Afsan Chowdhury

Why we need to involve Pakistanis to write a comprehensive history of 1971

December 16, 2011

1Forty 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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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Afsan Chowdhury is a Consulting Editor of bdnews24.com.

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25 Responses to “ Why we need to involve Pakistanis to write a comprehensive history of 1971 ”

  1. Chandan on March 31, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Though I’m reading this after long it is been published but we appreciate the way you thought of the work. We really need to work for a history rather than sitting idol on kahini and birgatha ,it’s not for the number only but to write the war in real term. We better start collecting the pieces of history as soon as possible as the many witnesses of event already died and some on their last days or in process of loosing their memory.

  2. Salah ud Deen on January 26, 2012 at 5:10 am

    History is not owned, it’s told, it’s narrated, but it’s never free from bias. AL claim it’s their history because BB declared it, BNP claim it’s theirs because MZ announced it. People like brother Ahsan and many like minded true patriots want the truth to come out. This has so far been a verbal volleyball in the game of dirty selfish politics. So called leaders surrounding both leaders of AB will never allow this to happen. It they do then the truth will be learned and there will be no issue to shout about ( mindless andoolon). So long these issues are live people like the Chief Whipps, or the local MPs and some ministers can find enough excuses to devide and rob our nation ( based on these issues). Why don’t you understand that this issue Mukijudder Itihash is nothing but an excuse to find ways ‘ fishing in muddy water’.

  3. Fuad Ali on January 13, 2012 at 4:35 am

    Anwar and Afia Dil’s Bengali Language Movement to Bangladesh does just that, if you hadn’t noticed.

  4. Rahman on December 31, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Very well written article. I thank Mr. Afsan Choowdhury that our new generation may learn the true history of our Liberation War in future by some honest people like you. I completely agree that joint works should be done to reveal the truth and minimise the hate between us. I (27) had such hatred towards Pakistani people like may Bangladeshi young people, now I feel and think that our history books were written based on partial explanation with some cock and bull stories. The first thing which shook me is that when I know that “Agartala Conspiracy Case” against Awami League leaders Sheikh Mujibur Rhaman and many more was not a conspiracy case rather it is true and exact case which was published in bdnews24.com.

    The propaganda of not helping the cyclone affected southern Bengali people of coastal region in 1970 by the then Awami League is refuted by Z A Bhutto in his book “The Great Tragedy” in which he said that Yahya Government wanted to extend the 1970’s election due to cyclone in the East Pakistan but Awami League insisted, and threatened to hold election soon. Awami League’s insistence on holding election hindered assisting and helping flood affected people. But as Yahya government could not manage all sides and decided to hold election, Awami League got a new propaganda that our Bengali people are overlooked by the West Pakistani military rulers that they are not helping our Bengali people and some common, naive people of the East Pakistan swallowed this propaganda and consequently Awami League won landslide victory in 1970’s election.

    Certainly there was some discrimination between two wings of Pakistan. But does it justify that it has to be validated by the killings and sacrifice of 3 millions (or 3 lacs) and almost 2 lacs women’s honor (or a 30 thousands) and dignity of our Bengali?

    When I read this history of disgrace (sacrifice of thousand of women’s honor and dignity) I am humiliated, we are humiliated. Were we so weak an ethnic Bangali people of Pakistani nation’s multi ehtnic people that they raped our mother and sisters and our valiant freedom fighters and our ally India just looked blindly during 9 months before the Indian joinined the war till 6 or 10 December 1971?

    Comprehensive study is the need of time.

    • russel on January 7, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      Mr. Rahman, I think Butto wrote his book with a one-sided view. It may be a propaganda. How can it be the basis for believing Butto’s tall talk?

  5. Shaheena on December 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    I recommend a book called: Sips from A Broken Cup by R. Hasan about the author’s personal experiences in Sylhet in March/ April 1971 at the hands of the Mukti Bahini. We should not be in denial of what was done to Non- Bengalis and accept that there were innocent victims on both sides.

  6. Anwar on December 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Afsan Bhai

    I appreciate your proposition. If you could remember, I had a similar proposal following your article “A Brief History of my Beard” that somebody should take the responsibility of telling the truth about the happenings in 1971. The present history of the war of liberation is not history but myth. We should come out of it and involve both Pakistan and India to write the history of the war of liberation. Thank you once again.

    Anwar

  7. Ron on December 23, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Good to know that at least someone is thinking in the right direction and not going after the cash being spent by H T Imam to re-write the historical tales like some blog research foundations are doing!
    Thanks

  8. rsiddiqui on December 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Afsan,

    It has been over 40 years since I left Dhaka. This is a great idea.

    People like me still remember Bangladesh/East Pakistan with

    fondness. We all need to learn the truth.

    So from the little kid (now almost an old man) who left many

    Bengali friends behind, I support your effort here.

    (From the Class of 1971, St. Josephs High School Dhaka)

  9. Abu Zubair on December 20, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    The premise of this article is most commendable. However there is little consensus even amongst Bangladeshi scholars about the history of 1971, and the likelihood of a joint work on our much mired, maligned and mangled past is slim.

    That is just why the likes of Sarmila Bose using the miasma of war, using facts to start an argument leads us to a false conclusion about the rapes, murders and death toll of 1971.

    To keep the spine of history intact you need all the point-of-views: Pakistani and Bangladeshi and the Indian. 1971 Bangladesh was not a paradigm in a petri dish, but contexted in what was going on in the world then.

  10. Mozammel on December 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Because they are also part of the history. For the episode in 71 Bengali of East Pakistan, Indian security force and Pakistan were three variables. To make something in existence it will be a triangle and this needs Pakistan also to make an angle or a side.

  11. BeerBangali on December 19, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Afsan Bhai: Have you seen the movie ‘A few good men’ where Jack Nicholson says, “You cannot handle the truth”? Yes, in Bangladesh you really do NOT spell out the unfettered truth. We build and rebuild truth as per our whims when we are in power. Getting the Pakistanis involved might open up the Pandora’s Box and break so many myths about our ‘great heroes’.

    • AK Shamsuddin on December 19, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      Politicians and state actors create history and historians write it. Problems start when people in power try to write history. In the histrographis of wars and liberation struggles around the world, it is almost unheard that both the victors and the vanquished have written history together.

      I have met many Pakistani’s abroad, a good number of who still believe that “The Bangladesh War of Liberation” was an Indian conspiracy.

    • kalpana on December 21, 2011 at 11:34 pm

      I congratulate Mr Afsan for his daring proposition. However, is this a very timely proposition for anyone in Bangladesh?

      We are mostly pigmies in intellectual capacity and honesty. If anyone tries to find out the actual truth which does not fit into the present norm he will be hooted out in a very disgraceful manner.

      Sarmila Bose may not be a good historical researcher, but she has opened our eyes that true facts of independent war of Bangladesh is yet to be researched, studied and published. If we did, Ms. Bose would not dare to write the book.

      We have failed utterly to establish the many facts of war of independence on impeccable ground by our own studies, even the most important and oft repeated number of Bangladeshi killed and women tortured! Don’t the people of India, Pakistan and other countries laugh at us?

  12. AK Shamsuddin on December 19, 2011 at 4:19 am

    The written history of “Bangladesh Genocide of 1971″ suffer the paucity of adequate documentation, in support of its figures and claimed factual narratives, therefore, it needs more substantiative and extensive documentation not joint written history.

    Pakistani military junta was determined not to handover power to any civil authority vis-à-vis elected representatives. Suza Newaz (An internationally famed Pakistani journalist and present Director of Pacific Institute) in his book titled “Crossed Sowrds” writes: One month later of his address to the nation, where he promised an election on the basis of adult franchise, ahya Khan told a gathering of army officers in Abottabad “we must be prepared to rule this unfortunate country for the next 14 years or so, I simply can’t throw the country to the wolves.”

  13. suborna mustafa on December 18, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Intelectualisation of the genocide carried out by the then W. Pakistan against people of their own country the then E. Pakistan is an insult to the people of BANGLADESH. The term, like-minded Bangladeshi and Pakistani is a fallacy. 40 years have passed yet there is no formal apology from Pakistan.

    Last but not the least why is it important to know the exact number of murdered or women raped? Will numbers lessen the horrors imbedded in the souls of the survivors?

    • BeerBangali on December 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm

      Why are you afraid of the truth? Let’s keep the ball rolling. Do you want truth served in a palatable dish to cater to your taste? No, truth is bitter and should remain like that.

    • russel on December 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      Ms Suborna,
      Right you are. We get enraged same way. I think the writer screamed for an informative history of our Liberation War. It is not an issue of getting horrified. It is for our new generation. And I think they might get a chance for atonement while asking them for information of 71.

      • Judhisthir on December 19, 2011 at 9:48 pm

        What’s wrong about intellectual exercise of ‘71? Enough is enough. It’s time we gotten away from the demagogues and dissect the past with surgical precision. Remember, patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel. The scoundrel knows it but we do not and we, unknowingly, perpetuate the stay of the scoundrels in power by justifying their rape of truth on a regular basis through our silence and inaction.

  14. Kazi Saifuddin Hossain on December 18, 2011 at 12:11 am

    Let me say that for the sake of history it is the only way to go. But is the Bangladesh government, or its Pakistani counterpart, in any mood for lending an ear to this suggestion of yours?

    I am backing you up on this one, nonetheless.

  15. Abeer Haruni on December 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    I’d like to recommend two documentaries to the writer to get a Pakistani view of the 1971 war. One is ‘Saqoot-e-Dhaka’ and the other is ‘East Pakistan- the untold story’. Both of them are available in YouTube and are in Urdu.

    Thank you.

  16. russel on December 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Very good prelude by Mr. Afsan.

    I agree with him. I plea to our present government to follow up this issue so that the next generation can get the scope to know the actual history of our glorious war of 1971.

  17. Golam Arshad on December 16, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Afsan: Facts, not fiction must be the basis of a joint moot of scholars, giving life to the terrain of history without bias on either side. I endorse your predicament on this “Vital issue” concerning fair and balance history of the liberation of Bangladesh.

    • Satyabadi on December 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      Yes, truth and nothing but the truth. Right now, Pakistan probably has nothing to hold back, especially after the publication of the Hamudur Rahman commission report. But in Bangladesh, we like to know how heroic were our real heroes. Will those self-style warriors and generals accept an inquiry into those myths?

      • ABM Reza on December 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm

        I can’t really wait to see the formation of a joint fact finding mission like this, at least for the part of the declaration of independence. Right now ‘Our Swadhinota’ is an orphan being abused successively by the people in power.

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