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     Volume 6 Issue 47 | December 7, 2007 |

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Sweepingin its Dimensions

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Indonesian President Sukarno (left) surrenders his executive powers to General Suharto on Feb. 22, 1967, in Jakarta, Java.

There are the years that give a shake to your sensibilities. And these are years you recall with something of fondness, with sometimes a dash of sadness. In 1968, we were young, we were in our teens, and we watched in amazement the way the world around us as also the world of which we were a part moved on, in breeziness that left us worried about the future to be. For those of us who remember 1968, it was a time when the world changed. We changed, all of us, enough to develop new perspectives on life and politics around us.

By the time 1968 dawned, we were yet caught in the glow set off by Christian Barnard’s pioneering move in the region of human heart transplants in late 1967. For the first time in history, it was indeed possible for one individual’s heart to be placed in the body of another and so let life move on. It was an amazing feat. And yet in 1967 came news of immense sadness: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt had disappeared into the sea, where he had gone to take a dip. Death, we reasoned, came in the strangest of ways. And yet it was a mite hard to let the thought sink in that even a prime minister could be claimed by the waves. And it was not merely Holt’s death that left us traumatised as 1968 approached. We remembered too the Arab defeat in the June 1967 war; and we had not forgotten the way three American astronauts were incinerated inside their spacecraft even as they prepared for lift-off at Cape Kennedy.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

But it was 1968 that was to prove seminal in our lives. The year changed perceptions in the West, certainly. But those of us who inhabited the eastern regions of the globe were no less subjected to a transformation of thought, not just because of what the West was going through but also because of events at home, and around it. In 1968, as the Agartala conspiracy case exploded and Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan began to reach out towards a crescendo, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told Pakistanis he would challenge President Ayub Khan at the presidential elections scheduled for 1970. We cheered him, little knowing that much more would happen that year, events that would leave our ideas about ourselves changed altogether. By the time 1968 would end, young people (of whom yours truly was one) would come round to the thought that it was not Bhutto but Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who mattered in Pakistan. For Bengalis, the knowledge that a powerful Bengali politician could shake up the entire state of Pakistan was thrilling. It was in 1968 that the spirit of Bengali nationalism began to seep into us. We have never looked back since.

Gen Ayub Khan

In 1968, things were shaping up horrendously in Indonesia. President Sukarno was no more on the scene; his foreign minister Subandrio was in jail, a sentence of death hanging over him. It was General Suharto who ran the show, which made western governments and multinationals happy, for they could now exploit the country’s resources at will. Foreign Minister Adam Malik went around extolling the virtues of the new regime. In Algeria, Colonel Houari Boumeddiene, having seized power from Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965, ruled in undisputed manner. But it was the Soviet leadership, the troika of Brezhnev, Kosygin and Podgorny, that sent shock waves around the world when it decided to send in Warsaw Pact tanks to quell the Prague Spring earlier set in motion by new Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek. That was in August. The collapse of the reforms in Czechoslovakia, the appearance of a hapless, dishevelled Dubcek before the Soviet leaders in Moscow were depressing. Suddenly, it was all a going back to the crushing of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the execution of the popular Imre Nagy.

The desert storms of 1968 claimed the life of the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King in April. Two months later, it was Robert F. Kennedy, confident as he sought the Democratic nomination for the White House, who was cut down by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan in Los Angeles. For many of us, a terribly sad experience was in knowing that Eugene McCarthy, the poet who was also the politician who had given Lyndon Johnson a drubbing at the New Hampshire primary earlier that year, would not be his party’s nominee for the presidency. That honour went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who in turn went down to defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in November. In a lot of ways, Nixon’s triumph, eight years after he had narrowly lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy, tasted sweet for those of us who had watched the way he had planned his comeback. Watergate was still years away, but in 1968 we prayed for Richard Nixon. The Lord of the Worlds answered our prayers. And it was Creation that the astronauts of Apollo 8 went back to as they rounded the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968. Each of the three men took turns reading from the Bible. As they watched the earth rise from out of the dark and remembered God, we in our little homes down below thought we understood a little more the roots that bound us to the heavens.

In 1968, protesters died in Mexico; India busied itself with a green revolution under Indira Gandhi; Biafra under Odumegwu Ojukwu struggled to be free of Nigeria; Pierre Trudeau became Canada’s prime minister; China was in the turmoil of its Cultural Revolution and Charles de Gaulle was nearly brought down by students in France.

It was an exciting time to live in, for it was a year sweeping in its dimensions and profound in a demonstration of its convictions.


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