A new study of the 1971 conflict involving Bangladesh, Pakistan and India wins points for ambition, though not for execution
There is a Rashomon-like quality to the war in the subcontinent in 1971, which led to the independence of Bangladesh and the break-up of Pakistan. In Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, a crime takes place in the woods, and it is difficult to figure out what happened because those who claim to have witnessed it can’t be trusted. The movie reveals the complex nature of reality, how we choose to see and believe what we want to—the narrative around 1971 is similar. Bangladesh sees it as its liberation war (which it most certainly was), India sees it as a refugee crisis, which turned into a humanitarian crisis and continued the India-Pakistan conflict (which, in some ways, it has) that incidentally created Bangladesh. And Pakistan does not talk about the atrocities its army committed in what was then East Pakistan—it blames India for splitting Pakistan.
The conflict also severely undermined the prevailing wisdom in many parts of the world (and indeed in Pakistan) that India and Pakistan had to be distinct nations because there was a Hindu India and a Muslim India, ideas which the colonial rulers from Britain encouraged and exploited. Bangladesh was Muslim, but also Bengali, and chose independence, undermining the idea of subcontinental Muslim unity. Bangladeshis resent Indians talking of the war in a patronizing way—focusing on how India liberated Bangladesh, as though Bangladeshis did nothing except suffer.
In contrast, Bangladesh remembers it as a nine-month war, where India came towards the end to help, for which it is grateful, but India must not forget that Bangladeshi men and women had borne the brunt of Pakistani violence for the preceding eight-and-a-half months. More importantly, three months after the war, nearly 95% of the 10 million refugees who had come to India—many of them Hindus—went back. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the war has been a footnote in history.
Anam Zakaria is a young historian, scholar and teacher from Pakistan who aims to listen and understand the differing versions and offer her personal interpretation of what happened. In 1971: A People’s History From Bangladesh, Pakistan And India, she speaks to people in the three countries through structured interviews, conversations with schoolchildren, and discussions with groups arranged by intermediaries. These interviews are not always face-to-face, because it remains hard for Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to visit each other’s countries given the visa restrictions—several of her interviews with Indians were conducted over Skype and some have been conducted by others. She was able to make only one visit to Bangladesh. Besides, she does not speak Bengali, which limits her ability to use the oral history archives at the Muktijuddho Jadughor (Liberation War Museum) in Dhaka.
Zakaria describes the three alternate realities well, but her account would have been more accessible had she provided a straightforward chronology of events early on. As she follows the story in thematic sections , there is repetition and too much scene-setting before each interview, which interrupts the flow—it can confuse readers unfamiliar with the story.
To be sure, she touches upon most of the key moments, starting from the time the Bengali lawyer and freedom fighter Dhirendranath Datta (who was a parliamentarian in Pakistan, and was murdered by Pakistani troops in March 1971) gave a speech in Pakistan’s legislature in 1948 seeking to make Bengali the national language. All the events that followed—first, Pakistan prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s rebuttal of (and veiled threat to) Datta’s demand; later, Pakistan governor general Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s refusal to consider the demand while on a tour to the city then known as Dacca; the Bangla language movement of 1952; the six-point charter of the Awami League’s demands seeking greater autonomy; the arrest of Awami League leader Mujibur Rahman; the cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan in 1970; the election and Awami League’s victory; the protracted negotiations to form the government; the army-led Operation Searchlight and the pogrom that began at the university on 25 March 1971 and continued throughout Bangladesh; the massacre at Chuknagar in May; the rape of many Bangladeshi women; the Mukti Bahini’s formation; the Pakistani surrender to the Indian Army in 1971—are there. But it could have been structured better.
Zakaria meets leading Bangladeshis who have kept the memories of the conflict alive—Shahriar Kabir, who has been campaigning for the controversial war crimes tribunal; academic Muntassir Mamoon, who has been painstakingly gathering data on the conflict; journalist and writer Afsan Chowdhury, who has compiled excellent oral histories from the time; academic Meghna Guhathakurta, whose father was among the first to be killed in 1971; Aroma Dutta, who saw her grandfather Dhirendranath taken away, and never saw him again; Ferdousi Priyabhashini, perhaps the first woman to speak publicly of her ordeal, having been kept in a camp and raped many times, embodying the noun birangana (the brave woman), which the government would confer on all the women who were sexually assaulted during the conflict. But missing are the voices of the marginal men and women—the many other biranganas who remain forgotten, or the boatmen who ferried refugees across.
Zakaria hears Bangladeshis telling her how much they distrust and dislike Pakistan and Pakistanis because of the lack of Pakistan’s atonement. The absence of people-to-people contact within the subcontinent is one reason so little is known about the “other". Zakaria is a fine ambassador of Pakistani liberalism—sceptical, defying norms, polite, a listener full of empathy. She is struck by the violent stories she hears and feels emotionally wrenched; she analyses the numbers (did three million die, as Bangladeshis insist? Or 26,000, as Pakistan reckons?) as well as the politics around them, without taking sides, which is wise.
Although Bangladeshis resent the fact that Pakistan hasn’t apologized for what happened in 1971, Zakaria rightly mentions that former president Pervez Musharraf did express regret, even as she notes that few ordinary Pakistanis expressed remorse over what happened, partly because school textbooks are so biased, and not only in Pakistan. She documents the collective amnesia in Pakistan, the unwillingness to learn more, and blames the distorted textbooks in all three countries that colour national narratives.
Zakaria also notes, politely, that Bangladesh’s own political trajectory has bounced between the nominally secular Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has allied with Islamists—therefore, its own history books can’t be relied upon. Awamis too have allied with Islamists in the past. While words can’t compensate, the earliest Pakistani apology was in 1974 (which Zakaria does not mention), though she notes the publication, We Owe An Apology To Bangladesh, a collection of essays by Pakistanis. She speaks to the man who compiled it, the poet Ahmad Salim. She talks to Nadir Ali, a Pakistani captain who was horrified by what he saw, and became mentally ill. He would later write poetry and visit Bangladesh, expressing profound sympathy for Bangladeshis.
It is the Indian part that is weak, partly because Zakaria was not able to travel to India. We do not hear much from Indian soldiers or officers, nor from those who hosted the refugees, or who resented their presence, though she notes the resentment. While she writes about the current crisis in India over citizenship, which is inextricably linked to the lack of India’s own historical understanding of 1971, she does so perfunctorily, as if to make the book seem complete and contemporary.
As a result, we get a mixed narrative, which is not what the label advertises—a people’s history from the three countries. It is, rather, some people’s interpretations of what happened. Not all the people she speaks with are witnesses. Some rely on hearsay; many other views are not captured. We hear of Chakmas, but not from them; we do not hear of other minorities in Bangladesh, such as Christians or Santhals; and we do not hear from voices of the left, like women’s rights activist Rokeya Kabir. Dismaying are the responses of the young in each country—how little they know of their neighbours—and this shows why we need many more books like Zakaria’s.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. His book on the Bangladesh war of independence, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, was published in 2014.