“Bottomless basket,” US national security adviser Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh soon after it was formed. Five decades on, Bangladesh has turned that around. But with hate speech growing and tolerance shrinking, are there bigger challenges ahead?
No liberation war in the world was as decisive as that of Bangladesh. The barefoot, half-naked soldiers of the Mukti Bahini had faced off with the Islamic militia of Pakistan and emerged victorious. A triumphant Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the East Pakistan Awami League who led the resistance for an independent East Bengal, was released from prison in January 1972. When he took over the reins of the country, he had a huge task ahead of him. Corruption was raging, a famine was sweeping the nation and the ravages of over a decade of struggle had rent the people apart.
He got to work but his compatriots betrayed him. He was assassinated in a military putsch on 15 August 1975 – when India was celebrating its Independence Day. Fifty years on, the secular ethos he died defending is under threat.
What we fought for
India and Pakistan were partitioned once, in 1947. But Bangladesh was partitioned thrice — 1905, 1947 and 1971. The contentious theory of the origins of Bangladesh is that it goes back to 1905, when the British Viceroy of India Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal. Indian nationalists and the intellectuals of Bengal vehemently opposed it. The seeds of Bengali nationalism had been sown.
When the two-nation theory was floated, the name for the new homeland for Muslims, Pakistan, was suggested by a young Britain-educated lawyer Choudhary Rahmat Ali in 1933. P for Punjab, A for Afghan province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), K for Kashmir, I for Indus, S for Singh, and ‘stan’ for Balochistan. East Bengal found no mention. It angered the revolutionaries of Bengal.
In 1940, fiery Bengal politician AK Fazlul Huq proposed the Lahore Resolution on behalf of the All India Muslim League — it called for independent states of Muslims in India — and nationalists began imagining an independent East Bengal.
By the 1960s, it had turned into a movement. Bangabandhu (friend of Bangladesh) Mujib, incarcerated on and off, was sent off to jail again in 1968 in the infamous ‘Agartala Conspiracy’ case. Anger spilled onto the streets and spread to the rest of Pakistan, with violent student protests against Pakistan’s military junta in 1969. The anti-government agitation ousted the decade-long military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan.
Mujib won a landslide victory in the first ever general elections in December 1970. He was poised to be the head of the government of Pakistan. Three months later, opposition leaders from the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) pledged allegiance to Mujib’s Six-Point Political Agenda, which sought regional autonomy for the provinces in Pakistan.
Between Mujib winning and this agenda being accepted by political leaders, General Khadim Hussain Raja, commander of the Eastern Command, planned Operation Blitz. It would mean suspension of all political activities and a return to military rule. The armed forces of Pakistan would be allowed to move against “defiant political leaders” and take them into “protective custody”. But Lieutenant General Yaqub Khan, who was chief of general staff of the Eastern Command, and Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, who was governor of East Pakistan, scuttled the plan. Not for long, though.
The frustrated General Yahya Khan, president of Pakistan, ousted both Khan and Ahsan. Later, General Raja was also shown the door.
Why the Mukti Bahini was formed
Weeks before the genocidal campaign of March 25, 1971, codenamed Operation Searchlight, most officers and soldiers of the East Bengal Regiment and border guards East Pakistan Rifles revolted. The rebel officers and soldiers along with hundreds of border guard troops and policemen crossed into India, with fire cover from the Indian Border Security Force shielding them The rebel officers held a crucial meeting on April 12 at Teliapara in Sylhet — the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh Liberation Force) was formed under the command of Colonel (later General) MAG Osmany. The Mukti Bahini decided it would go the guerrilla way, on the lines of what Vietnam rebels did, instead of conventional war. Thousands of students, youths and farmers, including women, joined the Mukti Bahini.
Where is Bangladesh now?
At the helm now is his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who took over in 2009 after the country had seen three decades of autocratic regimes. The economy took off. She opened up the country to foreign investment from India, Japan, South Korea, the US, Turkey and European countries. Soon, Bangladesh became the second largest exporter of readymade garments. Pharmaceutical products are its other big export, to more than 70 countries, and frozen fish and food to Europe, North America, the Middle East and Australasia.
Bangladesh made big strides in meeting Sustainable Development Goals. Hasina has been elected Prime Minister thrice, holding office for 12 years. Her decision to take in more than a million Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar was appreciated globally.
But the human rights record at home has been controversial. Sectarian violence against Hindus in mid-October cast a shadow on the secular credentials of the country. Rights groups claim no perpetrator of sectarian violence against religious minorities, desecration of temples, arson and plunder faced criminal proceedings.
Before the 2018 general elections, the authorities ignored human rights groups, civil society and journalists’ bodies to enact the Digital Security Act, which was believed to throttle freedom of expression.
In three years since then, 1,516 cases have been filed under the law against 142 journalists, 35 teachers, 194 politicians and 67 students. None against Islamic evangelists who peddle hate speech online against women’s empowerment and elective democracy, and want a theocratic state. Nor against those uploading videos on YouTube demanding that the country’s flag be changed to a crescent and the national anthem be scrapped because a Hindu poet (Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) wrote it. “It is a retreat from the commitments of 1971,” said acclaimed social scientist Prof Rehman Sobhan.
The authorities are yet to complete a non-controversial registration of liberation war veterans. Successive regimes failed to prepare a genuine list of veterans. Let’s not discuss the total number of genocide victims — researchers claim the number could be higher than 3 million. Tens of thousands of infants and elderly people died of cholera and diarrhoeal disease in refugee camps. Bangladesh has had seven governments since Mujib’s. Not one took up the issues of 1971 seriously.
Political historian Mohiuddin Ahmad quoted a Liberation War poster: “Banglar Hindu, Banglar Christian, Banglar Buddhist, Banglar Musalman, Amra shobai Bangalee (Bengali Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims — we are all Bengalis).” He added, “If I knew Islamism would triumph over secularism, pluralism and tolerance, I would not have joined Mukti Bahini to liberate the country.”
First published in TIMESOFINDIA.COM, 8 December 2021
The writer is an independent journalist and columnist based in Bangladesh