How to lose the history wars
I said in the previous post:
They didn’t think much of him last winter. And since then, sporadic forays in our pathetic history wars have done nothing to improve his standing. They create media buzz, senior Awami League leaders end up looking quite stupid, and BNP rank-and-file feel fired up for a while. But what do they do to alleviate Mr Rahman’s extremely negative image?
Obviously, I don’t approve of the way Tarique Rahman is engaging in the ‘history wars’. It occurs to me that I should elaborate and clarify. Hence this post. I don’t agree with Mr Rahman’s interpretation of history. More importantly, from a partisan political perspective, I think they cause more harm than good for BNP. And most frustratingly, a few solid points that BNP could make very usefully are utterly wasted.
Let’s start with the claim made about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — that he was a Pakistani collaborator who compromised with the Yahya regime because he was after personal power. I paraphrase, but this is the gist. And this is about as sensible as the claim that Ziaur Rahman was a Pakistani spy.
Let me refer to GW Chowdhury, Abul Mansur Ahmed, and Moudud Ahmed. Hardly disciples of the cult of Mujib, any of these men. And yet, all three write how Mujib might have compromised on the Six Points at any time between the winter of 1968-69 and the summer of 1971, and become Pakistan’s prime minister. Ayub and Yahya offered him the job in February 1969. There was a general expectation that the Six Points were Mujib’s ambit claim, and he would compromise after the election. ZA Bhutto calculated that. Yahya Khan calculated that.
But Mujib did not.
In fact, by officiating a public ceremony where he led the Awami League legislators-elect to swear an oath on the Quran to never compromise on the Six Points, Mujib left himself little wiggle room to compromise even if he had wanted to. What Mujib stood for in 1970 elections was abundantly clear, and he did not compromise from that.
Mujib wanted to compromise for personal gain — is Tarique Rahman trying to become the jatiyatabadi Omi Rahman Pial?
Of course, it gets worse. What does one make of the claim that Mujib traveled on a Pakistani passport in January 1972? I am sure Shafiq Rehman can conjure a brilliant political satire about the Heathrow immigration officer asking ‘Right, Sheikh eh, since when Pakis had Sheikhs’. But the joke here is at the expense of anyone who believes Mujib would have needed a passport to pass through Heathrow that January.
And in this comedy, BNP loses a chance to score a sound political point. No, Mujib wasn’t a Pakistani collaborator. That’s nonsense. What’s not nonsense, what’s undeniable, is that he did not prepare for an armed resistance, that he was absent from the war. Now, it is possible to argue that Mujib did not want to lead a war of national liberation, and he had good reasons for taking the course he did — I have made that argument myself, and I stand by it.
But that’s just my interpretation of events. And even if I am right, it’s legitimate to say that Mujib got it wrong big time. Politically, the potent argument here is — the nation trusted Mujib with its future, and Mujib failed the nation in the dark night of 25 March 1971, not because Mujib was a bad guy, not because he was a collaborator, not because he was greedy or coward or anything, but far worse, he made the wrong judgment.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury once (in)famously made that point. Repeatedly made, that would be a killer punch against the haloed Mujib myth. What Tarique Rahman offers is not worth more than infantile facebook banter.
So, why does he do it?
Perhaps this passage from 2012 would provide some method behind this madness:
A blogger friend sounds a pessimistic note: ‘Our countrymen are maybe more blatant about it than most, but there is no “true” history anywhere in the world. It’s all air-brushed, covered with pancake makeup, and then dipped into rosewater.’ He suggests that these history wars are just a form of dialectic struggle, perhaps a healthy one at that.
That discussion was had at a time when Awami League cabinet ministers all the way to people like Muntassir Mamoon would routinely call Ziaur Rahman a Pakistani spy or sleeper agent. Here is the full quote:
What will happen when BNP returns to power? Maybe what MM is doing is in anticipation of BNP returning to power. I mean, let’s face it, our countrymen are maybe more blatant about it than most, but there is no “true” history anywhere in the world. It’s all air–brushed, covered with pancake makeup, and then dipped into rosewater. Think of these “history wars” as a dialectic struggle, and whatever emerges out of this is what Bangladeshi children, fifty years on, will learn. And they won’t be any worse off for it.
Additionally, remember, when BNP comes to power, where MM leaves off is where BNP has to start. So the more AL-oriented the history is, the more effort BNP will have to put in to revert just back to the mid-point state, let alone make it pro-BNP.
So, calling Mujib a collaborator is perhaps the dialectic tat for the tit of Zia being a Pakistani spy.
