Thursday April 26, 2018 01:44 PM

Keeping history alive

  • Published at 10:18 PM March 26, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:59 PM March 28, 2017
Keeping history alive

History of the Liberation War must be kept alive by initiating and re-initiating discussions on books like this

I received a copy of the book, 1971: Bhoyaboho Aubhigyata (Sahitya Prakash: 1989), sometime in early 2011. After reading it, I wondered what had taken me so long to get hold of it.

Bhoyaboho Aubhigyata has a universal appeal. Deftly edited by Rashid Haider, it contains harrowing eye witness accounts of genocide carried out by the Pakistan army and their Bangladeshi collaborators during the nine month-long Liberation War, beginning from the night of March 25 till the last days of December. But in the context of the post-ninth parliamentary elections, the book’s appeal and significance stood in a new light due to its topicality as, following the victory of the Awami League-led 14-party Alliance, war crimes trial was taken seriously for the first time in our history.

Hence, the genocide began to occupy more spaces in public forums and discussions, including those in media. We felt truly elated thinking everything was taking the right course after all those years of prolonged silence interrupted only by ritualistic, and at times, ludicrous discussions on the atrocities of an occupation army, with no definitive reckoning of the magnanimity of the crimes committed. The wounds inflicted by the BNP-led coalition with several war criminals having important positions in the cabinet were yet to heal. Those of us who were already tired of the self-righteous excesses of the AL or the dirtiness of a Jamaat-leaning BNP – all we expected of the 14-party alliance was a fair trial of the war criminals.

But before we could heave a sigh of relief, things got complicated and we realised the campaign demanding punishment of the criminals was counterbalanced by a propaganda that, gathering strength at the national level, made its way into the international arena, with the result that a news magazine as influential as The Economist carried reports slandering the International Crimes Tribunal (which was holding the trials) with sweeping comments about its proceedings. Though some of the magazine’s criticisms were in the right direction, some on the other hand relied as much on unverified information as on some holier-than-thou western standards.

On the national front, the spontaneity of the Shahbagh movement was shaken at its core by the counter-currents of a propaganda that sought to show its leaders as “atheists”. Needless to say, the Jamaat and its offshoots were the ones who launched into the propaganda against Shahbagh that gave rise to Hefazat-e-Islam. Soon the movement became the site for political and ideological battles between those who favoured the trial and those who were against it. The whole country, thus, was divided along these lines.

A lot more has since been at stake than just the secular fabric of our society. The generations that didn’t see the Liberation War and grew up listening to stories about it, of which I am a part, were getting more and more removed from its horror and the brutality and injustice that the martyrs had faced. Ideologically speaking, anyone has the freedom to support or be an activist of any democratic party. But when it comes to the subject of the Liberation War, the tone of the speakers, no matter what their age or creed is, should not be one of nonchalance or disrespect. The horrors of the Second World War had happened more than two decades before our war but the fact remains that whenever any references are made to the World War, not only the Europeans and the North Americans but even we take caution to speak in a way so as not to hurt the sentiment of those affected directly by it. It’s because they have done their part; they have kept the memories and horrors of their War alive; they have handed the history down to the later generations.

We must ask ourselves if we have been able to do the same. The answer is obvious: No, we haven’t. Our politics is riven by conflict, so is our interpretation of history. But that history is open to interpretation is a fact that applies to every country or nation. May be ours is more so, what with the bloodied political developments since August 1975. Taking into consideration the later association of BNP with the Jamaat, the party that had collaborated with the Pakistan army, we can see why it is impossible for our political parties to get to a consensus about the basic watershed moments in our history, as also about the roles different leaders had played in it.

There nonetheless has to be a starting point, and the most unanimously accepted point can be the facts and not their interpretations. Acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced conversion to Islam – all of these had happened and we still have sufficient evidence to prove who had carried them out and all those proofs call for justice through trials.

But unfortunately for us, we have reached a point in history when we have happily been living in amnesia about these facts, a failure which is drifting our children further away from the horrors that our predecessors had lived through to make sure we could live in a free country.

It was in this context of the post-ninth parliamentary elections that we felt, though not for the first time, that the most important thing was to keep those facts alive by initiating and re-initiating discussions on books such as Bhoyaboho Aubhigyata. This is the kind of book that can actually bridge the 40-year gap in time so that the current or later generations will never feel removed from 1971, so that they’ll always feel a sense of deep respect for the martyrs killed during the War.

This year when Mofidul Hoque, a Liberation War Museum trustee and writer, presented me with the English version of the book, translated entirely by expatriate Bangalis under the joint editorship of Munawar Hafiz, Salwa Mostofa, Ashfaqur Rahman and Farhana Binte Sufi, I found it difficult to contain my excitement. What made me most optimistic was the fact that their translation project was driven solely by the need to present it to an international audience.

In their note to the English edition, the editors say, “In the spring of 2013, the translation project took an interesting turn. We decided to harness the strength of social media by asking for volunteers to complete the task on an urgent basis. But, the crowdsourcing model appeared to be so loosely bound, so chaotic—how would we manage the whole effort? … The volunteers came from all walks of life, with varying educational and professional backgrounds much like the diversity present in the profile of the original narrators. In addition to that, they were residing all over the globe. The one common ground was that each held a deep respect and dedication to uphold the truth of our nation’s bloody birth to the world, despite not witnessing it. In a way, the project was this generation’s journey to re-live through the moments.”

Mofidul Hoque must be thanked for publishing the translated version and the editors for making the youth a part of the whole project.

Promotion of books such as this is our biggest hope in the fight against amnesia about our own history.

Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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