View from Bangladesh: Three million ways to die in the East

Written by SN Rasul | Published on: March 29, 2018

When does a nation become truly independent?

Three million ways to die in the East
Did we become independent on March 26 or December 16, 1971?Photo: MEHEDI HASAN


As a younger and far more ignorant individual, perhaps even as a teenager (and much thanks to an English medium education which seemed to prioritize ancient Mesopotamia over recent Bangladesh — or perhaps, I shouldn’t blame the system, but my selective memory, which found one history more interesting than the other), I was under the misconception that December 16 was “our” Independence Day.

While this may be an unforgivable mistake, an error without excuse, I would argue that my mind had followed a logical (though mistaken) path. The independence day of any country is determined by the moment in time when they became independent.

As far as I know, Bangladesh remains somewhat unique in this regard: Not only are we the only country whose independence was catalysed by a common tongue, we had the audacity to consider ourselves independent even before we had achieved it.

That is, we were independent because, on March 26, we had said so.

Considering the linguistic nature of our (perhaps perennial) struggle, it only makes sense to do so on the strength of our collective voices. A man or woman, who does not think or speak as if he is free, can never be free to begin with, can they?

Linguistic divides
How has our language been used since then? Has Bangla, for example, become our primary go-to for expression? Some of us, yes, but perhaps the existence of this very newspaper and/or the website on which you read this, and the language in which I write, speaks of a discord, not merely on ideological grounds, but also when it comes to language.

Perhaps one of the saddest characteristics of the Bangladeshi experience is the segregation some of us feel based on our ability to speak a certain language. But, the very fact that we, for the moment, have the freedom to express ourselves in whatever language we choose, that is more important than which specific language we use to do so.

We mustn’t forget that Bangladesh is not home to just Bangla and English, but other minority languages which now run the risk of becoming extinct thanks to the overpowering nature of any official, state-sanctioned language (India is running the risk of doing the same).

To deem Bangladesh a simple autocracy is unfair, to some extent, especially considering how much, still, we are (technically) able to do
If not for expression, what about for propaganda? It may very well be that my fluency in English over Bangla is characteristic of one kind of freedom, but what exactly I can say with that fluency, that remains to be seen. The Digital Security Act, which uses language in such a way as to deem anyone practicing their right to free speech a criminal, hinders not the words I use, but the way in which I arrange them.

There are historical blemishes which perhaps need clarification, leading down paths and holes which have been closed off. We are, in many ways, constantly asking ourselves how much of the truth we really need. Do we need to know, for example, exactly how many people died during the nine-month war for liberation? Does it matter if it was 3,000 or 3 million?

Perhaps not. A person allowed to die under an oppressive regime begs an inevitable question: Is not everyone who lives in such a nation dead? What value do they have as people, if their words never see the light of day? Is a person, who has not been able to express himself, alive, even though his real self resides within him, never to be seen?

A country of beggars
Maybe 3 million people did not die in 1971 but 160 million people die here every day, in some form or another. And we don’t have to look to freedom of expression, but merely at how, sometimes, a person’s very existence is such a struggle that they do not have the freedom to become individuals. Children beg for change, women beg for equality, rape victims beg to be heard, free-thinkers beg for rationality.

A country of beggars cannot be free, can it?

Then a German-based think tank comes along and rates Bangladesh as one of the newest autocracies in the world. Isn’t that quite the achievement?

I find myself caught between celebrating our nation’s “developing” status (whatever that means; perhaps another linguistic façade behind which we will carry on as an imperfect collective?) and bemoaning the fact that it is official, we are no longer a democracy.

The current government denies the allegations — and I remain wary of all governments, not only autocratic ones — and, to some extent, I do realize that democracy has multiple forms, and perhaps we have worn a most unattractive democratic garb at the moment.

To deem Bangladesh a simple autocracy is unfair, to some extent, especially considering how much, still, we are (technically) able to do. But that could change, and it could change very fast.

The real tragedy, of course, would be that we have come full circle.

And, if we suspect we have come full circle, maybe the other tragedy is that sacrifice has become inevitable. We must become free, as we once became.

We must, first and foremost, say so.

SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant in the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.

This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune