on 18 June 1971, the Sunday Times published a long piece of reportage

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.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a bdnews24.com columnist.

13 Responses to “Sophistry must not undermine our history”

  1. Fazlul Bari

    I respect Mr. Syed Badrul Ahsan for his clear thought and writings. I can say I am a fan of him. But this article he has written is definitely disappointing.

    Denying Liberation War is one thing, but number of people died or killed in the war of liberation is another. If anyone deny liberation war must be punished. But questioning about the number of death in liberation war is intellectual right. No one should be punished for that. By enacting a law would not settle the number, if not fully ascertain from the recorded proof of number.

    Mr. Ahsan, as I remember, has written about its erroneous nature and quoted Mr. Sirajul Islam, a closed friend of Bangabandhu, who informed to our great leader at the London Hotel that he had read on the ‘Pravda’ that there were 3 lac people killed in the war. But our leader, out of emotional outburst, said 3 million. That is what I read in the article of Mr. Ahsan. Now with disappointment he is supporting wrong number of death. I hope no one will be punished for raising questions about the validity of number of people killed, number of Mukhti fought the war and number of women were violated and raped by the Pakistani Army and its collaborators. We must do scholarly studies and find out the real truth about those numbers which will set us all free of speculations and controversies.

  2. gmbadal

    Truth is bitter which do not let us confess the reality. If Pakiatan had not
    come into exixtence one would not have dreamt Bangladesh. For the struggle of
    Pakistan it were Biharis who had firstly shed their blood in Patna which took
    new turn amongst Muslims for partition. However, when E. Pakistan came into
    being Biharis again had to bear the brunt of widespred riots in India which
    compelled to migrate to East Pakistan. East Pakistan was an eye for India
    of India from the first day of its existence and continued to harm it. It was
    also a tragedy that again killing of Biharis along with their women and
    children had taken start much ahead of 25th March, 71. This left no way but
    to take help from Pak. army to escape complete annihilation. After fall of
    Dhaka even if an agreement had reached between Niazi and Arora for the
    security of life and property but at the hand of Mukti Bahini and Awami
    League again jenocide of Biharis took place all over Bangladesh for much
    span of time as Indian army were not fully capable to control the situation.
    A merciless can overlook such human tragedy. In sight of such facts one
    should not object for number of killing upto 3 million he must requests
    saners to assess that in this three million what figures of Biharis is
    likely to be included.

  3. Anwar A. Khan

    I have been a subscriber of International New York Times (INYT) for long. I wrote and sent several write-ups based on the truths only on our glorious Liberation War of 1971, the grave misdeeds committed by the Pakistan military junta, Jamaat-e-Islami war criminals and the grave crimes perpetrated by the Biharis to our people to INYT. But to no heed by them as yet despite a long time has passed away by this time. White-skinned mischievous guy David Bergman wrote something like a toilet paper and INYT didn’t spend a single moment to publish his gibberish. I read it and immediately sent it to the toilet pan.

    These Biharis have been living in different parts of Bangladesh for long but they have no allegiance to the country, Bangladesh, its constitution, its national flag….They have not recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent country as yet. They rather still consider it as Pakistan. Look at their audacities? But they want to live with us and have been living with us for about half a century after 1971.

    I have no animosity toward the Bihari children who were born after 1971 ( I know at least 2 young Bihari boys named Nizam and swapan from a close proximity and I affectionate them; I try to help them) but they must recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state, honour its constitution, its national flag…Those who are shedding tears for them, I ask them to let them ask a beg for pardon to us for the brutal crimes committed by their dreaded people to us in the past, to recognize Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent country, honour its constitution, its national flag…

    I can cite a concrete example here : Suddenly, I had the chance of meeting Pakistani Major General Fazal Muqueem Khan in London sometime in 1980. In the middle of our conversation, I requested him to take the Biharis back to Pakistan as they clearly opted for Pakistan. But he instantly responded : “Look, these are treacherous people. They betrayed with you. They would also betray with us. We hate these treacherous people.” When I insisted to accept my demand, his response was more abrasive; he said : “Well, we may take them but they will eat our wastes; clean our toilets; and sleep in our toilets.”


  4. Khalid

    It doesn’t matter whether it is 300,000 or 3,000,000. It was genocide, as simple of that. The figure doesn’t include innocent non-Bengalis who became victim of this political and ethnic conflict.
    Pakistan Army could have arrested all the politicians for their six-point programme. Instead they started an orgy of killing, raping, burning with the vicious intent of forcing the Bengalis to submit to the West. Pakistan died midnight 25th March, 1971. I am a witness. Many members of my immediate family and friends were killed on the spot or taken by the Army and never returned. How many died in the battlefield is immaterial. Please, have some respect for those who died and stop this number game.

  5. Khandker H Ahmed

    In short, my view is we cannot accept any subjective or rhetoric figure (number) as the part of our history although there is always some rhetoric in politics. If the figure is debated, there is still room for fixation. If everybody agrees (i.e. no dispute), it could be part of history unchallenged. Thank you.

  6. Muhammed Walid

    Absolutely a well-analysed article.The ministry should focus on these.

  7. Javed Helali

    Mr. Ahsan usually writes well. But in this article, he is off the mark.

    History is hardly ever uncontested.There is always a victor’s version and the “other” version is more often than not, suppressed.

    He seems to be unhappy about the mention of Bihari killings. Is it not a fact they were killed in large numbers in Khulna, Chittagong and northern districts BEFORE the Pakistani army atrocities began?

    Perhaps, one of the reasons of active Bihari support to the marauding Paki army was to seek protection from from the mobs? And when the country got liberated, they were butchered again all over the country ( one example Kader Siddiqui, Ramna park, Halishahr, Chittagong etc). I must say, however, that the numbers of Biharis killed, raped, burned was nothing in comparison to the barbarities of the Pakistan army.
    At the same time there were Bihari policemen in Rajarbagh who lost their lives fighting against the Pakis. Also, there were many civilians who joined and or helped the liberation forces all throughout the war at the risk of their own lives..
    Bangladesh did not become independent just because of the Pk army action. Simmering discontent over policies and injustices meted out to us since 1947 by the Pakistanis had a major role.
    This was taken advantage of by our neighbor, India to the fullest extent.( Remember SANGBAD PORIKRAMA from All India Radio Calcutta , ably rendered by Deb Dulal Bondhopadhya, after 20 minutes of sublime Tagore songs every Friday from 10pm). I along with all my friends in SM Hall, DU, listened to it regularly and fervently.
    Mr. Ahsan, let us try to portray the true history. Biases are likely to remain. But at least let us try.

  8. M. Emad

    A timely article by Mr. Syed Badrul Ahsan. Today (07 April 2016) Pakistani newspaper ‘DAWN’ published a long editorial denouncing ‘Bangladesh Liberation War Denial Crimes Act ‘ which will ‘hinder free speech and stifle legitimate historical research’.

    Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government (1971-1977) and later the Pakistan Army try their best to confuse everything of Bangladesh Liberation struggle history and Bangladesh achievements. Loser Pakistan Army wants to turn Bangladesh victory into a defeat. They invested a lot in it. Bhutto even send Pakistani top leftist intellectuals/ poets/ artist all over the world to lecture on ‘Indian conspiracy – propaganda about genocide and refugee’ to cover-up Pakistan Army genocide. Bangladesh Jamaati daily ‘Sangram’, Jamaati (book) publishing houses etc are part of this Pakistani efforts.

    Many suspect that 16 December 2014 Peshawar Army Public School massacre plan (141 students – mostly sons of low ranks killed by terrorists) was known beforehand to Pakistani intelligence. But the Army let it happen to diffuse and distract the ‘painful’ 16 December ‘Dacca fall’ memory.

    Defeated Pakistan Army after losing war now wants to win a propaganda battle!

  9. Sam

    People like David Bergman with egalitarian values will continue to feel superior to others only if people of sovereign Bangladesh continue to endorse those people with having superior qualities. The word ‘elitist’ should be totally wiped out from Bangladeshi psyche. What is Bergman’s problem? Why is he still at it with the numbers of martyrs of the ’71 War of Liberation? What’s it to him anyway? He is an Englishman who is married to a half Bengali. One would think that after the court had warned him not to mess with the numbers, he would stop with the questions. Has he forgotten how it feels to stand all day? Is he itching for another court case? I know that as a writer/blogger one can choose to write about anything but the number issue makes the Bengalis very emotional. The state has decided on one particular number and after that there should be no contention. The NY Times may choose to publish his articles without any bias but Bergmen saw first hand what can happen if he rattles with a sensitive subject. Did Bergman think he will have a sympathetic audience out West? Why he chose NY Times is beyond me. One would think he would let it rest. But I suppose one cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

