Going back to the principles of democracy, secularism, nationalism
I remember the day clearly -- it was a Monday in the second week of December, about a decade ago. We did not particularly enjoy this day -- owing to the weekly assembly scheduled to be held on Mondays. As the rain poured down the glass-minted rooftops above the assembly hall, students gathered to another long and repetitive lecture on discipline, attendance, and grades.
Nevertheless, the mood was different from other days -- sombre was the best word to describe the circumstances. As we sat down, we saw our Bengali teacher, Ferdousi Majumdar being called up by the school chairperson. The subject of the assembly discussion was Martyred Intellectuals Day.
Beyond her celebrated status as a famous actress, and being our teacher, Ferdousi Majumdar, has another identity -- the sister of slain martyr Munier Chowdhury. Oblivious as teenagers can be, we had no idea who Munier Chowdhury was. Slowly but steadily, she explained to us that her brother was an iconic educationist in pre-independent Bangladesh -- one who signified the very essence of Bengali intellectualism.
In retrospect, she was being humble.
Munier Chowdhury was not just an educationalist, but a noted playwright, a respected literary critic, and crucially, a vociferous advocate of progressivism and Bengali nationalism. As the story reached its focal point, Ferdousi Majumdar emotionally recounted how on December 14, 1971, Munier Chowdhury was taken hostage by a group of students, and never seen again.
His kidnappers had the audacity to address him as Sir, took him away on a bus, and that was the last time that his family saw or heard from him. His body was never identified, and his family has been living in a constant sense of trauma and incompleteness, ever since.
Over 200 intellectuals of what was to be a free, sovereign, and independent Bangladesh were brutally massacred by the Pakistani military forces -- with the full support of pro-Pakistani local collaborators. The likes of Munier Chowdhury, eye specialist Alim Chowdhury, writer Shahidullah Kaiser, and musician Altaf Mahmud, all faced the wrath of disgruntled and defeated pro-Pakistani elements.
As Ferdousi Majumdar completed her story, I looked around the room. On that day, it did not matter whether you were a student, a teacher, or a member of the staff -- everyone had tears in their eyes. And each and every one remained indebted to Ms Majumdar for sharing what was truly a deeply personal and sad tale, but one which this generation has a duty to know.
Munier Chowdhury’s story is that of an ultimate betrayal -- betrayal by Bengali collaborators towards the very spirit of Bangladesh, that our intellectuals had dreamed and fought for. Betrayal by the brothers and sisters for whom the likes of Chowdhury had been ardently speaking out for.
In 1980, President Ziaur Rahman posthumously awarded him with the Independence Day Award -- recognizing his sacrifice to the nation. A mere two days following the killing of Bengali intellectuals, the Pakistani military forces surrendered to the Indo-Bangla Joint Forces, and Bangladesh achieved an unthinkable victory in what was a war pushed onto them by a draconian martial law regime under the leadership of Yahya Khan.
What was the aim of murdering Bengali intellectuals at the very end of a gruesome nine-month war? For one, by December 7, 1971, with the physical entry of Indian forces, a loss for the Pakistani military regime was on the cards. As such, they took the monstrous step to tarnish any and all forms of tangible capital remaining in Bangladesh -- demolishing bridges, roads, resources, and any and all forms of mass communication.
For pro-Pakistani collaborators, this was not enough -- under the guidance of the military leadership in Pakistan, leaders of the Al-Badr, Razakar, and Al-Shams militias carried out a systematic campaign of targeting the very people who were destined to become the illuminating guardians of a new nation. As the physical capital of the Bengalis were methodically damaged, so too were a significant portion of its human capital -- depriving an independent Bangladesh of its most essential resources, that too in its formative years.
Today, one could place blame on the government for the incapacities which resulted in the series of coups and countercoups post 1975 -- yet one tends to forget that Bangladesh was left to start off its journey with barely any infrastructure, either tangible or intangible. People tend to forget that the Sheikh Mujib government had the ardent task of bringing stability and institutionalizing socio-economic practices in a country where resources, both human and physical, were very scarce.
The holistic effect of the mass killings of intellectuals on the country was much more than psychological -- the Pakistani military regime had the intention of crushing Bengali dissent, and if such was impossible, the aim was to leave the nation in a state of total chaos. That they did -- yet, over the course of the next 47 years, Bangladeshis have slowly progressed to respectable levels of socio-economic stability, which we can all be proud of.
In hindsight, many of the dreams and aspirations of the martyred intellectuals are in the process of being fulfilled. Yet, no political party in Bangladesh can claim to have institutionalized a thorough pro-Liberation stance in their practices -- some have targeted the tenets of our liberation struggle, particularly those of democracy and socialism, whilst others have, in the name of compromise and power, allowed the political integration of the very groups who share a similar ideology to those who perpetrated the mass killing of intellectuals.
With parliamentary elections slated in about a week, one only hopes that whichever party forms the next government, takes into account the importance of paying due diligence to the spirit of 1971 and work towards achieving a truly democratic and sustainable Bangladesh, and one which can be free of the perils of authoritarianism, brutality, and anti-Liberation sentiments.
The constitutional principles of democracy, socialism, secularism, and nationalism have been fervently violated across the aisle over the course of our short history -- and if we cannot reinstate these into our state structure, then paying tribute to the likes of Munier Chowdhury will remain merely an annual observance, rather than a celebration of what our martyrs represented.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a recent graduate of arts, economics, and international relations from the University of Toronto.