Icon emerging: Amar Sonar Bangla
Aculturally hallowed Sanskrit term, shanti, denoting peace, became an early independence casualty. While T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land” used it to mean more than peace, Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning author of three past or present national anthems (Bangladesh, India, and once Sri Lanka's),institutionalized it throughVishwa Bharati from 1921 in, appropriately, Shantiniketan.
Bangladesh's golden shanti moment was in early March 1971, when Bangalees were protected from overzealous nationalists. With other teenagers, we built our own all-night crew in Dhanmandi, inspired by the 1968 anti-Ayub movement and the highly-charged February 21 Azimpur processions led by Mahfuz Bhai (Mahfuz Anam), and Ferdous Alam, among others. “Bangladesh” was not on our agenda until the midnight of March 25.
Icon Threatened: Of a Cyclone and Crackdown
On March 1, 1971, we rooted for Pakistan at the cyclone fund-raising cricket match against a Commonwealth XI, ecstatic that a new political trajectory would commensurately reflect the country's dashing new stars (our own Raquibul Hasan was selected, Azmat Rana was ready to join his elder brother, Shafqat, while Imran Khan was set to debut in the Lahore fund-raising game). Yet when the March 3 National Assembly inauguration was postponed, cricket became the cyclone's ironic victim. Between March 1 and 25, shanti bahinis, as in Dhanmandi, worked diligently to prevent Pakistan from going the same way. That failed when the first gunshot was heard about midnight of the 25th—but so too our shanti conception: Bangalees would henceforth be protecting themselves from other Bangalees. This Hobbesian twist with partial Mujibnagar fingerprints turned out to be the March '71 massacre's long-lasting consequences.
Icon in Intensive Care: India's Motherly Rescue
Recovering from the 1969 Naxalbari uprising, India heroically rescued a larger than biblical Bangladeshi exodus (75% of our 10 million refugees were Hindus). Foreign journalists also swarmed upon India. Many friends went, directly or through a muktijoddha transit. Due to a mixture of M.N. Roy training and nostalgia of pre-partition Kolkata, so too my father, Muhammad Tajul Hossain (commonly known as Dr. T. Hossain).
Instinctually, top Awami Leaguers had nowhere to go but India. Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed went by way of our clinic, City Nursing Home, on Road #5. He checked in on March 27, after the curfew was lifted, as my father frantically went off in his ambulance to search for his long-time cohort, Jyotimoy G. Thakurta, on the Dhaka University campus. Sadly, he returned only with Basunti-Didi, Professor Guhathakurta's equally resolute, education-enhancing wife, and an overwhelmingly dazed Meghna, his young daughter and even more resolute future professor. Mushtaque persuaded my father to drive him to his Daudkandi constituency in the ambulance. This he did, but pondered on his way back why, since the three Meghna ferries were still plying, shifting the family to Chouddagram, Comilla, his village home, might not be a better option than a farcical Dhaka stay. Emboldened, the “radical humanist” went straight to the Airport Road military headquarters for travel permission on the pretext of seeing his mother. “Daktar Sahab, you are not going to India, are you?” the prescient officer pointedly joked.
We left the very next day, abandoning our Morris Oxford at Meena Bazar owing to a blown bridge. Rifle-toting teenagers perched on tree-tops along the highway were better prepared for the Pakistani military than their Dhanmandi counterparts--but also one unwitting step closer to martyrdom against Pakistan machine-guns. We continued in rickshaws, spent one night in Chouddagram, crossed the border, and headed for Kolkata (Mujibnagar) through Agartala.
Mujibnagar's Darker Side: Icon Betrayed
Two Mujibnagar buildings arguably encapsulated the emerging country's future: the Circus Avenue embassy, where Hossain Ali raised the first Bangladesh flag outside the country, encouraging other Bangalee diplomats in Pakistani embassies to defect, as he had himself done in Kolkata; and a Theatre Road building serving as the rallying and rotating point for the Acting Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed, other provisional ministers, the Commander-in-Chief, M.A.G. Osmani, and my father (appointed as Director General of Health Services). Even the Border Security Force (BSF)/Central Reserve Police (CRP) supervising the two buildings were aware of the cloak-and-dagger games within and between those edifices (not infrequently becoming our source of sensitive information).
Mushtaque worked through Foreign Secretary, Mahbubul Alam Chashi, and the Brahmanbaria MNA (Member of the National Assembly), Taheruddin Thakur, his Press Advisor. Thakur had two lieutenants: Aminul Huq Badsha (Bangabandhu's press secretary), and Barrister Moudud Ahmed. With my only credential—a working knowledge of English—I found a job with both: for Badsha Bhai, to escort foreign journalists to refugee/war camps, and for Moudud Bhai, to collect clippings from available foreign newspapers (ultimately appearing in two official volumes of Bangladesh Documents).
Both bosses had a contrasting work-ethic: Moudud Bhai evoked the calibrated scholarly refrain of lawyers, Badsha Bhai the social engagement relished by inquisitive foreign journalists. If Thakur had a different agenda than war, it was hard to tell; but Chashi's modus operandi resembled the CSP (civil servants of Pakistan) style at odds with the occasion.
