Forty years after 1971, there really isn’t yet a complete history of our Liberation War. There have been several attempts and more are on but these works whether they are rabidly nationalist or more objective and rational also have huge gaps in them because we don’t know all the facts. However much more can be known and it’s for that reason that we need to link up with Pakistani scholars to write a comprehensive history of the year that was. A history that will focus on the key events, analyse them without the passion of a partisan and be loyal only to facts.
An attempt was made to this end and an initiating meeting was held in Islamabad in 2007 under the aegis of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) of Pakistan but progress since then is unknown to me. If stalled, it needs to be restarted or a fresh one bearing the same spirit must be undertaken.
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The need for a joint history is all the more needed because there are now books that counters the Bangladeshi conventional narrative, making a case against it rather than write an objective history. Authors like Sharmila Bose in her book -Dead Reckoning- argues that many of the accusations made against the Pakistan army aren’t true.
When her work first was presented in seminars in the mid 2000s and her book was published in 2011, the response to her book from Bangladeshis was either abuse or denial of the issues rather than any quality dissection or academic criticism. Bose picked up on the weakest narratives, myths and fantasies of 1971 narratives and simply by putting those under question scored points with her audience.
While we may denigrate Bose we can’t ignore that the intellectual construction of our history has become vulnerable due to lack of unsentimental and quality research by Bangladeshis. For example why do we insist on the number of millions of deaths and rape when we never ran a survey or found any other evidence to support this?
It has in my opinion become a symbol of our refusal to deal with our own reality.
Bose also took advantage of the inadequate quality of our mainstream research to trash the conventional nationalist narrative. Those who gave her interviews upholding this viewpoint didn’t come out sounding knowledgeable either helping her make the case that much of 1971 history is made up or just urban myths that were never questioned.
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Many of us expect that once we have spoken of 1971 history in highly emotion charged voices, invoking precious names, numbers and symbols people will stand up and cheer us. They often do but that audience is not looking for facts but emotional reinforcement. History and kahini or bir gatha are two different things, fulfilling two separate objectives. By mixing them up, we have done disservice to both. That has to change.
Three million dead and thousands raped may express the quantum of our rage and the cry of our wounded hearts but hanging on to them as sacred numbers is mostly a religious act not an intellectual one. I suppose we need to admit we need both but they are not the same.
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Bangladeshi and Indian scholars of 1971 history began to contest Bose soon after her book made the rounds and those who did are not emotional nationalists and not all are Bangladeshis either. The first to publicly do so was Dr. Nayanika Mukherjee and later others also joined in (Guardian 2011). BBC did a story on her with a contest of her position by Naeem Mohaiemen who later developed a more comprehensive rebuttal of Bose and it has been published in Indian and Bangladesh media. (http://www.bricklanecircle.org/uploads/Flying_Blind.pdf).
What Naeem did brilliantly was not to concern himself dominantly with the content but focus on her methodology. Going chapter by chapter, he looked at the academically questionable use of Sharmila’s sources and why her book was inherently biased towards the Pakistan army, even textually.
Bose had quoted Pakistani army sources to explain Pakistani military behaviour which was academically unusual. It was not just a methodological inadequacy but it also exposed the intellectual weakness of this genre of history writing. It was the same weakness that has pervaded most of our 1971 studies too.
If we want the history of 1971 to be taken seriously — and we owe it to those who died and suffered in that war — we must have conversations with the second wave of history writing which Naeem Mohaimen, Nayanika Mukherjee, Bina D’Costa, Dina Siddiqui, Yasmin Saikia and others represent. There are many in Pakistan and India as well who are of the same ilk, who rise above narrow confines of identity and seek to speak from intellectual positions without losing their humanity when discussing 1971 history.
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There is a need to hear from inside Pakistan about several issues which is difficult for non-Pakistanis to find out. Some of them are:
–The level, nature, perception and practice of ethno-linguistic racism which was the cultural platform of the policies of the state that led to the crisis. Why wouldn’t/couldn’t West Pakistanis accept rule of Pakistan by East Pakistanis.
— How and when did the Pak army decide to ignore the electoral results and go for a military solution? Who, what, how etc or the chemistry and pathology of the process.
— The range, level and organization of repression by the Pak army: whether this was a deliberate policy or a gruesome fallout of the war process. The nitty-gritty’s of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report and the evidence base of the same.
— Whether Pakistan took the India factor into account and if so how they factored it into their decision making process when they decided to go for the attack and how did they deal with the consequences before the December collapse?
— Whether before the March 25 attack, the Pakistan army considered what could happen to the non-Bengali minority in East Pakistan in case the Bengalis found an opportunity to turn against them.
— Given the experience of March-April when many Biharis suffered including killing and rape, did the Pak army consider what would happen to the same people when they would face a revenge seeking mob after Pakistanis departed under Indian protection?
— Personal experiences of Pakistanis that can illuminate many aspects of the war including the horrible and the humane. Nadir Ali, a Pak army officer has given his personal narrative and novelist Soraya Khan collected many anecdotes for her novel “Noor”. Obviously many more anecdotes exist including recounting of courage and compassion which can be best collected by Pakistanis themselves.
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From the Bangladesh side we can find out the facts including the conflicting ones that can illuminate the events more elaborately. Some of them are:
–What was the nature of the post-election negotiations and how far had progress been achieved including the status on the 6-points as far as flexibility and accommodation was concerned?
— What was the situation on March 7 — non-cooperation phase — and what was the actual position as far as readiness for negotiations, breakdown and breaking away was concerned.
— Was there any prior knowledge of the attack and if so what was the response. Was giving warning to the people considered? If not, why?
— What was the actual scale and level of the carnage on March 25 and later and the basic contours of repression on all sides during the war phase?
— What was the situation of the non-Bengalis in Dhaka and outside? What happened in the key Bihari zones like Khulna, Syedpur, Rangpur Etc?
— What was the scale of the repression of one civilian group over others whether Bengalis, Biharis, Hindus, Adivasis, Muslim, poor, etc. particularly in the villages.
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History is not about establishing guilt but facts. That there are no bad people, rather bad and dysfunctional politics that can produce murderous events like the 1971 war. And perhaps it is about learning that without the smooth flow of the democratic process, terrible events can take place, big or small. In our interaction with many Pakistanis, we know that many have the intellectual and emotional strength to face their own history. We must also do that.
Together with likeminded Pakistanis and Bangladeshis this joint history project can be done. It will benefit everyone and clean the stable of partisan elements that are common amongst us and the likes of Sharmila Bose of India. That will make it easier for Pakistani scholars like Sabah Khattak who organised the SDPI conference, late Tareque Masud who attended the meet and many others like them in Bangladesh and Pakistan to work towards a comprehensive history of 1971.
Afsan Chowdhury is a Consulting Editor of bdnews24.com.