Once we were heroes

Tazreena Sajjad

Published in the Daily Star on 6 Jan 2009.

IT is upto you, my Bengali and adivasi brothers and sisters, to save our country. It is your turn now.” These were the words of adivasi Bir Bikram U.K. Ching speaking at a function in his honour. It was organised by Shuddhoi Muktijoddho, a private initiative created by Lt Col (Retd) Sajjad Ali Zahir, Bir Pratik, to honour the contributions of the adivasi community in the liberation of Bangladesh.

U.K. Ching’s journey from near obscurity to recognition is one that should give the nation pause. There is little information about his contributions in the war and hardly any documentation about this gallant hero in official records.

In the March 11, 2004, National Gazette, which claims to be the final list of all freedom fighters, Nayek Subedar Bir Bikram U.K. Ching, serial number 175 under the gallantry award section, is listed as deceased. It was through the efforts of Sajjad Ali Zahir and the support of the BDR that Mr. Ching was found to be alive, and willing to come to the city to attend an event in his honour thirty-seven years after receiving the medal for valour.

The discussants were Major General C.R. Dutta (Bir Uttam), Major General K.M. Safiullah (Bir Uttam), Lt. Col. Abu Osman Chowdhury, writer Selina Akhter, Professor Mesbah Kamal. The event was attended by people from all walks of life and members of the different adivasi communities.

The most striking and powerful moment of the event was the recognition of eleven other adivasi muktijoddhas from Shakhipur and Gazipur, men who till today have not found their places in the history books of our liberation –Lakkhan Chandra Barman, Parimal Chandra Kotch, Chandra Mohon Barman, Sona Toch Burman, Nipen Barman, Lakhyi Kanto Kotch, Ajit Chandra Barman, Jotin Chandra Kotch, Suresh Chandra Barman, Rabindra Chandra Barman and Jotindro Chandro Barman.

U.K. Ching’s experience in the frontlines is a testament to his valour and his indomitable spirit in the quest for freedom. Now around seventy-five years old, he is still a feisty man with a sparkling sense of humour, which was manifest in the war stories he related. As a member of the EPR, he fought in many districts as a platoon commander.

He was noted for his courage, and the initiative he took for saving the lives of his Bengali comrades (he lost only three of his men in the nine months of war) and for rescuing many Bengali women from the hands of the Pakistani army.

For his courage, he was awarded one of the highest gallantry awards Bangladesh had to offer; for his ethnic identity, he is still waiting for recognition in the Constitution that became possible only through the sacrifices he and countless others made to create a new nation.

The event was organised to not only thank U.K. Ching for his contributions in the independence of the country, but also to serve as a reminder to its people that the freedom we enjoy is one that was brought about by not only Bengalis, but also non-Bengalis who did not hesitate to give up their homes, families, livelihoods, and in some cases their lives.

Muktijoddhas have asked for very little; their demand has always been that the country be built on the values of freedom, dignity and equality, which they fought for. Yet thirty-seven years into independence, the nation has failed its children and the very ideals it was created for.

Successive governments have yet to recognise the role of non-Bengalis in the liberation struggle and have failed to protect, preserve and respect the rights of adivasi communities who are part and package of the diversity of this nation. They are still denied their right to land, language, and culture. They are denied their space in the Bangladeshi constitution, thereby being dismissed as people of no-consequence.

It is a shame for Bengalis who fought so hard for their language, their right to autonomy, their culture and their freedom with the assistance of the adivasi communities, that they have failed the very people with whom they continue to share the water, air and land of this country. Till our adivasi brothers and sisters, neighbours and friends get their rightful position in this country, the struggle for liberation is not over.

A medal means very little if there is little understanding of its true value. Recognition is tainted if it is limited to honouring the contributions of only those of a particular ethnic group, however it is defined — by the colour of one’s skin, one’s language, one’s culture. Freedom loses its meaning if one enjoys it at the expense of another.

U.K. Ching, and men and women like him who gave it their all for independence, did not ask for a medal nor for recognition. They fought along with their Bengali brothers and sisters because it was what they believed they should do during a time of severe crisis. In return, they did not expect the country they fought for to fail them again and again, such that today even their grandchildren continue to be forgotten, their land is grabbed through illegal settlements, and their resistance is silenced by violence and intimidation.

Recognising the dire circumstances in which U.K. Ching and his family now live in, Dr. Zafarullah of Gonoshastho Hospital and Dr. Hasan of Al Biruni Hospital have come forward offering free medical treatment; others have pledged to assist them in any way possible. Yet, such private initiatives cannot replace the role and responsibility of a national government that, in sheer callousness, listed a living hero as being dead.

The heroes of ’71 expected more from the country they helped create; at the least, they did not expect to be forgotten. In the case of the adivasis, their contribution in the independence of this country has yet to be recognised, as is their right as equal citizens of this land. They are still waiting for the country to embrace them as its own. They should not have to wait anymore.

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