I remember the first time when, in utter horror, we heard the news of the assassination of Bangabandhu along with his whole family, save the two daughters. My father, Abul Mansur Ahmad, 23 years his senior and his contemporary in Awami League politics, loved him like a younger brother, and wept openly and unstoppably upon getting the news. From across the lake I was a witness to the murder of Sheikh Moni and his young family. As one of the thousands of freedom fighters, I stood stunned and stupefied, as if the ground had been shifted from underneath my feet.
I remember the time when it was not possible to use the title "Bangabandhu" in reference to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To call him the Father of the Nation publicly was well-nigh unthinkable. This I have said before, and will repeat every time I have the chance, that it was also the time when we could not say that Pakistan Army caused our genocide, but rather a "Hanadar Bahini" did so. Who were they, where did they come from, and why did they kill us the way they did? Did the "imposers" of this blackout really believe that the reference to "Hanadar Bahini" would suffice as an explanation for the genocide that had spilled the blood of millions of freedom-loving martyrs? Whatever may have been the rationale, the truth of the matter is that there was a time in Bangladesh's history when those responsible for our genocide could not be publicly named.
We have come a long way from those tragic days, hopefully with the knowledge and wisdom that no one can bring down one who history chooses to make a hero. Sukarno was totally ignored for the 31 years when Suharto was in power. But the minute chance arose, Sukarno's role in Indonesia's history was gloriously revived and his daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was elected the president. This would happen to Nasser when democracy returned to Egypt, as it did in case of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
As we observed earlier, the restoration of Bangabandhu's place in the hearts and minds of the people of Bangladesh, in spite of the "Hanadar" phase, was but natural in history. As his role remains unquestioned. We observed the birth centenary of Mujib—Mujib Borsho—starting from his birthday in 2020, and it will continue till December 16, 2021 (extended due to Covid-19). The nation honoured him as best as it could in a pandemic-stricken world. So blacking him out served no purpose, nor will any such present or future efforts.
On March 26 this year, we observed the golden jubilee of our independence. The visit by leaders from the region and messages from most world leaders made the event remarkable in many ways.
However, we have some observations to make about the 50th anniversary celebrations of the birth of independent Bangladesh. We think some very vital aspects of our freedom struggle were absent from the overall narrative, and we missed an important opportunity to reinvigorate our collective memory of those important occasions. For those of us who are old enough to have personal recollections of those fateful events, the observance was both nostalgic and personal, laced with some gaping holes. For the younger generation, we missed a great opportunity to teach them about our freedom struggle and revitalise their pride for our independence war which, as we know from experience, they crave to learn more about.
An inexplicable gap was the lack of appropriate mention of the role of the Mujibnagar government, which was our government-in-exile headed by Bangabandhu in absentia, and with Nazrul Islam as Vice President and Acting President, Tajuddin Ahmad as Prime Minister, and Khandakar Mushtaq Ahmad, M. Mansur Ali and AHM Qamaruzzaman being other ministers in the government. It consisted of 15 ministries and divisions.
It was formed on April 10, 1971 by the elected representatives from both the national and provincial level elections held in the then East Pakistan between December 7, 1970 and January 17, 1971. However, the oath taking and ceremonial declaration took place on April 17 at Baidyanathtala in Meherpur district. The Mujibnagar government had issued a Proclamation of Independence on April 10, confirming the proclamation already made on March 26, stating, "We, the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour-bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh, whose will is supreme, duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly and… Declare and constitute Bangladesh to be a sovereign Peoples' Republic… do all… things that may be necessary to give the people of Bangladesh an orderly and just government… undertake to observe and give effect to all duties and obligations… under the Charter of the United Nations."
This is a very significant development in our independence struggle. It gave the movement the necessary source of legitimacy and power, a legally constituted structure in the form of a government which could claim to represent the people of Bangladesh. By taking upon itself the obligation to abide by all the rules of the UN Charter, it gave the international community an idea of what type of a country we planned to form once independent. Henceforth, the world knew who to interact with while dealing with the movement to free Bangladesh.
On April 17, Prime Minister Tajuddin released a historic statement to the world elaborating the genesis of our struggle and how it had reached the present state. In this statement, he unmasked the brutality of the Pakistan army and appealed to the big powers, especially the United States, to stop funding and arming the genocide-perpetrating occupation army. He concluded his historic press statement saying, "In our struggle for survival, we seek friendship of all people, the big power and the small. We do not aspire to join any bloc or pact but will seek assistance from those who give it in a spirit of goodwill free from any desire to control our destinies. We have struggled far too long to become anyone's satellite."
"We now appeal to the nations of the world for recognition and assistance, both material and moral, in our struggle for nationhood… In the name of Humanity, act now and earn our undying friendship. This we now present to the world as the CASE of the people of Bangladesh. No nation has a greater right to recognition, no people have fought harder for this right."
This appeal for recognition and assistance was most crucial. Without this representative and legally constituted body, there would not have been the mobilisation of the world public opinion that turned out to be so crucial for our success. It was this government that became our face, our voice, and the token of our existence in the eye of the rest of the world. Most crucially, it was this government that India, our biggest source of practical support, and Russia, our superpower backer, could talk to and communicate with as they gradually expanded their support for our life-and-death struggle.
For me, it is incomprehensible as to how the story of Mujibnagar government could have escaped the attention and understanding of those who planned our golden jubilee celebrations.
Also included in the observance of the 50th birth anniversary of Bangladesh should have been the story of the formation of our armed forces, formally called Bangladesh Forces (BDF), under the overall command of Col. MAG Osmani as the C-in-C and Lt. Col. Rab as the chief of Bangladesh Army staff. BDF divided the country into 11 sectors as well as sub-sectors on the basis of specific regions and terrains. It is this unified command that carried out the guerrilla warfare, and sometimes frontal attacks, on the enemy assisted by hundreds and thousands of the members of Mukti Bahini. The central role of BDF stands at the very centre of our armed struggle and day to day war for independence.
The golden jubilee celebrations should have had a significant segment devoted to those who won gallantry and Liberation War medals. There were four categories of winners: Bir Sreshtho ("Valiant of Courage", the highest military award of Bangladesh)—7, Bir Uttom ("Great Valiant Hero", second highest)—69, Bir Bikram (Valiant Hero)—175, and Bir Protik ("Idol of Courage")—426. If no other categories, then at least the first two deserved the country's grateful remembrance on the occasion of the golden jubilee.
Mukti Bahini, representing the true spirit of the nation, should have had a special pride of place on this occasion. Hundreds and thousands of young boys, mostly coming from peasant families from rural areas, gave their lives for the freedom of the country. Most of them were killed, unknown and unsung, in fighting the brutal enemy. They went to battle with a week or two of training, carrying rudimentary weapons and very limited supply of ammunition, with no chance of survival when faced against the well-armed enemy. They gave so generously of their lives so that we could have a free country.
The golden jubilee celebrations may have missed the above, but the celebrations of the 50th year of independence continue till next March. Let us use this time and spend necessary resources to remember our war heroes that we have missed. This we should do not only to pay our debt to them but also to give a fuller picture of the enormity and mass participation of our Liberation War. The role of women, which has been completely missed so far, should now be brought out in its proper perspective.
The fact that it was genuinely a people's war, one that every segment of the society participated in, rich or poor, one in which men and women in equal measure constituted our Mukti Fouj, one in which every single home was a sanctuary for the Mukti Bahini and a resistance point for the enemy, one in which "Shonar Bangla" was the collective dream of all people at that time—this is the real story of our war.
That real story, of the People's War, was missing in our golden jubilee celebrations. Let us not miss it in the time that we have at hand.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.