Friday, April 27, 2018

The many stories of January

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The months of the year, every year, have each their story to tell. And when the question is one of January, you begin to realize how vast its treasure is, especially in relation to the modern world you are part of. As Bengalis, of course, there are the many events and many individuals you will recall in this month that heralds the year, indeed sets the process toward adding yet another link in the chain of destiny.

Winston Churchill
Let your mind rove awhile, before it settles on one of the greatest Bengalis to have made an impression on Indian politics till his death or disappearance in mysterious circumstances. Subhas Chandra Bose, our very own Netaji, came to life in January 1897. And then, from youth to near middle age, he gave of his best to India, his worst to the British colonial power. January also happens to be the month when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was born, in 1928. The difference between Bhutto and Bose is simply this: that while the latter was forever engaged in the struggle for India's independence, the former was relentlessly busy in the pursuit of his rather inordinate personal ambitions.

January 1965 saw the death of Winston Churchill in Britain. Early in that same month, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan 'triumphed' over Fatima Jinnah in a presidential election in Pakistan that not many people were convinced had been fair. And, yes, voting rights were restricted to the eighty thousand people known as Basic Democrats under arrangements earlier put in place by the Ayub regime, incidentally the pioneer of ceaseless, crude military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh. A year later, in January 1966, having pushed the subcontinent into a stalemate through a war with India, Ayub Khan would reach a peace agreement with Indian leader Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent. Shastri would die only hours after he had initialed the deal.

    Mohammad Ayub Khan
In January 1963, Pakistan's diplomat-cum-prime minister-cum-diplomat-cum-foreign minister Mohammad Ali Bogra passed away. He was to be replaced by Z.A. Bhutto. In another January, this one in 1973, Lyndon Baines Johnson, having left the White House in 1969, died at his home in Texas. LBJ remains part of history as the man who presided over America's increasingly deeper involvement in Vietnam, a war that divided his country and compelled him to forgo a second term as president. For India, January 1948 was a time of unmitigated tragedy, for on the penultimate day of the month, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. The light, as Jawaharlal Nehru was to put it so aptly, went out of India's life.

Mahatma Gandhi
Bangladesh's rendezvous with January has been profound, often excruciating. It was in January 1964 that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his band of young political leaders decided to revive the Awami League through repudiating the National Democratic Front cobbled into shape in 1962 by such senior politicians as Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. The death of Suhrawardy in December 1963 in Beirut left Mujib, yet to be transformed into Bangabandhu, free to assert his politics. And he did it. Fast forward to January 1971, when an electorally triumphant Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the newly elected national and provincial assembly members from the Awami League into taking an oath at the Race Course in Dhaka to preserve and uphold Bengali nationalistic aspirations through the Six Points in Pakistan. The rest, of course, is history.

 Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy
In January 1973, for the first in time in newly independent Bangladesh's history, the police shot and killed to quell an anti-Vietnam war demonstration before the United States cultural centre in Dhaka. A furious student leader named Mujahidul Islam Selim tore into the government over the action. Two years later, in January 1975, the extremist left-wing politician Siraj Sikdar, nabbed in Chittagong, was brought to Dhaka. Within hours he was dead. To this day, there has been no investigation into the manner of his death or who had ordered his elimination.

In the same month, January 1975, Bangabandhu went for what he called a Second Revolution in the country. The Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) was brought into being as a national front, as the government put it, with all other political parties being declared non-existent through the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. In effect, Bangladesh slipped into a single-party political system, similar to the system prevalent in China and the Soviet Union.

What has come to be known in history as a Mass Upsurge against Ayub Khan, when Bangladesh was Pakistan's eastern province, effectively commenced in January 1969 when police fired into an anti-government demonstration, leaving a student named Asad dead. The killing sparked massive agitation against the regime and would eventually push Ayub Khan into quitting power two months later. In Dhaka, within moments of Asad's death, Bengalis renamed the Ayub Gate in Mohammadpur as Asad Gate, a name by which it has been known since. Only a year earlier, the regime had instituted the Agartala conspiracy case against a number of Bengali officers of Pakistan's defence forces. In January 1968, it included a new name, that of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as accused number one on the list. Four years later, in January 1972, with much water having flowed under the bridge, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned home from incarceration in Pakistan, to provide fresh new leadership to the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

On the first day of January 1959, Fidel Castro led his guerrillas triumphantly into Havana. The Fulgencio Batista dictatorship had crumbled. And Cuba was poised to derive the advantages that came of a socialist revolution. Tragedy swept across the globe in January 1967 when Apollo-1, ready to fly off into space and into orbit around Earth with astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chafee on board, burned up on the launching pad. None of the astronauts survived.

Nineteen years later, almost to the day, fresh tragedy struck America's space programme when the space shuttle Challenger, carrying several intrepid individuals, lifted off into space, only to explode and shatter into fiery debris within seconds. Among the dead was Christa McAuliffe, the school teacher who, when asked about the work she did, replied in poignant manner:
"I touch the future. I teach."

The writer is Associate Editor, The Asian Age

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