Airbrushing, personality cults, birthday thoughts

Posted in history, Rights by jrahman on March 17, 2009

Had he lived, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would have been 89 today.  I have never had much time for those quibbling over his contribution to the creation of Bangladesh.  One can play parlour games of ‘what ifs’ until the ocean rises to Dinajpur, but Mujib’s central place in our freedom struggle is undisputed.

Or it ought to be.  Sadly, for many in my generation, it hasn’t been that straightforward.  When I grew up, under martial law, Sheikh Mujib was never mentioned.  I recall one of my teachers, in the Air Force run Shaheen School, being heavily reprimanded by someone in uniform for referring to Bangabandhu during a school function.  I remember my father’s excitement when he came across an Indian magazine in Calcutta because the particular issue was banned in Bangladesh for running a cover story on Mujib (along with Indira Gandhi and ZA Bhutto).

Even though he had already been been dead for a decade, and even though the people ruling Bangladesh at that time has walways maintained an on-again-off-again relationship with his party, Mujib’s wagging finger still sent a shiver to the powers-that-be.  That’s why Mujib was being airbrushed out of history.

That’s why, despite growing up in a politicised enviornment, I read about Nasser defying the western powers over Suez years before I heard daba-e rakhte parba na.  And I grew up in an environment that was much more politicised than most people in my cohort.  For most of my peers, Mujib had effectively been airbrushed.  For most of them, what remained was a caricature.  My writing comrades Asif and Naeem explain this eloquently, and I agree with their broad views completely.  Our generation — people born in the 1970s — suffered because the military rulers, and their democratically elected successors, went out of their way to stifle voices on Mujib.

It’s sad to include ‘democratically elected successors’ in the sentence above.  Sad, but true.  We have had three elected governments finishing their terms.  When the party not of Mujib was in power, it could have taken corrective steps.  Instead, its leader chose to commit, repeatedly, the crassest act of her political career. 

Even sadder though had been the attitude of Mujib’s own party in power.  The second Awami League government went out of its way to establish a cult of personality, almost as if to make up for the years when Mujib couldn’t be discussed properly in public.  The approach it seemed involved quantity over quality, renaming every institution in the country after him, but not writing a single volume of original, insightful, analytical volume on him. 

As bad as the cult of personality had been, worse was the fact that the democratically elected government run by Mujib’s daughter wasn’t above banning pieces — when Badruddin Umar wrote a piece questioning the narrative that Mujib co-ordinated the language movement from prison in an Indian magazine, the particular issue was banned. 

And now AL is in power again, promising din bodol.  It would be nice to change to a world where Mujib didn’t need to be wrapped in a cult of personality that needed to be protected from errant voices.  Errant voice is an understatement for the sorry-excuse-of-poetry.  As Asif says here:

It smacks of absolutely horrible taste of making fun of people who were so brutally killed in one of the most brutal assassination in the history of the modern world.  He did not even spare Sheikh Russel where he says that ‘he was too young to commit crimes like his brothers did.’

Abu Karim didn’t spare Zia, the man who contributed to airbrushing and himself has become a victim of airbrushing.  Ironically, the general let Abu Karim keep his job, but the democratically elected government of change fired him.

ফলে পেশাদার খুনি জেনারেল জিয়া
তাহেরকে হত্যা করার জন্য শেষমেষ
মার্কিন যুক্তরাষ্ট্র থেকে সিনথেটিক ফাইবার আমদানি করেছিল’।

Perhaps Abu Karim was fired because of violating some rule against partisan politics while in public service.  If so, then I would suggest Mr Ali Akbar, Deputy Secretary who wrote this piece, look for a job. 

Something tells me that Mr Akbar won’t be fired.  As fellow blogger Rumi Ahmed puts it caustically: You can say, write, do anything as long as they contain flattery of the people in power. In Bangladesh that is one kind of law. This is toshamodi law.

Asif noted in his piece, Bangabandhu is much bigger than trapping him into these silly controversies.  And the generation after mine, the one born in the 1980s, know this.  That’s why Dhaka Shohor could write this

How did his generation figure out Mujib much more easily than ours did?  Because the ham-fisted airbrushing doesn’t work anymore.  Because his generation can see through the airbrushing and the personality cult.  Because thanks to Digital Bangladesh that already exists, his generation can know the facts for themselves. 

