Bernard-Henri Lévy is France’s most celebrated public intellectual. A renowned philosopher, he has authored many books over the years. Popularly known as BHL, he is as well known for his activism and celebrity, as for his academic work.
Born into a wealthy French family in Algeria in1948, he studied philosophy at the elite École Normale Supérieure in the late 1960s. He is best known internationally for his activism in the 1990s calling for help to Bosnia when it was under attack from ethnic cleansing, and for his 2003 investigative book on the murder in Pakistan of the American journalist, Daniel Pearl.
Far less widely known however is that he answered the late Andre Malraux’s call for an international brigade to support the Bangladesh liberation struggle in 1971.
Uniquely among his contingent of 100 volunteers who travelled to Kolkata during the war, he made it across the border with the Mukti Bahini. More interestingly still, after liberation he worked as a civil servant for the Bangladesh Ministry of Economy and Planning and got to know Sheikh Mujib personally.
His experiences during this time became the subject of his very first book published in 1973, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la révolution – also known as Les Indes Rouges (Bangladesh, Nationalism in the Revolution).
Surprisingly, given his fame, until this year, this was the only book of his never to have been translated from French. Thanks to the efforts of Professor Kaiser Haq and the director of Alliance Francaise Dhaka, Oliver Litvine, a Bangla translation of BHL’s book by Shishir Battacharja was published last month.
BHL visited Bangladesh for two days in April to launch the translation and open the Malraux Garden at the University of Dhaka, in honour of the famed former French Minister who had made the call for solidarity which brought him to the country in 1971.
It was BHL’s first return to the country since 1972 and he was on a tight schedule. Generously, he gave Dhaka Tribune an interview late at night at his hotel, edited extracts from which are printed today.
Despite being tired, he spoke in detail on a wide range of subjects. Referring to the Rana Plaza disaster, whose anniversary had just passed, he commented: “Globalisation is what it is. The worst would be to be out of it – that would be the end of the game for Bangladesh. But in the game, you have the possibility of a rapport de force – relationship of force – bargaining power. Bangladesh has some cards. I know how the luxury industry thinks in France and Europe ... There is (not so much) risk of another country taking Bangladesh’s business.”
He was adamant that the idealism of his youth and the “spirit of 1968” had not diminished, declaring: “I am still absolutely concerned and obsessed by, the political fate, destiny of my fellow humans.”
This is certainly reflected in his many travels to war zones over the years and his role in seeking to influence French policy on issues such as Libya and Mali.
As his role in 1971 would suggest, BHL at heart supports the theory of just wars and interventions. This is not out of any political naivety, but because of his belief in justice. He is scathing for instance about what he saw as the lukewarm international support for Bangladeshi independence, even from supporters such as India and Russia.
Commenting on India’s role in 1971, he states: “For Indira Gandhi, the real purpose was the third Indo-Pak war and she won it.”
Remarking on his opposition to the Iraq war, which he publicly debated with his friend Christopher Hitchens, he describes the famously atheist Hitchens as “messianic” in his support for the US led intervention.
Most of all though, what shines through the interview is his passionate belief in the importance to his life and work of the ideals of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Reflecting on his sadness that his first book had not been translated wider, he noted: “It says a lot about the way the world looks at Bangladesh. Not as a key problem. Not as the beginning of something.”
BHL leaves no room for doubt about the importance of 1971 to his worldview. As he told his audience at Alliance Francaise before the interview: “I confess I was a Marxist. A Maoist. A follower of Lenin etc. Bangladesh got me out of that nightmare. It schooled me. Bangladesh made me what I am today.”
Experiences in Bangladesh liberation
Living in Gulshan, working for the Bangladesh government as a 22 year old, had you ever imagined such a thing?
In a sense, yes.
Yes. We have, in France, a real tradition of what Jean Paul Sartre, in the foreword of a book of his friend Roger Stéphane, called l’aventurier. Lawrence of Arabia, Byron, Andre Malraux. And for me, l’aventurier was a very honourable destiny. To write and to act … To live your life far from yourself, far from you bases ... To change yourself deeply … All these were real targets for me. Life is worth being lived if one takes the risk and the chance of being different than himself. To break the ropes which tie you to your place. To break the rules of your natural group. To convert yourself into something else. To change your soul.And not to do what you were formatted, shaped to do.
