Column by Mahfuz Anam: Imbibing 1971 values in our post-liberation generation
Never on the soil of independent Bangladesh would anyone ever have to suffer because of his or her religion. That was the resolve of every freedom fighter, along with their firm commitment to democracy and equality, as we emerged as an independent nation from the ashes of a most brutal genocide.
It was clear in my mind, as in the minds of thousands of Muktijoddhas, that what Pakistan denied to our minorities, especially the Hindus—an ownership of the country the latter chose to call their own in 1947—we, in free Bangladesh, will embrace as a matter of belief, principle and practice. So many of my fellow Mukti Bahini members were Hindus; their sacrifice, patriotism, and love for our freedom struggle and for Bangladesh were no less than any of ours—if not more.
We seem to have failed to fulfil that pledge. To see the ugly face of communalism rise in 13 separate districts over a period of only a few days—and that, too, during the period of the 50th anniversary of our independence—is sad, shameful, and indicative of our catastrophic failure to establish the principles of our Liberation War in the hearts and minds of the post-liberation generation, especially the youth.
Secularism, as one of the founding pillars of our state and a deeply-held belief of our freedom struggle, was dealt a body blow with the assassination of Bangabandhu and the capture of our state power by the military. That started the process of amendments and gradual dilution of the constitutional provisions guaranteeing secularism and religious freedom for all.
By the time a mass uprising was able to dislodge the military and quasi-military dictatorships and restore democracy in 1991, great damage had already been done to our constitution.
Though it was a proud moment in the nation's history that we were able to bring back democracy through a peaceful mass struggle, it must also be said that none of the amendments brought about by the governments of General Ziaur Rahman and his successor General Ershad—which greatly compromised our secular constitution—was ever touched by the succeeding elected governments. This sad story of our gradual but certain retreat from this fundamental principle of state-building craft explains the underlying causes of what we can call "several steps forward towards modernity and several steps backward towards medievalism." It was as if one foot was marching forward, and the other backwards, with the body being gradually torn in the process.
It is my strong belief that the restoration of democracy in 1991, through mass uprising and not through any bloody revolution, truly gave us a second chance to bring Bangladesh back into the mould of democracy and secularism. However, that was not to happen because, immediately after the fall of President Ershad, the principal allies of the anti-autocracy struggle—Awami League and the BNP—became bitter enemies. It was like the parting of ways of the US and the USSR after the fall of fascism in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Allies that defeated Hitler became the deadliest of enemies, each embracing the most notorious and dictatorial of governments of the day only if they pledged "your enemy is my enemy." In our case, with each successive election as power swung between the two rivals, their competition to maintain it or regain it became more and more devoid of principles, ethics, vision, and morality of any sort. The politics of immediate gain regardless of its future cost ruled the actions of our two principal political parties. As a result, both parties vied for the support of forces that were inimical to the birth of Bangladesh, propagating ideologies that directly contradicted the values of our Liberation War.
It was the fight between the Awami League and the BNP for the so-called "Islamic vote" that blurred the lines between democracy and secularism on the one hand, and precipitated shameless and unprincipled play for power on the other, creating the opening for the rise of religion-based politics whose door was earlier opened during the period of military dictatorships. As a result, secularism—which the BNP did not ideologically adhere to and the Awami League formally lent support to but practically did otherwise—fell by the wayside. As secularism was sent into exile through one door, religion-based politics was welcomed through the other. BNP's alliance with Jamaat and Awami League's deal with and concessions for Hefazat-e-Islam demonstrate this point most succinctly.
Today's rise of fundamentalism and intolerance is the direct result of the anti-democratic and anti-dissent politics of the day that demonises everything and everyone who fall foul of those in power. This has gradually and effectively isolated the government from all its allies, and made it more and more dependent on bureaucracy, police, intelligence agencies, and street-level thugs, none of whom had—not in Bangladesh, nor anywhere in the world—the slightest of commitment to democratic ideals or public participation in the decision-making process. This led to the failure to build a democratic culture and caused hate speech and alternative facts to enter our lexicon.
