A Golden Age

In December of 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s party, the Awami League, wins elections in Pakistan with a clear majority. However, the victory of Awami League, a major political party in East Pakistan, is not acceptable to those in West Pakistan.

There is widespread opposition in the Pakistani military and the Islamic political parties to Mujibur becoming Pakistan’s prime minister. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of Pakistan People’s Party, the largest West Pakistani party at that time, even threatens to boycott the assembly if Mujibur is allowed to form the new government.

As the rift between leaders of East and West Pakistan widens, Mujibur calls for independence of East Pakistan and asks the people to launch civil disobedience campaigns against the West Pakistani regime which had always treated them as third-class citizens. The people of East Pakistan, who were infuriated by the central government’s treatment of the devastating November’s cyclone victims, readily join in.

Following this, then Pakistani president Yahya Khan bans the Awami League, declares martial law and orders the army to arrest Mujibur and other East Pakistani leaders and activists. The ruthless decision, however, forces Mujibur to declare independence of East Pakistan at midnight on March 26, 1971, giving birth to Bangladesh.

Mujibur is later arrested and sent to prison in the West. But this does not quell the tension and the army can do nothing to stop the people, who by that time were determined to liberate Bangladesh from the hands of the authoritarian West Pakistani regime.

Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age, finds its root in this tensed environment, where West Pakistan’s so-called attempt to restore order in Bangladesh results in terror and bloodshed. It is a story of a country at war, where chaos is the order of the day and disappearance and murder of people become everyday affair.

Amidst this situation, Rehana Haque, a widowed mother of two, finds it increasingly difficult to protect her children. Like every mother she has selfish love for them and since she had once been separated from them after her husband’s death she does not want to repeat the same ordeal.

But the war’s intensity is so great, no one can easily isolate or escape from it. As some of the characters of the novel put it: “Everyone is fighting—even people who weren’t so sure, people who wanted to stay with Pakistan.”

Then finally one day, Rehana’s eldest son, Sohail, comes home and says he has joined a clandestine guerilla operation launched by university students.

At first Rehana finds it hard to believe him. Yes, he was the revolutionary type who had posters of Lenin and Che Guevara on his room’s walls. He also recited speeches like ‘Peking or Moscow? Third World Socialism’ and ‘Jinnah: Statesman or Imperialist Demagogue?’ in college. But Rehana never thought her son would go this far. After all, she had always known him as a pacifist, someone who would not rush to join a war.

In this, as in all other things, Rehana tries to veer between “indulgence and censure”. “There was a part of her that wanted to allow her children to do anything—any whimsy, any zeal, any excess,” the author explains. “Another part of her wanted them to have nothing to do with it all, to keep them safe, at home.”

Rehana chooses the former and allows Sohail to go to war. In the meantime, her daughter, Maya, who had also joined the revolution, moves to Kolkata in India to work for a newspaper, which was supporting the Bangladeshi independence movement.

At this juncture, Rehana finds herself all alone in the house. Instead of Sohail and Maya, she starts living with talks about whereabouts of Mujibur and Anwar Sadaat and uproar, in the city or beyond, in Islamabad, where one punishing law after another was passed. “And every hiccup of the political landscape made its way to their door,” Tahmima writes.

A Golden Age is a story about a mother trying to keep her family intact during war. It is about the contribution made by a liberal middle-class Muslim family—living in harmony with Hindus—in liberating Bangladesh from the hands of Pakistan. It is a story about curfew sirens, empty streets, closed shops, locked gates, a burned and blistered city. At the same time it is also a story about courage and sacrifices, where mothers lose their children, wives mourn the death of their husbands and friends bury their fellow companions.

However, to give a light flavour to the gripping story the writer also talks about the love life of central character, Rehana, with a former army major who stays in her house for 96 days to recuperate from a major injury. She also talks about delicious foods like, paratha, samosa and puri and old Hindi as well as some English songs to give a breezy touch.

Tahmima’s style is sure and sharp, studded with illuminating images. She has not gone to the extent of over-explaining her characters and the novel’s plot is not monotonous.

Try the novel and you will have a sound knowledge on how Bangladesh emerged as an independent country in the 1970s. The book will also give you an insight into the strong ties that Bangladeshi family members maintain that provide them support in times of trouble. Moverover, it also gives you a bird’s eye view of Bangladeshi culture, their idea of merrymaking and their fondness for food.

Author : Rupak D Sharma

Bangladesh upholds death sentence for Mujib’s killers

DHAKA: Bangladesh’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for five convicted killers of the nation’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, setting the stage for their execution.

The court dismissed the men’s final attempt to challenge their sentences for assassinating Mujib, as he was widely known, in 1975.

“The Supreme Court, headed by the country’s chief justice, has dismissed their final appeals,” Syed Anisul Haque, chief counsel for the state, told AFP.

The five former army officers could be hanged “at any moment”, he added.

Mujib led Bangladesh to independence in 1971 during a bloody war against Pakistan.

He was gunned down at his home, along with his wife and three sons, in a coup on August 15, 1975. His daughter, the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was abroad at the time.

A total of 20 people, including domestic staff, were killed when army officers stormed his house, but the murder charges that were brought only related to Mujib’s death.

“It is a landmark verdict and we think this will go a long way towards establishing the rule of law in the country,” Haque said.

The case was first heard in 1996 when Hasina became premier for the first time and removed a legal barrier enacted by the post-Mujib government to protect the accused officers.

At that time, 15 men were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Three were acquitted in 2001. Of the remaining 12, five appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, six are in hiding and one is believed to have died in Zimbabwe.

“We will decide on the date for the execution as soon as we receive a copy of the Supreme Court order,” said additional inspector general of prisons Syed Iftekher Uddin.

The appeal argued that Mujib’s death was part of a mutiny and the defendants should therefore have been tried under martial law instead of through the civilian court system.

Author : Muhammad Faisal Jawaid Attari

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returns to Bangladesh

NBC news report from 1/10/1972 on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s homecoming in independent Bangladesh after spending 10 months in prison in Pakistan.

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A historian searching roots

I do remember him, like most of his living acquaintances, who interacted with him in any phase of his not-so-long life of seventy two years. He is Abdul Huq Chowdhury, a humble folk researcher and historian, attired in white lungi and kurta, as far as I recall his figure. He departed twenty two years back, on 16 October 1994, leaving a legacy of his own as a peerless scholar growing out of grassroots outfit on the fertile soil of Chittagong, the gateway of the East that has been harboring the ethos of diverse races and cultures since time immemorial. The seventh descendant of the illustrious poet Koreshi Magan in the middle age, who authored a long verse narrative entitled `Chandravati’, Huq was born on 24 August 1922 to the wedlock of Alhaj Sharfuddin Engineer and Momena Begum Choudhurani in Nowazishpur village under Raojan thana of greater Chittagong. He started and completed his schooling in his birth-village, and subsequently took the profession of teaching there in a primary school at the age of eighteen, following the untimely death of his father. Thereafter he came into close contact with Abdul Karim Sahityavisharad, the pioneering folklorist and collector of medieval manuscripts of Muslim poets in the main, a venture that compelled our literary historians to reconstruct the history of Bengali literature as a whole. Furthermore, Huq was a classmate as well as a close associate of Professor Ahmed Sharif, who contributed enormously in deciphering and interpreting rare puthis or medieval verse manuscripts, collected by his uncle and literary guide Shahit­yavisarad. This interaction proved rewarding in multiple ways to A Huq Chowdhury, who was inspired to dedicate his life to collect and record rare documents and confessions by living tradition bearers roaming around the rural and urban areas of Chittagong and adjacent areas. Though Huq never received college or university education as per prescribed syllabus, he studied and practiced the method of close reading as well as documentation in his humble manner, resulting in a paradigm of his own, characterized by clarity, accuracy and poignancy of thought and wisdom. He was slow and steady all along and waited till the fiftieth year of his life before gathering himself to draft the manuscripts on the history, culture and allied disciplines, mostly relating to his known regions, where he grew up. The first title he published was ‘Chattagramer Itihas Prasanga’ (About the History of Chittagong) in two volumes in the year 1976. And then onwards he wrote and published as many as eleven book-length research works on diverse issues and perspectives. These are Chattagramer Ithas Prasnga (second edition 1980), Chattagramer Samaj Sangskriti (1980), Syleter Itihas Prasanga (1981), Shahar Chattagramer Itikotha (1985), Chattagramer Samaj Sangskritir Ruprekha (1988, Bangla Academy), Chattagram Arakan (1989), Chattagramer Itihas Bishayak Probandha (1992), Prachin Arakan, Rohingya, Hindu O Barua, Budhdha Odhibashi (1994, Bangla Academy) and Bandar Shahar Chattagram (1994, Bangla Academy). Bangla Academy published his last title Probandha Bichitra : Itihas O Sahitya posthumously in 1995. His magnum opus is undoubtedly Chattagramer Samaj Sangskritir Ruprekha (Outline of the Society and Culture of Chittagong), with new findings and insight into the traditional history of the region he belonged to. A veteran freedom fighter, he was arrested by the Pakistani occupation army on 11 August 1971. He was recognized for his contribution by the father of nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Bangabandhu Sangskriti Sebi Kalyan Trust was generous enough to extend monetary grant for publication of his first book.
Besides, he won a number of awards for his original contribution towards redefining the individual and national identity of the people of Bangladesh, now a nation-state. However, he deserves to be decorated with highest state honor such as Swadhinata Padak or Ekushe Padak posthumously for his invaluable achievements as a self-trained researcher and historian searching roots.

Author / Source : Mohammad Nurul Huda, The author is a leading poet of Bangladesh.

Founding father under siege . . .

Abdul Matin’s persistence in keeping the historical record straight for Bangladesh is admirable. More to the point, it has been a necessary truth in the collective life of the Bengalis. You could suggest that if Matin were not around to keep us focused on the politics of Bangladesh as it was forged and pressed forward in the 1960s and the 1970s, there would be a huge need to go looking for someone of his kind. Obviously, Matin has done his job well. His preoccupation with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains, a particular reason being his understanding that the founding father of Bangladesh has, directly as also indirectly, been under unremitting siege since his assassination in August 1975. To be sure, over the years, Bangabandhu’s legacy has regained some of its earlier lustre, thanks principally to the particularly strong niche his daughter Sheikh Hasina occupies in national politics and thanks also to the concerted struggle his party, the Awami League, has waged over more than three decades to restore his reputation as the man behind the creation of Bangladesh.

The work under review is fundamentally an addition to the position Matin has adopted, through his earlier books, on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He believes, and quite rightly too, that the slings and arrows which have been hurled at Bangabandhu are of a nature that ought not to be taken seriously and yet cannot quite be ignored because of the fair degree of consistency with which his detractors have been trying to run him down posthumously. Many have been the instances when Mujib was castigated for the way he administered the country between 1972 and 1975. It is such criticism which Matin counters in this work. And in doing so, he makes sure that his arguments are backed by necessary documentary references. An instance of it relates to the declaration of independence on 26 March 1971 moments into the genocide launched by the Pakistan army in Dhaka. Matin quotes from United States government documents to underscore the point that Bangabandhu made the call for freedom soon after the army fanned out to different locations in the city.

Obviously, a good deal of what the writer presents here is by now the historical truth. The difference between Matin and the others who remain aware of national history as it developed after March 1971 is that the former bases his statements on well-founded recorded material. He never misses giving readers the footnotes that scholarly work demands, something that a large number of Bengali chroniclers of national history have generally failed to do. It is against such a background that the reader is given to understand the circumstances behind Mujib’s release by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in early 1972 and his subsequent flight to freedom. Matin admires the sagacity in the Bengali leader, a sign of which comes through in the withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh in March 1972. Without saying as much, the writer conveys the impression that the withdrawal could not easily have come to pass had Mujib not been around. In bare terms, the physical presence of Bangabandhu on the Bangladesh scene was to prove pivotal in a good number of ways. The upshot of it all is that Matin appears to be convinced that the troubles Bangabandhu’s government faced in those formative years of Bangladesh’s history were in more ways than one the result of the conspiratorial politics his government could not quite put its finger on. To a very large extent, he is right. But then comes the matter of the rift between Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmed. It is here that Matin appears to be sailing against the wind when he asserts that in quite a number of ways the man who led the wartime Mujibnagar government as prime minister dealt some bad body blows to Mujib even as he served as finance minister in Bangabandhu’s government. Contrary to popular belief that Tajuddin Ahmed found himself increasingly sidelined in Bangabandhu’s government, largely because of his enemies getting better access to the prime minister, Matin is excoriating about what he considers to be the finance minister’s perfidy in finding fault with the way Bangabandhu ran the administration. Matin’s considered opinion is that Bangabandhu’s Second Revolution was essentially what the Father of the Nation said it was: that the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) was a platform that brought together the nation’s political parties together in the larger national interest. Tajuddin had a different perspective on the development, of course.

There are some bare truths Matin reveals here. The story of how Serajur Rahman, he of the BBC’s Bengali Service, was thwarted in his attempts to come by a job in Bangabandhu’s government is what the writer relates, no holds barred, in the work.

Read the book. It adds to your understanding of the forces which shaped politics in Bangladesh in the early 1970s.

. . . Symmetry of the grand and the banal
ASAFUDDOWLAH’S has been a vibrant presence on the Bengali social and bureaucratic scene. His is and has always been an articulate voice. As a civil servant, he was known for his sense of independence, to a point where many thought twice about coming across him. Rare was the individual who wished to fall foul of him, for Asafuddowlah did not mince words when it came to offering an opinion on men and matters. It was always strength of character that defined the man. And it is something that continues to underpin his perspectives on things around him. On television chat shows, he offers his own clear assessments of political conditions, some of which may not go down well with his detractors. They may, indeed do, find him abrasive at times.

The point here is that Asafuddowlah remains indifferent to all such expressions of sentiment about him. His outspokenness is all. And with that comes the other side of his personality, that which keeps him riveted to the world of music. Even as he has pursued a career in the civil service, first in Pakistan and then in Bangladesh, he has made sure that songs have remained close to him, or he to them. He has composed music, he has lent his voice to songs and he has discoursed on them. His rendering of ghazals has been remarkable. Anyone who has heard him sing the old Jagmohan number, ik baar muskura do, will know of the artistry he is capable of calling forth. In his wider social ambience, Asafuddowlah is the quintessential conversationalist, with an interplay of serious thought and humour that make him stand out as the star in the crowd.

And this is the background against which Of Pains and Panics must be read. Asafuddowlah falls into the mould of those who came of age in an era of enlightenment and then went on to reshape the era according to their specifications. Like many of his social club, he has believed in approaching life from an intellectual point of view. Just how much of suavity he has brought into his observations of life comes through in this eminently readable compendium of his thoughts on an array of subjects not many would care to spend time on these days. There are clear divisions of the essays into wide-ranging swathes of territory. Begin with music. There is a sense of certainty, for obvious reasons, with which he approaches the many strands of the subject. He takes the BBC to task, for all the right reasons, over its selection of historically notable Bangla songs. It is pretension he slices through here. And then he moves on to pay obeisance to the artistes who have with regularity enhanced the quality of Bengali music. Protima Banerjee is one he reveres. Another is the all-encompassing Kamal Dasgupta. The music director, he informs us, remained self-effacing right till the end. And as the end approached, as he was being wheeled into hospital, the officer on duty had an asinine question: was Dasgupta a class one officer? Ah, artistes lose out, often if not always, to the bureaucracy!

Some of the most touching of articles in this collection connect Asafuddowlah to those he was once close to, until death intervened to take them away. He writes with deep affection on his mother and then reflects on his father. Perhaps a coruscating part of the tribute to Khan Bahadur Moulvi Mohammad Ismail is the praise he showers on his niece Komli (‘…his youngest daughter’s youngest daughter, Komli, who he used to adoringly call ‘Chand di’, nursed him in his fading days with a kind of special devotion I have never witnessed in my life’). It is a vast world of thoughts Asafuddowlah covers in the work. His views on America are a sharp response to Washington’s actual behaviour on the global scene. In Bangladesh, he wonders aloud at the swift decline in the quality of politics, almost to a point where the powerful begin to think of themselves as little gods. There is a symmetry he establishes between the grand and the banal. How else would you observe his tribute to Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and then his consternation at the presence of so many ministers in the government of as small a country as Bangladesh?

Asafuddowlah is combustive by nature. That is his assessment of himself. Just how combustive — and combative — he can be is an exercise you might as well opt for through reading these pieces. He is not being didactic; he carefully avoids scaling the Olympian heights that lesser men always strive for. He gives you the workings of his mind as they happen to be — blunt, irreverent but playing with ideas all the same.

Two reviews from Syed Badrul Ahsan / Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.