We could have done better!
So, here we are again. Our victory day is 'round the corner. It might be pertinent for me to retrieve from memory a part of the day of 16th of December 1971. In fact it's all there, almost engraved in my memory. So, retrieval is a word that'd be misemployed here. I must also confess that I have talked about this experience a number of times while narrating my feeling the moment of our victory. But then this is the only memory I have. I was given the assignment by Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, more specifically my superior who was the Programme Organiser of the English Language service of the Radio to follow the advancing Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini in the western theatre and record on Betar's portable tape recorder the reaction of the liberated people of the villages along the Jessore road. I got dropped off at a place called Navaron. After recording a few interviews I was walking on the main Benapole-Jessore road wishing to hitch a hike in an advancing army vehicle. My aim was to reach Jessore as soon as possible so that I could catch a glimpse of the battle that, I imagined, would be bloody and furious. In fact, later I came to know that there was no battle. The joint forces had decided to lay a siege around the cantonment, cut all supply routes, by-pass it and proceed to Khulna. The Pakistan Army had either lost its fire power or the heart to fight any more. So there I was on the Jessore road all by myself, walking towards Jessore. It was a rather cold December day. The sun was already going down in the western horizon. I was aware of the fact that Dhaka was already surrounded by the Bangladesh and Indian forces and would fall any time. A call for prayer by the muezzin heralded the evening. The day of the 16th of December was coming to an end. Suddenly, I saw an army jeep coming from the opposite direction. I was a bit surprised to see it because it was the time to go forward not to turn back. When the jeep came close by, someone stuck his head out and said, “Rejoice! The Pakistanis have surrendered”, and then it sped away. For about a minute I was dumbfounded. I did not expect it to happen so soon. I was apprehending the worst thing to follow if the Pakistanis did not surrender. An artillery barrage created by the joint liberation forces could have completely decimated the city of Dhaka. Many of my friends and relatives were still there in the city. And I was naturally very concerned. But right then the foremost thought that pervaded me is the fact that we were FREE. I remember releasing the tape recorder from my hand to the ground. Looking up to the sky now infested with stars, I cried in silence for a minute. Then, on that road to Jessore, now bereft of traffic, quiet and peaceful, I cried out with all the strength I could muster, “WE ARE FREE!” I kissed the soil of Bangladesh and rolled on its bosom like a man possessed. I rolled and rolled until fatigue took me over. This was the fatigue of nine months of uncertainty, of desperation, of hope and anguish. I started walking back towards the border, stray thoughts crowding my mind. I saw in my mind's eye Rustom running towards a Pakistani bunker with a live grenade in hand and jumping into it giving the last battle cry of Joy Bangla. He killed himself and all those that were occupying the bunker. I saw the face of my dear Kamol da who sacrificed one of his eyes so that we could be free. I remembered Hafiz and Mahoboob, Ashfaque and Rumi and millions of others whose valour and blood mingled with this soil to give our posterity and us a nation of our own.
It is impossible to give vent to my feelings of that day and to give an account of how people rejoiced this victory that day or afterwards within the confines of this column. The day we were returning by road back to Dhaka I was a witness of how people from villages spontaneously and exuberantly engaged themselves in re-building roads, repairing bridges or offering food and water to the people. This was a spirit of camaraderie of selflessness that we could not hold on to for long. Yet this is the only spirit that could have removed all our miseries of toady. Could we go back to those days, re-live the spirits of the Victory day of '71 and start it all over again? Maybe we could find a sense of direction from there. Otherwise, we'd fail to build a viable nation for our posterity. And that is devastating even to think of.
Photo: Anwar Hossain
Much later, I was invited to speak in a discussion session of a section of the “Projonmo Ekattor”, the generation of '71. The session was convened to discuss the course of action warranted by the re-emergence of the defeated ideology and the ideologues of the war of our independence that brought about the emergence of this country of ours. Needless to say, we all are proud of being Bangladeshis and, cannot deny at the same time, have benefited from this turn of history, both emotionally and materially. I don't think some examples would be uncalled for in this context. I do not know if many of us would have risen in the socio-economic ladder as much as we have in a country colonised by Pakistan in the pre-independent Bangladesh. A civil servant would perhaps have to retire as a mid-level bureaucrat, a business executive as a mid-level manager, a business person as a petty merchant and an armed forces officer as a mid ranking officer. That we have become what we are is not because our luck favoured us for being independent but because we became the citizens of a de-colonised and free thinking country where we could assume the role of creators of our own destinies. It is said that in a colonised society it is not possible for even the cultural activities to flourish without intimidation and free of directives given by the colonialists in control of the state power. But free though we were, the custodians and the cohorts of the colonial spirit were still up and about to undo the values and ideals that we fought for and had thought were now unquestionably established in a free country. This conspiracy had started right after we achieved our freedom and became increasingly threatening as the days went by and the freedom fighters crossed over the middle-age to become senior citizens. This is a challenge to our independent entity and gives us the fear of being forced to join the group of distraught individuals, forever scared of the painful past they have lived through. As I was listening to various speakers that day, I could not but help think, almost simultaneously, were we involved in an exercise in futility? Were we really helpless? What with successive governments in the past being such avidly pro-Pakistani and anti-liberation in stance that even the history books prescribed to the school level students in our curriculum were tampered with! And, what is more, our children had no alternative to reading blatant lies in their text books!
I have recently been mingling a lot with people belonging to a much younger generation. This gives me an opportunity to know their mindset and how they look at issues so vital to our 'being'. Some of them are indeed aware of the phenomenon of our liberation struggle and do not feel that a healthy nation was possible without a thorough knowledge of the history of our nation. This reaction naturally came to them when I asked them if they considered “past” was important for them. They said that 'well we came in to being to be an independent nation through a protracted battle in the “past”'. The basis of our nationhood was determined through an election that could now be called a referendum happening in the “past”. How could we not give our past the importance that it deserves? This amply demonstrates, as a sample, the mindset that, perhaps, most of our youngsters have. But there are exceptions. This also can be found if one does a bit of research with a large cross-section of our younger population. Many of these youngsters would say, and I am a witness to this, that they did not know much about our past. A further probing would reveal that they were not interested in it. If asked pointedly, pray why not? They would say that their parents and elders did not tell them anything and, more importantly, asked them to stay away from historical accounts of the birth of our nation. Interestingly, if they are told the gist of the history they'd say, but we did not know? Off hand in such an interaction I tell them that it was their responsibility to know. There were credible books available. They should read those books. But I must admit that much of what they know or do not know is because of their parents and guardians who have been expedient to make their wards stay away from history. I know that there are parents whose children were asked to avoid learning their mother tongue in the English medium schools' final examinations and were told that it was no use wasting their time. They should aim only for the subjects that would stand them in good stead in the distant lands that they will settle down in. Well, these are the youngsters with whom we should engage in dialogues without further loss of time. Or else with the passing away of the generation that fought the war and the generation that was born in and soon after the war would be thrown, together with all the right values and ideals, into an abyss. We should do better in terms of setting the perspective right for the posterity. Otherwise all the love's labour of our generation will have been lost in no time.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009