We must understand that the forces of communalism that has established its hydra-headed presence in Bangladesh today are not the result of our recent failures, but failures that have been occurring over many years—ones that we have deliberately ignored due to our lack of courage to confront forces that were taking us away from the values of our Liberation War. Or it was because we were so blinded by the politics of power and wealth that we did not care. The present ruling party did not see that they were cutting the very tree on which they were sitting.
The challenge today is that Bangladesh needs to rediscover 1971 in all its glory and the deeper meaning of what our independence struggle stood for. We prefer to call our freedom struggle "Mukti Juddho" or "Liberation War," instead of the "War of Independence." There is, of course, a reason for it. (Recall Bangabandhu's famous speech of March 7, 1971, where he said, "Ebarer sangram amader muktir sangram; ebarer sangram amader shadhinatar sangram." He uses the words "mukti" and "shadhinata" together.) By using the term "Mukti Juddho," we want to emphasise that our struggle in 1971 was about far more than just political independence. We struggled for a fundamental reform of our society that was to liberate us from all our backwardness, prejudice, hatred, incapacities, narrow mindedness, etc on the one side, and eliminate poverty and all sorts of discrimination on the other. If we juxtapose the concept of "Mukti Juddho" along with that of "Sonar Bangla," then the true meaning of 1971 begins to emerge.
In their interviews with The Daily Star, Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Salimullah Khan and Syed Manzoorul Islam, all eminent scholars, identified the absence of democratic politics and youth unemployment, disappearance of an active civil society, and societal disengagement and cultural vacuum, respectively, to be the underlying causes of the rise of communal forces in Bangladesh. Each of these points are relevant and must be considered by our policymakers with seriousness and urgency.
While we have made considerable progress on the economic front, these gains have come at a great cost of our democratic rights and freedoms, and at the cost of a widening rich-poor gap. Our economic progress, substantial as it is, has not led to a deeper harmony, but to greater dissonance, part of which gets expressed in attacking minorities. It should not have escaped any one's attention that those participating in the attacks on Hindu temples and mandaps were mostly youth.
As for the role of civil society, there is nothing to write home about. The Bangla term for civil society is "shushil samaj." The present leadership, with the help of some partisan intellectuals, have turned the word "shushil" into one of ridicule, derision, and near hatred. It has become almost like an abuse to be called a member of "shushil samaj."
The fact of societal disengagement is also sadly true. We no longer seem to be bothered enough to take up social causes and fight for them as our own. However, this must be judged against two instances in which mass outpouring was most brutally suppressed—the road safety movement and the quota movement—sending a clear message that mass participation in social causes will not be tolerated, resulting, among other factors, into the citizens' disengagement that Prof Manzoorul Islam has referred to.
As for the absence of cultural activities, we really need to think deep and wide as to what happened in this area. Our cultural heritage was one of the principal weapons in our arsenal to fight the Pakistani domination and its army. Of particular importance is the near-total disappearance of cultural activities at the village level. This absence of cultural activities—and we are not talking about government-sponsored ones, but those that emanate from people's spontaneous participation—has deprived our youth of their heritage, sense of identity and pride, and allowed the entry of nefarious influences to fill the vacuum.
The challenge we face today requires broader unity among the people, especially involving the political parties, cultural organisations, youth, the civil society, the NGOs, the media, and people of all views and beliefs. There should be mass awareness campaigns all across the country about why Bangladesh was born and why millions laid down their lives in 1971.
If we don't learn from the events of the last few days and keep on saying that these are isolated incidents—carried out by a handful of misguided people, by forces that have an eye on the next election—and refuse to take responsibility for what we have done wrong, and also continue to demonise critics, then we will not be able to tackle the danger that looms over us in its enormity, urgency, and viciousness.
Mahfuz Anam is editor and publisher of The Daily Star.