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Knowledge from our past

  • Published at 11:37 pm January 22nd, 2020
From the pages of history. Photo: BIGSTOCK

An argument for substantive studies of history

History has generally been a preoccupation with us, here in Bangladesh, which is all very well. Our thoughts on the subject, our readiness to engage in debate on the diverse factors which have gone into the making of our history, especially in terms of our struggle for national sovereignty, have been critical components of our story.

And yet there are the blank spaces, or call them the sidelined truths, that call for attention in order for all of us -- young, middle-aged, and old -- to recall the political heritage we are heir to. Forgetting history, even if sometimes it comes in disturbing form and is therefore shunned or papered over, is dangerous. And it is dangerous because it prevents a society from reaching a full comprehension of itself, of its roots. 

There is the indelible tale of Nawab Salimullah, an individual whose contributions to this country at a time when united India was governed by the British colonial power were immense when judged by any standard. Of course, there are the voices that have never agreed with him on the question of the partition of Bengal in 1905, and for good reason. 

But there is too the clear narrative of his facilitating, through the otherwise unfortunate division of the province, an opening of doors for people in eastern Bengal. Dhaka University, set up in 1921, remains proof of Salimullah’s pivotal place in the history of our part of the old sub-continent. Not to be forgotten too is his seminal role in the formation of the All-India Muslim League in Dhaka in December 1906.

History, when studied piecemeal, opens the doors to distortion. Or it is a huge gap which is left in our understanding of it. How many are there among us to recall the idealism which governed the politics of Moni Singh? His repeated and long incarcerations at the hands of successive Pakistani governments as also the endless persecution of the Communist Party remain largely unknown to the country owing to an absence of scholarly literature on the subject. 

Worse, no government in independent Bangladesh has ever thought it necessary to bring Moni Singh’s contributions to light. 

Those of us born in the 1950s remain fully cognizant of the factors that led to Bangladesh’s need for political liberation from the state of Pakistan in the early 1970s. But the larger reality relates to the requirement of educating the generations born after 1971 on the reasons, at once enumerated and pinpointed in detail, on the exploitation and the colonialism perpetrated by Pakistan in East Pakistan and in the end compelling it to opt out of a state construct resting on religious communalism. 

The economic factors, the background to the language movement, the suppression of Bengali political demands, the rise of the Awami League and the transformation of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman into a force to be reckoned with, first on a national and then on a global scale, call for scholarly analyses. 

History does not rest on vacuity. It does not manifest itself through mere sloganeering. It is, in broad measure, a landscape of political ideas and the voices behind an articulation of those ideas which gives it meaning. In our times, much criticism of the Baksal concept, often with proper reasons, has gone on. But what has carefully or carelessly been pushed under the rug is an academic conversation on the causes behind its emergence, the economic perspectives which underpinned it, and whether its formulation as a politically necessary concept should have been more thought through. 

Conversations on Baksal or the fourth amendment to the constitution are necessary if our understanding of national history is to have a better sense of meaning. The unfortunate truth is that the leading lights of the AL, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of publicly explaining the raison d’etre of Baksal, have chosen not to defend it or have preferred to keep a loud silence on the subject.

And then there are the individuals whose contributions to the cause of democracy have embarrassingly been ignored. Justice Muhammad Ibrahim departed from the Ayub Khan regime in the early 1960s when he felt he could not continue to be part of a regime that had little wish to give space to democracy.

They have been relegated to being footnotes in history, inasmuch as General Azam Khan, loved by Bengalis for the love he bore them, is today a man we have as good as forgotten. Until his dying day, in distant Lahore, Azam Khan recalled Bengalis with emotion. Not many among us have really wished to know of his importance in our history. 

Likewise, when the Pakistan army launched its genocide in March 1971, a brave Pakistani diplomat -- and he was not a Bengali -- by the name of Iqbal Athar repudiated his country and popularized our cause abroad. Post-liberation, he became a citizen of Bangladesh and served as the new nation’s ambassador abroad. His story has remained untold. The record appears to have brushed him out of the Bangladesh chronicles.

History is consistently a study of individuals and the various ways in which they have contributed to its making or to its repudiation. The good and the bad and the in-between hold it forth. The bureaucrat Aziz Ahmed, later to serve Ayub Khan and ZA Bhutto, played a sinister role in the shootings of February 21, 1952 in Dhaka, leaving Chief Minister Nurul Amin shouldering responsibility for the tragedy. 

Col Mustafizur Rahman, serving the Ayub regime, cheerfully subjected the accused in the Agartala conspiracy case to brutality and yet would go on to serve as home minister and then foreign minister in a sovereign Bangladesh. Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan waged a landmark constitutional battle against Governor General Ghulam Mohammad in the 1950s. 

In the later part of the 1970s, when Bangladesh and Pakistan set up embassies in each other’s territory for the first time, the first Pakistani ambassador in Dhaka was a former Awami Leaguer named M Khurshid and the first Bangladesh ambassador in Islamabad was a former Awami Leaguer named Zahiruddin. 

Both men were loyalists of Bangabandhu, until the Yahya Khan junta let its soldiers loose on a mission of murder, rape, and mayhem in March 1971.

Small details of history, but small details end up telling us volumes about the world we experience every day.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.