Vol. 5 Num 1113 Wed. July 18, 2007  

Ground Realities
Where the mind is without fear . . .

Fear is a most depressing part of life. It lays people low. It turns them cautious, to the point of making them look and sound absurd. Sometimes, as in the case of the Awami League's general secretary Abdul Jalil, it causes in them much worry about death. Speaking of Jalil, a couple of days ago, when asked if he had grown fearful, he answered with a question of his own: "Who is not afraid?" He then added, "of death." He conveniently ignored the fact that the question about his being captive to fear had little to do with death and everything to do with his present hold, or the lack of it, on politics. That surely did not enhance his popular standing, for if any confirmation was needed about Jalil's sudden transformation from a brave, if somewhat na´ve, political crusader to a supplicant for mercy, it was there in his brief response to that query on fear.

And yet fear has hardly ever been part of a politician's life. There are plenty of instances of courage that political leaders and workers have demonstrated in this country for future politicians to build on. Back in the 1960s, there was another general secretary of the Awami League whose moral authority and political principles, buttressed again by acute intelligence, made him impervious to fear. Tajuddin Ahmed belonged to a generation of politicians for whom fear was as unknown as was life in outer space. It was a generation that went to jail, and repeatedly too, in the furtherance of a national political goal, and had no regrets about taking a position on the issues of the day.

Consider, once again, the tremendous degree of courage that defined the political character of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He spent no fewer than thirteen years in prison, without so much as a whisper of regret about his participation in politics.

On the day the Agartala conspiracy case proceedings went under way, he proclaimed loudly in court, "Anyone who wants to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman." It was the moral fibre in the man that mattered, enough to sustain him in a Pakistani prison during the entirety of the Bangladesh liberation war. It was similar moral fibre that enabled Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansur Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman to hold their heads high even as the bullets were sprayed into them in Dhaka central jail.

A frightened politician is a dead politician, or one in deep coma. Which is when you recall the immense bravery, for all his failings of character, in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Perhaps he would have lived if he had so much as petitioned General Ziaul Haq for mercy. In those final days of his tempestuous life, Bhutto conveyed to the world outside his prison cell the thought that politicians would lose their bearings, as indeed their hold on the future, if they caved in to fear. He went to the gallows; and the manner of it was enough to convince even his detractors that in the twilight of his life, Bhutto had turned his back on charlatanism, on drama and intrigue, and had actually lifted himself to a higher plane of being through embracing death rather than living but by the leave of the soldier who had once served under him.

And then there is the story of Saddam Hussein. No one will argue over the fact that he was a ruthless dictator, that a mere snap of his fingers sent hundreds to their doom. There was this other side to his character, though. While he could dispatch people to their graves with impunity, he could also hold out before the world an image of a secular, modern Iraq. With him gone, Iraq is now a carcass over which carrion fight and claw at one another. Saddam went to his death with courage undiminished. He showed no fear, expressed no regrets. He knew, as do the rest of us, that it was foreign occupation that was squeezing the life out of him. When, therefore, Iraq's leader fell to his death through a pulling of the lever on the gallows, it was the politician in him that triumphed. No politician plunges to his end in abject supplication. And politicians committed to a cause survive decades in jail, eventually to send their tormentors scattering all around. Read here the story of Nelson Mandela. No Verwoerd, no Botha and no De Klerk was ever able to intimidate him.

Fear was never part of the vocabulary that G.M. Syed employed in politics. Regarded as a traitor to the state by successive governments in Pakistan, Syed remained undaunted, and not once told his captors that he wished to say farewell to politics. Much the same was true of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose undying devotion to the cause of Pashtunistan certainly did not endear him to the military regimes that governed Pakistan. Follower of and friend to Gandhi, Badshah Khan, as he was known, lived to a grand old age without having known fear. It was a trait he had already passed on to his son Khan Abdul Wali Khan, the tormented politician who did not let obstacles come in his way. If his National Awami Party had to be outlawed by the Bhutto government, he quickly found a way out of the jam. He simply reinvented the party as the Awami National Party.

In Pakistan, where the state has traditionally been symbolic of fear, brave men have often lighted the path to hope for ordinary mortals. Ghaus Bux Bijenzo and Abdus Samad Achakzai are names that continue to evoke reverence in their country, and outside it. In his ageing years, in India, Jayaprakash Narayan saw little reason not to rise in protest against Indira Gandhi and the political depredations of her son Sanjay. He went to jail in the way a Gandhian ought to have, with no fear and without complaint.

Fear in a politician may not affect the overall course of a nation's history. But it surely damages the politician to a rather irreparable degree. As part of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party hierarchy, Moudud Ahmed was a pivotal force in the Zia-Sattar regimes before being carted off to prison in the early days of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad. He re-emerged into sunlight and made his way straight to the new military ruler's door. Did he have to do that? Or were there other compulsions preying on his thoughts of the future?

In Pakistan, Mushahid Hussain, the influential journalist and confidante of Nawaz Sharif, was taken into custody soon after Pervez Musharraf stormed his way to power in October 1999. He returned to the limelight to tell Pakistanis, in so many words, that he had ditched Sharif and was now firmly in the camp of the country's newest dictator. If Mushahid had been led to his new position through fear, there was the memory of the man without fear, he who had never seen reason to genuflect before the men who wielded power. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, convicted in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case of 1951, did not bow before temporal political authority. His politics and his poetry came shorn of fear.

There are all the tales of fearlessness, some of them of epic proportions, you will come across in politics. The long suffering of Aung San Suu Kyi promises to lengthen even more, and yet she breaks not at all. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina demonstrates, through days and nights of admirably endless struggle, the reality that for men and women of commitment to a cause and belief in a goal, the mind is always without fear and the head is necessarily held high.

And that is all you need to know. That is the principle you ought to live for, and die defending.

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