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OP-ED: Farhad, Rono … and the generation of dreamers

  • Published at 02:37 pm July 8th, 2020

Their stories must not be blown away by the winds of time

Haider Akbar Khan Rono has been ailing for quite some. And a few days ago it was the birth anniversary of Mohammad Farhad that we observed in the country. Rono has over the years aged and one can only hope that he will soon recover and return to a peaceful, albeit retired political life. When Farhad died in 1987, he was only 49, in the prime of political activism. His passing was a rude jolt to the communist movement in Bangladesh, a tremor from which left-wing politics has not quite recovered.

Men like Rono and Farhad belong to a generation which was instrumental in promoting the Bengali nationalist struggle in the 1960s. They were young, they were idealistic, they believed in socialism, and they truly were convinced that they could change the world. 

But the vagaries of politics being what they traditionally are, the sort of change they planned did not quite come to pass. Rono’s socialism did not see the light of day. Farhad’s communist philosophy was upended by the turmoil that Mikhail Gorbachev’s politics of perestroika and glasnost caused in the Soviet Union, with ramifications for global communism.

That truth notwithstanding, it is perfectly right in these times of political mediocrity around the globe to reflect on the difference that the generation represented by Rono and Farhad made to Bengali nationalist politics in their youth and subsequently in their middle age. These men, along with their contemporaries, mattered in the 1960s and 1970s. 

They were all household names, individuals looked upon collectively or otherwise as harbingers of the future. In hindsight, though, they could not reach their political destination, for there were the multiple factors stacked against them. But they did walk the path of left-wing nationalism. They did not look back. 

And then, of course, there were the other young men whose belief in socialism may have been absent but whose faith in secular democracy was paramount. In this 49th year of the independent existence of Bangladesh, it becomes important, in the interest of the present and future generations of Bengalis, that all these people who once held out hope for the country and who passed into middle age holding aloft the same banner of high aspirations even as they sailed against the wind be reflected on. 

Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni’s role as a student leader in the 1960s and subsequently as a prime force in the War of Liberation calls for critical evaluation. Similar ought to be a study of the place of Tofail Ahmed in the nation’s history. 

A problem with the historical narrative we have traditionally shaped for ourselves has been our propensity to speak of such individuals in passing without delving deep into their stories. The result has been an absence of intellectual depth in our conversations on them. How many of us recall or at all know that it was Rezaul Haq Chowdhury Mushtaq who, as a student of Dhaka College, first coined the term “Bangabandhu” and that too in the late 1960s when the strongman rule of Field Marshal Ayub Khan was yet the disturbing reality in our part of the world? 

What personal and political trajectory did Mushtaq follow in the years that followed?

It is the tales of these individuals, who once were young and inspirational, that need to be preserved in the national historical record. Motia Chowdhury in her youth was a firebrand student leader and so was Rashed Khan Menon. In their advanced years they have served as political leaders at the national level, as lawmakers and ministers. Yet it is a necessity for the focus to be on them insofar as their struggle in their youth is concerned. 

As a rule, the history of political men and women begins with their initiation into political causes and the road they eventually traverse. From that perspective, the careers of those who once were young and who had dreams of liberalism someday underpinning nationalism remains a task for analysts and researchers to dwell on. 

Nuh-ul Alam Lenin was part of that generation as were Abdur Razzaq and Amir Hossain Amu. Not much of literature exists on them and on their generation, though. The consequence has been a paucity of knowledge about them in the public mind. There is, too, Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, whose participation in the mass upsurge of 1969 is a matter of record. 

Away in Britain, a young student named Khandakar Mosharraf Hossain engaged himself actively in popularizing the cause of Bangladesh’s independence. For today’s young, a sense of mystery has always defined the youthful politics of Sirajul Alam Khan. The leftist politician Mahbubul Haq passed away abroad a few years ago. How many of us recall his dedication to the socialist cause? To forget the struggle Dilip Barua waged for communism in his youth would be a trivializing of history. 

A critical task for historians in Bangladesh today ought to be the undertaking of a comprehensive study of the politics which once -- and we speak fundamentally of the 1960s -- defined the outlook of these young people, many of whom, overwhelmed by exigencies they had not conceived of, have slipped into the danger of turning into footnotes in history. 

The contributions to the making of national history by ASM Abdur Rab, Nur-e-Alam Siddiqui, Abdul Kuddus Makhan, and Shahjahan Siraj in the heady days of early 1971 call for extensive research. Manzurul Ahsan Khan and Mujahidul Islam Selim, standard bearers of present-day communism in Bangladesh, call for studies into the politics of their youth. For his part, Sheikh Shahidul Islam is a reminder of the promising early 1970s, and so is a player in national history.

These are individuals who once were symbolic of political ferment reshaping politics for a society that would graduate from a province of Pakistan to the sovereign nation of Bangladesh. They were all dreamers, in their separate ways, of a vibrant and viable future for their people. 

Their stories must not be blown away by the winds of time.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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