The close links between history and memory have been written about at length, but in the context of Southasia the line between the two is blurred to the point of near non-existence. For a region where the two oldest countries only just passed their 60th birthday, the people’s memories of the past, and the ‘truth’ about what really happened, are inextricably linked. Researchers attempting to write about Partition, the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots of Delhi and elsewhere often run into similar obstacles: there are so many who lived through these experiences still alive today that their emotion-laden memories of those dark days tend to overshadow efforts to analyse and objectively re-examine the past.
For Bangladesh, the traumatic memories of 1971 continue to haunt its very sense of identity, similar to how the memories of 1947 continually reflect on the way India and Pakistan deal with each other’s existence. Indeed, there is much that is similar between 1947 and 1971: both involved the dramatic and traumatic dismemberment of nations, followed by a massive migration of people, and violence that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. As with 1971 between Pakistan and Bangladesh, India and Pakistan continue to define much of their national sense of selfhood vis-à-vis one another, with 1947 forming the traumatic backdrop.
While much has been written about the ‘high politics’ of 1947, for a long time there was little printed material about the human cost of the tragedy. On the other hand, there is no dearth of literature about 1971. The bookshelves of the Muktijuddho Jadughor, the Liberation War Museum, in Dhaka, are overflowing with personal accounts of heroism, flight and suffering that took place during that year. But almost all of those who have written about the war were either directly involved in it, witnesses to its events, or have a vested interest in airing their opinion after the fact. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this wealth of information ends up dramatically complicating the attempt to separate fact from fiction, emotion from reality, and rhetoric from ‘truth’, in the course of any attempt to construct a nuanced account of 1971.
The Muktijuddho Jadughor, which opened in 1996, has embarked on a remarkable oral-history project. Even as hundreds of schoolchildren visit the permanent exhibition in Dhaka, as well as the museum’s constantly travelling mobile exhibit, they are asked when they return home to interview a surviving muktijoddha, someone who fought in the Liberation War of 1971. Day by day, these accounts are being slowly compiled into a fascinating archive, with already some 6000 accounts having been collected from across the country. But while the availability of oral sources is a clear boon for the anthropologist, it can be something of a bane for the historian.
In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, the writing of history can often be a political project, with a choice made between competing narratives jostling for space. In the post-1971 period, there were several attempts made under the Awami League government to document the war. These resulted in an impressive collection of primary documents published by the Ministry of Information, a 16-volume series that includes not only official documents, but also oral histories, FIRs and police reports, as well as a collection of press clippings from around the world.
With the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975 and the coming to power of General Ziaur Rahman, the writing of history in Bangladesh took a decidedly political turn. Since then, each successive government has sought to impose its own stamp on the country’s history. In so doing, every minute detail of the 1971 war has been hotly debated, including who purportedly issued the first cry of independence, the true part played by India, and the highly contentious role of the Razakars, the militia recruited by the Pakistan Army consisting of non-Bengali Muslims and some pro-Pakistani Bengalis. Textbooks prepared under the military regimes and the governments of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) tried to drop all references to India, and refer to Pakistan not by name but as hanadar bahini, the ‘enemy army’. This skewed presentation in the textbooks has led legions of Bangladeshi schoolchildren to believe that the mukti bahini, the Liberation Army, actually fought against India in 1971.
Immediately after 1971 and again in 1996, during times when the Awami League was in power, history textbooks have likewise been focused on presenting a version of history that emphasises the heroic sacrifices of Bengali martyrs and the contributions of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Between 1996 and 2001, Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina (daughter of the assassinated Sheikh Mujib) tried to re-introduce her father to schoolchildren, a move that resulted in a comical tit-for-tat vis-à-vis the BNP over whether Zia or Mujib was the first to declare independence. For the first time, there were also references included in these textbook revisions to the role of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and its supposed link to the Razakars. The Awami League textbooks describe the Pakistan Army as the“aggressor Pakistani invaders” or the “occupation forces”, stressing the terrible toll on Bengali lives with no acknowledgement of the violence inflicted on non-Bengalis. In 2001, when the BNP again came to power, all such revisions were in turn removed.
Similar tinkering with nationalist narratives has gone on in the former West Pakistan, as well. Students in modern-day ‘Pakistani Studies’ classes use textbooks that argue: “Since independence, the leadership of East Pakistan has been in the hands of [separatists who,] in collaboration with Hindu teachers, polluted the political air and spread poisonous propaganda among the young students of East Pakistan.” Bangladesh is subsequently seen as the result of that ‘poisonous propaganda’, in which separatist elements and pro-Hindu teachers are conflated.
