The film ‘Meherjaan’ depicting a Bangladeshi woman’s 1971 experiences including a relationship with a Pakistani Baloch soldier has caused great controversy. Reading the reactions, it becomes obvious that it’s not about the film good or bad, but about us and our collective history, sometimes read as facts and sometimes as myths.
This post is not about a film which I haven’t watched yet, but about the 1971 history which I am familiar with.
* * *
We don’t have a standardised agreed upon history of 1971 that is facts based. Instead there are key assumptions, conjectures, guesses, etc. that has become the dominant narrative. Both additions and deletions have occurred and most of the people are left with a history that many think we had rather than what actually had happened. This myth-driven history of 1971 has been driven by political perspectives and objectives. It doesn’t matter if this narrator is an Awami League or BNP or Jamaat-e-Islami supporter.
* * *
Emotion, not reason, decides what constitutes history. National history has become a set of religious texts which can’t be examined and examining itself has become a taboo. Exploring the history of 1971 constitutes a loss of faith in the Liberation War and the one who questions commits blasphemy and the blasphemous is immediately excluded. He is a sinner and targeted as ‘against the spirit of 1971’, ‘defiling the memory of the martyrs and honour of the raped women’, etc.
In today’s Bangladesh, such assertions are closest to what was a slogan in Pakistan days, “Islam khatra mey hai” (“Islam is in danger”) which was used to muzzle anything disliked by the Pakistan authorities. In our case by using the mantra, we are saying that we are not interested in the fact based history of 1971 but in preserving what politics and politicians have offered as narratives that not our own history. We have become afraid to be proud of our own past.
* * *
Some key notions:
– We are not sure who declared our independence, Mujib or Zia? We want an official independence declaration to make us feel we had an official war sanctioned by rules and regulations.
– We fear that if we accept any number less than three million killed, our sacrifice and war will become less.
– Unless we say that 300,000 women were raped, our sufferings will appear less significant.
– Bengalis were naturally good people and Pakistanis were naturally bad ones.
– A ‘spirit of 1971’ prevailed that year though that is not described. It wasn’t there before and now must be preserved though no one says what that is.
These are the core of our beliefs and myths.
Myths are always a powerful tool for social construction but they also generate ignorance and intolerance. That affects the political culture that dominates a nation as it does our. Myths tell us that our leaders are great and our history is uncomplicated and whatever our politicians tell us must be true. We have produced a past that now controls our present.
* * *
Let’s look at some of the notions of 1971:
– “We are not sure who declared our independence, Mujib or Zia? We want an official independence declaration to make us feel we had an official war sanctioned by rules and regulations.”
The fact is it doesn’t matter at all and in no way can the independence declaration be a contested issue. Sheikh Mujib was the then leader of the nationalist movement and the only one who had the legitimacy to declare anything on behalf of the people. It doesn’t matter who announced what but Zia did make an independence announcement from Chittagong which BNP calls is the ‘real independence call’ which the AL denies. In reality, there is no need to deny this announcement and its significance which exists; but independence announcement could only be made on behalf of Sheikh Mujib.
However, there is no smoking gun evidence that Sheikh Mujib did declare anything personally but whatever went out as announcement carried his name. We don’t need as gazette notification to start a nationalist war. And there is no one to contest Sheikh Mujib as the then leader.
– “We fear that if we accept any number less than three million killed, our sacrifice and war will become less.”
If one traces the history of this announcement, it’s noted that the number gained currency after Sheikh Mujib said so in January 1972. How did he come to this number is not known but no survey was done before and in January 1972, so this figure was impossible to assert. However, it became a number used to measure the enormity of our pain and an iconic number that can’t be contested.
While working in the Dolipatra of 1971 project, we tried to locate reliability of any such information and found nothing as record. We tried to get hold of the reported survey conducted by the police but we were denied access. Privately, and I say this with full responsibility, we were told the survey numbers varied too much from the popular three million and President Zia had forbidden the access for political reasons. Of course nobody knows the quality of this survey. The main point is that numbers have served as a replacement for reality. Why do we need to kill three million to feel we deserve independence or know that we suffered enough at Pakistani hands?
In the process, we denied recognition to those who suffered and died in 1971 no matter how many were they.
– “Unless we say that 300,000 women were raped, our sufferings will appear less significant.”
No way could this be factual or even an assumption since rape information is never shared and never was searched for. The only people who might have some idea are those who worked with rape victims in 1972 and even they, including Dr. Davis who is the most reliable of them all as one with direct personal experience of dealing with rape victims doesn’t mention a number (See bdnews24.com, Op-ed, December 16). Unless there is a formula for figuring this number out from existing cases, we have to live with the fact that many were raped but we shall never know exactly how many. Dr Bina D’ Costa who is a leading authority on the topic has mentioned how difficult it is to contact such victims.
We don’t need to create numbers to amplify our sufferings because there is so much of it. But producing numbers to justify our nationalism project is not an alternative. One rape is one too many.
– “Bengalis were naturally good people and Pakistanis were naturally bad ones.”
Overwhelming percentage of Bangladeshis acted positively with Bengalis because it was their own people. Bangladeshis committed atrocities, some against their own people and certainly in much larger degree against non-Bengalis. Of course Pakistani atrocities were many more as befitting an invading army but Pakistanis didn’t behave the same way with Pakistanis and Biharis in East Pakistan. They are good people to their own people but not to Bengalis who they killed and raped. That is the reality of the ethnic war as we had in 1971. That is true of all ethnic wars.
Pakistanis are different in one sense though. They left their main supporters in East Pakistan, the Biharis to face the violent music of revenge after surrendering and escaped with the help of their main enemy. That is an unusual incident of betrayal and cowardice in the annals of war.
– “A ‘spirit of 1971’ prevailed that year though that is not described. It wasn’t there before and now must be preserved though no one says what that is.”
It was a terrible time of life and suffering was in the extreme. Every research points to increased poverty and uncertainty for everyone. Life in India in the refugee camps were safe but horrendous and dehumanising and in the training camps extremely deprived unless one was part of the relatively privileged political groups.
But nobody knows what the spirit of 1971 is which is vague and undescribed. It seems by this argument that before 1971 we never had any spirit, enthusiasm and social goodness. But evidence says that Bangla society had all the strengths before the war which we imply we only had in 1971. To say otherwise is to parrot the official Pakistani logic of Bangladeshis as cowardly, uncultured morons.
1971 was the year during which we fought to be free but that was hard and difficult war, not a fairytale. We should be proud of what we did, not what we think we did or had happened.
* * *
Our political construction of history has served narrow short-term political objectives. When contests are made intellectually with which we can’t cope with, we seek protection by invoking the ‘spirit of 1971’ like religious practitioners. This attitude may have the concurrence of our political leadership, but political myths serving as historical content has not served anyone. Just look at Pakistan as an example.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.