And who qualifies as a freedom fighter?

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, May 22,2019


THE recent decision of the Supreme Court that lifted the bar on someone being considered too young to be designated a freedom fighter makes sense to me. It does so because no one really knows what qualify as the criteria to decide a freedom fighter in general. The usual practice has been to designate someone as a freedom fighter only if the said person passes the ‘official’ test. That official test also has many ifs and buts and only as well.

The current official approach
THE official terminology to cover the parameters of a largely unofficial war seems, to many, largely inadequate. A few would know if a person who was 12 years and a half old in 1971 had fought in the war or not. There has to be concrete evidence. Simple. They cannot be barred. But what are the overall criteria?
But then which war are people talking about? Which kind of participation does the government have in mind? What constitutes an act of war participation in a national liberation movement? None of these have been clarified and left dangling, Many have spent time discussing the term ‘freedom fighter’, both formal and informal, without a clear idea of who that is. It is still incomplete like the list after 50 years.
I was once on a television show where the current liberation war affairs minister said that to finalise a list, they would go to different villages and ask for proof if they had been trained in a camp in India or not. That, to him, was the main indicator.
Such indicators would mean that participation meant being trained and run by the Mujibnagar government. It does not mean combat action itself. I mention this because a few years back, there was a debate on Facebook about several people who were trained but had never fought. Many were reluctant to call them freedom fighters.
As the debate involved a very well known media person, it became heated and ugly. I had said that whether they fought or not, these people were trained to be part of the army and had officially been recognised as freedom fighters. I was freely abused for even mentioning that and my credibility as a chronicler of 1971 was questioned.
The war course commissioned officers, popularly known as Muktis, had two batches — one passed out and fought in the war and the other passed out after the war was over. Now if the combat is the test, none of the latter would qualify as a freedom fighter.

A war in stages
IN 1971, the war unfolded in stages. After the crackdown of March 25, almost all of Bangladesh rose and resisted. During this period, ordinary people fought, participated in and resisted, along with ‘official Bangladeshi regulars’, the Pakistan army till the end of April. After that when the entire Bangladesh came under Pakistani control, another phase came in.
During and after this period, many kinds of resistance grew up. And during this period, the people fought as ‘one’ force because no official centrally-controlled war was on. The official legitimacy that they had was the March 7 speech and the Mujibnagar formation announcement in mid-April. These people fought as part of a wider national resistance, not official bureaucratic sanction. However, none are recognised even when they physically encountered and many died. They will never make it to a list.

The never-ending freedom fighters’ list, but who is one?
The freedom fighters’ list is the most ironic list ever attempted to complete in Bangladesh or maybe even the world. The war which lasted for nine months remains incomplete after almost 50 years and every time there is a change in the regime, a new list making begins. And this is a simple list of those who were trained which can be easily obtained, also from India.
However, every regime has produced a new list and it is possible that this listing will continue forever. This is so because the list is a key to privileges. Being on the list means pension, jobs, etc and the tradition goes on. So new supporters, new entrants, etc.
What also goes on is our confusion as to who a freedom fighter is. We have now attributed the term to women who were sexual victims in 1971. It is true that many such victims have never come forward and several have who may not be victims. This applies to those who are not freedom fighters but have gained access to claim as one. The liberation war affairs ministry itself had several and many bureaucrats have claimed to be freedom fighters, most as very young people. Some have said that they were not aware of the criteria for being a freedom fighter; so, they applied.

Politics and sociology of lists
JUST as many have come forward to claim as one, many have not, either out of a desire not to be involved in the controversial list making, often troubled by favouritism and cronyism. But many are not here because they do not even know what qualifies as a freedom fighter.
It is in the villages where the official world has not reached that many participants are unaware of what makes a freedom fighter and are left out. Not that they care as even in villages, the list making involves partisanship and many are far away from it. But every government has tried to make the list based on its own convenience. Partisan politics has entered the issue and so has bureaucracy. By trying to control who gets into the list, many have entered who do not deserve it and many who deserve are not there.
Our crisis is not in identifying who a freedom fighter is but in deciding what sort of a war it was and who, therefore, can qualify as a participant. By trying to define a people’s war through the eyes of gazettes and signed certificates, it has become a war conducted by the secretariat and not by the people.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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