Scriptures say, we should all visit graveyards because they have a sobering impact on the living. The atmosphere calms the senses, brushes out the angst, makes us realise the inevitability of death, and, most importantly, gives us precious moments to reflect.
On a sun-drenched tranquil Friday afternoon, when I stepped into the Commonwealth War Graves in Dampara, Chittagong, life’s all other pressures were minimised for a few hours. The day to day priorities seemed distant, and, to an extent, superfluous.
Like countless other places around the world, homage was being paid to the soldiers of the two great wars that have shaped the current world.
Arranged by the British High Commission in Bangladesh with the cooperation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Bangladesh Armed Forces, the day, as those present would have felt, was not just for remembering sacrifices made in the great wars but for all struggles aimed at ensuring freedom and human rights.
A link to deaths long ago
Someone once asked me the relevance of observing Remembrance Day, stating rather callously that soldiers killed in a forgotten time ruled by a defunct/defective ideology do not have any value today.
Well, it’s of course very easy to dismiss the past and go on with the present, but, if we do, then we actually dishonour those who laid down their lives in the belief that their deaths would ensure a brighter future.
Whether the world became better or not is a matter of debate but countless men went to the frontier with the determination to fight till the end and make the sacrifice for others. Just for that, we have reason to remember and honour them.
Remembrance Day is about reinstating our gratitude to fighters who fell to give us the chance to enjoy sovereignty, independence, and an honourable identity
But there is also another valid cause -- many of the men killed were our own, fighting at that time for the government they served. And this means, not only the men on the side of the allies but also for the axis powers because no matter which side a soldier was on, in the end, it’s his/her life that was sacrificed.
At the entry of the War Cemetery in Chittagong, on the right side of the gate is a large record of merchant seamen, all from this part of the world, who died, not in action but while providing vital service to the war effort. And there is also a section where Japanese soldiers fighting for the axis powers are buried.
It’s not about who won and who lost, it’s about showing our gratitude to young men, who left life, love, merriment to face death.
About all freedom fighters
The day is not marked solely to recall the soldiers of the world wars only; over the decades with the world’s dominant ideology undergoing transformation with more emphasis placed on human rights and the just cause, Remembrance Day is about reinstating our gratitude to fighters who fell to give us the chance to enjoy sovereignty, independence, and an honourable identity.
For me, on that serene Friday morning at the Chittagong war cemetery, thoughts were about our valiant freedom fighters who went to battle with the dream of a free country for others to live in. Prayers swirled around a certain freedom fighter, a 22-year-old vivacious student of English literature at the University of Dhaka who went to war in 1971 because he was outraged when his fellow countrymen and his favourite teacher Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta were killed.
Caught by collaborators, he was shot and, as witnesses later told his relatives, had the Bangladesh slogan on his lips till the end. His name was Naseem Mohsin, the uncle I never got to meet.
There were many like him, who went to war because they felt the need to give their lives to create Bangladesh.
Again, the Bangladesh they gave us faltered, fumbled, often looked hopelessly unstable, was ravaged by famines, floods, and strife but she has made it through all the tribulations and, today, is firmly placed as a nation which confidently looks forward to middle income status.
We can now open our borders for the less fortunate to come and find security.
So, no sacrifice goes in vain; maybe the soldiers who died in the two great wars could not give us a perfect world but since 1945, there has not been any major global conflict. Well, I call that a success.
The overarching message of peace
Remembrance Day recalls soldiers who died in battle while the overarching message is that of peace.
As the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Alison Blake said at the cemetery: “We solemnly pay respect to the young men who gallantly left youth and life so others could live on, but at the same time feel that we must always strive for peace so young lives are not cut short anymore.”
In our often clinical assessment of human history of warfare, we swiftly divide a conflict in two parts: The victors and the vanquished. While doing so, the soldiers who died in battle become a perfunctory number.
Remembrance Day is all about making the soldier the focus and so, at the end of the ceremony, the poignant lines of Phillip Hendy Davies reverberated across the graveyard:
“The sunlight fades as the rainbow dims; and the day is done/
He lies cold on wet barren earth and we know him only as someone’s son/
Killed by a sniper’s perfected hand, his rifle resting on a firm bag of sand/
That bullet forever depriving him of seeing again his green and pleasant land.”
Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.