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OP-ED: Chitta Ranjan Dutta: Soldier of freedom, warrior for secularism

  • Published at 02:41 pm August 26th, 2020
Retired major general Bir Uttam Chitta Ranjan Dutta DT
File photo of Maj Gen (rtd) Chitta Ranjan Dutta Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The great fighter’s passing revives thoughts on our lost values

Looking back at the life of Chitta Ranjan Dutta is a reminder for us of the triumph that came our way through the liberation of Bangladesh close to 50 years ago. 

It is also, sadly, a lesson for the nation on the values inherent in that triumph that we have lost over the years. Dutta’s story is therefore a tale that is our own, that defines every Bengali in this People’s Republic. It is at once a tale of hope and a story of despair.

The passing of Major General CR Dutta (Bir Uttam) in distant Florida could also be properly looked upon as the distance in time and space that has come between what we sought to achieve through a beautiful War of Liberation and the realities we are up against today. Dutta, a brave warrior in that long-ago twilight struggle against a foreign genocidal army, believed like all of us in the power of secular democracy and profound nationalism to define Bangladesh in its passage through historical time. 

As a sector commander in that war, Dutta was convinced, like all his fellow sector commanders, like all freedom fighters, that a land of liberty and of constitutional rule, buttressed by the core principles of nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy would emerge, as a promise for the generation that inhabited it and for the generations to come.

A witness to discrimination

It was a crusade Dutta engaged himself in, for as a Hindu officer in the Pakistan army, he was witness to the widening discrimination which defined the workings of the military and indeed the very workings of the state. Dutta could easily have opted to be part of independent India’s army in the aftermath of Partition in 1947. 

He certainly was aware of the communal identity upon which the state he was swearing fealty to was based. Yet something must have convinced him that Pakistan would have a respectable place for its minorities. Perhaps he took seriously Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s promise of the state having nothing to do with the religiosity of men and women, as spelt out in his remarks six days before the vivisection of India. 

We will never know, but that Pakistan did not take him and so many others like him seriously is today a narrative we know only too well. There was Colonel MAG Osmany who could not make it to the top in the Pakistan army because of the political machinations that had already come into play. And, of course, there is the story of the prominent Hindus endlessly regarded with suspicion as Indian agents. 

Dhirendranath Dutta never left his native East Bengal, spoke for all Bengalis in the constituent assembly, and then lost his life, in advanced age, at the hands of the Pakistan army. Jogendranath Mondol, after a brief flirtation with the Pakistan idea, called it a day before making his way to India. Hindus were making their way, in light of the growing repression perpetrated on them in Muslim-dominated East Bengal, to West Bengal.

And yet Dutta stayed. There was his inner strength, moral and ethical, that did not allow him to let go of his faith, even as he saw darkness deepen in thickness around him. In September 1965, he came to the defense of Pakistan on the battlefield when Delhi and Islamabad went to war. 

It was his own country, where he was in a religious minority, he defended to the hilt, without question, without a second thought. Six years later, it was the country which betrayed him through repudiating the election results of December 1970 and imposing on his fellow Bengalis a war they simply needed to win. 

Those who recall Dutta’s performance, his own as also that of the men he trained to wage war against the Pakistan army, do so with an immensity of pride equal to the accolades that went to his fellow sector commanders. He was once again a full-blooded Bengali, in revolt against an army he had served for 23 years, for that army had mutated into an organized gang of murderers in his soon-to-be Bangladesh.

Coming home

Chitta Ranjan Dutta came home, like all of us, to freedom on a winter’s day. For him, for his co-religionists, it was a reclaiming of heritage, Bengali heritage, that was symbolic of Bangladesh’s sovereignty. For once in a long time, the Bengali nation had formally come together in bonding -- away from the spurious two-nation theory, away from a militaristic state resting on neo-colonialism and political intrigues against its eastern wing. 

Pakistan’s eastern wing was now a sovereign republic and Dutta was part of it, as chief of Bangladesh Rifles before moving on to other positions in an illustrious career. In the times between early 1972 and mid-1975, for all the strains on the economy and on politics, he glimpsed hope. The republic was poised to ascend to increasingly greater heights, for it was comprised of Bengalis led by a dedicated political leadership. The Bengali, for Dutta and for everyone else, was a modern being capable of deepening his roots in history. The universe was out there, for the Bengali.

When those roots were wounded, grievously and maliciously, CR Dutta did not fail to see the ominous intimations of destruction around him. The centre did not hold as the Zia regime struck those sinister blows at the fundamental principles of Bengali nationhood. Things fell apart when General Ershad pushed the country back into majoritarian communalism. 

Dutta’s dreams, which were Bengali dreams, came apart layer upon layer, to a point where it became necessary for him to project himself as the spokesman of what once more had become religious minorities in a state where the religious majority had begun to call the shots once more, a la Pakistan. 

The Hindu-Bouddho-Christian Oikyo Parishad was the vehicle he shaped for a two-pronged purpose: Defend the rights of the minorities, exemplified by his campaign for the Vested Property Act to be revoked; and argue the case for a return to the values that had energized the Bengali struggle for sovereignty in 1971.

General Dutta did not flinch from articulating the truth, did not fail to draw the attention of the powerful to the manifest wrongs they perpetrated in the country. Unlike many others, he was not willing to, and did not, compromise on the principles he believed in. It was these principles he shared with his fellow liberation soldiers at the Sector Commanders Forum.

In independent Bangladesh, Chitta Ranjan Dutta watched, in growing degrees of dismay, history come apart in the hands of illegitimate and therefore extra-constitutional regimes. He was the target of criticism -- the criticism coming from small men with limited historical imagination -- and yet he kept alive the hope that the Bangladesh he waged war for half a century ago would reclaim its cultural-historical identity. 

Chitta Ranjan Dutta’s death revives thoughts of lost values. It is also a moment for us to reflect on the long distance we yet need to traverse to reclaim those values. The general falls silent, but the hope he kindled in himself and in us shines bright. He believed in Bangladesh’s ability to rise above the pettiness of the tinpot dictators who tried to beat it into fearful silence. That was his confidence, infectious in its optimism. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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