There is nothing new or unusual about the targeting of intellectuals during times of change and conflict. It has happened since time immemorial and there is nothing to say that it won’t continue in future. Hypatia, the Greek philosopher, was famously murdered by a state-sanctioned Christian mob in the 4th century, when Hellenistic civilisation was being shown the door by the Greek Orthodox Church.
During the early days of Islamic scholarship, thinkers and philosophers were persecuted in the struggles for dominance between contending schools of thought, and in the 12th century when Bakhtiyar Khilji was conquering the Ganges delta, thousands of Buddhist intellectuals and monks from the nearby Nalanda University were put to death. When Mongol hordes invaded Iraq, the famous Bait-al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, was specifically targeted, as it represented the intellectual prowess of civilisations they were determined to destroy.
More recently, in the 1960s, millions of intellectuals and cultural personalities were persecuted in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, which sought to obliterate all resistance to the Communist Party’s ideological stranglehold of that country. Very few events in history are as chilling as the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” of the 1970’s, when 1.7 million people were killed, many of whom were intellectuals, in an attempt to uproot Cambodia’s cultural heritage. Almost the entire cultural elite of the country was murdered and people perceived to be intellectuals or even those that had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses, were selectively killed.
At present, a number of brilliant Iranian nuclear scientists have been mysteriously assassinated, as concerns about Iran’s progress in developing nuclear technology continues to occupy Western and Israeli thoughts. When Iraq was invaded to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the occupiers’ inaction, along with their connivance, led to the ravaging of one of the world’s oldest cultures. Targeted assassination of over 400 academics, kidnapping and the flight of thousands of doctors, lawyers, artists and other intellectuals have left Iraq with a cultural vacuum that will take a few generations to fill.
In Bangladesh, intellectuals were targeted right from the start of the conflict with Pakistan. Prominent individuals like GC Dev were killed during the night of the March 25, 1971, along with scores of Dhaka University teachers and students.
Civilian and non-combatant doctors, engineers, writers and artists were killed throughout the war, with the most diabolic attempt to stifle our intellectual heritage coming right at the end, between December 10 -14, when al-Badr and al-Shams hit-squads went house to house for rounding up people on a list that included some of the brightest minds of their time.
Official estimates put the number of dead during the nine-month war at 1111 - 991 academics, 13 journalists, 42 lawyers, 16 cultural activists and 49 physicians.
Intellectuals are targeted because the represent something that is often more powerful than might and almost always more enduring. They represent the power of ideas, a power that propels a nation forward and gives it its place in the world of progress and enlightenment. This power has always been potent in Bengal, with numerous scientific, academic, cultural and literary disciplines boasting a Bengali or two among their greatest proponents. That many intellectuals were involved with our liberation struggle (indeed, many of them virtually birthed it), is no surprise at all, since ideas are the building blocks of revolution and the greatest threat to a status-quo.
Intellectuals also represent a nation’s ability to develop and sustain itself, and to endow it with the benefits of civilisation and success. Our adversaries were keenly aware of these facts, and were determined to try and deny us a chance to lift ourselves out of the ditch they had thrown us in. After all, a “headless” country will have no choice but to become a client state at best, a stagnant and barbaric place at worst. They failed of course, and we are still here, still moving forward.
But an intellectual tradition is a living thing, and like any other living thing, needs constant watering. If we are to truly honour the sacrifice these brilliant individuals made, we must never forget that they lived, and died, with an unwavering belief in their right to think freely and to use their minds for the betterment of mankind. Bullets robbed these individuals of their lives, but they can never rob them of their legacy, nor of the contributions they made to the future of our nation. Like bright lights, they will always remain relevant in a world that contains an abundance of darkness.
But their ability to keep shining depends on our ability to follow their lead. If we abandon our right to think, to speak, to dream, to demand change, to debate, to study and to excel, we will have turned our backs on all that they stood for.
If we let might replace reason we will have failed them, and if we, as a society, don’t let the full range of thoughts, ideas and values flourish, no matter how contrary they may be to each other, and to an established order, we will have allowed the perpetrators of those horrible crimes to win.