First there was the historian David Irving. Now there is the journalist David Bergman.
Irving questioned the figures for the Holocaust committed in the Hitler years in Europe and paid the penalty for it through serving time in prison.
Bergman sought to raise issues around the figures of the genocide in Bangladesh and was subsequently reprimanded by the country’s War Crimes Tribunal.
Irving has gone silent. Bergman continues to raise his questions, the latest manifestation of them being his write-up in the New York Times. The more intriguing part of his argument is placed in a simplistic form. The projected Liberation War Denial Crimes Act, he thinks, is a move that will lead to a shrinking of the space for freedom of speech in Bangladesh. His conclusion is obvious, perhaps even deliberate. And it is that there is nothing wrong about questioning the numbers of those who died in 1971 – three million as we have known it for forty five years – but to prevent such questioning would be tantamount to a denial of the right to free speech. He could not be more wrong.
David Bergman is, by the way, not the only individual who has been coming forth with questions about certain aspects of the War of Liberation. There has been Sarmila Bose, whose notorious account of the war in her work ‘Dead Reckoning’ reads like a carbon copy of what the Hamoodur Rahman Commission and successive governments in Pakistan have been stating, or denying, about the horrors the people of Bangladesh were put to in 1971.
There are others in Pakistan, men like Hamid Mir, who make it a point every December to deliberate on the ‘fall of Dhaka’ and the reasons behind that calamity for their country. They do not include among those reasons the atrocities the Pakistan army subjected Bengalis to in the nine months of the war. Mir – and this is something not many in Bangladesh have observed or pointed out – even believes that the history of cross-border terrorism in our part of the world was initiated by the Mukti Bahini. It was a statement he made on Geo TV on a December day a couple of years ago.
But let Pakistan be. Here in Bangladesh, a number of people have been trying their hardest to shape a new narrative on the 1971 war. Many among us, and that does not include Bergman, have taken umbrage at Khaleda Zia’s expression of doubts regarding the number of Bengalis killed in the war. She did not question, say these people in their self-righteous defence of her, the history of the country but had only raised a ‘pertinent’ question. That ‘pertinent’ question happens to be impertinent behaviour on the part of a former prime minister who, in her days in office, regularly paid tribute to the three million martyrs of 1971.
Something of the disturbingly elitist is being attempted in Bangladesh in these parlous times. That much emerges from the new narrative that is assiduously being dished out to the country. Note that in these elitist deliberations on the history of the War of Liberation, the issue of how many Biharis were murdered by Bengalis or by the Mukti Bahini has been making the rounds. You would think that at a time when the Pakistan army was on the rampage killing and raping Bengalis, the Bengalis had the time, audacity and opportunity to go around massacring Biharis in occupied Bangladesh. Note too that in this revisionist narrative, the systematic and sustained cooperation between Biharis and the soldiers of the Pakistan army in the murder of Bengalis gets hardly any mention, indeed is papered over. The implications are clear: for such elitists, the job is to make sure that the Bihari issue is raised every time the Bengali figure of three million dead is remembered by Bangladesh’s citizens, for that way confusion can be cleverly generated and diversionary tactics can be employed to dilute all historical assessments of the war.
Bergman holds the opinion that all this refusal of Bangladesh’s government to accept any questioning of the casualty figures for 1971 is but a sign of growing ‘authoritarian one-party rule’. Once again, history is getting chaotically entwined with his subjective view of contemporary politics. Free speech, he says, is being hindered through moves to adopt a law against a denial of the 1971 genocide. Carefully not mentioned is the fact that an operation and application of strict laws against a denial of the Holocaust of 1939-45 has never been an impediment to freedom of speech in the West. Are we then expected to inform ourselves that the Holocaust is beyond debate but the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh must be allowed to be subjected to questioning and tampering? Bergman is worried that the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act will stifle legitimate historical research. Here is where the historical research he speaks of ought to focus on – at the individual and collective criminality indulged in by the officers and general soldiers of the Pakistan military, at the participation of the Bihari community in the killing of Bengalis (remember the disappearance of Zahir Raihan amidst a bloody battle between Bangladesh army soldiers and Biharis in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur-Mirpur in late January 1972?), at the release and rehabilitation of Pakistani war criminals following the Delhi-Dhaka-Islamabad tripartite deal in 1974, at the rehabilitation and re-entry into politics of the Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army in post-1975 Bangladesh.
No, the law prohibiting any questioning of the 1971 genocide will not curtail freedom of expression. But neither will it permit any more the cavalier attitude a particular elitist segment of society has so long adopted toward the history of the War of Liberation. No, such a law will not be dangerous for democracy, as Bergman would like us to believe, but it will put a stop to the permissiveness which, in the name of democracy, has been putting question marks on the truths we hold to be sacrosanct about our struggle for freedom.
The Liberation War Denial Crimes Act ought to have been in place a very long time ago. And yet now that it is around the corner, there is the expectation that no more travesty of history will occur or be permitted to occur. We will not accept any questioning of the facts related to the War of Liberation. We will not be lulled into succumbing to the sophistry of those who peddle the notion that our democracy is being undermined by our absolute unwillingness to allow our history to be questioned, in the foreign media or elsewhere.
The national perspective is clear. History has its place in our collective life and will not be made a farce of. Democracy is a different proposition altogether. A defence of democracy is little excuse for raising a freewheeling, deliberately provocative debate on the War of Liberation.