A FEW weeks ago some so-called fundamentalist Islamist parties called a daylong hartal in the capital Dhaka and staged violent demonstrations around the country to protest against the government’s newly announced women development policy. I used the term ‘so-called fundamentalist Islamist parties’ to underscore the fact that it is highly doubtful whether these parties either understand Islam or truly comprehend the numerous sayings of the prophet on women and their role in society. However, my intent here is not to get into an argument with the so-called fundamentalist Islamist forces. The point I was going to make is that since its inception through a bloody war of independence in 1971, Bangladesh has witnessed a resurgence of such obscurantist Islamist forces.
It must be emphasised that the war of liberation was for creating a secular, progressive and democratic country. The 1972 constitution listed four fundamental principles defining the very foundation as well as ideals of Bangladesh—democracy, secularism, socialism and nationalism. Although enshrined in the constitution even in the early years following independence, these principles were not fully practised. Nevertheless, they guided the basic functioning of the state. How and why did we lose these fundamental principles? How the politics of Bangladesh turned ‘right’ and created a fertile ground for the emergence of obscurantist Islamist forces? Over time these obscurantist forces not only firmly established themselves but also gained enough strength even to pollute the philosophical premise of the party that led the war of independence. To better understand these changes, we must go back to the dark days of August 1975 and fully recognise and comprehend the enormity of the consequences of those events. It is also necessary to try to understand the historical context and the why and how of the sad tragic events of August 1975.
First, let us concentrate on what we have lost on August 15, 1975. The brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman violently shattered the fundamental principles that underscored the liberation war. Perhaps the biggest casualty was the principle of secularism as a fundamental building block of the state. Secularism, respect to all religions and equal protection to practitioners of all religions, was fundamental to the emergence of a democratic pluralistic Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib, in a unique way, personified the ideals of secularism. A Muslim at heart, he never hesitated to use some of the common Islamic phrases in his public speech, Sheikh Mujib forever showed respect to other religions and embraced people from all religions. This practice made it easier for him to connect to the Muslims of Bangladesh—an overwhelming majority—without alienating the people of other faiths. This practice also set him apart from other so-called secularists who were reluctant to use Islamic phrases like inshaAllah or assalamu alaikum because of a mistaken notion of what secularism really meant. None of these so-called secularists, it should be noted, could make any mark on the political landscape of Bangladesh.
The loss of secularism made it possible for the obscurantist Islamist forces to re-appear and slowly pollute the body politic of Bangladesh. As time went by these forces became so powerful that even the party that Sheikh Mujib belonged to became infected with the ‘religious’ bug and deviated from the basic principles of secularism. The fact that Bangladesh is now reluctant to recognise and constitutionally enshrine the rights of the indigenous peoples is a testimony to such deviation of the Awami League. Our inability or unwillingness to resolve the problems faced by the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (and in other parts of Bangladesh) and fully implement the peace treaty signed with them also reflect the demise of the basic principle of secularism. Clearly we have yet to fully comprehend the enormity of the loss of secularism and the cost of our failure to adhere to secularism as a state policy. Democracy and pluralism are its casualties. Democracy is fundamentally dependent on treating all individuals and groups equally. It hinges on equal rights for everyone. Democracy demands that all citizens are treated equally having equal rights under the law. The concept of citizenship enjoyed by people of all faiths, colours, creed and ethnicity is fundamental to democracy. Without secularism there could be no citizenship—equal rights under law—for all. It seems that our politicians, public representatives and policymakers could never fully comprehend the continuing impact of the loss of secularism on our body politic.
Sheikh Mujib was a charismatic leader, a symbol of our liberation war and of the new nation that emerged through an armed resistance to a grotesque genocide conducted in the name of, alas, Islam. Until 1966 Sheikh Mujib was one of the many political leaders in the then East Pakistan. However, the six-point demand for complete autonomy of East Pakistan and the subsequent movement that saw Mujib being continually harassed and jailed by the then military rulers of Pakistan set Mujib apart from all other politicians. He personified the struggle for the rights of the people of East Pakistan that increasingly turned repressive. If the six-point movement was the turning point in making Sheikh Mujib an unparallel political leader in East Bengal, it was the Agartala Conspiracy Case that propelled him to the position of the one and only champion of our economic, social and political rights. By the time that the military dictator Ayub Khan was forced to release Sheikh Mujib from prison to take part in the roundtable discussions in Islamabad Mujib was no longer a political leader. By that time he emerged as the supreme leader of already nascent Bangladesh, a charismatic leader with messianic power to attract and retain followers.
