I still remember the day. On December 16, 1971, I was in Murti, a training camp north of Siliguri in West Bengal. It was run by the Indian Army both for ordinary freedom fighters and officers of the regular army. We were just a couple of weeks short of being deployed to various sectors after passing out as commissioned officers when the Pakistani army surrendered.
I still remember the exact moment when we all gathered around a small radio and heard the news. Our hearts were pounding. We were embracing and congratulating each other and thanking the Indian Army officers and jawans.
The thought that we finally had a free country filled our hearts with a special joy that comes very rarely in a lifetime, if ever. I clearly remember two thoughts that ran through my mind in those early moments: never again would people be shot at by the military or the police for just being political opponents; and that democratic values would guide our politics and religion would never again be used to instigate communal violence and as an instrument of oppression and exclusion.
Forty years down the line we cannot claim that freedom has prevailed in all spheres of our life or that secularism has found sufficient roots to cleanse our politics of religious bigotry. However, we can claim that as citizens of Bangladesh we have emerged with our distinct identity and culture which remains fundamentally Bengali, and yet is enriched by the special historical experiences that brought in different civilisational impact on us.
Creation of Bangladesh, and the long struggle - from 1947 to 71 - for its emergence, was more about its people's identity than it was about economic and social advancement, though they constituted vital elements of the struggle at the end. But it was the issue of culture, triggered by demand for Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan as early 1948 that ultimately caused the creation of Bangladesh. It was during M A Jinnah's first visit to the eastern part of Pakistan that Dhaka University students raised the slogan of Bengali as a national language. Jinnah was arrogant: "Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the national language of Pakistan". As it would turn out, with that utterance he buried the very Pakistan he did so much to create.
In the past 40 years, as we have tried to create a new identity, we have not forgotten even for a moment that in the early sixties the Pakistani dictator Gen Ayub Khan had banned all music and writings in the country. It was our culture that the Pakistanis hated most, terming it to be a threat to the survival of Pakistan. They thought that unless they could destroy and pervert Bengali culture Pakistan would not be safe. In the end it was Pakistan that stood destroyed.
No wonder that since 1971, Bangladesh has made remarkable strides in the field of art and culture, particularly theatre. Almost immediately after 1971, the Group Theatre Movement started giving expression to people's hopes and dreams. The new-found freedom gave a tremendous impetus to this art form and it spread to districts and even to villages within a very short time. These theatres would reinforce our secular and democratic ideals and it was a major force in toppling Gen Ershad's autocratic regime.
Also, Bangla band music has come of age since our liberation. This musical form is based on the very rich folk musical tradition of Bengal, especially the Baul. Building on the legacy of famous poet and singer Lalon Shah and other Sufi poets, young singers with popular bands have brought folk music into the centrestage. Along with this, there has been a revival of Tagore and Nazrul songs. In Bangladesh today, Tagore and Nazrul music festival is held annually in several big towns. And the celebration of the Bangla New Year, Pahela Baishak, has become the biggest cultural festival in the country.
During the Pakistani days, publishing was stifled. But in independent Bangladesh, books, especially novels, have been flourishing. Now, we celebrate the literature in our own language. The most important symbol of this assertion is Ekushey Boi Mela, a festival which is held every year in February to coincide with the commemoration of our Language Movement of 1952. At this festival, several hundred stalls exhibit hundreds of new authors along with thousands of new books that are published during this month and it is visited by millions over a period of 28 days.
Another field where we are making a mark is cinema, with some very creative and bold producers and directors experimenting with new ideas and stories. The international recognition to Matir Moina and Guerrilla has given our filmmakers a new confidence and identity. It will hopefully lead to some extraordinary films.
Today, even as we breathe freedom, we face the formidable challenges of development. But we derive confidence from our diverse cultural heritage and feel secured in the knowledge that as long as we can nurture our rich culture no force can destroy us or prevent us from emerging into a prosperous country.
First published in The Times of India, December 13, 2011
Mahfuz Anam is an award winning editor-publisher, The Daily Star, Dhaka