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The eerie night did not end!

Published : Thursday, 26 March, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 319

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

We are the proud citizens of independent and sovereign, Bangladesh. In the past, we rose up together as one nation, to defy occupation on our sacred soil. Sadly today, we are faced with new challenges, including an existential threat. Therefore, we need to rise up to the occasion, once more. We have come a long way--almost a half century of our existence, as a viable nation. We need to exhibit our courage, and emerge out of individual 'shells'. Our narratives have defined us. It has taken nearly three generations of Bangladeshis to help move this nation, to its position of relative comfort. We have worked hard, sometimes losing our direction, and suffered in pain...but with the passage of years, we have come a long way, blessed with intrinsic greatness.
On the occasion of the Independence Day of Bangladesh, we need really to search our individual souls, realign our vision, and open ourselves search our souls, and bring about transparency in the way we govern our collective lives. Are we following the ideals laid down by the Father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman? Like the nation's 3.0 million martyrs, did he not sacrifice his own, precious life so the nation could live with dignity and prosper?

Time is something of essence, that nurtures a unique value, and knows only to move forward Hence, we need to ask ourselves: Do our state narratives include the  special ingredients which foster collective consciousness, and a willingness, to keep us flying high and forward? We cannot afford to repeat our errors, by looking back in shame. We must ask ourselves: Have we collectively remained stuck some time, somewhere in our past?  Have we been held hostages by forces of reaction, persecution or religious strife? And this veil is so thin. Often, we fail to recognize this!

We are a secular nation--forward looking and progressive and need to follow our traditions, cherish our values. Nearly a half century ago, our inspiring leaders and valiant freedom fighters had convinced the world--poverty does not limit a nation's spirit of Liberation. Nor, did it dampen a popular struggle, nor its impact on history.

When nations acquire maturity, they must exhibit magnanimity and welcome opportunities to revisit their own history; to further reconcile with internal differences and need to review at heart, to ask ourselves-does diversity of thoughts and ideals, accompany our collective journey through time? We do need to ponder how the nation of Bangladesh was able to find its place in the community of nations. And, this was a particular miracle of history, that could only be possible  after one ideological nation broke away from another. A lot of time has passed, giving way to a cooler understanding of events--to prevail upon our collective lives and ideals. All of history's propaganda and exaggeration that were taken for facts, in the heat of conflict-can now be discarded. History cannot be changed, but it certainly must be reassessed!
Perhaps, this was also a reason why it was disheartening to note that Bangladesh, which had won its independence from Pakistan 49 years ago, had to seriously contemplate drafting a law in 2016, called the 'liberation war denial crimes bill'.

By virtue of this law, denying the Liberation War of 1971 was deemed to be an offense-to offer 'inaccurate versions', of what had really happened during and the War of Liberation. Undoubtedly, it had dawned on our leadership that the intention would be, in particular, to prevent any questioning of the official toll of 3.0 million people who had been killed by the Pakistani army, and its local allies during the conflict.

For whatever reasons, a section of the International media had felt that this figure was much too high. Although there is agreement that this Pakistani army had liquidated key groups, and further committed numerous atrocities and war crimes, much work remains to be completed to substantiate facts. So would it seem muddle headed, to say the least, to bring in a law that might somehow 'negate' such work (?)

However, truth has remained undisputed and had prevailed-because our arguments were not academic, but political. For those of us who had witnessed history in making, in this part of world, blinking new directions appeared to have emerged out of the 1971 Liberation War. I see this as a completely justified rebellion against oppression, while some view this as a tragic and regrettable separation. One side had emphasized ethnic, Bengali identity, while the other had catered to the indefensible justification of Islamic identity.

Needless to say, this fault-line had gone back a long way in East Bengal history, and had usually been manageable when politicians left it alone, but this was precisely, what the Bangladeshis had failed to do.

