Categories
Essay

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.

In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.

DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.

The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.        

In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.

It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.

What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.

It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.

In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.

When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.

Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

Categories
Tribute

In Memory of Peace

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.
-- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

*Translated: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."

On 11th November, we remember the men who gave up their lives to win wars for those in power. Remembrance Day started as an annual event after the First World War (28th July, 1914- 11the November, 1918) more than a hundred years ago, in memory of soldiers — some of who were lost in the battle grounds, whose remains never got back to their families. Some of these men who fought were from countries that were subservient to colonial powers who started the war and some, like the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, were from conquering nations.

This was much before atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, a nuclear armistice was declared. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), an internationally acknowledged apostle of peace, had an opinion on this: “‘The very frightfulness of the atom bomb will not force non-violence on the world? If all nations are armed with the atom bomb, they will refrain from using it as it will mean absolute destruction for all concerned?’ I am of the opinion that it will not.” Has this nuclear armistice made the world more peaceful? And if so, what is the quality of peace that has been wrought by drumming fears of annihilation in human hearts? Could the ‘fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace’ be right after all?

Here we have collected a few stories and poems around ongoing conflicts and wars which stretch to the present day, some old and some new… some even written by men who faced battle…

Poetry

A poem and art by Sybil Pretious in memory of soldiers who died in the World War I.

Soldiers & Missives by Prithvijeet Sinha … Click here to read.

Our Children by Bijan Najdi, translated from Persian by Davood Jalili. Click here to read.

Prose

Line of Control by Paresh Tiwari, a story about the life of soldiers set in the Indo-Pak border… Click here to read.

I am a Coward with Priorities by Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, a story from a soldier’s perspective. Click here to read.

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary… by Mike Smith takes you on a journey through the pages of a colonial diary and muses on choices he has made. Click here to read.

Bundu, Consoler of the Rich is a story based on memories of the Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali. Click here to read.

In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, an excerpt from an account by Syed Mujataba Ali, translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz. Click here to read.

Categories
Stories

Yet, Forget Me Not…

Short story by actress film-maker Aparajita Ghosh translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta

Aparajita Ghosh

Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Rishi…

Today Rishi turned five. The slicing of the cake is celebrating that. This is to be followed by dinner.  Pulao*, mutton curry  and sweets. The four-five guests present all know each other. They are people who frequent this household. Snigdha kaki*, Pranab kaka*, and the young man Friday of this building. 

“Ananya, here’s your share of the cake, ” Bharati mashima* stretched her hand to offer it to me. How adorable she looks, this young lady of 70 summers! Red bordered white sari, a large bindi on her forehead, that endearing smile playing on her lips.  I took the cake from her and glanced at Rishi’s photograph. A chubby little boy, a headful of raven hair, happiness in his smile and sharpness in his eyes. He is in Hyderabad. In all likelihood, he is cutting a fancy cake in a bustling party. Probably he is not even aware that he has a Grandmother and a Grandfather. 

Holding on to the cake, I walked across the room to sit next to meshomoshai*. Long flowing snow white beard. A curious lack of guile marks  the face of this 84-year-old man. “Do you know dear,” he was telling  me, “Bharati has called so many times, to simply hear the kid’s voice. No one answered the phone. Not once…” 

That no one will pick up the phone is clear to everyone by now — save mashima and meshomoshai. After Kinkar da*‘s death, the day Kanchana left with Rishi, she had expressly said that no one should attempt to contact her in any way. She wanted to retain no link with this household in any manner whatsoever. 

Kinkar da was only forty then. It was the midnight of a sweltering July day. The call from the Police Station had come to our house. Later we got to know that ours was the last dialled number in Kinkar da‘s phone. Around 10 pm he had called to tell Maa that he had picked up a quality Hilsa, so we should lunch together the next day. Kinkar da‘s car was spotted on EM Bypass, crumpled like a tin toy car. Even before he could be taken to a hospital he had…

The post mortem report held the excess of alcohol in his blood to be the cause of death. Kanchana held Mashima and  Meshomoshai responsible for his death. “They not only put up with his bohemian ways, they even boasted about it.” And that was partly if not wholly the truth. They never objected to anything their son did. On the contrary, they took pride in their son. 

