7 months ago

Fifteenth August -- our National Mourning Day

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (March 17, 1920 - August 15, 1975)
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (March 17, 1920 - August 15, 1975)

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This day marks the 47th anniversary of the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation and many members of his immediate family. On this day of this tragic month we need to acknowledge once again the historic role that he played as the master helmsman in the creation of an independent country called Bangladesh. We also need to remember how he subsequently safely guided our ship through troubled waters amidst a devastated post war scenario.

A charismatic leader, dedicated and committed to the cause of Bangladesh, he encapsulated his vision for his new country at Palam Airport, New Delhi on  January 10, 1972. He described his journey to a free Bangladesh as 'a journey from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from desolation to hope'. He also reiterated that he was going back to his independent country 'not with hatred in my heart for anyone, but with the satisfaction that truth has at last triumphed over falsehood, sanity over insanity, courage over cowardice, justice over injustice and good over ill'.

Bangabandhu's magnanimity and belief in the people of Bangladesh was reflected in his optimism. It was also this spirit that would inspire him to face the many difficulties that he would have to overcome in the coming months not only with regard to reconstruction of war devastated Bangladesh but also pertaining to the unfolding paradigm of the newly independent country's engagement within the matrix of international affairs. He knew that he had to tread this difficult path with care and sensitivity.

A statesman, a gifted orator, Bangabandhu, quite naturally was overwhelmed with emotion after setting foot for the first time in independent Bangladesh. His speech delivered on January 10 at Suhrawardy Uddyan (within a few hours of his arrival) was masterly in its pragmatic approach and in the advice for the victorious people of Bangladesh. At this first opportunity, he did not fail to warn that no one should 'raise' their 'hands to strike against non-Bangalees'. At the same time, he displayed his concern for the safety of the 'four hundred thousand Bangalees stranded in Pakistan'. While re-affirming that he harbored no 'ill-will' for the Pakistanis, he was also clear in pointing out that 'those who have unjustly killed our people will surely have to be tried'.

In another significant assertion in the same speech, he pointed out to the Muslim world (to counter false and contentious Pakistani propaganda that Bangladesh had ceased to believe in Islam) that 'Bangladesh is the second largest Muslim state in the world only next to Indonesia'. He also drew their attention to the fact that 'in the name of Islam, the Pakistani army killed the Muslims of this country and dishonored our women. I do not want Islam to be dishonored'. He also appealed to the United Nations 'to constitute an International Tribunal to enquire and determine the extent of genocide committed in Bangladesh by the Pakistani army'. He also strongly admonished Tenku Abdur Rahman, Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference Secretariat in a message sent on February 10, 1972 for not doing anything "during the nine months of 1971 when three million innocent Bengalis were killed in cold blood by the West Pakistani forces"

We must not forget in this context the efforts undertaken by him in successfully providing relief and rehabilitation to more than ten million displaced persons and in the undertaking of measures for restoring order and stability within a war-ravaged economy. This effort and approach on his part was consistent with the courage and determination that Bangabandhu had demonstrated in the political arena between 1948 and 1971. He had welcomed incarceration on several occasions, stuck to his task and his conviction and disagreed to compromises and half-way solutions. This transformed him into the symbol of freedom and independence.

Bangabandhu's magnanimity and belief in the people of Bangladesh was reflected in his optimism.

The August putsch was carried out by certain sections of the armed forces and a group of disgruntled politicians. The voice of liberty was snuffed by the very men trained to save, rather than maim.

Murder was bad enough but what followed was even worse. On September 26, 1975 through an Extraordinary Bangladesh Gazette Notification, the usurper President Khandker Moshtaque Ahmed and his compliant Secretary of the Ministry of Law, Parliamentary Affairs and Justice informed the nation that under 'The Indemnity Ordinance, 1975 (Ordinance No. XIX)' restrictions had been put in place with regard to 'taking any legal or other proceedings in respect of certain acts or things done in connection with, or in preparation or execution of any plan for, or steps necessitating the historical change and the proclamation of Martial Law on the morning of the 15th August, 1975'. What an abuse of the English language!

The consequence of such lack of accountability was only natural. Murderers did not hesitate to commit another crime. That is exactly what happened on November 3, 1975. Four prominent leaders of the Awami League, formerly Ministers, including the Acting President and the Prime Minister during our War of Liberation were brutally killed within the Dhaka Central Jail. A three member Judicial Commission, as expected, was immediately constituted to investigate the matter, but that was the end of that story. Nothing happened.

The BNP leadership however forgot that what goes around usually comes around. Their espousal of lack of accountability for murder of innocent people came back to haunt the BNP through the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman in May 1981.

Subsequently, it took 21 years before the crime committed on  August 15 could be addressed. The Awami League government sworn into Office in 1996 took two important steps-- the overturning of the iniquitous Indemnity provision and the initiation of a normal judicial process (not through a Special Tribunal) for trying those guilty of the crimes committed on August 15. This measure commendably reiterated the belief of the aggrieved victims in the fairness of our judiciary. The government also declared that day as the National Mourning Day and a public holiday.

Unfortunately, the new BNP Alliance government (elected to office in 2001) cast basic civility out of the window and on  July 28, 2002 cancelled the observance of the National Mourning Day. This was politics of hatred at its worst. The judicial process pertaining to the alleged killers of Bangabandhu was also more or less suspended through machinations between the politicised judiciary and the government in power. It was amazing to see how the virus of 'embarrassment' spread within the echelons of the judicial hierarchy. Fortunately for the people, due process of law and the principles of natural justice were upheld on July 27, 2008 when the High Court declared illegal the cancellation of this Mourning Day. I believe that the observance of this day as the National Mourning Day has reaffirmed the establishment of the rule of law.

Since then the country has witnessed the completion of the trial and the execution of the judgment pertaining to some of those who were directly involved in the murders that took place on August 15. There are still some others who were involved in the killing. One can only hope that this cycle is eventually completed.

Bangabandhu  believed in nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism. He felt that they were required for the good of the common man. Bangabandhu was also a firm believer in the rich cultural and literary heritage of Bangladesh and for him that was the spring-board of the Bangalee ethos, its tradition and its nationalism. That instilled in him the pride of being a Bangalee living in Sonar Bangla. His was a life of sacrifice. It is such a pity that his efforts were snuffed out at such a relatively young age.

Before concluding, I will also refer to a poem which I wrote to commemorate this day:

Fifteenth August


Seeking the easy companionship of hypocrisy and hate,

in one hour, that night, when justice slept and so did the saints,

butchers roamed the streets of Dhaka.

They swept aside innocence,

their eyes showing as much charity as glass.

Their assault was brief, their savagery laying waste to trust.

They faced no obstacle in their mind

to the fact that they killed their own kind.

The voice of liberty was snuffed out

by the very men trained to save, rather than maim. …


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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