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The ethos of Independence Day

Syed Badrul Ahsan | March 26, 2024 00:00:00

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (third from left) and his most close companions, the four national leaders: Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Capt. M. Mansur Ali and A H M Kamruzzaman — Collected Photo

A celebration of Independence Day is a going back to the ethos of the struggle for a free Bangladesh. It is not about a mouthful of slogans and clichés about patriotism, for patriotism is a higher calling. Those who died in the defence of the country fifty-three years ago, all three million of them; and those Bengali women who fell prey to the rapacity of the occupation Pakistan forces, were patriots. Their sufferings, the travails they went though, are the tales we will remember today.

On Independence Day, we will recall the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the grandeur he brought to the cause and the wisdom he deployed in taking the nation to the banks of the river whence our boat sailed for that heaven of freedom Rabindranath Tagore sang of aeons ago. On this day, we recall the supreme contributions of Tajuddin Ahmad and his colleagues in forging the spirit which led the nation to the fields of war. These dedicated associates of the Father of the Nation shaped guerrilla strategy against a brute force and led us to battlefield triumph on a December afternoon.

Independence Day is all about the thousands of young men and women who streamed out of their humble homes to spontaneously take up arms in defence of the national cause. These young touched the feet of their parents and sought their blessings before they marched off to the war. They did not look back, for in their eyes burned the light of liberty. These were the children of Bangladesh who became the Mukti Bahini. Many of them came home triumphant in the war. Many others did not, for they had fallen in the diversity of Bangladesh's landscape in their struggle against the enemy.

Independence Day is about the ten million of our people compelled to find refuge in neighbouring India, for the occupation forces, having murdered their families and friends, were determined to hunt them down. Independence Day is a tribute to our friends in India, for they took upon themselves the burden of caring for these ten million of our own and then disseminated our message before the councils of the world. Independence Day is a celebration of the Soviet Union, whose leadership and people stayed with us all the way as we fought our way to freedom.

Fifty-three years on, Independence Day is a reflection of what we did back in 1971 and what we are called upon to do in these present demanding times. A celebration of sovereignty is not a falling back on worn-out slogans but a fashioning of new thoughts on where the nation goes from here, the heights it needs to scale in the interest of the generations born and coming of age after the war. Independence Day is a raising of all those questions, those that probe the nature of our achievements in these five-plus decades and the prospects which lie before us to shape the next half century and more for our country.

Today, Independence Day is about the social welfare we can ensure for all our citizens. To what extent we have been able to construct an edifice of social democracy that guarantees the well-being of every citizen is a query which calls for a credible response. In the months before his assassination through foul conspiracy, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sought to recast Bangladesh through his Second Revolution. He meant to restructure the bureaucracy, reshape administration in ways that would directly benefit the people. Have we been able to live up to Bangabandhu's ideals?

On Independence Day, we must sit back and ponder the issue of the corruption which has been eating into the nation's body politic for decades. Independence was never about bank loan defaulters fleecing the national economy; it was not about politicians and bureaucrats and faux pas businessmen building homes abroad while the gap between rich and poor increasingly widened here at home in Bangladesh. Independence rests on a core belief in patriotism.

And patriotism is not about a siphoning off of state resources, of the guilty not being punished, of government not being able to bring such purveyors of malfeasance to book.

Independence Day should be a moment of reflection on the principles which shaped the War of Liberation. That war was fought for the establishment of a Bengali nationalist state. Today, we ask if those principles are being adhered to, if the old flame of nationalism yet lights up our villages and hamlets and little towns. Independence Day is about a reassertion of the idea of secularism; it is about keeping at bay those who would play truant with this idea, about informing them in all the firmness we can muster that in Bangladesh there will be no room for spurious nationalism, for communalism to take hold.

On Independence Day, we look back on the promise of 1971, the pledge of political liberalism engendered by our belief in democracy. Today we need to ask ourselves if we have been able to have democracy deepen and widen its roots in the country, if rule of law underpins the way we conduct ourselves across the length and breadth of this land. To be able to speak in freedom, to be in a position to convey one's thoughts about the state of the nation, to be able to demand that our politicians speak of us and of our little and big worries is the name we give to our aspirations of a secular pluralistic society.

Independence Day is a call for openness and transparency in governance. It is an emphasis on the honour one expects to be bestowed on men and women ready and willing to serve the country in their many humble ways. Independence is not and has never been about sycophancy burrowing into popular aspirations but about the best and the brightest shaping our future in the professions. It is about good, qualified teachers shaping the outlook of the young. It is about doctors serving the poor and the needy in our villages. It is about the peasant and the worker able to put food on the table for their families. It is about lifting the helpless and hapless out of the misery of poverty, about ensuring food, clothing and shelter for them. It is about caring.

On Independence Day we will have cause to speak of the high quality of education and scholarship we require our young to be equipped with in our country. They will need gainful employment and therefore it becomes the moral imperative of the state to guarantee their happiness. A celebration of independence is the ability of the state to uphold national interests every day and everywhere. Independence relates to the promotion and marketing of home-grown products --- fashion, food, industry, fisheries, technology and what have you --- at home and abroad. It is not about clothes coming into the country from abroad; it is not about Bengalis taking hollow pride in draping themselves in products not theirs. It is about pride in indigenous products.

Independence Day is a call for a vibrant articulation of national interests abroad through the presence of diplomats in whom shines the light emitted by the freedom struggle fifty-three years ago. It is about governance, about government being a collegial and intellectually energised affair. Independence is not about the few prospering in complacent isolation but about the many sharing in the opportunities offered through political leadership demonstrated by the enlightened. Independence Day speaks of rights, of women's empowerment, of a guarantee of the survival and strengthening of sub-cultures, of coming down heavily on discrimination everywhere. It is a bulwark against obscurantism, against those who would take the country down the precipice to disaster.

On Independence Day, it is the old and yet gleaming dream of a Golden Bengal which is rekindled in our souls. In that dream is heard a call for justice to underscore our quotidian living, for the law to be able to bring down the mighty whenever and wherever the mighty play truant with the destiny of the nation.

Golden Bengal consists in preserving the bucolic heritage of this land. It is in upholding the traditions of the country. It is in preventing urban slums from insinuating their way into our villages. Independence Day is about taking back our rivers and our hills from the highway robbers who have brazenly sought to commandeer them.

On Independence Day, we speak of the poor, aged, worried superannuated government employee who needs his pension to be cleared for his family to feel a little easy. We speak of the poverty-struck children whose education should be a responsibility of the state. On this day, we stress the need for a strengthening of institutions, of the requirement for partisanship to be struck hard and struck down.

Independence Day is that moment in time when we must sit in the fading light of day and ask ourselves about the degree to which the promise of the War of Liberation has been translated into reality. Independence Day is about the light shining tomorrow morning.

Independence Day is the flag in the red and green of which we find peace. It is in the voice of Bangabandhu, in the dedication of the Mujibnagar government, in the sacrifices of its millions.

Independence Day is a renewal of freedom at the advent of every dawn across the fields and rivers and hamlets of this beautiful land.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.

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