How victorious is our Victory Day?

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

It took two hundred years to throw the British out of India. The Vietnamese fought more than fifteen years to win their freedom. The Palestinians have been fighting for sixty-two years. The Jews have got a homeland after 2,520 years. Victory came to us in nine months on 16th December 1971. A relatively short time compared to others.

We don't have an estimate of how many Indians were killed during the two hundred years of British rule. But the Quit India Movement alone cost hundreds of lives, 100,000 people arrested nationwide. Nearly 5.4 million Vietnamese died during the American intervention in Vietnam. About 2 million Palestinians and 1 million Arabs from neighboring countries got killed since the Arab-Israel conflict started in 1948. The exact number of Israelis killed is unknown, but it's said to be insignificant compared to casualties on the Palestinian side.

The official number of lives lost in our liberation war is 3 million, if we go by the density of death in a freedom fight. Our struggle may not have been long considering how many months it was fought. But it was hard counting how many lives were lost within that short span of time. We may have fast-tracked our freedom, but we have paid a usurious price.

Thomas Paine, the American Patriot, has said, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” If we go by his words, then a victory won too easily or too soon doesn't deserve great celebration. That makes victory sound so much like cooked meal. It can be under, over or done just right.

So, how does our hasty but hard-earned victory taste to us? We have been relishing this victory for thirty-nine years. Does it satisfy our appetite for freedom? Does it satisfy our palate for justice? Does it make us think of what it has achieved for us? Do we realize how fortunate we are to have a free homeland? Are we taking it for granted?

For those of us who lived to see 16th December in 1971, it was like second birth. We were born again as citizens of a new country. We were born again as contenders of a new dream. Those of us, who grew up before 1971, should know what those meant to us.

Because who should know if not us what it meant to live in a country, where our mother tongue was relegated to a secondary status. We should know what it meant to be discriminated in the civil service and the army. We should know how it felt to be treated as unequals, harassed in the backyard of an economy that flourished at our expense.

How much of these do we recall? True celebration of victory comes from its calibration. What if we were defeated? What if we still were ruled from Islamabad? Edmund Spenser is an English poet, who is famous for this line in Fate of the Butterfly, “What more felicity can fall to creature than to enjoy delight with liberty?” Could we enjoy delight, if liberty was still mortgaged to West Pakistan?

Can we tell the difference any more? Who amongst us think these thoughts? We fight for promotions. We fight for business deals. We use our connections. We favour our friends and relatives. We feel delighted to do all of these. And, we have the liberty because we no longer have to wait for a nod from any fatcat Punjabi, Pathan or Sindhi to do any of these. We have become the master of our own universe. Bangladesh is for the Bangladeshis.

In her poem I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, the Black American poet, compares free birds with caged birds. The free bird leaps, and floats, and dips, and dares. It dreams of another breeze, fat worms, and claims the sky. The caged bird stalks in its narrow cage ensnared by its own rage, sings fearfully of freedom, stands on the grave of dreams, its shadow shouts, and opens its throat to sing.

The 16th December 1971 was a day of transformation. It turned caged birds into free birds. On a single day, our life changed for the rest of our life. It was like a knife blade, which severed the past from the future. It forever erased the ignominy of being ruled by others and brought us the resplendent dawn of freedom.

But we should celebrate this transformation not because it has made us victorious. We should rather celebrate it because it has given us hope and scope to connect the song with the sky. It has given us the choice of freedom, and the freedom of choice. It has given us the freedom of joy, and the joy of freedom.

Why is freedom more precious than life? The Palestinians are still bleeding. Kurds have lost 30,000 lives just in last three decades. The Armenians are still deprived of it, 600,000 killed in the First World War only. It's equally true for the Kashmiris, the Basques and the Chechens.

Freedom House published its Freedom in the World Report 2007, which showed that 90 countries representing 46% of the world population are free. Their 3 billion inhabitants enjoy a broad range of rights. Fifty-eight countries representing 17% of the world population were considered partly free. Political rights and civil liberties are more limited in these countries, in which corruption, dominant ruling parties, or, in some cases, ethnic or religious strife is often the norm.

The survey found 45 countries representing 37% of the world population weren't free. The 2.45 billion inhabitants of these countries, nearly one-half of them living in China, are denied basic political rights and civil liberties. Bangladesh is listed as a partly free country, ranking 30th out of 58.

That gives us a measure of how victorious is our victory. On 16t December we defeated the enemy. But how much freedom did we win? Edward Gibbon writes, “We improve ourselves by victory over our self. There must be contest, and you must win.” How much victory have we won over our self? Where is the contest in our life that we must win and to improve us over ourselves, instead of improving each of us at the cost of others?

Janis Joplin song Me & Bobby McGee has it that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. Nobody should have anything left to lose in a free country. People win freedom so that they don't have to live in the fear of losing. People are afraid to lose their lives, property, rights and dignity. Freedom means nobody will dare taking any of these away from them.

The first half of victory we have clinched: we have won it. But the other half is still remiss. We still live in the fear of losing. Law doesn't protect us. Justice doesn't shelter us. The government is no guarantee. Corruption is rampant. Hatred is hurting. Many small steps of defeat are subsumed within one giant leap of victory.

“One may know how to gain a victory, and know not how to use it”, says Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca. That's the message for this Victory Day. It's not enough to win victory, if we don't know how to use it. And, we should be able to harness it better than others, because we have paid heavily compared to them.

The writer is a columnist.