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To Dance Upon The Air

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Iftekhar Sayeed
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Since most of us today, whether by choice or otherwise, are Lockean constitutionalists, we would do well to start this analysis with an overview of the conditions under which that influential political philosopher justified the citizens' 'appeal to heaven', that is, to tyrannicide.

"The people shall be judge; for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust? If this be reasonable in particular cases of private men, why should it be otherwise in that of the greatest moment, where the welfare of millions is concerned, and also where the evil, if not prevented, is greater, and the redress very difficult, dear, and dangerous?"

The question arises: did such a situation obtain in Bangladesh prior to August 15, 1975 which, in retrospect, would justify the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on that day by a group of army officers (about the killing of his family, I shall postpone, but not evade, the discussion)? That a group may act on behalf of a people (for, as Locke might have said, history proves that an entire people never rise up against a tyrant) he makes abundantly clear.

"If a controversy arise betwixt a prince and some of the people, in a matter where the law is silent, or doubtful, and the thing be of great consequence, I should think the proper umpire, in such a case, should be the body of the people: for in cases where the prince hath a trust reposed in him, and is dispensed from the common ordinary rules of the law; there, if any men find themselves aggrieved, and think the prince acts contrary to, or beyond that trust, who so proper to judge as the body of the people, (who, at first, lodged that trust in him) how far they meant it should extend?"

Notice the uneasy shift from 'some of the people' and 'any men' to 'the body of the people': in his own day it was parliament that acted against James II, and not the entire people of England. The greatest popular participation in a revolution has been estimated to have taken place during the Iranian revolution (11%), followed by the Russian (9%) and the French (6%). Therefore, according to Locke, some people are justified in acting 'for the people' in a rebellion. And Sheikh Mujib's career follows the classic trajectory of the demagogue leading the people astray for his personal aggrandizement (see article): once unleashed, he had to be contained.

Now let us consider the events leading up to the slaughter in 1975, for which five of the killers will swing within the next few weeks.

I was a month shy of fifteen on that dawn when I was woken by the sound of booming guns. We lived on Road 27 in Dhanmandi, only a few blocks away from the house of Sheikh Mujib on Road 32. I remember that dawn as though it had been this morning.

When the news of the assassination spread, I remember the jubilation, the sense of a curse withdrawn from a people, the ecstasy of redemption that swept over the nation. I was innocent of all politics and political philosophy at that age: but I was sensitive to sentiment. And the sentiment was precisely this:

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive."

The reader must have gauged the enormity of the crimes of The Father of the Nation, Bangobandhu [Friend of the Bengalis] Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to elicit such a response from a people betrayed. But these are mere impressions, and those of a teenager at that: let us turn to an impartial source for the facts.

Lawrence Ziring has written a masterly account of the events leading up to the killing of Mujib in his 'Bangladesh: From Sheikh Mujib to Ershad: An Interpretive Study' (Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 1994).

"Mujib presided over a court corrupted by power. It acted as though it could shelter itself from the realities of Bangladesh. But the license that might have been ignored in some other societies, could not be ignored in a country overrun by self-styled enforcers, gouged by profiteers, and raped by government officials. With literally hundreds and thousands dying from hunger, with millions more threatened, high living in Bangladesh could only be equated with debauchery and hedonism, with irresponsibility and indifference. To anyone with a grudge or a sense of national purpose, the conclusion was the same. Deliberate efforts had to be made to reverse course, and the only option for such a reversal lay with a new team, and the only team capable of making the manoeuvre was the Bangladesh army (p 103)."

Mujib was in jail in what was then West Pakistan, but returned to a hero's welcome to become prime minister in January 1972 of his newly-created Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). His status was more that of a god than of a man: yet his intimates knew that he was even less than a man. "Mujib believed he was Bangladesh, more so that he was good for the country and that it could not manage without him. Those who reinforced Mujib's impression of himself and his role did so because it benefited them politically or materially, not because they truly believed in his leadership (p. 93)." Yet, in the election of 1973, he won a landslide victory: the disillusionment was still to come.

Mujib, distrustful of the army, formed his own personal army, the Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini, or National Security Force. "Opinion was strong that the paramilitary organization was no different from Hitler's Brown Shirts or the Gestapo (p98)." The Rakhi Bahini unleashed a wave of terror and murder, along with other anarchic groups. By 1974, several thousand politicians had paid for their lives for defying or supporting Mujib. Nor did the Rakhi Bahini spare the apolitical: they looted villagers and physically harmed those who resisted.

Then, in the summer of 1974, famine struck, and Mujib did not lift a finger to help his Bengali followers: he himself acknowledged the death by starvation of 30,000 people, but the true figure was 50,000. Mujib's passivity reaches diabolical proportions when we consider the fact that there was enough food in the land but that it was exported to his sponsoring country, India (see 'famine', Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition.)

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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