I was shaped to be a professor, I was shaped to be just a writer. And then, Bangladesh happened.
Moreover, you know … mass murder, slaughter, is often an abstract thing. But when you happen to see it directly, to be a witness of it, it’s something quite different, you cannot just play games. It changes you deeply. And you are compelled to do something. The last weeks of 71, November to mid December, were among the most moving, disturbing and terrible I have experienced in my whole life. I saw things I should not have seen. I saw things a man should not see. But I saw them.
You were travelling with Mukti Bahini?
I was in Jessore. Then between Jessore and Khulna. And then, came into Dacca. It’s very difficult if you have a soul and a heart, which we all have, and say: “I go back to Paris, I pass my next exam and I write a love novel.”
So you decided to stay?
I felt compelled to stay.
When did you meet Mujib?
I first met him in the beginning of January. The idea was to write a profile of him. Afterwards I went away from Bangladesh for two weeks and then I came back. I was deeply impressed by the man, by his charisma, by his nobility. I entitled one of my book, 40 years later, “Doing war without liking it.’’ This is what I felt in Mujibur Rahman. This is a sentence of Andre Malraux by the way. Andre Malraux once said: “The men or women I admire most in the world are those who are able to do war, and do it well, and to win it, despite a deep disgust. Mujibur Rahman was that man. So, when I saw him again, I told him: “Of course I can make a profile of you; but I want to do more than that; I have done a few studies in my country, on politics, economics etc; I am ready to help.”
And the story goes on in the book. Arif Jamal wrote an article about your being asked to leave because you did an interview during the war, Is it as simple as that? [BHL was referring to Arif Jamal’s article which claims suspicion of BHL’s journalistic activities during the war, notably interviewing a Naxalite leader in Chittagong, underlying the government’s decision to ask him to leave the country in June 1972.]
This is what the article says. Maybe he has elements I don’t have. I don’t know, I would not endorse myself this theory.
Were you surprised at being asked to leave?
Yes. But it was not so harsh as it appears. Maybe it was time to leave. Maybe there were other reasons that had to do with my job. Anyway, by then, I knew it was time to go.
Did you have any insight into the complex politics and infighting of the time from 1972 up to Mujib’s assassination?
No. When this happened, I was completely distressed. I was in the South of France. I wished I could come to the funeral. But everything happened very quickly.
Fast forwarding to Bosnia, did you feel/see any connection with Malraux’s call in 1971?
Yes, of course.
Why was the left divided over Bosnia?
The left was divided because the very idea of Europe or, even worse, America intervening in the third world, or on the borders of Europe, was, for some, unbearable. They had the idea that Serbia which was torturing Bosnia, was a little country. And as a little country, Serbia was a sort of victim. Yes, for some on the left, if you have America, Europe, NATO, on one side, you are on the bad side.
How do you feel about Bosnia ending up cantonised?
So sad, and stupid. When the West finally intervened, they did not do it in the proper way. They did it in order to ensure nobody wins. The plan of Europe and maybe America was that in Bosnia nobody should win.
Do you go back much?
Yes, often. I just wrote a theatre play which will be created in Paris next September, about the question of Europe and the premiere will be in Sarajevo next June 27. This play is like a wake-up call for Europe. It’s very important for me, that the premiere is arranged in Sarajevo.
So you are not so gloomy?
Europe did its best to sabotage Bosnia, that’s true, but they did not succeed. It’s complicated, you have nationalist parties, ethnic divides, but these are not the mainstream.
Iraq and Libya
You debated Iraq with Christopher Hitchens. You two would have probably had many similar views on foreign policy?
Yes, except on Iraq. Hitchens was a friend. We had the same target, which was democracy. But we did not have the same strategy. Christopher Hitchens practised a sort of democratic messianism. He was as messianic for democracy has (he/some) had been for revolution. It’s not my way of thinking.
Iraq and Libya: differences?
In Libya, there were three reasons to intervene. Number one: there was an imminent massacre on Benghazi.
Hadn’t Saddam Hussein killed a lot more people than Gaddafi?
Yes. But, in Benghazi, there was an imminent threat, documented, announced. I shot a movie documentary where you can see the tanks that were stopped by planes of Nato. They are on the edge of the city. Number two – everything had been tried; negotiating with Gaddafi for example; no solution was left. Number Three: on the ground there was a civil society which demanded, prayed, begged for that. It was not just us calling for intervention. So, it was my role to support that.
