Even for one of Bangladesh’s most ardent and resolute friends - one who was there at the genesis - it took almost 50 years, but the conviction and urgency with which Bernard-Henri Levy, who was in Dhaka this week, called for international recognition of the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistan army in 1971, would not have been lost on his audience.
It was a Friday evening, yet the cavernous auditorium that finely complements the still-relatively-new Liberation War Museum at its permanent site in Agargaon, was packed to the rafters. People from all walks of life had turned up to hear what the French philosopher - perhaps the quintessential public intellectual of our time, enjoying global renown - had to say, in what was billed as a ‘special lecture’ with the title “Bangladesh: From Despair to Hope”.
Not all of them would have been drawn by the series of political positions for which he is well-known. With his keenness for ‘humanitarian intervention’ - whether in Bosnia, Syria or most notably in Libya - it could be easy to dismiss him as a ‘neocon’ whose only interest in the ‘humanitarian’ bit is to pave the road for the ‘great powers’ (the old colonisers, recent hegemons) to come in and take over. It is important to note however that he did oppose it in the case of Iraq.
And clearly it is absurd to even consider similar motives informing any of Levy’s positions, actions or pronouncements relating to Bangladesh.
More than once on Friday - during the lecture, and a prior tete-a-tete at the venue with some journalists invited in by the museum’s Board of Trustees- he insists he ‘feels’ Bangladeshi. “I am French by birth, Bangladeshi at heart,” he finally settled on, at one stage.
Who would begrudge him? Back in the country whose birth he witnessed as a precocious war correspondent yet to make his name, in what he insists was his “most formative experience”, Levy - or BHL, as he became known in the intervening period - speaks to an idea of Bangladesh that is shrouded in the almost pure and innocent dream that founded the nation.
The dream that perhaps convinced him to stay back even after the war was over, as he took up a bureaucrat’s role offered to him by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the Finance and Planning Division, and was certainly still alive when he had to leave six months later.
Prosperity and economic success for its teeming millions hardly figure in that conception, which is all about each individual’s inherent dignity and man’s yearning to be free. And so “model of development” and shiny GDP figures are nowhere to be found when Levy speaks of or to Bangladesh, in a refreshing departure from most other visitors who tend to recite from a script.
Gloriously upending one of the narratives that have emerged around the economic progress the country has made on the backs of millions of women employed in the lucrative, export-oriented RMG sector, he rather exhorted his hosts to rescue them from a life of “enslavement by large Western multinational companies.”
To be fair, his one previous visit had coincided with the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, during which he attended a memorial program to honour the victims.
At the same time, there is no doubt in his mind that the story of Bangladesh is one of success, of a state that stood up against overwhelming odds (“No other nation had to overcome as much adversity”) and despite the naysayers, never faltered. “We are living in a world of failed states, but Bangladesh is not one of them. And it will not be (a failed state),” he says with vindication.
At the interaction with the journalists, he said it would be “the dream of his life” to lead a French effort that endorses any move by Bangladesh along the lines of recent examples such as the one waged by the Armenia to have the international community acknowledge a genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey against ethnic Armenians as far back as 1915.
As a first step, he put the onus on the press to recommend the formation of a commission of scientists and genocide researchers, both national and international, to fill in the gaps of knowledge that exist around the genocide, that he termed one of its ‘peculiarities’.
“We still do not know whether the number killed was 500,000 or 5 million,” he said, clearly unaware that Bangladesh does posit a figure of 3 million for the dead. Responding to a query later following the lecture, he clarified that for the purposes of international recognition, whatever the number is must be verified independently by other nations or international institutions.
“But the initiative must come from Bangladesh,” Levy said, adding that the present leadership in France and Bangladesh share a real rapport grounded in mutual respect, so Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could enlist the support of President Emanuel Macron. He insisted it should figure in the agenda of their next bilateral meeting.
Levy, who said he was carrying a letter from the French president for the PM, became an enthusiastic supporter of Macron during the last French election, as it became increasingly clear that the heretofore little-known political upstart stood as the only bulwark against the wave of far-right populism that threatened to propel Marine Le Pen, the less notorious but no less toxic daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the Elysee Palace.
He also warned that the process for recognition would be a difficult one, and face opposition at various points (not least Pakistan, who he said “is not alone”) but insisted that it had to be done. Without doing so, Bangladesh’s recognition towards the martyrs will not be fulfilled, he opined at the lecture.
“We, the friendly countries, will cooperate in this process,” he added, in the presence of the French ambassador Jean-Marin Schuh. “But you [Bangladesh government] will have to start it first.”
Lévy, who is also a filmmaker, suggested that the authorities and historians of Bangladesh should join hands in this regard, which should be the “number one job” for the country’s people and government.
“Those people’s names have to be listed as martyrs. Being deprived of recognition after being killed is like being assassinated twice .... At least the martyrs will be given symbolic graves as a sign of honour to their lives. Or else, they will haunt you [Bangladeshis] till the end of times,” he added.
It echoed possibly his most haunting statement earlier in the day, to conclude the same subject: “A great nation cannot be built on a black hole of memory.”
Bernard-Henri Levy has a ready defence against any accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ that may be hurled at him: three of his greatest influences, among all the men and women he has met in a life that has taken him to some pretty interesting stations, are Muslim men. They all happen to be politicians too, and natural leaders of men, although not all had the opportunity to lead nation-states. Levy himself has little hesitation in acknowledging that of the 3, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was of a different stature to the other two (Ahmed Shah Masood, who led the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invaders, and Alija Izetbegovic, who served as the first president of Bosnia-Hercegovina following the break up of Yugosalavia).
“What I found best about Sheikh Mujib, is that he was never a leader who wanted war. He hated war, all the suffering, the violence. But he prepared his people in such a way, that if it came to war, which they would of course,” he said. Bangabandhu was of course always weighing somewhere, somehow during Levy’s visit. Levy acknowledges him as his most important leader.