The Financial Express

The tortuous journey to freedom

| Updated: March 04, 2021 20:32:17

The tortuous journey to freedom

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had much doubt about the eventual survival of the 2-wing Pakistan. On August 15, 1947, the leader was staying at his 'Baker Hostel' in Kolkata. The British colonial government divided its Indian colony between Pakistan and India at 12 and 12:01 midnight on August 14 and 15. The next morning, on Aug 15, Sheikh Mujib, then a young leader in Awami Muslim League, told his co-politicians, "Friends, Pakistan has been created. Let's go back to Dhaka and see how long can we get along with West Pakistan." Bangabandhu, as a politician with extraordinary foresight could sense that the new-born state would not last longer thanks to the excesses feared to be resorted to by West Pakistan's oligarchic rulers, later backed by military.

What Sheikh Mujib had dreamt of was a pure federal state of Pakistan with its units enjoying freedom in all internal affairs except in defence and foreign policy. The leader's disillusionment started at the very first constituent assembly in Karachi in 1948, where the West Pakistani members apparently dithered on the question of recognition to Bangla as the state language. Let's cut to Mohammad Ali Jinnah's arrogant stance on Urdu at a Dhaka public meeting and a university function, the vehement protests by Dhaka University students, the 1952 blood-soaked Language Movement, the dismissal of the 1954 United Front Government in East Bengal after just two months, the declaration of Martial Law, and the mass upsurge in 1969 after the adoption of the 6-point demands in 1966 as the key to autonomy for East Bengal (East Pakistan), Sheikh Mujib's release from jail, and transfer of power to General Yahya Khan in 1969. After a series of fraught sequences, the denouement came in the form of winning the majority of national assembly seats by Awami League in the much-awaited 1970 national election. The whole nation, especially the Bengalees in East Pakistan, was waiting to see their dream come true --- the long oppressed East Pakistanis at the helm of Pakistan, the central government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The National Assembly was called on March 3, 1971. The President of Pakistan Yahya Khan was supposed to be on way to Dhaka on March 1. Just at that time hell broke loose, with things going upside down. President Yahya cancelled his visit to Dhaka as the first assembly of Pakistan was postponed for an indefinite period.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's reaction was one of being stunned. After some time it turned into anger. He just said history will follow its own course. Bangabandhu controlled himself and called an emergency meeting of the leaders of his party and other parties. The leader announced a programme for one whole week. That included non-stop 'hartal' up to 6 March. Meanwhile, the whole Bangladesh burst into protests and anger. On March 5, a new slogan was heard --- "We have ditched the 6-point demands. Now we have only one demand, which is independence." The leader of the Bengalees had already said that on 7th March he would address a public meeting at the then Race Course ground.

Sheikh Mujib valued freedom more than his life. The Bengalee race has shown its love for freedom through ages. Perhaps due to this the foreign invaders which have overrun Bangladesh displayed restraint and circumspection while dealing with the people of Bengal. They knew well if they hadn't stood in the way of these people's freedom of all kinds, they could expect a peaceful co-existence. Poets and bards have never stopped paying tribute to the state of freedom. A Bengalee poet wrote more than a hundred years ago, "Swadhinata-hinotay ke bachitey chay hey, ke bachitey chay …" (Who finds a life worth living without freedom, tell me who …)     

 Free nations can hardly realise the agony of being in bondage. The state of subjugation is the severest of ordeals humans can be subject to. Thanks to this human condition, man has been struggling to remain free and independent for ages. But the quarters and powers which keep man subjugated care little to feel the pains of people in chain.

There are different types of freedom, ranging from those at individual and community levels to national levels. Slaves once represented the chained humanity at community level in the American continent and many other territories. It's an irony that the vice of slavery should have been present in the ancient kingdoms; in isolated cases it had been there --- even in enlightened monarchic states like Greece and Rome. But vast territories under dynastic system in parts of Asia and Africa remained largely free of this exploitative rule. Unfortunately, slavery and conquering free peoples and robbing them of freedom have thrived after the concept of the 'modern state' took root. It occurred just two hundred and fifty years ago in the Americas. Purchasing humans in open-air markets after bringing them to 'emancipated' societies became a dominant norm in the two continents. It was not until 1863 that today's USA could claim the credit of starting the process of abolishing slavery. Had President Abraham Lincoln not declared the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, calling for liberation of the enslaved people, it might have taken a long time for US human enslavement to go. The same were the cases with many inhumanly exploitative societies elsewhere in the world. The massive and earth-shaking event of the French Revolution in 1789 paved the way for man's snatching of his inalienable right to be free. It's beyond dispute that the Revolution was vastly inspired by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

 In his book 'The Social Contract' (1762), Rousseau says, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." The words not only summarise his entire philosophical message, they also show how relevant Rousseau still is today. Later in different phases, localised uprisings on demands that the people in shackles be made free broke out sporadically in different parts of the world. One of the most important of such rebellions occurred in India. Striking fear into the hearts of the British East India colonial rulers of India, it came to be known as the 'Sepoy Mutiny', which swept across the vast land in 1857-1858. Due to gaps in communication and lack of cohesion, the veritably all-out uprising failed miserably, leading to inhuman tortures unleashed on the defeated soldiers. Open execution by hanging hundreds of Indian soldiers in the open became a common feature in the following days.

The run-up to the sub-continent's freedom didn't see any organised armed revolution. But it was the collective pressure of the then undivided India's freedom-loving masses and their leaders which had finally forced the British colonial rulers to grant a 'partitioned' freedom to India and leave the sub-continent. After the watershed event of the abolishment of slavery in America pioneered by President Abraham Lincoln, and the end of civil war during his tenure, the American War of Independence found its path to an amicable end.

Commensurate with these revolutions, people are seen in different ages rising up in arms to come free of bondage. On occasions, fights between the masters and slaves ensue. At times the two sides opposed to each other are the despotic rulers and the oppressed masses. On this day (March 5), fifty years ago, the Bangladesh Independence War was on course to its early days of taking the final shape. The national flag of independent Bangladesh had been hoisted by the then prominent student leaders on the Dhaka University campus on March 2. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib declared a countrywide non-cooperation movement and demanded the soldiers spread to all parts of the country return to their barracks by March 7.

The people saw in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib the indisputable steersman of the Bengalee nation in East Bengal. They looked to him as their supreme leader. On March 5, West Pakistani soldiers opened fire on an unarmed protest March at Tongi near Dhaka. The firing incident led to the killing of two. At least 15 people were injured. The earlier announced date of the 7th March was only two days away. The day was set to watch the historic meeting at which Sheikh Mujib would declare, "The struggle this time is for freedom, the struggle this time is for independence." Thus history put into effect the unwavering dynamics of freedom on 7th March, 1971, that would lead to the independent Bangladesh --- through a 9-month-long sanguinary War of Liberation.

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