Must laws protect Sheikh Mujib’s honour and 1971 history?

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Afsan Chowdhury

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A law is being passed to regulate the online world and prevent abuse of the internet. Many use it to commit criminal acts, harass, intimidate and blackmail, particularly women. This is a good step and the authorities should be congratulated. The punishments are also more moderate and sensible than before. This is all good.

However, the proposed law also makes it a criminal offense to “say anything negatively or propagate against Bangabandhu and the 1971 war”. The sponsors have argued that it’s similar to the European Holocaust denial prevention law. But do we need such a law when the genocide of 1971 is not denied by anyone, including even the Pakistanis? Has any Bangladeshi denied that genocide took place in Bangladesh in 1971? The purpose seems more political than otherwise.

It appears to be designed to stop the BNP from making such claims. The BNP has said that Zia declared Independence first and Tarique Zia has said that he was also the first President. Nobody takes such claims seriously and they add nothing politically, except making the AL angrier. Khaleda Zia’s remark that the number of shaheeds was less than the 3 million that is claimed is another example. These three claims peaked last year, prompting the AL to make this law. But a law on national history basically saying what can be said and what not means sovereignty over national history is taken away from the people and causes damage to the national history production process further. It’s becoming a hostage to the AL-BNP conflict.

The problem is rooted in the BNP’s glorification of Zia campaign which began after 1976. Zia’s status as a war hero who led the resistance in Chittagong is beyond doubt. Some, including in the AL, have tried to trash him but his status remains unaffected in people’s eyes.

But in 1971, while he fought against Pakistan, he was not the leader of the war, it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That Zia was the first President is an absurd and extreme claim which no one takes seriously, except the BNP and (sadly) AL partisans. No benefit grows out of such claims either and it is an indicator of the sorry state of our national politics, not much else. It neither contributes to popularity nor wins elections.

The government claims that the history of 1971 has been “substantially changed” and made controversial and hence this law. But as long as the AL is in power, nothing can change against its will. And if the BNP ever comes to power, it will change “history” anyway. So what is the point of this law?

There are only two “controversies” which are not even significant issues of history. One, Zia declared Independence first and the second is that 3 million people died in 1971.

The objective of the first is to make Zia as important as Sheikh Mujib and the second is to prove that the claims made by the first President are not correct. But in his lifetime, Zia never replaced Sheikh Mujib and inserted himself as the first President/ announcer/ which has very little historical value anyway. This claim business originated probably to prove Zia’s close connection to the 1971 war as a leader after he took power in 1975. It was also expected to help strengthen his reputation which was negatively affected by the rehabilitation of the Jamaat, the anti-1971 war party with which the BNP still walks.

Here is what professional academics of integrity think.

Sheikh Mujib was the leader of the nationalist movement which began even before Pakistan came into being in 1947. He was the leader of the party which led the nationalist movement. Whether he said/announced or did not say anything on the night of the 26th has little meaning, as the people fought under his leadership. No historian will even consider the idea that since General Zia made a declaration/ announcement, he is therefore the leader of the liberation war, except political partisans.

Mujib is the unquestioned leader of the movement and no law can dispose him from that identity and nor does he need a law to protect him or his status. Those who think that a national Independence movement requires a gazette notification to begin are of petty bureaucratic/clerical minds. It’s these people who are unable to comprehend a people’s war. The same mentality also insists on passing a law to protect history from a non-existent problem. The history of 1971 belongs to the people and not politicians, bureaucrats or lawyers. Only freedom of knowledge can protect the history of 1971.

The fight between the AL and BNP partisans is being conducted even as they say it is on behalf of the people.
Does the Holocaust law principle apply in Bangladesh? In Europe the law protects denial of the event, that is, when some say it never even happened. Many European Nazi parties often did that but the Holocaust law is about its denial, not about the number of people killed in the Holocaust. Many people quote many numbers on the Holocaust, including the Ved Vasham, the Jewish body that acts as the guardian of the Holocaust memorial.

But no one denies that a Holocaust/genocide took place in 1971 in Bangladesh. Who can deny that the Pak army and its collaborators killed Bangladeshis when even Pakistan doesn’t deny it and there are millions of witnesses? The Holocaust denial argument doesn’t apply because numbers do not make genocide but the act of killing a people does, no matter how small that number. Genocide is an act of killing a people for having an identity and not how many.
It is the number that has become a political issue and an unseemly one. Because such doubts are raised by the BNP-JI, the AL is making a law. But are courts qualified to decide on historical issues since the matter is not legal but historical? When BNP leader Khaleda Zia says the number of shaheeds is much less than 3 million, it’s a political attack on the AL number, not an issue of history. She should be asked to prove her claim. It should apply equally to those who are saying it. But protecting a number and preventing a denial of genocide are not the same. So why do we need to protect something which is not denied even by the BNP?

That number has great symbolic value as a measure of our suffering, not as the exact number of shaheeds. To protect that spirit of 1971, more evidence based research should be undertaken so that all information is gathered and no confusion remains. Putting a national symbolic memory under the custody of the law will not improve its health; it will make it controversial and a political bone of contention which is unnecessary and not the way to guard the history of 1971.

But who or what will moderate let alone prevent abuse of this law? What is to stop anyone from filing a case against another if he dislikes anything written by him on 1971? The Mahfuz Anam-DGFI episode showed how hundreds of court cases can be filed by partisans just to show their leader how loyal they are to the party.

Who decides what is transgression and what is research and how? Will historical narratives have to be approved by law or principles of academic freedom and integrity? Does this law mean historical facts and analyses now belong to the realm of courts and bureaucrats rather than academia and the people? There will be more discord than unity on the subject of 1971 history and resentment may grow amongst many due to the abuse of this law.

No law is necessary to protect the history of 1971 or the prestige of Sheikh Mujib. Bangladesh didn’t need laws to make it independent or for Mujib to become the founder of Bangladesh. These laws will only discourage an exploration of our greatest legacy – the history of 1971. It will become much less about recording the people’s struggle and much more about the endless squabbles between the AL and the BNP, about what is “correct” and “ incorrect” history and so on.

Such august issues didn’t deserve a law which makes legitimate issues of contemplation and exploration, analysis and research, matters of courts and conflict. One fears it will make the very issues we are all trying to hold high, less so.

  • Afsan Chowdhury is a bdnews24.com columnist.

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