Bangladesh’s Unresolved History of Independence

December 16, 2013

On the anniversary of its independence from Pakistan, Bangladesh is reeling from political violence that has killed scores of people in the months leading up to January’s elections. Amid the turmoil, artist Sehba Sarwar finds reason for hope among socially engaged artists in the nation’s capital, Dhaka.

University of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Men commute alongside a mural by students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, inscribed with lyrics by Abdul Gaffar, and dedicated to Mother Language Day. Photo by Sehba Sarwar, 2013.

Can I forget the twenty-first of February / incarnadined by the love of my brother? The Bengali text, from a poem by Abdul Gaffar entitled “Brothers Blood Colored 21 February,” jumps out as white script painted on a red wall that wraps around the University of Dhaka. Inscribed at the center of a mural anchored by images of doves, open hands, faces and flowers, Gaffar’s poem is dedicated to the very language in which it is written, Bengali.

The assertion of that language cost the Bengalis dearly. On February 21, 1952—less than five years after the birth of Pakistan as a nation with two wings, West and East—Dhaka University students demanded that the federal government recognize Bengali as one of its two national languages. Their plea, which had been widely expressed among Bengali speakers since the country’s inception, was met with brutal repression: government forces killed several students who were peacefully protesting in the streets (and thereby disobeying a prohibition on public assemblies of more than five people). Commemorated annually in Bangladesh, that February day has, since 2009, been recognized by the United Nations as International Mother Language Day.

Mural at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Detail of a mural by students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, inscribed with lyrics by Abdul Gaffar, and dedicated to Mother Language Day. Photo by Sehba Sarwar, 2013.

Across the street from the Abdul Gaffar mural is the famous racecourse where, in March 1971, Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman delivered a speech declaring Bangladesh’s independence. His defiant call for civil disobedience led the Pakistani Army to launch Operation Searchlight, a military venture that aimed to crush the Bengali freedom movement. Widespread Pakistani atrocities, including mass killings, arrests, tortures and rapes went on for nine months, until December 16, 1971, when the Pakistani Commanding Officer signed a surrender agreement at the same racecourse grounds. Today marks Bangladesh’s 42nd celebration of Victory Day, Bangladesh’s first day as an independent nation. Victory Day’s annual celebration includes cultural events, parades and other festivities.

Today, inside the racecourse grounds, an eternal flame marks the country’s blood-soaked struggle for independence and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Although Bangladesh became a separate nation nine months after Rahman’s famous speech, many view the 1952 language uprising as the beginning of the country’s separation from Pakistan. That earlier event led Bengalis to form their own political party, the Awami League, with Rahman as its champion of nationalist independence. Today, the Awami League holds power, as it has through much of modern Bangladeshi history. That situation may soon change. In national elections that are scheduled for January, but may be delayed due to violent protests, the Awami League is widely predicted to lose to the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which is backed by conservative Islamists.

The entrance of the racecourse, known as Suhrawardy Udyan (after Awami League President Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who briefly served as prime minister of Pakistan), has become a gathering place for the 10-year-old artist collective Chhobir Haat (or “Artist Gathering”). Every month, the group opens new art exhibitions that include installations, videos and performances. Often, Chhobir Haat’s work focuses on social justice issues, both local and international; one of its recent productions was a protest against Indian border guards’ frequent killings of unarmed villagers near the India-Bangladesh border.

Sculpture in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Rabi Khan, The Frog, a sculpture in bamboo, jute fiber, clay and grass, seen with photographer Ziad Islam posing. Photo by Sehba Sarwar, 2013.

On Fridays, Bangladesh’s weekly holiday, Chhobir Haat artists offer semi-regular art workshops for community members who are not normally exposed to art. One Friday night I sip tea with members of the collective at the park’s entrance. Behind us is a wall of paintings that are up for sale and directly in front of us, at the park entrance, is a mud-baked sculpture of a frog, taller than most adults. Against another wall sits a clay-grass sculpture of a man’s face.

“The open-air space draws in the general public every day, and the artworks presented receive different kinds of viewers than do formal galleries,” says Kamruzzaman Shadhin, one of the collective’s leaders. “We want to share our love of art with others. Sometimes, we create work to sell. Other times, the work is an installation that remains until the piece disappears.”

