Resilience, saying no and enterprise

Serajul Islam Chowdhury

There is no denying that things in Bangladesh today are not as they ought to be, let alone what they promised to be. What is particularly frightening is the prevailing sense of insecurity of life and livelihood. The two, of course, go together. Factors responsible for this sad state of things are many; but two failures stand out, one of leadership, and the other in respect of achieving unity. The nationalist leadership which was in command during the war of liberation had vague dreams but no vision of what the state and society would be like after independence. The leadership was belonged to the upper echelons of society both in statues and outlook. It neither wanted, nor had the capacity, to promote the interests of the less privileged sections if the community, which constituted the vast majority of the people.

Nationalists speak of the nation, ignoring the fact that the nation is divided by class interests and that without social transformation -- revolution, if you like -- national unity remains nothing but a rhetorical sound. What had happened in other countries, happened in ours as well. That those who have been running the state, politically, are committed only to self-aggrandisement is borne out among other things, by the ease with which they change their party affiliations. They are not liberated, and are very much prisoners of their own greed. And it is their competition to grab public wealth and opportunities that has, more than anything else, divided the people who were united in 1971 against a common enemy. The selfish and irresponsible leadership has been duly, busily and faithfully replicated in all walks of life, and what we are faced with at the moment is stark absence of role models. It will not be illogical to be pessimistic.

But surely there are positive qualities in us to rely upon, if not to be proud of. At least there are three resilience, resistance and enterprise. And indeed these are no mean virtues.

People in Bangladesh have known disasters, one after another, sometimes in quick succession. Some of these have come from hostility of nature, and some are man-made. Cyclones, tidal bares, floods, droughts and pestilences have tried to beat us down, causing misery, death and devastation. Man-made disasters like famine, violence, riot and war have not been less frequent. After they have been more harmful than the natural ones. But people have not surrendered. Every disaster was a new test of endurance, but even the worst sufferers have not given in. Quietly but resiliently they have tried to stand up, building their nests, burying the dead, adjusting themselves to new circumstances.

For long we have been a marginalised people. Foreigners have invaded the country and set up their kingdom. Local rulers -- chieftains, landlords, moneylenders -- have not been any the less exploitative. But people have said no to them, even if silently. The rulers have ruled through coercion, but have seldom, if at all, won the heart of the people. People have defended the independence and integrity of their culture, which explains why Bengali language and literature have flourished, despite invasions and encroachments.
People in this land of ours are religious, but in a rather secular sense. Politics, they have always felt, should be kept apart from religion; and to religion itself they have turned for shelter and justice, which they have found difficult to be assured of in the material would they live in. But there is in us as a people a deep distrust in society and even fate itself fatalism in this country is not at all based on faith in fate; in the contrary, it signifies disbelief in fate itself. We are, indeed, a faithless folk, the rulers have ruled not through leave, which is capable of producing hatred also, but through sheer difference of the public. This indifference is very near cynicism, if not apathy. Rulers have come and gone but society has gone on as before. Men and women have feet lonely. They have spoken in the first person singular number, without, of course, being predatory.

The rejection of the rulers has therefore been natural. In 1946 the people voted for Pakistan, which was, in fact, saying no to British rule as also to those connected with it -- the landlords, bureaucrats and the moneylenders. And only a year after Pakistan was established East Bengal stood up against Pakistani on the language question. In the 1954 election people rejected the Muslim League under whose leadership the state of Pakistan was brought into being. Then there was movement against military rule in 1962, mass uprising in 1969, and finally the war of liberation in 1971. The autocratic regime of Hussain Mohammad Ershad was overthrown by a mass movement. People have said no to the proposal of exporting the very scarce and necessary resource of gas to India. A citizens' movement had forced the government design of destroying the open space called Osmany Uddyan, situated at the very heart of the overcrowded city of Dhaka. Girl students of Jahangirnagar University have driven out a group of rapists from the university residential halls -- when police went on rampage at midnight in a girls' residential hall at Dhaka University, the students came out forcing the government eventually, to bring about a change in the university administration and sent up a judicial enquiry commission to investigate into the matter. When heinous assailants made a murderous attempt on the life of the writer Humayun Azad the protest was as spontaneous as it was widespread. The way garment workers in Narayanganj came out in the streets demanding punishment of those accused of killing some of their fellow workers was, in a sense, reminiscent of the workers' mobilisation in New York on May 1 more than a hundred years ago.

