“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”
– Lisa Watson, aboriginal activist
‘No, I don’t want to remember ’71,’ she blurted. It had sounded like a half-cry.
I did not ask my friend why she wanted to forget, there was a fraction of a pause, I rushed on, `But I can’t. I don’t want to. I live by `71. It gives me strength. It gives me a sense of direction.’
A campaign of genocide against defenseless people by the Pakistan army, the smell of burning flesh as settlements were encircled and fired upon in Dhaka city on March 25th, the horror of villages being razed to the ground, long lines of people fleeing in hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands to India, people who turned into refugees overnight, living in refugee camps and shelters provided by sewage pipes in Kolkata city. My friend and I share memories of death and destruction. Of fractured lives that have remained thus, forever.
We also share the indignity of betrayals by national leaders immediately after independence, and later, by successive military and civilian governments, by uninvited guests to dinner who have overstayed by nearly two years. Also, the indignity of being graced by a spineless president, installed specifically because of that defective streak by a government that was voted to power.
We share the indignity of growing economic disparities, of revolting displays of mindless consumption impervious to processes of impoverishment, and those impoverished. Of forcibly containing popular protests against the closure of mills, factories, and other avenues of employment, of long lines of cultivators waiting for fertilisers, spirited away by traders intent on getting-rich-quicker. Of Bengalis and indigenous peoples being uprooted from the land to serve the energy, and profit, needs of multinationals. Of caving in to World Bank and IMF instructions that go against national interests, and introducing legislation providing them immunity from legal action. Of the indignity of military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts for more than thirty years, to ‘pacify’ its indigenous inhabitants, and displaying the successes of these military policies to army visitors from abroad. Of strengthening forces intent on securing particular forms of patriarchal power and control over women, in modes unknown in the Quran (‘there can be no compulsion in religion’).
We share the indignity of seeing hundreds of thousands of poor people, fallen on the wayside to the road of `national’ development every year. Of garments workers being beaten to death on accusations of pilferage, of dead bodies being concealed, of ill-built factories collapsing, of earned wages not being given, of workers protests being fired on as expensively suited, coiffured-hair factory owners hold press conferences in their expansive, air-conditioned offices. Of swearing-in ceremonies by men, publicly-known to be war criminals of 1971, as government ministers.
We share the indignity of seeing crippled freedom fighters being wheeled-in and put on display at government functions, every independence and victory day. The indignities of rampant corruption, political squabbling and cronyism, of violence unleashed on civilian populations by civilian governments. Of stereotypical elisions concocted by rulers and their dim-witted intellectuals, 1971 forces=pro-Indians=lovers of Hindus vs Islam=Jamaat=rajakars, created to cement their strangle-hold on political power, concoctions that have resulted in making a mess of the nation’s history, making it more difficult to write other histories, histories that place peoples interests and common dreams at the centre.
These indignities and others, born of the political opportunism of both military and civilian rulers of Bangladesh have whittled away the magnitude of the truths of 1971. It has made it difficult for us to critically appreciate the value of national culture — simultaneously `the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history’ — in our liberation struggle. For national culture is, as Amilcar Cabral, poet and revolutionary leader of the national liberation movement of Guinea Bissau stresses, `an element of resistance to foreign domination.’
If one wishes, one can take solace from the fact that these indignities are not unique to Bangladesh, one can take solace from reading Frantz Fanon, psycho-analyst and revolutionary theorist of anti-colonial struggles, who had pointed out long ago that the interests of the new rulers in ex-colonies is not compatible with those who seek greater social change. That independence does not better the lives of the majority of the people. That the new national bourgeoisie is no different from any other bourgeoisie since it’s mission has ‘nothing to do with transforming the nation’.
So how can I blame my friend for wanting to forget 1971?
But I remember reading somewhere, the more one can dream, the more one can do. So we must hold on to the dreams of 1971, we must re-create them, to be able to dream anew. To be able to do.
Values and ideals, regardless of how just they are, when bandied repetitively become formulaic, they lose meaning, they lose the capacity to inspire, to provide direction. History and historic struggles can be the present only if one draws new meanings, meanings that are based on contextualised readings of the past. Martyred Intellectuals day was observed yet again this year, on December 14th, with calls for prosecuting war criminals responsible for the killings of intellectuals. But, as Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age pointed out on Bangla Vision, that is not enough. Intellectuals were killed in the early stages of the liberation struggle to quell and contain popular revolt, they were killed at the eve of independence to cripple the nation intellectually, from its very birth. These courageous men and women, he said, had been a threat to the state of Pakistan from the 1960s onwards. If they had lived, it is unlikely that they would have turned into supplicants of the state. Our tragedy is that none of the intellectuals today are a threat to the state, a threat necessitating the need to silence.