As also happens in India, military accounts dominate the Pakistani narrative, such as Lieutenant-General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi’s 1998 work The Betrayal of East Pakistan. Niazi was the army officer who ultimately signed the surrender document that signalled the end of the war, and in his book he places the blame squarely on Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto and the political leaders of Pakistan for ‘betraying’ the army. He reserves particular vitriol for Bhutto, whom he sees as not just responsible for the debacle but also for rigging the subsequent Hamood-ur Rehman Commission in an attempt to gloss over the role of the politicians in the separation of West and East Pakistan.
There are, then, a plethora of oral sources ‘recounting’ the events of 1971, as well as an equal variety of somewhat dubious official sources, and many bookshelves’ worth of memoirs. The combined effect of this flood of information, however, leaves us with more questions than answers. For instance: What happened to those who opposed the Awami League’s agenda? What was the role played by the non-Bengalis, and what of those who ‘collaborated’? Who were they, and what happened to them after 1971? What of the non-Bengalis in Bangladesh, the Biharis, who for the past three and a half decades have been a stateless people (see Himal Oct-Nov 2007, “Bangladeshi at last”)? The exhibits at the Muktijuddho Jadughor, while paying homage to the memory of 1971, also undertake to begin answering some of these questions.
The main displays at the Jadughor are seen by following a yellow line on the floor, which zigzags back and forth through the various exhibits, many of which take as their starting point some of the most well-known events of 1971. On 14 December of that year, for instance, two days before the end of the fighting, the erstwhile East Pakistan was witness to a night of despicable violence, which today is commemorated in Bangladesh as Martyrs’ Day. That night, with defeat imminent, the Pakistan Army massacred almost a thousand engineers, journalists, physicians, lawyers and professors. Their bodies were later found tossed into mass graves. Perhaps the most haunting display at the museum is the memorabilia donated by the families of those killed that night. There is a thumbed-over book of poetry by Yates, donated by the family of a professor of English literature; the blood-spattered t-shirt of four-year-old Rehana, daughter of Mukti Bahini commander Abdus Salam Khan; and clothes, pipes, books and diaries lovingly donated by the families of those who died. Today, these personal possessions are possibly the starkest reminder of the violence that was unleashed on Bangladesh during the ten months between March and December 1971.
As with the lived experiences, however, the exhibits at the Jadughor are far from monolithic in the realities they present. Scattered along the hallways and staircases of the museum, for instance, are a collection of posters exhorting people to support and join the Mukti Bahini – “Era apnaderi santan” say some of them, “They are your sons, too”. These pictures also reveal that, other than those members of the Mukti Bahini who were part of the East Pakistan Rifles or the East Bengal Regiment, the rest of the army was made up of volunteers, peasants, students and workers, and was often a ragtag fighting force. A picture showing the Mukti Bahini taking over enemy positions at Dinajpur in early May 1971 depicts most of the fighters dressed in lungis, holding their rifles aloft and posing, somewhat mockingly, for the cameras. Other photographs meant to depict the heroism of the Mukti Bahini are unintentionally funny, reflecting just how desperately under-armed the fighters really were.
This conflict, between the reality of 1971 and the narratives that have evolved over the past three and a half decades, can be seen in any number of examples. The roles of both the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army during the war of 1971, for instance, remain controversial to this day. For example, many Bangladeshi nationalists argue that the Mukti Bahini fighters were significantly more than a mere source of irritation for the West Pakistani army, and that they had virtually won the war by the time the Indian Army stepped in to clear up the debris. While this notion may be a trifle romantic, it is in stark contrast to the memoirs of various Indian generals, who argue that they used the Mukti Bahini for little more than intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance missions.
Similarly contested is the number of East Pakistani women who were raped during the chaos of 1971. There are no reliable numbers on this, and estimates vary from 3000 to as many as 400,000. While there is no question that rapes did occur on a tragically mass scale, the issue of whether there was a systematic policy of rape is much harder to uncover. Many of the first-person narratives about 1971 – including Nilima Ibrahim’s haunting Ami Birangona Bolchhi (I Am a Heroine Speaking) – contain accounts of rape. At the same time, however, there exists a veil of silence over the fate of individual women; other than a few films, a PhD thesis or two, and the occasional newspaper article, this issue remains a notoriously sensitive one. Bangladesh’s initial state policy was similarly confused. The new Bangladeshi state tried to incorporate these women into national life by calling them birangonas, or heroines, but simultaneously refused to grant citizenship to the children born of rape.