Bangladeshi folks are supposed to be lazy. That this is a lie is proved everyday by the way people work for themselves, often on their own, here at home and also abroad. Opportunities are limited, the fields are narrow; but men and women in the country have never been shirkers, they have to work, and are disappointed to find themselves unemployed or rendered jobless. Jute cultivation in Bengal owes not so much to favourable land and climate as to the sheer labour of the producers.

Thrown out of employment, the industrial worker weeps, not only because he is being driven into a life of uncertainty but also because he had developed a fondness for his work and his fellow workers. Bangladeshi workers have earned reputation abroad for their dutifulness and diligence. Women are working today in garments factories and building sets; this work is noticeable, but they never been reluctant to work at home.

The middle class is doing very well abroad in both professional and academic fields. People have the enterprise, what they lack is capital and atmosphere. Craftsmen and technicians are doing excellent work not only in keeping production going, but also in inventing new techniques.

These are indeed positive qualities in us. They are there -- often actively, sometimes potentially. Qualities like these are even more valuable than our natural and mineral resources. What is sad, and certainly disappointing, is that these we have not been able to develop fully and bring about a radical change in our life.

For achieving that objective. What is needed is leadership, at all levels, but particularly, and most importantly, at the political level. The goal has to be something greater than more good governance, it has to be transformation in society and in the character of the state itself, so that all our creative energies can be released, and our sense of belonging, which is another name for patriotism, gains in both depth and intensity, that transformation is, after all, what we have been struggling for decades. Pakistan has failed us, but we cannot allow Bangladesh to fail, simply because this is where we all belong. The struggle to build up a democratic society and state must continue.
The author is former head, English Dept., Columnist and social thinker.

Of bell bottoms and lungis

Peasant participation in the war

Afsan Chowdhury

What were peasants doing in a war that built an urban priorities dominated state? It's even more puzzling because by all accounts the majority of the irregulars Mukti Bahini in popular imagination were peasants, the villagers armed with rage and decrepit rifles, bearded and barely literate and essentially unused to urban language, clothes and culture. Neither official history nor academic work has dealt with this strange journey from the plough fields to the battlefield.

I have used the term bell-bottoms -- trousers flared at the bottom of the wearing leg- not in any pejorative sense but as a term which encapsulates a dominant cultural construction. Because it does portray a particular class of warriors who after the war benefited and took control of the main city and by extension the State. The sartorial is also a description of social inclusiveness and exclusion. This also doesn't apply to the 90 percent of the freedom fighters who seem to be literally left without narratives of their history. Significantly, our intellectuals have not looked into the issue that deals with peasant involvement in the war. There is no ambiguity about it during the war. The construction of the leadership during the war was largely of the same nature that exists in any post-colonial situations where one group of political elites fill the space vacated by another. There were of course some progress especially in the alliance of the formal state representations -- executive and military -- under political leadership, but peasant representation was largely absent.

In this case structural representation could have become a major issue in the discourse but its absence has not been a matter of intellectual concern.

The use of the term 'jonojuddha" -- people's war -- rather frequently nowadays is even more puzzling unless one can say that this is again an appropriation process, an attempt of representation in history that has become necessary by using such terms. Have they not bothered to explain because they can't explain why lungi clad peasants participated in a war which was led by bell-bottom wearing urban freedom fighters? Metaphorically speaking of course.

Participation, choice and social coercion
There were two major sources of social participation in Bangladesh during this phase. One, during the elections of 1970 where majority of the people voted Awami League (AL) to the status of the majority party. Later, AL's victory threatened the state power sharing mechanism, as a result the Pakistani- Islamabad elite decided to go for military action in Dhaka to prevent transfer of this shift to a new elite. The urban mass upsurge was also trickling into the rural areas. This was the first contact between the two.

The March connection: From the city to villages
This process of connectivity between the urban and the rural intensified after March 25/26 when terrified Dhaka citizens sought refuge in the rural areas and later people began to organize resistance to the Pakistan army based on non-Dhaka resources to Pakistan who found that the mopping up operations had to be taken all over including rural Bangladesh.

"We knew that at a point there would be some violence against the people but we definitely didn't expect what we saw on and after March 26." Zillur Rahman (AL Leader to the BBC radio series titled "Bangladesh 1971". 2002-2003.)

In a way the Pakistan army achieved its goal because the sheer terror that was generated on that night convinced the bloodthirstiness of the intent of the Pakistan army. Even till today, March 25 is the worst night of all though in terms of scale and suffering a single morning in many places shed more blood. It was meant to cow down the misunderstood intent of the Bengali people. The nervous Pakistan army thought Dhaka was what mattered and the people could be shocked into surrender. Instead, it triggered resistance. And unleashed a host of forces which ultimately overwhelmed Pakistan and its army.

