A legacy we must not forget
Throughout the history of independent Bangladesh, national actors in politically privileged positions have slowly but steadily monopolised the norms pertaining to this country's struggle for emancipation. As such, Bangladesh and its citizens have slowly but surely forgotten those figures and organisations who tirelessly worked in the avenues of culture, diplomacy and activism to resist the horrific genocide of 1971. This country owes an immense debt of gratitude to all actors, even those outside the fray of politics and physical warfare. One such institution which vehemently supported and inspired the Mukti Bahini, and the people of this country, was the prominent Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (SBBK).
Unlike most countries in this world, the term freedom fighter is often used as a partisan weapon in Bangladesh. Misused, undermined and heavily politicised, the term freedom fighter is recycled as a nominal adjective for the artistes of the SBBK and many other non-political entities of 1971. The newer generation thereby fails to truly comprehend the significance of such organisations to Bangladesh's freedom struggle. The broader understanding of a freedom fighter goes well beyond the scope of military warfare. In the truest sense of the word, a freedom fighter is a person engaged in a resistance programme against what they believe to be a repressive and illegitimate government. As such, the Head of News of the SBBK, the iconic journalist Kamal Lohani, is as much a freedom fighter as the likes of economist Rehman Sobhan or Sector Commander Khaled Mosharraf, as all these individuals were protesting the heinous massacre ordered by President Yahya Khan and denouncing his efforts to undermine the results of the 1970 Pakistan General Elections. Whether Bangladesh gives artistes and journalists like Mr. Lohani their rightful place in history is something which we need to look at much more carefully. Unless Bangladesh wants such organisations to simply dive into the remnants of our history books, the legacy of the SBBK is one which this country needs to reassess and applaud further.
There are two broad issues pertaining to the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, which literally translates to the Free Bengal Radio Station. One relates to the declaration of independence, whilst the other is related to the broader impact of the radio station. The declaration of independence has sadly been developed into a partisan dispute over the last two decades. However, the birth of SBBK is surrounding this momentous event itself. The established history suggests that on the evening of March 26, 1971, a covert radio station in Kalurghat, Chittagong, identified itself as the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra and declared to the world the independence of Bangladesh. Awami League leader MA Hannan made an announcement of independence via this radio station. However, the proclamation which received the highest traction, especially from the foreign press, and has construed itself as a major debate amongst political analysts, was that of then Major and later President Ziaur Rahman.
What is certain, however, is the fact that the SBBK was born simultaneously with the initiation of the liberation struggle. Thus, the first few days of the SBBK and the actors surrounding the declaration of independence, has profoundly impacted the socio-politics of our country for decades to come.
From a different angle, the influence of the SBBK goes well beyond the declaration of independence. Eminent singers like Apel Mahmud, Abdul Jabbar Khan, Rafiqul Alam, Kaderi Kibria, Lucky Akhand and Majula Dasgupta gave their voices to timeless tunes such as Purbo Digante Surjo Uthechhe, Ekti Phool Ke Bachabo Bole, Salam Salam Hajar Salam. These songs along with information broadcasts by Kamal Lohani, Rokeya Haider and Babul Akhtar, amongst others, formulated a strategically important propaganda campaign to ensure a supportive global environment for Bangladesh's independence movement. Whilst formulating a key mechanism for non-battlefield warfare, the SBBK successfully did two very important things. It rallied and motivated those who were participating in the physical warfare across Bangladesh, whilst concurrently acting as a media conduit for the Mujibnagar Cabinet to get news across to the rest of the world.
The month of May is very significant for the SBBK. Whereas the foundation stones of this organisation were laid in March, the station was formally opened in Kolkata on May 24, 1971. The station went on air the following day, which happened to be the birthday of our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. The SBBK effectively brought together academics, artistes and other members of the intellectual community under one roof, and gave much needed impetus to the struggle being led by the likes of Tajuddin Ahmed and Syed Nazrul Islam on the political side of things. The station reminded a struggling people of the inspiring slogans and symbolism of their national leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and gave motivation to the countrymen to carry on defending their motherland. The broadcasts of the SBBK thus became inseparable from the ongoing war and symbolically protected, promoted and preserved the notion of a free, independent and sovereign Bangladesh.
Today, as Bangladesh struggles in a politically-created confrontation between the idea of a Bengali versus a Bangladeshi, of a secularist versus an Islamist, and confusions pertaining to what our identity truly is, the SBBK should serve as a timeless reminder of what this country is.
Bangladesh achieved independence through the integrated efforts of people from all walks of life, and we did so with a progressive and independent mindset. Let the SBBK and the emblematic importance it represented, serve as a reminder of how far we are moving away from the open, free and democratic society that Bangladeshis envisioned in 1971. Let the SBBK remind our politicians of the importance of achieving unity, through diversity. Let us truly celebrate the legacy of SBBK for what it was - an organisation of freedom fighters and patriots.
The writer is a fourth year undergraduate student of Economics and International Relations at the University of Toronto.
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