Saturday, December 17, 2011

Happy 40th Birthday Bangladesh! A Tree Called 'Kennedy'

Photo: The Banyan tree at Dhaka University remembers Ted Kennedy
TAREK FATAH

In the late hours of March 25, 1971, as the citizens of Dhaka slept, the Pakistan Army launched a war on its own people. By the time the sun rose, thousands of students in two university residential halls were dead and countless more lay wounded.

Dhaka University had been a hotbed of political activism for decades. To the generals of the Pakistan Army led by president Yahya Khan and his feared commander in then-"East Pakistan," General Tikka Khan, it had to be vanquished. The army also had a score to settle with an old tree on the campus grounds that was rumoured to have cast magical spells of rebellion on the young men and women who mingled underneath it.

After the first massacres, soldiers were sent to kill the giant banyan tree, lovingly known as "Bawt Tawla." Under its branches, many generations of Bengali students had gathered, conspired and then gone out to change the world.

It was under this tree that the language movement of 1953 was launched. Here in 1968, students had risen up against the military rule of General Ayub Khan, leading to his humiliation.

By the time the sun set on March 25, the Pakistan Army had blown up Bawt Tawla, ripping the very heart out of Dhaka University.

"It was a sad day--as if someone had destroyed the very essence of our lives," says Fuad Chowdhury, a Canadian filmmaker who witnessed the carnage:
"I saw the random killing and shooting of civilians. Canon fire destroyed part of my house, but the next morning when we saw the tree gone, we were devastated. Bawt Tawla was gone forever, we thought. But we were wrong."
A million lives and two years later, after the Bangladeshis had defeated the Pakistan Army and achieved independence, a white American politician would come to the spot where the old tree stood and plant a new sapling.

Today, forty years later, that sapling has grown into a new Bawt Tawla, and under it students mourn the passing of the man who planted that sapling: Senator Edward Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy had a huge following all over the world. Some admired him for his charisma, others because he was the brother of JFK and RFK. But in Bangladesh, he was revered because he spoke up when no one else in the U.S. dared to say a word.

In 1971, when the Pakistan Army began its genocide, Islamabad was a close ally of the U.S. President Yahya Khan had facilitated the Nixon-Mao meeting and the White House was not interested in damaging relations with a military junta that provided an effective counter balance to the growing India-U.S.S.R. relationship.

As Pakistani atrocities mounted, the U.S. consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, sent an urgent message to the State Department. It read:
"Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities... But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the ...conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term 'genocide' is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state."
Blood said that Dhaka University students were "either shot down in rooms or mowed down when they came out of building...estimated 1,000 persons, mostly students, but including faculty members resident in dorms, killed... At least two mass graves on campus, one near Iqbal Hall, other near Rokeya Hall. Rain [on the night of] March 29 exposed some bodies. Stench terrible."

Instead of paying attention to the news about the bloodletting, the "Blood Telegram," as it came to be known, was reclassified as secret, and Archer Blood got transferred out of Dhaka.

As the world seemed to have abandoned Bengalis, one man had the courage to defy his own government, thumb his nose at the Nixon administration, and go to the teeming refugee camps where ten million people were living in appalling conditions. This man was then 39-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy toured the camps and heard eyewitness stories of the massacres all over East Pakistan. Back home, Senator Kennedy wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Refugees about "one of the most appalling tides of human misery in modern times." He wrote,
"Nothing is more clear, or more easily documented, than the systematic campaign of terror -- and its genocidal consequences -- launched by the Pakistani army on the night of March 25th ...All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad. America's heavy support of Islamabad is nothing short of complicity in the human and political tragedy of East Bengal."
Despite obstruction from the Nixon White House, Kennedy worked both sides of the house, pleading for the end of U.S. support for Pakistan. This finally led to the U.S. Congress passing a bill that banned all arms sales to Pakistan.

On December 16, 1971, the war ended and Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan to become an independent country.

Fuad Chowdhury recalls when two months later, Senator Kennedy came back to Bangladesh and planted a tree at the site of the original Bawt Tawla.

"There were thousands of students chanting "Joi Kennedy" (long live Kennedy) as he spoke to us, comparing the Bangladesh revolution to the American Revolution.
"For us, he was a hero then and will always be remembered as the man who stood by us in our darkest days. The banyan tree should now be re-named as the banyan tree called Kennedy."
Today, the tree Kennedy planted in 1972 has grown as large as the original Bawt Tawla.

Tarek Fatah is a writer, talkshow host in Toronto and founder, Muslim Canadian Congress


First published in The Huffington Post, December 16, 2011