Of all four, only Badsha Bhai evoked battlefield empathies. While he filled journalists with anecdotes about Bangabandhu, my job was to accompany those journalists through refugee/war-camps, hopping, skipping, and jumping over both human feces/urine in stench-reeked refugee abodes and landmines and military patrols in war-torn areas--navigating between Indian restrictions (as to where we could go and how much we should know); circuitously fending off journalist questions, like whether the Mukti Bahini was really Indian military men in disguise; balancing factionalism within both war/refugee camps and freedom-fighters, again jockeying as they were between “Mujibnagar” privileges and inherently discriminatory treatments otherwise; and dampening vested local groups from fanning both ideological and political flames in the refugee camps everywhere (West Bengal was brought under central rule in June 1971, but still had strong and stubborn naxalite sympathies among particularly Kolkata students).
Of the 10 million refugees settling in 825 camps, 7.25 million alone were across West Bengal in 492 camps (Nadia's more acute condition thrust 2 million population against 1.2 million refugees). For security reasons, Indian authorities opened only the Dum Dum refugee camp to all foreign journalists, though access to Basirhal, Bagerhat, Salt Lake, Hasnabad, and Taki camps was selective. Many visitors wanted to see them: British members of parliament; U.S. congressmen (Senator Edward Kennedy comes to mind); journalists like Telegraph's Simon Dring and Independent's Peter Jenkins, BBC's Mark Tully (before his knighthood), and so forth; and non-governmental organisations like Operation Omega.
Mujibnagar's Softer Side: Icon Reminders
Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (SBBK), the radio station, embodied the softer/lighter Mujibnagar side. Managed by M.A. Mannan, the MNA in charge of Information and Broadcasting during the war (and, as post-independence Health Minister, boss of my father, when he became Health Secretary), it functioned from a two-storied Ballyganj house, where our 7-member family was given a small room until the commotion of living with 60-70 other male residents drove us elsewhere (a sympathetic Indian family across the street took us in). They were all artists of sorts―singers like Appel Mahmud, Abdur Jabbar, and Badsha Bhai's younger brother, as well as satirists like Mukul Chowdhury, whose Charam Patra prompted soldiers, refugees, and civilians to build their daily agenda around his program. Kamal Bhai (Kamal Lohani) admirably managed this feisty flock, with, I believe, Shiraj Bhai (whom I did not know).
Parveen Hussain and Nasreen Ahmad (Shilu Apa) became our “Broadway” stars. Little did my mother know when she left her hometown, just after India's deadly 1947 partition, that another conflict would bring her back. With minor Radio Pakistan play experiences, this silent, small, God-fearing woman splashed, in my view, more waves with her English news than many of the more boisterous non-combatant Bangladeshis in Mujibnagar. Every day's news was for her like reaching out to the 5-month daughter she could not bring with her from City Nursing Home. As a noted singer, Shilu Apa (Nasreen Ahmad), daughter of Bangabandhu's next-door neighbor, MNA Badrunnessa Ahmad, was a more publicly-known figure, and her Bangla news rallied the public. Together, they deconstructed the hard-core Pakistani message that the war was unleashed by a handful of male “miscreants” and Indian “infiltrators.”My mother's fluent Urdu news probably baffled Pakistanis more than Indian military strategies. Just by listening to cool, calm, and collected female voices, foreign journalists could not but conclude that the war was more home-grown than Pakistan was claiming.
Icon Dilemma: To be or not to be?
Successes along certain dimensions were matched by cracks along others. Regrettably, the unity sought so earnestly by so many was broken by betrayals. Since a good friend and valiant fighter, Qayyum Khan, meticulously chronicles the contours of the cleavages in his 2013 Bittersweet Victory (University Press Limited), suffice here to simply share his underlying apprehensive message that time was passing Bangladesh by: why Victory Day 2014 may be among the last opportunities to elicit and institutionalize the 1971 magic against cheapskate sorcerers reinventing realities.
On Victory Day, 1971, men and women, boys and girls, stood side-by-side to salute more heroes and heroines than ever before in Bengal's recorded history: how they mixed and mingled with each other with joys and tears made our huge 1971 losses worthy—in spite of Henry Kissinger dismissing us as a “basket-case,” an image George Harrison unwittingly caricaturized through his commemorative album cover-picture. True, we did not have much—but what we did have were sufficient to make that victory irreversible: (a) secularity, by which we embraced all minorities, since they stood alongside us in our gravest moment; (b) gender-equality so vividly displayed in refugee-camps, Swadhin Bangla Betar, and civilian support-base; and (c) an unprecedented democracy with which to build our own Rome from our own war-ashes and God-given resources.
These face threats today: (a) a fundamentalist Damoclean sword aims at our jugular, with more fanatics living off our freedom fighter's blood than the Pakistani soldiers captured as prisoners-of-war; (b) women, representing more than half of our population, being instructed to return to their homes from their state-building tasks, allegedly but blasphemously for scriptural reasons; and (c) noble democratic hopes battling both corruption and manichaeism.
With our folkloric shanti at bay, only the belief that all cannot be lost can spare us. Our inspiration comes from how our Guardian Angel has helped us at critical junctures: confronting Pakistan and befriending India in 1971; Mushtaque's betrayal being short-lived; Chashi and Thakur tripping in the same way they tripped our war-efforts; and justice is finally catching up with war criminals.
In the sunset of their lives, our freedom-fighters surely want no more than a glimpse of that rising sun we last saw on the March 25 morning of 1971—in the shanti with which we protected non-Bangalees in Dhanmandi, hoping it can prevail between us Bangalees this time; and a Sonar Bangla cleansed of traits of an empty 24-year Pakistani association. For every year we add to the 43 we have, a resplendent story cannot but emerge if Tagore's shanti is restored and Eliot's nirvana is the next generation's to relish.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City