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Bernard-Henri Lévy: A Frenchman’s passion for Bangladesh’s Liberation War

  • Published at 07:55 pm December 16th, 2020
Bernard-Henri Lévy
Bernard-Henry Lévy during his visit to Bangladesh this year in March as part of the Mujib Borsho celebrations Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

'A true revolutionary has to get close, very close, to the things themselves; he has to move into the places where History, with a capital H, really happens; and he has, therefore, to leave Europe'

The year 1971 was an important milestone in the current context of history, the importance of which is yet to be grasped by the historians.  

When the people of the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) rose to demand their democratic rights, the ruling Pakistan army generals made no secret of their belief that they cared only for the land, which was to become a subject of many romantic tales.

All that butchery aroused the conscience of one soul in France, André Malraux. 

Malraux was one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and former minister of culture in the cabinet of President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s who, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, had called for, helped form, and actually commanded an international brigade of western intellectuals and ordinary people to fight for democracy.

In 1971, Malraux saw the danger in Bangladesh and made a similar call. A little over a hundred French youths and former officers answered the call. One of them was a very young man named Bernard-Henri Lévy, who later emerged as a leading European philosopher.

However, the proposed International Brigade never came into existence. 

Malraux was too old to put his ideas into practice and constitute the brigade. Furthermore, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not know what to do with such a brigade, and for all practical purposes, vetoed the proposal, although she did use the name and fame of André Malraux to the fullest.

But Malraux had already inspired young Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was fired up with passion to do something practical, and Malraux’s call showed him the light. 

Lévy was the only one who actually made it to East Pakistan, forming a one-man international brigade. He knew that an even bigger war than the Spanish Civil War was being fought in Bengal.

He had grown up under the influence of the revolutionary 1960s. At the age of 18, Lévy had been admitted to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) of the Rue d’Ulm in Paris, which had produced intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Raymond Aron, names that shaped and defined modern western thought in the way Lévy happens to be shaping our age.

Lévy was already into his third year at the ENS, when he responded to Andre Malraux’s call on September 17, 1971, to join the International Brigade on the pattern that one of the leading European intellectuals had created in the 1930s. 

According to contemporary witnesses, he was different from his colleagues at the ENS - he wanted to change the world rather than reinterpret it one more time.

Although Malraux’s idea collapsed, Lévy went ahead. 

Several decades later, reminiscing about those days, he said: “A true revolutionary has to get close, very close, to the things themselves; he has to move into the places where History, with a capital H, really happens; and he has, therefore, to leave Europe.”

Lévy was only 22 at the time and had not made a name for himself. No one could at the time have guessed how much Lévy would influence modern discourse. But the Lévy era was beginning.

One factor that drew the young Bernard-Henri Lévy to Bengal was the local Maoist movement, “Naxalites.” He soon discovered that there was not much in common between the Maoist students in Paris and Maoist guerrillas in the jungles of Bengal despite some similarities. 

Fascinated with the idea of sharing his brotherhood with the Naxalites, he ignored their criminal side, at least for a time.

Accompanied by his first wife Isabelle Doutreluigne, Lévy left Paris for the first real flight of his life on October 2, 1971. He was representing the French daily Combat. His first stopover was Islamabad, where he interviewed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who, like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan, was also a contender for power but was opposed by the military regime. 

After a brief stopover, he headed to New Delhi, whenceforth he immediately went to East Bengal, leaving Isabelle Doutreluigne behind in Kolkata. In the ensuing months, he moved in and out of East Bengal.

In East Bengal, Lévy followed a Mukti Bahini unit led by Akim Mukherjee. He took part in the fall of Satkhira in the Khulna district in the southwest of the emerging nation. In December, he was in Jessore just before Indian troops entered the war, leading to Bangladesh’s final victory.

On December 4, according to military archives, he found himself in the middle of the battle of Besantar, where the Mukti Bahini, with the help of Indian troops, pushed the Pakistani troops back.

