Bangladesh Slideshow

26 March, 2008

Forever Ring the Bells of Freedom

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

It was the age-old story of an insensitive minority conspiring to deprive the majority of their due share, of manipulative endeavors to perpetuate political, economic and cultural domination, and invoking religion to sanitize the ugly scheme. I am talking about Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971.

A sea change occurred in the political character of the nation with the historical 7 March speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He spoke of the 23 years of bitterness, of broken promises, of bloodshed. “Since we have learned to die, no one can keep us suppressed anymore,” he asserted. And then came the words that have made him immortal, “the struggle this time is the struggle for independence.” His speech that afternoon ended with the words 'Joi Bangla' (Victory to Bengal), which became the militant slogan for 75 million Bengalis during the nine-month war of independence.

The West Pakistan rulers were not about to let this audacity pass without punishment. While talks were going on for an acceptable solution, so was the conspiracy for a military crackdown. In the dead of night on 25 March, the Pakistan army launched a brutal attack on the sleeping, unarmed population of Dhaka, targeting not only the Bengali members of the armed forces and police, but also students, hindus and pretty much whoever happened to be in the line of fire. Cunning, surprise, deception and speed were stressed as crucial elements for success in this six hour operation to disarm and secure Dhaka. The indiscriminant use of artillery and armour stood testimony to the scant regard for innocent civilian lives, and the death toll crossed 100,000 in one night.

The nation of tigers roared to defend itself, and the spirit of defiance, of longing to be free, was lit in every heart. Droves of people, from every strata of society, formed the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters). Resistance was built up in every locality, both urban and rural. Young and old, men and women, all united in courage, innocence, determination and idealism. The Pakistan army responded with indiscriminant arrest of civilians, torture and death of ‘suspects’ in custody, assault and rape, and destruction of property and lives. Sparing not old grandmothers, nor babies, nor pregnant women, nor clergy praying in the mosque. Nothing was sacrosanct. And there were the inevitable snakes, those who collaborated with the Pak army, providing not only information but also misinformation, invoking the name of Allah to justify brutalities. Distrust in friend and neighbor festered. Certain parts of Dhaka were 'cleansed' of Bengalis, their wives and daughters taken for pleasure, their properties seized. Non-muslims were openly slaughtered. When a blood shortage occured for the wounded Pak soldiers, people were hauled off the streets and every drop of blood extracted from their bodies.
Millions escaped to neighboring India, walking hundreds of miles, some dying on the way, trading affluence for life, and settling for refugee status. India was a true ally, not only feeding the sea of humanity but also providing training to the Mukti Bahini and launching a diplomatic offensive against the atrocities committed by West Pakistan in this country. The Bangladesh government in exile also operated from Indian soil. Towards the end of the war, the Indian army joined forces with the Mukti Bahini, and the Pak offensive finally crumbled. Easy enough to fight half-fed, inadequately armed, semi-trained civilians. Quite a different story when facing an equally equipped trained army.

The genocide and reign of terror lasted for nine months. With every passing day, the Mukti Bahini became better trained, better organized. Sporadic attacks on Pak army personnel and establishment gradually evolved into an all out offensive. With realization that victory was slipping gradually out of their hands, the Pak army made a final effort to cripple the soul of the Bengali nation, arresting the prominent intellectuals of the country and murdering them brutally - with their eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs. This took place only two days before the surrender of the occupation forces on 16 December 1971, testimony to their frustrated rage and sheer desperation. The sheer magnitude of Pak army brutalities however, only gradually came to light after the surrender.

As I look back on those dreadful days and sacrifices made, 37 years down the road, I can’t help but feel that those sacrifices did not achieve their true goal. We are independent as a country, but as a nation we still thrive on internal conflicts and fiercely drawn lines of divisionism. A faction boldly denies genocide and wrong-doings during the war, and known war criminals and collaborators still go around unpunished, while many freedom fighters live in abject poverty with little or no recognition. Even while we publicy pay homage to the martyrs, this travesty of justice and dishonor has lowered the head of the proud Bengali nation.
Can we not rise above the petty differences that rule our lives, identify with the 1971 spirit of freedom, and strive for the justice that is due? At that time the bells tolled for liberation of a land, let them ring again for the liberation of our souls.


Rezwan said...

I found your blog from MyBloglog. Great writings.

Please contribute Liberation war related documents and links to our Genocide Archive project.

Thanks for visiting my Blog.

Shahnaz said...

Thanks. I'm so sporadic in my blogging that I can't even ask people to drop in from time to time. But comments are so encouraging. Thanks again.