|Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 ||
SYED BADRUL AHSAN recalls the significance of the month to Bangalis.
Dhirendranath Dutta remains a paramount figure in Bangladesh's history. His was one of the very first voices, back in the months after the creation of Pakistan in August 1947, raised in defence of Bengali rights in the new state. Of course, Pakistan's emergence had been on the basis of the dubious two-nation theory (the 'nations' being Hindus and Muslims) propagated to eerie perfection by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his All-India Muslim League. But that did not prevent Dutta from articulating what he thought, and rightly too, the belief that Bengali tradition needed to be upheld in the new circumstances. And so it was that on 25 February 1948, he rose in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to demand that apart from Urdu, which the ruling classes were determined to foist on the country as the language of the state, and English, the Bengali language be incorporated as a medium of expression and communication in the assembly. Dutta's argument was simple and logical: Pakistan's Bengalis constituted 56% of its population, making East Bengal/East Pakistan the largest province of Pakistan in terms of the number of its people.
Dutta's motion, though backed by some of his fellow Bengalis, immediately invited the wrath of the West Pakistani political classes, who saw in the proposal a sinister conspiracy against what they called Pakistani nationalism. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, holding a parliamentary seat from the quota for East Bengal, nevertheless made it clear that Dhirendranath Dutta's suggestion amounted to an act against the very raison d'etre of Pakistan. In the end, Dutta's argument for Bengali as one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly fell on deaf ears. The rejection of his proposal by the government was, as events were to demonstrate, to have grave ramifications for Pakistan.
That was February 1948. It is rather intriguing how the month of February has somehow turned out to be a seminal period in the history of the people of Bangladesh, to a point where every February is both a celebration of the Bengali ethos and a recalling of a significant moment in the nation's past. It is a celebration because within it falls the inaugural of the Bengali season of spring, the month of Falgun. It is a time when an array of colours, in nature and in the imagination of the people, lends an air of festivity to Bangladesh, indeed to the life of every Bengali around the world. And where a remembrance of moments gone by is concerned, there are quite a few occasions which have by now assumed seminal significance in Bangladesh's history. Consider.
The tragic yet galvanising story of 21 February 1952, Ekushey as we know it today, forms a powerful underpinning in our national history. Indeed, Ekushey was the first instance, after the partition of India, of a resurgence of Bengali nationalism in the eastern half of post-1947 Bengal. To all intents and purposes, Ekushey was a clear manifestation of the truth that while the Bengalis of the new state of Pakistan had in a very large way contributed to the creation of the communal state, by the early 1950s they had come round to the realisation that for all their participation in the Pakistan scheme of things, they were not willing or ready to subsume their history and with that their cultural traditions to the demands of a state set up on the basis of religious belief. February 1952 was thus that first move toward the re-emergence of the Bengali ethos, in however truncated a form following the trauma of 1947, with a view to redrawing cultural frontiers within Pakistan.
It is important to remember the effects of Ekushey. Take the matter of the Awami Muslim League, the political organisation that, when it was forged into shape in 1949, was more a rebellion against the increasingly entrenched nature of the ruling Muslim League than any reinvention of democratic politics in Pakistan. But Ekushey caused a change. In time, by the mid-1950s, the party would shed its Muslim attire and simply go on to being an inclusive party of all citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs. February 1952 was, in a big way, a spur to the revival of inviolate Bengali traditions, cultural as well as literary. You only need to redirect your sense of history to Rabindranath Tagore's centenary celebrations in 1961 despite all the gigantic efforts made by the Ayub Khan military junta to decry the move as an effort to 'Hindu-ise' the culture of a Muslim state. It helped that men like Justice S.M. Murshed were around to encourage the Bengali cause; and it helped that the efforts of some brave Bengali men and women in giving shape to the cultural organisation Chhayanaut succeeded beyond expectation, though there was always an element of fear about it given the ferocity of a communal state that was also turning militaristic.