Maybe. And maybe in the long run this will all be washed out. But right now, this isn’t doing Tarique Rahman any good. Maybe if BNP ever came to power, it could start its version of history. But right now, Tarique should remember what happened to Hasina Wajed in February 1991.
In the lead up to the parliamentary election of that month — the first one held after the fall of the Ershad regime — Mrs Wajed repeatedly launched personal attack on Zia, calling him a murderer and drunkard, including in her nationally televised (this was when there was nothing but the BTV) campaign speech. Mr Rahman is old enough to remember how aghast the chattering classes were at Mrs Wajed. This was a time when Zia was fondly remembered by our establishment.
Over the past quarter century, Zia’s image has faded, and Mujib’s has been given a new gloss. Right now, the establishment reaction to Tarique is similar to the visceral reaction the Awami chief caused in 1991.
Mr Rahman seems to be learning the wrong lesson from Mrs Wajed.
So, what do I suggest?
Let me answer that with reference to why and how I believe BNP must engage in history wars:
BNP needs to win back today’s and tomorrow’s Saifur-Oli-Huda. Without professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals, BNP’s future will be dominated by the likes of Lutfuzzaman Babar. Winning the history wars is essential for avoiding that dark future.
our history of political-social-economic struggles that predates 1971 and continues to our time. This would not mean ignoring 1971, but to put that seminal year in its proper context. …. our founding leaders like Fazlul Huq and HS Suhrawardy who came before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, putting these men in their proper historical context.
….. we have struggled for a democratic polity, or social justice, from the time of British Raj. Sometimes these struggles have been violent, at other times we had peaceful ‘ballot revolutions’. Sometimes the leaders betrayed the trust people put on them. Sometimes they made mistakes. But overall, we have been making progress. And ….. make the case for BNP in the context of that march of history.
That’s BNP’s overall challenge for the history wars. And I do not suggest Mr Rahman has to fight a solo battle. But if he must engage in political dog fight about dead presidents, I would suggest leaving Mujib alone, and focusing on restoring Zia.
Arguably, Tarique’s initial foray at the history wars was an attempt at this. Unfortunately, he seems to have made a hash of it, losing the forest for the trees.
For a long time, BNP has tried to establish Zia as the one who declared independence. In the process, the argument got to a minutae of who got to the radio station and held the mike first, completely missing the historical significance of Zia’s multiple radio speeches. What was the significance? The significance was that a serving major in Pakistani army publicly, in English, severed ties with Pakistan and called for an armed resistance. The significance was not that it was a declaration of independence. The significance was that it was a declaration of war. That significance was completely lost.
Now the claim is that Zia was Bangladesh’s first president. Well, in his first speech, Zia claimed that he was the head of the provisional government. In the next version, he dropped that bit. So, is he or isn’t he the first president?
Well, the founding legal document of the country is the Mujibnagar Proclamation, and that says:
We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh whose will is supreme duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice,
Declare and constitute Bangladesh to be sovereign Peoples’ Republic and thereby confirm the declaration of independence already made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,
do hereby affirm and resolve that till such time as a Constitution is framed, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shall be the President of the Republic and that Syed Nazrul Islam shall be the Vice President of the Republic
So we can have a nice legal argument that tries to make Zia the first president, and in the process lose a very important aspect of Zia’s action — something that is directly relevant in today’s Bangladesh.
Because Tarique said so, it’s now becoming BNP’s holy truth that Zia was the first president. In the process, the fact that Major Zia swore allegiance and subservience to a democratically elected civilian political leadership is completely lost. Zia’s bravery is March 1971 is to be lauded. But for BNP, it’s also important to highlight his political maturity, and dedication to civilian, constitutional rule. And that is exactly what he displayed on 15 August 1975, when he reminded Major General Shafiullah that the president might be dead, there was still a constitution and a vice president. Whether in 1971 or 1975, Zia deferred to the civilian leadership and constitutionalism. The relevance for an eventual post-AL Bangladesh is self-evident.
As it happens, Tarique Rahman was not the first person to claim that Zia is our first president. In November-December 1987, Dhaka was rocked by a series of hartals that nearly brought down the Ershad regime. Emergency had to be declared, and most opposition politicians were arrested. Then, on 15-16 December, posters emerged around the city. One had Mujib’s wireless message to Chittagong declaring independence, apparently sent before the midnight crackdown. The other claimed Zia as the first president.
Oh, Ershad stayed in power for three more years. How much more time is BNP’s history wars giving the current regime?