By Rajesh K.Jha
The year 1971 is perhaps the most important geopolitical event of the South Asian region since 1947 which saw the birth of two independent nations India and Pakistan. The year marked the emergence of the newest country in the region with Bangladesh attaining liberation.
The brutal violence that preceded the partition of India was repeated again. In less than 25 years after the partition of India, another partition took place. This time Pakistan got partitioned. The bond of religion proved inadequate to hold Pakistan together. The bond of language proved to be stronger. Indeed, the socio-economic disparity between East and West Pakistan was an important factor in the alienation of the people who had agreed to be part of Pakistan just about two and a half decades ago.
The birth of an independent Bangladesh was another bloody chapter in the history of the subcontinent. It was marked by an unprecedented level of violence unleashed by Pakistani forces on the Bangalees.
The violent birth of Bangladesh was preceded by ‘genocide’ in which, it is claimed, 3 million people of Bangladesh were killed, lakhs were raped and an unknown number of people faced the most brutal repression before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bangabandhu, gave his historic call on March 7, 1971. Subsequent to the historic speech in which he said Ebarer sangram amader muktirsangram, ebarer sangram swadhinatar sangra, the country reverberated with the slogan of Bir Bangali Astra Dharo, Bangladesh Swadhin Karo. Within 9 months, Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation with India playing a stellar role.
The story above has been told many times. Countless books and articles, films and plays, folk stories, and textbooks have narrated the story in their own ways. But is it the whole story? What is the true story of the events that led to 1971?
Truth is the most slippery thing. Upanishads proclaim एको सत्यः विप्राः बहुधा वदन्ति- the truth is one but sages tell it in different ways. Or perhaps more aptly, the truth is like the proverbial elephant whose various parts are touched by the blind people, each coming with his own conclusion about the reality as experienced by him.
1971 seeks to unravel the mystery. Navigating the psychological universe of people through intimate conversations, the book explores the complex reality of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan through various vantage points.
It is not an easy task as memory and imagination, the past and the present, are so irrevocably linked that it is often impossible to separate one from another. Both memory and history are dynamic. They evolve, they mutate and they are shaped by a multitude of factors including the textbooks we read in our formative years. This is the reason the governments are so keen on writing and rewriting the history of a nation. Indeed, the way one looks at the past provides the key to the way one wants to make his future. The memory must be molded if the imagination is to be steered in one direction or the other. Governments know it well.
Looking at the chequered democratic history of Bangladesh, the author underlines the alternating political phases of the country between the rule of Awami League currently led by Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with its roots in the military government. She shows in great detail how it is reflected in the school textbooks of this period.
The textbooks reflect the fact that during the Awami League rule, the brutality of Pakistan, the role of Sheikh Mujib, and the Bangla language are the key factors to define the national identity. For the period of military rule and BNP governance, it is the Islamic character of Bangladesh which matters.
‘Textbooks in Bangladesh have undergone revisions depending on which regime is in power, with history often written along party lines.’ Anam Zakaria points out that the textbooks written during the military government in Bangladesh after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975 didn’t explicitly mention Pakistan as the enemy. The slogan of ‘Joy Bangla’ was banned and the role of freedom fighters erased from the books. The role of the Indian army in the liberation of Bangladesh was also omitted. BNP didn’t change it when it came to power in 1991 as the party’s origin lay in the military government headed by Gen. Zia Ur Rahman earlier. But when Awami League came back to power in 1996, the syllabus changed. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s role again became central. Murder of intellectuals and brutality of the Pakistani army found a central place in the textbooks.
Again in 2001 when BNP came back to power, references to Sheikh Mujib as Bangabandhu were excised from the textbooks. The role of Jamaat as collaborators was removed from the textbooks. The cycle turned back again when Awami League came back to power in 2008. Bangabandhu was reinstated in the textbook. India is portrayed as a friend, Pakistan as the enemy.
Genocide is another concept which has diametrically opposed meanings in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Since its independence, Bangladesh has referred to the massacre of its citizens in 1971 by Pakistani’s as genocide. It has demanded Pakistan to tender an apology for perpetuating the genocide against Bangalees during that period. However, the Pakistani’s completely ignore the large scale killings and atrocities in the then East Pakistan and focus on the killings of ‘non-Bengalis’ and Pro-Pakistanis during the 1971 war. They call it ‘genocide’.
Anam Zakaria points out that the word ‘selective genocide’ was used by the US diplomat Archer Blood, who was based in Dhaka those days, in his telegrams to the US state department. Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, who was part of a team of journalists taken to Bangladesh on a ten-day tour to report on the war by the Pakistani army in 1971, also published his article named ‘Genocide’ in the Sunday Times of UK in June 1971. While giving details of the killings of a large number of Biharis and non-Bengalis in Bangladesh, he wrote that the West Pakistan army in East Bengal was doing genocide with ‘terrifying thoroughness’ and ‘amazing casualness’.
