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.
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 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
There were people of Rs. There were rightists, there were leftists, there were pure nationalists. They all fought unitedly. An unprecedented national unity was created. It was an important lesson for me. Another thing was important সবাই everyone outside the world thought that the war was fought by the Indian army, India saved Bangladesh. This is partly true, the Liberation Army itself fought the larger battle. I remember in one town the Pakistani soldiers could not get out of their base because they were afraid of the freedom fighters. The freedom fighters were stronger than them. The Mukti Bahini was in control of the battlefield before the Indian forces entered. The Pakistani army had moved to a defensive position in those days. Before the Indian army intervened directly. That is why the Indian army did not have to fight much against the Pakistanis, they were easily defeated. The number of Pakistani troops in East Pakistan was at least 10 times that of the Indian Army. Why were the Pakistanis forced to surrender? Because, they knew that they had been defeated by the freedom fighters on the battlefield by November. The control of the battlefields has gone into the hands of the freedom fighters. My second lesson from this is that when the freedom fighters lead the fight, they become invincible.
Did you realize what was going to happen to East Pakistan in October 1971? Did you see then that Bangladesh is going to be independent?
Berner-Henri Levy: I don’t remember exactly. Probably not in October. Because, I was in the war then. Trapped in the center of the storm, as if nothing could be seen around, it was a lot like that.
Anyway, when you realized that Bangladesh is going to be independent, what did you think – what kind of state is going to be independent Bangladesh? What kind of state?
Berner-Henri Levy: I thought the new state would be built on some great ideals and values. Values of resistance against oppression. I also knew that an independent Bangladesh would be a Muslim-majority country, but it would be a very different kind of state from Pakistan. Pakistan was a conservative Islamist country. But the situation in Bangladesh was completely different. Of course Muslims are the majority, but they had democratic values in their mentality, they had no conflict of democratic values with the concept of Islam. I was acquainted with many people who were very devout Muslims, but tolerant of other religions. People I met and met during and after the Liberation War knew that I was a Frenchman and a Jew. Yet they welcomed me, gave me hospitality like a brother. So I knew that when Bangladesh became an independent state, it could become an ideal state for the Muslim world, with democratic values.
You have met Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib many times and talked to him.
Berner-Henri Levy: He was a wise man, a democrat, an incredibly open-minded man. It was a thrilling experience for me to meet the leader of a new state, to meet him, to talk to him. The birth of an independent Bangladesh under his leadership was a blessing for the Muslim world, for South Asia and for the whole world. This was my perception in 1971-72.
What do you see now after almost five decades?
Berner-Henri Levy: Look, I see that the Muslim world is booming with negative tendencies like fundamentalism, extremism, etc. But Bangladesh is a place where there is protest against these trends. Tolerant, moderate, liberal democratic Islam is being practiced in Bangladesh and the country is urging others to follow these ideals.
When Bangladesh became independent, its economy was in shambles. You knew that. Everything had to start from scratch.
Berner-Henri Levy: The newly independent state of Bangladesh faced great challenges. Many observers at the time said that the country would not survive. Kissinger, Nixon and China thought that Bangladesh would die. It will be a failed state. The list of failed states in the world is quite long. Bangladesh can be proud that it has not failed as a state; Rather it has made progress in many cases. Bangladesh is a successful state; Although so far he is poor. There was hunger, there was sheer poverty; There were problems like floods every year, houses eroding due to river erosion, loss of land etc. I saw for myself, yesterday someone had land, not today, sunk in the riverbed. Bangladesh had many problems. I do not know of any other new state that was so troubled at birth. But Bangladesh has gradually improved by tackling those problems. This is the achievement of the people of Bangladesh. They got leaders like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Much time has passed between the times of Bangabandhu and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; During this time Bangladesh has made a lot of progress in the socio-economic field.