Vol. 5 Num 1023 Wed. April 18, 2007  

Ground Realities
The history our children must know

A nation that teaches false history to its young is a society condemned to perdition, or worse. In Bangladesh, especially since the coups d'etat of 1975, a palpable distortion of history has been going on with, of course, a slight intermission during the period of Awami League government between 1996 and 2001.

The general run of things, however, has been to inform the young at school and college that Bangladesh's history is not what it really has been. That was a criminal act to indulge in, and successive governments after 1975 remain guilty of perpetrating that falsehood.

In the last known attempt to inject a large degree of adulteration into our national history, the four-party Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government of Begum Khaleda Zia sought, to our sheer outrage, to tear out the Proclamation of Independence in the constitution and replace it with a document that would have General Ziaur Rahman emerge as the prime mover behind the struggle for a sovereign Bangladesh.

There would be hardly any point recapitulating all the misdeeds that have been committed in the interest of partisan politics in the country. Even so, there are facts that the people of Bangladesh, particularly those who came of age in the post-1971 period, need to be acquainted with, where the matter is one of a mutilation of national history.

The first assault on historical truth came in the minutes immediately after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975, through the swift, sinister replacement of the liberation war cry of Joi Bangla with the un-Bengali Bangladesh Zindabad. That shock came along with another, when Bangladesh Betar was quickly pushed back into being Radio Bangladesh.

The first, tentative steps toward a formalisation of historical mutilation came when the journalist Khondokar Abdul Hamid told a surprised Ekushey crowd at the Bangla Academy in February 1976 (the country had conveniently been placed under a state of martial law) that "Bangladeshi nationalism" would serve as the underpinning of the state. The only brave soul at that gathering was Professor Kabir Chowdhury. It was he who spoke, however briefly, of the role of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh's history.

Beginning in early 1976, therefore, things began to fall into a pattern. These days you will hear a good number of people extolling Zia over the reality that he never claimed, as his political successors were to do so unabashedly in later years, to have declared Bangladesh's independence in March 1971.

Of course Zia did not make any such claim. How could he? He had, after all, in a 1972 article in the weekly Bichitra, loudly proclaimed his participation in the War of Liberation through the inspiration of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

But if Zia did not try to superimpose himself on national history, he certainly made sure that Bangabandhu was reduced to being a non-person in the five years of his military administration.

None of the observances of national historical importance in the electronic and print media remembered the seminal contributions of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the story of Bangladesh. The Zia years were effectively spent airbrushing Mujib out of Bengali history.

His political loyalists, in the years after his murder, pretended that the autonomy movement of the 1960s and the war of 1971 occurred without any political guidelines. The biggest shame of the Zia years was the anointing of Bangabandhu's assassins as the country's diplomats abroad. It was not our finest hour.

When, today, the caretaker administration speaks of a correction of history in school textbooks, these and other disturbing aspects of our politics must be taken into account. It is not merely a matter of placing the right individuals in their proper places. It ought to be a far more serious issue of restoring history as it was forged in 1971 before being riddled with scandal after 1975.

History is never an act of striking a balance between individuals or events. Which is why any move to correct Bangladesh's national history must steer clear of the chances of trying to make everyone happy in light of recent political happenings. The facts matter.

And the biggest fact is that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, through his lifelong dedication to the national cause, remains the founding father of the country. Once you acknowledge this truism, you need to move on to another, in this case the role of the Mujibnagar government during the War of Liberation.

Our young have never had the opportunity, not even during the two phases of Awami League government, to know that the government led by Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed rests on a high pedestal of history not merely because it was the very first government shaped and run by Bengalis but also because of the intellectual brilliance and pragmatism it brought into its conduct of the independence movement. When you do not enlighten the young about Tajuddin Ahmed and his wartime associates, you run a long knife of premeditated falsehood through the truth.

There is then the matter of the roles other political individuals have played in guiding Bengalis down the road to freedom. Despite his periodic bouts of adventurism, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani has remained a powerful, poignant symbol of Bengali protest. He deserves a special place in the pantheon of national leaders.

But when, in the interest of historical balance, it is suggested that men like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq be given pride of place in the Bengali hall of fame, you tend to get perturbed.

Suhrawardy and Huq were both brilliant, if somewhat controversial (in the case of the former) and erratic (in the case of the latter) men. Their politics was focused on the All India Muslim League's program of Muslim nationalism. Even in the post-partition years, for all their leadership of such forces as the United Front, Suhrawardy and Huq continued to link their role in politics to their acceptance of the Pakistan ideology.

To suggest, therefore, that these formidable individuals need to be given places as dreamers of a free Bangladesh would be tantamount to undermining their original politics, as well as sowing confusion in the minds of Bengalis who remember only too well the course that the movements for autonomy and independence took between the 1960s and early 1970s. It would be stretching the truth, with all its uncomfortable ramifications.

Political partisanship does not create history. It subverts it. Pundits can analyse historical happenings in their diverse ways, but they do not ever try turning established facts on their heads. The most grievous of blows for us has been the role a handful of individuals have regularly arrogated to themselves every time a need to deal with history has arisen.

General Zia's attempt to supplant Bengali nationalism with "Bangladeshi nationalism" has done incalculable damage to national unity. General Ershad's ugly move to strip away at secularism pushed us into a deep pit.

It is these truths, and others, that need to enter the books, and the minds of the young. And do not forget that these young, and their children to come ages hence, must learn too about the foreign soldiers who pillaged and killed in their country, of their local collaborators who assisted in the murder of brave Bengali men and in the humiliation of helpless yet courageous Bengali women.

If it is history we are looking for, we will search far and wide until we have retrieved it for ourselves and our children. We will not go half way. And our minds will not be influenced by thoughts of a need for balance. Compromise is alien to history.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.