But, then, there was sufficient ground for that. Kinkar da was a renowned linguist. He was good at painting. His byline was a regular feature of many newspapers. Almost every week he was giving a talk on diverse platforms. All in all he was nothing short of a celebrity. In actuality he was a down to earth person. He would always dress in khadi kurta* and lose pajama. And always, he sported thick framed glasses. 

Kinkar da often took me out in his car. We would chat endlessly over puchkas*. Yes, he was senior to me by many years but he was more like a friend. He was my Confession Box. I looked up to him like my own elder brother, my dada. Even now I remember him on Raakhi* and Bhai Phonta*

“What’s the matter Anu? Why are you sitting still with the cake in your hand? You’re all right?” I was startled by Snigdha kaki‘s voice. “N-no no, I am fine,” I hastily replied. “Here, I’m having…” I was born in this very Suman Apartment, so all the elders in this building complex have a sense of belonging about me. And I love that. But this day is so very different that I am unable to enjoy anything. Haltingly I headed for the bedroom. A baba suit was resting on the bed — along with it, a Teddy bear and a pink coloured envelope. Rishi’s birthday gifts. 

Just like the four previous years, this year too these will be sent. I will myself courier them, and they will come back to me. Unlike the first time, that year it had been returned to the sender — mashima. Consequently, for three days and three nights, she did not utter a single word. Only, from time to time, she sat staring fixedly at Rishi’s photograph. The next time onward, I have been putting my flat number in the sender’s column. Like the last three years in all likelihood  this year, too, the gifts will lie hidden in my almirah.

I took out the letter from the envelope. mashima‘s handwriting. 

     Dear Dadubhai*,

Today you turn five. You must have grown in these years and learnt to speak full sentences. I hope you are learning Bengali too, dear child? Do master the language — your Grandpa has tons of books, you will read them all — some day. I have baked a cake for you today and cooked mutton-pulao for everyone. Don’t you be sad — when you come down here I will cook them again for you. We will also go out to visit all the attractions of this city. You have barely seen Kolkata. You just grow up fast and come visit us…

Much love and blessings to you shona*.

Lovingly – yours Thammi*

Just think! After all this I must lick the mutton pulao off my fingers. This day is to me no less than a punishment. So many times I have thought of going away somewhere to avoid the celebration. I don’t, only because of these two oldies. Take a look — they have put up balloons everywhere and done alpana* on  the floor at the entrance. Poor Rishi! He will never even hear about this. 

I did call Kanchana once. I had suggested that she come on a visit with Rishi. She had cut me short with her terse retort: “I will not let the dark shadows of that house spoil my child’s life. Spare me this request Ananya. If you do, I will be forced to sever all connections with you too.” I’m not sure what connection I have with Rishi and Kanchana. Still, I must admit, she does take my calls. But that is about all. 

“Ananya, don’t forget to courier the gifts tomorrow. ” I had not realised that mashima was standing by my side. I nodded in assent. “I had saved Rs 500 in my piggy bank, you know!” mashima continued to speak, “That’s why I could buy the Teddy. And don’t you like the dress? dadubhai is v-e-r-y fond of red!”

“How do you know that? You have not set your eyes on him since he crawled.” But the moment I had spoken, I bit my tongue in remorse. What’s this? What have I done! But mashima was offering an explanation: “Kinkar was very fond of red. Don’t you remember how many of his kurtas were in red? Rishi also…” the words trailed off as her voice choked with emotion. 

I held her in a tight hug. I couldn’t control myself either — I let my tears flow freely down my cheeks. 