The Maoist and the journalist coexisted in Lévy during the war. He continuously searched for the Naxalite leader Mohammad Toha. After an eight-day search around Chittagong, he succeeded in interviewing him during the height of the war. 

It was here that he caught malaria, which left an everlasting effect on him. Politically, interviewing Toha was a cardinal mistake and ultimately led to his expulsion from the country.

On December 5, the journalist in Lévy stirred again when he convinced officers of General Aurora’s army to embed him among the advancing troops. He travelled with the Indian army from west to east, and entered Dhaka with one of its first units.

In Dhaka, he re-joined Akim Mukherjee’s Mukti Bahini unit and participated (according to papers in Mukherjee’s private archives) in liberating Rayer Bazaar, where the Pakistan army had set up the most despicable torture cells.

After playing a part in the liberation of East Bengal, which emerged as Bangladesh that same month, Bernard-Henri Lévy settled in Dhaka, and began the second phase of his new career as a philosopher-revolutionary. 

In Dhaka, he met Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was quite impressed with the fact that the young Lévy, in spite of being at the Ecole Normale Superieure, had participated in his country’s war of independence and wanted to contribute to building the new nation.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understood that Lévy had forgone advancement in his own country. He offered Lévy a position in the Ministry of Economy and Planning, which Lévy accepted immediately. He worked there till mid-June 1972.

In Dhaka, Lévy shared the small house of a Muslim family which had two girls and three boys; he became the sixth child. 

The neighbourhood of Gulshan, like most areas in those days in Dhaka, was often flooded, either from rain or from overflowing rivers. However, he spent most of his time in the office, working as a Bangladeshi bureaucrat rather than as an imported consultant.

During frequent meetings with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he suggested that the tens of thousands of women who had been raped and abandoned by the soldiers of the Pakistan army and their Islamist collaborators in al-Shams and al-Badr (the armed wings of the Jamat-e-Islami) should be honoured as Birangona, or national heroines. 

In many traditional societies, including Bangladesh, raped women live terrible lives, stigmatized by the rape they suffered and often demonized by their own families, becoming no more than living dead women.

During his stint in Bangladesh, according to some accounts, Bernard-Henri Lévy also tried to convince Home Minister AHM Qamaruzzaman to bring the collaborators of the Pakistani military in al-Shams and al-Badr to justice. Unfortunately, the new government ignored it, as politics overshadowed justice.

Lévy tried to convince Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to account for the death and destruction of the war and build a war memorial to honour the sons of the young nation. This, too, never came to fruition. 

In the early years of independence, the search for international recognition and the task of safeguarding the young nation’s independence took all of Sheikh Mujib’s time. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by his own army.

In June 1972, Bernard-Henri Lévy ran out of luck. On the very first day of that month, Home Minister Qamaruzzaman received an anonymous denunciation condemning Lévy as pro-Chinese, which in South Asia, meant pro-Pakistan. 

Lévy had committed two cardinal sins since he came to South Asia – he visited Kashmir with Isabelle Doutreluigne and he interviewed the Naxalite Mohammad Toha, who had opposed the independence of Bangladesh. 

This was enough for Home Minister Qamaruzzaman, who gave him 48 hours to leave Bangladesh. 

All his contributions to the independence of Bangladesh were ignored.

Thus ended Bernard-Henri Lévy’s struggle for freedom for the Bangalis — the first of many such struggles the philosopher would wage in the decades to come. Much of what Lévy did in Bengal in 1971–72 lives on, as Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where the forces of democracy are successfully opposing the forces of darkness.

While fighting the first war of his life, Lévy filed dispatches with Combat and worked on this thesis under the supervision of the economist Charles Bettelheim. Although the thesis was never completed, Lévy did write his first book, Les Indes Rouges, a witness to the struggle of the people of Bangladesh. 

Among the very few accounts of the heroic struggle of the Bengali Muslims against oppression, Les Indes Rouges is the best account of those days.

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