In an exclusive interview with Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star and Sushmita S Preetha, Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed, founder of Bishwo Shahitto Kendro, talked about the crucial role intellectuals played in the struggle for liberation, the reason why they were targeted in 1971, and the alarming decline of intellectualism and erosion of collective values since independence.
What do you think was the motive behind the killing of intellectuals on December 14? What would you say was the impact of this systematic killing on Bangladesh?
The role of intellectuals in Bangalee life has always been very significant, at least since the 19th century when there was a Renaissance in Bengal. From then on, in our intellectual practices and cultural sensibilities, in the realisation of our deep sense of life or in our perspective of worldly affairs, Bangalee intellectuals' contributions have been crucial, more so, in fact, than that of intellectuals in any other part of the subcontinent. The anti-colonial movement against the British was a movement of the intellectual and educated classes.
Intellectuals were and have always been integral to resistance, as they were in our struggle for liberation. Our movement for liberation was more cultural than it was political, because it was born over language. What began as a linguistic and cultural movement slowly turned into a political one, with the intellectuals at its helm.
Why did the Pakistanis kill the intellectual leaders? Is it because they thought if they could kill a few intellectuals, Bangladesh's future would be paralysed? Is Bangladesh so intellectually bankrupt that this would happen? No. This, I think, was vindictiveness on their part, because they believed it was the intellectuals who destroyed Pakistan. I personally think that this idea did not only come from the Pakistanis, but also from the Bangalee collaborators, like Al-Badr and Al-Shams.
The 50s and 60s, it has been said, were a golden era for the intellectuals of East Bengal. Would you share a few memories of those times?
The language movement was a movement of the cultural, educated, liberal and secular youth of this land. At the time, the middle class was only just expanding, and it was the youth in whom we saw the reflection of a modern, progressive world. They felt in their very consciousness the importance of language, the importance of taking a stance against the two-state theory, against the idea of a religious state.
Through the 1954 election, some progressive groups came to power and the Muslim League along with the idea of a religion-based Pakistan was rejected. Maybe these groups didn't have the experience or the aptitude to succeed – or perhaps the state structure was such that they weren't allowed to succeed – which enabled Ayub Khan to ascend to power within a few years. And then followed a dark period in our history, Bangalee culture was all but in the grave at that time. It was a radical thing to even celebrate Tagore's 100th birth anniversary. You remember Shamsur Rahman's poem at the time: “Gaan bondho kor tora, nortoki nacher mudra bhol…” (Stop singing you all, dancer, forget your techniques). You couldn't even talk about your culture. Bangalee's lives and dreams, poems and prose, were squashed under Ayub Khan's boots. Rabindranath Tagore was a cultural symbol for the Bangalees, and so you weren't allowed to publicly celebrate him. We had to wage a movement in '61 to observe the day. It was a small but significant movement against the repression of the Bangalee spirit.
Then came the Education Movement of 1962 which was, again, a cultural movement. In fact, most movements since the formation of Pakistan were movements waged for culture, creativity, freedom of thought and ideas, whose leadership was provided by educated Bangalees. When the movements gained momentum, politics took over – that is only natural. But even then, the role of the intellectual didn't diminish – the ideas of socialism, secularism, autonomy… how did they find their way in the vocabulary of politics? Bangladesh was formed by the people led by the politicians, but the groundwork was done by the intellectuals. It was the intelligentsia which generated the consciousness of the nation.
Intellectuals were not dependent on their intellect alone, but also on values. Back then there were a lot of highly educated, visionary people, with the power to make establishments quiver. Today there are a lot of people with fancy degrees, but a severe lack of well-educated, self-sacrificing people who are willing to dedicate their lives for a better cause. Back then, people respected intellectuals and believed in them. When they made a statement, people listened, people were moved. It's questionable if intellectuals have that kind of power in our society any more. The erosion of values that has gripped all of society has not spared the intellectuals.
As you highlight so eloquently, intellectuals were instrumental in catalysing the independence struggle. What happened to this tradition of activism driven by intellectuals, after independence?
The situation before and after independence was completely different. Not only different, it was the opposite. I actually think that the atmosphere of British rule continued in the country till '71. The British might have left in '47, but their administrative and state structures as well as their value system stayed with us more or less till '71, whether through Pakistani rule or through us. After all, a 200-year-old regime does not disappear overnight.