The exhibit at the Jadughor on sexual violence is particularly noticeable because it is in English. While most of the exhibits have Bangla commentary with English translations, there is no Bangla translation beneath the wrenching photograph of a woman covering her face. The use of this picture has suggested to some that that those who were raped were covered in shame, and could not lift their head to face the country. But while this may seem problematic, the plaque beneath the photo contains a sensitive summary of the issue at stake:
Part of the reason interested quarters today are able to question the existence of war crimes against women is that there have been no histories written of this episode of the war, there are no testimonial, or interviews. For the most part, this issue has been brushed aside, since it requires us to look within ourselves, at the strictures and structures of our own society as well as to condemn the brutality of the other. Clearly the ambiguous figure of the birangona (the shamed one) cannot be easily contained within a generalised glorious narrative of the nation.
This paragraph adequately captures the dilemma that lies at the core of the portrayal of raped womein Bangladesh: on the one hand they are nationalist symbols, while on the other the country remains unsure of how to deal with them. At the same time, the lack of Bangla discourse in this particular instance is disconcerting, inevitably doing more to confuse the discourse than to clarify it.
A third area of controversy that the Muktijuddho Jadughor alludes to is the presence of ‘collaborators’ among the Bengali Muslim population of Bangladesh in 1971. An exhibit titled “Forces Opposing Bangladesh Independence” discusses three primary groups in this regard. The first two are the Pakistani armed forces and the “Civilian Administration in Occupied Bangladesh”. The third, however, is referred to as the “Local Collaborators”, said to include the “Peace Committees, Al-Badr and Al-Shams”. To counter the increasing guerrilla activity in the late summer of 1971, a decision was taken by the Pakistan Army to create a series of paramilitary forces. The Razakars was set up in an effort to concentrate support among the religious youth, and was split into two wings. Al-Badr was recruited from the madrassas, and its fighters were used for raids. Al-Shams, on the other hand, had much more lax recruitment policies, and was used exclusively for protecting bridges in and around urban neighbourhoods.
The Jadughor exhibit alleges that there were 50,000 such ‘collaborators’. It includes the identity card of one such individual, one Hossain Ahamed, a member of the Muslim League and of the Dacca City Razakar Organisation. There is also a letter to the secretary of the Thana Peace Committee written on 7 June 1971 by a certain M Joynal Abedin, stating that he had been forced to flee his house, as the Mukti Bahini had “attempted to arrest and kill” him. Abedin also noted that he was a “supporter of the Muslim League and worked in favour of the same during the last general election” – before asking whether he could move into a house, the particulars of which he listed as follows:
Owner: Kumar Dhirendranath Chakrabarty, s/o late Monorajan Chakrabarty (Manik babu), Village Ulipur (Jotder Para), one south facing tin shed, measuring 20* 10 1/2 and two bamboo houses.
What is intriguing about this information is the level of detail provided. The use of nicknames suggests a particular level of familiarity. It is certainly possible that Abedin knew Chakrabarty, whose name suggests that he was Hindu, and whose abandoned house suggests that he might have joined the ranks of the refugees who fled to India.
The wounds of a war run much deeper than the physical manifestations of the destruction it leaves behind. There is emotional scarring – the mental trauma of a people who have seen the unforgettable, and are haunted by their dreams. But how does that fit into the history of that people, and of that country? In the case of 1971, much has been remembered, of course, and has been significant to the construction of the Bangladeshi nationalist narrative – the heroism of the Mukti Bahini, the brutality of the West Pakistani army, and the euphoria of 16 December 1971. But much also has been forgotten: the non-Bengalis of East Pakistan, the fate of those who opposed the Awami League, the women who were raped and abandoned.
There is little doubt of the immense human tragedy that accompanied 1971. But, as with 1947, such human tragedy was also accompanied by great hope and celebration – the birth of a new nation, and, for many, liberation from oppression. However, the Bangladeshi dream has not quite gone the way it was originally envisioned, and Bangladesh has spent many years under military rule, including today. Perhaps the final question to ponder has to do with the legacies of 1971. Do the divisions that surfaced in 1971 carry with them a portent of what is to come? And, in perhaps the bitterest of ironies, why has Bangladesh’s political history, in the 35 years since independence, begun to resemble that of Pakistan?
~ Antara Datta is a PhD candidate in History at Harvard University, working on war, violence and displacement during the Bangladesh War of 1971.