The year 2018 is not the year 1971. The middle-aged citizen of today is no more the youth of yesterday. The freedom we enjoy in these times is far removed from the tortuous struggle we waged for liberty in those times.
And yet there is something called history that connects the dots and links the linear lines of matters generational. That is the reason why we remember 16 December 1971 in winter 2018.
History is forever a matter of remembering what has been. And forty eight years ago, in this land, history took shape and form and substance, through reinventing itself on a declining December day. It was the winter of ecstasy for the people of Bangladesh, for they had just succeeded in beating back an enemy which should have had no business running riot through their hearths and homes. All across the streets and alleys of this city was heard a continuum of Joi Bangla, the militant nationalistic slogan which had over the years turned into an articulation of the collective Bengali demand for democratic rights. The demand had, to be sure, changed course through the exigencies of the times — from that of autonomy for a people long suppressed to that of freedom for a nation convinced that Bangladesh needed to be born if decency was to survive and thrive.
On the afternoon of December 16 nearly five decades ago, it was freedom which stepped gingerly into our homes. Liberty, for long the stuff that dreams were made of, was suddenly and yet expectedly ours to savour. The ‘brave’ soldiers of the marauding Pakistan army, having put an end to the lives of three million Bengalis and dishonoured as many as two hundred thousand Bengali women, had finally caved in. Note that there were 93,000 of them, all men who had been taught to believe that the Bengali did not matter, that indeed it was ‘East Pakistan’ which had to be reclaimed, that nothing else was. The dramatic nature of the Bengali victory was as compelling as it was inevitable, for only days before his men bit the dust, General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi had served the eerie warning that Dhaka would be taken over his live body. It was a living, breathing Niazi who had just capitulated before the rolling bandwagon of the nationalistic Bengali spirit.
Forty two years on, it is time to reflect on what was. On 16 December 1971, it was a cheerful rendering of ‘aaj srishti shukher ullaashe’ wafting along, per courtesy of a newly reopened and rejuvenated Dhaka Radio. The joy of creation was all, as was the painful happiness of a return home. Abdul Jabbar, having with so many others kept the spirit of triumph alive in the months preceding the end of the war, now sang ‘hajar bochhor pore abar eshechhi phire . . . Bangla’r buuke achhi darhiye’. In a few days, the Mujibnagar government would be coming home from exile. Within weeks, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — father of the nation, liberator, our friend and our window to the world — would be back in our midst. There would be a constitution within a year, with a general election to follow. The secular, sovereign Bengali state, fashioned out of the crucible of a twilight struggle, would be on the road to a consolidation of life and liberty.
The rest is, surely, history. Forks in the road would take us down paths we did not need to take. And foul conspiracy would stand triumphant, through a wholesale murder of the men who had steered the nation to freedom. The brave soldiers who would not rest until liberty was at hand would disappear, one after the other, in the land they had caused to be born. These are realities that ought not to have been. This is history which fundamentally owes its reality to the elemental nature of those who have never tolerated the rise of truth. Anti-history was around, right from the moment of our rebirth as a proud, free nation. Precious years were lost through democratic politics being pushed into exile and unconstitutional rule taking over. Bangabandhu enlightened us, even as the euphoria of freedom kept us in thrall, on how Bangladesh could graduate to being the Switzerland of the east. Those who came after him, in predatory fashion, simply jostled us back into the dark.
It was not, as Humayun Azad was to proclaim loudly, the Bangladesh we had bargained for back in the terrifying as also defining months of the war. Our collective imagination and objective reality, as we serenaded a liberated land, did not envision an ambience of untruth, a political canvas where coups d’etat and a rapid decline in values would undermine our ethos before a horrified world. Bloodletting had never been our prediction; and yet blood streamed into the lives of people who had not forgotten the blood shed by their compatriots in all the years leading up to the arrival of liberty. A free nation does not relish the spectacle of blood. And yet blood has flowed.
Forty eight years on, there is that compulsion in the heart, that tug at the soul, for new promises to be made in the interest of generations of Bengalis to be. Those promises come touched with necessary emotion. Now that we are forty eight, it is time to restore the ideals we have lost along the way. Our democracy must be made stronger, through a strengthening of the institutions which underpin governance. Our political classes must inform themselves that politics is never combative or adversarial but is always cooperative; that Parliament, being the fountainhead of freedom and justice, ought not to be spurned by those elected to be part of it. Having arrived at adulthood that ought to be of a mature sort, we cannot afford to go on playing young any longer. Good governance is now the aspiration; and visionary politics is what defines the future.
As dawn breaks today, with memories as profound as they are painful, with the wheels of justice finally turning — to inform ageing agents of the Pakistan army that they must finally pay for their sins — this nation proudly recalls those who paved the way to freedom forty eight years ago. Their minds were without fear. Their heads were held high. And we celebrate liberty in a Tagorean heaven of freedom.