Our eternal flame of memory

Syed Badrul Ahsan

A surefire way of defeating a nation, of leaving aspirations mutilated beyond recognition, is to zero in on its intellectuals, its good men and women, and pick them off one after the other. Of course, there are other ways of humiliating a people, humiliating human intelligence. There is book burning, for instance, something the Nazis and others long before them, in geographical spaces around the globe, have done with abandon. But it is those who have generally ventured into the idea that book burning may not be a good or lasting solution, that indeed those who write books or have the ability to produce them in the times to be are dangerous people, that have done lasting damage to societies. In occupied Bangladesh, barely three days before the Bengali nation would find itself liberated from Pakistan, it was just such a macabre enterprise that the occupation army and its local collaborators undertook. While it was understood by these men (and all the signs pointed to a huge shift of the winds in the Bengalis' favour) that their end, the end of Pakistan in these parts, was at hand, it was also their immense concern that the new nation about to arise out of all the bloodletting and rotting human flesh of the preceding nine months not be permitted to celebrate itself in the way freedom ordained it to.

And so came the final fury. It was a moment of shame for the Pakistanis and for their Jamaat-e-Islami, Nizam-e-Islam and Muslim League collaborators in this country. But when, if ever, have desperate men driven by thoughts of evil ever comprehended the widening spirals of shame? The goal, for them in those final hours of the Muslim state of Pakistan in the land of the secular Bengalis, was to leave the about to be free republic of Bangladesh as much maimed in spirit as possible. It was thus that Selina Parveen, Alim Chowdhury, Munier Chowdhury, Fazle Rabbi, Shahidullah Kaiser and all those good people who had watched, with fascination and rising expectations, the course of the War of Liberation were abducted by the masked men of the Al-Badr murder squads, to be bludgeoned, knifed and beaten to death. Those taken away in the night, or during the curfew the Niazi men had enforced on the city, were part of our crop of the best and the brightest. The Pakistanis and their Bengali collaborators had, therefore, precious little need of them. After all, these intellectual Bengalis and their compatriots had over the years since the 1960s promoted the principle that the Bengalis were a nation, that their stay within the parameters of a communal Pakistan was increasingly and naturally becoming untenable. It was such intellectuals who had helped an increasingly vocal Bengali political leadership, personified by such resolute men as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmed, articulate the national aspiration through the Six Point programme for regional autonomy. By March 1971, as palace intrigue took on a new sense of urgency among Pakistan's ruling, entrenched classes, the Six Points surely and inexorably transited to being a single point, that of political sovereignty for a province that now appeared intent on transforming itself into a people's republic. And in that campaign were men and women commanding respect in Bengali intellectual circles. Poet Sufia Kamal marched in support of civil disobedience; Quazi Motahar Hossain spoke of the cultural indivisibility of Bengalis; and Zahir Raihan had already made a name for his staunch nationalism.

It all added up to a resurgent spirit of Bengali nationalism. In their crude way, Pakistan's rulers and their local Bengali toadies thought they saw things of an un-Islamic nature in that nationalism. And they decided to shed blood, not theirs but of the Bengalis. In their uncouth admixture of Islam and Pakistan, they fanned out in the darkness of 25 March 1971 in search of those who had been trivialising the Pakistan ideology. Pause a while as you recall the intensity with which Tikka Khan went after the brains of Bengal. It was the university the soldiers assaulted. It was that emblem of the Bengali spirit, the Shaheed Minar, that aroused their fury, so much so that once they destroyed those pillars they planned to build a mosque there, all in the dubious spirit of the discredited, malignant two-nation theory. Within the residential quarters of Dhaka University, they searched for and found Gobindo Chandra Dev, one of the foremost Bengali philosophers of his time, and then simply did away with him. They shot the scholar Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, who struggled to live for a few days before giving up. All across the campus, as also all over the country, the soldiers, to be joined soon by their quislings, went on shooting Bengalis in the way people shot birds. Early in April, on a rain-soaked street in Comilla, the defenders of Pakistan murdered the venerable Dhirendranath Dutta. The killers had not forgotten that Dutta's was the first voice, in the constituent assembly of Pakistan in March 1948, that had been raised in defence of the Bengali language. He died along with his young son. Elsewhere the philanthropist Ranada Prasad Saha was swiftly despatched. Colonel Ziaur Rahman, principal of Sylhet Medical College, was taken away. He never came back.

It was genocide that followed a pattern. There was a method in the madness of the Pakistan army and the razakars. That much became obvious to anyone who watched with alarm and growing fear the increasingly ferocious behaviour of the murderers. Anthony Mascarenhas was horrified when an arrogant Punjabi army captain informed him, without batting an eyelid, that the Bengalis would be treated as a colonised people for the subsequent thirty years. There was no illusion about the nation's intellectual class surviving that planned period of slavery. In the weeks and months that were to go by, the junta and the collaborators went about netting academics, students, administrators, police officers and everyone else they thought, and quite correctly too, served as the base of Bengali nationalism. Alamgir Rahman was picked up and tortured for months on end. The geologists SKM Abdullah and Mujibur Rahman Khan were humiliated in the cantonment for having provided shelter to the family of a prominent freedom fighter. Ferdousi Priyobhashini, helpless and alone, remained the victim of Pakistani rapacity for the entire duration of the war. The stories go on and on; and as they do, they build up a whole, detestable image of how a state, in this case Pakistan, and how an army, again Pakistan's, can stoop to the depths of degradation through irrationality of behaviour. General Niazi enjoyed the daily reports of 'kills' that came to him; and he brushed aside worries about the countrywide rape of Bengali women by his men as simple, normal outbursts of desire on the part of the latter.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? After such demonstrations of state-sponsored vulgarity, it was not to be expected that Bengali society would be left alone, that its leading lights would be granted the luxury of carrying on with their lives and their preoccupations. All these long years after the medievalism of the Pakistani occupation army and its collaborators, it remains the job of the historian, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, to keep reminding the world of the terrible things done to some of the best men and women who once substantiated the cause of Bengal through their dedication to the cause of freedom. A remembrance of all the intellectuals who died at the hands of the soldiers and the razakars is also occasion for a recalling of the spirits of the three million Bengalis who were murdered in the nine months of a war that was truly a watershed in our national life. Our tribute to all these soldiers of freedom is an endless remembering of them. It is through our collective striving to create the secular democracy and just society they dreamed of that the remembering can truly take newer dimensions. Let the eternal flame of memory lend meaning to the gathering twilight we peer through.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier