Dhaka Friday December 16, 2011

When history took shape and substance

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Photo: Naibuddin Ahmed

History, when it happens on your doorstep, makes you wonder about the immense possibilities which it holds out, has held out, for generations whose purpose holds to carve a niche of self-dignity for themselves. Again, history does not happen all the time. It is not always that you have a Netaji rousing the masses to rebellion or a Nehru speaking of a tryst with destiny. For those of our compatriots who came to life after the enormity of the struggle for liberation came to a close on December 16, 1971, history comes in a package. And that package is one of a plethora of memories, of a Bangabandhu striding forth to convince us into believing that destiny was what we could and ought to forge out of life. It has been our unmitigated good fortune to have been part of a time, of a moment in eternity, when men rushed off to war armed with the spirit of freedom shining in their eyes. And they would not return home until this land, celebrated in tradition and insistently recalled in heritage, stood liberated.

It was liberation we saw happening before us. Not many are given to observing history taking shape in their courtyards, and all across the green, sullen fields encompassing their little hamlets and villages. Those of us born in the 1950s and therefore old enough to comprehend the nature of the struggle in the early 1970s either plunged into the struggle as direct participants or went into it as individuals who believed they too had a necessary job to do in the task of making freedom happen. In 1971, it was for the most part uncertainty which governed our lives. Bengali men were being taken away every day, never to come back home. Their women fell prey, ceaselessly as it were, to the depredations of the Pakistan occupation army. The Mukti Bahini bravely bombed bridges and culverts into ruins symbolic of the decadence of the state of Pakistan. And the enemy struck back, in the way a cornered barbarian lunges at those who are not willing to put up with his nonsense. It was an enemy which went around razing villages, burning plants and killing and maiming the old and the infirm. In 1971, the Pakistani forces mercilessly killed Dhirendranath Dutta and Mashiur Rahman, along with millions of others. Pakistan's soldiers stopped Bengalis on the streets of Dhaka, to ascertain, through means patently foul, if they were followers of the Islamic faith.

These are images we were to be witness to. When Eid day came along, it was a nation that did not celebrate. On Shwadhin Bangla Betar, the sad strains of chand tumi phire jao rose loud and clear. And millions across the subjugated land prayed for the life and safe return of the incarcerated Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from imprisonment in Pakistan. That was history as we saw it taking shape, together with reports of battlefield bravery comng into the occupied areas from somewhere distant and yet not so far away. There was always the feeling in us that historical truth was on the march, inexorable and inevitable. Even as the Pakistanis imposed curfews and ordered black-outs, we knew they were weakening in the knees. The butcher that was Tikka Khan was replaced by the buffoon that was A.A.K. Niazi. And, of course, by early September of the year the military junta had its favourite civilian, A.M. Malik, installed in office as 'governor of East Pakistan'. There was no East Pakistan; and the term 'governor', could just as well have been replaced by the word 'quisling'.

The quislings took cover as the governor's mansion came under aerial attack in mid-December. It was on the reverse side of a cigarette packet that Malik scribbled his letter of resignation to General Yahya Khan. His hands shook in patent fear. And elsewhere in an advancing Bangladesh, the forces of Pakistan shook in their boots as they retreated in chaos. At the United Nations, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto spewed nonsense about a thousand-year war even as General Rao Farman Ali asked for a ceasefire and measures to take his men home to what was on the way to becoming a rump Pakistan. Chaos followed confusion. And confusion sometimes came wrapped in the ridiculous. General Niazi, arrogance still playing in him, warned that Dhaka would be taken over his dead body. In the event, he would still be around to sign Pakistan's instrument of surrender to the joint Indo-Bangladesh forces.

This was the history we observed taking shape as 1971 moved swiftly and purposefully to a conclusion. The city emptied of many of its inhabitants, for fear of what the embattled Pakistanis might do in the event they decided to put up a last-ditch stand. Even so, news poured in of villages and towns falling to the allied forces, of our friends at the United Nations making sure that the war would not end until the Pakistanis had been thoroughly and comprehensively beaten in war. The Americans sent their fleet to the Bay of Bengal as a way of scaring the Bengalis and their Indian friends. The Chinese spoke darkly of a conflict that could escalate. And yet these provocations did not matter, for the Soviet Union was happily vetoing away all notions of a ceasefire until Bangladesh became a reality. On the afternoon of 16 December, truth emerged triumphant. As many as 93,000 soldiers of the world's 'best fighting force', the Pakistan army, gave up its badges, its weapons, its hold over eastern Bengal. On the ashes of a repressive communal state, a secular Bengali republic, the very first in history, was born.

On that exciting afternoon declining into a placid evening was heard, in cheerful and loud intonation, the endlessly inspirational 'aaj srishti shukher ullashe'. And then a song, sombre in tone and patriotic in cadence, wafted along. Abdul Jabbar's voice swept into every Bengali home. He sang 'hajar bochhor pore abar eshechhi phire / Bangla'r buuke achhi darhiye'.

We had seized the sun. And in the light of the stars we would sing of the glories of the moon as it shone on a land of free people.

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.

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