Feature Img
A poster of the film 'Meherjaan'
A poster of the film 'Meherjaan'

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.

Afsan Chowdhuryis a bdnews24.com columnist.

23 Responses to “Meherjaan controversy: It’s not about the film, but about us and our history”

  1. jump program

    Nice. i believe this one is a great movie. A story of a woman, her country’s history and culture. Keep me posted about this.

  2. quadir


    Awami League treats Bangladesh as if it were their family property. The truth is that the modern Bangladeshi state is a racist, hypocritical and non-pluralist state, and it labels anyone that does not subscribe to its specific ideology of a “traitor”. The real traitors are the ones sitting in the Shangshad Bhaban, their actions and “inactions” in the fields of governance, education and economy cause sufferings to millions of Bangladeshis every single day.

    I just want to end by saying that Bangladeshis seriously need to indulge in some serious soul searching. My generation has become obsessed with western and Indian culture, and Awami League ideology is treated with more seriousness and importance than even probably our religion, Islam.

  3. dilip de

    THANK YOU SIR, but I find it difficult to accept many of your views. We’ll have to have a clear concept– is our freedom struggle- a myth? A rhetoric? or reality in its truest possible sense. Considering your article, I wonder when will we have to hear and learn that there was not even a Liberation War. New inventions about our history should not pollute our history.

  4. Shaon

    Great article! A Bengali version should also be published. It’s time the history of the Liberation War was liberated!

  5. Mukit

    I agree with your conclusion that years of political motives working behind the history of our state-pride, “Muktijuddho”, has eventually made things more vague and vulnerable to exploitation.

    However, I do disagree on some points, especially your opinion on the numbers.

    For example, on the number of rape victims, my feeling is that you are considering things too superficially. Of course, no one can ever get the “exact” number, but that’s not applicable regarding this specific case only. Any number regarding any war cannot be obtained “exactly”, and that’s why we call it “to estimate”, not “to count”. We don’t have to bother about the “exact” number, we need an overall idea.

    Don’t you think an overall idea of the number is obtainable? Let me present you some numerical estimation.

    In general, there were two types of rapes:
    1) Type1: Captivated type, where Paki Army segregated young women in towns/villages and took them to barracks for long-term torture.

    2) Type2: Run-and-hit type, where the Paki Army attacked villages/towns, targeted young women and raped them on the spot.

    We will try to estimate number of victims for each type.

    At first, we will try to estimate what the number of pregnant victims are in each of these two grops.
    Susan Brownmiller mentions in her book that the number of women who found themselves pregnant was approximated as 25000. Some of them gave birth to child, while most of them preferred abortion in govt-run centers.

    Here, we should not forget that apart from these 25000 officially-counted impregnated women, there were two other types of women who might find themselves pregnants.
    a) The untracable ones, those who committed suicide beforehand, were killed by their men beforehand, aborted themselves without going to centers, migrated to other cities so that no one knows what happened to them and so on.
    b) The well-off class victims, those who preferred Calcutta/Private doctors for abortion so that the so-called society doesn’t get aware of what happened to them.

    Taking the social aspects during 1971 in Bangladesh into account, we can assume that the number belonging to a) and b) wouldl surely be comaprable to the officially estimated number 25000. Let’s be fair, let it be around 15000~25000.

    So we can say that the total of raped women who got pregnant in 1971 was around 40~50 thousands.

    Now, let’s guess what could be the share of this 40~50 thousand between the two types of rape victims (Type1 and Type2) mentioned previously.

    The daily Mirror reported retrieval of around 4000 women from Pakistani barracks (found in Dr D’Costa’s article on Dec 15 in bdnew24, as paper clip). Let’s assume that the number of retrieved is roughly 5000.

    These women were tortured for months, thus almost all of them would have become pregnant. So, we can say that, 5000 out of the estimated 40~50 thousand impregnated women belonged to Type 1 victim group. The remaining 35~45 thousand would belong to type2.

    There were many in the torture cells who are supposed to die because of severe torture, horror, malnutrition and diseases. Also, many were killed systematically to make the remaining people horrified and thus obidient to the torturer’s needs. We assume the number of killed type1 victims is also around 5000.