February in Bengali history took a more decisive turn in 1966 when a young but politically experienced and energetic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman released what he called a charter of emancipation for his fellow Bengalis. When Mujib, then general secretary of the East Pakistan branch of the Awami League, tried to present his Six-Point plan for regional autonomy at a conference of opposition political parties in Lahore in early February 1966, he was shouted down by those who thought the plan contained the seeds of secessionism. Undeterred, Mujib went before the media on 5 February in Lahore to publicly announce the Six Points. There was a certain element of irony in the happening. Lahore was the city where the All-India Muslim League, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had passed what came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution in March 1940. The result would be the creation of the state of Pakistan. And now, in February 1966, a Bengali political leader was informing the world that Pakistan needed to change, that its constituent provinces needed to have a bigger voice in the running of their affairs.
The Six-Point plan, without being put into effect, changed Pakistani politics in a radical way. The regime decided to confront Mujib and his party through what Ayub Khan called the language of weapons. For the regime and for the entire establishment, administrative as well as political, the Six Points were a conspiracy to destroy Pakistan through taking East Bengal out of the state structure and towards independence. By the end of 1967, President Ayub Khan would find, or so he and his acolytes thought in Rawalpindi, the perfect means of putting an end to Mujib's politics and Bengali democratic aspirations. The means came in the form of the Agartala Conspiracy Case, in which 35 Bengalis, among whom were men serving in the Pakistan air force, navy, army and the civil service, were implicated in a plan to effect the separation of East Pakistan from the rest of Pakistan with assistance from India. At the top of the list was the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in prison under the Defence of Pakistan Rules since May 1966.
February 1966, with all its consequences, was to lead in time to another February, one which would promise change for Pakistan's Bengali population. With the trial of the accused in the Agartala Conspiracy case at its height in February 1969, and with demands growing for the withdrawal of the case and the unconditional release of the accused, it was becoming clear that Bengali nationalism was taking a good many more strides toward definitive assertion. On 15 February, army security guards in the Dhaka cantonment, where the accused were being held, shot one of the accused dead and left another injured. The official version of the incident, which lacked credibility, noted that the men had attempted to escape from custody. The dead man was Sergeant Zahurul Huq.
The incident in the cantonment only spurred Bengalis, led by the veteran politician Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, into more radical action. Bhashani demanded Mujib's release. Else, said he, he and a whole crowd of Bengalis would march into the cantonment to free him and all those others implicated in the conspiracy case. In the event, the regime retreated. On 22 February 1969, Defence Minister A.R. Khan announced in Dhaka the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the unconditional release of all accused in the case. The next day, 23 February, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addressed a mammoth public rally at the Race Course (today's Suhrawardy Udyan), where he was conferred the honorific of Bangabondhu (Friend of Bengal) by a grateful nation. On 24 February, he flew to Rawalpindi to attend the Round Table Conference called by President Ayub Khan earlier.
February 1974 was replete with irony again. Two years and two months into the emergence of Bangladesh after a bloody war against Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto recognised Bangladesh as an independent state and invited its founder and Prime Minister, Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to a summit of leaders of Islamic nations in Lahore. Note the irony again. Lahore had shown the path to Pakistan in 1940. In 1966, the Six Points were publicly proclaimed in Lahore. And Lahore was now welcoming the very man who had been denied power after his party's victory at the general elections of December 1970 as the leader of a free Bangladesh born out of the ashes of East Pakistan.
At Lahore airport, among the Pakistani dignitaries to welcome Bangabondhu was General Tikka Khan, Pakistan's army chief of staff. Back in March 1971, Tikka Khan, as martial law administrator in East Pakistan, had launched Operation Searchlight against the unarmed Bengalis in a bid to crush their democratic movement. Moments after the Pakistan army took Bangabondhu into custody in the early hours of 26 March 1971, Tikka was asked by the officer who had led the mission to arrest Mujib, if he wished to have the Bengali leader brought before him. Tikka Khan's haughty reply was, “I don't want to see his face.”
On 22 February 1974, Tikka Khan saluted Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at Lahore airport. Mujib smiled, held out his hand to the murderer of his people and said, “Hello, Tikka.” Then he moved on.
Ah, February! It resonates in our lives; it revives memories of some of the best moments in our times; and it recreates, deep within our collective soul, the reasons why we have felt happy about ourselves in the past and might feel that way again in future. And lest you forget, there is the separate tale of February 1991, when the people of this land, having sent a dictator and his cohorts packing through a concerted, relentless movement in defence of democracy, gave themselves an election and a fresh new era of political pluralism.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star. E-mail: email@example.com
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