Reflections on April: The cruellest month or spring amidst cherry trees?
This month has seen more then its fair share of political drama around the world. Syed Badrul Ahsan takes us on a tour through the ages
There is something rather coruscating about April. History as it has come to be fashioned in April has generally been a loaded affair. Ah, yes. There is always T.S. Eliot to fall back on for a preview of what April is all about. He called it, in glib terms, the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory with desire. And so memory it is that we choose to handle in this month, even as we recall the April showers Geoffrey Chaucer once so liltingly spoke of.
There is in April that charisma which underlines the arrival of spring, of a season of renewal. Pablo Neruda's impassioned love expressions are recalled in the dawns that emerge and the twilights that break in April. "I shall do with you what spring does with the cherry trees," said he, and left us wondering of the many ways in which love takes hold of the souls inside us.
Of Lincoln and King
Somehow poetry and politics have quite often come together in April. How else would you define the life and death of the American civil rights crusader Martin Luther King, Jr? It was on April 4, 1968, that a bullet felled him in Memphis, Tennessee. A man who had been crusading for civil liberties for America's negroes, Afro-Americans in our present age of political correctness, King was the youngest man ever to win a Nobel Prize. He won it for peace, aged thirty-five, in 1964.
It was the high moral ground he claimed for his fellow blacks that led President Lyndon Johnson into signing the Civil Rights Bill in the same year. There was poetry about King. Anyone who remembers his "I Have A Dream" speech will recall, too, the sheer lyrical quality he brought into a peroration that was to change the course of history, not only for blacks but for America as a whole.
Speaking of a change of course, there remains the tale of how America underwent a period that can truly be described as bathos in April 1865, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War drew to a close.
The sixteenth president of the United States was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, and succumbed to his wounds a day later. It was a tragedy that left his country scarred, for the particular reason that Lincoln had brought Americans together through an armed struggle against the separatist Confederate forces over a period of four years.
The triumph of the Union forces had solidified Lincoln's belief that the United States of America was back on firm ground. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had caused a sea change in the extraordinary circumstances prevailing at the time in that it left negroes free of the slavery they had been fettered in for ages. The Lincoln presidency was thus a seminal event in global history. It was a harbinger of the pluralism that was to define, in time, representative government in the Americas and Europe and, later still, the Asian continent. Lincoln's assassination, the first of an American president (there would be three more), left Americans scrambling to pick up the pieces. Despite Andrew Johnson, the vice president who succeeded Lincoln in the White House, they did the job remarkably well.
But picking up the pieces is not what Pakistanis have been able to do since their first elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed by a military regime on April 4, 1979. The lugubrious nature of the conditions in which Bhutto was tried by a court clearly determined to hang him, together with the bad record he had set in office, was to leave Pakistan reeling for years. The tragedy of Bhutto is, broadly speaking, the sad tale of how a country trying to emerge into democracy finds itself pulled even further into a pit of medieval darkness.
Bhutto was one of the authentic heroes thrown up by the general elections of 1970 when his Pakistan People's Party obtained the second position, after the Awami League, and appeared headed toward forming a strong opposition in the national assembly. But Bhutto's overweening ambitions, all woven around his idea of being a component of the power structure, came in the way. He conspired cheerfully in the business of preventing the Awami League's Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from taking power in Islamabad. The results were horrendous for Pakistan. Once 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered after a bad war in Dhaka, and East Pakistan turned into Bangladesh, it remained for Bhutto to take charge of a rump Pakistan in late December 1971. Over the subsequent five years, he governed his country through a horrific combination of Machiavellian wile and feudal insensitivity. The consequence was his fall in July 1977. The finality was death. And Pakistan has not truly had a popular, or populist, leader since.
Of FDR and Hitler
The danger that ambitious men sometimes typify cannot be made more manifest than in a study of the swift rise and rapid fall of Adolf Hitler. He let loose upon Germany, and then upon the rest of Europe, his spurious notion of Aryan supremacy. On his watch, and through his clear instigation, six million Jews died in gas chambers, societies were left in ruins, and nations were compelled into penury. The end of suffering came on April 30, 1945, when the Fuhrer influenced his lover Eva Braun into committing suicide, and then, as has been suggested, turned the gun on himself.
The death of the man who had shaped the Third Reich came, almost as a coincidence, a little over a fortnight after the passing of one of the men who had actively been engaged in the task of putting him and his country in place. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his fourth term as president of the United States, died on April 12, 1945, the mantle of leadership was passed on to Vice-President Harry Truman. In August, Truman would preside over the death of tens of thousands of Japanese, with his fighter bombers dropping atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Would Roosevelt have authorized the use of the bombs against the Japanese, given especially that Tokyo's belligerent regime had already been weakened and was pretty much headed for the finality of defeat? Since history is never about what might have been, and is always about what came to be, such questions invite no credible answers.
Mujibnagar 1971 and De Gaulle defeat
There are the certainties about history. One of those certainties, in April, is the death of Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq. A political giant of pre-1947 Bengal by any stretch of the imagination, Huq played a pivotal role in the establishment of Pakistan and in shaping its early political phase. It was his role in a triumvirate (the other two in the team being Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani) in 1954 that set the ball of Bengali dissidence rolling in Pakistan. And yet, after the dismissal of his United Front ministry by the central authorities of Pakistan, Huq dwindled into a figure of supreme un-importance. He became interior minister in the central government, before taking charge as governor of East Pakistan. By the time he died on April 27, 1962, he clearly belonged to the past. Today it is the old, intellectually brilliant and personally witty Sher-e-Bangla who survives in the public imagination.
But April for Bengalis resonates especially powerfully with remembrances of the men who gave them the very first government in their history. When on April, 17, 1971, Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansur Ali, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman, Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, and M.A.G. Osmany formalized the idea of Bangladesh through taking charge of Bangladesh's armed struggle for liberation, they gave new meaning to the Bengali ethos. It is an ethos that endures to this day.
And that is April, for you and for me. William Shakespeare came to life, we have been informed, on April 23, 1564. He died the same day, fifty-two years later in 1616. In 1916, between April 24 and 30, the Easter Rising in Ireland drew the world's attention to the changing nature of its politics, to a man named Eamonn de Valera.
Dhirendranath Dutta was murdered by the Pakistan occupation army in early April 1971. It was in April 1969 that Charles de Gaulle lost a referendum in France, and, keeping faith with promise, relinquished the powers of the presidency. He was to die in his village Colombey les deus Eglises the following year.
And remember April Glaspie, the American ambassador to Iraq, the woman who Saddam Hussein thought had given him the all-clear for an invasion of Kuwait in 1990?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.