Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bangladesh Reminiscence: Amar Sonar Bangla


What was East Pakistan and became Bangladesh has always been important to Pakistan’s political development, mostly as a counterfoil, a check on what might have been. How different would Pakistan have been if Yahya, the army and ZA Bhutto had chosen a political solution to the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71 instead of a military solution?

A visit to South Asia usually generates several articles for the Daily Times. I wrote two weeks ago about my first stop in Bangladesh. This week I was going to write about what I learned on my second stop in Pakistan, especially about the complicated issues that roil current politics. But that intention was subverted by a proud Bangladeshi father who gave me, as I was leaving Dhaka, a copy of the first novel of his talented daughter. When I opened the book, it captivated and captured me.

I know what it is to be a proud father of a talented daughter. I wrote about that feeling in a column about a year ago when my daughter Erika defended her PhD dissertation, and received her doctorate. So I have great empathy, as will many other fathers of talented daughters, with the father of Tahmima Anam who has just published to great acclaim in London her novel called “A Golden Age”. It is, of course, about Bangladesh, and specifically about the struggles and hardships of one family during the 1971 war of separation.

I am not a book reviewer, just a book reader. In my very amateur opinion, however, Ms Anam has written a beautiful, gripping, and touching narrative of the struggle of one strong woman, Rehana, to protect her family and keep it together through the chaos and danger of that terrible time. Rehana has to deal with the natural strong desire of the children to join their friends in the fight against aggression. And beyond her natural protective emotions, she has to deal with the ambiguity of having family and friends on both sides — her children and their friends on one side, sisters, brothers, brothers-in-law, etc who live in Pakistan, on the other.

It may be a difficult book for Pakistanis to read. In the background, throughout almost the entire book, is the terribly destructive, vicious, and bloody war. For a few pages, at almost the very end, the war comes to the foreground and directly threatens the family as the Pakistani army comes looking for her son. It is like many of the novels set during the American Civil War; often they are not about the war itself, but its savagery and destructiveness are always hovering in the background and influencing events in the foreground.

Throughout much of this book, Rehana and her friends and neighbours are mainly interested in just surviving and protecting their offspring; they do not evince much passion for the struggle itself. The war is something that disrupts their daily lives, makes their existence much more difficult, and puts their children in danger.

By the end, however, they have been drawn in to the side of the resistance, in part by their children, in part by the violence visited upon their society and the loss of friends and loved ones. Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) becomes Rehana’s favourite anthem.

In a larger sense, Ms Anam’s book is about the indomitable strength and resilience of the human spirit — the more it is pushed, the more it pushes back; the more it is violated, the stronger its resistance becomes. The more governments try to suppress the desire for self expression, for a say in the affairs of state, for equal treatment of various regions and classes, the stronger and more aggressive is the response.

Who knows for sure when the fate of United Pakistan was sealed? Was it as early as 1948 when Mohammed Ali Jinnah insisted that Urdu would be the language of all Pakistanis in spite of the deep feeling Bengalis have that their language is part of their being, their identity? Was it in 1970 when the Awami League won a significant majority in the elections only to be denied the fruits of political victory, taking office? Rehana and most of her friends and neighbours would probably say that it was in March 1971when Yahya Khan, the Pakistani army, and some political leaders gave up on politics (if they ever believed in them) and evidently decided that force was the only way to deal with the political problem presented by East Pakistan’s desire for real democracy.

That decision not only split the two halves of what was supposed to be the Muslim homeland of South Asia, it proved that the tie of religion which supposedly justified bringing together the two different wings into one country was not as binding as had been thought by its founders. Ethnicity, culture and language proved stronger than religion as a binding force. It showed once again that these deep-seated social ties are not really amenable to force in the long run; though they can be repressed in the short run, repression must ultimately turn to genocide to maintain the status quo.

The War of Separation, as terrible as it was in all those respects, gave Pakistan a new chance to succeed as a democracy. When defeat came and the new truncated Pakistan began its existence, the army’s image as the protector of Pakistan’s security had been seriously damaged. There was an opportunity for a new government to establish civilian supremacy, not only in law but in mindset. That this did not happen was the fault of that civilian government. It used the army for its political purposes in Balochistan (as we can see, old habits die hard), which helped refurbish its reputation. More importantly, it maintained the India-centricity of its national security outlook and, automatically, restored the image of the army as the guarantor of Pakistani security.

The Bangladesh army inherited that concept from United Pakistan but tried to walk away from it in 1990 by refusing to become involved in the struggle between ex-General (President) Ershad and the major political parties. The army had adjusted its mindset to the late 20th century, but the political parties couldn’t adjust theirs and continued to practise the zero-sum-game, vindictive, win-at-all-costs politics of the 1980s. They pushed these beyond tolerable limits in late 2006, creating a serious threat of bloody civil strife. The army chose to intervene on January 11 with a light hand (though those now in jail for corruption may not think it so light) rather than wait until violence forced it into martial law.

So what was East Pakistan and became Bangladesh has always been important to Pakistan’s political development, mostly as a counterfoil, a check on what might have been. How different would Pakistan have been if Yahya, the army and ZA Bhutto had chosen a political solution to the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71 instead of a military solution? Had the results of a free and fair democratic election been allowed to be implemented, that might have been the start of a viable democracy. Had East Pakistan remained a part of the larger Muslim homeland of South Asia, it might have been a more tolerant country (adopting in part Bengali mores), one in which extremism and sectarian strife would have had less of a foothold. I could go on and on.

Now Bangladesh can be important to Pakistan’s political development in another way. It can be the model for the Pakistan army to reduce its involvement in the politics of the country. The Bangladeshi leaders have promised publicly to hold elections by the end of 2008 and declared that they (both the military and the current civilian leaders) have no interest in entering politics. If they manage to accomplish this, it will be a historical feat in South Asia and almost unique in the rest of the third world. Except for Turkey, there have been almost no military interventions that ended quickly or well. What a boost it would be for the Islamic world if the two Muslim homelands of South Asia led that world into sustainable democracy. #

This article was first published in The Daily Times, Pakistan on June 13, 2007\06\13\story_13-6-2007_pg3_2

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. In the month of June 2007 he visited Bangladesh and made cautious remarks of the military controlled puppet government