No matter Lawrence Durrel defines history as "an endless repetition of the wrong way of living," we must study it closely for gaining insights into our very own existence and setting our future course of actions. Past is crucial to taking inspiration and cues to chart a roadmap in the present in a bid to ensure a better and shinier future. Although Georg Hegel says, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history," we should engage with it to at least know what we are— to use George Santayana's words, interestingly on the same matter— "condemned to repeat." Front-loaded as it may look with history quotes, it clues you in on my motivation to pick up the book Muktir Parampara: Bangladesher Muktisangramer Prekshapat o Prastutiparba ("Sequence of Attainment of Freedom: The Background and Preparatory Phase of the Liberation Struggle of Bangladesh," roughly translated.) Authored by Prof. Abul Kashem of Rajshashi University and published this February, the book came to me like a breath of fresh air. I finished reading it through in two sittings punctuated by note-taking, and at the moment I am geared up for sharing my pleasure and takeaways with you.
First and foremost, the book remains singularly focused on putting in perspective the evolutionary nature of politics during the 23 years of East Bengal's unhappy marriage with (West) Pakistan. It also looks into the causes that motivated the Muslims of the British province of East Bengal to zealously fight for Pakistan. The writer in line with many other objective historians rightly points out how the class tension between minority Hindu gentry and majority Muslim peasantry reconfigured into communal hostility and increasingly exacerbated the political climate. Pakistan appeared as a promised land especially for Muslim Bengalis, an idea that got crushed not much later after its emergence. However, Bengalis gradually discovered their distinct national and cultural identity and prepared themselves through popular movements and upsurges for achieving their freedom. Author Abul Kashem is spot-on in his observation that the Liberation War is not an isolated event, rather the culmination of the long struggle for freedom. He makes no mistake to show how the language movement on February 21, 1952 is the launching pad of Bengali nationalism leading a betrayed people to a search for ultimate self-determination. It does not mean, neither the author implies, that the process was a smooth one.
The whole journey toward the final victory was packed with false starts, confusion, misunderstanding and trial and tribulation. Crucial to the project was the emergence of the Awami Muslim League, a party that over time became the most authentic representative of the people of East Bengal. Starting as the platform for disgruntled and western-educated liberal section of the Muslim League, the party graduated itself into a progressive and nationalist political organization championing the cause of Bengalis initially within the framework of Pakistan. Author Abul Kashem shows us how the Awami League despite its preliminary Islamic leanings veered off to a secular course to emerge as the vocal representative of Bengalis of all stripes. Also the partnership with left-oriented parties, however various and fluctuating it was, made possible Awami League's steady liberalization and secularization. That the party adopted secularism as a cornerstone of Bangladeshi constitution following independence—the writer points out smack dab—is an outcome of its love affair with socialist parties.
Quite sensibly, the writer sheds light on the landslide victory of the United Front in the general election in 1954, Awami League being the biggest force in it. However, the constant conspiracy of Punjabi-led military establishment, smear campaigns led by the Muslim League and other religion-based political hypocrites, and the internal weakness emanating from ideological differences between the parties of the alliance proved to be its undoing. Author Abul Kashem sharply diagnoses the factors leading to the collapse of the first political endeavor of Bengalis in the business of statecraft. Nevertheless, he appreciates the merit of its political potentials that would prove decisive in Bangladesh's creation. But, the leadership of Suhrawardy—the writer does not fail to show—kept the Awami League as the sole voice of Bengalis but within the context of a united Pakistan. It is our luck that his demise, however sad and deplorable it is, set up a perfect stage for nationalist leaders with Sheikh Mujib at the forefront to push for full-scale independence. The "six-point demand, author Abul Kashem stresses, was a blueprint for our separation from the Pakistani statehood. This is really a big turning point in our national history.
Historian Abul Kashem also discusses the emergence and progression of student politics in East Bengal. He tells us how the Students' League and the Students' Union interacted with each other and how they delivered the goods when it mattered the most in scripting the course of our history. He highlights the glorious and at times not-so-pleasant role of student politics in shaping the basis on which to go for ultimate pursuit of freedom. Plus, he puts emphasis on Bashani's activism being an x-factor in our march towards victory. One more thing, he lambasts the crooked aspects of military dictatorship under quite a few hotheaded generals with Ayub Khan as a kingpin. The historian deserves my kudos for his sharp eyes over minute details of the major issues of the history of that period.
My review cannot do complete justice to the book Muktir Parampara: Bangladesher Muktisangramer Prekshapat o Prastutiparba. Readers can discover their own treasure upon reading. Generally speaking, the book is well-researched and brilliantly articulated. The nagging problem though, I must say, is the typos, words missing and a bit of clumsiness especially with regards to quotations. Hope the next edition will have fewer errors. Last but not least, I wish this scintillating academic attempt at the most significant phase of our history a resounding acknowledgement and wide readership.
Abdus Selim is an academic, translator and playwright.