The academic debate about the exact definition of genocide may have continued but the difference in the perspectives between Pakistan and Bangladesh is stark. The author brings out this complexity in understanding the truth through her incisive analysis and interviews with people of both the countries without in any way diluting the gravity of the crime committed by the Pakistani army during the 1971 war.
Biharis of Bangladesh
A continuing dark chapter of the liberation war of Bangladesh is the plight of Biharis in Bangladesh. The Biharis are the non-Bangla speaking Muslim settlers mostly coming to Bangladesh from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the pre-independence days. During the liberation war of Bangladesh, this community, in general, supported the Pakistani army often collaborating with their militia force ‘Al Badr’ and ‘Al-Shams’ to help in their atrocities against the native Bangla speaking Bangalees. This has marked them as permanent traitors.
Later, after Bangladesh became independent in December 1971, the Biharis became stateless people. Bangladesh treated them as Pakistanis and Pakistan too backed out from its promise of taking these people back and give citizenship. A whole new generation of Biharis born after 1971 is now almost 50 years of age and yet they are still alienated and bear the cross of history in their lives in Bangladesh. Anam Zakaria brings out the psychological knot of this community, its identity crisis in the face of this complexity. On the other hand, the disillusionment of the Bangladeshi’s who went over to Pakistan in 1971 brings out the stark reality of betrayed hopes and continued statelessness of Bangladeshi Pakistanis.
It also unravels the complex and often unresolved reality of ‘truth neatly packaged into Pakistani and Bangladeshi categories of acceptable truth’. While the Pakistanis would only look at the killing of Biharis and West Pakistanis, a Bangladeshi only sees the genocide heaped by the Pakistani army.
The differential memory of events relating to 1971 is also reflected in the way it is remembered in Pakistan and India. For Pakistan, the liberation war of Bangladesh and its eventual independence get only fleeting references. ‘The fall of Dacca’ is projected as an outcome of India’s role in fomenting uprising in Bangladesh and not so much a direct result of Pakistan’s flawed policy and subsequent repression of Bangladesh. In the words of Anam Zakaria, ‘there are two versions of 1971. The one before March 25 is the one Pakistan has chosen to remember. History seems to end on this date when it comes to 1971. In contrast, for Bangladesh, official history begins on 25 March. These different histories have their own victims and perpetrators, neither state willing to blur these binary lines to reach a more holistic truth.’
An interesting chapter of the book relates to the people in Pakistan who stood up against the rulers of those times to support the liberation war of Bangladesh. Nationalism being the dominant and hegemonic ideology of modern times, this was an act of courage no doubt just as it was for the American students to oppose their own government during the Vietnam war. Pakistani Punjabi poet Ahmad Salim wrote a poem ‘Long live Bangladesh’ in March 1971 which landed him in jail for six months and flogging. Awami Awaz which published the poem was also forced to stop publication for giving space to the voices against the military government of Pakistan. People like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib, Sahar Ansari, Fahmida Riaz, Ajmal Khattak, and many other poets and literary people opposed the military operation in Bangladesh. Indeed, people like Ahmad Salim and Faiz defied the forgetting of the atrocities through their act of resistance in writing.
Anam Zakaria points out that this act of memory rebelling against forgetfulness has continued in more recent times in literature through novels like Kamila Shamshie’s Kartography, Sorayya Khan’s Noor and many others. Apart from writers and poets, other sections of Pakistani society like the lawyers, politicians, and even some military officers opposed Pakistan’s action in Bangladesh in 1971. The entire point of this detail is to add shades of grey in otherwise black and white narrative people carry in their heads about an event like 1971 where we assume that a Pakistani would be supporting its government and oppose the liberation of Bangladesh.
The book ’1971-A people’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India’ is an important contribution in understanding the momentous events of 1971 from the perspective of people of the three countries. At one level, the book is an attempt to present history through peoples’ voices. On another level, it presents a compelling human story of suffering and longing, hope and betrayal going beyond the mundane world of politics and geo-strategic calculations of countries in conflict with each other.
It also provides a fresh approach in nudging people out of their soap-bubble universe of perception to recognize the multiplicity of ways in which reality is perceived by various people which may perhaps be as valid or wrong as the person looking at the leg of an elephant and shouting that he has found the pillar of a building.
1971- A People’s History of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India by Anam Zakaria
Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2019
Source: The Citizen, May 2020