Dreams from Sixteenth December and realities
December 16 in 1971 could not have come sooner for the residents of Dhaka who were holed up in the city for two straight weeks going through night curfews in the beginning, and then for the last forty eight hours non-stop curfews. The threats came from random apprehension of innocent civilians by Pakistani army patrols or their surrogates, frequents raids by the forces of houses that were suspected to be harbouring Mukti Bahini members, and retaliatory actions by the army on grenade attacks by Mukti Bahini in city borders.
Despite this frightful environment and face-to-face living with death, Dhaka residents learnt to live with the crisis and manage their lives in a way that people learn how to live in a mine field (and probably now in Dhaka). They knew who the enemies were, how to minimise if not avoid exposure to danger, and what the escape routes were when emergency struck. But the primal sustenance in those dire days came from the belief and hope that the fight would end sooner or later since it was the fight of a nation against an occupying force.
On December 16 the residents of Dhaka had to pinch themselves to make sure it was real that victory day had finally arrived. The days and nights immediately preceding that day had agonised everyone to a near-numb state of mind because of the specter of a last ditch effort by the retreating Pakistani army and turning the whole city into a battle ground was haunting all. People who had a backup plan to run to the villages had given it up as most roads were impassable because of returning army convoys. Therefore, it was joy all round twice when people heard over the radio the decision of surrender by the Pakistan army.
I felt liberated like everyone else in my neighbourhood. The joy came first in the form of a procession of young people who apparently sprung from nowhere carrying Bangladesh flags and raising Joy Bangla slogans. I joined them for part of the route but then we stopped as some people came from across the other side and told us that some bands of Pakistani militia that were still on the roads were firing randomly. The procession wisely dispersed, but for the moment. There would be more of these in the afternoon, and for several days later. Like the hundreds of thousands celebrating the victory I also melted into this great celebration but with a question, what is next?
What immediately followed were two frightful ways that some people celebrated the new found victory. The first was the bayoneting to death an alleged Razakar in Dhaka Stadium the second day of our liberation by a liberation force leader known for his heroic exploits against Pakistan army. Some people applauded this summary execution of a Pakistan army abettor and collaborator. Others, particularly the foreign media that had descended on Dhaka at the time, were horrified by this gory sight. Would revenge be the way to celebrate our freedom? Will this be the future of our justice?
The second was unleashing of random vandalism by forces that appeared first in the shape of jubilant youths celebrating victory. Initially the targets were shops and establishment purportedly owned by non-Bengalis located in and around Dhaka, but later other shops and establishment were attacked for no apparent reasons except looting. These youths would carry guns and ammunitions that were left in the streets by fleeing Pakistani militia and were picked up by whoever got to them first. For the first few days things had gone so bad that ordinary people were afraid to be in the stadium area after dark lest they became targets of these random attacks. People started to call these new brigands the Sixteenth Brigade or Shorosh Bahini.
The dire nature of the hooliganism that time was epitomised in remarks by one beverage vendor in the stadium market whose shop I used to patronise during the occupation period. He was one of the brave souls who kept his shop open all through the nine months, selling cold drinks, snacks, paan, and cigarettes. Every time I visited his shop he would greet me with a smile, and while handing the bottle of coke he would relate to me in a low voice the latest attack by Mukti Bahini on Dhaka suburbs.
The second day after liberation he charged no money for my coke and snacks calling these his victory day gifts. When I visited his shop a few days later when the vandals of the so called Sixteenth Brigade were ruling the stadium market, he had no longer the shiny look and the grin in his face. When I asked him why he looked so sad he replied: “I endured last nine months because I knew one day the evil forces would leave my country, they are not our own. But sir, what do I do with this new evil? Is this why we wanted freedom? They will live with us because they are our own.” Today, forty three years after our victory celebration, we are still trying to find an answer to the stadium vendor's questions; did we replace one evil with another?
These days when the country is going through one of the worst political crisis of our existence we are facing challenges to the values and principles that moved our people to this fight. When we recall our history since December 16 we will find that these challenges became prominent from the day following our victory. Victory day released us from the iron grip of the occupying forces and gave us a free country, but it also unleashed along with it dark forces that had never reconciled to the values and principles of our national movement for a secular society, equality of all our citizens, and promise of a democratic country.
The Sixteenth Brigade was stopped in form only with government orders on surrender of arms a few weeks later under Bangabandhu's command, but it continued in spirit through furtive and covert actions that would seek to harass the fledgling government and bleed it internally. The kindred forces would surface and topple the government that was founded on the dreams of sixteenth December in less than four years. A democracy would yield to military dictatorship, the four state principles on which the constitution was founded would be thrown to the winds, a secular constitution would be turned on its head, and Joi Bangla would be replaced by Bangladesh Zindabad.
The crisis that the country faces today is a creation of forty years of failure to restrain these contrarian forces, and our inability to build the country on the promises of December 16. Instead of building a nation our leaders have concentrated on building personal fame and fortune. Instead of giving the country leadership they have provided leadership to their respective parties. Our country has come to another crossroads in history, and perhaps another last chance for its leaders. Will they fulfill our dreams of December 16?
The writer is a former civil servant.