  10. Dr. Jiben Roy

    — অতীত ইতিহাসের চাইতে আমি ভবিষ্যত ভালোর স্বপ্ন দেখতে পছন্দ করি — টমাস জেফারসন

     ড. জীবেন রায়

    বাংলাদেশের ষোল কোটি মানুষ, আপনারা সবাই ভবিষ্যত ভালোর জন্য স্বপ্ন দেখুন; দূর অতীত নিয়ে কাঁদা ছোঁড়াছূঁড়ি বন্ধ করুন। অতীত থেকে শিক্ষা নিয়ে, শুধু ভবিষ্যত নিজেকে গড়া তথা দেশ গড়ার স্বপ্ন দেখুন এবং সে লক্ষ্যে কাজ করুন। কেননা শুধু স্বপ্ন দেখলেই চলবে না। বঙ্গবন্ধু স্বপ্ন দেখেছিলেন বাংলাদেশ নামক দেশটির এবং কাজ করেই সেই স্বপ্ন স্বার্থক করেছেন। আমৃত্যু কাজ করে গেছেন। আর তাই আমরা স্বাধীন, মাথা উঁচু করে কথা বলতে পারছি।
    গবেষনা করা ভালো। গবেষনার মাধ্যমেই একটা জাতি বা দেশের উন্নয়ন ঘটে। কিন্তু গবেষনা করতে গিয়ে চক্রান্ত বা ষড়যন্ত্র করা শ্রেয় নয়।
    গত পরশু আমার পরিচিত একজন প্রিষ্ট নিউ ইয়র্ক টাইমসে প্রতিষ্টিত জার্নালিষ্ট ডেভিড বার্গম্যানের বাংলাদেশের জেনোসাইড নিয়ে লেখাটার কথা জানালেন। ক্লাসের ফাঁকে তাৎক্ষনিক পড়ে নিলাম। টাইটেলটা দেখুন কতটা চক্রান্তমূলকঃ ‘ The Politics of Bangladesh’s Genocide Debate’. ৪৬ বৎসর পর একাত্তরের জেনোসাইড নিয়ে বিতর্ক কেন হবে? লেখাটা একাডেমিক নয়, এককথায় ষড়যন্ত্রমূলক।
    ৫ই এপ্রিলের নিউইয়র্ক টাইমসের লেখাটা পড়ার পর আমার লিখতে ইচ্ছে হচ্ছিল। কিন্তু ৬ই এপ্রিল সৈয়দ বদরুল আহসানের একটি লেখা, ‘Sophistry must not undermine our history’ প্রকাশিত হয়েছে বিডি নিউজে। হলোকষ্টের সময়কার জার্নালিষ্ট, ডেভিড আইর্বিং থেকে ডেভিড বার্গম্যান এবং হামিদ মীর, সবই আছে লেখাটাতে। দারুন একটা ভালো কনষ্ট্রাকটিভ লেখা পড়লাম। ধন্যবাদ সৈয়দ বদরুল আহসান। আমরাতো একাত্তরে এন্তনি মাসকারেনকে দেখেছি। তাঁর জেনোসাইড নিয়ে লেখা পড়েছি। আমাদের ডেভিড বার্গম্যানদের প্রয়োজন নেই। আমাদেরতো আছেই সৈয়দ বদরুল আহসান।
    ইতিহাস বলে দিচ্ছে চক্রান্ত করা ফলাফল কখনো মঙ্গল বয়ে আনতে পারে না। যে কেও আজ দৃঢ়তার সাথে বলতে পারে, পেট্রোল বোমার চক্রান্ত করে নিরীহ মানুষের মৃত্যু আর কখনো হবে না বাংলাদেশে। এবং একদিন আসবে নিরীহ ব্লগারদেরকেও জীবন দিতে হবে না। সুশাসনে সবাই একাট্টা হউন। তাহলেই দেশ ও দশের মঙ্গল।
    ইসলামের জন্মভূমি সৌদি আরবে ক্রাইমের শাস্তি হিসেবে প্রকাশ্যে মুন্ডুপাত করা হয়। তারপরও ওখানে প্রতিনিয়ত ক্রাইম হচ্ছে। প্রায় দু’বছরের বেশী সুসভ্যতার লক্ষ্যে যে দেশটি নির্ন্তর কাজ করে যাচ্ছে, সেই যুক্তরাষ্ট্রেও ক্রাইমের ক্ষেত্রে শীর্ষে আছে। বাংলাদেশেও কোনো কোনো ক্ষেত্রে একটা ক্রাইমের জন্য এক ডজনের ফাঁসির আদেশ হয়। তারপরও ক্রাইম হচ্ছে এবং হবেও। তবে রাষ্ট্রীয় ধর্ম, ইসলাম সত্ত্বেও বাংলাদেশ তুলনামূলক অনেক ভালো অবস্থানে আছে। সেই ভালোকে উত্তম অবস্থানে নিয়ে যেতে হবে, যেমনটি আছে সুখী দেশ, ডেনমার্ক, ফিনল্যান্ড, নরওয়ে। নিচের দৃষ্টান্তটি অনুসরন করুনঃ
    সম্প্রতি বিশ্বের সবচাইতে ধনী ব্যাক্তি – বিল গেইটস এবং ওয়ারেন বাফেট এর ডাকে সাড়া দিয়ে বিশ্বের কয়েক ডজন ধনী ব্যক্তিগণ যুক্তরাষ্ট্রে মিলিত হয়েছিলেন জনকল্যানের জন্য তহবিল গঠন করার জন্য। এইসব মানুষরা নমস্য। এরাই সারা বিশ্বকে সুখ দিচ্ছে, স্বস্থি দিচ্ছে, মৃত্যু পথযাত্রীদের মুখে হাসি ফুটিয়ে দিচ্ছে। পানামা পেপার দিয়ে মানুষের জন্য ভালো করা সম্ভব নয়।
    – আমেরিকান প্রবাসী অধ্যাপক

  11. Sukhamaya Bain

    I agree with Sayed Badrul Ahsan, the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act ought to have been in place a very long time ago. However, asking questions about the casualty figure is not the same as denying the liberation war; and it should not be a crime.

    The Pakistani military and their Bihari and Bangalee collaborators committed genocide in Bangladesh in 1971, irrespective of how enormous the casualty figure was; and it was enormous, no question about that. However, to be an honest and responsible nation, Bangladesh had to try to find out the real figure, as opposed to just sticking to what was initially proclaimed with no survey.

    More importantly, uttering a big figure for the victims without being serious about defeating the thoughts that went into committing the crimes is not honorable; and it is not surprising that the world does not care about the genocide in Bangladesh. The Pakistani and pro-Pakistani brutes committed their crimes to protect and promote their Muslim nationhood. Is Bangladesh serious even now to promote itself from a Muslim nation to a humane nation? The latest news from Bangladesh is that another humanist has been murdered in Dhaka by suspected protectors of Islam, who continue to operate in the country with impunity.

  12. m zaman

    I have read David Bergman’s piece in Yesterdays New York Times. Here is an excerpt:

    “Where does the truth about the numbers lie? The three million figure was popularized by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League in 1971, the country’s first president and the father of the current prime minister. Mujib, as he is popularly known, is a revered figure, particularly within the Awami League. But his biographer, Sayyid A. Karim, who was also Sheikh Rahman’s first foreign secretary, viewed the number as “a gross exaggeration.”

    In his book “Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy,” Mr. Karim reported that the prime minister’s office told him the figure was taken from Pravda, the Soviet newspaper. According to the American writer Lawrence Lifschultz, a survey by the Mujib government that was projecting a death toll of 250,000 was “abruptly shut down.”

    A 1976 study in the journal Population Studies estimated that the number of deaths caused by the war was about 500,000, many as a result of disease and malnutrition. A 2008 article in The British Medical Journal concluded that the number of violent deaths during the war was about 269,000 (allowing a possible range of 125,000 to 505,000).

    “Many Bangladeshis sincerely believe in the three million figure, which symbolizes the huge sacrifices of the war. M. A. Hasan, convener of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, said, “The figure of liberation war martyrs is one such issue which no one should question.”

    Mr. Bergman came with hard facts 🙂

    Sophistry is YOURS 🙁

    • mithun ahmedd

      By sophistry, you cannot change facts .
      Mr Zaman is right that Bergman has provided hard facts. Mr. Ahsan has provided little facts–indeed, a lot of froths–which cannot substitute for facts.

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