The French philosopher Berner-Henri Levy is closely associated with the history of the birth of independent Bangladesh. In 2015, The Boston Globe described Berner-Henri Levy as the “most important thinker” in modern-day France. He studied philosophy, and as a teacher he received famous philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Louis Altusser. He came to Dhaka in the middle of March last year on the occasion of Mujib Year. At that time, he was interviewed by Prothom Alo in the building of the Liberation War Museum. Interviewed by Mashiul Alam.
Published: 04 April 2021, 12:14
How did you enter Bangladesh from Calcutta in October 1971, get acquainted with the freedom fighters and their resistance?
Berner-Henri Levy: I was a very young French activist at the time. No one knew me. Bangladesh is the starting point of everything. My first book is about Bangladesh. As a rights activist, my first commitment was to Bangladesh. Coming to Bangladesh, I discovered my responsibilities as a future intellectual. At the end of October 1971, I entered Bangladesh from Calcutta through the Satkhira border with a freedom fighter. He was a resident of the area. He was in Calcutta, but his family was trapped in their home in Satkhira area. He crossed the border to conduct a commando operation to take them to India. I also went in with him. After spending three or four days in Satkhira with the freedom fighters, I returned to Calcutta and then entered Bangladesh again. In all this, I notice the brutality of the Pakistan Army and in contrast the indomitable courage, bravery and endurance of the Bangladesh Liberation Army.
Say something about your idea, knowledge and understanding about Bangladesh at that time.
Berner-Henri Levy: I first saw with my own eyes how horrible war can be. And I also discover that while the atrocities of war are horrific, they sometimes become necessary. When a very powerful army declares war on innocent civilians, it becomes the responsibility of the common people and their allies to build resistance to that war and retaliate. It was then that I discovered that sometimes pacifist policies could not be upheld. In Europe in the late 1970s, our policy was pacifist, our slogan was ‘We want peace and love, not war’. But when I came to Bangladesh in 1971 and saw the barbaric army massacring unarmed civilians, I realized that the people have a responsibility to protect themselves and the world has a responsibility to stand up for those people. I understood that the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, felt that responsibility. That was a great time: India, a country with a majority Hindu population, stood by the people of East Pakistan, which was a Muslim majority country! That was not the time of Narendra Modi, it was a different time. Indira Gandhi felt the responsibility to protect the people of East Pakistan. There was another man in France at the time, Andre Malraux, a world-renowned writer. He also realized that he had a responsibility to protect the people of East Pakistan. He said France also has that responsibility. All this was my first experience and understanding about Bangladesh.
■ When the freedom fighters lead the fight, they become invincible. ■ Tolerant, moderate, liberal democratic Islam is being practiced in Bangladesh. ■ Bangladesh can be proud that it has not failed as a state; Rather it has made progress in many cases. ■ Bangladesh has gradually improved by tackling the problem. This is the achievement of the people of Bangladesh.
When did you first find out that the Pakistani military rulers were massacring the Bengalis in East Pakistan and that the Bengalis were fighting for independence?
Berner-Henri Levy: I learned in March 1971 that war had broken out in East Pakistan. The news was published in the western media. But that was a different time, a very different world than today. There was not so much news like today, there was not so much media. At that time there was only one TV channel in France. Understandably, there was very little news from the outside world. Andre Malraux is to be commended for his contribution to drawing the world’s attention to the genocide of Pakistanis in Bangladesh in 1971. When he made the statement on French radio, it was a thunderbolt, an explosion. Until then, all I knew as a political activist was that something barbaric and tragic was happening in East Pakistan. Nothing more was known. I knew then about the Battle of Biafra in Nigeria. The news of Bangladesh did not reach us in a big way till then. Malro transformed it into a huge international issue, making it an issue of international importance. He drew the attention of the world to the fact that crimes against humanity are being committed in East Pakistan; The whole world should be concerned about this. It is the responsibility of the whole human race to pay attention to this. This was the role of Andre Malro.
Which aspects of the liberation war of Bangladesh seemed most important to you?
Berner-Henri Levy: Many aspects. One major aspect is that at that time people of all political ideologies in East Pakistan were united. There are many different political ideologies in Mukti Bahini