‘Let us give our history a total shape’

Most of the leftists, say around 98 per cent, were for the liberation struggle but there was a very small portion that did not support the war, Ayesha Khanam — president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad — tells Abdullah Juberee and Shahin Akhter in an interview with New Age

Ayesha Khanam

Ayesha Khanam

New Age: The competing political parties of the ruling class, the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in particular, accuse each other of distorting the history of our liberation war. What is your view about the alleged distortion of the history?
Ayesha Khanam: It is not very pleasant for me as a freedom fighter to talk about unexpected and illogical discussions about the history of the war of independence even after 44 years. I do not think that it is a soothing topic for discussion for any citizen. We have to get rid of this situation. History requires acceptance in an objective, neutral and unbiased way. Many countries had experience similar to that of ours in gaining independence through political struggle against colonial rule. After independence, they form new states for advancement through many ups and downs and socio-political complexities. But such controversy over fundamental issues of independence is totally unexpected and seriously condemnable. I recognise the role of Bangabandhu as the architect of our liberation and also recognise the role of the Awami League as the leading political party in our struggle for independence. I would like to say that everyone should have an objective attitude and have an open mind regarding historical events. The history of independence was not only of nine months; there had been a along preparation for it. The political preparations began in 1952, when we realised that the artificial state of Pakistan would not ensure our right to self-determination, and political and economic growth. The question of self-determination led us to the struggle for liberation. So there are roles of other progressive democratic political parties and individuals. We know that the Awami League led us during the war. If we can create an integrated, liberal and coordinated history, featuring the roles of other democratic and progressive parties and individuals instead of mentioning only a single party’s role repeatedly, I believe that such controversy over the history will be eliminated forever.
vic06Besides, if the debate from other political schools over who had proclaimed the country’s independence and from where continues, I do not think it would have an end and we would remain stranded within events of the past. Incidents of the past are very significant. We cannot reject the past. Past exists in the present and the future is created through the role of the present. So, we should focus a little bit on the future at present.
Let us step forward by getting rid of the unwanted controversies and accepting the already recognised truth.
New Age: There is no doubt that the Awami League, under the active leadership of Tajuddin Ahmad, politically presided over the nine-month liberation war against Pakistan and that the Tajuddin government conducted the liberation war in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the Awami League often claims to be the sole champion of the country’s war of liberation. What role did your party, or other political parties for that matter, play in the liberation war?
Ayesha Khanam: I was then aligned to a left party. I was an activist of a student organisation and vice-president of the Rokeya Hall Students’ Union. I was in the war front in the NAP-Communist Party-Chhatra Union Guerrilla Bahini which acted under the government-in-exile of Tajuddin Ahmad during the war. Along with many other women, I had taken special training in India.  After training, I was shifted to a transit camp, from where trained freedom fighters started for the war fronts. I worked for the mobile medical teams too. But my role was mainly to brief the youth about the pre-text of the war and what we were fighting for. I did not have combat training. If the war continued further, I might have had that chance. During briefing sessions, I came to know about training experiences of the freedom fighters. So I cannot distort the truth and what I know. Although I was an activist of another group, we worked under the leadership of four national leaders and the government of Tajuddin Ahmad during the liberation war. But if I am asked which party I belonged to, it certainly was the Chhatra Union although right now I do not belong to any party. Now, my party is my conscience. I believe in the constitution of 1972. About the role of Mahila Parishad during the liberation war, I can say that our founding president Sufia Kamal and general secretary Maleka Begum played significant roles in the liberation war. Sufia Kamal had a strong role during the preparatory stages of the war and during the war, Mahila Parishad worked against the evil propaganda against our war, such as that it was a mere separatist initiative. Mahila Parishad was connected with the international women’s federation where we raised the issue of peace. We informed them of the massacre, war crimes, violence and rape which were taking place in Bangladesh. We sensitised the people to our struggle and formed public opinions on the issues. Some women like me, who had taken training, also worked at camps.
Besides, many adolescents had taken part in the war. The nation went through an awakening. I still feel the emotions, the spirit and the vigour. The mass people, the way they had responded to the calls of Bangabanghu and in the war, I salute them.
New Age: At what point of political development in Dhaka, did you, or your party, resolve to start the liberation war against the occupation forces of Pakistan?
