Home >Opinion >Creating a mythical past

In August 1971, Matiur Rahman, a Bengali flight lieutenant in the Pakistan Air Force, decided to hijack a trainer aircraft from Karachi to India and join the battle to liberate Bangladesh. Despite Pakistan’s efforts to suppress news about the military crackdown that its military had begun in March that year, the world was becoming aware of the mass atrocities in its eastern wing.

Rahman’s mission failed because his co-pilot, Rashid Minhas struggled with him in the cockpit to control the aircraft, and the plane crashed in Thatta, 40km from the Indian border, killing both. Bangladesh honoured Matiur Rahman with Bir Sreshtho, the country’s highest military award; Pakistan honoured Minhas with its highest gallantry award, Nishan-e-Haider.

The same incident has two interpretations about heroism. Matiur Rahman’s remains are now at Mirpur in Dhaka, where other freedom fighters are buried. And in Lahore last week at the museum, I saw the same story told from a Pakistani perspective. Rahman, a patriot for Bangladesh, was a traitor for Pakistan, and he was not mentioned by name.

Bangladesh too erases parts of its past. There is a memorial of terracotta reliefs set in stone slabs near Dhaka University. It tells the story of Bangladesh, which begins with a pastoral scene of paddy fields near a river, and goes on to show chains symbolizing slavery under the British, the language movement of 1952 (when Bangla nationalists sought equal status for their language), another relief showing guns and flames and students being killed, a tank moving through the countryside, and finally, an image of men and women proudly carrying the new flag of freedom; it is 1971.

The panel leaps from British departure to the language movement, ignoring 1947, leaving the uninitiated uninformed that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan. That almost-quarter century of coexistence, when Pakistan was a country made of two halves, remains unspoken, except as a period of conflict with West Pakistan.

But Bangladesh does better in recounting the narrative up to 1947 at its national museum. It takes us to 1757, when Robert Clive’s East India Company defeats Siraj ud-Daulah’s army in Plassey. Its Liberation War Museum remembers Khudiram Bose and Suryo Sen, who were fighting for freedom from the British, but not necessarily freedom for Bengalis alone. At the Lahore Museum the section on “freedom movements" (sic) begins with Tipu Sultan (no Siraj ud-Daulah here; losing sultans interfere with the narrative), skips decades and introduces us to the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar and later Begum Hazrat Mahal (Awadh’s ruler Wajid Ali Shah’s first wife who fought the British in 1857), and then introduces Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (who began to see Hindus and Muslims as distinct) and Rahmat Ali, one of the earliest proponents of Pakistan.

Early pre-partition maps imagining Pakistan are shown—in one, it includes all of pre-partition India; a more modest later map shows Pakistan comprising the present-day Pakistan, and adds Kashmir, Hyderabad, Assam, Bengal and Bangladesh. The poet Allama Iqbal features, and there are many photographs of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the country’s founding father. Mohandas Gandhi appears in two photographs. I didn’t see Maulana Azad, and Congress leaders were described as Hindu leaders. Photographs of the Partition carnage follow (as they should), ending with images of wars with India. A broken part of an Indian aircraft shot down in 1965 is also on display. Forgotten too are more contemporary freedom movements of Pakistan against dictators—this isn’t people’s history; this is the official narrative that the state wants its subjects to memorize. We are in Punjab, but there is no Ranjit Singh, Bhagat Singh, or Lala Lajpat Rai; nor a reference to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in Amritsar, 50km across. (When Lahore named a roundabout after Bhagat Singh in 2013, fundamentalists protested).

To be sure, a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi would find Indian interpretations of the shared past also surprising. Pakistanis consider it naïve when Indian representations blame the Partition primarily on the colonial divide and rule policy, and which disregard Muslim fears of Hindu dominance; Bangladeshis are frustrated when Indian accounts talk of the 1971 war as another Indo-Pakistani encounter which lasted “two weeks", as if the nine-month struggle for freedom in Bangladesh was an inconsequential prelude.

Commemorating selective parts of history and obliterating others suits the rulers in each country, who seek to control the narrative to shape national identity. The effect is long-term—of generations growing up with false consciousness. Walls are built across borders, and borderlines become battlefields.

Opening the Lahore Literary Festival last week, Romila Thapar said history is a dialogue between the present and an assumed past. If the assumptions are wrong, so is our understanding. Her warning matters, as under-qualified amateurs in India seek to reshape the country’s history curriculum. In their quest for authenticity they are creating a mythical past, which will stunt a generation of Indians, by tossing out facts that don’t fit their narrative, and by filling inconvenient gaps with ideology, not history.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to

Follow Mint Opinion on Twitter at

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout