Passage to freedom
Forty-eight years have elapsed since we overthrew the yoke of exploitation and oppression and gained our Independence, through blood, sweat, and tears. Introspection is particularly necessary since the post-independence population now represents two thirds of our people. The youth has undoubtedly read and learned about our freedom struggle, but I feel that personal stories can be effective in creating awareness and reinforcing the importance of being a citizen of a free nation.
Hence, here is the story of my journey leading to our victory in December 1971. My political orientation began to take shape in the late 60s as a student at Dhaka University. It was then that I became conscious of the unfairness and exploitative nature of our relationship with West Pakistan. My Alma Mater was the hotbed of activism and resistance against the exploitation and even overt racism of the political elites in West Pakistan. Almost the entire student body was galvanised by the inequitable treatment that Bengalis were subjected to. I became part of the zeitgeist gradually veering towards the idea that we have to win our rights through active struggle. My transformation also owes a big debt to Chhayanaut where I studied music. This was more than a music school. Our teachers helped us develop a deep love and appreciation for Bengali art and culture. It was a time when there was a surge of Bengali nationalism among the population of East Pakistan and Tagore's literary works were an integral part of this movement. I believe this cultural awareness instilled a sense of pride in my Bengali identity and subsequently inspired me to participate in the Liberation War.
The brutal crackdown on the civilian population on March 25-26 dealt a deathblow to the idea of a Federated Pakistan. The Rubicon was crossed. People of East Pakistan made a life changing choice—the choice of becoming active participants in Bangladesh's struggle for independence inspired by Bangabandhu's historic call of March 7, 1971.
Imbued with the idea of "freedom" I, too, consciously decided to join the resistance movement with a group of young men and women and crossed over to India where the exiled Bangladesh government was working for the independence of the country.
Initially, my parents did not agree with my decision to join the resistance, but later relented, fearing the army's witch-hunt of young singers and artists. In retrospect, I cannot fathom how they parted with their teenage daughter, despite the risks and challenges of an uncertain future. Perhaps they were also aware that sacrifices would be required to gain freedom. The truth is that those were exceptional times and people were not applying the kind of rationale that they do under normal circumstances.
The journey to India was arduous—we trekked through unknown territories, using rickshaw and boat where possible. With tremendous ardour and determination, we ventured on the road less travelled, literally and metaphorically. Throughout this ordeal, what touched me most was the love and support of ordinary villagers we encountered on the way. They risked their personal safety by guiding us through remote country roads to escape army surveillance. Perhaps this fearless commitment of the people of East Pakistan was a major reason for our ultimate victory.
Our group crossed over to Agartala in June 1971. We stayed a few nights in a camp under unimaginably difficult conditions. A few of us then flew on a rickety, small plane to Kolkata—a risky and bumpy flight that I would never take now! My destination was the home of my uncle, professor AW Mahmood. I remember him in humble recognition of the fact that he provided a safe haven to many homeless Bangladeshis, including myself. A well-respected academic, he used his student connections effectively to increase awareness and support for Bangladesh's independence.
In Kolkata, I joined a group of Bangladeshi musicians called "Shadhin Bangla Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha"—later popularised in Tarek Masud's documentary "Muktir Gaan". The members visited the refugee camps and sang patriotic songs to keep the spirit of a "free Bangladesh" alive for the demoralised men and women who had left their homeland to escape the brutalities of the Pakistani army. Another important objective of the group was to rally support among Indians (politicians, decisionmakers and civilians) by narrating the story of Bangladesh's freedom struggle with the help of poetry and music. The Shangstha was founded by cultural icons like Hassan Imam, Wahidul Haq and Sanjida Khatoon, with support from many prominent Indian activists. Occasionally we also performed for the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra—the radio station that broadcast programmes to motivate and inspire the people living in "occupied East Pakistan."
During the course of our musical tours, we were fortunate to meet several inspirational personalities. One person who left a deep impression on me was Kalpana Dutta, a prominent member of Surya Sen's group that attacked the Chittagong armoury in 1930 as part of the armed resistance against British colonial rule.
Sometimes adversity can gift you with rare and positive experiences. The forced-exile in India took me to Tagore's ashram "Santiniketan" where I met my music gurus—Kanika Banerjee and Nilima Sen and other Tagore exponents like Debabrata Biswas and Shubha Guhathakurta. What I discovered was that, in the monastic environ of the ashram and the outer world of Rabindrasangeet, egos and prejudices did not exist. Hence, an insignificant young girl from a country with only a name but no territory was readily accepted into the affectionate fold of Tagore's disciples!
Meeting the many women in leadership positions in the independence war was yet another life changing experience for me. Fortunately, women like Sufia Kamal, Jahanara Ara Imam and Matia Choudhury had already made their impact on the country's broad canvass. The women "muktijoddhas" carried this initiative a step further and inspired many young women like me to make the quantum leap toward redefining their new role as equal partners in the fledgling nation.
It would be amiss if I didn't highlight a particular aspect of my experience as an exile in India. I would like to mention with reverence and humility the many ordinary Indians who gave us material as well as emotional support and embraced our cause. At a very impressionable age they taught me the intrinsic human values of tolerance and compassion for the less fortunate.
When I look back on those days with nostalgia and also a sense of pride, I realise that, unwittingly, I had stepped into a very important crossroad of history and was destined to be a part of a momentous event: the birth of independent Bangladesh. I keep reminding myself that we fought not only for our freedom, but also for creating a secular, democratic state that would provide equal opportunities to all its citizens. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has been ravaged by famine and political upheaval since its inception. The brutal murder of Bangabandhu and his family, as well as the killing of our leaders in jail and military coups, have left deep scars on our country's psyche. In some ways we are still striving to recover from the trauma and the polarisation these tragedies have caused. The setback has shifted our goals and the country has, on occasion, deviated from the founding principles that are embodied in our Constitution. Principles that ensure equal rights to minorities, encourage a free media and allow space for a healthy opposition that helps the democratic process through constructive criticism.
It is encouraging to note that we are making remarkable economic progress. However, one does not live by bread alone. The reversal toward religious extremism is alarming and extremely demoralising for people who fought to free the country from intolerance and bigotry. The government is taking some positive steps to arrest these militant forces, but more needs to be done, especially in terms of civic education and cultural programmes for the youth. It's important to make the younger generation aware of the sacrifices that were made to "earn" the status of an independent country. We should not take our freedom for granted. If we look at other examples like Palestine and Kashmir, we will begin to appreciate how fortunate we have been to win a war of independence in nine months. We are unique in this respect. But now we must nurture our hard-won freedoms, and create an equitable and harmonious society whose central objective should be equal opportunity for all its citizens.
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.