    So the total number of type1 victims can be estimated as 10 thousand.

    We estimated that 35~45 thousand impregnated women belonged to this type.
    Now, on any given day, the probability of a run-and-hit rape victim to become pregnant should be around 1/6 to 1/7, i.e., 15%. Thus, we can say that 15% of the total run-and-hit victim can be summed up to 35~45 thousands, which takes us to the conclusion that the total of run-and-hit rape victims in 1971 numbered between (35000*100/15=)2.33 lakhs to (45000*100/15=) 3 lakhs!

    Summing up the two types, we get the number as 2.433 lakhs ~ 3.1 laksh!!!


    I know I have overlooked many other factors which may eventually horrify us more.

    Sir, Don’t you think a little brainstorming can easily give us at least an overview of the number? (not the “exact” one I agree, though I don’t get any point why we should bother about the “exact” number)

    I don’t see any point to think that the number of 1971 rape victims can be less than the moderately uttered 2 lakhs.

    Thank you.

  6. riaz

    We have waited long enough so that we can start looking at our history from an objective point of view. This piece provides us with a good starting point as regards the issue. I hope the message reaches a wider readership.

  7. A K Shamsuddin

    Politicians create history and the historians write it. The problem starts when the politicians try to re-write or rather doctor history to fit their need.

    I have not watched the movie “Meherjaan”, so I don’t want to comment on it. But what worries me most at the moment is that: the movie has been removed from sceerning, after it got censor board certificate. The writer of this article could have shed some light on this ambivalency.

  8. Mahin

    This article has a ‘deceiving title’.
    What some people did with Meherjaan was rubbish.
    They could have talked about how the director failed to establish the characters, or how the movie itself lacks good cinematography. rather some of them made a big fuss about something that no one can dictate– the story…who would love whom or why a certain person would behave in a certain way. The outrage with this silly movie proves that fundamentalists — be it religious or cultural — have the same belief: to create impediment in the progress of a nation or any of its aspects!

  9. Ron

    Very nicely chalked, thank you very much Afsan Chowdhury!

    It is because we kept the history controversial, to serve our own interests, & tried to change it to our ways (including Skiekh Mujibor Rahman, when he wanted to be the declarer of the liberation war in 1972 & tried to establish that he sent it out first).

    This has led to all these confusions.

  10. Mahmudur Rahman

    Great article, and I wholeheartedly agree with your viewpoint. Unfortunately, our pseudo “intellectuals” (most of whom had fled to to India during the war) will call you a rajakar.

  11. Shahed

    Thank you for articulating these facts. Much needed discourse.

    I have one request to the author. Please write what do you think about the way our current judicial leadership, specifically the esteemed Chief Justice Honorable Mr Khairul Haque, have weighed in to reshape the history of 71 and post 71 years.

  12. Abid Bahar

    Instead of calling the film “Meherjaan controversy”, we should call it Meherjaan reality. After all this is only a film (fiction)and it is about love (in love everything is possible including highly unlikely things)whereas in Bangladesh what a miracle,absurd things are happening in the politics of hatred!

  13. Marghoob

    Thank you for a very candid article. First of all, when 93,000 pakistani soldiers (except the ones killed in war) were stationed in Bangladesh, an affair can always happen. Regardless of how much inhumanly acts a human being (like Pakis in 1971) can commit, still they had human blood at least flowing inside. People should look at the storyline rather than relating it immediately to history. Undoubtedly Sheikh Mujib is our leader of independence, it does not matter who announced it. Political leaders make a big deal of it.
    I guess it is time, history was written authentically once and for all. We should think of 2031, not 2011, we should think how and what we are leaving for our children and grandchildren to learn.

  14. Prithvi

    And exactly how is all this germane to Ms. Rubaiyat’s claim that Meherjaan takes an alternate look at history when in reality, her movie is nothing but an outlandish love affair between a Paki soldier and a Bengali woman? People who have seen the movie have commented that muktijoddhas were depicted in the movie as a lackadaisical lot who were more interested in romance than the war. The movie gives an overall impression that the Pakis were timid compared to the muktijoddhas.

