Archiving 1971

Photo: Don Mccullin


By Sharmin Ahmed

Star Weekend

Winston Churchill said, ?History is written by the victors.? And when history is one-sided, it becomes a propaganda instrument. Archiving is a form of respecting not only history but the truth, and it is with the motive of promoting the truth that documentation of history must be done. ?Archiving 1971?, a programme by Drik to collect oral, textual and visual resources to establish a one stop repository of the historical 1971 War of Liberation for Bangladesh began on that promise

The aim is to bring together a team of researchers, social scientists, historians, archivists and other professionals to assemble definitive archives of this important chapter in the country’s history. The 10-year plan includes not only collating materials from across the world but also generate the economic resources necessary to build permanent physical archives. It will help academics, researchers and others to make rigorous analysis and draw inspiration from the repository.

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Songs of a Wounded Image

(Editor’s introduction to “Birth Pangs of a Nation” produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh and the 60 anniversary of the establishment of UNHCR.)
The Bangladeshi War of Liberation, like all other wars, has a contested history. The number killed, the number raped, the number displaced, are all figures that change depending upon who tells the story.

Photo ??Raghu Rai

But in our attempt to be on the ?right side? of history, we often forget those who ended up on the wrong side. Those who have gone, those who were permanently scarred, mentally, physically, socially, don?t really care about our statistics. The eyes that stare into empty space, knowing not what they are searching, the frail legs, numbed by fatigue, drained by exhaustion, yet willed on by desperation, the wrinkled hands, seeking a familiar touch, a momentary shelter, longing for rest, do not care about the realpolitik of posturing superpowers.
Photo ??Don McCullin

Is a 40th anniversary more than a convenient round number in a never-ending cycle of the displacement of the weak? Is a 60th anniversary more than a celebration of a milestone amongst many, where brave men and women have stood by those in need, but watched in silence as the perpetrators of injustice continued in their violent ways, leaving them to deal with the fallout?
Photo ??Begart Institute

Continue reading “Songs of a Wounded Image”

Archiving 1971

Date & Time: 12 February, 2012 from 11am to 1pm
Venue: Jatiya Press Club, Dhaka (Conference Room)
The programme will also be online live at
History, at least in its initial form is generally written by the victor. But who is the victor in a war? How does one value a memory? What purpose does an artifact serve? Each archive is unique; its character shaped on those who set it up, and those who use it. From a photographer?s perspective, the war of 1971 was unique in other ways too. The events leading up to it were documented almost entirely by local photographers. They were themselves caught up in the struggles they were recording. It was not a story that international media neither knew nor was interested in. As such, the immediate aftermath of the crackdown on the 25th March was hardly recorded. For local photographers it was much too dangerous to be out there with a camera. Many of the foreign journalists were locked up in Hotel Intercontinental in Dhaka. It was only the few who managed to sneak out, or film through hotel windows that had tangible records of that fateful night. Others, who recorded those moments, were amateurs who took phenomenal risks in preserving the only visual records of the atrocities. Missing are the subtle nuanced observations. Ordinary people, trying to survive. The euphoria and hope of an expectant nation being replaced overnight by the terror of living under occupation, was a transformation that went unrecorded.
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American Activists and the Birth of Bangladesh

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Celebrating victory. (c) Kishor Parekh

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Forty years ago this month, the country of Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. Then-President Richard Nixon supported Pakistan during the war because he wanted to prove the US would stand by an ally.
Many Americans disagreed with that stance. And when a ship headed for Pakistan with military equipment and ammunition was set to stop at a US port, one group of Americans felt it was necessary to get involved.
?I was ready to risk my life there,? says 78-year-old Richard Taylor. ?I just wanted to get in front of that ship.? Continue reading “American Activists and the Birth of Bangladesh”

Bangladesh war: The article that changed history


By Mark Dummett BBC News

On 13 June 1971, an article in the UK’s Sunday Times exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter’s family into hiding and changed history.

Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistani patrol. He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling because he was about to be shot.
So starts one of the most influential pieces of South Asian journalism of the past half century.
Written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani reporter, and printed in the UK’s Sunday Times, it exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan army’s brutal campaign to suppress its breakaway eastern province in 1971.
Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed, but certainly a huge number of people lost their lives. Independent researchers think that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. The Bangladesh government puts the figure at three million. Continue reading “Bangladesh war: The article that changed history”

Shock & Awe Talk

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A politically incorrect letter to Tareque Masud

by Mac Haque

?I?ve overcome the blow, I?ve learned to take it well, I only wish my words could just convince myself,that it just wasn?t real. But that?s not the way it feels? ? Jim Croce
Status: Open/Unrestricted
Mood: Meditative/Gloomy/Angry
Music in Background: Do it Again ? Steely Dan
Date/Time- Line: From Then, Now to Never
My Dear Tareque,
Something went awfully wrong on Saturday the 13th of August 2011, and they tell me that you will remain incommunicado?forever. Fair deal pal?that appreciated if not understood; I hope you will take?time out to read this letter. I have deliberately marked it open and unrestricted, so that somewhere down the line somehow, maybe through a gap in the ether, it will be delivered to you unblemished.
You are the savviest of communicators for our generation indeed in the history of Bangladesh. I know for certain that you will continue with your job beyond the 24/07/365 spectral dimension, a rather limited sphere for a genius like you.
It?s this delusion we call?life the Baul in both of us recognizes that stops me from mentioning you in the?past tense. It would be an insult to the living and illuminated spirit that has broken free from a clay tomb. Death is a celebration as much as?life an unending cycle; the entrapped Clay Bird is now free to hover.

As early as 1983 when you were working like an obsessive maniac on?Adam Surat featuring living footages of Lal Miah, you charted your road map in life. You chose an iconoclast, a living legend as your subject. A subject who on the quiet had gone International, and his paintings hung side-by-side with masters like Matisse and Dali, was yet, little known to his own people then, as even today.
Quite characteristically you explained with unending patience, about technological advancements and why your 16 mm celluloid print of?Adam Surat can?t be sent to a festival as the mandatory requirement was U-Matic, NTSC BVU format etc. Very few people in Bangladesh understood what the heck you and I were talking about.
Worse was to follow. Despite my reluctance you bull headedly went ahead and talked to the illiterate proprietor of the Travel Agency where I was working – for?sponsorship. You were shown the door and the same month I quit. In retrospect, not many doors were open to us anyway friend. We had a notorious reputation for speaking our minds and there wasn?t a huge appetite for our?brutal to a fault honesty.
Communications between us were never regular or irregular, but I find it comforting to think that whenever there was a crisis we always met and spent quality time. In winter of 1987 after a whiskey wasted night when we talked only about?financial solvency I had no way of knowing what was really doing overtime in your mind.
So it was more of an embarrassment than a shock that the same morning after waving me goodbye, you tried a hop-skip-and-jump in front of a public bus? Man that was weird. If your ambition was to bag an athletic gold for Bangladesh in the Olympics, you chose a real lousy turf for a practice run?…phew!
Your personal turbulences were?officially over in 1988 when you walked in to my office arm-in-arm with Catherine Shapiere. Before long fate conspired and she was being hounded by people in?absolute power who were not quite able to understand the economics or politics of a visiting American student with a perpetually broke Bangladeshi boyfriend! Love perhaps was an obsolete word back then.
Our last ditch plea to get the US Embassy to help was met by a stern official on the phone. To our horror we learnt that he will ensure Catherine?s passport is returned, but could do nothing about the deportation order. The three of us hugged and cried but our gloom was short lived.
I remember Catherine promising she would return which she did much earlier than expected. And that poem on her adopted motherland written at the Departure lounge of Dhaka Airport after a humiliating interrogation by Immigration Police was bitterly poignant. The two of you were destined to serve the Nation, and do so with the greatest honor and highest of admiration. No power on earth could dare stop that.
I came to know about your nuptials courtesy the grapevine. Months later you enjoyed my quip when I pointed to the framed portrait of the two of you in a wall.?Prem er porey frame ? aha!
Then most annoyingly you vanished without a trace not to return until the early nineties. When you did, you excitedly summoned me to talk about a?treasure trove that you had discovered in New York and NO, you assured me you haven?t robbed a Bank! ?Nevertheless I rushed to see you and Catherine with a hope that..?ahem?.I may end up being an?important side-kick for a soon to be billionaire in Bangladesh.
An hour into the meeting at your Kalabagan hangout with all that hush-hush secrecy, I realized what you have in hand was indeed priceless, but fraught with risk higher than a Bank vault. It was a people?s statement that no political party would be able to stomach. Never spoken but never denied – our lives were at stake.
Reading between the lines, I am sure had it not been on Catherine?s insistence, you wouldn?t have budged to call up Lear Levin. This was based on an emotive flashback by a much inebriated Tareq Ali in New York. And sure enough Lear Levin was on the phone directory. And sure enough so was the cache, preserved in mint condition in his temperature controlled basement. Hours of raw celluloid footage of the Liberation War, not blood or gore but front line cultural activists in action, entertaining guerrillas and common people.
And there was Tareq Bhai, Benu Da, Naila and Shahin Apa, Shopon Da and so many more. From reel, real to surreal, it was as if 1971 had returned, courtesy you – to tell its own tale in 1995.