Peasant response to the crisis by providing to political and military leadership who had gone to the villages, was crucial in setting up the platform of resistance. This ultimately defined the nature of subsequent war and commitment of India's support which made the critical difference. Historians seem to have largely ignored the significance of this interaction that the sanctuary-seeking people had with the villagers that led to the construction of convergences and created the nationalist defense.

The hospitality and open house policy of the peasants and the entry of large populations into the rural areas were not without expenses and other social costs to the peasantry. This is an ignored part of the war-contribution. While dominant narratives either fail to recognise this in war value terms, the historians perceive this as expected behaviour reducing it to rural hospitality terms. They are unable to link it to the huge logistical support provided by the rural people to the military representatives of the nationalist movement. The rural population acted as the funding source and supplier of the first phase which made the later phases possible. This is all the more significant in the context of India's refusal to support the war in the late March to early April.

In the later stages, as the war became more organised, the price for participation became very high and a part of the peasantry also joined the war and after the war was over returned to the villages from where they came. They came from famished lands and returned to scorched fields. Today, they can't explain why they participated and the sense of regret is high. "We gave our sons but other than independence, what did we get?" asks Dariya Begum from Kushtia ("Tahader Juddho", a video on women and war 2001).

Although the state could not have been born without them, it did not share the spoils of victory with them, not even gallantry awards.

Dhaka, the peasant and the student
To link Dhaka with the construction of popular imaginations, nature of the state and role of locations in determining that link is important. East Pakistan was a primate city province that became a primate city-state. Dhaka was the center and symbol of victory and defeat during and after 71.

Dhaka was in the domain of Sector 2 under Maj. Khaled Musharraf and Maj.Haider and naturally drew the largest number of young recruits from Dhaka into its HQ at Agartala. Since Dhaka was the center of attention in international attention, guerilla activities in Dhaka was obviously carried out by boys belonging to the city itself. A significant event in Chilmari could hardly compete with a bomb blast in Dhaka in impact, so media attention and military concern was highest here. Just as the Pak army attacked Dhaka, the Mukti Bahini also did their best to show to the world that it was not in the Pak army's total control. The battle for Dhaka thus constructed its symbolic value, the conquest of Dhaka became synonymous with Bangladesh. And the construction of Bangladesh became inextricably linked to Dhaka. It's not a coincidence that most of the powerful elite that ultimately has ruled Bangladesh/Dhaka, also came from the sector that was responsible for guerilla activities in Dhaka wars and largely run by Dhaka boys. The Dhaka of 1970 determined the Dhaka of 1971 and the Dhaka of today.

It was not intended to be so but eventually reflected the various state construction processes. The peasants first sustained the population movement to rural areas. Next it made possible the most significant initial resistance that displayed to the world in general and India in particular, that this was a popular uprising able to support a guerilla war leading to a December intervention.

Peasants as outsider after the war
Subsequently, when the guerilla war began the peasantry played several roles including that of major suppliers of shelter, resources, information and porters. Of course they played the role of soldiers too. "The enemy was in a school building top floor. A group of policemen supported by over a hundred razakars were there. The thana chief from Tangail had declared never to give up alive. We had taken casualties but they were protected by sandbags. A young boy who had been trained in India was hit and killed. As we hadn't eaten the entire day, we asked the local boys to get some food. They ran desperately to get bread, eggs etc. As this young boy- around 12 years old- was running in the open field, his arms full of food, he was shot dead. He died with all the food strewn around him. I started to fire at the protecting bags and slowly they gave away. Then we picked them off one by one. When they saw their leaders gone, they started to flee. By then the villagers had gathered. The razakars and others jumped into the river but the villagers caught them and killed about 200 of them" describes Md. Sultan, Air Force NCO who escaped from Pak jail to return home and fight in Barisal. (Bangladesh 1971, BBC series 2002-3)

Maj. Quamrul (retd) has written a book on the warriors of 1971 --'Jonjuddher Gonojoddha' -- which is a limited but a laudable effort. It may be in fact a good description of how the peasantry got involved in a war that wasn't essentially theirs. Not that anybody lacked patriotism or enthusiasm but the post 1971 situation should not be seen as an accident. All kinds of laments and explanations notwithstanding, it was a war led by bell bottom wearers. Peasants in lungi who got involved were inevitably going to be denied their right given the nature of the state. Bangladesh had to reward the urban elites who had taken its charge and there was no representation of the rural poor in the history writing or making history.
The author, an eminent columnist has done extensive research on 1971.

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