In 1971, the Pakistani military junta wanted to prevent Bengalis of then East Pakistan from pursuing their just demands by using brute force. When the Pakistani army unleashed a genocidal attack on unarmed civilians on March 25, the people rose up against them, and after a nine-month war that resulted in a great deal of bloodshed and suffering, Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation. The ideals of our Liberation War thus entail, among other things, resistance to unjust display of power, tyrannical and exploitative rule, sexual violence, religious intolerance, and racial hatred. Those who fought for freedom in 1971 hoped that the oppression and prejudices they had experienced before would cease to exist in the independent nation. Our freedom fighters also deeply valued our shared identity as Bengalis that bound people of all religions in the country.
The importance of “upholding the ideals of Liberation War” is often stressed in speeches and remarks by politicians and intellectuals and even ordinary people. But as we near the 50 years of our independence, one may wonder how many people today really understand what constitutes the ideals of Liberation War or what it means to respect them. If people really understood and believed in those ideals, how could there still be such prevalence of problems such as corruption, brazen display of power, repression of women, religious intolerance, etc.—which are totally antithetical to the values of the Liberation War?
Hatred of non-Muslims was one of the common attributes of the Pakistani army. The Pakistani rulers did not like Bengalis’ fondness for songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore because he was not a Muslim. It is extremely frustrating to see that religious bigotry still plagues our society. In 2016, some young men occupied the Holy Artisan restaurant in Gulshan and mercilessly killed a number of innocent and unarmed persons in the name of religion. Although those extremists were Bangladeshis, it seems they were not at all aware of the history of the emergence of Bangladesh. Did they know about the Pakistani atrocities against Bengali civilians in 1971? Did they know how the members of Al-Badr abducted Bengali intellectuals and murdered them in order to debilitate the diffusion of progressive ideas in post-independence Bangladesh?
Instead of being inspired by Rumi, Bodi, Jewel, Azad and numerous other young freedom fighters who fought the oppressive Pakistani army for the independence of their motherland, these young men embraced religious zealotry. Their blind belief and intolerance turned them into cruel, cold-blooded zealots and, like the Pakistani occupying army and their local collaborators, they murdered innocent civilians. Al-Badr and Al-Shams were formed with Bengali religious fanatics who, like the Pakistanis, used to loathe ideas concerning Bengali nationalism, religious harmony, and a secularist society.
Freedom fighter Ziauddin Tariq Ali once said that he felt very sad that the Bengalis had all but forgotten the genocide committed in 1971. It seems many Bangladeshis have also forgotten that in 1971, the Pakistani army raped thousands of Bengali women. When we hear that between January and September this year, more than three rape incidents on average took place every day, we see in them a grotesque display of the same immorality shown by Pakistani perpetrators all those years back. It is a shame that despite there being such a well-documented history of sexual violence being perpetrated in 1971, many still do not despise or protest it as strongly as they should.
Perhaps inspired by the problematic notion that politics makes strange bedfellows, pro-liberation parties of our country sometimes liaised with the anti-liberation forces. May be such decisions were deemed practical by some politicians. But in their blind pursuit of political mileage, those pro-liberation forces ignored the fact that such alliances helped anti-liberation forces gain a firm footing in the realm of politics. It is also necessary to remember that any attempt to appease the forces that have no interest in espousing liberal and progressive ideas would contribute to the strengthening of extremist elements in society. Providing reactionary forces with concessions would make them stronger and eventually their influence would serve to weaken the spirit of the Liberation War.
The ideals of Liberation War started to lose ground as a discourse because of the gradual decline in power of the freedom fighters. After independence, freedom fighters could not remain united, whether in political parties or in the armed forces. Many eminent freedom fighters were killed due to factional divisions and sometimes executed by controversial and unfair military trials. For many years now, articles, documentaries, and discussions concerning Liberation War have appeared in the mass media only on specific days such as March 26 and December 16. How can we expect the current generation to develop a broader understanding of the ideals of Liberation War if their knowledge about the sufferings, sacrifices, and struggles of the Bengalis in 1971 remains scant? Our Liberation War needs to be discussed in the media and in academic institutions in such a way that would help people gain valuable insights about the brutal genocide and sexual violence committed by the Pakistanis in 1971, the systematic liquidation of our leading intellectuals, intense suffering of common people, and the valour and supreme sacrifices of our freedom fighters.
Would it be too difficult to create libraries in rural areas and small towns and inspire young people to read books on Liberation War? The MPs and local politicians can easily lead these initiatives. Television channels should screen Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide, Vanya Kewley’s Major Khaled’s War, Alamgir Kabir’s Liberation Fighters, Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud’s Muktir Gaan, Tanvir Mokammel’s 1971, Sukhdev’s Nine Months to Freedom and such Liberation War-based documentaries more regularly. I think footage used in these documentaries would lead to a deeper engagement of the spectators with the realities of 1971.
The ideals of Liberation War would be revered highly when people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and students studying in Bangla and English medium institutions and madrasas understand why the freedom fighters deserve our utmost respect—and why those Pakistani perpetrators and their collaborators, and those who carry their legacy today, deserve severe condemnation. If we can’t convince our people to reject reactionary ideology and resist all forms of oppression, we will be guilty of betraying the ideals of our Liberation War.
Dr Naadir Junaid is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Dhaka University.