The two of us have tormented for years whenever the Liberation War came up for discussions. Here we were faced with a new generation and our reminiscences as teenagers growing up in 1971 were rubbished. ?Were we dreaming back then, or are we lying today?? You finally had the answer to my question.?We NOW HAVE THE PROOF Dosto! The next challenge was how to get this across to the people of Bangladesh, the ultimate beneficiary of the treasure.

Muktir Gaan was then an unfolding history of a history in changed times, when we had all but given up on the bloodiest phase in our history. From handling the Censor Board without editing out a single frame, to organizing screening and alternative out-of-the box distribution without?sponsors or patron you masterminded the movie reaching furthest corners of Bangladesh without dithering on your resolve.
Ironically while you received a lot of pats on your back, when it came to real help, you had next to none. Try as you may to hide this my friend, I know for a fact that with all of that happening around you, there were days you went without food. The prohibitive cost of the movie burnt a huge hole in your pocket which was never very deep in the first place.
It was my sheer fortune and destiny to be a tiny piece in a gigantic jig-saw puzzle that was to be the?Muktir Gaan project. I am honored together with other volunteers and friends, to be a roadie and lift and lug the very expensive projector equipments and precious celluloid prints during the initial screenings at Public Library Auditorium.
I am equally honored that you?ordered our friend Shampa Reza and me to be the MC?s for the first screening of?Muktir Gaan to diplomats, bureaucrats and others at the Dhaka Museum Auditorium. The shows at Manikganj, Faridpur and Bhanga where I accompanied you and Catherine in those tumultuous days will forever be etched in my memory.
But then, we had our differences sometimes very heated. While you agreed with me most times, you never accepted my pathological rejection of the status quo or contempt for Culture Vultures and Media Mafia who were hanging around our motley crew for all the wrong reasons.
To quote Bob Marley, I was merely??Oba, ob-serving the hypocrites, as they would mingle with the good people we meet?, so all I could do was watch dejectedly from the periphery and take another toke of Sinsemilia! You are the superior being. You could hear history calling, you could hear the peoples cry when defeat after defeat, our senses had gone numb.
And then it was?Matir Moyna (Clay Bird) and Cannes in 2002. You firmly placed Bangladesh in the International Cinema map. Everything was to change, except you my dear friend. Your dynamism was infectious as usual, but you remained the forever approachable Tareque Masud.
I thank God for that. Your head didn?t outgrow your shoulders. You had no pretensions to be a Ray or Kiarostami or stoop to the perverted commercial decadence of a Farooki??..who?
Last if not the least?Dosto?Runway was awesome and I don?t know if I thanked you enough for the peek preview at your house last year.
Catch up with you soon.
Salutes – my comrade in thoughts.
PS. I have not been able to go see Catherine and Nishad. I don?t know what to tell them about your?disappearance when enough has already been said.

