s firm and principled stand.

It was only when I arrived in Dhaka on March 24 that I discovered that the Bangladesh Committee had put in two years of research to make a list of foreign friends who had contributed their time, money, resources and talent to making the national liberation war a success. It was not an easy task to trace their addresses and search for the relatives of those who had died. The story of the search in India has been documented by the Bangladeshi film-maker, Shahriar Kabir, in his film, A Friend in Difficult Times, in which he introduces the Indian friends of Bangladesh.1
Bangladesh did not only search for the famous or well-known people such as the Army officers involved in training the Mukti Bahini or in the surrender of the Pakistan Army. They searched for ordinary soldiers who laid down their lives in the course of the liberation war. More than 17,000 Indian soldiers died in the course of the nine-month liberation struggle.

The film documents the story of one soldier, Shaheed Lance Naik Albert Ekka, Param Vir Chakra, who was from a small Oraon village in Jharkhand. His wife related that she lost her husband only two years after their wedding. Albert Ekka was honoured along with late Lt-General Jagjit Singh Aurora and Lt Gen Jack Fredrick Ralph Jacob and late Field Marshal S.A.M. Manekshaw. All of them had fought bravely and with courage against the ruthless Pakistan Army.

There was a message already waiting for me: an invitation for dinner from my father’s friends at the famous Gymkhana Club. They had also invited an American couple, David Weisbrod and his wife. Weisbrod is tall with spectacles and looks every inch a businessman. I was told he had been a hippie with long hair in 1971 and had successfully lobbied for Bangladesh in the United States. He was successful in getting a resolution in favour of the Bangladesh war in the US Senate at a time when the US was opposing the struggle of the people of Bangladesh and supporting the massacres of citizens in what can only be called genocide.

On March 25 we were taken to the Banga-bandhu Memorial Museum at Dhanmondi. This was the house where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman lived with his family. It was here at this house on August 15, 1975 that the Father of Bangladesh, along with his wife and children, including ten-year-old Russel, was assassinated. Martial law was promulgated and a law was passed giving impunity to the assassins.

We walked around the house and I noticed the old-fashioned furniture, simple and comfortable. It must have been full of love, warmth and laughter. I did not want to think of the murders, the screams and the bloody scene… but the memory of the murder of Indira Gandhi forced itself and I suddenly felt dizzy and went out to breathe. It was in 1975 when martial law was declared in Bangladesh, the year that Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in India. Both leaders were accused of being authoritarian; Sheikh Mujib switched to the presidential system and Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency; both leaders had become authoritarian; both were assassinated…

Even more disturbing has been the steady rise of relgious communalism and fundamentalism in India and Bangladesh. But in 1971 there was no communalism on the question of Bangladesh. The Indian people had responded ever so generously to the suffering of the ten million Bangladeshi refugees who came across our borders. I remember going around Delhi with Ruma Guha Thakurta and her Calcutta Youth Choir. My mother and I hopped down from the truck to collect money in our sari pullavs stretched out. People on the streets gave money without any persuasion or explanation.

I could hear her Bolo Bolo Bolo Sabe and Ek Din Surjyer Bhor in the museum. I remembered a beggar taking out money from his bowl and putting it in my sari.
Looking back it was remarkable that the wife of my father, a senior bureaucrat, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, should go around the streets collecting money and clothes for the refugees. My father had encouraged the entire family to join in the national effort.

And Bangladesh was going to honour the people of India with the Friends of Liberation War Honour.

WE are taken for a drive through Dhaka. The Friends are in several buses, an ambulance and police cars. There are stickers on the windshields proclaiming us as Friends of the Liberation War but I notice very few people wave at us. Bengalis are demonstrative people and this lack of enthusiasm makes me sad. I see a small mosaic of Radha Krishna and later an image of Durga. A Hindu woman in sindoor waves at us with a weak smile.

We reach Postagala through the cantonment for a river cruise. I am excited because I remember the photographs my father took of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a boat cruise. Arundhuti Ghosh, the former First Secretary in the Indian High Commi-ssion, tells me that she was there also. But the boat was open. I see a small boat with armed Armymen next to our boat. I ask one of the Armymen whether there is a security threat and he says: “Our government does not want to take any chances.” The Jamat-e-Islami has always condemned the Bangladesh War of Liberation as a conspiracy of India to break Pakistan. In the years after the assassination of Sheikh Sahib the memory of the national liberation struggle was sought to be wiped out.

