On this website, a few days ago, Syed Badrul Ahsan roundly criticised my op-ed published in the New York Times where I had argued that proposed legislation criminalising people who ‘distort the history of the 1971 war’ was so broadly drafted that it would significantly hinder free speech and stifle legitimate historical research.
‘We will not accept any questioning of the facts related to the War of Liberation,’ Badrul stated in his article where he went onto refer to his ‘absolute unwillingness to allow our history to be questioned.’ He concluded by saying that ‘The Liberation War Denial Crimes Act ought to have been in place a very long time ago.’
In seeking to substantiate his conclusions, Badrul however makes a number of factual inaccuracies, as well as misrepresenting arguments of those like me who are critical of the introduction of the Act.
His first inaccuracy – which also happens to be defamatory – is his attempt to compare me to David Irving.
Badrul states that Irving’s ‘questioning the figures for the holocaust’ – something for which he claims Irving was imprisoned for in Austria – is similar to my ‘rais[ing] issues around the figures of the genocide in Bangladesh.’
It is not correct, however, that Irving was imprisoned for ‘questioning the figures for the holocaust’.
He was punished for denying the use of gas chambers in concentration camps, (a ‘fairy tale’, Irving said’) and also for his claims that Adolf Hitler had helped Europe’s Jews and that the Holocaust was a “myth”.
This would be like Irving saying about Bangladesh’s 1971 war of Independence that during the war ‘no Bengalis collaborated with the Pakistan military’, that ‘Lieutenant General Niazi had protected the Hindu community from any risk of being killed’ and that ‘no civilians were killed during the 9 month war’.
These would be, if stated by anyone, entirely bogus and false statements which would clearly fall into the category of genocide denial.
But I have never written anything at all similar about the 1971 war.
Lets just look at the New York Times piece. ‘Depending on the source, some 300,000 to three million people were killed, and millions were displaced’ during the war, the article states. It then goes on: “There is no question that there were many atrocities, including rape, deportation and massacres of civilians, carried out by the Pakistani Army, aided at times by pro-Pakistani militias. Some of these included members of the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that remains a powerful force in Bangladesh today. There is an academic consensus that this campaign of violence, particularly against the Hindu population, was a genocide.”
And this paragraph – which one should note states categorically that the killings amounted to genocide – is reflected in all my writings about the 1971 war
Badrul should acknowledge that there could not be a bigger difference between what David Irving has written about the holocaust and what I have written about the 1971 war.
Secondly, Badrul is wrong to suggest that holocaust denial laws ‘have never been an impediment to freedom of speech.’
In fact, they are hotly contested in Europe and criticized both by historians, and freedom of speech advocates.
But, more significantly, Badrul’s is widely of the mark in his attempt to justify the new proposed Bangladesh law by pointing to the ‘holocaust denial laws’.
The Bangladesh law is titled ‘Bangladesh Liberation War (Denial, Distortion, Opposition) Crime Law’ and its offences are far wider than just criminalizing people who deny the Pakistan army atrocities of the 1971 war or who voice support for the crimes that took place (which would put them on a par with the European laws.)
Instead, the proposed legislation allows for the prosecution of anybody who ‘denies …any events for the preparation of the liberation war’ between 14 August 1947 to 16 December 1971, anyone who ‘misrepresents’ any government publication on the history of the war, or any person who represents the liberation war history ‘inaccurately or with half truth’.
These offences – which would seem to allow for the prosecution of any person who disagrees with any aspect of the ‘government-at-the-time’s’ official version of the 1971 war and the preparatory events towards it – are far wider than any offences contained in the European holocaust denial laws.
Badrul is also wrong to suggest that the holocaust denial laws put the ‘Holocaust beyond debate’. Everything about it, apart from the fact that it happened, is contested and researched.
There continues to be much new history written about the holocaust. As mentioned in a recent New York Times review of a book on the holocaust, ‘More than 70 years after the Holocaust, there is no sign of research on it abating. Instead, over the past few decades, historians have been extending their inquiries … So voluminous is this scholarly outpouring that few are able to keep up with it.’ And the research is about every element of the holocaust.
Much of the rest of Badrul’s article concerns his claim that there is an attempt to in Bangladesh to shape a ‘new narrative’ on the 1971 war.
Perhaps there are people seeking to do that, but journalists and researchers like myself are certainly not part of any such initiative. All that we are interested in doing is being able to articulate a more nuanced view of the 1971 war – and indeed of current political life in Bangladesh – which does not simply ignore research just because it happens to be inconvenient for one reason or the other. As the Guardian newspaper aptly put it: “Mature countries should be ready to interrogate their own history, and accept there are diverse interpretations of how they came to be.”
It is a terrible shame that Syed Badrul Ahsan seems to be set very much against that.