Award winning Bangladesh film makers Tareque and Catherine Masud and their two month old son Nishaad. Tareque Masud died in a car accident in August 2011. ?Photo: June 2010. ??Adam Hume

New Age XTRA. Print Version. Friday, 26th August 2011

Subcontinental drift

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By Salil Tripathi

Does the controversial book about Bangladesh?s war of liberation uncover new truths, or simply reverse old biases?

It is an article of faith in Bangladesh that three million people died in its war of independence in 1971. At that time, the population of the former East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh) was about 70 million people, which means nearly 4% of the population died in the war. The killings took place between 25 March, when Pakistani forces launched?Operation Searchlight, and mid-December, when Dhaka fell to the invading Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini forces (who was aiding whom depends on which narrative you read? India?s or Bangladesh?s). As per Bangladesh?s understanding of its history, the nation was a victim of genocide. Killing three million people over 267 days amounts to nearly 11,000 deaths a day. That would make it one of the most lethal conflicts of all time.
One of the most brutal conflicts in recent years has been in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the International Rescue Committee reported that 5.4 million people died between 1998 and 2008. A more thorough Canadian analysis now concludes that the actual figure is about half. At 5.4 million deaths, the daily death toll would be around 1,500; at 2.7 million, around 750. Was the 1971 war up to 15 times more lethal than the Congolese conflict?
A history of violence: A scene from the bloody conflicts of the 1971 Bangladesh war. Photo: Getty Images
A history of violence: A scene from the bloody conflicts of the 1971 Bangladesh war. Photo: Getty Images
It is an uncomfortable question. Many Bangladeshis feel that raising such a doubt undermines their suffering and belittles their identity. But a thorough, unbiased study, going as far as facts can take the analysis, would be an important contribution to our understanding of the subcontinent?s recent history.
Continue reading “Subcontinental drift”

Is your liberation, also mine?

Rahnuma Ahmed

“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
Related links:
Remembering December 1971
1971 as I saw it
Bangladesh 1971
The month of victory
Jahanara Imam
1971 show in London

Remembering December 1971

Winter, War and Refugee Camps

Julian Francis

?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

Jamaat?s farce unravels

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students? wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation. The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat?s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat?s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth,

Be what you would seem to be ? or, if you?d like it put more simply ? Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

The Duchess, in Lewis Carroll, Alice?s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

IT WAS to be a convention of freedom fighters, his neighbour had told him. They had both fought against the genocidal onslaught unleashed by the Pakistan army in 1971.
On Friday, a weekly holiday morning, veteran freedom fighter Sheikh Mohammad Ali Aman had gone to the Diploma Engineers Institute in Dhaka. He had peeked into the auditorium. He had expected to see familiar faces, to hear cherished stories of loss and courage. Of a victory achieved, of justice denied. Of betrayals. Of trying the collaborators ? the local accomplices of Pakistan army?s genocidal campaign ? to right the wrongs, at least some. There were collaborators thought to be guilty of committing war crimes, but they had gone scot-free. Their political rehabilitation and brazenness in the last three and a half decades was like a wound that festers. Yet another brazen act, yet another shameless lie brings the pus to the surface. It keeps oozing out. Again, and again.
He was puzzled at the faces that he saw. None of the Sector Commanders were present. No familiar faces, faces that symbolise for him the spirit of the struggle, the spirit of the nine-month long people?s war. Mohammad Ali is a man of modest means, he earns a living by painting houses and buildings in Badda, Dhaka. Unable to recognise any of the imposing figures present inside the auditorium ? ex-chief justice Syed JR Mudassir Hossain who was chief guest, energy adviser to the previous government Mahmudur Rahman, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Rifles Major General (retd) Fazlur Rahman, Wing Commander (retd) Hamidullah Khan, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Press Institute Rezwan Siddiqui, who was the special guest, New Nation editor Mostofa Kamal Mojumdar, general secretary of the Federal Union of Journalists Ruhul Amin Gazi, journalist Amanullah Kabir ? he felt alarmed. And left. One can hardly blame him.

