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Bangladesh has had its own share of hidden histories, alternating between visibility and darkness—depending on who is in power. The perception among outsiders about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's crucial role in the nation's independence notwithstanding, an entire generation had grown up in ignorance of who he was or the part he played in the 1971 liberation war. The anomaly was being redressed, but the pendulum seems to have swung back with the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (bnp) assuming power in the recent elections.
Mujib's assassination in 1975 marked the beginning of this era of darkness. An orchestrated campaign to distort history and belittle his contribution was begun and sustained by the state-run radio and television, under the various governments, united in their almost passionate and compulsive disavowal of the father of Bangladesh. It reduced him to a tabooed subject.
A lot of that changed in 1996 with the political advent of Mujib's daughter Sheikh Hasina. She initiated measures to rehabilitate her father and restore all that was due to the man who was called Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal). A committee comprising leading historians was constituted to guide the rewriting of history textbooks and depict what the Hasina government called "the true history of our liberation movement". The official media too stepped in, focusing on Mujib's accomplishments. As if to make up for the lost time, the Hasina government hastened to name the country's important institutions and projects after the slain leader and his immediate family members.
However, in its zeal and haste, or even pique, the Hasina government completely ignored Gen Ziaur Rahman's contribution, another independence hero who too was assassinated in 1981 when he was still the country's president. The official electronic media completely blanked him out in the last five years of the Awami League rule.
But all that is set to change now with the regime of Gen Zia's widow, Khaleda, ordering rewriting history books for resurrecting the slain general. "This is tit-for-tat politics. The country be damned," says Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury, a leading intellectual. "Students are confused about what's correct. Worse, the teachers are reduced to extolling Mujib during the Awami League and denigrating him at the change of government." But Prof Zaheda Ahmed of Dhaka University, believes it's "a temporary phenomenon".
This time, though, the bnp has gone a step further, with a new campaign aimed at not only establishing Zia as the undisputed leader of the independence movement but also completely excluding Sheikh Mujib's name from history. Bangladeshis are now being told that Gen Zia declared the country's independence over radio on March 26, 1971—an assertion at variance with the Awami League's claim that this took place on March 27.
The League insists that Gen Zia read out the proclamation on behalf of Sheikh Mujib, who passed the text to a senior Awami leader in Chittagong moments before Pakistani army captured him on the night of March 25, 1971. Contesting this, the bnp claims it was Gen Zia who declared independence on March 27 after a group of Bengali army officers revolted against the Pakistani crackdown on unarmed civilians.
It isn't clear what has prompted the Khaleda government to float a new date for the independence speech. Kazi Seraj, acting editor of bnp mouthpiece Dinkal, claims he himself heard Zia's announcement on March 26. He's perhaps the only person to have heard the announcement on that day.
Also, underlying the date controversy is an attempt to establish Sheikh Mujib as a coward who surrendered to the Pakistani army on March 25. "Preposterous," retorts Hasina, "Zia would have hung his head in shame for such a calumny. He never claimed that he declared independence."
Air vice marshal A.K Khandker, deputy chief of the liberation forces, thinks the entire controversy is a pity. "Both men have their own place in history and nobody should try to distort it." He acknowledges that Gen Zia's radio announcement of March 27 injected a new momentum into the movement but it was certainly "Sheikh Mujib in whose name we fought the liberation war. He was our unquestioned leader".
But who's to tell the politicians to leave history to historians and liberate the present from the past.