December 16: Bangladesh's day of liberation
Are we all not to blame for not speaking up for our fellow citizens as they were being bludgeoned into submission?
The newspaper headlines in Dhaka on December 16 gave me pause: "day of liberation", "victory day" they proclaimed in big black letters emblazoned across the masthead of the papers. In Pakistan, isn’t this day perceived as a somber occasion where Pakistan was rent asunder by the forces of evil? The answer that was evading me while scanning the newspapers came to me when I saw these words of a Bangladeshi columnist.
“The 16th of December 1971 was a day of transformation. It turned caged birds into free birds. On a single day, our life changed for the rest of our life. It was like a knife blade, which severed the past from the future. It forever erased the ignominy of being ruled by others and brought us the resplendent dawn of freedom.”
While travelling to Bangladesh, it would not be remiss to say that I was apprehensive about the feelings of the people there towards Pakistanis. After all, we had fought a war and we had lost half of Pakistan while they had gained a new country, although this chapter had been skimmed over in my school history books. We had not only been unjust towards our own people, but had also been racist and contemptuous. My father’s Bengali batchmates in Chittagong were ridiculed in public by visiting officers from West Pakistan. The drawing rooms in Karachi and Lahore at that time were full of people running down Bengalis with gusto. They were not only Hindus, but were also black, puny, scared and stupid while West Pakistanis, of course, ticked all the right boxes being tall, fair, handsome and smart.
A warm welcome in ex-Pakistan
But my misgivings proved unfounded as I was overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit displayed by Bangladeshis. Far from being hostile, people went out of their way to welcome Pakistanis. Smiling waiters said that their wish was that “our countries should not have been torn apart, because together we would have been so much stronger!” Since most Bangladeshis are great supporters of the Pakistani cricket team, every single victory would be met with unabashed joy and high spirits. When the Pakistani team lost, they would sink into depression and pepper Pakistanis with questions as to why our cricketers were playing so badly. Our shalwar kameezes elicited great admiration while exhibitions by Pakistani retailers like Bareeze were a knockout success.
The memories of war
But it would be unrealistic to expect that the ghosts of the war do not make their presence felt at times. When my father visited Dhaka, he was feted at dinner by his Bengali batchmates who he had not met for decades. Between hugs, news of long lost friends and a sumptuous dinner, I noticed a book in the drawing room which contained graphic images of the murders of intellectuals at Dhaka University during the war. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and these pictures took on a surreal quality as I compared the blood and gore on the pages with the bonhomie between my father and his batch mates.
A Pakistani visitor remembered how she told a Bangladeshi fruit seller “Bangladesh Pakistan bhai bhai” (or Bangladesh and Pakistan are like brothers) to which he replied,
“Yes, we are brothers, but you people did not treat us right in 1971.”
An elegant Bangladeshi lady told me how her father and uncle were taken away from home in Dhaka in 1971, never to be seen again. She said she knew they were dead, but she wished that they had got their bodies back so the family could have buried them and got some kind of closure. When I said I was so sorry about what had happened to her family, she smiled, touched my hand and replied:
”It’s all right. These things happen in war time, don’t they?”
The land of Tagore
Hospitable and articulate, the Bengalis are such a multifaceted people. Their song recitals of great poets like Rabrindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam are so melodious that one cannot help sinking into a reverie even as the unfamiliar lyrics throb in the air. The colourful dances and the joie de vire of the rhythmic dancers tend to cast it’s own spell on Bengalis and non Bengalis alike. Almost every home has a harmonium and tabla, as young and old play and sing and captivate. It is said that there is music in the soil of Bangladesh: even their monsoons have a lyrical quality about them as the trees sway, clouds gather and rain pours forth. Some argue that East Pakistan was an unnatural addition to Pakistan. How could a people so steeped in the love of their rich culture have gelled with a clueless country which has no identity, and which survives on a national security narrative which does not leave much room for anything as frivolous as music, dance and poetry?
Bangladesh: In retrospect
Instead of playing the blame game since time immemorial, and accusing our leaders or institutions or India for leading us to the unbridgeable chasm of December 16, 1971, why don’t we take a good look at ourselves? Are we all also not to blame for not speaking up for our fellow citizens as they were being bludgeoned into submission? To their credit, the Bengalis refused to bow their heads and take such discriminatory treatment. As for India, it took advantage of our disunity and overweening arrogance, but we ourselves opened the door of opportunity to usher Mrs Indira Gandhi in and hand her Bangladesh on a platter. The irony is that some of the very architects of our ignominious surrender appear in today’s talk shows tut tutting over the oppression of East Pakistanis. The faces are the same, but the tune has undergone such a drastic change. Surprisingly, not one anchor has had the guts to expose these spineless guests and their crocodile tears
The tolerance shown by the Bangladeshis towards us, despite the bad blood of 1971, makes me wonder whether we could have displayed this level of understanding towards them if the shoe had been on the other foot? The answer is no, judging by the kind of rabble rousing bigotry and hatred on display against our own people even today. As George Santayana said:
“Those who cannot learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.”