And, I add, the sub-text of reading-history-made-safe is based on certain assumptions, namely, that liberation has already-been achieved, that ’71 is not the present but the past, that we should be disposed towards martyred intellectual men and women as objects of veneration, and definitely not as living sources of inspiration for continuing struggles, struggles that are relevant to, and forged from, new political realities.
Nationalism in Times of War on Terror
Contemporary history-writing, particularly some of those belonging to the post-modern genre, regard the nation state as being always, and in every case, oppressive. National liberation, in the words of some, is ‘a poisoned gift’. As I write these lines, I remember how a younger faculty member at Sussex university, had chided me when I stood chatting with him on a March 26th day, when I told him of how I missed home, and recounted to him Bangladesh’s struggle for national liberation. He belonged to a European nation, an older nation-state. For him, struggles of national liberation were over.
But since it is nations that are targeted, whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, since it is powerful western nations that prevent Palestinians from forming one in order to advantage the security interests of another, i.e., Israel, when the US war on terror expands into Afghanistan’s neighbouring nation, Pakistan, when one hears talk of building Bangladesh as a base of counter-terrorism, maybe we need to turn to Cabral, maybe we need to examine ’71 minutely, in order to understand what it is that had made `the element of resistance to foreign domination’ possible
First published in New Age on 16th December 2008
Winter, War and Refugee Camps
“So, what were you doing in December, 1971?”, asked a colleague the other day. Every year at this time, as well as in the month of March, I remember vividly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In charge of OXFAM’s refugee relief programme covering 500,000 refugees, I was very worried about the onset of winter as many of the camps in which we were working were in very cold areas of North Bengal as well as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. We were having great difficulty in getting supplies of warm clothes and blankets through to the refugee camps because the roads in the border areas had been choked with Indian military supplies in November and early December. Sometimes we used old Dakota aircraft and flew supplies from Kolkata to air strips in Cooch Behar and West Dinajpur, but that was quite expensive. At the beginning of December 1971, we were expecting a chartered aircraft from OXFAM-America full of medical supplies worth about US$ 900,000 which were difficult to obtain in India, but at the last moment it was diverted to Madras because of the outbreak of war and we had to clear the supplies through Customs and transport them to Kolkata.
After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, enjoying a beer after a long day’s work and managed to get the Pakistan Radio’s English News and the propaganda machine said that the Pakistan Air Force had scored a direct hit on the Kolkata telephone exchange and that the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly! I remember that it was on 7th December that we learnt with horror that President Nixon had ordered the US 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an effort to prevent the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces from defeating the Pakistanis. Officially, this super flotilla – ‘the most powerful force in the world’ – was said to be going to evacuate a few American citizens from Dhaka, but the intention was clear. I remember how a well-known American doctor, working closely with us in the refugee camps, Dr Jon Rohde, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.
As the fighting intensified, my main concern was not only to keep relief supplies moving to the refugee camps but to ensure the safety of all our staff. The young doctors from the Kolkata and Bombay medical colleges and the Gandhian workers from Orissa and Gujarat had to be withdrawn for their own safety.
We were sure in those early days of the short war that it would be over very soon and that Bangladesh would be free, but we were very aware of the great relief and rehabilitation needs for the future and so we were already calculating what sort of assistance OXFAM could provide and through which organizations we might be able to work. I see from a telex which I sent in December 1971 that it was estimated by some that Bangladesh would need half a million tons of rice per month and that there was an immediate need of 1,000 trucks, 500 buses and that “most shelter materials such as bamboos had been destroyed by the Pakistani Army. OXFAM was one of the first donors of BRAC, which is now probably the largest NGO in the world, and OXFAM also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.
We were also able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways authority wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after my experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the river at Goalondo to this day, some 36 years later.
As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in an orderly way. One day in early February 1972, I was called out of the OXFAM office and there in the garden were about 300 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, , had fashioned some ‘woollen flowers’ These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks to OXFAM. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment.
These, then, are a few of my memories……..
Julian Francis who, since the War of Liberation, has had a long association with Bangladesh working in many poverty alleviation projects, is currently working as ‘Programme & Implementation Advisor’ at the DFID supported ‘Chars Livelihoods Programme’, RDA, Bogra