Jahanara Imam – The Profile of a Fighter

Jahanara Imam (May 3, 1929—June 26, 1994) was a Bangladeshi writer and political activist. She is most widely remembered for her efforts to bring those accused of committing war crimes in the Bangladesh Liberation War to trial. She was known as “Shaheed Janani” (Mother of Martyrs).

Secular Voice of Bangladesh: Jahanara Imam – The Profile of a Fighter

One of the most revered names in the recent history of Bangladesh is Jahanara Imam. She personifies the ideals of the liberation war of Bangladesh of ‘71 and embodies the protest against obscurantism and bigotry.

Through her dissenting voice she had assumed a bigger than life stature of a warrior, resounding the sentiment of those who had fought for the ideals of democracy and secularism, and continued their struggle to reinstate them in the new found democratic setup of 1991.

Before she heralded her call for the movement the trial of the killers and collaborators of ’71 in 1992, Bangladesh had suffered long 15 years of military rule. This militarization, which began only three years after the reception of Bangladesh in August 1975, continued till the over through of General Ershad in December 1990. Over the years under military rule, the democratic space had shrunken for the people to assert their right in matters of the state and its policies. The military dictators amended the constitution to suit their end and remove the principles of secularism and socialism, thus fortifying the use of religion ion politics. With the over through of the last military despot through people’s movement, a New Hope for a democratic society had set in.

Through the electoral process, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) assumed power in 1991. But their underhand dealing with the fundamentalist Jamat–e–Islami who gained eighteen seats in the parliament, revealed the gaping reality of their fortified position in the politics of Bangladesh. It was obvious that the underhand dealing had offered space for the proliferation of the religio-fundamentalist as the manifestation of their design became more and more evident in the fatwas or religious decrees. They hurled against women both in the urban and rural set up; in the rapid rise of the communalism which saw the unthinkable destruction of Hindu homes, places of worship and curtailment of space for them in the public sphere; in the offensive against the progressives and NGO activities which targeted to include women in developmental activities. The final dice was cast when Jamat-e-Islami appointed the war criminal Golam Azam as the Ameer or chief of their party in a country he had opposed at the time of its inception. This triggered a series of intense protest, which resulted in the movement lead by Jahanara Imam. She boldly stepped in to unit all democratic and progressive forces, cultural and secular activities, the intelligential and the general people of all classes, sex and age. The youth had also adhered to her call to contain the activities of the fundamentalist who were in the process of introducing the Pakistani Ideal of incorporating religion in politics.

Jahanara Imam’s leadership attributed special importance to the movement for “trial of the killer and collaborators of ’71” under the banner of “Ekatorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee” (Committee for Resisting Killers & Collaborators of Bangladesh Liberation War of ’71), because she had lost her eldest son who was killed by the Pakistani army in ‘71 and also her husband who died having suffered in the hands of the Pakistani army and the eventual lose of his son. Thus the renowned educationist, social activist had become the mother of the millions over night who joined hands to thwart the onslaught of the fundamentalist forces and retrieve the society from history and reinstate its previous ideal of the religious harmony and tolerance.

The activist Jahanara Imam assumed her position of popular support not via the lineage of a party, nor through betrothal, and ascendancy to power, rather she had the unique luck of conjoining with the history of Bangladesh, which took its toll and later gave unexpected redressment.

She had inherited a background of prosperity having been born in an educated family in Rangpur, a northern district of Bangladesh on 3 May 1929. As the eldest child of her family she was educated to find a firm footing as a reputed educationist, socio-cultural activist, in 1948 becoming wife of a liberal Sharif Imam, and mother of two sons who grew up with the nations and sense of purpose and sacrifice for collective good. She had the remarkable beauty and personality to make her way onto the limelight of the cultural and literary circles of Dhaka.

From the time of her repute as an educationist she was known to have a mind of her own, independent, alert, direct. She drove her own car, raised her children, attended to social duties and participated in cultural programs. She acted in the plays staged she herself anchored and designed televisions programmes wrote books both for old and young.

In 1991, despite the cancer that had restricted her mobility failed to restrain her to the bed rest she required. She waged the movement for the ‘Trail of Killer of ‘71’ and traveled extensively from one end of Bangladesh to the other, as far as her indomitable spirit enabled her to venture. During this time Bangladesh saw one of the most effective movement for secularism take root and redefining of democracy and cultural emancipation gradually conform.

Jahanara Imam wrote 26 books, both fiction and non-fiction including ‘Of Blood and Fire’ (Memories of a mother throughout the 9-month of war and birth of Bangladesh), ‘Onnyo Jibon’ (Another Life), ‘Cancerer Sathe Basobash’ (Living with Cancer), ‘Muldharaye Cholechhi’ (I am on the Mainstream) etc. She wrote many articles on trial of the war criminals and spirit of Bangladesh Liberation war in different newspapers and journals are yet to come out in book form.

She died on 26 June 1994. Her death though it was expected created a vacuum in the leadership of Nirmul Committee and the movement for trial of the war criminals suffered a severe set back. At the same time political parties that supported the movement became reluctant to carry on their activities on this issue. But Jahanara Imam remains a constant source of inspiration to the secularists who still carry the torch she had kindled through her relentless work and activities. Movement for the trial of war criminals and for a secular democratic society is still going on.

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