The group is a mix of visual artists, singers, writers and digital artists, who converse with each other in Bengali. Unlike in Pakistan and India, where the educated elite switch between Urdu, Hindi or other languages and English, in Bangladesh, Bengali is the primary language for most—from those who are fluent in English to the majority of the workforce.

As I look around, I recognize Kakon, a vocal artist I recently met at a gathering with a more established collective, Britto Arts Trust, led by artists Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi, who are also involved with the Dhaka Art Summit. The event that night was an informal presentation of Britto’s work, and artists from around the city came together to enjoy food and drink (the evening ended with everyone throwing down money to contribute toward buying bootleg alcohol—in Bangladesh, as in Pakistan, alcohol is prohibited for Muslims). Responding to the violent political crisis, Rahman told me then, “We’re not mainstream. We serve as a platform for artists who are in residence with us. And now, as Bangladesh deals with another political crisis, we will continue to do our work on religious, land or border issues—and the artists we invite to work with us will also respond to issues that matter to them.”

At Britto Arts Trust, vocal artist Kakon sings a song dedicated to Hazrat Shah Jalal Aulia, a revered Sufi saint from Sylhet, Bangladesh, who is considered one of the first to bring Islam to the Bengal region (Dhaka’s international airport, Shahjalal, is named after him). The direct translation of the lyrics are: I am crying on the river shore of this world / O boatman, I do not know your name, whom should I call now! / O my soul, who is going to help the soul cross now? In the Bengali Baul tradition, the boatman is an unknown Spiritual Being without form that leads humans. Thanks to: Kamruzzaman Shadhin for translating the song, Khushi Kabir for expanding on the meaning of the lyrics and Kakon for permission to post this video online. Video by Sehba Sarwar, 2013.

Most conversations I have in Dhaka—especially when people learn I’m from Pakistan—are about Pakistan’s 1971 military offensive. And for the most part, people feel free to speak about issues that matter—at least under the current government. But with turmoil surrounding the January elections, there is great worry about the months ahead. Scores of people have died in political violence that has been escalating since October, as the BNP-led opposition institutes street blockades and nationwide strikes.

My host, Khushi Kabir, who runs Nijera Kori, a nongovernmental organization focused on helping the “downtrodden,” comments, “Though we’re nervous about what’s to come after the elections, extremism won’t survive here. Should there be proper elections and the Awami League loses, we cannot afford to have a political party aligned with extremist forces to come to power—that would be disastrous.”

Indeed, a striking difference between Bangladesh and Pakistan is how Bangladesh has managed to hold on to secularism, despite the rising Islamic movement in both countries. In Bangladesh, each time the International Crimes Tribunal makes its rulings on Bengali war criminals who assisted the Pakistani army in 1971, Islamic groups call for strikes that shut down the city—but there’s still less violence than what’s experienced at the hands of extremist forces in Pakistan. And Bangladesh’s fight for independence is fresh in the nation’s psyche, as is evident in the artworks exhibited, conversations held and historical markers placed in public spaces throughout the city—especially on Victory Day. After all, the struggle, which directly affected the lives of most ordinary citizens in some manner, is just one generation away.

Mural in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Detail of a mural by students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, inscribed with lyrics by Abdul Gaffar, and dedicated to Mother Language Day. Photo by Sehba Sarwar, 2013.

Now, amid the political crisis surrounding Bangladesh’s 10th national elections and the violent responses to executions order by the Tribunal, such as the hanging of war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, concerned citizens from a cross-section of society are struggling to find ways to hold on to democracy and push back extremism. Though it is difficult to predict what will unfold over the next month, or even whether the elections will be held as scheduled, the people with whom I spoke hope that the democratic process has taken root and that secularism will endure. (By contrast, democracy in Pakistan is even more tenuous, with the first peaceful transfer of power through open and fair elections having taken place just nine months ago.)

Meanwhile, cultural exchange between Pakistan and Bangladesh remains sluggish, especially since Pakistani textbooks make little mention of the historic events of 1971. As Bangladesh commemorates yet another Victory Day, there is an urgent need—on both sides of the border—to remember the perils of military rule and religious extremism, as well as Bangladesh’s reasons to celebrate independence. “It’s important to keep the democratic process moving,” says Kabir, ”no matter which party wins.”