Senator Edward Kennedy’s Quest for Justice
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
The date is etched into my memory. February 14, 1972: First day of spring in the newly independent nation of Bangladesh.
Ted Kennedy arrived at the Dhaka University campus with his wife Joan Bennett and Robert Kennedy, Jr., escorted by popular student leader Abdur Rab. I was a student at the University then. 8,000 of us had crammed into the courtyard, lecture hall balconies and roofs, wildly applauding the 39-year-old US Senator who was among the first to draw world attention to the genocide unleashed by the military government of Pakistan on unarmed Bangladeshis.
“Even though the United States government does not recognize you,” Kennedy said that morning, “the people of the world do recognize you.” (United States recognized Bangladesh on April 4, 1972).
“Joi Kennedy,” we roared, a play on the “Joi Bangla” slogan that carried our country to independence. (Joi is Bengali for victory).
The Pakistan army had launched its attack on the night of March 25, 1971. 10,000 Bangladeshis were massacred in the first three days alone. Over a period of nine months, as many as 3 million were killed and 10 million had to flee to India for safety. Kennedy witnessed firsthand their plight when he toured parts of India and spoke of “one of the most appalling tides of human misery in modern times.”
On that spring day, our hearts filled with gratitude for the man who had denounced the Nixon-Kissinger clique that chose to “tilt” toward Pakistan. Kennedy compared our struggle for independence with the American Revolution, drawing tumultuous applause.
Bangladesh had found a friend in need who would remain a friend indeed for as long as the new nation existed. And so it had been.
That is why, when Edward Moore Kennedy passed away on August 25 at the age of 77 after a year-long battle with cancer, Bangladeshis took it personally. Many of us had made the West our home now but who could forget his fight on our behalf during those fateful days of 1971?
I replayed the scene of his visit to Dhaka University over and over again, reliving those magical moments when anything seemed possible and freedom resonated in every fiber of our being. A human wave brought me close enough to shake Kennedy’s hands; next minute another wave carried me back to the periphery. When Rab, the student leader, finally managed to establish some order among the crowd, Kennedy planted a banyan sapling at the spot where another banyan tree was uprooted by the Pakistan army.
It was under that ancient and historic tree that students had first planted the seeds of Bangladesh’s independence movement. Kennedy’s sapling was a reminder to tyrants everywhere that while you could uproot a tree, you could not uproot the hunger for freedom that burned in every human heart.
In subsequent years, Kennedy experienced both triumphs and tragedies. We learned of his undisciplined personal life, his reckless pursuit of pleasure. But in a second act that is unique and extraordinary for an American politician, Kennedy conquered his personal demons to become, in President Barack Obama’s words, “not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy … For nearly five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well-being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts. His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives - in seniors who know new dignity; in families that know new opportunity; in children who know education’s promise; and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just, including me.”
Kennedy was most animated by a quest for justice. Although he was the prince never fated to be king, his achievements far exceeded those of many presidents. He had no taste for abstract ideas. He excelled in the particular, in the painstaking and prosaic legal processes that resulted in laws that brought meaning to millions of lives. He inspired us by proving that we can overcome our failings, however deep and many, if we dedicate ourselves to causes larger than ourselves.
Once asked what he considered his most valuable trait was, he replied, “persistence.” His persistence was the product of his convictions – justice, equality, opportunity for the marginalized and the forgotten - on which he staked his political fortune. “I have believed,” he once said, “that America must sail toward the shores of liberty and justice for all. There is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage. We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make.”
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when hate and prejudice against Islam and Muslims gripped America, Senators Kennedy and Richard Lugar sponsored a “Cultural Bridge to the Islamic World” program. Addressing visiting Muslim students in June, 2004, Kennedy said, ‘‘After a year here, each of you are now unofficial American ambassadors to your home countries. I am sure you don’t agree with everything the United States says and does, but I hope that you’ll be able to explain our country and our values to your friends and family. Each time you do, you’ll be sending forth a new ripple of hope.”
On September 27, 2002, a year before the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Kennedy gave a prescient speech in which he voiced his opposition to the war. “War with Iraq before a genuine attempt at inspection and disarmament, or without genuine international support - could swell the ranks of Al Qaeda sympathizers and trigger an escalation in terrorist acts.” In another speech on January 9, 2007, he called the Iraq War “George Bush’s Vietnam” and opposed sending more U.S. troops. The Iraq war, he said, “is the overarching issue of our time, and American lives, American values and American honor are all at stake … Congress can demand a justification from the President for such action before it appropriates the funds to carry it out … This bill will give all Americans – from Maine to Florida to California to Alaska and Hawaii – an opportunity to hold the President accountable for his actions.”
Beside Kennedy, another person who worked hard to focus world attention on the genocide in Bangladesh was former Beatle George Harrison. Along with Ravi Shankar and other musicians, he organized the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden in New York City on August 1, 1971. Harrison’s signature song was “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Musicians and politicians use different mediums to express themselves, each effective in its own way, but there was no gentle weeping for Kennedy when it came to opposing injustice and atrocities. Rather, he thundered. No equivocation or considerations of political expediency. Simply state the truth as you see it and reveal the crimes, wherever the chips may fall.
As I was reminiscing about the events of 1971-72, I tried to articulate anew my thoughts and feelings on that spring morning in Dhaka almost four decades ago when Kennedy came to our campus. Then I read these memorable words of Kennedy himself, delivered at the 1980 Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden, and knew that I had found what I was looking for: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”
Thanks to the legacy of Ted Kennedy and the likes of him who build on his ideas, our hope endures and our dream of a just world moves toward reality moment by moment.