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As there are multiple narratives about the Partition of 1947, so are there multiple theories about the emergence of Bangladesh. One school of thought tells us there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of Bangladesh; its birth could be averted had the main actors, Bhutto, Yahya, Mujib and some others behaved differently. The other narrative highlights the fundamental differences between the two wings of Pakistan – geographical, historical, ethno-linguistic, cultural, social, and economic – which are said to have made the separation of the two wings inevitable.

Then again, what politicians and their followers in socially and politically fractured Bangladesh assert in public about who and what turned the movement for provincial autonomy for East Pakistan into the Liberation War is mostly one-sided, biased accounts that glorify their own heroes and idols of the Liberation War. The ardent followers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League give all credits for achieving Bangladesh to Mujib and glorify him as the founding father of Bangladesh by undermining others, including freedom fighters like Maulana Bhashani, Tajuddin Ahmed, General Osmani, General Ziaur Rahman, Serajul Alam Khan and some other top leaders of Bangladesh.

Awami League leaders invariably undermine Zia as a freedom fighter, let alone as one who formally declared the Independence of Bangladesh on 27 March 1971, and later became the President of the Republic and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Some top Awami League leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, denigrate Zia at best as an insignificant actor in the Liberation War, and at worst as a Pakistani agent, collaborator, and enemy of Bangladesh. What we hear from BNP leaders and activists is equally partisan, glorifying Zia as the real founding father, and even as the “first president” of the Republic, as his son and political heir Tareq Zia has asserted many times, publicly. By demonizing Mujib as anti-Liberation, Indian agent, or even as a Pakistani collaborator, BNP top brasses assert Mujib only wanted to become the Prime Minister of united Pakistan by using the sentiment of the freedom-loving Bengali radical forces in East Pakistan. So, at the end of the day, it seems both the parties’ leaders and workers leave no stone unturned to see if the main patriarch of the rival party – Mujib or Zia – is denigrated and demonized enough to their own (perceived) political advantage!

Today some ultra-radical “leftist” leaders of the National Socialist Party (JSD), which emerged out of the Awami League, glorify their own leaders, especially the enigmatic Sirajul Alam Khan and A.S.M. Abdur Rab, as the real founders of Bangladesh. In late 1972, they established the (JSD) as an alternative to the ruling Awami League. Their version of the history of the Liberation War is very different from the Awami League and BNP versions. The Awami League version of the history of the emergence of Bangladesh is very different from those who lived through the turbulent period of 1960s and 1971 (both within and beyond Bangladesh) as well.

The historiography of the Liberation War of Bangladesh is full of diametrically opposite versions of “history”, and many of them are “eye-witness” accounts as well! These accounts are reflective of the over-polarised and emotionally-charged well-informed, less-informed, and uninformed people’s ideologies, sentiments, and emotionally- and politically-charged blatant lies. They represent the viewpoints of politically over-polarised sections of the people, as well as those who are plain and simple hero-worshippers. Both are equally capable of lying in support of their political ideologies, and the ideologues or heroes they love, adore, and glorify which is understandable from Carlyle’s important work on heroes and hero worship.

What Carlyle said about the hero-worshippers with regard to “The Hero as King”, namely Cromwell and Napoleon, are applicable to the blind admirers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, who are the main idols or cult figures in Bangladesh. What he said about the worshippers of Cromwell and Napoleon in his sixth lecture in 1840 is applicable to what Mujib’s and Zia’s blind followers are doing, decades after their tragic deaths. The hero-worshippers find no wrong with their idols.

Carlyle said:

“The Ablest Man: he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn:—the things which it will in all ways behoove US, with right loyal thankfulness and nothing doubting, to do! Our doing and life were then, so far as government could regulate it, well regulated; that were the ideal of constitutions.”

Ardent followers of the two main heroes in Bangladesh  are sharply polarized into two hostile groups of people, who are least interested in respecting each other, let alone, coming to a working political understanding or relationship. Many of their crafty leaders tactfully play the divide-and-rule game for the sake of absolute power. Most of them do not nurture and respect democracy. The absence of intra-party democracy in all the major political parties in the country substantiates this. The cult of hero-worship is a stumbling block in the way toward any meaningful understanding of history and society in Bangladesh. It shrouds the truth and reality from the objective investigators.

Last but not least, the United States recognizes at least six other people — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — besides George Washington as its founding fathers. Glorifying single individuals as founding fathers is very common in relatively backward and premodern countries, mainly in the Afro-Asian continents. One may mention Mustafa Kamal, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Sukarno, Gandhi, Jinnah, Mujib, and among others, Mugabe in this regard. And the countries they represent as their sole founding fathers are nominal / dysfunctional democracies or totalitarian dictatorships.

