Mourning the martyred intellectuals
Mourn a cold, dark, bloody day in distant December. Dawn, dusk, dew, and nightfall. Silent death squads knocking at the door, targeting noble names on the assassin's hit-list.
Lament the loss. Weep the tears. Cry for the slaughter of the illustrious sons of the delta. Wail at the memory of the dead desecrated in the ditch.
Feel the agony of grief. Our teachers and our seers, taken from us to the sequestered pit. Freedom on the horizon and the marching Mukti Bahini carrying the flag of liberation could not save them from the savage ambush.
On the fourteenth of December, raise your arm to salute, to remember the martyred intellectuals. Murdered with such diabolical, secret strategy to cripple the new nation.
Dare to shout. Dare to accuse. Dare to punish the craven killers. Your Nation asks this of thee: do not flinch, seek justice.
Remember the 'Rape of Bangladesh'.
In 1971, Anthony Mascarenhas was an eyewitness to the brutal acts of torture and unholy massacres of innocent civilians. This brave Pakistani journalist, hounded out of his own country for the truthful account published later in that year in London, ended his reportage from Dacca in October 1971. But the final lines of his book are ominous in the prescient knowledge of the horror that was to follow. He writes: “ Bangla Desh is too big, too explosive and has too many outcroppings to be either swept under the carpet of international opinion or to be painlessly swallowed by all parties concerned. Each of its aspects—the refugees, famine, genocide, the total alienation of the millions of Bengalis, the shattering effects independence would have on West Pakistan – by themselves are major international problems. Together they constitute a greater disaster and a graver threat to peace than Biafra and Vietnam or anything this generation has known…. We are only just entering a new area of darkness. It will be a long time before the light begins to show at the end of the tunnel. ” ( Vikas Pub.: India, 1971, pp.145-6)
In the Preface, dated London, 1 October 1971, Mascarenhas comments, “What I saw in East Bengal was to me more outrageous than anything I had read about the inhuman acts of Hitler and the Nazis. This was happening to my own people. I knew I had to tell the world about the agony of East Bengal or forever carry within myself the agonizing guilt of acquiescence.” (p.v). The writer here is unequivocal about his political affiliation and equally firm in his moral judgment. However, it is a travesty of history that even after more than four decades since the atrocities were committed in 1971, after the gruesome carnage of the night of 25 March 1971, and the satanic ritual killing on 14 December 1971, so many perpetrators of evil have not been identified and prosecuted. In recent times, a few known collaborators have been tried and sentenced, but we have yet to see signs of guilt or true remorse in them. How can we offer forgiveness in the face of an absence of a moral conscience? It is unnatural for the perpetrator to expect clemency when there is no clear attempt at redemption through confession of participation in crimes against humanity.
The children of Bangladesh have this heavy burden of a legacy of a holocaust. For us all, there can be no closure until there is full redress, until there is full disclosure about the events of 1971 to the people of Pakistan, until their government discards the cloak of denial and offers a formal apology for future generations to exist in mutual trust. It is not enough for scholars to enter into research and debate on Partition and Liberation War studies. Facts of recent history cannot, and should not, be confined within academia. History is for each of us to know in its authenticity from eyewitness accounts and scholarly documents. We may not know it whole at once, but we can weave the torn fragments into a tapestry of truth. This is necessary to guard against fabrication, or willful 're-writing' of history as has happened in fascist dictatorships in the past. Democracy, by its very definition, guarantees its citizens free access to information, to liberty of movement and speech, to justice and equal opportunity for work. These are the precious objectives and values for which millions of Bangalee civilians, University students, young Mukti Bahini men and women, and visionary intellectuals, were martyred. They died for a noble cause; they shed their blood so that our children would be born in an independent nation. A supreme sacrifice for a supreme purpose.
Mascarenhas has equated the horror of 1971 with Hitler's regime, as have so many since then. It is a natural comparison between similar states of evil. We are today constantly comparing our War Crimes Tribunal with the Nuremberg Trials of post-World War II. The German-Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, chose to be present at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and in her book wrote the famous, now oft-quoted, words, “the main lesson to be gleaned from [Eichmann's] life was one of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” Arendt's argument about the relation of obedience to authority parallels the argument of the American social psychologist, Professor Stanley Milgram. After controversial experiments conducted at Yale beginning in July 1961, the year after the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Milgram tried to answer the question “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” He concluded that people obey through coercion, and obey either out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative – even when acting against their own better judgment and desires.
However, there is recent dispute about this theory. In The New Psychology of Leadership (2012), Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher extend their “BBC Prison Study” series of experiments and collaborate with a number of researchers to develop a social identity analysis of leadership. This work focuses on the role of perceived shared identity as a basis for mutual influence between leaders and followers. It argues that leaders' success depends on their ability to create, represent, and advance a social identity that is shared with those they seek to motivate and inspire. Haslam and Reicher contest Milgram with regard to one crucial point. They argue that Eichmann, a committed Nazi, nonetheless 'took on organisational challenges with fervor and imagination. If he thought orders were not sufficiently “on message”, he would likely disobey them, and where none had been given, as was often the case, he would still “work towards the Fuhrer” in a creative way. He was convinced that the cause he was advancing was right. The truly frightening thing about Eichmann and his ilk is not that they didn't know what they were doing, but that they knew full well what they were doing and believed their actions to be justified, worthy and noble.' (New Scientist, 13 Sept. 2014, p.28)
Rational consideration of these new scientific studies by social psychologists, as well as research work undertaken by anthropologists in the last two decades on conflict studies in the “killing fields” of South Asia, make us posit significant political and ethical questions regarding the relationship between the occupying military army and the East Pakistani collaborators. Who provided the names on the hit-list to the local goons on the eve of Bangladesh's victory? Did the collaborators work for the military junta in a 'creative' way to advance their careers? Did they justify their actions on religious grounds? Surely, one point is clear to all of us who lived through the travail of those days: none of the collaborators were coerced.
The nation mourns the loss of the intellectuals on December 14. Memorials embody memory, and material objects of art and architecture memorialize both valour and losses of war. Around 50 top intellectuals of the country – doctors, engineers, lawyers, litterateurs, academics, journalists, and also top bureaucrats and business elites, were killed in cold blood. The intellectuals were both Hindus and Muslims. Their bodies were found in a brick kiln in Rayarbajar, in Dhaka, lying face down, blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs with red pieces of cloth.
There are two Martyred Intellectual Memorials in Dhaka, the one in Mirpur, built in 2002, is the site of all official commemorations on Intellectual Killing Day, Shaheed Dibosh. The Rayarbajar Memorial was built from 1996 to 1999 after the prize-winning design submitted jointly by architects Fariduddin Ahmed and Jami-ul-Shafi. In an interview with a research scholar in 2005, Fariduddin explained the symbolism of the architectural and spatial dimensions of the Memorial: “Rather than seeing this memorial as a war memorial, the architect defined it as a sritishoudho –a monument to memory. Unlike the Taj Mahal, which is a mausoleum, tinged with the pathos of romantic love, Ahmed clarified that this was different. This was a tomb that upheld tradition while also announcing the demise of empire and imperialism and the deaths caused by it. This makes the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial both a memorial and a shrine, drawing its inspirations from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ahmed emphasized.” (Space and Culture, May 2007)
The writer is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.