I have been severely critiqued for saying this -- that during British rule, there was a history of good governance. The one crucial thing that was missing there was: rights. Of course, when you occupy another's state through force, you cannot ensure human rights. But apart from this, most of the other values that were present in England were also present amongst us – we had the same laws, and values of justice and fairness. There was no bribery, no cheating in exams. In fact, the terminology “erosion of values” didn't enter Bangla Literature till 1947. It has been used increasingly since then, and has been used the most in recent times.
Bangladesh was born in '71. A human baby cannot run as soon as it is born, neither can a nation. 10 years ago, as I was entering the Tower of London, I was reminded of the long history of the British state, of the experiences, values, discipline and humanity that it has developed over a thousand years. How can we achieve what a 1000-year-old state achieved within a day? If not a 1000 years, we need at least a century to organise ourselves.
One big reason why we couldn't run the state properly after independence was because we didn't have any prior experience in running state machineries. Never before had we run a state independently. Our maximum experience was in running the village panchayat, as Tagore highlighted as well. The village was our administrative unit.
What could we expect from a people who had nothing – people who were lost, hungry, uneducated, people who had a dark past -- but who were suddenly presented with a state and limitless opportunities to plunder and loot from it? There was corruption and pillage on all fronts. Shatter the state, shatter all values, shatter good governance, to enable us to plunder more! Doors to Hong Kong, Dubai, Bangkok, Singapore, Australia, England, America opened; could we expect this poor, famished populace to just sit back and watch? They began to attack the state from all fronts. And the intellectuals? Can we expect them to be standing when the rest of society is in shatters? Tell me, who is standing in our society except plunderers?
But what prompted such rapid erosion of our moral values?
Well, our moral values were borrowed from the British to a large extent. Bengal was the only place outside of Europe where the Renaissance took place. Yes, it happened in Japan as well, but they had their own interpretation of it. The values of the British, even though we embraced them and molded them to suit us, were foreign to our own culture; they did not emerge from our everyday lives, from our own system and structures. If our independence struggle had lasted a long time, we would have been able to develop an independent value-system and structure of governance. But we got our independence in a short time. And after independence, as I explained, the push was to shatter all values.
The war of 71 was the war of independence. But another, perhaps more important, war is waiting for us. It's not a war against an external enemy; it's not a short-term war. It is a war against ourselves, against the sins, greed, laziness, corruption and criminality within us. This is an eternal war, and this is the real liberation war. Independence can be achieved, but the war of liberation must go on.
So would you say that at a time like this, when we are confronted with so many crises, especially political and moral, the need for our intellectuals to rise again is more crucial than ever?
There has been an erosion of values of the intelligentsia as well. Criminalisation and plunderisation has not left them untouched. There is a famous poem by Bharatchandra, “Nogor purle debaloy ki erae?”(When the city burns, is the place of worship spared?). When all of society is in ruins, it is natural that the intellectuals, too, would be destroyed, that intellectualism would die. And yet, it doesn't die. After every flood, comes resurrection. Intellectuals will rise again, but it will take time.
At this moment, there is no strong voice of the intellectuals, or even if there is, we cannot hear them. Political society has all but engulfed civil society. In all civil society organisations, we see the dominance of politics and of politicians. Only those are free who do not need the state for survival. Back in the days, the position of the headmaster was a revered one, but now this position is held by the nephew of this MP or the uncle of that politician. It's the same with our doctors and lawyers.
But all hope is not lost. The conditions are being created for the emergence of a new intellectual class. Be it because of the culture of plunder, but along with creation of wealth, we are also witnessing more and more young people who are interested in reading, writing and thinking, and are concerned about our future.
Education can play a crucial role here [in creating the right conditions]. Other sectors are important too, but education is especially so because values are born here. Ultimately England is run by Oxford, Cambridge and similar other institutions. The values that are created there become the values of the nation. The main educational institutions become the moral compass of a nation, for the most part. So we must undertake the difficult task of cultivating progressive values.
Once your values are gone, it is hard to get it back. It is possible to rebuild if you lose infrastructure – as Japan and Germany did after World War II– but if you lose your sense of collective morality, it takes a lot longer to stand back up again.
We seem to be witnessing the degradation of values on a global scale as well…
In the last 500 years, the world has seen incredible progress in art, philosophy, literature and science, but now it seems everything has dried up. Now the only thing that is important is money-making, this indomitable quest for affluence. And money is the only thing that has no morality, no values. The whole world now seems to be aspiring to be the US.
But it doesn't mean our fall is absolute. When a car goes up a hill, we can say symbolically that it is progressing. But when it descends, do we say it's going backwards? No, because the wheels are still going forward. The car must come down, so it can go up another hill. We can call it progressive decay. It is a historical phase, and we have to accept this. But we must keep on fighting.