I do not remember one instance when we in our family rejoiced about the break-up of Pakistan. Even when the Pakistan Army surrendered the overwhelming emotion was of relief that the murders and atrocities would stop. My father had even given me poems by Pakistani prisoners of war written in detention which reflected their dilemmas and sadness. He was criticised for insisting that the prisoners of war be sent back and not used for bargaining with Pakistan at the time of the Shimla Agreement signed in 1972. He did not believe in triumphalism or humiliating one’s opponent.

As we enter the boat, uniformed Armymen hand us white Rajnigandha flowers. There are tables set for us and on the first floor there is a cultural programme.
I remark to no one in particular that the water of the river is dark, polluted and depleted. Someone retorts: “It’s because of you.” He is not smiling and I keep walking. I know he is referring to the resentment Bangladesh has over river water sharing. This resentment goes back to the time when the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges river was commissioned by India in 1971-72. The flow of water into Bangladesh was totally dependent on India and this was done without any agreement with Bangladesh. Although an ad hoc agreement was signed with Sheikh Mujib and subsequently there have been attempts at a negotiated agreement, Bangladesh has complained that India has not kept its promise. There is also resentment about the Tipaimukh dam built on the border of Manipur and Mizoram on the Barak river. Bangladesh was not even informed although the lower riparian consequences were known.2

In the evening we all go to the Shikha Chirontoni which is an eternal flame. General Jacob explains that this was the spot where on a small table and two chairs the Surrender Treaty was signed and Pakistani General Niazi surrendered to the Mukti Bahini and Indian Army. Now it is called the Suhrawardy Uddyan.

For the Islamic fundamentalists this represented the humiliation of a Muslim state, to Hindu communalists it was a moment of triumph. There are more than a hundred Islamic militant groups in Bangladesh, many of them operating in North-East India; there are 23 Islamic groups in North-East India and both of them give the other succour and solidarity.

But for people like my father, the Bangladesh liberation struggle was a national liberation war of Bengalis for their language and culture.

Bengali nationalism is alive even in the names of our hotels where we are staying: Rupashi Bangla. Rupashi Bangla was a poem written by Jibanan-anda Das (1899-1954). The national anthem of Bangladesh was written by Tagore and the green flag signifies the lush green of their paddy fields. Everything seemed to bring back memories of times in which religion and nationalism were not antagonistic to each other.

March 26 is of course the celebration of Independence Day when the President and Prime Minister of the country lay wreaths at the National Martyrs Memorial at Savar. The stories of these martyrs are still being written, the quiet heroism of a people pitted not only against the ruthless Pakistani Army but an Army supported by the most powerful state in the world, the United States of America.

But there were those Americans like late Joseph Garst, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who helped in the rehabilitation of the freedom fighters and refugees. And there was Richard K. Taylor who tried to stop shipment of arms from the USA to Pakistan and was arrested. And there was Senator Wiliam B. Saxbe who raised the issue of the Bangladesh liberation war at Senate meetings and did succeed in stopping the USA from sending more arms to Pakistan. Bangladesh remembered all these people and was preparing to honour each of them.

In the evening we were invited to the Independence Day reception at Bangabhaban or the President’s Residence. Both President Zillur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met each of the awardees and talked to us individually. There were hundreds of other invitees lined up to welcome us. Several burkha-clad women shook hands with some of us and a few smiled. But on the whole it lacked warmth. I wondered whether the men in the wheel chairs were the freedom fighters who had lost their limbs during the liberation war.

THE award ceremony was on March 27 at the Bangabandhu International Conference Hall. The President and Prime Minister of Bangladesh handed the award and the citation to 83 men and women after the Cabinet Secretary had read out the citations. Eight heads of state were given the Bangladesh Liberation War Honour. These inclu-ded H.E., Dr Ram Baran Yadav, the President of Nepal, who in 1971 was a medical student studying in the Calcutta Medical College and had offered medical assistance to the refugees in the camps. The others included three leaders of the former USSR and the President of former Yugo-slavia, Joseph Tito.
Vijay Dhar is there to represent his father D.P. Dhar. We exchange smiles, knowing that our fathers had much to do in persuading the Soviet Union to support Bangladesh. We know the whole story of the backstage negotiations would not be out but it is good that Bangladesh had not for-gotten to honour the Soviet Union and Yugo-slavia, even if they had been wiped out of the map. Bangladesh had not forgotten to mention the name of a young Soviet sailor who lost his life while trying to make the Chittagong port operational.