Let's not forget that the ruling Awami League, the party that had led the drive for independence, was eager to assume total ownership of the war--thereby denying legitimacy to other competing political forces and in particular, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist and Jamaat-e-Islami parties--by painting them as pro-Pakistani elements! That was certainly true of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Again, in the recent history-these parties had loudly cheered when Islam was declared the state religion. Did they not cheer aloud, when the court in Bangladesh ruled that there existed no threat to Islam, if the nation adhered to Islam as state religion?
The effects of the Liberation War have been felt-even several decades after Bangladesh was born. In recent years, war crimes trials in the country had also deepened the divide. Let's not forget that Bangladeshi extremists had murdered secular bloggers and members of the Hindu and Christian minorities, although such violence is still on an extremely small scale, compared with the incidents taking place in Pakistan. Nevertheless, it was unfortunate that neither of the main parties had been vigorous in their opposition to such acts.

Therefore, under the circumstances, Bangladesh had needed to conduct its politics in a far less polarized way, and in the process to take an honest look at its history-rather than to try to squeeze it into a political framework of whatever kind!

I remember when the news was broken on March 25, 1971 the Pakistani military had forcibly confined all foreign reporters to the Hotel Intercontinental (currently the Dhaka Sheraton) in Dhaka. That night, after military had launched its genocide campaign against the Bengali civilian population of East Pakistan. The overseas news reporters were able to see the tanks and artillery attacks on civilians from their hotel windows.

Two days later, as Dhaka had burned-the reporters were expelled from the country -their notes and tapes were confiscated. One of the expelled reporters was Sidney Schanberg of the New York Times. He would return to East Pakistan in June 1971 to report on the massacres in Bengali towns and villages. He would again be expelled by the Pakistan military at the end of June.

Two foreign reporters were fortunate in escaping the roundup. One of them was Simon Dring of the Daily Telegraph. He had evaded capture by hiding on the roof of the Hotel Intercontinental. Dring was able to extensively tour Dhaka the next day and witness firsthand the slaughter that had taken place. Days later Simon Dring left East Pakistan safely with his reporter's notes. On March 30, 1971 the Daily Telegraph published Simon Dring's front page story of the brutal slaughter in Dhaka that the army perpetrated in the name of "God and a united Pakistan".

The massacres in Dacca (as the city was known) were only part of the story however. The Pakistan army had begun a campaign of genocide that extended to all major cities and towns in Bangladesh and then moved out into the countryside to terrorize, murder and rape Bengali villagers. With foreign reporters expelled and a complete news censorship in place, the Pakistan army declared that the situation in East Pakistan was 'normal'
However Bengali refugees who had fled to neighbouring India, had brought with them only pure stories of horror. The refugee flow had reached millions and by December 1971 about 10.0 million Bengalis had fled East Pakistan.

In April 1971 the Pakistan army had flown in 8 Pakistani reporters from West Pakistan to participate in guided tours, embedded with the military. Their mission was to tell the story of normalcy of Pakistan's eastern Province. The reporters went back to West Pakistan after their military guided tours and dutifully filed stories declaring all was normal in East Pakistan. However, one of the 8 reporters had a crisis of conscience. This reporter was Anthony Mascarenhas, the Assistant Editor of the West Pakistani newspaper Morning News.

After an agreement from the Sunday Times, he went back to Pakistan to retrieve his family. On June 13, 1971 with Mascarenhas and his family safely out of Pakistan the Sunday Times published a front page and center page story entitled 'Genocide'. This was the tidal wave that briefed people of the tragic realities of the eastern wing of Pakistan. It was the first detailed eyewitness account of the genocide published in a western newspaper! This had broken the camel's back.
What followed next had been for the historians and text books. Shock and awe motivated people around the world to protest against crimes of humanity. Genocide had been planned and executed on innocent people. With the turn of global sympathies, the diplomatic core around the world took up the task of apprising people of the realities.
Bangladesh was born finally... after the Liberation Forces of Bangladesh stepped foot on their sacred soil on December 16, 1971.

Like millions of Bangladeshis, I am a witness to the birth of the new nation. And, I am also a witness to history's sharpest turn in 1971, in this part of our planet-to deliver independence and justice, swiftly!

The writer is a former educator
based in Chicago

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