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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 16, April 6, 2013

Reclaiming the Values for which Bangladesh was Born

Friday 12 April 2013, by Kuldip Nayar


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 Jamaat-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 crimes committed during the liberation struggle of 1971; a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and its students wing, the Islami Chattra Shibir, both involved in war crimes against the Bengali population; and, boycott of companies controlled by the Jamaat.

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 Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the country and father of Sheikh Hasina of the Awami 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 realise 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, who must get the credit for leading the movement, has forced their people to see their face in the mirror and recognise that the real liberators had been pushed aside while they should have been the real beneficiaries. In the process, the anti-liberation elements have seen during the years they were in power that the original commitment to stay pluralistic would be mixed with religion, just as Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat did. The youth have made the country realise 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 Jamaat 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 Jamaat 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 are 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 Jamaat and when the only viable Opposition, the BNP, has moved closer to the fundamentalists. Against this background, it was natural that Begum Khaleda Zia would cancel her appointment with President Pranab Mukherjee who was visiting Dhaka recently. Khaleda looked like conveying to New Delhi that the fight against the Jamaat 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 polarise the nation along with the Jamaat.

What the two, more so the Jamaat, do not seem to realise 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 has forced it 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 here. 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.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is

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