The memories are still vivid -- as soon as the news of the stepping down of the autocrat fileted through, scores of men, women, teenagers, and students poured out onto the streets. It was late night, December 5, 1990.
A new dawn awaited. A day that would be celebrated all throughout the country, as a declared public holiday.
December stands for deliverance, many said unanimously. There is special significance to the month because Bangladesh gained independence in December 1971 and, also won another victory against what many call a usurper in 1990.
On December 5, 1990, Bangladesh started a new journey -- leaving behind the two post liberation decades of tumult and turmoil.
Twenty seven years later, the euphoric slogans on the streets of the early winter night in Dhaka seems a little distant, but certainly not forgotten. That night and the following day, the overriding feeling was one of hope, possibly tinged with too much romanticism like all other post revolution ideals.
December 1990, a culmination point
The fight had started long ago, in 1983 -- soon after the country was placed under martial law. The Dhaka University campus was abuzz with student activity. Once the air of the campus was alive with slogans of independence in the 80s, the fiery resolve wanted to bring down a dictator.
The remnants of the Vietnam War leftist ideology fuelled a spark -- Star cigarettes became a potent symbol of the urban revolutionary. The anti-imperialist graffiti on the campus walls resonated with the battle on the streets. The unique aspect of the student rising was that a large portion of the young people wanted to tear down the dictatorship and set up a leftist government.
A proletariat Utopia, they envisioned and articulated. Late at night, these crusaders of social change wrote anti-imperialist slogans on the walls. Life was a mixture of Bohemian Rhapsody and revolutionary zeal. Ulcer was common, lunch and dinner often completed with singara and cups of tea.
On December 5, 1990, Bangladesh started a new journey -- leaving behind the two post liberation decades of tumult and turmoil
Obviously, a lot of the movement was fuelled by blind idealism, but on the roads these united men provided the real opposition to the regime.
Their ideologies did not matter -- what was important was that they unswervingly worked to bring down the autocratic regime.
In 1987, the movement gathered a renewed impetus when, Nur Hossain, a pro-democracy activist with the slogan “down with the autocrat, let democracy be free” written on his body in bold letters was shot and killed during a police firing on a protest rally.
Police-protester clash was common all throughout the 80s. Student dormitories were closed by arbitrary orders, session jam at the university becoming an integral part of life.
A little more on the session jam: It was common to hear people say, “I am MA batch 1985, graduated in 1989,” meaning that due to regular closure and political agitation, the exam of 1985 ended up being held in 1989.
Not surprisingly, by the time someone entered the job market s/he was almost close to 30.
Popular culture joined the fray
The famous Satyajit Ray film, Hirok Raajar Deshe
, (In the Kingdom of Diamonds), the plot revolves around two wandering musicians with magic powers who help the persecuted people of a fictional land to get rid of a tyrannical king, subduing the masses and children by stealing their ability to think with the help of a brain control machine.
Naturally, the film could find chords to the then socio-political upheaval in Bangladesh.
Hirok Raja became the rallying point for the young and the intellectual. Late Bangladeshi painter Quamrul Hassan, who had used art to portray the diabolical image of General Yahya Khan, ordering the genocide in 1971, came up once more at the height of the people’s movement in 1989 with another politically charged work called “Desh Aaaj Bishsho Behayar Khoppore” (Country today is in the hands of the king of the shameless).
Overseas obsession and crusaders on the streets
In academia, the environment was restive; the prospect of entering university for higher education was plagued by uncertainty. No one knew when they would actually graduate and enter the job market.
An enticing solution was to take the TOEFL exam and then apply to a US university for a swift and seamless academic life in a cosmopolitan environment. By late 80s, this trend turned into a social frenzy. When the phenomenon began, majority of students came from upper- middle class backgrounds and, from families who earlier had the social reputation of completing education in the country and joining the civil service.
Due to the regular political turmoil, a new path of education opened. Soon, the middle class section also became very much engaged in this social craze, selling land or other possessions to send their young ones to the US. It was US and no other country. The American Center, called the USIS, became the focal point for students completing their high school.
This US-based academic preference which became a sub-culture of sorts with roots to the volatile time in Bangladesh history lasted well into the mid-90s, resulting in countless young men and women going to catch what was then called the “biggest apple of all.”
And those who stayed back to trigger a social and political change saw December 1990 -- a successful end to their long agitation.
Fortunate to be here on Dhaka streets late on the night of December 5, I still recall millions coming out with their household utensils to raise a collective sound of victory. Dhaka was still a city caught in a time warp, cars were limited and the word “jam” only applied to tangled academic sessions in the universities.
Almost three decades later, that night remains etched in mind along with the immortal lines from Satyajit Ray’s movie, “Dori dhore maaro taan, raja hobe khankhan
,” (pull the rope in unison, bring down the statue of the tyrant).
Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.