Sunday, October 3, 2010

Shaheed Minar Symbolizes the Birth of a Nation (Bangladesh)

I was on my way to the less congested area of Dhaka where the roads were wider and lined by lush canopies and manicured hedges. Intersections were well demarcated and there were fewer rickshaws. It was one of Dhaka’s few green space where vegetation could “breathe”. We were heading towards a monument in honor of those who fought against the Pakistani troops that eventually lead to the independence of Bangladesh.
From a distance, there were elongated boxes splayed across an elevated platform that could have been a stage for speeches. Five rectangular arches made of marble stood at the center of the platform, with bars in between. This was the Central Shaheed Minar, Dhaka’s monument in honor of the Language Martyrs of 1952.

Coffins to symbolize protest at the Shaheed Minar.

Doyel Chhatar - a roundabout at the Old Ramna Gate. At the base of the structure are concrete carvings of bangla coins on blue background.

Back in 1947, at the time of Indian Independence when Bangladesh became a “province” of Pakistan, much of the whole Bangla state was frustrated over Pakistan’s neglect of “East Pakistan” (aka Bangladesh) which had nothing in common with West Pakistan, except for the concept of a unionized Muslim faith – and nothing else. Even the distribution of revenues was poured in the west, leaving much of the Bengalis neglected. As fate would have it, when Pakistan declared “urdu” as the national language, this inspired protests among Bengalis who were clueless of the urdu language. It was like the Spaniards occupying the Philippines, then declaring “Spanish” as the national language – thus any Filipino who doesn’t speak the language were called “indio”, uncivilized and ignorant. The birth of a Bangla Language Movement soon began – the unexpected beginning of a movement towards Independence.

According to historian Gregorio Zaide, there were several differences that led to the separation of East Pakistan (aka Bangladesh) into an independent nation.
First, East and West Pakistan were geographically separated from each other. In fact, this accounts for a distance of 1,600 kilometers. A huge chunk of India divides mainland Pakistan from much of Bangladesh’s northern borders. This made political and economic governance difficult for Pakistan’s central government located in the West. Thus, East Pakistanis wanted self-rule.

Second, the cultural difference between the West and the East became a divisive factor. The western Punjabis were serious bureaucrats and businessmen, while the eastern Bengalis were romantic, easygoing and artistic. In fact, the Punjabis “looked down” on the Bengalis in the east, the way people from Manila used to treat southerners and Visayans.

Third, although East Pakistan (Bangladesh) had a bigger population and produced most of the country’s exports (jute), it was heavily ignored in the budget and development plan, which really echoes similar sentiments of Mindanao from governing Luzon.

Fourth, the indifference of West Pakistan was shown during the 1970 cyclone and tidal wave (Bangladesh is the world’s worst monsoon-ravaged area) which killed 500,000 Bangladeshis. Although many nations generously sent aid, the Bengalis claimed that West Pakistan kept most of the relief goods instead of passing them on to the calamity victims.

As a consequence to all these valid sentiments, a national political party emerged in East Pakistan (aka Bangladesh) – the Awami League (“People’s League”). This was headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with the “Language Movement” as Awami's ideological underpinning. After all, the language of the people is the soul of a nation. Didn’t Jose Rizal leave a significant saying about language (“Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit pa sa amoy ng mabahong isda.”) In 1971’s Pakistani national elections, the Awami League won by a clear and resounding victory. In fact, in East Pakistan, it won all seats but one. This gave the Awami League the constitutional right to form the government of Pakistan – east and west – but Pakistan’s then-General Yahya Khan saw it unpalatable. He staged a military coup and indefinitely postponed the opening of the National Assembly.

