"You don't arrest Voltaire."
That was President Charles de Gaulle's response to a question in the mid-1960s on what he planned to do, if indeed he planned to do anything at all, about Jean-Paul Sartre. Philosopher and one of the leading French intellectuals at the time, Sartre was extremely critical of the government. And do not forget that he had spurned the Nobel Prize that had been awarded to him. De Gaulle's meaning was obvious: Sartre was in the tradition set by Voltaire, both men being the conscience of France. And national conscience must not be tampered with.
It was the Bengali intellectual conscience which the Pakistan occupation army sought to snuff out in 1971. When we observe Martyred Intellectuals Day every December, it is a stark reminder of how the genocide let loose by the Yahya-Tikka-Niazi junta made sure that Bengali voices of conscience --- academics, poets, writers, musicians, doctors, journalists, et cetera --- did not survive. As a callow Pakistani army officer told a journalist in mid-1971 in Comilla, the aim was blatantly to reduce the Bengali nation into servility for thirty years before the ruling classes of Pakistan.
The beginnings of this concerted campaign against Bangladesh's intellectuals commenced on the very night the army launched its genocide. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, GC Dev and a number of others were murdered by the soldiers. Over the next few months, Rashidul Hasan would die and so would Altaf Mahmud. The occupiers and their local collaborators were fully aware that the end of the Pakistan state in what had so long been its eastern province was fast approaching. Bengali victory in the war could not be wished away. But what could certainly be done was to cripple the emerging new state through putting its leading intellectuals to the sword and the gun. And that is precisely what the occupation force and the goon squads of the Jamaat-e-Islami --- al-Badr, al-Shams, --- and the Razakars did.
History, we ought to inform ourselves yet one more time, has by and large been a long tale of a persecution of intellectuals by the state and by half-baked societies. Socrates did not survive, was compelled to drink hemlock and see his life draw to premature an end. Many were the men of profound intelligence who perished in the Tower of London for their beliefs. Back in the 1930s, with Francisco Franco's forces ravaging Spain in what remains known in history as a horrific Civil War, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca was murdered in cold blood for his liberal beliefs.
And so it has gone on, this deliberate and systematic persecution of intellectuals, for the simple reason that intellectuals have always spoken truth to power. Or they have regularly been perceived as individuals who had it in them to challenge the brutality which power has historically symbolized. In occupied Bangladesh in 1971, it was such brutality the Pakistan army and its collaborators represented and which was a dark reality Bengali intellectuals would not accept unchallenged. Already the foundations of the Pakistan state had come under assault by Bengalis; and that was way back in 1961 through the Tagore centenary celebrations. When in 1967, the Ayub Khan regime decreed a ban on Tagore, the Bengali intellectual class responded in the only way it could. And that was through firm resistance.
On the eve of victory in 1971, therefore, it was a cumulative memory of Bengali 'perfidy' the Pakistanis remembered. The solution for them was simple: kill as many Bengali voices of conscience as possible. And thus did the killers fan out all across Dhaka, picking up Bangladesh's best and brightest, taking them away to torture chambers and subjecting them to agonizing deaths before dumping their corpses in Rayerbazar. Here was a regime, in its fading days, lashing out in its death throes at a nation it believed would be so weakened at birth that it would not survive or would simply limp along.
The murder of Bangladesh's intellectuals in 1971, through all those nine months of the War of Liberation, by the forces of genocide are again a testimony to the bizarre aspects of history playing themselves out through the ages. Victor Jara was among the hundreds to be tortured in Chile by Augusto Pinochet in the days following the coup in September 1973. Travel back to early April 1971, to recall the brutality the Pakistan army exercised on the veteran politician and thinker Dhirendranath Dutta, leading to his death in a slow, agonizing process. The lawmaker Mashiur Rahman in Jessore was subjected to similar physical ill-treatment.
Power has often exposed the vulnerability of those who have ascended to it. Joseph Stalin, a man well-read in the classics and in history, was nevertheless one who forever felt threatened by intelligent individuals. Osip Mandelstam died because of Stalin's intolerance; Anna Akhmatova lost her husband and her son to Stalinist cruelty even as she became a non-person and her poetry was proscribed. In the Khrushchev era, which began in hope, conditions swiftly deteriorated, with the likes of Boris Pasternak paying the price for the literature they created. Pasternak was forced to decline the Nobel Prize for literature in 1960. In the Brezhnev period, Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not have a happy time.
And, yes, there was the long persecution of the intellectual class in Nazi Germany. Kristallnacht in 1938 was a precursor to the darkness which was soon to be on the way. Kurt Huber would mount the gallows for his beliefs; Theodor Adorno would be forced into exile; Hannah Arendt would live to tell the tales of the horrors typified by Hitler and his Nazis. Within Pakistan itself, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto bore the brunt of establishment repression in the 1950s; in 1971, the poet Ahmed Salim was jailed in Lahore for raising his voice in defence of Bangladesh; and in the 1980s, Habib Jalib, the revolutionary poet, was endlessly subjected to indignities by the Ziaul Haq military regime.
In December 1971, indeed throughout the tortuous months of the Bengali struggle against Pakistan, the intellectual classes were a principal target of those who ruled through misrule and gross abuses of human rights. The men and women who were murdered, with bullets and knives and bayonets, were but a cruel new chapter added to history by the diabolical elements who took their lives.
The intellectuals who perished between March and December 1971 were our Voltaires and our Sartres and our Mandelstams and our Hubers. This morning, as on every other morning, we bow in prayer, in remembrance of the supreme sacrifices they made in the defence of national liberty.