BANGLADESH’S history is replete with ironies. If you have lately heard or read of Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu’s invitation to General Ershad to broker a dialogue between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, you will get a fairly good idea of how irony has been an integral part of politics here. The idea that twenty two years after the AL and the BNP together forced Ershad out of office, they might seek his mediation in a resolution of the crisis that dogs them comes across as rather disturbing. Indeed, that General Ershad has not only survived his fall but has returned to politics with a vengeance is one more instance of how irony goes on underscoring Bangladesh’s politics.
There are other ironies. In the 1960s, we were not too happy that Field Marshal Ayub Khan had engineered the formation of the Convention Muslim League as his political vehicle. A lot of political turncoats flocked to him and made it possible for him to rule Pakistan for a decade. In 1971, we thought all of that was a thing of the past. Not so, for in the late 1970s and 1980s, our indigenous dictators, General Zia and General Ershad, used their military clout to cobble the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiyo Party into shape. A whole country has paid the price, for these two parties have quite turned the noble calling of politics on its head.
And then comes that other irony of Bangabandhu’s government, based as it was on the parliamentary political system, moving to change things through the fourth amendment to the constitution. The irony was clear: where earlier the Awami League had for decades struggled for a restoration of the parliamentary system, only three years into liberation it saw nothing wrong with making a switch to a one-party presidential form of government. Again, a price was paid. The ramifications were too visible to be ignored.
One of the more terrible of ironies for us was the sudden, swift exit of the dedicated politician Tajuddin Ahmed from the government and the retention of the conspiratorial Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed in Bangabandhu’s administration. It was a mistake that we would all pay for dearly. August and November 1975 would happen; and the country would pass into darkness. Another irony: the brave General Osmany gave up his seat in parliament as a mark of protest at the introduction of Baksal one-party rule. He did not show similar bravery when Moshtaque asked him to be his defence advisor.
There is then the caretaker irony. Years ago, it was Sheikh Hasina who defended it vigorously. Equally vigorously, Khaleda Zia dismissed the idea as unrealistic. Today it is the reverse. Let us go on. Dr. Kamal Hossain’s politics has been at a vast remove from that of Badruddoza Chowdhury, who in the pre-election period in 2001 denigrated the Awami League night after night through a malicious television campaign. Kamal Hossain and B. Chowdhury are today in alliance. There is irony for you again. Once Sheikh Hasina and Kamal Hossain were the leading lights of the Awami League. Observe where they are today.
An unmitigated irony in our history is certainly the rehabilitation of the local collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army of 1971. No collaborators in any other country have returned to positions of power or influence after they have been tried for their criminality. In Bangladesh, the old quislings came back with a bang, thanks again to our two periods of dictatorial rule. Even as these traitors returned in glory, many of our brave and prominent freedom fighters lost their lives in the darkness engendered by the retreat of secularism and the re-emergence of communal politics.
And that is not all. In late 1971, we had thought that the ugly legacy of military intervention, through coups d’etat, as practised in Pakistan, had come to an end. It did not, as we were to learn the bitter lesson between 1975 and 1982. But where not a single officer or soldier has died in Pakistan’s four coups, hundreds of men and officers were murdered in the coups and counter-coups in Bangladesh. Again, an instance of irony.
The truth about the 1971 war is that Bangabandhu led the nation to freedom. Ironically, forty two years after liberation, certain individuals, ignorant of history or determined to confuse the country, loudly proclaim that no one person provided leadership to us in the war. Another irony comes through the nation’s near veneration of the late Colonel Abu Taher even as fingers point to the possibility of his having played a role in the murder of General Khaled Musharraf and two of his fellow officers on November 7, 1975.
Move on to another irony. In early March 1971, Justice B.A. Siddiky refused to swear in General Tikka Khan as governor of East Pakistan. In independent Bangladesh, he became president of a faction of the Muslim League but soon ditched the party to accept General Ershad’s offer of the position of Bangladesh’s permanent representative to the United Nations. In 1971, Justice Nurul Islam served as chairman of the East Pakistan Red Cross and travelled abroad to lobby support for the Yahya Khan junta then engaged in genocide in occupied Bangladesh. In free Bangladesh, General Ershad made him vice president of the country.
The silence of the BNP over the war crimes trials issue remains a deafening irony. Many of its leaders have seen 1971, have been active in the struggle for liberation. Today they look away from the truth, for at one point in time they shared power and broke bread with the very criminals who had helped kill Bengalis at the behest of Pakistan’s soldiers.
A dead Moulana Bhashani came as a blessing for many of his putatively leftist followers. They lost little time in making their way to the BNP and the Jatiyo Party, in that order. And Bhashani had his own problems. Having practiced secular politics all his life, he switched gears in the early 1970s, to fan the flames of a so-called ‘Muslim Bangla.’
Let us call it a day.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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