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OP-ED: Bangabandhu, national amnesia, and some personal memories

  • Published at 12:01 am August 15th, 2020

One cannot erase the legacy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

ollowing the grim tragedy of August 1975 in Bangladesh, hardly anyone was allowed to mention the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the public discourse, even Bangabandhu Avenue became BB Avenue. 

The architect and the founding father of a nation disappeared suddenly; the spirit of the Liberation War was put on hold. A national amnesia was crafted to perfection that led to confusions and obfuscations about the history of the young nation. 

The first time, I saw coverage on Bangabandhu in an article by Enayetullah Khan, the founding editor of weekly Holiday in Bichitra, a popular Bengali weekly where he invoked Shakespearian tragedy and mellowed his usually vitriolic tone. 

He also recounted that Bangabandhu had once offered him the position of press secretary which he spurned. I saw another article by Sirajul Hossain Khan of Holiday where he analyzed the rise and fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

In an effort to keep Bangabandhu visible -- however tenuously -- I wrote a letter praising Sirajul Hossain Khan for discussing a tabooed subject. The letter was duly published in the weekly Holiday, the leading publication of the time. It was General MAG Osmany, who used the phrase Bangabandhu in a speech reported in the front page of Ittefaq in early 1977. 

The period between late 1975 and 1996, the ruling clique attempted to erase the name and contribution of Bangabandhu. The Daily Star showed defiance by remembering Bangabandhu in its August 15 issue since 1993. 

In 1995, it editorially demanded quashing the infamous indemnity provision in the constitution. It also demanded that August 15 be declared as the day of National Mourning. Such voices of resistance were rare.  

In December 1996, Professor Rounaq Jahan organized a conference to celebrate the 25 years of the independence of Bangladesh at Columbia University, where she was based at the South Asian Studies Program. This was an opportune moment for soul searching and stock taking.  

In that conference, luminaries -- who were involved in the struggle and then the War of Independence of Bangladesh -- came to reminisce and review the present situation. 

A highlight of the conference was Professor Rehman Sobhan’s recollections of his days of lobbying with the US  Congressmen in Washington, DC as a roving ambassador and walking down the streets of New York with radios blaring Aretha Franklin’s song. The memories were vivid. 

The person next to me whispered into my ears, “I wish I had his power of articulation.” The person was none other than Shelly Feldman, a Cornell professor. 

Mahfuz Anam, a freedom fighter and a newspaper editor, discoursed on the potential of Bangladesh in light of his experience of Africa and Palestine and stressed on the resilience of the people in Bangladesh. He argued  that “emotions are not on what countries are made of” as he took to task the “uncommitted” and “unpatriotic” elite. 

Sara Hossain dwelt on the importance of independence of judiciary and highlighted the need for the trial of war criminals. Hossain Zillur Rahman noted the institutionalization of political competitions in the wake of the general elections of 1991 and 1996. 

I had my forays into nationalism and national identity of Bangladesh. I had lunch with Professor Amartya Sen, by chance, who came a little late. As we sat and discussed things, including my paper that he read on the plane from Boston to New York.  I also met the indomitable Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at that conference. 

But the crescendo came when the discussion of Bangabandhu’s assassination and the impediments of inquiry in the US was presented by Lawrence Lifschultz. He narrated the events and lamented the dark chapter of Bangladesh history. 

As Lifschultz completed his talk, in my intervention, I shared an untold story about a lady I used to see at the office of Emerald Corporation, an American company that rented a bungalow at the heart of the residential district of Dhanmondi in the summer of 1975. 

Bangladesh, not an ideal destination for foreign investment in those days, hosted Emerald which apparently was involved in trading jute products. I would go there occasionally in the late afternoon to play badminton with a friend of mine who worked there. I asked about the lady and learned that she was the wife of an army officer and that was that. 

In the evening news on TV of August 15, 1975, as the new government led by Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed was swearing in, I saw a lady with a camera going around snapping photos, and I told my brother, an air force officer, that I knew that lady from the Emerald corporation’s office. 

My brother told me that was Major Rashid’s wife, Zobeida Rashid. After my narration, Lifschultz asked me if we could meet for breakfast the next morning. We stayed at the International Hostel on the Hudson in Upper Manhattan, not far from the campus of Columbia University. 

Over breakfast, Lifschultz told me that the name Emerald and the CEO of that company, Thomas Garrity, came up in his own investigation. So, back in America, as he was searching for him and finally located his company’s address in Los Angeles, Lifschultz flew to Los Angeles and took a taxi to the address only to discover that the address was a phony one.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a professor of sociology at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

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