When Begum Khaleda Zia spoke of her party’s goal of creating a Rainbow Nation in Bangladesh last week, we were all reminded of Nelson Mandela. The great man, despite having spent twenty-seven years of his life in prison, emerged to inform the world that he was ready to transform the so long race-driven and hate-propelled South Africa into a beautiful, peaceful place for every man and woman who lived in it. Not many are there in the world of politics, who can call forth such courage and defy even their own people in articulating new ideas. Mandela did what he set out to do. South Africa is today a shared destiny for its people.
It is indeed encouraging, even invigorating, to know how ideas articulated by illustrious men and women through simple phrases end up as points of reference for generations to follow. You might recall here Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” speech as India emerged into freedom, even as Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs were cheerfully murdering one another in August 1947. The phrase has stuck and there are people around us who, in moments of soaring enlightenment, often make use of Nehru’s words to drive their points home.
That is what greatness is all about. We have, in Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s “the struggle this time is for emancipation, the struggle this time is for freedom” call, a phrase, which has become a defining moment of our nationhood. No political phrase has energized Bengalis as much as this instance of sublime oratory from Bangabandhu has. You can look back at history and recall similarly inspirational words that came from Winston Churchill for his people. His “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech has been a staple in studies of the history of the Second World War.
And if Churchill is remembered for those words and remembered too for other pronouncements, there is US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his stirring “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” remarks, made at his first inauguration in 1933 when America was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. And then there are other statements from other political leaders and revolutionaries that make us reflect on the world we are part of, the world as it has been and will be. When Mao Zedong made it known that “power comes from the barrel of a gun”, he was perhaps stating an obvious truth. All revolutions are based on this simple yet profound philosophy. Revolutions never happen through compromise or negotiations. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Fidel Castro have proved that point.
Speaking of revolutions, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose remains an indelible part of South Asian history. His “give me blood and I shall give you freedom” words have never been forgotten. Rarely in history has there been an instance of a people not waging battles, even wars, to earn freedom. Netaji was only reiterating a historical truth. It was his eloquence that gave the idea deeper roots.
Somehow you tend to remember Charles de Gaulle here. “France has lost a battle. She has not lost the war”, is the way in which he kept his people’s morale high when Paris fell to the Nazis. The phrase “losing a battle and winning a war” is a direct reference to De Gaulle’s supreme confidence, a position, which was soon to be vindicated.
In our times, John F. Kennedy remains part of the collective consciousness for the defining phrase he brought into his inaugural speech in January 1961. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” was picked up as a mantra by political idealists around the globe and is even today a phrase which comes up in any conversation about Kennedy, in much the same way that the Gettysburg Address brings Abraham Lincoln alive again. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” is perhaps one of the most succinct definitions of democracy in history.
And there is Desmond Tutu, the ever happy, gregarious man of Christianity. Who can forget the purposeful brevity with which he reflected on colonialism in Africa? “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They asked us to pray. We closed our eyes and prayed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible”, said he. How much more poignant can a reference to history be?
In an era where sensitivities often hold us back from stating the hard truth, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew was least bothered. “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct,” he said once. That tells you a simple fact: tell it as it is. Political correctness can sometimes be interpreted as camouflaging the truth, as walking away from a need to demonstrate boldness.
Mandela’s Rainbow Nation was a resurgence of the human spirit. The sadness is he did not foresee the coming of sinister men whose idea of politics is building walls when building bridges is the historical requirement.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age