That generation chose Mujib’s party unequivocally, not to restart the next round of the game of airbrushing and personality cult, but for din bodol.  It would indeed be din bodol when posts like this never have to be written again.


4 Responses

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  2. rudro said, on March 18, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I heard those word “Ebarer sangram muktir sangram ….”. We were thrashing a football in the field in Khulna, when from a nearby house that voice came out on a radio blasting to its highest volume. We were just early teens but the political events were deeply influencing us. I would never forget that blood boiling experience of the speech. Who would? I remember rest of March in 1971. There was no more football but taking part in procession, building roadblock on the main street and fleeing from the city later.

    Rest of the history you all know. My experience I have shared in Yes, I also heard the “Ami Major Zia bolchi…” in my own ears on radio. And yes he stated ‘on behalf of Mujib.’ I find the Mujib vs. Zia controversy most despicable. Mujib’s contribution to the movement that led to the independence is indisputable. Yes, Zia had a huge contribution. His contribution was more than other sector commander to the extant that he went on the radio to make the proclamation. That definitely inspired hundreds.

    Mujib made mistakes after independence. His failures includes inability to control Jamal/Kamal, forming Baksal etc. Tackling the war ravaged nation was a tremendous task that he could not handle properly. Even recognizing him as the father of nation, for his contribution to the creation of Bangladesh, I believe, his mistakes should not be beyond discussion. Only accepting him as he is will give him his rightful honor.

    But Mujibs’ mistake can never be the justifiable cause for the massacre we witnessed on August 15. The shame of killing its’ national hero will hunt our nation forever. My ‘dada’ once said “It would be good for Mujib to be killed by Pakistanis.” That was the beginning. Since then how many blood bath our nation had to go through? Including the Pilkhana massacre. Isn’t it the legacy of August 15th. Sometimes I feel like that the Liberation War never ended. The defeat of anti-liberation elements in 1971 was just temporary. And the bloodshed continues. But I have the audacity to hope that we will be free someday.

  3. kamal said, on March 18, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    anti-liberation elements in 1971 now acts/exists as a political force now-a-days in Bangladesh, and concerning Indian issues they always against the favor of Indian interest which is similar to against AL, In addition, AL foreign policy still inclined with Indian national interest.

    so what NEXT? present AL govt likes to abolish those anti-liberation elements in 1971 by force? ??

  4. Maher said, on March 21, 2009 at 1:23 am

    Hi J. Rahman,

    I’m Maher from BRAC. Our office in the US is a big fan of your blog; Mukti has time and again proved to be an excellent resource in helping us in New York keep a finger on the pulse of events in Bangladesh.

    I am writing to seek your help in publicizing Freedom From Want, a book about BRAC’s incredible adventure story that takes you from the villages of Bangladesh to war-torn Southern Sudan. The book has been praised by luminaries such as Bill Clinton, Amartya Sen, George Soros, and James Wolfensohn.

    People have always associated Bangladesh with floods, famines, political unrest, and a caricature image of people going to work on boats over flooded roads. It is time to create a new, more accurate image of what is going on in Bangladesh. An image of people working against overwhelming odds – of people striving in the face of natural disasters, overpopulation, large-scale epidemics, and failures of governance – and succeeding nevertheless.

    BRAC, one of the world’s largest development organizations, now works in 14 countries in Asia and Africa with offices in the US and UK and embodies this image, but hardly anyone knows about us outside of Bangladesh.

    Help us change this by posting about the book on Mukti.

    We would also really appreciate it if you could do any of the following:
    1. Letting your readers know about our blog, which features the book (and other great entries about BRAC)
    2. Embedding this widget on your blog’s sidebar
    3. Spreading the word within your social networks through Facebook, Twitter, etc

    Please feel free to email me or our Vice President, Alyssa Herman, or call at 212-808-5615 if you have any questions. We love to hear from people who wish to be engaged in what we do.

    Maher Sattar,

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