IN a country where hordes of people choose not to remember history or deliberately push it away in their narrow partisan interest, where the young have carefully been kept away from coming in communion with their past, we must do what needs to be done. And that is to go back in time to recall some of the men and events shaping the political legacy of Bangladesh.
This being the month of Ekushey, it is only natural that we will recall the sacrifices of the young men who lost their lives in the great struggle for the Bengali language to be upheld as the symbol of our cultural and political expression. Ekushey, as we keep reminding ourselves, led us inexorably to the future -- the Tagore centenary celebrations in 1961, the students movement in 1962, the Six Points in 1966, the mass movement in 1969, the great electoral triumph in 1970 and the liberation of the land in 1971.
All of this we remember as we prepare to observe yet one more anniversary of the Language Movement. And with that we remember another February, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, not yet Bangabandhu, first made us aware of the road map he was sketching for the Bengali nation insofar as their political future was concerned. There are myriad reasons to remember Bangabandhu, one being the clear perspective on the future that only he was able to shape. Study the history of other politicians in the period before 1971. At some points in their careers, they lost their way or showed themselves incapable of demonstrating the kind of steadfastness one expects in leaders. Mujib was an exception, the exception taking the shape of reality on February 5, 1966, when he informed a conference of Pakistan's opposition leaders in Lahore that he was going ahead with a radical programme geared to achieving regional autonomy for Pakistan's five provinces. Not one of his fellow politicians, either in East or West Pakistan, offered him support on the Six Points. He went ahead anyway.
Which is why February 1966 remains a significant point of reference for this country. Remember that it was only a month after Tashkent and Ayub Khan was yet Pakistan's strongman. The announcement of the Six Points prompted Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into challenging Bangabandhu to a public debate on them at Dhaka's Paltan Maidan. On Bangabandhu's behalf, Tajuddin Ahmed took up the challenge. Bhutto then went silent. Nothing happened at Paltan Maidan.
In the epic tale of the Bengali struggle for freedom, February 1969 is a landmark you cannot avoid in your study of history. Through the gathering force of the mass movement and rising support for the Six Points, to which was added the Eleven-Point programme of the students of Dhaka University, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani made it clear that if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not freed and the Agartala Conspiracy Case was not withdrawn unconditionally, he would lead a march of millions on Dhaka cantonment to free the incarcerated leader. That threat, as also rising public indignation, worked. On February 22,1969, all thirty four of the thirty five accused in the Agartala case (one had been shot in confinement by the army) were freed and the case withdrawn. It was left to Pakistan's defence minister, Vice Admiral A.R. Khan, to make the announcement of a dropping of the case.
The day after, February 23, is a point in historical time when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal. Before a million Bengalis at the Race Course in Dhaka, student leader Tofail Ahmed spoke for an entire nation when he bestowed the honorific on the newly freed leader. On February 24, Bangabandhu left for Rawalpindi, to take part in the Round Table Conference convened by an embattled President Ayub Khan. Arriving in Rawalpindi, he quipped to newsmen, 'Yesterday a traitor, today a hero.' West Pakistan's leading political figures fell over one another trying to befriend him. Mujib was on his way to making even bigger history than he had thus far.
In February 1971 came the earliest of hints that the state of Pakistan was headed for disaster. Having failed to persuade Bangabandhu to agree to a grand coalition on the pattern of the CDU-SPD arrangement in West Germany, Pakistan People's Party leader Z.A. Bhutto told a crowd in West Pakistan on February 15 that his party would not attend the National Assembly session called for March 3 in Dhaka. The assembly, he said, would turn into a slaughter house because of the insistence of the Awami League on an incorporation of its Six Points in the new constitution to be drafted by the newly elected lawmakers from all regions of Pakistan. Bhutto's incendiary remarks would lead to horrible results. The assembly session would be postponed, talks to resolve the crisis would prove abortive, the Awami League would be proscribed, Bangabandhu would be jailed yet one more time and General Tikka Khan would inaugurate a systematic programme of genocide in East Pakistan. Pakistan's first ever general election would lead to the eastern half of it emerging as the independent republic of Bangladesh.
Move on, to February 1974. Leading figures in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), meeting in Lahore, were of the opinion that Bangladesh's prime minister ought to be present at the summit. Bangabandhu would not agree, unless Pakistan officially acknowledged Bangladesh as an independent nation. On February 22, five years to the day after the Agartala case was withdrawn, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan recognised the People's Republic of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Bhutto sent out an invitation to Bangabandhu, soliciting his presence at the Lahore summit.
On February 23, 1974, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrived in Lahore as the leader of a free Bangladesh. He was welcomed by Pakistan's President Fazle Elahi Chowdhury and Prime Minister Bhutto; a Pakistan army band played Amar Shonar Bangla as Bangladesh's flag fluttered beside Pakistan's in the breeze. Bhutto then introduced Bangladesh's leader to leading Pakistani personalities. When Bangabandhu came up to General Tikka Khan, by then Pakistan's army chief, Tikka saluted him. 'Hello, Tikka', said Bangabandhu, smiled and moved on. It was a patently embarrassing moment for Tikka, who had on March 25, 1971 had ordered Mujib's arrest. Asked at the time if he wished to have his prisoner brought to him, he had replied in disdain, 'I don't want to see his face.' He was now saluting his former prisoner.
And Lahore? It was that historic spot where the Pakistan Resolution had been adopted on March 23, 1940 by the All-India Muslim League. It was in Lahore where Bangabandhu came forth with his Six Point programme for a reconfigured Pakistan. In February 1974, it was a city where the reality of Bangladesh was acknowledged, fully and without ambiguity, by the state that had fought fiercely and pitilessly to prevent it from being born.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.