This August 14, I found myself with my family in Melbourne, where both my wife and I are visiting for research work. We decided to spend the Sunday morning at the Melbourne Museum, an impressive building in picturesque Carlton gardens, not too far from the University of Melbourne.
The museum is impressive, expansive and beautifully done with a strong commitment to learning for all families that visit. It has something for everyone but the highlight for us was a section on the eastern side of the museum. The eastern wing on the ground floor is called Bunjilaka. It is the Aboriginal Cultural Centre that celebrates art, culture and history of the native peoples of Victoria. But it is not just a celebration. It is also a reminder of the wrongs that have been done, in the name of colonialism, liberty and civilisation. The section takes the visitor from the earliest accounts of the local Koorie community that had been living for tens of thousands of years before the colonists came. The stories of friction and friendship, of trust and betrayal, of disease, sorrow and mourning are powerful reminders of heritage and history. There are those who destroyed the local culture, forcibly took the land and also those who found these practices morally abhorrent. The gallery ends with a section called shared history, which takes the visitor to the modern era, where efforts are being made to recognise the wrong, to understand each other and to take steps in mutual respect. There is no doubt that a lot more needs to be done, but the gallery and the stories told by descendants of the original people is a reminder that the first step in healing is acknowledgement.
Our own 69-year history is different from that of the native peoples of Australia, but there is an important lesson to reflect upon this August. Over the seven decades, we have made mistakes in treating some of our very own. Through coups and dictatorships, through bigotry and sectarianism, there are many who have been wronged. Our path forward must acknowledge those mistakes, whether those mistakes were made in Karachi, Balochistan or Dhaka.
To date, our attitude has been either of denial or in the rare cases of acknowledgement, focused on finding individual scapegoats. Neither is beneficial to the long-term growth, maturity or development of society. Our textbooks fail to mention the errors whether they were moral, political or social, that led to the misery of innocent people in the eastern part of the country before it became Bangladesh. Recognising our errors is not akin to showing weakness, but is a testament of moral strength to accept our failings with a resolve to have a better future. We also tend to blame our errors on conspiracies of regional and global powers, absolving ourselves of any responsibility.
Our second approach to come to terms with our past, and to a certain extent the problems of our present, is to find individual scapegoats. Military leadership, politicians and religious leaders are coming from our own society, and often reflect the values and views of the culture that shapes them. Finding blameworthy individuals for our collective failure is anything but constructive in creating a cohesive society that reflects upon its past with a goal to create a better future.
As we start the process of healing and reflection, the first step is to empower the voiceless. We have to give a voice to those who have been wronged. We have to give them space, in our national discourse and in our hearts, so that we resolve that their children, and our children, will live in a more peaceful and understanding society.
The resolution this Independence Day, individually and collectively, should have been to make a future that is better than the present. We hear about that, as we should, from the highest offices of the land and in small living room conversations. Yet, we fail to recognise that the path to that better future must go through our past.
Let this August be a month of not just aspiration, but also of acknowledgement.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2016.