16 December. ‘Joy Bangla’ resonates from tannoys and loud speakers all around Dhaka. Flags flutter on rickshaws cycling along pot-holed roads as thousands march to lay wreaths at Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho (National Mausoleum for Martyrs) in memory of those who died in the name of independence. Bangladesh was born under the auspices of socialism, secularism, nationalism, and democracy, but does independence necessarily mean the same as liberty?
‘LIBERATION DOESN’T mean a thing to me,’ says 52-year-old Maqsoodul Haque, a Dhaka-based musician and satirical poet. ‘A flag and a map is really all we’ve got; merely geographical parameters of freedom, but ‘real liberation’ continues to elude us to this day.’
Haque adds that present-day Bangladesh is still ‘trapped in a vicious identity crisis with ‘nationalism’ bordering on fascism when deciding who you are and which side of the fence you sit on.’ For him, the experience of Bangladesh’s socio-political landscape depends on whether you are a ‘Bengali’ or a ‘Bangladeshi,’ pro-India or pro-Pakistan, a supporter of the Awami League or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
‘Bengali’ nationalism stemmed from the Bangla Language Movement of 1952 and culminated with the Awami League election victory in Pakistan in 1970 and the resulting forced liberation of 1971. ‘Bangladeshi’ nationalism is a relatively new concept brought in by the BNP. It rejected Bengali nationalism and introduced Islamic values into the constitution in place of secular principles, leaving in its wake social confusion, political polarity, and an unnecessarily divided nation.
Part of the confusion regarding the real meaning of liberation lies in Bangladesh’s education system which has systematically been abused by rival political parties bent on etching their founders’ names into the history books. With a change in government, there is a corresponding change of school textbooks, bank notes, national holidays, and even airports. Just this week the current administration announced that Zia International Airport will now be called Shahjalal Airport and another airport will be built in the name of Mujibur Rahman! With all this tampering of history, how can anyone really believe anything they are told? Without the guidance of accurate historical records and objective interpretation, information about Bangladesh’s independence and history is passed down, from father to son, laden with emotion, and distorted from generation to generation.
‘Liberation is the right to say and do what you want, but at the same time understanding that with those rights come responsibilities,’ says Akku Chowdhury, founder-director of the Liberation War Museum and a former freedom fighter. ‘My generation fought the Liberation War, but it’s up to the new generation to fight another war of liberation against poverty and illiteracy,’ adds Chowdhury, in light of the depressing statistics: According to the CIA World Factbook, 45 per cent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line and only 48 per cent receive education after 15 years of age. The UNDP Human Development Index Report 2009 ranks Bangladesh as 146 out of 182 countries, five below Pakistan. With independence, then, come the shackles of accountability, the founding principle of democracy.
Of course, since 1971, Bangladesh has struggled with upholding the principles of democracy. Many argue that the country is not truly democratic for it allowed a convicted corrupt dictator who ravished the country for nigh on a decade to stand for parliament. Spiralling extrajudicial killings around the country and the lack of freedom of movement and speech in the Chittagong Hill Tracts also undermine Bangladesh’s democratic credentials. For these reasons, many Bangladeshis believe that they are independent, but not truly liberated.
Liberation can be defined in many ways, so after looking outwards and evaluating whether or not we have achieved what we set out to do in 1971 with regards to those four guiding principles, we then have to turn inwards to tackle a more delicate question. Do we have it in us to forgive Pakistan and move on?
‘I was born free,’ says Tanim Ahmed of the Dhaka-based New Age newspaper, who believes this generation of Bangladeshis is ready to move on from the past. ‘I did not have to fear speaking the same language I dreamt in. Freedom was never an aspiration, it was a given. So my views about Bangladesh and Bengali are going to be different from my parents.’
Similarly, Chowdhury suggests it is time for acrimony between Bangladesh and Pakistan to subside: ‘I have nothing against the younger generations of Pakistanis’, he says. ‘Why should they carry the baggage for what their forefathers did in Bangladesh in 1971?’
However, scratching deeper reveals that there still remains an underlying bitterness towards Pakistanis made evident by the public rejection of the BNP and Jamaat-i-Islami alliance (said to be aligned with Pakistan) and the domestic boycotting of Pakistani products.
‘I hate them,’ says 32-year-old Joy Hossain. ‘And even though I realise that we should appear to be reconciled for the sake of trade and commerce, I don’t think there is any room for forgiveness.’
In response to such sentiments, Chowdhury suggests that the ‘key for a better relationship is closure,’ and recommends that war criminals be freely and fairly tried in Pakistan or in the international court system. That, however, is considered unlikely to happen owing to the United States’ role in the Liberation War.
For now, then, there is a need for non-political communication through music, sport, and other cultural platforms. Watching the Bangladeshi support for the Pakistan cricket team is testament to the power of culture to break down barriers. ‘I want to see a whole lot of people-to-people cultural exchanges’, says musician Haque. ‘Dramas, theatre, cinema, art, and painting shows. I am dying to see serious Pakistani rock bands like Noori and the fusion Mekaal Hasan Band play live in Dhaka.’
Perhaps after these first tentative steps are taken towards reconciliation and a renewing of vows to uphold our initial independence values, we will witness the ‘real liberation’ of Bangladesh. #
First published in The DAWN Blog, December 16, 2009
Misha Hussain is a British journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh