Permutations of history have become a norm in Bangladesh. Previously this had been restricted to a few particular dates in the year, like 25 March, 15 August and 7 November. Now one doesn't have to wait for those days. History is presented in new and improved packages the year round. The problem is, it is not the historians who are coming up with these interpretations of history; it is the politicians. There are not many historians in the country. The few that do exist, usually write history at the dictates of the politicians.
All the hue and cry over history has increased manifold due to the social media. If one myopic leader makes a comment, it is followed by a flurry of likes, shares and comments. There is no need for evidence, footnotes or reference. These blind partisan people take full advantage of the opportunity to publish unedited writing and become history vendors overnight.
It's the political parties who supply these history vendors with their ware. In most cases it's the two big parties. These history exercises are basically focussed on taking credit for the independence war and for democracy. Meanwhile, Jamaat, Jatiya Party and JSD's history exercises are more defensive. As in most cases these deliberations of history are ensconced in a lot of untruths and in most cases the people are loyal to politicians, this propensity is eroding the nation's talent and intellect. It is reinforcing divisions, hatred and disrespect among the people. National issues of public interest are being sidelines and progressive thinking has been dealt a serious blow.
2. Awami League comes first and foremost among political parties when it comes to dabbling in history. The party's main discourse is centred on its ownership of the liberation war. Awami League is the party which gave leadership to the independence struggle, the liberation war and the government during the liberation war. However, it claims more than just leadership; it tends to claim sole ownership. This ownership to is centred on an individual, it is Bangabandhu-centric. Far from acknowledging the massive participation in the liberation war by the Bengali soldiers, the general people, the left and progressive parties, Awami League doesn't even acknowledge the contribution of four of its own leaders, Tajuddin Ahmed in particular, and so are unwilling to delve into this history too deeply. This attitude is reflected in the fact that Bangabandhu never went to visit Mujibnagar, that Tajuddin was removed from the cabinet, that important installations were all named after members of Bangabandhu's family rather than these four leaders, and in many more instances.
If the Awami League narrative of the liberation war is challenged to the slightest degree, even persons like AK Khandakar and Tajuddin's daughter are abolished from the pro-independence camp. Others are called razakars or anti-independence elements.
It is not just in the case of the liberation war, Awami League's 1974-75 narrative is one-sided too. In narrating history, Awami League and its sycophants conveniently omit the killings committed during Bangabandhu's rule, the oppression of the opposition, the corruption and the fourth amendment which dealt a blow to democracy, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press. There is no mention that a part of Awami League's political leadership was involved in the heinous killing of Bangabandhu and his family. Whoever mentions these matters is called, quite out of context, anti-independence elements.
3. BNP does not have much opportunity to lie about the liberation war. But it doesn't lose a chance to do so. In order to magnify Ziaur Rahman's role in the liberation war out of proportion, their narrative begins in 26 March, 1971, not the political movement of 1948. BNP's description of the independence struggle depicts Ziaur Rahman as the sole architect of independence and the only claimant to the success of the struggle.
No matter what historical significance Ziaur Rahman's declaration of independence may have, BNP never brings up the point that Ziaur Rahman amended himself then and there and made the declaration in Bangabandhu's name. Bangabandhu was the head of the government under which he fought the war as a sector commander, and after the war he accepted the Bir Uttam gallantry award from Bangabandhu. Tarique Rahman's insulting and indecent comments about Bangabandhu have added another tarnished chapter to this history. His comments about Bangabandhu being a traitor are unimaginable, unforgivable and vile.
Another manipulation of history by BNP is about the 7 November soldiers and people's revolution. Col. Taher and JSD played a pivotal role in this revolution. Ziaur Rahman won the power struggle which ensued after the revolution and Col. Taher was hanged. BNP leaves this out of its 7 November narrative. Ziaur Rahman was the sole saviour of democracy in the country!
4. JSD leaders twist history the most when it comes to August-November 1975. JSD is now being accused of leading the armed uprising which led to the killing of Bangabandhu, of supporting the hilling of Bangabandhu and providing shelter to anti-independence elements after the war.
But JSD is concealing all these historical facts because it is now sharing power with the government. It blames everything on Ziaur Rahman. In the present narration of history by JSD's leaders, they completely leave out the fact that after 15 August they distributed leaflets hailing Bangabandhu's killing, their icon Col. Taher supported Ziaur Rahman up till 7 November at least, that they killed many freedom fighter army officers in the name of Biplobi Sainik Sangstha.
Jamaat-e-Islami is in the front line of fabricating history to cover up their despicable acts. In 1971 they did not just oppose the liberation was on political grounds, but they also formed various forces to collaborate with the army to finish off the freedom fighters.
During the war, Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam met with their main proponent of the genocide, the notorious Tikka Khan. They do not apologise for their past actions. In fact, from the statements it seems they did nothing in 1971 except issue a few verbal statements against the liberal war.
5. I mentioned before that the other parties manipulated history as a defence mechanism. But for the two main political parties it is a political play for power. Perhaps in not other country of the world do opposition parties twist history around so far.
I have had the opportunity to visit all countries in South Asia including Afghanistan. I watched their TV programmes. In no other country do they revere their leaders so much on TV as they do here. Presently the way the government television telecasts programmes on Bangabandhu (previously it was Ziaur Rahman), his speeches and so, I haven't seem any other country's TV airing things on their late leaders to such an extent.
The question may arise, why do the political parties, particularly these two major ones, have this propensity towards looking back and fabricating a past? The answer is simple. They do not have a sturdy present, they have no tangible record of building the nation that can ensure their popularity and their being elected. So as a part of holding onto legitimacy to stay in power or to propagate their popularity, they cling onto the legacy of their late leaders and claims of achievements in the country's history in an emotional brand of politics. Simultaneously they endeavour to smash their opposition's projection of the past.
Another reason with his fixation for the past could be the leaders' inability and disinterest when it comes to good governance. Not only do they not care about the future, but they have to constructive debate about the present either, just constant skirmish. In Bangladesh we never see any political debate on a particular project such as the health policy, the education policy, management of mineral resources, infrastructure development priorities and so on. Instead BNP will castigate Awami League for its India policy but will never proffer any pragmatic policy regarding border management, sharing water of common rivers, transit and such issues. Awami League had a torrent of criticism against BNP for creating RAB, but offered no alternative of how to render the police force more effective. Instead, when it came to power Awami League used RAB for its own purposes, just as BNP will give India all facilities if it comes to power. There is not much difference between the two in their class character and political culture.
They drag in their past leaders in their scuffle over who is the best. When in power, they monopolise the media, all state institutions and go on a looting spree. It much easier to use all that than to manipulate the past than it is to develop the present of the people. And that is exactly what our political parties are doing.
The question is, how much longer will we hold our present and future hostage to backward-looking back-slapping? When will we leave the task of writing history to our researchers and writers? When will history be analysed with no qualms? When will we development the mentality to accept history in its untainted form?
Asif Nazrul: Professor, Department of Law, Dhaka University