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Bangladesh: Martyred intellectuals, anti-history, the old ideals

A half century and two years ago today, scores of our best men and women were picked up by the goon squads known as Al-Badr and Razakars, to be pitilessly tortured to death in the murder chambers these notorious opponents of freedom had set up writes Syed Badrul Ahsan.

We who waited for Bangladesh to be free, who watched Indian aircraft drop those leaflets over Dhaka demanding that the Pakistan army surrender unconditionally, had little idea of the murder missions that these goon squads had branched out on. All we knew was that Bangladesh would emerge as a sovereign republic in a matter of days. It was not till after liberation that knowledge of the enormity of the grisly crimes committed by these killers came home to us.

We recall one of the earliest pronouncements of the Mujibnagar government soon after Pakistan’s soldiers laid down their weapons at the Race Course. It was a simple, terse announcement: Four political parties — the Pakistan Democratic Party (PDP), Muslim League, Nezam-e-Islam, Jamaat-e-Islami — were officially banned in the new country owing to their collaboration with the Yahya Khan military junta in the course of the War of Liberation.

This morning, as we pay homage to the doctors, academics, engineers, journalists, and others who were murdered by the goon squads of the collaborationist Jamaat-e-Islami, we need to go into introspection on the trajectory Bangladesh’s politics took after the war, indeed in the dark circumstances brought on by the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his family and the four principal leaders of the Mujibnagar government.


There are the many queries we raise today, at a time when the nation as a whole prepares for a new general election. Have we lived up to the idealism of our martyrs, those who perished in mid-December and throughout the nine long months of the war? Have we taken to task the elements who cheerfully, in their narrow political interest, brought back to politics the very men who till the very end of Pakistan in these parts vehemently and violently opposed the birth of Bangladesh?


Yes, one satisfaction is that a good number of the collaborators have been tried and marched to the gallows. But to what extent have we rolled back the anti-politics which seized the country post-1975? These brilliant people, these intellectuals who were murdered on the eve of liberation were all liberal, secular Bengalis who looked forward to a democratic Bangladesh.

More than five decades later, when arguments are loudly voiced about the need for an interim administration to oversee the forthcoming general election, we do not see anyone asking if we should not go back to secular nationhood.

Elections are fine, surely. The Bengali nation has always been an election-oriented society, all the way from 1937 to 1954 to 1970. Not even the Basic Democracy-dependent elections of Ayub Khan in the 1960s dampened our enthusiasm for democratic politics. So we are for elections to strengthen our hold on democratic governance. 

But must democracy create or have space for those who repudiated our democratic spirit in 1971 and those who, under the cover of post-1975 and post-1982 military rule permitted communal and undemocratic forces to re-emerge and undermine the structure of the state?

There are the loud calls for guarantees of human rights. There is much noise about the requirement of a free, fair and credible election. But why has history gone missing here? 

Why is it that a country born of the principles of liberal democracy, through the martyrdom of three million of our compatriots, must now find common ground between those who espoused the values we held dear fifty two years ago and those who foisted a spurious “Bangladeshi nationalism” on the country? 

The biggest misfortune for a nation is loss of history or for its history to be wounded by the denizens of the dark.

A lack of acknowledgment

Those who speared our history, who attempted an alternative version of history through pushing under the rug all the truths we were armed with, who brazenly airbrushed the national political leadership leading us to freedom out of our history have not acknowledged their errors. 

They have not apologized to the nation. They have demonstrated scant respect for the freedom struggle. They have been in bed with the very elements who through their association with the Pakistan army caused all that mayhem and bloodletting in Bangladesh. 

That is the unvarnished truth as we recount the sad story of the murder of our intellectuals. It is a truth which many who are conversant with history, who remain fully aware of everything that transpired in this country fifty two years ago, today look away from. They ask for democracy, but they have no advice for those who played truant with history through subjecting it to ceaseless distortion. 

And therein we have a problem. We are being asked to ensure that democracy accommodates the forces of anti-democracy, because we must have elections. Of course we will have elections. But where is the hint, if not a guarantee, that the manufacturers of anti-history have reformed themselves, have convinced us that they stand by the spirit of 1971?

On Martyred Intellectuals Day, let there be no illusion about the path we must traverse in the times ahead. It is a path that will take us to the high road of historical restoration, to the plain that will have us reconstruct, brick by patient brick, the citadel of a secular Bangladesh that has systematically and crudely been rammed through by forces unable and unwilling to acknowledge the truth. 

We who live, have lived for these past 52 years, know the truth — for we witnessed the truth shaping up in 1971. And we were witness to the untruths, the falsehoods our local enemies painted on the walls and printed in the newspapers even as we waged our strenuous struggle for liberty. 

These elements who today demand fair elections and ask for democracy every minute of the day are the very elements who fifty two years ago screamed “Crush India” all over this country. They insulted the Mukti Bahini as a bunch of miscreants out to destroy their beloved Muslim homeland of Pakistan.

And those who came after them, three-and-a-half years into our freedom, demand free elections and democratic governance too, without letting us know how their calls for a free vote and democracy square with the malevolence they have consistently employed in striking down our history.

This morning, it is the pains of the martyrs’ families we remember. It is the tears of the women seeing their husbands, the children seeing their parents abducted by a genocidal state we do not forget. It is the helplessness of those whose lives were put out by an earlier generation of today’s so-called democratic forces which binds us in depths of anguish we have not freed ourselves of in more than a half century. 

On December 14, 1971 the al-Badr and the Razakars killed in order to have a maimed Bangladesh arise out of the ashes of war. On December 14, 2023 it is the descendants of the old merchants of death that we need to stop from pushing this homeland of secular Bengalis into new chaos.

Remember those killing fields in Rayerbazar and around the country. Remember too our paramount need to reclaim Bangladesh from those who have wounded it and who might wound it again.


The writer Syed Badrul Ahsan is a London-based journalist, author and analyst of politics and diplomacy. 



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