One way of trying to understand the significance of Independence Day is to imagine a Bangladesh without it. Certainly, those of us who have memories of living in Dhaka in the dark days of 1971 will know what it was to live without freedom.
From 26 March to 16 December, we were in constant fear, for we were constantly vulnerable. It was impossible to talk or move freely, for our freedom of speech and our human rights had been taken away completely. No one dared to go to schools or colleges, and only people who had to go to work went out. A lot of people fled to their village homes, but even there they were unsafe, and often whole families had to move from place to place, and quite often seek refuge in our neighbouring country. Our women and young men were especially frightened of going out and life could only be lived under the long shadow cast by the Pakistani occupation forces and their local collaborators who had snatched away our freedom.
Losing our freedom in those dark days was especially painful because in his magnificent speech on 7 March, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had urged us to snatch away our freedom from those who were trying to suppress us. But Bangabandhu had already spent a lifetime in inspiring us to think of a free Bangladesh, spending year after year in prison defying the Pakistani government, and spreading whenever and wherever he could his message that we should take control over our own destiny. He had told us that we needed to be free citizens in our own country and had the right to enjoy its resources and realize our dreams to be happy and prosperous human beings. Even before 1971, Bangabandhu had given clear indication of the shape our country should have through the choi dofa or six-point movement. On 7 March of that year he had asked us to stand up and resist with whatever we could, promising us that the blood shed by our martyrs ever since February 21, 1952, would not go in vain, and declaring that he would lead us to freedom in the end, come what may.
From 7 March to 25 March of 1971, our movement for independence grew stronger. We could now sense and breathe freedom, and we were quickly beginning to understand that it was only in independent Bangladesh that we could have a future, for the Pakistanis were not going to give us our rights easily. On the 25th of that month, the Pakistani Army unleashed a brutal campaign to subjugate us fully and forever, but before they took Bangabandhu away to prison he was able to direct us to mobilize ourselves and resist and then overthrow decisively the shackles being imposed on us. The dark days of 1971 therefore were not without hope, for in accordance with Bangabandhu’s directive, our Mukti Bahini soon organised itself as a force that could resist the Pakistani Army and drive it away, bringing us ultimately to freedom. And so day by day, week by week, and month by month, we took inspiration from the heroic resistance put up by our valiant freedom fighters. Even in the darkest days of 1971, we continued therefore to dream of independence, emboldened by the daring with which the Mukti Bahini attacked the Pakistani Army’s camps and the intrepidity with which they moved to free the country. And so we inched closer and closer to freedom, though it was increasingly clear to all of us that it would not be easy to snatch independence away from the Pakistanis who had too much to lose by giving up East Pakistan. The cost of freedom would inevitably be high. But the martyrs of February 1952 had shown the way and throughout 1971 thousands of Bangladeshis shed blood and gave up their lives in bringing us closer and closer to independence. As a result, by the time we finally achieved victory on 16 December 1971, the nation had paid a heavy price, for some of our best men and women had died and the country had become devastated because of the ferocity of the Pakistani occupying forces.
What, then, is the significance of Independence Day? First of all, it is a reminder that it is the most precious thing that we as a nation have. It is the day for us to remember that freedom is a unique gift, for millions had sacrificed their lives for it. We can recall too on this day that Bangabandhu too had redeemed his pledge to make us independent and had dedicated his whole life for it.
Independence Day should also be an occasion for us to tell ourselves that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, for the people who wanted to impose another language on us and extract our resources, the forces that brutalised us and assassinated Bangabandhu, are still conspiring.
In other words, we need to be united and ever alert in resisting these dark forces. Independence Day is also a call to us to hold up our head forever high, breathe fully the pure air of freedom, strive for democracy and work towards building a prosperous and happy Bangladesh for all of us, and achieve the truly Shonar Bangla which all of us want.
Prof. Dr. Fakrul Alam is a Bangladeshi academic, writer and translator.