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The year 1969: 50 years on

  • Published at 06:13 pm January 24th, 2019
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Turning the pages of historical memory PEXELS

Have we battered our history? Or swept it under the rug?

A few days ago, we remembered Shaheed Asad on the day of his martyrdom. When young Asaduzzaman succumbed to bullet wounds on January 20, 1969, he simply joined the ranks of all the heroic figures who had before him buttressed our struggle to uphold our cultural and political traditions. 

All these heroes, you might care to notice, turned into icons once they fell victim to the ferocity of the state of Pakistan. And naturally too, for the state of Pakistan was a mechanism that had little need for or appreciation of Bengali aspirations. It then fell on us, those who spoke Asad’s language, to carry the cause forward, always through rivers of death, always through turmoil, before the struggle reached a destination.

The destination that Asad and his fellow Bengalis set for themselves in that very defining year was obvious. The regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, having presided over a decade-long system of economic and political exploitation of the Bengalis of Pakistan, would have to go. 

The extent to which the Ayub regime’s insensitivities to Bengali aspirations would widen the chasm between East and West Pakistan was later to be revealed by the Bengali political observer (and minister in the Yahya Khan government) GW Chowdhury. In London on a health-related trip in 1971, at the height of the Bangladesh Liberation War, Ayub told Chowdhury he could not understand the Bengali desire for autonomy when the fact was he had given full authority to Monem Khan, the Bengali governor of East Pakistan.

Here was a classic instance of a Pakistani leader -- and it did not matter whether he was civilian or military -- confusing the powers given to a lackey with the constitutional autonomy demanded by an entire population.

It was dark truths such as these that Asad and his compatriots struggled against. Or go back in time, to the background to the Language Movement of 1952. Maybe we could, we ought to, push ourselves further back, to the day when in early 1948 Dhirendranath Dutta first informed the Pakistani state that Bengalis mattered in Pakistan, that the language they spoke could not be kept outside the national legislature. 

Overall, it is a simple matter of history we are speaking of here. Asad’s contribution to the emergence of Bengali nationalism in the 1960s remains salutary, to a point where it is now perfectly right to argue that our history might well have followed a different course had Asad’s martyrdom not come to pass. 

But -- and this is a deep, dark thought -- even as you and your generation recall Asad, and remember those eyes from which the light of life faded rapidly through a loss of blood in January 1969, you ask how much of that necessary history we have passed on to our young. Worse, how many among us have tried holding on to that history in our frenzied, albeit tottering, march to the future?

The teaching of history is important. Where nations do not know their history, or remember in selective manner the bits and pieces that can help them justify their well-calculated arrogance or unambiguous ignorance about their past, it is the fate of men and women which goes through a process of battering. 

You could console yourselves with the thought that we have not battered our history, that we have merely pushed it under the rug. Or maybe in these terribly mediocre times we have little time to dwell on the past? That last bit would be the worst humiliation we can heap on ourselves. 

When we recall Asad every January, it is our history we are trying to beat to a pulp. And we do that through our collective failure to let today’s young in on the circumstances that led Asad to his death and so propelled us into a deeper appreciation of the difficulties before us. 

The degree of historical importance that ought to have come into a study of the brief life and swift death of Motiur, the Nabakumar Institution pupil whom Pakistani security murdered in that same year, has not happened. 

Turn the pages of historical memory. You will be appalled at the short shrift we have given to Professor Zoha, the scholar who succumbed, again in that turbulent era, to the predatory instincts of the Ayub Khan junta.

As long as the stories of the illustrious men and women who have shaped our history, through dying in abnormal political conditions, do not become part of the collective national psyche, we will remain in danger of losing our future. 

You cannot reach out to the future if you let your past atrophy. But that is precisely what has been happening in the case of Sergeant Zahurul Haq. How much do we know of him? Yes, he was one of the accused in the Agartala Conspiracy Case. And, yes, he was killed by his Pakistani jailors even as he stayed in confinement in the cantonment. 

But ask any adult for any further bits of information he can come up with about the life and dreams of Zahurul Haq. You will likely draw a blank. It is then not wise to expect our children to know the truth. 

But the truth, again, can be pushed aside only at great peril to the country, to the individual. What happened in January 1969 was a decisive development we have chosen, correctly, to call a mass upsurge. The eleven points the student community came forth with in its battle for a reassertion of Bengali rights were in themselves symbolic of the overall Bengali desire to break free of the provincial straitjacket East Bengal had turned into as East Pakistan. 

It is these eleven points, entwined with the genesis of a resurgent Bengali nationalism as exemplified by the Six Points of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which constituted the essence of the struggle in early 1969. 

The on-going trial of the accused in the Agartala case, the widening sphere of Bengali political radicalism, the slow, steady and rising articulation of demands for the release of Mujib from imprisonment were all hallmarks of a new era in Bengali politics. In effect, 1969 was the point where Pakistan began to wane in the Bengali consciousness. 

And yet the story of that year has not been told in full. Those who watched that year take shape and dimension have remembered with a mere shrug. And those who were not around only happen to know some names, with little or nothing of the historical background which ought to come attached to those names. 

It then becomes reasonable to ask: Where have our political classes and our historians failed? If the full import of the role Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani played in the gathering popular movement against Ayub Khan in January 1969 is today missing from memory and does not relate to those born in a free Bangladesh, our national interests surely go through a process of mauling. 

His jalao-gherao movement was looked upon at the time as an invitation to disaster, but it served the Bengali cause very well. When he threatened to march with his fellow Bengalis to the cantonment to have Mujib freed, the Pakistan army panicked.

All history loses meaning and all nations lose their way when events of epic proportions are reduced to being mere footnotes in the story of a people’s progression through time. In early 1969, history was being made in East Bengal. The students who came together in increasing numbers to instill more power to the political struggle were each of them a bricklayer in the making of the times. 

Men like Tofail Ahmed provided a new dimension to the cause, one that was at once fiery and without ambiguity. Why have the minstrels who have sung of our past not brought the tales of these young men home to our children?

There was a decisiveness about 1969 that marked it out from other years. It was the year when Ayub Khan talked to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on equal terms, after years of persecuting him with the full fury of the machinery of state. 

Abdul Monem Khan, Khan Abdus Sabur Khan, and every other Bengali hanger-on of the junta were blown away in the gathering storm. Towards the end of the year, on Suhrawardy’s death anniversary, Bangabandhu told us, to our delight, that this land would henceforth be known as Bangladesh.

Asad, Motiur, and Zoha did not have a free Bangladesh to live in. But Bangladesh lives through their sacrifices, through a remembrance of the principles they lived and died for. Why not take time off to learn a little more about them, about their dreams and fears as they went through life?  

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.

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