Mediocre men in control of the levers of power and touched by a dash of the medieval have never felt comfortable in the presence of intellect. And that was precisely the reason behind the macabre killing of scores of Bangalee intellectuals, imbued as they were with patriotism, during the War of Liberation 50 years ago.
As we observe Martyred Intellectuals Day today, we recall all those brave children of Bangladesh who were picked up and then picked off by the murder squad, the notorious al-Badr given shape to and nurtured by the Pakistan occupation army in Bangladesh, a half century ago. We remember the martyrs, each one of whom was snatched from his or her family, to be brutally done to death in the final days of the war.
And as we remember, it is not to be forgotten either that beginning on the night of 25 March 1971, Pakistan's soldiers went on a rampage all over Dhaka and then all across the country shooting our intellectuals – academics, journalists, doctors, lawyers, writers, artistes – in order to leave the Bangalees impoverished as a nation.
It is that sense of tragedy which wells up in us this morning. And as we pay homage to our martyred intellectuals, as images of their battered and bruised corpses at Rayer Bazar (many were there whose remains were never to be found) come rushing back to our collective consciousness, we make a solemn promise in this 50th year of our sovereign nationhood: Never again!
To these martyrs whose lives ended even as we looked forward to life reviving in all of us through liberation, we bow in gratitude and in prayer. No sacrifice is greater than dying for a cause which touches the future of a nation.
These martyrs, part of the 30 lakh we lost at the hands of the occupation forces and their local collaborators, remain the ideal from whom we draw sustenance as we attempt giving to ourselves a decent and proper secular democratic order in this country.
It is fitting and proper that we remember them. And with our memories of them come the historical reminder of the ceaseless sufferings intellectuals have gone through in modern history as well as in the times preceding it.
Nazism remains by far the most horrific reminder of the persecution and murder a state resting on hate can resort to. The 60 lakh Jews who perished in the concentration camps in Hitler's Germany included some of the best men and women in the world of European intellectual attainments. They were not to be allowed to live in the darkness of the medievalism the Nazis presided over. Kristallnacht, those fiendish demonstrations of book burning, were images which have regularly been part of history. And so, what happened in Bangladesh in 1971 was simply a tragic expansion, despite modernity being the rule governing life, of the old horror.
And horror was not merely committed by Hitler and his nefarious band of terrorists masquerading as leaders. One needs to take a hard look at Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union in the 1930s, when Lenin's successor, imagining enemies everywhere, plunged into the grotesque business of sending intellectuals to death and to deportation to remote regions of the country. Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova are yet poignant reminders of the sufferings visited on Soviet intellectual society through the purges Stalin engineered before and during the Second World War. A flick of his finger was enough to condemn writers and artistes, together with his fellow communist political leaders, to perdition. And if Hitler and Stalin are today representatives of the darkness engulfing Europe in their times, there is also the hideous manner in which Benito Mussolini went after an intellectual class that had little love for his fascism. And remember Spain's Francisco Franco? Innumerable were the murders caused by his followers, with poets, writers and journalists disappearing without trace. The ghost of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca is a permanent indictment of Franco's Spain.
In Bangladesh, through the killing of GC Dev, Jyotirmoy Guhatakurta, Rashidul Hasan, Ghiasuddin and the scores of intellectuals marched to their deaths by al-Badr goons, it was only a repetition of history in its foul image we went through.
And such history was to repeat itself after 1971, in lands elsewhere. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia went out on a limb to ensure that no intellectuals survived to challenge their hold on power. It was for the Khmer Rouge Year Zero when they marched into Phnom Penh; and over the next four years, till they were forced into the wilderness by the Vietnamese army, they presided over the murder of intellectuals at every level of Cambodian society.
Turn to Rwanda, where in the space of a few weeks in 1994, the majority Hutus managed to kill as many as 8,00,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, among whom were a number of leading intellectuals who mattered in the country.
Intellectual-unfriendly regimes have consistently felt threatened by the educated and the urbane in nearly every region around the globe. In more ways than one, America's McCarthyism in the 1950s was an assault on freedom of thought in the guise of an anti-communist crusade. In the Soviet Union, the persecution of such leading figures as Boris Pasternak, Andrei Sakharov and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn in the years after Stalin and until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power are today part of a dark phase of history.
Wherever intellectuals have taken on themselves the role of voices of dissent, they have paid a terrible price. In the aftermath of the tragic events in Indonesia in September 1965 and in Pinochet's Chile after September 1973, innumerable intellectuals were to perish. Writers have not had an easy time in China, where the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 felt little compunction in humiliating intellectuals through packing them off to re-education camps or marching them through the streets with self-denunciatory placards hung around their necks.
And lest we forget, in post-1971 Bangladesh, indeed long after the nation's battlefield triumph fifty years ago, the successors of al-Badr generation, in the shoddy raiment of Islamist extremism, have murdered liberals, together with threatening to kill other progressive thinkers in the country. It becomes our task today to ensure that these dark forces do not rear their heads again, that they are identified wherever they are and neutralised firmly and fully.
This morning, as we remember the supreme sacrifices of our intellectuals in 1971, we tell ourselves that these patriots will not have died in vain, that the ideals they lived and died for will for this nation be a renewal of the message of freedom today – and always.