With President Sarkozy?
Especially Sarkozy yes.
Were you surprised by the British turnaround on Libya?
Yes. But big history is sometimes made by little causes and this was the case. Sarkozy had so much energy that he was able to persuade Cameron. But also with the UN resolution and getting a mandate. It should not have passed normally. But Sarkozy displayed such an energy that finally it passed. Of course it was a surprise that Cameron came on board.
Mali – Thoughts?
I think France in Africa today in Mali and in CAR is exemplary. Exemplary policy. I don’t say that often about my country, but I do say it about Mali. I am very serious, for example, about France’s responsibility in genocide in Rwanda. We behaved terribly. France bears some of the responsibility. But in Mali, France has done exactly what had to be done – in a responsible way, cautiously, avoiding causalities, not mistaking the enemy, not showing the least neocolonialist ambition.
And what about nihilist AQ inspired terror as in Nigeria?
You can stop it. You cannot eradicate it, but you can contain it. Muslim world no doubt has to be very strong. People need to say that radicalism, terrorism, etc, are crimes. I think you should have more mullahs saying it – not for me to say.
Returning to your talk today at Alliance Francaise, you highlighted the four principles of the Bangladesh constitution (Nationalism, Socialism, Democracy, Secularism). Do you think they are practised here?
Principles are never practised perfectly. In America, the American creed is not practised in the jails of Nevada or in Guantanamo. In France, under Vichy, the French creed was nearly dead. Components of the French creed were still living in London and underground in the bushes. But in Vichy it was dead. Why do I say this? In order to make it clear that, between creed and reality, there is always a gap. The real question is to know if the gap is big or not. In Bangladesh, today, the gap is not so big. All four of the components are well alive, as far as I know. A few years ago,when there were moves against secularism, many voices raised and protested and did advocate for secularism. The four components are still living, still vibrant. So … secularism, if you ask me to bet … I am absolutely convinced that, at the end of the day, the secularists will win. It seems impossible to me that this country can ever accept the stupid rules of those who cage the women, hide their faces and impose regulations of steel. Bangladesh will never walk in that way. Except if you have a military coup associated with Jamaat. But willingly, no! The battle will be won by the secularists – I’m sure.
Have you followed the war crime trials/David Bergman’s blog?
I know of them, I have not followed. I think there is always a compromise between making a clear history and making life liveable. Every resistance which wins makes some compromises. De Gaulle did not send to jail in France all the collaborators of Petain. He was very severe with some not with others. There is a balance. Probably Mujib was too conciliatory. Like in other countries in Eastern Europe after 1989.
What did you think about the sending back of the Pakistani generals?
Mujib had to deal with Pakistan. He won the war, with help of India of course. But he had to deal with the former enemy. When Allies won WW2, they made compromises too.
Reflecting on your own call for the history of 1971 to be told and become better known, isn’t it said that the victors get to write the history?
Number one, Mujib was probably too kind, too sweet. Number two, maybe he did not have time. Who knows what would have happened if time had been given to him? And, number three, Bangladesh was left alone, on this issue of war crimes … You cannot if you are a little country, afford to go it alone. Bangladesh was a new country. So it was a weak country by definition. It was also a poor country. A little less today. But, at that time, it was very poor. It was difficult, in these conditions, to deal with these questions of guilt, collaboration and so on.
Another point. Bangladesh, even now, is a very fragile country. The problems of water for example. They are in the consciousness of every Bangladeshi citizen. Like in Venice, you are at the mercy of a few metres of water. It is very rare: one country facing a real threat of disappearing. When you are so weak, so precarious, you cannot deal with such big issues alone. So you have to compromise. The fact is, after victory everyone turned their back. Even India. Even Indira Gandhi, and India, did not give a shit about Bangladesh. For Indira Gandhi, the real purpose was the third Indo-Pak war and she won it.
She was not so concerned about having a new country, Bangladesh. I do not think so. That is also, I think, why she was not so clear about the Malraux call for an International Brigade.Soviet Union was Soviet Union, it acted with complete cynicism. And, in the West, no real support either. So let’s not forget Bangladeshi freedom fighters had to fight alone. With bare hands in the fight.