The best part of writing about politics and history is the degree of reactions and responses you get as feedback. There are many people who agree with you and some who don’t, which is fair enough. The difficulty arises when some readers, their indignation aroused by what you write, sometimes hurl words and phrases at you that leave you rather surprised. But, as I have learned over the years, it is always the decent thing to listen to the other point of view, no matter how much you tend to disagree with it. Of course, Charles de Gaulle would say something different. Asked once what he thought of people who disagreed with him, he deadpanned: ‘I respect people who disagree with me, but I cannot tolerate them.’
We are certainly no De Gaulle, which is when we feel, at times, the need to answer queries flung our way by readers upset by our expressions of opinion on given subjects of collective national interest. Over the years, I have had my fair share of criticism, even excoriation, from readers. They have simply decided that they will not touch me with a barge pole, which is fine. Some have advised me to go into what they have called the intricate details of history before delving into serious themes. Some others have simply misread me, have indeed not grasped the point I have been trying to make. There are some readers who miss out on the criticism I sometimes make of those in power. But when I appreciate, for some very credible reasons, a positive move by those very ruling circles, a group of readers is perfectly willing to send me to the guillotine for the sin of being ‘partisan’.
But that, I guess, happens to nearly everyone --- here in Bangladesh and elsewhere --- who writes or talks about such serious subjects as politics and history. Among my friends are people who keep reminding me that back in 1971 Bangladesh’s leftists would have liberated the country from Pakistani control had the Awami League not stepped in and ‘commandeered’ the entire struggle. These leftists belong, to be sure, to what was once known as the pro-Chinese camp. They believed in a leader named Abdul Haq. You draw their attention to what Haq did in 1974 --- he wrote to Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto soliciting financial and arms aid from Islamabad for purposes of removing the ‘autocratic’ Mujib government in Bangladesh. It’s all there in Stanley Wolpert’s life of Pakistan’s first elected leader (by default), Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan. But try as you may with all your might, these leftists will not have you enlighten them. Ideology, you see, can sometimes be a huge impediment to academic conversations.
Be that as it may, I have often been assailed by a question thrown at me repeatedly by people whose dissenting opinion I have always respected. Would there be a Bangladesh had there been no partition and no Pakistan? My answer is simple: Bangladesh did not come into being because Pakistan was established in 1947, but it had to come into being because the necessity arose for us to make our way out of Pakistan at a critical juncture of our collective life. Let’s not miss the point here, which is that secular Bangladesh was a revolt against a communal Pakistan. As for the question of what would have happened had Pakistan not been there, the answer is easy: if India had not been partitioned, the Bangladesh question would not be there at all. Our problems began with the All-India Muslim League’s so-called two-nation theory in the 1940s. All of us, Muslims especially, have paid a high price because of the theory. In a united, secular, democratic India, there would be little need for Bengalis to go their separate way.
A reader wants to know why, in his opinion, I hate Jinnah. Now, a study of history is never about hating individuals, even those who may have caused some of the biggest calamities in the lives of people. Here the question is not, will never be, about hating Jinnah. He deserves our respect and he has it. It is only his policies, based on his erroneous belief that religious communities can call themselves nations, that we disagree with. The so-called two-nation theory, let me say it again, has been responsible for much of the misery people in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have gone through. We do not hate Jinnah. We differ with him over his politics. Let us not forget that even he, at one point, was jolted into awareness, even if momentarily, of the calamity that was the partition of India. Surveying from a Dakota aircraft the streams of harassed refugees moving both ways across the Punjab, he murmured, ‘What have I done?’ It was a remark the journalist Mazhar Ali Khan, who was in that Dakota, overheard and would repeat to his wife Tahera. Long after her husband’s death, she would pass the truth on to the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar.
A reader seems to think that it was Jinnah’s two-nation theory which the Hindus of West Bengal followed when they decided to be part of India rather than stick to a united Bengal. That argument is flawed. And here’s why: those who have long argued that the whole of Bengal should have gone to Pakistan ignore the reality of its very large Hindu population which could not be expected to fall under the dominance of a Muslim Pakistan. Don’t forget that Bengal’s Hindus were only a few percentage points fewer in number (46 per cent) than Bengal’s Muslims (54 per cent). It would be naïve to think that this very large body of Hindus would be comfortable in a Muslim majority Bengal, given the riots that had already laid Bengal --- in Calcutta, Noakhali, apart from spots in Bihar --- low.
Some readers, both here and in Kolkata, have often posed the pretty untenable, even ill-conceived question of why Bangladesh, being a secular polity, cannot merge with secular India. Well, why doesn’t a democratic United States return to a union with an equally democratic United Kingdom? Why don’t the various Arab states, home to a common language and a common faith, unify in a great political enterprise? Why doesn’t east Punjab link up again with west Punjab? You don’t need anyone to give you the answers to these questions. They bubble their way to the top when you plumb the depths of history.
A final question from a reader: without the partition of India, would Sheikh Mujibur Rahman be the founding father of a free Bangladesh? No one has ever said he would be. On a larger canvas of thought, in a united India, men like Jinnah, Suhrawardy and Fazlul Huq would be level with Nehru and Patel and Ambedkar. A second generation of united India’s leadership would have included Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, G.M. Syed and Khan Abdul Wali Khan. Charlatans like ZA Bhutto would have no place in that configuration of history. Soldiers in Pakistan and Bangladesh would not have meddled in politics. In a united, federal and democratic Pakistan, had the results of the December 1970 elections not been so rudely repudiated, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be a powerful politician redefining and reconfiguring a land born of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s ambitions.