The citations for the Friends of Liberation War Honour are a celebration of friendship and solidarity across the globe in an era when people believed they could change the world and the people of Bangladesh certainly did change their destiny.

There were many who had campaigned for Bangladesh in their respective countries to change public opinions and some of them had been remarkably successful. Archer K. Blood, the US Consul in East Pakistan during 1971, was the first diplomat to communicate to the US policy-makers about the genocide in Bangladesh. His widow was there to receive the award. The audience showed its appreciation for the journalists who had risked their lives so that they could tell the world about the savagery of the Pakistani Army: Simon Dring, the British journalist, Lear Levin, the American film-maker, late Naoki Usui, the Japanese journalist who travelled to battlefields to collect information first hand.

Bangladesh is a country full of singers and artists and that is perhaps why singers and artists were remembered so vividly: late Angshu-man Roy whose song Shuno Ekti Mujiborer Theke was broadcast on the Aakash Bani and late Debdulal Bandyopadhyay who kept alive the hope of millions of Bangladeshis with his daily news programmes. The All India Radio was also given the award. Biman Mullick, who decided to design and issue stamps on behalf of the Government of Mujibnagar, was not forgotten on this day of remembrance.

Ustad Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and George Harrison were remembered for their Concert for Bangladesh and Bhupen Hazarika for his songs in support of the freedom fighters. Many of us remembered Joan Baez singing ‘Bangladesh’ and wished she was present to sing the song on this occasion. She may not have been in the Concert but it was her voice that reached many millions of people.

The Bangladesh Government also honoured several Christian priests: Rev Eugine Homerich, who saved 90 Hindu women by giving them shelter in his church, Fr Richard Willian Timm, who sent secret reports of the human rights violations, and Fr William P. Evans, who provided shelter to both refugees and freedom fighters. He was killed by the Pakistani Army.

As I sat on the dias I felt the real heroes were the peoples of North-East India and I was so happy to see the honours list included so many people from Tripura and Meghalaya.

Bangladesh remembered the remarkable gesture of solidarity by Maharani Bibhu Kumari Devi of Tripura. She opened her palace grounds and donated land for the refugees who came to her State. Later I met the Maharani, so full of grace and elegance which comes with royalty. She had no anger or bitterness about the fact that the refugee population had changed the demographic profile of Tripura and made the tribal commu-nities a minority.

There were many people from Tripura and Meghalaya: late Dasharath Dev Barma, an adivasi leader who helped the Mukti Bahini, Purno Agitok Sangma, who created volunteer groups to help the freedom fighters, and late Rawshanare Begum Sangma, who donated land for the refugees and supported the Mukti Bahini.
I wondered whether the memories of 1971 could help the people of North-East India come to grips with the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, victims of poverty and climate change.

Perhaps there is no other country in the world which has honoured its friends in such a meaningful way. Even the most cynical were moved by the graciousness of the new leaders. The gesture had already resulted in winning a new generation of friends for Bangladesh from amongst all of us who were representing our parents, and in some cases our grandparents.

The Committee is still searching for friends of Bangladesh and will continue to honour them as and when they trace the people who stood by them in those difficult days. The Ministry of Liberation War Affairs is also documenting the stories of the freedom fighters, their tales of sacrifice, suffering and heroism.
More importantly, the process of remembering was also a way of affirming shared values which seemed even more relevant than they were in 1971, both in Bangladesh and in India. The sad part is that the media and Indians did not realise the importance of this remembering. It took several days before the Indian Government formally thanked the Bangladesh Government for preserving the memories of those times by felicitating Indians.

FOOTNOTES
 
1. I was a little upset to see that the photograph of my father was of someone else.
2. Krishnan Srinivasan, The Jamdani Revolution, Kolkata: 2008, Dhaka: 2009.
 
The author is a human rights lawyer and writer. She is also the daughter of the late P.N. Haksar who was the Principal Secretary to PM Indira Gandhi in 1971 and played a seminal role in assisting Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistani yoke.
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