Life for my generation has been a perpetual struggle for democracy and the benefits assumed to be accruing from it. We happen to be men and women who have moved from childhood to our sixties in the long shadow of regimes necessarily dictatorial in form and substance. But, of course, there were sometimes the breaks which came into our lives, with elected politicians taking charge and somehow persuading us into thinking that light was to be had at the end of the long tunnel. And just when we began to believe that darkness was poised to take flight in the face of a coming onslaught by political luminescence, something went badly wrong.
I am part of that generation, the one that took admission in the nursery class in the shadow of a military regime. To be sure, we had no way of knowing, tiny as we were, of the debilitating effects of the extra-constitutional rule. When our parents led us—and we were all howling and kicking—to school and handed us over to our teachers, we thought we were as good as lost and our fathers and mothers had left us in a state of abandonment. We did not know then that it was not we who were lost but the country. It had slipped into the hands of the generals of the Pakistan army and more than ten years would go by before we, as idealistic teenagers, would begin to understand what politics was all about.
School for us, then, was a time spent entirely under the military rule imposed on Pakistan by General Ayub Khan who, we might add, was soon to promote himself to field marshal. For the children that we were, life was good, though we would subsequently understand that life under a dictatorship was no life at all. And so by the time everything seemed to be in readiness for Ayub Khan to make his way out of power, we were reading the newspapers voraciously and thought we had come to a stage, to intellectually stimulating teenage, where we knew what politics was all about. Of course, we did not know anything, but pretence was in the air and we waited for democratic change to breeze into our courtyards.
That was not to be. In high school and looking forward to finishing school and going on to a higher academic level, we saw the country going through new convulsions. The state was pushed to a near epileptic fit when the man who took over from Ayub Khan was yet another officer with unbridled pretensions to greatness. He was General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. Nothing could have prepared us for the grave crimes he and his army would commit in an occupied Bangladesh. Those final years in school for girls and boys of my generation were defined by the manifest evil which the Pakistan army was demonstrating in what it still thought was East Pakistan. By the time we finished school, Pakistan had finished itself in what had been its eastern province through the pogrom it presided over for nine months. When Pakistan’s soldiers laid down their weapons in mid-December 1971, we had come through a harrowing experience that was instrumental in broadening our interest in democratic politics. We were happy that we were not part of Pakistan anymore and we were elated that finally, we had a country where no unconstitutional rule would descend on us and where democracy was the idea we would build on.
That experience was to last a mere three and a half years. We had come through college and were poised to enter university when new and definitively murderous military rule was imposed on the country. Our shame weighed us down. We were disturbed that Bangladesh had been commandeered by a bunch of assassins strutting about as majors and colonels. It was an assault on our sensibilities and we began fashioning the hope that a saviour would arise and give us back our dignity. No one did, save for a fitful effort lasting four days when a master guerrilla of the 1971 war pushed the assassins from their lair and so cheered us mightily. And then the demons of the forest came screaming back. Once again, it was a dictator, this time of a purely Bengali brand, who seized the country in the belief that it belonged to him and his men.
If in school we staggered through the darkness of the Ayub and Yahya Khan regimes, if in college we coursed through a burst of liberty on the watch of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, we plodded through university in the crudity epitomized by the junta headed by General Ziaur Rahman. The Zia regime curiously ran parallel to our pursuit of education at university. It ended in the very month we rounded off our final course of studies. We would wait for our results. Somewhere in a dark corner, some angry men lurked, their goal being to bump Zia off. They did the job with alacrity but the bloodletting did not stop. Not until a number of officers, charged—rightly or wrongly—with complicity in the plot to murder the nation’s first military dictator, were summarily hanged after a sham of a trial. General Manzoor was not brought to justice, though. He was swiftly dispatched. The truth behind the abortive coup against the original coup master, and that was Zia, went with Manzoor to the grave.
We were young and believed that despite coming through three traumatic periods of dictatorial rule there was a world out there we could explore and mould to our ambitious specifications. Our optimism lasted no more than a few months, for there on the streets again were new bands of uniformed men rudely taking our country away from us. A fourth dictator had foisted himself on us. We stepped gingerly into the job market through territory that was eerily familiar—the old metalled roads subdued by the ear-splitting rumble of armoured cars and tanks.
We had come of age as adults. Our self-esteem demanded that we push General Hussein Muhammad Ershad from power. It took the nation nine arduous years for the task to be accomplished.
From Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan to Ziaur Rahman to H.M. Ershad, it had been a perilous journey in the long dark night. But we did not stop walking.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age