Had Bangladesh adopted the concept of multiple founding fathers, it would have possibly been a democracy without any dynastic rule and cult figures around. At least one of them, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman aka Bangabandhu (Friend of Bangladesh), would not have remained a demigod beyond any reproach or criticism. It is a criminal offence in Bangladesh to question his persona or denying him as the Father of the Nation. People even cannot raise the question if he ever declared the independence of Bangladesh! The country is possibly only comparable to North Korea with regard to the jealously guarded cult of personality. In India and Pakistan people can get away with saying not-so-nice things about their founding fathers, Gandhi and Jinnah respectively, not so in Bangladesh and North Korea!

Dr. Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: tajhashmi@gmail.com

3 Comments

  1. I am intrigued by the reference of Thomas Carlyle in the write up, who, amongst many is perhaps ‘more honoured than imitated.’
    Writing on historical topics Carlyle based his work entirely on secondary sources and developed a deep hostility towards historians who took a more orthodox approach towards researching their work, arguing that fine factual accuracy was less important than getting at the heart and soul of the subject. Carlyle’s quote about hero-worshippers used in this article is rooted in his view on the French Revolution in general and Napoleon in particular. As he wrote (in the same sixth lecture):
    ‘‘But this poor Napoleon mistook: he believed too much in the Dupability of men; saw no fact deeper in man than Hunger and this! He was mistaken.’’
    And in another place, ‘‘Napoleon’s astonishment is extreme. But alas, what help now? He had gone that way of his; and Nature also had gone her way. Having once parted with Reality, he tumbles helpless in Vacuity; no rescue for him. He had to sink there, mournfully as man seldom did; and break his great heart, and die,—this poor Napoleon: a great implement too soon wasted, till it was useless: our last Great Man!’’
    So what Carlyle seem to suggest is perhaps not entirely a rejection of hero-worshipping or a ‘‘concept of multiple founding fathers’’ but an emphasis on what ‘‘Nature with her laws will sanction’’ to such hero-worshipping.

  2. Taj Hashmi says:

    Thanks a lot Zahid Khan for your comments. I’m a bit surprised at your longish comment on a peripheral, not the core issue addressed by my paper. I have only used Carlyle to argue that clients/followers of a powerful hero/patron follow him/her with complete obedience. So long as they support their hero, they don’t find any flaws or problems with their hero. Of course, in accordance with the pattern of the patron-client relationship, clients often change their patrons for more benefits. The whole relationship hinges on the quality of promises the heroes make to their followers. By the way, my piece isn’t about Carlyle per se. Hence the irrelevance of your comment on his philosophy! One of my main arguments is implicit in this paper. That is about the heroes’ or ruling elites’ successful hegemony of mass consciousness by arousing some false consciousness about the reality, and about the hollowness or unattainability of the promises of milk and honey the patrons/heroes make to manipulate, and hegemonies the dumb clients/masses. This happens everywhere. The most effective heroes are demagogues and magicians. Trump is the glaring example in this regard. Masses everywhere needs a demagogue to lead them. Contrary to the Neo-Marxist Subaltern School of historiography, masses barely follow the diktat of their hegemon, and they don’t have any autonomous domain of culture, which Subaltern scholars believe is not subject to elite hegemony. I simply don’t buy this. I like what Marx has beautifully elaborated in his Eighteenth Brumaire about the perpetual idiocy and dependency syndrome of the hoi poloi, ordinary people or peasants. They are like “sacks of potatoes”, can’t move by themselves, and they rely on their own class enemies and consider them as their heroes. They need a Napoleon, Hitler, and or a Sheikh Mujib (I am not likening him to Hitler though). In sum, the hero-follower relationship is very complex. And I used Carlyle just as a point of reference to buttress my argument that followers are blind with devotion, so much so that they don’t see any flaws with their heroes.

  3. Thanks, Taj Hashmi for engaging and apologies for my ‘longish’ comment. I understand your (main) argument on the issue. However, my point was precisely what you describe as ‘peripheral/irrelevant’ to the article where Carlyle was used ‘just as a reference point’ to advance the ‘main’ argument.
    Indeed, what is ‘relevant’ or ‘central’ is often governed by the lens through which we see the world or read a piece. For example, to a methodologist, what matters most is the assumptions, definitions and the degree of sanitized data that one uses to ‘buttress’ the ‘main’ argument, and not the argument per se. This is completely different from plain reading.

    It is through such lens that Carlyle (and his philosophy) become relevant. Carlyle, in many ways, was not exactly suggesting what your article do. He basically professed that all history is the making of ‘Great Heroes’ gifted with ‘supreme power of vision or action’, suggesting ‘hero-worshipping’ more like one’s ‘duty’. Thus, advancing an argument quoting Carlyle appeared (for the lack of a better comparison) referring to Hitler for leadership traits – which most would agree is not an ideal one.
    Once again, thanks for engaging and your thoughtful comments, particularly your take on the Neo-Marxist Subaltern School of historiography. Best.