Saturday, March 6, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

I am almost as old as Bangladesh. While I may not be considered young anymore, my country is still a child. Thirty-nine years is nothing but the age of teething in the life of nations. The country still needs to be handled with care. Before its birth, the people of then East Pakistan had dreamt of a secular and equal society with a passion that drove them to walk on the fiery path of freedom. Bengalis had to fight back the linguistic and cultural aggression of Pakistan, and keep up the struggle against discrimination and inequity.

Sher-e-Bangla, Hussain Shaheed Suharwardi, Maulana Bhashani and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, among many others, fearlessly led the march towards independence. Even though Bangabandhu may appear to some as a revolutionary leader, he initially tried all democratic ways to end the sufferings of Bengalis. But when the rulers of then West Pakistan stubbornly refused to respect his people’s will, Bangabandhu had to go for independence.

Like Gandhi and Jinnah, Bangabandhu changed the course of South Asian history by giving the people of Bangladesh the right to chart their own destinies. But whereas in India Gandhi is considered above any political reproach and in Pakistan Jinnah gets equal respect from all political quarters, the same cannot be said of Bangladesh where honoring Bangabandhu depends solely on political egos. Deep political polarization questions even his patriotism, let alone popularity.

In India not even the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party dares to question or criticize Gandhi or no Congress politician claims superiority of Nehru over Gandhi. In Pakistan even the People’s Party cannot pull off comparing Bhutto to Jinnah. Yet, in Bangladesh efforts to denounce the Father of the Nation by aimless comparison with Ziaur Rahman continue unabated.

On March 7, 1971, Sheikh Mujib addressed the nation in which he gave the final signal for an armed struggle for freedom. The declaration of independence was made a couple of weeks later on March 26, 1971, but that was just a formality. The people of Bangladesh already knew in their hearts what was announced that day.

As a journalist I have worked with several veteran broadcasters and radio engineers who were instrumental in establishing the then clandestine radio station, Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, in 1971. These broadcasters and engineers have repeatedly confirmed publicly, and to me personally, that then Major Ziaur Rahman was invited by broadcaster Belal Mohammad to read out the declaration of independence as a mark of the army’s support to our freedom fight. On March 27, 1971, veteran broadcaster Abdullah Al Farooq witnessed Ziaur Rahman reading out of the same declaration on behalf of Sheikh Mujib. History will always laugh at the immature attempts of BNP to portray that reading of the declaration by Ziaur Rahman as an act of independent or individual announcement of freedom. After all Ziaur Rahman was an unknown voice on the airwaves at that time; he fought the war of independence as a sector commander under the military leadership of General Osmani and the civilian leadership of Sheikh Mujib.

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, Bangladesh became mired in conspiracies, coups and counter coups. To hold the fledgling nation together, a socialist leader, Colonel Taher, released Ziaur Rahman from house arrest and convinced him to take over the reins of the country. (The fact that Colonel Taher was later court martialled and sentenced to death under the very leadership of Ziaur Rahman is a story for another time.) As Sheikh Mujibur Rahman already had the status of being the Father of the Nation, attempts by BNP to snatch that status is nothing but futile and divisive. If such an accolade is necessary for the continuation of hereditary politics then perhaps Ziaur Rahman can be honored as the Brother of the Nation. BNP supporters and their Jamaat friends would do really well to learn from their Indian and Pakistani counterparts that giving respect to the Father of the Nation is synonymous to paying tribute to the birth of a nation.

When Ziaur Rahman himself never claimed the Kalurghat radio address as his own declaration, should the BNP do so? And then there is also the audio evidence of him reading out of the declaration of independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujib. Throughout his years in power, Ziaur Rahman remained silent about Sheikh Mujib, possibly because he had to rehabilitate Mujib’s killers and ‘71war criminals. But he never publicly downplayed Mujib. Yet, BNP MPs have shown no qualms about using uncouth language against the Father of the Nation. The Awami League MPs are no better, using their brute-majority voice in using similar politically incorrect words against Ziaur Rahman. This quarrel has all the echoes of the Lilliputian-Blefuscudian conflict, with enough dough for endless media entertainment.

How come we never see this ferocity of political competition when it comes to ensuring basic necessities like food, shelter, security and human rights? As a result the party in power is left alone to tackle such issues in whatever little time it can spare from this continuous sparring for future votes. This strategy works well for every opposition party: it ensures victory in next elections. What these political parties need to understand is that such an-eye-for-an-eye political tactics have lost their adrenalin factor for the masses, because while they bicker for power, the voters of Bangladesh watch from the sidelines as their loved ones die unattended in government hospitals or their kids fall prey to malnutrition, fall victim to university gun fights, extrajudicial killings, militancy and so on.

Bangladesh recently managed to get the western nod of approval in tackling militancy, but the ongoing extrajudicial killings and unrest in Chittagong Hill Tracts will attract even less investment and earn the country a bad image. But then who cares about image. Dhaka has been assessed as the worst city in the world after Harare in terms of insecurity and traffic woes.

Ideally, our political leader should be spending sleepless nights over such multi-edged crisis, instead of appearing in news clips as wrestlers or soap opera villains. Countries of the same age as Bangladesh have earned at least a middle income status. In today’s modern world, national issues like the honor of the Father of the Nation and freedom fighters or agendas like war criminal trials are tackled by competent legal systems, and not by making a mockery of them.

BNP should maybe think ten times before abusing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or supporting war criminals and militant forces. And Awami League, as a veteran political party, should be more careful about defaming Ziaur Rahman. Both parties are now at the crossroads where they need to decide how they want to be remembered: with respect or with hatred. Hasn’t enough time been wasted for Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia to respond to the mass appeal and stop this ‘much ado about nothing’.

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