There appears to be a surfeit of new historians in Bangladesh these days. The young, 48-year-old Tarique Rahman continues to "enlighten" the nation on the country's history from his safe hideout abroad. As if we hadn't had enough of his interpretation of history in these past few months, he now tells us that every wrong and every evil committed between November 1975 and April 1977 can be linked to the presidencies of Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed and Justice ASM Sayem. His dear father, he would have us know, was not in the picture at all.
Tarique Rahman's view of history is neither logic nor history. It is a recapitulation of lying perfected into black art. He and others like him are in need of some history courses themselves. General Ziaur Rahman was certainly not president between late 1975 and spring 1977 -- in the way that Gamal Abdel Nasser was not president of Egypt between 1952 and 1954, in the way that General Suharto was not president of Indonesia between autumn 1965 and early 1967, in the way that Saddam Hussein did not become president of Iraq before 1979. But Nasser, Suharto and Saddam were all strongmen who, behind the convenient cover provided by President Mohammad Neguib, President Sukarno and President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, in that order, ran their countries before actually seizing power in the formal sense.
The same goes for Zia. As army chief, as deputy chief martial law administrator and then as chief martial law administrator, he lorded over every aspect of political authority, with President Sayem performing duties a figurehead is expected to perform. Of course, Zia may not have brought in the Indemnity Ordinance, but he it was who made it part of the constitution. The annulment of the Collaborators Act in late December 1975 was not a move made by Sayem who, having taken over as president on November 6, 1975 (a day before the counter-coup that brought Zia to power), had promised the country fresh general elections by February 1977 in his first broadcast as head of state and government.
Only the naïve and the foolish will argue that Zia exercised no powers before April 1977. It was on his authority and insistence that Colonel Abu Taher was tried in a kangaroo court and hanged in July 1976. It was through his calculated endeavours that the perpetrators of the crimes of August-November 1975 went abroad as diplomats at various Bangladesh missions. Zia, once he was restored to authority as army chief of staff, did nothing to bring the killers of General Khaled Musharraf, Colonel Najmul Huda and Major ATM Haider to book.
Tarique Rahman has been a bad politician. He now turns into a worse historian.
Speaking of history, Air Vice Marshal AK Khondokar, a witness to and participant in some of the more dramatic moments in Bangladesh's history, now leaves us stupefied with new information. In his just-published book, 1971: Bhetore Baire, he asserts that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ended his address at the historic rally on March 7, 1971 with the slogans Joi Bangla and Joi Pakistan. The plain, unassailable truth is that the Father of the Nation never said Joi Pakistan. A million people were present at the rally and not even one of them heard him mouth Joi Pakistan. It is said that the late Justice Habibur Rahman too once made the same point, that Bangabandhu's speech ended with Joi Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Throughout the election campaign of 1970, Bangabandhu consistently ended his speeches with Joi Bangla. If he could do that, why would he, at a most crucial and critical moment in his life and in the history of his people, suddenly end his address with an invocation to Pakistan? The Dhaka centre of Radio Pakistan played the record of Bangabandhu's address early on the morning of March 8, 1971 (the Tikka Khan military outfit had not permitted a live broadcast on March 7) -- and it was clear that Bangabandhu had not uttered the term Joi Pakistan as he concluded his address.
You wonder why the air vice marshal had to bring a new controversy into the public domain. The only media outlets which, on March 8,1971, reported that Bangabandhu had raised the slogan of Joi Pakistan after he had spoken of Joi Bangla were the newspapers Dawn from Karachi and the Pakistan Times from Lahore. They lied. They wished to reassure West Pakistan that East Pakistan's leader still wished it to be part of Pakistan.
There are other historians who have been "enlightening" us with new "facts" regarding Bangladesh's tortured history. Think here of Mohiuddin Ahmed, who writes on the history of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, and BZ Khasru,
who has a new work on the Bangladesh military coup of August 1975. But more of that later.