Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bangladesh: revival of the secular spirit

HAROON HABIB

THE 33RD death anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the slain founding father of Bangladesh, was a significant occasion for the country of 140 millions. On August 15, the nation paid tributes to the slain leader as his death anniversary was observed as National Mourning Day after a six-year break.

On this day in 1975, Mujib, along with most of his family members, was assassinated by a splinter group of the army thus changing the normal course of Bangladesh’s post-independence history. His two daughters — Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana — escaped the bloodbath since they were abroad.

In line with a recent High Court ruling, the present caretaker government has reinstated August 15 as National Mourning Day and a public holiday. The step has been welcomed overwhelmingly by right thinking people and pro-liberation political parties while the Islamists and rightists, who still curse Mujib for breaking Pakistan, are immensely disappointed.

The day was observed this time with wider public participation even under the state of emergency. Awami League, the party founded by Mujib and which led the country’s liberation war from Pakistan in 1971, organised elaborate programmes after many years.

During the Awami League rule between 1996 and 2001, August 15 was officially observed as National Mourning Day. But the BNP and Jamaat-led alliance government under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, after coming to power in October 2001, scrapped the day’s official status, which the High Court declared illegal on July 27 this year.

Significantly, President Iajuddin Ahmed and Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, through official messages, paid tributes to the great political leader for his historic contribution to the nation’s independence. The head of the state and head of the government also visited Tungipara, the village home of Mujib, 100 km from Dhaka, where he was buried by his assassins soon after the murder, to pay tributes. The heads of three services saluted Mujib’s grave.

Television channels and Bangladesh radio aired special programmes while newspapers published special supplements on the day. The historic March 7 speech of Mujib through which he declared independence of the former eastern wing of Pakistan and patriotic songs were aired throughout the day.

In the capital, hundreds of mourners wearing black badges thronged Bangabandhu Memorial Museum on Road-32 in Dhanmondi, the house where Mujib along with his family members were gunned down.

For those who preach political Islam, the reinstatement of state recognition has come as a shock. With the decision the caretaker government has reaffirmed the belief of the vast majority of the people that Bangabandhu was not only the Father of the Nation but also that what happened on the night of August 15, 1975 was a crime which must be condemned .

The assassination of Mujib will go down in history as an act of revenge by the defeated forces of 1971 war of Bangladesh’s independence. Following the tragedy, on September 26, 1975 the usurper President Khandaker Mostaque through an Extraordinary Gazette Notification, issued the Indemnity Ordinance, 1975 (Ordinance No. XIX), barring the trial of the killers.

Through this ordinance the murderers were indemnified, encouraging them to commit another historic crime. On November 3, 1975, four independence leaders including the acting president and the prime minister during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, were brutally killed inside the Dhaka Central Jail by the same assassins.

It took 21 years before the crime could be addressed. The Awami League government in 1996 took two important steps — the overturning of the iniquitous indemnity provision and the initiation of a normal judicial process to try those guilty of the crimes committed in 1975.

Then came the BNP government in alliance with the Jamaat-E-Islami, the fundamentalist party which collaborated with the Pakistan army in opposing the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. An obdurate hatred for Mujib was again surfaced. On July 28, 2002, the Khaleda Zia government cancelled the National Mourning Day, and also it being a public holiday.

Fortunately for the people, due process of law and the principle of natural justice were upheld when the High Court declared illegal the cancellation of the Mourning Day and the present caretaker government decided to abide by the decision.

But this may not be enough. The observance of 33rd death anniversary of Mujib at the state level demands a swift completion of the trial of his alleged killers. #

First published in The Hindu, August 18, 2008

Haroon Habib, a Bangladeshi journalist is correspondent of The Hindu