Memories of a month of loss
August comes with memories that give our conscience a jog, our sensibilities a huge shake. In Bangladesh, in India, in Pakistan, indeed beyond South Asia, August remains poignant. There is something of the heart-wrenching which comes with it. Sit back and recollect the men and events that have peopled this month. It is history in all its diversity that comes rushing back, even as the monsoon plays havoc with life. The waters rise in the rivers, as emotions rise from somewhere within our souls.
It was in this month that darkness descended on this country through the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family on August 15, 1975. We as a nation have not quite recovered from the shock.
August again is a season which speaks to us of the evil which continues to lurk in the bushes. There are the macabre images which come back to haunt us, those of the explosions which claimed the lives of twenty two individuals at an Awami League rally in 2004, of the bombs detonated by religious extremists all across Bangladesh on a single day in 2005.
On August 11, 1971, Pakistan’s Yahya Khan junta placed Bangabandhu on trial before a secret military tribunal in Mianwali. Three months later, the sham tribunal sentenced the Father of the Bengali nation to death. On the rain-drenched evening of August 18, 1945, the plane carrying Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose came crashing down in Taipei, bringing to an end the life of a great Indian nationalist.
On August 21, 1940, Leon Trotsky, Soviet communist revolutionary leader in exile in Mexico, died after being grievously wounded the previous day by an agent dispatched to killed him by Joseph Stalin.
US President Harry Truman pushed tens of thousands of Japanese to death through dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, on August 9, 1945. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. The Japanese action freed Korea from Tokyo’s military occupation and since then both Koreas have celebrated August 15 as their day of liberation.
On August 21, 1983, the opposition Philippine politician Benigno Aquino Jr was murdered on the tarmac at Manila airport moments after he returned home from exile in the United States. Five years later, on August 17, 1988, Pakistan’s third military dictator Ziaul Haq was blown to pieces when an aircraft carrying him crashed moments after taking off from Bahawalpur. A whole group of senior military officers, as also the American ambassador to Pakistan, died with him.
In August 1946, the communalism let loose by the All-India Muslim League in support of its demand for the creation of Pakistan pushed anywhere between five thousand and ten thousand Hindus and Muslims to death in riots in Calcutta. Having called a Direct Action Day for August 16, the Muslim League, then in power in Bengal under Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, was unable to restore order in the city. Four days of murder and mayhem followed.
The obduracy of the Muslim League leadership led to the vivisection of India in August 1947, with the state of Pakistan taking shape in two improbable pieces of geography separated by a thousand miles of Indian Union territory. It was a division that was to have grave ramifications for South Asia, with India and Pakistan going to war three times in a span of 24 years.
August remains memorable because of the freedom it brought to the people of Indonesia. Struggling for independence from the Dutch, Indonesia’s nationalist leadership, with Ahmad Sukarno at the head, decreed that the country was on the road to self-determination. That was in 1945. In that same year, the people of Korea finally threw off the yoke of Imperial Japan and since then have observed their national day in August.
In August 1975, a few days before Bangabandhu’s assassination, former president Abu Sayeed Chowdhury joined his cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Following the bloody coup of 15 August, Chowdhury took over as foreign minister. In the same month, General Ziaur Rahman took over from General KM Shafiullah as the Bangladesh army’s new chief of staff. Towards the end of August 1975, the coup makers placed the four leaders of the 1971 Mujibnagar government -- Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmdd, M Mansoor Ali, AHM Quamruzzaman -- under arrest and carted them off to prison.
They were to be murdered in incarceration three months later.
In August 1968, Warsaw Pact forces led by the Soviet Union, unwilling to accept the Prague Spring inaugurated by Alexander Dubcek, invaded the country, removed the reformist leadership and restored conservative communism in Czechoslovakia. Years later, in August 1991, a band of diehard communists in Moscow forced reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev out of power in a coup. The coup, of course, collapsed in a matter of days and Gorbachev was restored in office, albeit in much weaker form. The disintegration of the Soviet Union would be complete by the end of the year.
Princess Diana died in August 1997. In August 1963, the Kennedys would see their new-born baby die. Three months later, President John F Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. Early in August 1990, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein sent his army into Kuwait, keeping the country under occupation for months until a coalition led by the US restored Kuwait to freedom. Iraq would never be the same again, coming as it did under severe international sanctions and passing into poverty and gathering disorder. In August 1963, Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan, speaker of the Pakistan national assembly and, earlier, president of the country’s constituent assembly, passed away.
On August 28, 1963, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech before a million-strong crowd in Washington DC. He envisaged a time when people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
In August 2006, the much-loved, much humble poet Shamsur Rahman saw his life sink on the far horizon, in the manner of a bright day losing itself in the gathering dusk.
US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, brother of President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert F Kennedy, having spent 47 years in the Senate, passed away on August 25, 2009.
On August 25, 2012, Neil Armstrong, the first man to have walked on the surface of the moon in July 1969, died.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.