We are all proud of being Bangladeshis. There is no denying that. Forty six years after the bloody war that led to the independence of this nation, we also cannot deny that we have not only benefitted emotionally from this turn of history by becoming democratic citizens of a free country, but there have been many material benefits as well. Under the colonisation of Pakistan, Bangladesh was behind on all sorts of social, political and economic indicators.
If we were still living in a country that was colonised by Pakistan, a civil servant would perhaps have to retire as a mid-level bureaucrat, a business executive as a mid-level manager, a business man as a petty merchant and an armed forces officer as a mid-ranking officer. And these are just steps of the economic ladder. In a colonised society, it is not possible for even cultural activities to flourish without intimidation. Almost nothing is free of the colonialists in control of state power.
In an independent Bangladesh, we for the first time, assumed the role of creators of our own destinies. That we have risen to aim higher is not because our luck favoured us after independence, but because we became citizens of a de-colonised and free thinking country.
The continued resurgence of anti-liberation ideologues
However, despite our independence, the custodians and cohorts of the colonial spirit were still roaming free, looking for opportunities to undo what we fought for and had thought were now unquestionably established in a free country. This conspiracy had started right after we achieved our freedom, and as the freedom fighters cross over the middle-age milestone to become senior citizens, the threat continues to loom larger and larger. This continued challenge to our identity as an independent nation makes us fearful of being forced to join this group of distraught individuals, forever scared of the painful past they have lived through.
A few years ago, I attended a discussion on the Liberation War of 1971 to discuss the course of action required to tackle the re-emergence of the defeated ideology and the ideologues of the war that led to the birth of Bangladesh. As I was listening to various speakers that day, I could not help but think, were we actually involved in an exercise in futility? Were we really helpless?
We have lived through governments who in the past have been so avidly pro-Pakistani and anti-liberation in stance that even the history books prescribed to school level students in our curriculum were tampered with. And, what is more, our children had no alternative to reading such blatant lies in their textbooks!
How can we not give history the importance it deserves?
Luckily, I have also had the opportunity of being in the company of a lot of people from much younger generations, learning their views and seeing how they look at issues that are so vital to our ‘being’. I have asked many of them, whether they consider the “past” to be of any importance to them. Some of them are indeed well aware of the liberation struggle and all the conditions that led to it, and they feel that it is not possible to establish a healthy nation without a thorough knowledge of the nation’s history.
Two bright young people I met recently come to mind – a girl and a boy from diverse backgrounds. The girl studied engineering in a private English university and the other was studying Islamic studies at the University of Dhaka. Both of them were radically different from each other. The one thing they had in common was that they were both prolific debaters and therefore, were capable of logical thinking.
Both of them said with conviction that the past holds great importance for any nation. Without the past, it is not possible to have a viable present and a promising future. The basis of our nationhood was determined through an election that could now be called a referendum in the past. How could we not give our past the importance that it deserves?
Their opinions, I believe, demonstrates the mindset that perhaps most of our youngsters have. However, there will always be exceptions, and these exceptions will definitely be found if one does a bit of research with a larger cross-section of our younger population.
The real problem is with asking youngsters to avoid history
However, there are many other youngsters who do not know much about our past. Further probing will reveal that they are not interested. If asked, pray why not? They will say that their parents and elders did not teach them anything and, more importantly, they asked them to stay away from historical accounts of the liberation of Bangladesh.
Interestingly, if they are told the gist of the history they’d say, but how are we meant to know? In every such interaction, I tell them, it is your responsibility to know. There are credible books available. Not being told about something is not an excuse.
But in the same breath, I must also admit that much of what they know or do not know is because of their parents and guardians, who have been expedient in forcing their wards to stay away from history. I know that there are parents whose children are asked to avoid using their mother tongue in English medium schools, with little to no representation of the language in their final examinations. They are told that there is no use in wasting time. They should aim only for the subjects that will stand them in good stead in distant lands where they can eventually settle down. These are the youngsters with whom we should engage in dialogues without further loss of time.
Or else with the passing of the generation that fought the war and the generation that was born in and soon after the war, our history and memories, together with all the right values and ideals, will be thrown into an abyss.
The author is a freedom fighter, cultural activist and trustee of the Liberation War Museum