    Meherjaan has been accused of twisting the facts and thus, afflicting the sentiment of the people. If there is anything to discuss on this point, it should be *how* Meherjaan twisted the facts, *not* how we are “confused” with who gave declaration of liberation war or exactly how many women were raped.

    • Naima

      Ms Rubaiyat provided a DIFFERENT view to what it COULD have been like. I don’t pretend to know what Bangladeshis went through during the war, I’ve just stepped into my 20s. But here’s the thing, in times of uncertainty and fear, why wouldn’t we reach out for love, comfort, security? Rubaiyat has only pointed out one, atypical view which MAY have happened during the war. EVERYONE didn’t go ahead and fight the war, I’m guessing they had other priorities.

      And as far as I’ve read (I haven’t watched the movie), I believe the “matobbor” of the village did not seem as interested in the war… he has a responsibility to protect the people of his village, it seems rational to me to not want to get deeply involved in such affairs, because I’m sure as much as he loved his country, or BECAUSE he loved his country and its men, he felt the right action to pursue was not be involved in war affairs.

      Meherjaan did not TWIST the facts, it’s simply a person’s PERCEPTION on how things may have transcended in a certain part of the country.

      I am not, in any way, undermining what our freedom fighters have done for us, the women and children who have had to suffer to bring us to where we are today. I’m saying that there MAY have been a different point of view, and we should let it be heard. We fought to speak in our language, for our freedom of speech… and it’s come to this?

  15. সফিক

    Hear Hear! I have spent my adult life watching the bizarre scene that the more stridently vocal about an emotional view of history, ethnicity and culture an ‘intellectual’ is, the more celebrated he is as enlightened, progressive, rational etc. I have always felt that I am a citizen of a nation belonging to a ‘little league’ where adult, mature conversation is unheard off.

    But thank god at last a conversation has begun. May be an imperfect vessel like ‘Meherjaan’ will be the catalyst that will at last break down the mind-numbing provincialism of our intellectual discourse. God works in strange ways! Citizens of Bangladesh! adulthood and modernity awaits you!

  16. rajib

    Whats your point, sir?
    If you have not seen the movie why use it in your title? You are supporting the movie and speaking as if you are neutral just discussing another issue.

    Attempt to work on history of 1971 is most welcome, but building a story like Meherjan is stupid.

  17. MBI Munshi

    While I agree with the general tenor of the argument presented by Mr. Afsan Chowdhury I think there are several errors in the logic and analysis he has adopted. History is never merely about facts but also includes in large part the interpretation of those facts. The manner of interpretation can change history qualitatively. If we, for example, accept that 3 million were not killed in 1971 but only 30000 then that changes our history qualitatively. The figure of 30000 would suggest that the Pakistan Army were not as brutal as one might have thought and that amongst those 30000 there may be many who were killed not only by Razakars or Al-Badr or Al-Shams but also by the Mukti Bahini and Mujib Bahini who carried out revenge and retributive killings on a large scale. Such notions clearly change the historical perspective of 1971 qualitatively. It is this factor which causes most fear in those who want to impose a single unchanging 1971 historical narrative. If we start questioning the basic assumptions of 1971 then anything about the war can be doubted and new interpretations will then become permitted. The grip that a few people hold over our history will be then loosened and their power reduced.

    The film Meherjaan is a prime example of this but in a slightly different context – not of history but of art. If we can accept that a Bangladeshi woman can fall in love with a Pakistani soldier amidst the war of 1971 then our basic assumptions about the war is directly challenged. Knowing human nature there is nothing which suggests that this could not have happened as love knows no boundaries. Frankly Meherjaan has little to say about the war since it is a work of fiction but its story line and its subsequent banning says a lot about us and also about those in power and that the latter intends to keep the entire country historically, intellectually and imaginatively retarded.

  18. hasina

    Congratulations to you on yet another great insightful article. I wish only that the general mass could read what you have written and appreciate it for what it’s worth. It is the nature of the Bangladeshi people that if you are not with me you are against me. There is no logic as to one can agree to disagree.

    Great job!

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