Ayesha Khanam: Women’s movement is not only for achieving women’s rights. Women’s movement is an integrated part of the national movement. Sometimes women’s movement is a separate movement and sometimes women’s movement works by keeping consistency with the country’s prevailing situation. So was the role of Mahila Parishad during the preparatory stages of the war. Women can advance when there is a positive change in society, state, family and the entire political, educational and cultural frame. We saw a reflection of this from 1966 to 1969. Women were activists of different political families and parties. Women leaders of the language movement and anti-British movement participated in the movement. I saw a grand alliance of women of progressives, nationalists, leftists, political and non-political ideologies as well as housewives in the movement. When Yahya-Mujib talks were about to fail, Mahila Parishad took to the streets with a large procession protesting at the moves to dismiss the people’s mandate. Emotion, romance, adventure, youth and patriotism made me want to join the war.
For me, I cannot separate any particular incident which prompted me to join the war. We went through a process. I saw a generation rise. I went to many places. I gave speeches at street corners. You cannot imagine how the steel was tempered. I was not alone, my generation was ready for the war.
New Age: There are allegations that the government-in-exile of Tajuddin Ahmad and the Indian authorities refused to provide training and weapons for leftwing political activists? Why? How was the issue eventually resolved?
Ayesha Khanam: As a very ordinary activist, I politely want to say that such a situation is not a very abnormal incident in any nationalist or anti-colonial movement under any nationalist leadership. There were many quarters that had formed different chemistry which might have existed at the initial phase. There was role played by Tajuddin Ahmad, various political leaders, our intelligentsia who were in exile and some others, but I do not want to trigger any controversy. There were differences within the leftists and the nationalists. I think such chemistries had some direct or indirect influence on the happenings then. Most of the leftists, I would say around 98 per cent, were for the liberation struggle but there was a very small portion that did not support the war. I was aware of such problems and a way to resolve the problems was eventually worked out. We were able to get training and participate in the war because the solution came. Our liberation war did not last very long. There might have been some communication gap between the leadership and the ideas of different sector commanders. But these were ultimately resolved. After the war, we gave our support to the government formed by Bangabandhu and the truth is that till 1975, a big portion of us supported the BKSAL, which was later revealed to be a mistake and undemocratic. We worked in that situation. Solutions came, but later. The post-liberation war Bangladesh went down another line through the killings of 1975. My experience says that every leadership is unable to pursue all inclusive, futurist and open-minded policies.
New Age: It is common knowledge that Awami League leader Khondaker Mushtaque Ahmed wanted to compromise with the Pakistani authorities during the liberation war. Was any other leader or faction of the Awami League supporting Mushtaque’s move? How was the suicidal move thwarted?
Ayesha Khanam: I should not speak about incidents that had taken place at such high levels without having the proper knowledge. I believe that maybe the attempt of Khondaker Mushtaque was not strong enough, for which his intention was not successful and the government of Tajuddin could successfully thwart that move.
New Age: There are allegations that youth leaders of the Mujib Bahini, formed and specially trained by the Indian authorities, did not properly cooperate with the government of Tajuddin Ahmad during the liberation war. Why was, in your view, the Mujib Bahini formed in the first place and how did it affect the process of our liberation war?
Ayesha Khanam: I think that it is a question for those who were directly involved with the process. I just joined the war under the leadership of that party but actually I belonged to another party. And, I was a layman activist. Answers to this question should come from people who were in leadership.
New Age: Allegations also have it that in order to take control of the war, the Mujib Bahini often engaged itself in clashes with the Mukti Bahini. Did such clashes upset the morale of freedom fighters on the ground?
Ayesha Khanam: I am really in doubt whether the two forces were in a position to engage in clashes. There might have been some problems with the leadership. I would like to say that there might have been some sort of a tug-of-war over leadership.
New Age: Different sections of people of Bangladesh took part in the liberation war. Did all sections of people have the same expectations from an independent Bangladesh? What were the aspirations of the poor masses who had made the greatest sacrifice?
Ayesha Khanam: This is the point where critical comments come along — the expectations of people and their fulfilment. To be honest, I myself thought that many things would happen after the liberation war. That might be because of my inexperienced psyche of youth. In my experience, after 44 years of the liberation war and the contemporary history, many other countries have many episodes of history. We passed an episode from 1952 to 1970. 1971 was the high time of our history that caused a qualitative change. Everyone fought the war for realising their own dreams. A poor man fought for his basic needs of coarse rice, cloth, a shelter and safety, I dreamt of a society free from exploitation, and some fought for achieving equal rights for men and women. Some even dreamt to have a share in a capitalist society alongside the few rich families. There were differences in expectations, thinkers dreamt of a society of free thinking, journalists thought of the freedom of expression and artists thought of an environment which would ensure they would be able to practise art in a free environment.
But we did not take into our minds that achieving the expectations needed an environment, some policies and plans. This in point is where we stumbled.