His overwhelming charisma made all other political leaders in then East Pakistan ‘disappear’ from the political scene; they collectively became irrelevant as the towering personality of Mujib redefined the political landscape of East Bengal. With his powerful and uncompromising stand on the rights of the people of East Bengal, Sheikh Mujib emerged as the supreme leader—the only one voice representing his people. Thereafter, it was natural for Sheikh Mujib to be endowed with the title of Bangabandhu by his people when the movement for autonomy turned into a struggle for independence and freedom. The brutal assault and genocide that befell on the people of Bangladesh on March 25, 1971 catapulted Mujib to the position of a messiah—a supreme leader with the responsibility of bringing us freedom and independence. Needless to say, it was in the name of Mujib, the quintessential charismatic leader, that we waged the liberation war and brought the genocidal Pakistani regime to its knees. His charisma transformed into an inspiration for the freedom fighters and the people at large. Only for a charismatic leader like him was it possible to ‘surrender’ to the occupying army, embrace captivity and face death. And again it was the charisma of Sheikh Mujib that inspired millions of his people to fast for his freedom and safe return to the newly emerged nation of Bangladesh. Surely it was his charisma and his appeal to his people at large that forced the brutal regime of Pakistan not to carry out its death penalty and to ultimately release Sheikh Mujib.
Charismatic leaders are essential for nation building as they can act as a source of unity and inspiration for the people at large. Although Bangladesh, a war-torn country on the blacklist of one of superpowers of that time, was faced with enormous problems during the early years of its emergence, Sheikh Mujib’s charisma was still the best hope for overcoming its problems and its development as a democratic secular nation. His brutal assassination deprived Bangladesh of its sole charismatic leader—the symbol of its unity and freedom. Clearly, we have yet to assess and fully understand the consequences of losing the charismatic leadership on the body politic of Bangladesh and its future evolution.
Through the tragic events of August 15, 1975 we also lost our innocence. August 15, 1975 is unparallel in its brutality and inhumanity. We are the only nation that saw the brutal assassination of the Father of the Nation. Our murderers were the only ones that killed not only the charismatic leader but also his entire family including an eight-year old son and daughters-in-laws. History has no parallel for such brutality—planned calculated cold-blooded murder. We remain unique in this regard. We also remain unique in the fact that no official inquiry was ever held to uncover how such murder was possible. No inquiry was ever held to explain how all the intelligence services failed to unearth this heinous conspiracy beforehand. Our is the only example where none of the armed services—the army, the air force and the navy—even tried to confront the heinous murderers on the move. No one was ever held responsible for such colossus failure. Lo and behold, we remain the only nation in history that not only condoned the murderers but also ‘rewarded’ them with diplomatic posts and other lucrative jobs immediately after the crime was committed. Yes, some of them faced justice after long 21 years and were hanged after another decade. A few are still at large. It is a shame that we had to wait for the political party of Sheikh Mujib to come back to power before any of these heinous murderers were brought to justice. No other political party cared to call a murder a murder or a crime a crime. Again, Bangladesh is unique in this respect. Even in the case of a murder the political parties, the major ones, I mean, cannot agree. What a shame!
On the other hand, it was a massive conspiracy involving some high-ranking leaders (and their followers) within the political party of Sheikh Mujib that led to his brutal assassination and the overthrow of every principle that he stood for. How was this conspiracy within the party possible? What factors led to such infighting within the party and its degeneration to the brutal murder of Sheikh Mujib? Unfortunately, the party itself never took any attempt to better understand these dark forces and factors.
What are the consequences of such ‘acceptance’ and ‘rewarding’ of crime? As a nation, we have slowly become insensitive to crime. The military dictator that ‘rewarded’ the criminals was also murdered and no one cared to launch a full-scale formal inquiry into his killing. During his dictatorial rule, countless officers from the armed forces were killed too in different pretexts. How many officers were killed? Who are these officers? Under what circumstances and pretexts were they hanged? Well, that also remains a mystery.
The tradition seems to continue. Murder continues to take place in the name of ‘mob killings’, ‘encounters’ and the like. Human rights organisations periodically remind us of ‘extrajudicial’ killings. However, we as a nation remain largely unmoved by such murders. The disease that started with the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib seems to have spread and we are unable to confront and cure it.
As we mourn on August 15, we should reflect on these historical facts and failures. A nation that fails to learn from history, we should understand, is likely to repeat history. On this day, let us reflect on the brutal events of August 15, 1975 and try to understand the nature and consequences of the assassination of Sheikh Mujib on the body politic of Bangladesh and on the nation’s evolution since then. At the same time, it is imperative that we look at the bigger picture—the world events—that conspired to make the brutality of August 15, 1975 possible. The corruption and administrative mismanagement that engulfed the ruling party at that time, the famine of 1974 and the role of the current lone superpower in fuelling the famine and the unrest must also be thoroughly analysed and understood. We have seldom reviewed or understood the international conspiracy that was ready to throttle the emergence of a sovereign democratic and secular Bangladesh. We should not forget that the world’s most reactionary regime did not even recognise Bangladesh before the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib. Clearly, the international conspirators were also active. More on this later.