Saturday, April 21, 2007

Rahul Gandhi insults a nation and its people

JAHED AHMED and MEHUL KAMDAR

LATELY an important piece of news has gone unnoticed by most of the mainstream news media of Bangladesh. In a recent political campaign, Rahul Gandhi, a member of the Indian parliament and son of a former Indian prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, has solely credited his family for the division of Pakistan in 1971, which led to the independence of Bangladesh. While campaigning for a candidate in the state of Uttar Pradesh, considered India’s heartland, Mr Gandhi managed to say, ‘Once my family decides on something, it doesn’t go back. Whether it’s about India’s freedom, dividing Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century.’ The remark clearly implied that it was a family vendetta against Pakistan that drove the division of the erstwhile East Pakistan and led to the creation of Bangladesh. It ignored the systematic genocide of three million Bengalis by the Pakistani army, the rape and humiliation of hundreds of thousands of Bengali women and the cascade of events preceding 1971 such as the language movement of 1952, six-point based agitation of 1966 and the Bengali people’s revolt in 1969 against Ayub Khan.

While the incident did not merit any attention within Bangladesh for reasons that are completely unknown, condemnation both within India and from Pakistan was immediate and vociferous. The only public protest from a Bangladeshi voice was that of the exiled author Dr Taslima Nasrin who spoke at a press conference in Bhopal and listed the 1952 killings of Bangladeshis for asking that Bangla be made a state language and of the mass movement that began against the country’s Pakistani rulers in 1969. While she did not condemn the casual callousness with which these remarks were issued, she could not, because she is a resident of India and hopes to get Indian citizenship someday, it was clear that she did not approve of the cynical attempt by Mr Gandhi to suggest that the sacrifices of the Bangladeshi people did not mean anything, that it was his grandmother’s anti-Pakistan vendetta that actually split the country up.

In the meantime, the exiled Pakistani doctor and humanist, Dr M Younus Sheikh, who lives in Switzerland, released an open letter to members of the Indian parliament, condemning the ‘foolish and immature’ remarks that Mr Gandhi had issued. Dr Sheikh has authored articles on the repression in Bangladesh under Pakistani rule, was one of the first Pakistanis to protest what he clearly called ‘genocide’ against Bengalis by the Pakistani army, and for this as well as several other reasons he was jailed and sentenced to death under completely trumped up charges in Pakistan until international pressure forced the government to release him from prison and exile him to Switzerland where he lives today.

Curiously, the response from Dhaka has been muted, to say the least. The Bangladesh high commissioner to India would only remark that he was grateful to India for its support in the struggle for independence and there was no statement at all from Dhaka until the writing of this article. Indeed, in comparison to the angry voices both within India as well as from Pakistan (albeit for completely different reasons, because the Pakistani government now claims that it now has evidence that the whole struggle in Bangladesh was merely an Indian inspired secessionist plot) the silence from Dhaka has been deafening. Few countries are as proud of their language and, therefore, of their struggle to form a nation based on the suppression of their language as Bangladesh, and yet, the attempt by Mr Gandhi to suggest that the now well-documented horrors of the struggle for independence were little more than a task that his grandmother had decided to take up to gain personal revenge against Pakistan did not receive a single note of protest in response.

One must not mix up the issue of acknowledging India’s generous role and humanitarian effort during 1971 by Bangladesh with the condemnation of Rahul Gandhi’s infantile remarks. While Bangladesh, as a nation, does not have any valid reasons to forget India’s help during our liberation struggle in 1971; welcoming Rahul Gandhi’s comments by the Bangladesh government — as it was reported in some Indian newspapers — would not only be just self-degrading, it will also be a dishonour to the memory of three million martyrs of 1971.

Perhaps, it is because of the current political situation within Bangladesh that this silence continues, more than two days after the remarks attracted the flak that they did in the rest of South Asia. Perhaps, at a time when relations between the three major nations of South Asia have been visibly improving, no one in Dhaka would like to rock the boat. The fact, though, is that neither the spokespeople in Pakistan nor the segment of the Indian political and media establishment that criticised these remarks believes that criticizing Rahul Gandhi’s ridiculous claims is likely to set the process of rapprochement back. Criticising a callous statement that demeans the struggle of an entire nation and its people to emerge from severe political repression and hardship to enjoy their independence as a people does not amount to a declaration of war. It is unfortunate that no voice has been raised in Dhaka about these remarks yet. The silence speaks as poorly about those who choose not to speak about the remarks as it does about Rahul Gandhi’s personal callousness. #

Jahed Ahmed, based in New York, and Mehul Kamdar, originally from Tamilnadu, India and now settled in Chicago, are co-moderators of mukto-mona.com, an online network of South Asian humanists