Jahanara Imam: An Unstoppable, Uniting Force | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 26, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 26, 2015

Jahanara Imam: An Unstoppable, Uniting Force

On her 21st death anniversary, we pay homage to Jahanara Imam, the iconic activitst who inspired the entire nation to unite in the efforts to bring those accused of committing war crimes in the Bangladesh Liberation War to trial. Shahriar Kabir and Shameem Akhtar talk to THE DAILY STAR about the Jahanara Imam they knew.

Shahriar Kabir

Jahanara Imam is the first person to unite every power associated with the liberation war - be it a political, social or cultural force – under a single umbrella. She was able to do so through raising the demand to punish war criminals and working towards the realisation of the spirit of liberation. Bangabandhu was the only other person who was able to bring the whole nation together through his call for liberation. 

After the Liberation War, the various forces associated with it were at loggerheads over different issues. Jahanara Imam would always say that the forces against Bangladesh's liberation, those involved in fundamentalism and extremism, have been successful in thriving in the country because of the lack of unity between those who fought for independence. She would say that there's no need to think that they have huge public support backing them. That's why she had taken the initiative to unite every organisation that was in favour of the Liberation War. And she was successful in doing that. There were prior initiatives to bring together the various pro-liberation agencies but the endeavours were unsuccessful. 

She possessed the rare quality to lead people. She was the only person who could command Sheikh Hasina. She would call the prime minister up and say that she needed help with manpower support at a programme or some other kind of political assistance, and the now PM would oblige. 

Every force working for the Liberation War would arrive at Jahanara Imam's call. Individuals or organisations that couldn't even bear to come face to face, would all come under one banner, thanks to the leadership of Jahanara Imam. Her success conquered borders. The success of Gono Adalat  led to a documentary film made in Japan, on the civil society movement, highlighting Jahanara Imam. Even they were amazed that half a million people were brought together in one place under the leadership of a housewife, a writer and the mother of a freedom fighter. She did not have any organisational power, nor was she the member of any political power. 

She was also able to convey a strong message to the young generation of the country. Those born after 1975 were taught a different, distorted history. The new generation that hadn't witnessed the Liberation War – the dark generation as we call it – are unfamiliar with the Liberation War or the correct account of history. Jahanara Imam oriented this new generation toward the Liberation War. They became involved with Jahanara Imam's movement, read up and learnt about the war and thus, were able to gain a sense of pride as evidenced through the formation of the Ganajagaran Mancha of 2013. There was only one picture at the Ganajagaran Mancha that worked as a unifying factor and that was of Jahanara Imam's. The youngsters involved with the Mancha said that they were the children of the movement organised by Jahanara Imam, the children of the spirit of liberation. 

It's been almost 20 years since her protest movement and yet it hasn't lost its relevance or significance. Even in Pakistan, they have a branch of the Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee, as they declared that if Bangladesh could overcome the powers of intolerance and extremism, why would it be difficult for them to do the same? There are Nirmul Committees in 15 countries of the world that will observe Jahanara Imam's birth anniversary today and honour her memory. 

This is Jahanara Imam's legacy. The movement that she launched is a unique one that is unseen, unprecedented in the rest of the world.

The commentator is a writer, historian, war crimes researcher and executive president of Bangladesh's Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee

Shameem Akhtar

Jahanara Imam might have been Rumi's mother, but she was also a mother to us all, a leader who inspired love, respect and authority. She used to demand deference – she would even call Sheikh Hasina by her name. The protestors, despite their diverse backgrounds, held her in the highest esteem. She was a witness of the history of the Liberation struggle; she saw it in the making. Once Sufia Kamal declined the leadership of the movement against war criminals because of her ill-health, it was Jahanara Imam that people turned to; it was she who became the symbol of the movement against war criminals. 

When Gulam Azam became the aamir of Jamaat -e-Islam, the protest for trial of war criminals began. People from different organisations and parties joined the protest, and the Ekatturer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee was formed. It was under her able leadership that we forged such a strong movement to demand a long-awaited justice. 

And who wasn't there? Everybody was there! She maintained the tempo of the movement despite all odds, even though she was called a traitor during Khaleda Zia's tenure, even though she was accused of working against the state. And she died with that epithet of a traitor. She was even beaten by the police at one point, and fell and lost her consciousness, but she was never deterred. She used to say, “I am dry grass; if I come into contact with a drop of rain, I become green. You all are like rain to me, reviving me with your spirits.” These beautiful lines still inspire me. 

At the time, she was already undergoing cancer treatment, but we saw her working tirelessly. In 1994, the doctors recommended that she return to America for chemotherapy without any delay, but she, being in charge of the report of the Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee about the war crimes, couldn't leave without endorsing it. By the time she flew to America, after the last Gono Adalot, it was too late. 

She passed away there, on this day. We wanted to bid her a proper farewell, with a mass procession. But even though people came to pay their respects, they were dispersed by the police, and in the end, the final goodbye was, sadly, an unceremonious one. 

During her lifetime, she had been insulted so many times, by so many different groups. But the greatest insult was the torture and murder of her husband on December 14, 1971, when she was already going through the indescribable trauma of not knowing where her beloved son was. And the insult of being called a traitor… after everything she did for her country! The BNP government never withdrew it, refusing to give her the respect she deserved in life and in death.  

The commentator is a filmmaker, writer and a member of Ekatturer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee.  



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