After the independence, we failed to step forward. We failed to step ahead with the 1972 constitution. We had spoken for democracy but we imposed BAKSAL and did not consider how consistent it was with democracy. I, too, was among those who had agreed to form BKSAL. Were we certain about the policies we had taken such as non-communalism, equity-based society? Could we advance with appropriate politics and education policy? I think we required a deep soul-searching and then to advance foreword. Trial and error corrects the whole thing.
New Age: What are the impediments towards meeting the aspirations of people at large that were generated out of a successful war of liberation in 1971?
Ayesha Khanam: We were supposed to go further after the war but we were not able to go there. We were not able to advance with the constitution of 1972. We talked about democracy although I was an activist of BKSAL. But how far did we work to keep up the very spirit of democracy? Were we clear about the policies — secularism, democracy and equity-based society?
We should analyse ourselves neutrally and advance by solving faults. The liberation war was against the notion of militarism, which in 1975 had been revived in Bangladesh and stayed for about a decade. These ups and downs created a new situation. After the liberation war, there was another fight. This fight was for building cultural, educational, economic and administrative structures of the country. But militarism and the use of religion in politics were back again in the country, against which we had fought. We again went back to the past. These two trends triggered a new centre in politics and they are still being resisted. We are still fighting against that.
The state-sponsored violence also sent us backwards. After 1975, militarisation process continued with a civil cover-up and it changed the direction of political history through many ups and downs for more than a decade. It triggered a backward journey. We lagged behind in the required struggle after independence, including institutionalisation of things. Besides, the use of religion in politics, against which we fought during the war, also acted as a major hindrance to achieving our expectations. Everything became religion-oriented. A state announced religion. It came as a major attack on our entire society.
Democracy now seems to have become just holding elections. We do not accept the recognised and accepted process of establishing democracy such as ensuring the freedom of thought, the freedom of speech, the freedom of individuals and institutions. I would request all the people who had struggled for democracy since 1952 to mean it, that democracy does not imply casting votes on a single day. Democracy is a thing where there would be freedom of thinking.
We have to create such a political environment. We are talking about liberal independence. But how many people are getting justice? I am not saying that nothing has been done. Authorities should take a more liberal position for providing independence for institutions. Our leaders are saying that we are practising democracy; is that true? The practice of democracy, the parliament, government parties, citizens and civil society should be ensured.
New Age: There is some documentation, inadequate though, about the sacrifice of women in the liberation war but their sacrifice is not yet discussed in public forums. How should the problem be addressed?
Ayesha Khanam: We should not recall the sacrifice of women in December only. We have to work for them throughout the year. We have to include them in state plans. I think that state, society, and ruling and other parties which participated in the war, should take initiatives politically. This is not just being liberal towards women. We should not have the attitude that women were only victims of aggression. Women also participated in the war directly in the war front and also had indirect contributions. Women’s political role should be upheld. History should be rewritten to uphold their political contribution. Women should not represent the chapter of pity in our war.
We know that women helped during the war in different ways. But then the question arises: why were women not recognised as freedom fighters? Bir Uttam? Yes, there are some parameters. But the women, who gave leadership in 1968 like Sajeda Chowdhury, achieved their position through their own abilities. The women who were in different political parties during the war, their roles should be recognised properly in history.
Bangabandhu recognised the women victims as Biraganas. But I liked to recognise them as Bir Nari. They were not subject of pity. Men, ruling parties and politicians should recognise them.
New Age: There is still controversy at home and abroad over the actual number of martyrs in our liberation war. What is the scientific way to put an end to the controversy?
Ayesha Khanam: Although I am not a researcher, I have seen in many countries, histories of their liberation wars were documented even after 50 years. In our country, many freedom fighters are still alive. There are already some documentations of history. Why should we not conduct further research and follow other methods adopted in different countries for documenting history in a more objective way? It does not mean that we are demeaning the established figure of martyrs. If someone gives new information or insists on further research, we should not recognise the person as an anti-liberation element. A research study should be conducted. Why are we always talking about possible decrease in the number of martyrs? The number of martyrs can increase also through proper research. There are still undocumented freedom fighters, as well as martyrs. I think that the number of martyrs might increase. Such questions are also being raised at a time when we are conducting the trials of war criminals.
Let us give our history a total shape through an unbiased attitude with honesty, sincerity and emotion in a scientific way. It does not mean that it would demean the existing history. It would, rather, enrich our history.

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