Mujibur should have been the new Prime Minister. Instead, he was sent to jail. Bengalis rose in violent riots. West Pakistani troops were sent to the East, and committed atrocities not different from the genocides of the world. They raped women, shot innocent civilians, and killed intellectuals and students. The world was shocked, and India stepped in. In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian troops in East Pakistan (aka Bangladesh) to quell the atrocities. This would further contribute to the rapidly souring relations between India and Pakistan, resulting into what would be the 3rd Indo-Pakistani War. One million Bengalis perished while some 10 million fled to India. The Indians defeated the Pakistani army, and restored peace and order in Pakistan. India supported Bangladesh's Independence.


On January 13, 1972, Mujibur returned to Bangladesh a hero. He was sworn in as the country’s first prime minister. These days, he is known as the “Father of Bangladesh Independence”. But the road to peace is paved with blood in an unstable nation. Military coup assassinated Mujibur and his family - and the country fell into a succession of military iron fist. In 1982, a Lt. Gen. Hossain Muhamad Ershad staged a bloodless coup and ruled until 1990 where, as the ironic turn of events would flow, Ershad was criminally charged and put to jail. Don’t you find all these shenanigans reflective of the Philippine’s state of affairs?

Sheikh Mahibur Rahman - Father of Bangladesh Independence


The history that inspired this monument was more colorful than the modest structure that stood before me. The current minar is a reconstruction that followed the original plan of 1957, made of pure marble stone upon a 14-feet high stage.
In 1952, dozens of students and political activists were killed when the Pakistani police force open-fired on Bengali protesters who were demanding equal status to their native tongue, Bangla over “urdu”. The massacre occurred near Dhaka Medical College and Ramna Park, just a few skip and stride from Shaheed Minar. To commemorate the dead, Shaheed Minar was built by Hamidur Rahman, a Bangladeshi sculptor. The monument stood until the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, when it was demolished completely.


I walked closer to the group of people gathering in front of it. The structure looked neglected with molds running down some of its horizontal bars. This protest movement I witnessed was another one of hundreds of hartals occurring in Dhaka every year. “They are protesting, and going on hunger strike,” Mafuz my guide informed me. I didn't bother to ask what for. True enough, there were symbolic “coffins” splayed across the platform. I just made a fast observation and scampered away as fast as I could. I didn’t wanna get into a nation’s internal affairs, most especially if I don’t even understand what they were about. As a tourist, you just play the unbiased observer.

The first Shaheed Minar was established in February 22, 1952, but demolished by the Pakistani Army four days later.

Shaheed Minar in modern day Dhaka. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's Karl Ernst Roehl.


An increasing population of Bangladeshis migrating to other parts of the globe has led to several commemorative replicas of the Shaheed Minar built outside Bangladesh. Two of these are in England: one is in Altab Ali Park, in Tower Hamlets, East London; the other is in Oldham in Manchester.

As Bangladesh crawls its way into the realm of democracy, some 6,000 babies are born in the country everyday, infusing new blood to a congested nation. I am not sure what to make of this equation, but to majority of its population, it is not a very easy life. Yet the Bangladeshis are among the warmest people I've had the pleasure of encountering. Some people face economic desperation with lesser grace. With a savage and bloody history behind them, the Bangladeshis can teach the world a thing or two about grace and sincerity amidst squalor.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Next up – Curzon Hall at the University of Dhaka

Shaheed Minar replica in East London's Altab Ali Park. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's diamond geezer.


pamatayhomesick said...

interesting piece!

eye in the sky said...

Haha. Just tryin' to fit the history of a nation in one blog.

Trotter said...

Hi Eye! Great job! And as the history is of a «recent» nation, it fits in the excellent post!! Remembered a lot, learned something more... great to land here, as always!!

Blogtrotter Two just left Sardinia 2009, but it couldn’t make it without showing you the incredible Porto Cervo and its yachts... Enjoy and have a great week!

pamatayhomesick said...

the idea are great.."history in one blog"

eye in the sky said...

@ Trotter: A new nation since 1971/72. No wonder they have "unsure" baby steps. But I wish them well and i have great hopes for Bangladesh.

eye in the sky said...

@ Pamatay Homesick:

Thanks again, Ever.