The killing of the Bengali intellectuals on, before, and after 14 December, 1971 is, in some senses, far more premeditated than the notorious Holocaust. Although the Holocaust claimed twice as many lives as our Liberation war, the murderous Nazi did not pick and kill hundreds of top-notch intellectuals in a such a shorter time span as did the bloodthirsty Pakistan occupation army and their local collaborators—the Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams.
Why did they murder the best brains in the country from among their number? Although a few could escape death by pure chance, the mission was the elimination of all the intellectuals from Bangladesh with a view to crippling the country with ignorance and eternal backwardness. The assassinated intellectuals were the highly educated academics, writers, physicians, engineers, lawyers, journalists and other eminent personalities of the country who were trying to transform the country from Pakistan subjugation. As the late 16th century University Wits brought about a transformation in the realm of literature thereby contributing to the creation of the Golden Age of English literature, so did the ‘71- intellectuals in the realm of our social and political life by turning Pakistan’s ‘moth-eaten’ eastern province into the Golden Bangladesh.
Intellectuals like Munir Chowdhury, Dr. Alim Chowdhury, Muniruzzaman, Dr Fazle Rabbi, Sirajuddin Hossain, Shahidullah Kaiser, Zahir Raihan, Govinda Chandra Dev, Jyotirmay Guha Thakurta, Santosh Bhattacharya, Mofazzal Haider Chowdhury, Khandaker Abu Taleb, Nizamuddin Ahmed, SA Mannan, ANM Golam Mustafa, Syed Nazmul Haq and Selina Parvin were a very great wealth of talents. The French Enlightenment figures, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and John Locke kindled popular interest in the three basic principles of French Revolution—Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Similarly our Independence Movement intellectuals ignited masses of people in the spirit of freedom which resulted in gaining independence through a Liberation War.
They were the voice of conscience in all the scenes of the struggle. They were no less than Socrates (470 BC-399BC), the Christ-like martyr, who was killed by vested interests for showing his people the right way; or Galileo (1564-1642), who was condemned to life imprisonment for his ‘heretical’ (but in reality scientific) beliefs; or Bruno (1548-1600), the symbol of the freedom of thought, who bound and gagged, was burnt alive at the stake for telling the truth. Our Independence intellectuals, too, were butchered by the Independence-enemies for showing us the road to liberation, teaching us the superiority of scientific knowledge over religious and political dogmas, and inspiring us to fight for our freedom of thought and expression. They were fully successful in projecting their own thoughts and ideas onto the people who had been blinded to the real needs of their country for ages. The whole nation could well get their message, and fought back against the occupation army, and clinched the victory.
But what passes by inheritance to our present-day intellectuals? It is hard to believe that they are left with any legacy of the Independence intellectuals who rendered selfless service to the people and laid down their lives for their country. On the contrary, most of the intellectuals of our time are left to rot. The decadent intellectuals may roughly fall into three groups. The first group consists of the self-centred intellectuals, who are only concerned with their own wants and needs, and never think about other people’s good. They are wrapped up in themselves, and always look after number one. Although they are mostly varsity academics, they work part-time with different private institutions, NGOs, multinational companies, and projects to earn a fortune. Most of their time is spent shuttling between their workplaces and no spare time is left for them to work for their country and its people for free.
The second group intellectuals are highly politicised ones. They are the intellectual vanguards of their party, and tend to see everything around them with a partisan eye. They are social climbers, and their sole aim is personal aggrandisement. They wait their turn at power in order to grab the chance of holding high office. They suck up to people in authority for this. These intellectuals toe the party line so strongly that they even give highly lopsided views on undisputed facts and common public interests ignoring objective truth. Even the events of our common art, culture, literature, and history are split by these one-eyed intellectuals. Years of polarisation have sapped them of their integrity and moral standards.
The third group comprises the seeming non-partisan intellectuals who love being called ‘civil society’. They are mostly the hired hands of international hierarchies working in their native country. These high profile intellectual interests are prostituting their talents to have very deep pockets. It is a part of their job to pick holes in both the Power and the Opposition affairs in order to paint the country in a bad light with a view to catering to their western masters. They do not see anything good in their own country, and always assume the worst. They give voice to different national crises in such a grave manner that the country has completely gone to the dogs, and there is no escape from it. There is, however, an implication in their speech that the country would be having her best rulers only when these civil society guys would take power. Although they put on an air of neutrality, they must be working willy-nilly to realise the colonial mandate. One may reasonably smell a hidden agenda behind their activities.
These three groups of intellectuals have nothing common in them but for the lack of true love of the country. They are far away from the legacy of the Independence intellectuals, the quintessence of true intellectuals. What should then the true intellectuals be like?
The concept of intellectuals in the modern sense gained currency with the 1898 “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” produced by the Dreyfusards who, inspired by Emile Zola’s open letter of protest to France’s president, condemned the treason charges on the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus and the subsequent military cover-up. The Dreyfusards’ stance conveys the core image of intellectuals as defenders of justice, confronting power with courage and integrity. While determining the responsibilities of intellectuals in his longish essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ Noam Chomsky said: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”. Antonio Gramsci, a theorist on intellectuals, argued: “Intellectuals view themselves as autonomous from the ruling class.” His theoretical standpoint is that every social class needs its own intelligentsia to shape its ideology. Jean Paul Sartre considered the intellectuals to be the moral conscience of their age, their task being to observe the political and social situation of the moment, and to speak out freely in accordance with their consciences. One of the most distinguished cultural critics of late 20th century, Edward W. Said saw the intellectual as an exile and amateur whose role is “to speak the truth to power” even at the risk of ostracism or imprisonment. In his seminal work Representations of the Intellectual, Said explores the implications of this idea by drawing on a lot of examples of intellectuals from the past and the present, and shows what happens when intellectuals succumb to the lures of money and power.
Are our present-day intellectuals defenders of justice? Do they speak the truth, and expose lies? Are they able to do things, and make decisions of their own accord? Do they have a voice of conscience? I am as sure as eggs is eggs that the bulk of our present intellectuals are far away with these basic tenets of true intellectuals. It is hard to come by intellectuals like those of the martyred ones at such a time when a large proportion of the population is in the information business. The intellectuals are reduced to merely the specialised servants of special interests, and do not have a larger responsibility for the betterment of people.
There are, however, few true intellectuals who amid the razzmatazz of the fake intellectuals’ activities are hiding their light under a bushel, and hence are failing to make any apparent difference in our socio-political scene for the time being. But it is they who cherish the true ideals of the martyred intellectuals from the bottom of their heart. If good triumphs over evil in the end, all the three groups of pseudo-intellectuals must be overshadowed by the few, for they are carrying the torch for the martyred intellectuals who were the great and the good.
Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, columnist, fictionist and Vice Chancellor of Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org