An Emotional Return to Bangladesh -- After 43 Years

04/24/2014 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2014

Tomorrow, April 25, I will be back in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, 43 years after the intense and dramatic events that shaped my youth. My first book, Les Indes Rouges, an account of my experience in Bangladesh during the year of its founding, is appearing for the first time in Bengali translation. The university has asked me to speak; the prime minister has invited me in for a chat. The English-language daily, Dhaka Tribune, is marking the occasion with a story by a leading specialist on the region. Arif Jamal, a Pakistani living in New York, is a fellow at fellow at New York University and Harvard University. His books include Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir (Melville House, 2009) and A History of Islamist Militancy in Pakistani Punjab (Jamestown Foundation, 2011).

Jamal's story takes me back to a period in my life that is at once very distant yet quite close. I read it both as an evocation of the youth I was and as the portrait of another person whom I no longer resemble. It is also a knowing account of a country both splendid and cursed that deserves to be better known and, above all, much more present in our thinking and in our geopolitical reasoning. For all those reasons, with Jamal's kind permission, I offer his account to the readers of this blog.

--Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy in Bangladesh

by Arif Jamal

The year 1971 was an important milestone in current history, the importance of which has yet to be grasped by historians. This is the year when the hitherto secular Pakistan Army and Islamists came together and established a bond that remains intact even after the passage of four decades. When the people of the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) rose up to demand their democratic rights, the ruling Pakistan Army generals made no secret that they cared only for the land that is the subject of so many romantic stories. Pakistani General Tikka Khan, who later earned the nickname "The Butcher," publicly announced that the Pakistan Army was interested only in the land and was ready to fight to the last Bengali. "Butcher" Tikka Khan and succeeding generals honored those words and killed as many Bengalis and raped as many Bengali women as they could before India, which had been inundated by the waves of fleeing refugees, intervened to save the situation.

At last, all that butchery finally awoke one soul in France: André Malraux. Malraux was one of Europe's leading intellectuals who, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, had called for, helped form, and actually commanded an international brigade of Western intellectuals and ordinary people to fight in defense of democracy. In 1971 again, Malraux saw the danger and made a similar call. A little over a hundred young French men and former officers answered that call. One of them was a very young man, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who later emerged as a leading European philosopher. However, the proposed International Brigade never came into existence. Malraux was too old to put his ideas into practice and constitute the brigade. Also, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not know what to do with such a brigade and, for all practical purposes, vetoed the proposal, although she did use the name and fame of André Malraux to the fullest. But, Malraux had inspired young Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was already burning with passion to do something practical--Malraux's call only showed him the light. Bernard-Henri Lévy was the only one who actually made it to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, forming a one-man international brigade. He knew that an even bigger war than the Spanish Civil War was being fought in Bengal.

Bernard-Henri Lévy had grown up under the influence of revolutionary 1960s. At the age of 18, he had been admitted to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure on the Rue d'Ulm in Paris, which had produced intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Raymond Aron--names that shaped and defined modern Western thought as Lévy is shaping our age. (Lévy's struggle is an uphill one, as great spirits seem particularly rare in this early part of the 21st century.) In the late 1960s, which burned with the passion to do something, to change the world, to create a New Man, students at the ENS were ready to burn their bourgeois, reactionary books, at least symbolically. At the ENS, Lévy came under all these influences more directly. Still, he was different from his generation.

Bernard-Henri Lévy was already into his third year at the ENS when he responded to Malraux's call on September 17, 1971, to join the International Brigade to be formed on the pattern of the one the European intellectuals had created in the 1930s. According to contemporary witnesses, Bernard-Henri Lévy was different from his colleagues at the ENS: He wanted to change the world rather than reinterpret it one more time. Although Malraux's idea collapsed, Lévy went ahead. Several decades later, reminiscing about those days, he said: "A true revolutionary has to go close, very close, to the things themselves; he has to move in the places where History, with a big H, really happens; and he has, therefore, to leave Europe."

Lévy was only 22 at the time and had not made a name for himself. No one could at that time have guessed how much he would influence modern discourse. But the Lévy era was starting.

One thing that drew the young Bernard-Henri Lévy to Bengal was the local Maoist movement, the Naxalites. He soon discovered that there was not much in common between Maoist students in Paris and Maoist guerrillas in the jungles of Bengal--despite some similarities. Fascinated to share his brotherhood with the Naxalites, he ignored their criminal side, at least for a time.

Accompanied by his first wife, Isabelle Doutreluigne, Bernard-Henri Lévy left Paris for the first real fight of his life on October 2, 1971. He was representing the French daily, Combat. His first stopover was Islamabad, where he interviewed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who, like Mujibur Rehman in East Pakistan, was a contender for power but was opposed by the military regime. After a brief stopover, he headed to New Delhi, from which he immediately went to East Bengal, leaving Isabelle behind in Kolkta. In the ensuing months, he moved in and out of East Bengal.

In East Bengal, Lévy followed a Mukti Bahini unit led by Akim Mukerjee, who still practices medicine today. He took part in the fall of Satkhira in the Khulna District in the southwest of the emerging nation. In December, he was in Jessore just before Indian troops entered the war and led to the final victory. On December 4, according to military archives to which I had access, he found himself in the middle of the battle of Besantar, where the Mukti Bahini, with the help of Indian troops, pushed the Pakistani troops back.

The Maoist and journalist in Bernard-Henri Lévy coexisted during the war. He continuously searched for Naxalite leader Mohammad Toha. After an eight-day search around Chittagong, he succeeded in interviewing Toha during the height of the war. It was here that he caught malaria, which left everlasting effects on him. Politically, interviewing Toha was a cardinal mistake and ultimately led to his expulsion from the country.

On December 5, the journalist in Bernard-Henri Lévy stirred again, and he convinced officers of General Aurora's army to embed him with the advancing troops. He traveled with the Indian Army from west to east, entering Dhaka with one of the first units of the Indian Army. In Dhaka, he rejoined Akim Mukerjee's Mukti Bahini unit and participated (according to papers in Mukerjee's private archives) in liberating R. A. Bazaar, where the Pakistani army had set up its most despicable torture cells.

After playing a part in the liberation of East Bengal, which emerged as Bangladesh that same month, Bernard-Henri Lévy settled in Dhaka and began the second phase of his new career as a philosopher-revolutionary. In Dhaka, he met Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who was quite impressed that the young Lévy, in spite of being at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, had participated in his country's war of independence and wanted to contribute to building the new nation.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman understood that Lévy had forgone advancement in his own country. He asked him to work in the Ministry of Economy and Planning, an invitation that Lévy accepted immediately. He worked there until mid-June 1972.

In Dhaka, Bernard-Henri Lévy shared the small house of a Muslim family that had two girls and three boys--he became the sixth child. The neighborhood of Gulshan, like most neighborhoods of Dhaka in those days, was often flooded, either from rain or from overflowing rivers. However, he spent most of his time in the office, working as a Bangladeshi bureaucrat rather than as an imported consultant. During frequent meetings with Mujibur Rehman, he suggested that the tens of thousands of women who had been raped and abandoned by the soldiers of the Pakistani army and their Islamist collaborators in al-Shams and al-Badr (the armed wings of the Jamat-i-Islami) should be honored as Birangona, or national heroines. In many traditional societies, including Bangladesh, raped women live terrible lives, stigmatized by the rape they suffered and often demonized by their own families, becoming no more than dead women living.

During his stint in Bangladesh, according to some accounts, Lévy also tried to convince Home Minister A.H.M. Qamaruzzaman to bring the collaborators of al-Shams and al-Badr to justice. Unfortunately, the new government ignored the idea, as politics overshadowed justice.

Lévy tried to convince Mujibur Rehman to do an accounting of the death and destruction of the war and to build a war memorial to honor the sons of the young nation. This, too, never came to fruition. In the early years of independence, the search for international recognition and the task of safeguarding the young nation's independence took all of Rehman's time. Ultimately, of course, Rehman was assassinated by his own army.

In June 1972, Bernard-Henri Lévy ran out of luck. On the very first day of that month, Qamaruzzaman received an anonymous denunciation of Lévy as pro-Chinese, which in South Asia, meant pro-Pakistan. Lévy had committed two cardinal sins since arriving in South Asia: He visited Kashmir with Isabelle Doutreluigne and interviewed Mohammad Toha, who had opposed the independence of Bangladesh. This was enough for Qamaruzzaman, who gave him 48 hours to leave Bangladesh. His contribution to the independence of Bangladesh was ignored.

Thus ended Bernard-Henri Lévy's struggle for freedom for the Bengalis--the first of many such struggles the philosopher would wage in the decades to come. Much of what Lévy did in Bengal in 1971-72 lives on, as Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where the forces of democracy are successfully opposing the forces of darkness. Bangladesh gives hope to me and many others like me in the Muslim world.

While fighting the first war of his life, Bernard-Henri Lévy filed dispatches with Combat and worked on his thesis under the supervision of economist Charles Bettelheim. Although the thesis was never completed, Lévy did write his first book, Les Indes Rouges, a witness to the struggle of the people of Bangladesh. Of the very few accounts of the heroic struggle of the Bengali Muslims against oppression, Les Indes Rouges is the best that I have come across. Lévy's work lives on in those pages.

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This article appeared in slightly different form in the Dhaka Tribune. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

Arif Jamal is a Pakistani journalist living in the United States. He contributes to Pakistan Times, The New York Times, and Radio France International. He is a specialist in India-Pakistan relations and their impact on the international political/strategic system. His specialties include global jihad, Kashmir jihad, Afghan jihad, the Pakistani army, Islamist education (the madrassa system), and Islamist/jihadist politics and groups. He is the author of Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir (Melville House, 2009), A History of Islamist Militancy in Pakistani Punjab (Jamestown Foundation, 2011), and the forthcoming Call for Transnational Jihad: Lashkar-e-Taiba, 1985-2013. He has been fellow at the World Press Institute, Macalster College (Minnesota), and University College in London. He is presently a fellow at New York University and Harvard University.