A nation that cannot remember its history cannot create one. Did anyone say this before? Must have. Such an obvious thing to say. And yet, the irony of it is that its central message is lost to most nations, including our own, especially our very own nation of Bangladesh.
Today the reactionary elements of our society would have us believe that there was no such thing as a ‘war of liberation’, and hence there can be no such thing as ‘war criminals’. What happened in 1971 was not a war, only a legitimate exercise of disciplinary option of the ruling government over an unruly segment of the society.
On the other hand the progressives would have us believe that they are the sole custodians of true history, that they would not eat or sleep until the ‘war criminals’ are apprehended and brought to justice, even though whenever they get an opportunity to do so, they begin with a lot of sound and fury only to start losing wind in their sail as soon as they face some logistic hurdles. One small thing they seem to be oblivious of is that these so-called ‘war criminals’ are none other than the high and mighty of our society at the present time, and that we Bangladeshis, as a whole, have let them rise to a position of absolute control of the country for much of the 38 years since Independence. So the periodical war-cries for putting the ‘war-criminals’ on trial seem, at best, a feeble attempt at reviving a part of history that we all appear to have chosen to forget, and at worst, nothing more than a Bangladesh-style political posturing. In fact, there are times when the very phrase ‘war-criminal’ seems a bit hollow when the evidence appears to point to a collective amnesia of the War itself, at least as far as the progressive-minded gentry are concerned.
For otherwise why wouldn’t anyone care to mention the significance of 17th April, 1971, or of Nov.3, 1975? Yes, 16th Dec, 1971 is important since this was the day the Pakistan Army formally surrendered to the combined forces of the Bangladesh Freedom Fighters and the Indian Army, but April 17, 1971 must be a close second in importance since that was the date the first Govt. in Exile of Bangladesh was officially sworn in at a mango-grove near the Indian border, which was named by Mr. Tajuddin Ahmad, the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, as Mujibnagar, in deference to the undisputed leader of the liberation movement, Bangabandhu Shaikh Mujubur Rahman. Does anyone recall Dec. 6, 1971? That was the date when the Govt. of India formally recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign country, which turned the tide in favour of the Freedom Fighters, as well as opened the door for other countries to follow suit. Yes I know, 15th August, 1975, will burn forever in the collective memory of all freedom-loving people of Bangladesh, but how can one ignore the importance of Nov.3, 1975 when four prominent leaders, including Mr. Tajuddin Ahmad and Mr. Syed Nazrul Islam, the first President of the Govt. of Bangladesh were gunned down in the darkness of the jailhouse in Dhaka. I look at 15th August as the day our past was buried, and Nov.3 as the day our future was buried as well. It was Bangabandhu who ignited the aspirations of the nation toward independence, and it was Mr. Tajuddin Ahmad who had the potential to lead the country to economic freedom and make the independence meaningful.
I wonder how many youngsters in today’s mangled political climate really know that Mr. Tajuddin was the one who led the war effort through the entire period Apr.-Dec, 1971, and led so effectively and efficiently that the ordinary citizenry of Bangladesh had never any inkling of the tremendous difficulties he had to face to conduct the day-to-day business of both the Govt. and the War, the most troublesome of which were not the logistic problems of running a government in exile, but the constant infighting of the political elements in his own party who were more interested in grabbing power than winning the war. If one wants to get an idea of how great a leader this man was, one shouldn’t ask a professional politician, ask a freedom fighter who was on the field with the gun at that time. It is these fighters, these ordinary young men, some as young as 15 or 16, who went to training camps in India to fight the Occupying Army, who will tell what a great Commander Tajuddin was . It was Tajuddin who, in deference to the tremendous sacrifices his fighters were making every day in the fields and bushes, abstained from visiting his family as long as the war lasted. Everyone in his cabinet vowed to do the same, but he was the only one who stuck to his word. His argument was: why should he or anyone else in the cabinet enjoy a privilege that was denied the field-fighters?
Today we look at our leaders in power and moan about their weakness for opulence and good life, unaware that we did have a leader in Tajuddin who shunned those luxuries and led an austere life throughout his career. How many of us would know what an incredibly honest and simple man he was? Mr. Shamsur Rahman Khan, an ex-Foreign Secretary, wrote in an article: ‘Mr. Tajuddin had just one bush-shirt which he wore all day, washed it at night with his own hands, then wore it again the following morning.’ How many people would know that in a small room at 8 Theatre Rd., Kolkata( the head quarter of the Bangladesh govt. at the time) he would sleep on a simple charpoy, under a cheap 3.50 tk mosquito net strung by 4 flimsy nails on 4 wooden bars, with nothing more than a plain pillow, a shawl, and a cotton comforter? He worked into wee hours of the morning and was up at daybreak, ready for another day’s work. He was one of the few politicians of our times who had everything to make a truly great leader: brilliance, high education, political wit and integrity, uncompromising sense of justice and honesty, simple habits, sharp instincts, and a boundless reservoir of love for his country and the men and women of his country. How many people would know how fiercely loyal this man was to his leader and friend, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, how he adored his Mujib Bhai, and how strongly be believed that Bangladesh cannot move forward without the leadership of Bangabandhu ? At a press conference on Dec. 6, 1971, after the announcement of the recognition of Bangladesh by the Govt. of India, he was asked for his reaction. He replied in a very emotional voice: ‘ Why do you ask for my reaction? I’m only the midwife to our independence. The father is still languishing in a Pakistani prison. I’m only a caretaker on his behalf.’ His loyalty was so unshakably strong that even after he was effectively sacked from his ministerial position in the Mujib cabinet he refused to make any adverse comment on his Mujib Bhai. The only remark he ever made was to Mujib himself, over the red phone, in presence of his the then private secretary Mr. Abu Syed Choudhury: ‘ Mujib Bhai, the steps you have taken (for the one-party system Baksaal) is going to kill you first, then have us killed as well.’ How much more prophetic can a political statement be!
This man was 12th in order of merit in his Matriculation, 4th in the Intermediate, got a first class degree in Economics honours, an LLB degree, and was known among his peers as an intellectual whiz-kid with great academic potential. One can only surmise what great heights of intellectual achievement he could have reached had he pursued nothing but an academic career. But he gave it all up just because he was fired up by a passion for his country, and a conviction that he, along with his Mujib Bhai, could free his people from the yokes of poverty and misery.
And yet, Tajuddin Ahmad is practically unknown in his country, save a few old-timers who continue to remember him with great fondness and admiration. He was one leader we could use in our country today.
History may never identify the real ‘war-criminals’ of yesterday, let alone try them in the courts, but it will certainly point a finger to the entire nation for having eliminated the two last hopes of the wretched country: Shaikh Mujubur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad. They gave everything to the country only to be rewarded by having their lives taken.