It was well past midnight when I returned to my flat, after lending a hand in serving dinner and cleaning up afterwards. My parents are away at Santiniketan. So I permit myself this bit of ‘late night’ outing. Besides, I was having a tough time going off to sleep. Kinkar da, Kanchana, Rishi, mashima, meshomoshai — they kept crowding before my eyes…

Trinnng! Tring tring… T-r-i-n-ggg…. The constant ring of the calling bell woke me up. Is it for real or am I still dreaming in sleep? No, the bell is still ringing — and someone is also banging on the door. Must be Kamla. How many times I have told her not to wake me up early on Sundays? What is the tearing rush about? “Kamla come back later,” I was on the verge of telling the person on the other side of the door. I stopped mid-sentence as it wasn’t Kamla at the door, it was the young caretaker. Fear was writ over the face that was glistening with sweat. Before I could speak he said,  “Didi* please come up to the terrace right now!”

Before he had finished an unknown fear compelled me to race up the stairs. As I reached the landing I saw the two oldies, flopped on the terrace, crying away ceaselessly. I went across and sat down next to mashima. “See?” mashima turned towards me, “See how happy Rishi is?”

I could not make head or tail of what mashima was saying. I have yet to courier the gifts. So, did Kanchana make that elusive call?? mashima’s pallu* was all over the floor. Her hair was dishevelled. I can’t remember ever seeing meshomoshai so worked up over anything, not even on the day Kinkar da passed away! With her left hand mashima held me in a tight grip — and with her right hand she was caressing the red Rangan that stood in a pot at one end of the terrace. “See how it is bursting with flowers! This plant has never blossomed before, and today?!”

Three years ago, when this Rangan was planted, mashima had christened it ‘Rishi’. That sapling was smiling at the world today, with flowers on every leaf. Is it actually Rishi saying, “I am doing fine Thammi and Dadu. You too stay well!”

*Pulao — Indian fried rice

*Kaki — paternal aunt

*Kaku — paternal uncle

*Mashima — maternal aunt

*Meshomoshai — maternal uncle

*Da/dada — elder brother

*Khadi Kurta — a long Indian shirt made of homespun popularised by Gandhi

*Puchkas — savoury snack

*Rakhi — Indian festival to jubilate brother-sister ties

*Bhai Phonta — Indian festival to jubilate brother-sister ties

*Dadubhai/Dadu — grandfather

*Shona — darling (Gold)

*Thammi — grandmother

*Alpana — designs made on the floor with ground paste of uncooked rice, traditional folk art

*Didi — elder sister

*Pallu — loose end of the sari that drapes over the shoulder

*Rangan — ixora

Published originally in Bengali in December 2017 issue of Batayan, a Magazine of West Bengal Motion Picture Artists’ Forum.

Aparajita Ghosh, an actor and television anchor has done her Master’s in Mass Comm. She writes stories, has written plays including #Life, which was staged at multiple venues in Kolkata. She has directed Dance of Joy, a documentary on Rabindra Nritya, screened in Dhaka and Singapore, besides India, and the feature film Mystic Memoirs, screened in Kolkata International Film Festival 2019. Dance of Joy been to 7 international festivals and won 2 awards. Mystic Memoir as of now has been selected for 5 International festivals and won one award.

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Poetry

Lockdown Blues

By Gopal Lahiri

.

Sometimes there is a night you just want

to get so far away from,

fire burns out in life’s long years,

memories are plucked, timid words wipe the window

long after the moon reaches its climax.

.

A strange world of quarantine is slowly

strumming with silence,

there is no paper, no blue ink —

envelopes never arrive, the inbox isn’t loaded with emails

it’s time to live with the lonely shadows.

.

The archipelago of hospitals empties sad memories,

patients fighting for life with short breaths

trip letters in social distancing,

no flowers, no relatives or friends

a virus attacks inside in a different trajectory.

.

The first layer of darkness hides the melody of stars

in alleys, in streets, in subways,

rewind the scene of weaning the ventilators.

many dead mothers have left their smiles over the corridor

on the margins of the white washed wall.

.

Form the undulations of courage and fear

eyes stare at the distant light,

the whispers are carrying alphabets of the dead planets

lying beneath the disposable trough.

there will be another universe to live for.

.

Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata- based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 20 books published 13 in English and 7 in Bengali, including three joint books. His poetry is also published in various anthologies and in eminent journals of India and abroad. His poems have been published in 12 countries and translated in 10 languages. He has been invited in several poetry festivals across India.