The trench was deep and zigzag. Freshly dug, it had mud piled up along the edges. It had been raining so the place was slippery and the trench half filled with rainwater. This was no battleground, but it was during the 1965 Indo-Pak war and the trench had been dug on the grounds of a school in Chittagong.
I had just started school that year and was waiting for my older siblings who were still in class. I wandered over curiously to see what was inside the trench. I climbed up the mud pile, peered in and slipped straight into the muddy water which reached almost up to my neck! Panic! Alarm! Tears! Sobs! I was immediately rescued by the teachers... and admonished too! That is perhaps one of my first direct, firsthand encounters with history, one of the earliest snapshots in my mind regarding our political past.
War, agitation, struggle, violence have all been part and parcel of our history and we grew up with a keen political sense – our own loyalties changing with the turning pages of history. As children, we perhaps did not grasp the significance of the events unfolding before us, but they left a deep imprint on our psyche, moulding our values and impacting our beliefs. In fact, those flashes of memory seem so much more vivid than the blurred memories of the immediate past.
Do we fabricate things a bit in our mind, add and embellish as go down memory lane? Perhaps. And so it is better to stick to the unvarnished truth tucked in the annals of our minds, unclouded by political bias and other prejudices we gather along the way.
Back to the post-Bangladesh days of the erstwhile East Pakistan. It was perhaps 1968 or 69 and I was back in Chittagong. Ayub Khan was visiting the port city. He was then president Field Marshal Ayub Khan. We were dragged from our school to the Circuit House and made to stand in a line that twisted and turned all the way up to the top. I was standing right bang opposite the stairs at the entrance of the Circuit House. Packets of confetti were thrust into our hands to throw at Ayub Khan’s car when he arrived. It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on our heads. We were only kids and the heat got too much. I suddenly grew dizzy, everything seemed a strange yellow and there was a loud buzzing in my ears. I could feel myself falling but someone caught me. I was made to sit under the shade of a tree until I felt better and then had to stand in the line once again. Armed soldiers suddenly appeared and thrust bayonets into our packets of confetti to make sure we weren’t carrying any explosives! I guess they weren’t that confident of his popularity after all! How could they be? The agitation had started and the people had already begun to rise up against the inequalities and discrimination which weighed down hard on East Pakistan and the Bengalis.
Ayub Khan’s motorcade arrived with blaring sirens and we obligingly flung the pink, white, yellow, green and blue confetti at him. He emerged from a car and stood on the Circuit House steps bang opposite me. The Bengal sun was too hot for him too and I remember thinking how red his face was... almost the same shade as the red rose tucked in the lapel of his black suit!
Ayub Khan had written a book at the time called ‘Friends, not Masters’. It was on display in a bookstall where someone had cleverly used correction fluid to erase the comma after ‘friends’ and place the comma after ‘not’: ‘Friends not, Masters’! A small comma can speak volumes!
Fast forward a few years to January 1971. Sitting in class with a history book, I remember doing the unthinkable. I was very particular about books, never marking them unnecessarily and keeping each page as pristine as possible. But when I turned to the page with a sketch of Ayub Khan, I remember making a caricature out of his picture - drawing horns on top of his head, fire coming out of his nose and steam out of his ears. It was not that I was overly politically conscious, it was just that by then I knew who the enemy was and who the friends were. Ayub Khan was suppressing and oppressing us and all I felt was contempt. That contempt turned to hatred later, directed towards Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan, Rao Farman Ali and the likes of them.
Ekushey February, 21 February. Today it is with horror and sorrow that we see the indecent manner in which political leaders and others jostle, shove and push to get first to the Shaheed Minar and lay wreaths there. The huge elaborate wreaths of flowers are more of a projection of their own might and prominence rather than a token of respect to the martyrs who laid down their lives for the sake of our language. Flashback to the early 1980s: walking barefoot in orderly lines from the university to the Shaheed Minar with humble bouquets but huge respect for the martyrs. Even further back, before the independence of Bangladesh: on the night of 20 February, students would go from house to house, asking for flowers from the gardens to make wreaths, bouquets and garlands to lay at the Shaheed Minar early next morning. They would often have a harmonium and sing ‘Amar bhiayer roktey rangano ekushey February...” at the gates, and the people would themselves pick the flowers, marigolds, roses, tuberose, jasmine, and hand it over to them. Sometimes the house owners would wake up in the morning to find their garden depleted, bare and bereft of all flowers. The young students had perhaps hopped over the wall in the night and helped themselves to the flowers! The owners may have grumbled a bit, but no one really begrudged them as the cause was a noble one. Those sentiments seem to have been lost today in a deluge of elaborate floral arrangements, with imported flowers and rhetoric that just doesn’t ring quite right.
Words that rang our strong and true were those uttered at the Racecourse Maidan, now Suhrawardy Uddyan, on that fateful day of 7 Match 1971 where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered his historic speech to an ocean of people: “Ebarer sangram, muktir sangram, ebarer sangram, shadhinatar sangram.” Have we achieved that ‘mukti’, freedom, that ‘shadinata’, independence?
The songs during the 1971 Liberation War were not just significant and soul stirring, they were interesting too. After all, the Pakistan government also came up with songs and plays to counter that of the freedom struggle. One of the earliest songs in 1970-71 evoking the fight for freedom was ‘Purber oi akashey alo uthechhe..., signifying the rebellion in the East. The radio station of the liberation forces, Shadhin Bangla Betar broadcast one song after the other.. ‘Joy Bangla Banglar Joy,” “Shuno ekti Mujib...” and so on. In a desperate bid to counter this, the Pakistan government tried to invoke Pakistani nationalism with songs on the television and radio, like ‘Ekti nodir naam Surma, aar ek nodir naam Jhelum’ (the river Surma being in East Pakistan and Jhelum is West Pakistan, thus trying to unify the two wings). There was a drama series called ‘Ontorale’ which depicted the freedom fighters as evil and the Pakistanis as patriots.
For the Bengalis living in Mirpur at the beginning of 1971, it was a scary time. In the dead of night, the Bihari collaborators of the Pakistan army would gather together, hitting a lamppost with an iron rod, a signal for all of them to gather before they began to loot and plunder Bangali homes. They would write ‘Allahu’ on the walls of non-Bengali houses to safeguard them. No one wrote ‘Allahu’ on our wall. A Pakistani neighbour wrote it on our wall and told us we better leave as no Bengali would be spared. We left the very next day (it was mid-March) with as much possessions as possible, only to hear later our house had been completely looted. The next tenant of that house was slaughtered. We may have lost our possessions, but not our lives. It has taken long for that resentment against Biharis to die down... one can only pity them for their predicament in the squalid ‘Geneva’ camps. Their next generations are having to pay for their misdeeds and their dear Pakistan refuses to acknowledge them.
Many cars in Dhaka in 1971 had stickers on their windscreens reading CRUSH INDIA in red letters on a white background. Their allegiance was clear.
Victory, 16 December. My parents in one rickshaw, my brother and I in another. Waving to the Indian soldiers, the allied forces. Calling out Joy Bangla to every passerby and responding similarly to everyone who greeted us in the same manner. What exuberance!
Then the days of hardship. Prices shooting up, emaciated and starving people by the roadside. Blankets and food grain sent as aid from abroad being misappropriated by ministers. The Rakkhi Bahini invoking fear, catching young men with long hair and shaving their heads, suspecting them to be supporters of the left-wing JSD, who were proponents of ‘scientific socialism’. The brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and family. Utter confusion and uncertainty. Tumultuous times.
The next snapshot is of a taciturn leader with aviator sunglasses, Major General Ziaur Rahman. Founder of BNP, Ziaur Rahman gained in immense popularity, but he too met a tragic end, assassinated in Chittagong Circuit House, where Ayub Khan had stood, red in the face, so many years ago.
The subsequent regime of General Ershad was met with anger and resistance from the students. And no wonder. As he took over power, soldiers would go around the areas around the campus, pricking girls’ bellies if their saris were warn too low, invoking fear and resentment all around. Tear gas was an everyday affair, but things reached a height when a truck was used to run over and kill protesting students.
It is interesting to note, down the history of Bangladesh, so many people gave their lives for democracy, independence and human rights, Their names are remembered down till today. The language martyrs Salam, Barkat, Jabbar. Asad after whom Ayub Gate was renamed Asad Gate. Basunia. Nur Hossain. Dr Milon.
But now? So many people are killed, but remain nameless and forgotten. Are we becoming complacent and unfeeling as a nation?
As events unfold in present times, surely our mind is taking snapshots and storing them in the recesses of our brain. What pictures will we have to offer the generations to come?
* Ayesha Kabir is a journalist working for Prothom Alo English