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OP-ED: In 2021, the new enemy within

  • Published at 01:28 am April 8th, 2021
Hefazat hartal
Armed with bamboo sticks, Hefazat-e-Islam activists stage demonstrations in Dhaka’s Paltan area to enforce their daylong strike on Sunday, March 28, 2021 Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

50 years after independence, we wage a new war

A half century ago, we waged war against the occupation Pakistan army. We lost millions of our compatriots. And we won that war.

Fifty years on, we wage a new war, this one against the purveyors of “Bangladeshi nationalism,” against such medieval outfits as the Hefazat-e-Islam. We cannot afford to lose this new war, in the interest of our collective self-esteem, in the larger interest of the generations of Bengalis to be.

As we remember the triumph we achieved on the battlefield a half century ago, it is appropriate that we move against those elements, the new merchants of communal hatred who today demand that all things secular be destroyed, that Bangabandhu’s sculpture be smashed, that the principles upon which the foundations of this Bengali republic rest be abandoned, that all aesthetics which define and determine the course of cultural sophistication be put to the sword.

We can ignore it at grave peril to our future as a nation. Those who have looked away from such dangers, have unwittingly facilitated its rise, enough for it to call governance and heritage and history into question, and must now step up to have this embattled nation find its way back to its roots.

There are the bitter lessons we have learned in these five decades since the rise of this People’s Republic: That pandering to communal forces goes against the very grain of our political and cultural ethos, that appeasement of religious fanatics is an opening of doors to unmitigated chaos. In a land where Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and all ethnic groups are expected to live as one nation, it is the dark spectre of majoritarianism which today saps our strength as a people.

When temples are defiled, when idols are smashed, when sculptures are broken, when school textbooks fall under the pernicious influence of bigots, the message is ominous -- that 50 years after liberation, after the bonding which brought us together as a nation, it is the bondage of regression that threatens to torch all our pride as a people who once beat the odds and made themselves free of colonial rule. 

This is no way of celebrating 50 years of sovereign nationhood. When “Bangladeshi nationalism” continues to collide with and challenge Bengali nationalism, the moral compass along which we waged our political battles in the 1960s and 1970s, it is obvious that we have not done our job, that those who ought to have rolled back the darkness have fallen behind. 

The constitution adopted in 1972, incorporating the four principles of democracy, socialism, secularism, and nationalism, has lain mutilated for decades. Socialism and secularism were knifed out of it by a military regime, the process taken forward by another military regime. Democracy has been left wounded, hanging by a thread over the precipice. And nationalism, so maliciously undermined by the nation’s first military ruler, is yet to be restored to its original form.

A half century after the occupation Pakistan army bit the dust, it is time to sit back and think back on the values we have lost through all the chaos and all the machinations and all the assassinations since we came home to liberty. 

At a time when secular political forces across the spectrum should have come together to resist the fanatics who today strut around in unashamed audacity, the silence of those who could have made and yet can make a difference not only worries us, it riles us. It outrages us. An entire Bengali nation has its back to the wall, just as an entire Bengali nation saw its culture and politics threatened by the enemy 50 years ago.

And yet there must be, there is, a way out of these deep dark woods. A day after liberation in December 1971, the provisional government at Mujibnagar swiftly decreed a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim League, the Nezam-e-Islam, and the Pakistan Democratic Party, for these outfits had fanned the flames of communalism in occupied Bangladesh. 

In 2021, it becomes an imperative for the powers that be to revisit Mujibnagar, to draw inspiration from it, and move into the hard task of reclaiming the country from all those who have played truant with it -- the “Bangladeshi nationalists,” the communalists, the advocates of majoritarianism.

It is time to restore the constitution in all its eloquence through a full restoration of the four principles it held forth for the country when Bangabandhu and his illustrious colleagues affixed their signatures to it in November 1972. Not doing that, indeed living with the dark legacy of dictatorship even as we condemn such dictatorship to perdition day after day is more than a contradiction. It is hypocrisy. There was nothing of contradiction or hypocrisy about our search for sovereignty 50 years ago. There is no reason today to carry on with the insidious story inserted into the constitution and into our collective lives by extra-constitutional elements decades ago.

Bold, enlightened, and decisive leadership is called for. A half century after 1971, our priorities should be what they were on the afternoon when the enemy capitulated at the Race Course -- that ours is an inclusive society; that we are Bengalis and yet remain determined to uphold the rights of all ethnic groups who do not speak our language; that the concept of rule of law and good governance, a principal argument behind our nationalistic cause in the War of Liberation, be re-emphasized and implemented in all its force and fullness; that the state ensure the well-being of every citizen in health, education, employment, and democratic expression; that all religious beliefs are sacred and that their practice will be ensured by the state.

Five decades after 1971, there is a paramount requirement for this nation to walk back 50 years and take renewed courage from the old principles which saw freedom dawn in this People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The new enemy within has to be run out of town.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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