Vol. 5 Num 1106 Wed. July 11, 2007  

Ground Realities
History is not a patchwork of compromises

It is not very cheering raising old arguments again and again. There is a point beyond which settled issues need not be prised open, or exhumed. And yet we are being told again, this time by Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi and his friends, that men who have attained a paramount place in the history of Bangladesh should actually be sharing that honour with others.

Qureshi and those who these days are keen on supplanting the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party through cobbling their own party into shape are, of course, entitled to their opinion.

It is just that those of us who happen to be addicted to a remembrance of the historical truth, as it were, do not agree with them. You simply cannot turn history into a patchwork of political compromises. You must not try telling people that what they have known and experienced in their passage through some critical times in the history of this country has been an illusion, that what had happened really did not happen.

The issue is one of where we place our great men in the historical scheme of things. That ought not to be a puzzle. When you think back on the long, concerted story of the growth of Bengali nationalism, you realise only too well that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the man behind it all. Deny it and you deny your own place in the sun.

But what Qureshi and his friends have now done in their wisdom is to offer the suggestion that the images of six men, among whom happens to be the Father of the Nation, should be displayed in government offices throughout the country. The sentiment is certainly well taken. The problem, though, lies with our collective understanding of history. Or theirs.

Again, we will not argue the case for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman being the founding father of the country, for it is a place he has already earned despite the reservations some elements may have on the question. To argue again and again that Mujib is the single most important individual in the growth and sustenance of the Bengali nationalist movement would be to state, repeatedly, the obvious. To suggest, however, that there are other men who must be permitted to share that glory with him runs counter to political morality.

The new party Qureshi and his associates plan to launch at the end of this year will quite conceivably propagate the idea of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, General Ziaur Rahman and General M.A.G. Osmany sharing the pinnacle of history with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That would be a fallacy, for reasons we have cited over the years, for reasons that we still need to uphold in the times to be. Take the matter of Suhrawardy's contribution to our history. He was one of the foremost politicians in the movement for Pakistan back in the 1940s.

Suhrawardy's role in the communal riots of 1946 has, despite all the admiration some people have regularly showered on him for his political sagacity, remained open to question. And do not forget that his insistence, post-1956, that Bengalis had come by ninety eight percent autonomy in the state of Pakistan clearly spoke of his devotion to the cause of the state Mohammad Ali Jinnah forked out of a colonised India in 1947.

To suggest, therefore, that Suhrawardy is a Bengali icon would not only be to undermine the flow of history but would also do deep disservice to a man who remained steadfast to his own political principles all his life. His loyalty to Pakistan was total.

If Suhrawardy cannot find a place beside Bangabandhu in Bangladesh's history, A.K. Fazlul Huq can only be placed in his own unique category. There was the thoroughness of everything Bengali in Sher-e-Bangla. But we will be shooting arrows at his memory once we begin telling ourselves that he had a hand in the making of a free Bangladesh.

Huq moved the Pakistan Resolution in 1940; and when he took charge as chief minister of East Bengal in 1954, at the head of a Jugto Front administration, he did so not as a Bengali nationalist but as part of a team engaged in the noble, necessary job of sending the communal Muslim League dispensation packing.

Huq later became Pakistan's interior minister, before taking charge as governor of East Pakistan. Nothing in his entire career suggests that he dreamed of a sovereign Bangladesh supplanting East Pakistan someday. Must it be our job to give him a place he did not work for, and would surely not have wanted? To convince ourselves that Huq was a forerunner of Bengali political freedom would be launching a grave assault on his political beliefs.

But let us move on. A good deal has been made of Bhashani's role in the making of Bangladesh. There certainly were fireworks in his personality. When he told us, three days before the general elections of December 1970, that East Pakistan should declare itself an independent country, quite a few people felt exuberance re-igniting their spirits.

But sit back and reflect on whether or not Bhashani's precipitate move was a dangerous form of adventurism. Reflect, too, on the political position he began to adopt soon after liberation, when the leftist in him suddenly began to spot the beauty of rightwing politics.

His advocacy of a Muslim Bangla was a clear assault on the secular statehood of Bangladesh. His criticism of the Mujib government followed by his acceptance of Baksal, followed by his obvious relief at the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are quirky as well as disturbing episodes in Bangladesh's history.

For all his patent flaws, however, Bhashani remains a good point of reference in our history. His focused leadership of the mass movement of 1969 against the Ayub Khan regime was a catalyst that opened other doors for us. His threat to march on the cantonment to free the incarcerated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman swiftly led to the regime's capitulation: the Agartala case was withdrawn and Mujib emerged a free man to become the foremost representative of Bengali aspirations.

A grateful nation has always remembered Bhashani for his fiery politics in the 1960s. Must we dig holes in that reputation through putting him on a pedestal he would have turned his back on?

A very bad flaw in the compromise formula worked out by Qureshi and his band of politicians -- and they all have walked out of the Awami League, the BNP and the Jatiyo Party -- is that it ignores absolutely the pivotal role played in the liberation of Bangladesh by the Mujibnagar provisional government.

When, therefore, these future leaders of a future political party suggest that Osmany and Zia share the limelight with Bangabandhu in the national hall of fame, they perhaps do not realise that there is a kind of bankruptcy in upholding people who simply happened to function under the moral and political authority of men greater than they.

If you have no place for Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansur Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman in your assessment of national history, everything else you do is rendered meaningless. There is no need any more for any discussion, none at all.

A nation content to have its history trifled with is one that is low on self-esteem. Men who see little reason to respect individuals for their contributions to the making of history, their own contributions and not a bit more nor less, and instead blur everything in their attempts to make everyone happy, only help the growth of festering sores on the national body politic. It is time to disregard them.

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