`So I went and sat on the lawn,? Mohammad Ali said in an interview given later. ?I saw some people come out, I heard them say, we don?t want to be part of a meeting that demands the trial of Sector Commanders. An ETV reporter came up to me and asked, are you a freedom fighter? Yes, I replied. I belonged to Sector 11, First Bengal Regiment, D Company, led by Colonel Taher. What about the trial of war criminals, what do you think? I said, I think that those who had opposed the birth of the nation, those who had committed rape, razed localities to the ground, murdered intellectuals, they are war criminals. They should be tried. Those who were chairman and members of the Peace Committees, they belong to Jamaat, and to the present Progressive Democratic Party. They should be tried, they should be hung. I think this is something that can be done only by the present government, a non-party government? (Samakal, July 13).

?Who cares for you?? said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). ?You?re nothing but a pack of cards!?

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her…

They swooped down on Mohammad Ali. He was kicked and locked in a room for three hours. Before his release, his voter ID card was photocopied. ?I do not wish to say what they did to me. It will bring dishonour to the freedom fighters,? was all he said of his ordeal. ETV reporter Sajed Romel, also made captive, was released an hour later, after his colleagues rushed to his rescue. The camera crew, fortunately, had escaped earlier, with its recorded film intact.

Engineer Abdur Rob, a vice-president of Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad ? the organisers of this farce ? was asked why a veteran freedom fighter and an electronic media journalist had been locked up. He replied, ?Impossible. Such a thing could not have happened.? Prothom Alo?s reporter was persistent, it was filmed. We have it. ?Well then,? came the immediate reply, ?it was an act of sabotage. Our people could never have done such a thing.?

New lies. Emergency lies

Soon enough, press releases were handed out by Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad detailing the sabotage story: Prothom Alo, Samakal, Jugantor, Inquilab, and Daily Star were guilty of spreading lies. Some persons had come to the national convention without any delegate cards, they had tried to barge in, JMP volunteers had wanted to see their invitation cards, their responses had been unsatisfactory. Instead of covering the main event, the ETV news crew had shot something else, it was staged by hired people and instigated by yellow journalists. These acts, deliberate and pre-planned, were aimed at wrecking the convention. They had failed. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad is an authentic organisation of freedom fighters. It is not affiliated to any political party. The liberation struggle is above party affiliation. Journalists are demeaning the honour of freedom fighters by propagating lies. They are creating disunity.
A later press release added more details: no one by the name of Mohammad Ali had been invited to the national convention of Freedom Fighters. The ETV?s interest in interviewing him proves that it was staged, it was a conspiracy aimed at foiling the convention. Politicians are attempting to capitalise on the incident. The JMP calls on all freedom fighters to stay united (Naya Diganta, 13, 15 July).
Newspaper reports, however, provide concrete details. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad was formed on January 26 this year. After the Sector Commanders Forum had demanded the trial of war criminals. The JMP?s office is located in a room rented out by an organisation headed by ATM Sirajul Huq, ex-amir, Paltan thana, Jamaat. It is not registered with the liberation war ministry. This, according to legal experts, makes it illegal. Three high-ranking members of the Parishad claim that they had fought in 1971. These claims are false. Muktijoddha commanders of the respective areas do not know them. Executive committee members of the Parishad include men who contested parliamentary elections on behalf of Jamaat-e-Islami. Vice-president Engineer Abdur Rob had admitted to journalists, yes, the Parishad did receive ?donations? from Jamaat-e-Islami.
The story about Jamaat?s role in the liberation struggle, the liberation struggle itself, whether it was genocidal or not, whether war crimes should be tried or not, who was on which side, is an evolving one. What interests me particularly is how Emergency rule, and its raison d?etre of removing corruption and corrupt political practices for good, has impacted on Jamaat?s story. On its warped sense of history. Last October, as Jamaat?s secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid was leaving the Election Commission after talks on electoral reforms, he was asked about the growing demand for declaring anti-liberation forces, and war criminals, disqualified from contesting in the national elections. He had replied, the charges against Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh are ?false?, and ?ill-motivated?. There are no war criminals in the country. He had added, ?In fact, anti-liberation forces never even existed.? A day later, in an ETV talk show (26.10.2007) Jamaat-sympathiser and former Islami Bank chairman Shah Abdul Hannan had said, there was no genocide in 1971. Only a civil war.
And now this. A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students? wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation.
The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat?s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat?s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth.

Old truths

Historical research which includes newspaper reports, speeches and statements made by those accused of war crimes, attests to the fact that Mujahid, as president of East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Sangha, and as chief of the Al-Badr Bahini, collaborated with the Pakistan army in conducting massacres, looting and rape. Also, that he had led the killings of renowned academics, writers and poets, doctors, engineers, and journalists, which occurred two days before victory was declared on December 16. Senior Jamaat leaders Abdus Sobhan, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Abdul Kader Molla and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, who accompanied Jamaat?s secretary general to the Election Commission for talks on electoral reforms last October, are also alleged to have committed war crimes. According to the People?s Enquiry Commission formed in 1993, Jamaat?s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami, as commander-in-chief of Al-Badr, is also guilty of having committed war crimes.

Who needs Jamaat?

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had accepted Jamaat as an ally during the anti-Ershad movement. After the national elections of 1990, Jamaat support had ensured the BNP its majority in the fifth parliament. The Awami League, which claims to have led the liberation struggle, joined forces with Jamaat to help oppose and oust the sixth parliament. In the seventh parliament, the Awami League inducted at least one identified war collaborator in the cabinet. And, in the eighth parliament, the BNP paid the ultimate tribute by forming government with Jamaat as a coalition partner.
But what about now? That this government, the Fakhruddin-led, military-controlled government, is giving Jamaat-e-Islami a kid gloves treatment has not escaped unnoticed. Jamaat?s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami was one of the last top-ranking leaders to be arrested. He was also one of the earliest to be released, that too, on bail. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of party supporters were allowed to gather on the road to cheer his release last week, while the banner of Amra Muktijuddher Shontan activists, who had formed a human chain the next day, to protest against the assault on Muhammad Ali, was seized by the police. The Bangla blogging platform Sachalayatan could no longer be accessed after a strongly worded article on the assault of Muhammad Ali was posted. Was it a coincidence? Or, are the two incidents related? When asked, ABM Habibur Rahman, head of BTCAL internet division, refused to comment. One of the founders, who lives in Malaysia, has confirmed that the blog can be accessed from all other parts of the world.
As the US expands its war on terror, its venomous civilisational crusade of establishing democracies in the Middle East, one notices how Bangladesh has gradually been re-fashioned as a ?moderately? Muslim country, in an area considered to be ?vital to US interests?. Jamaat-e-Islami, in the words of Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a ?democratic party?. James F Moriarty, US ambassador to Bangladesh, in his congressional testimony (February 6, 2008), said US interest in Bangladesh revolved around the latter denying space to ?terrorism? (mind you, Islamic, not US, not state-sponsored).
Moriarty?s ideas echo Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami?s. In an interview given last year, Nizami said, Jamaat was important to keep Bangladesh free of militancy and terrorism (Probe, June 27-July 3, 2007). Interesting words coming from a person who had, three years earlier, as amir of the then ruling coalition partner and industries minister, denied the existence of militancy in Bangladesh. Bangla Bhai was the ?creation of newspapers?, it was ?Awami League propaganda?.

The US and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh fashioning a new partnership on war on terror? chorer shakkhi matal, many Bengalis would say. The drunkard provides testimony for the thief.


First published in The New Age on Monday 21st July 2008