I vividly remember 1971 December 16 as Bangladesh was liberated. Freedom had been in the air for a while and it was obvious that the Pakistani forces were going down. Every one hoped that victory would be won without too much bloodshed. We knew from close hand the meaning of war brutalities. As a Dhaka University staff quarter’s resident, it was all too evident to us every day.
Yet even we never anticipated the disappearance of the teachers and intellectuals that occurred on December 14. None could have anticipated the terrible revenge that came our way wreaked by the fleeing enemy just as we couldn’t imagine the feeling of liberation that engulfed us all on December 16.
There was pain and there was pride, there was loss and there was opportunity. The most vivid display was of courage and community bonds in the most difficult hour of our history. Not only was the state to be liberated but society as well. Our potential was truly displayed in those days of 1971. And it’s our duty now to ask what we did with it.
Many people, many contributions
Even as the war was on, it was not one of a few individuals or organizations but in the true sense, a national war. The bullet didn’t make a distinction either between its targets whether it was a Professor of Dhaka University or a security guard caught in the crossfire of history. The ones who fought the Pakistan army included Bangladeshis army officers, subalterns and sepoys. But it wasn't just the professionals who fought but the majority of the warriors were ordinary peasants and students and simple civilians. They had joined the war out of political conviction or a desire to take revenge for what happened to them and their fellow beings and hoped to free the land to which they belonged.
We often hear of individual courage and bravery but we should learn to accept that everyone who went to war was brave and courageous, otherwise they would not have opted to join anyway.
I would add that perhaps the bravest of them all were the average and anonymous Bangladesh who survived 1971 without betraying anyone or gaining from it. And that would mean about 99% of all people. Most people sacrificed and many took risks. Most people gave shelter to strangers without asking any questions. And that is the face of Bangladesh we should uphold all the time.
More than the courage of the battlefield, Bangladeshis showed greater compassion to each other than ever before. Just as there was no such war in our life before, there were no such instances of collective compassion either. It was the worst of time certainly but it also brought out the best in us.
Not nostalgia but the real past
As a Bangladeshi, we often face very unpleasant facts about our present. They range from political crises to economic difficulties of the highest order. But I think that is not the whole news. We have made strides in most sectors since 1971 and have left many countries behind including Pakistan. We have advanced far more than Pakistan did in the last fifty years. Pakistanis had argued that Bangladeshis were not capable of developing their economy and were racially inferior. Today, Pakistan has to face the bitter truth that it is they who lived off our resources significantly and now are floundering.
Instead of focusing on mega projects as great symbols of development, we should focus on human achievements more. A great story is that of the remittance sector where about 10 million people have gone abroad to work and been the greatest success story of Bangladesh. And most/many have done so without official support. Bangladesh’s Human Development Index is one of the best in South Asia and whether in child and mother’s health, gender participation or longevity, Bangladesh is a success story.
On the other hand, we have many dismal scenarios led by corruption of epic levels. People are beginning to lose confidence in public and in some cases constitutional institutions which should cause anxiety if not alarm. Although we have a long history of political activism, it has become more confrontational and violent and people may turn away from the entire system of public governance one day if this goes on. They are serious ailments which are ruining the general state management system and we are in denial about it.
To become better off we need to remember that like in 1971, ordinary people must also get credit for what they do, and must have a say in all matters. Bangladesh can never be a successful elite run state as its birth is located in the wombs of society and ordinary people. Only by socio-economic democratization can we hope to do better because our DNA is rooted in the history of many who made 1971 possible.
Enayetullah Khan is Editor-in-Chief, United News of Bangladesh (UNB) and Dhaka Courier