FACTS and history are intimately related, but they are not quite identical. Fact is something that has already happened. Its objective occurrence cannot be altered. And yet fact is also inherently fragile. For fact is passive and static, while the world that receives it is always changing. Nevertheless, getting facts right is essential to the construction of historical accounts. But history is also a narrative that requires judgment on the part of knowers. What has been interesting in the aftermath of the publication of A.K. Khandker's memoir on the Liberation War of 1971 is the sheer reduction of historical reasoning to the contention over factual truths. The Awami league and the BNP -- along with their respective ideologues -- have invested more in an ad nauseam debate over the factual truths of the Liberation War than explicating their substantive differences regarding its interpretation. Not long ago, Tarique Rahman, the BNP senior vice chairman, came up with the ridiculous claim that Ziaur Rahman was the first president of independent Bangladesh. And this is hardly an exceptional instance. Such contentious, and often groundless, claims regarding the factual truths of historical events are too numerous to count. This is a tendency that cuts across the political spectrum. However, there is no easy way out from this clash over factual truths. Insofar as factual truth is an essential part of historical narratives, the historians and historically-minded political actors must not shy away from asserting what they deem as the correct factual truths (with evidences, of courses). That said, what we have been noticing is not primarily the comedy of factual errors. The question at stake here is: why do all these political antagonisms boil down to the clash of factual truth-claims?
What we are witnessing, then, is the enactment of the assumption that the declaration of a factual “truth” necessarily results in the automatic construction of the intended narrative. This is an assumption that does disservice to the very enterprise of historical reasoning. Most, if not all, of the responses that followed A.K. Khandker's book rarely paused to consider the meaning of the words with which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman might (or might not) have concluded his speech of March 7. This renewed vigour in establishing the factual truths regarding Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's speech circumscribed itself in disputing what he had actually said, as though the meaning of those words are self-evident. To take an example, if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman indeed uttered “Joy Pakistan,” does it necessarily mean that he had no allegiance to the cause of independence? To understand that point, the knower must go beyond the assumption that those words entail meaning in themselves. Did not Sheikh Mujibur Rahman start his speech with the elaboration of how their efforts to reach a solution had been crushed by the undemocratic and illegitimate regime of Yahya Khan? Only by way of explicating how the justified demands and legitimate rights of the Bengalis had been brutally gunned down by the then-Pakistan government, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman put forward the case of an independent Bangladesh. While making a de facto case of independence and simultaneously avoiding a de jure declaration of it, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman masterfully forced the Pakistan regime to draw appropriate conclusion, while leaving room for multiple courses of political action on the part of his party. Had he indeed said “Joy Pakistan” along with “Joy Bangla” after making that speech, the meaning of his utterance would not simply have been an expression of fidelity to the Pakistan state that he already depicted as both politically and historically illegitimate. In the same vein, the refusal to accept that Bangladesh was thrown into the war without much organisational and military preparation signals the inability to encounter history with its lacks and blind spots. The critical-but-active source of history, as it were, is traded for its sacred-but-passive version. Once history becomes reduced to the authority of facts, what gets lost is not only the complexity of meaning, but also the political force that historical events embody.
Secondly, the factualisation of history contributes toward the dissipation of the political relevance of the Liberation War. The founding event of a political community never goes away. In other words, the constitutive principles instantiated by the founding events never cease to be relevant to the present. The spirits and principles of such an event cannot be accessed through mere facts. It would require substantive interpretation conditioned by the exercise of judgment. A substantial political debate regarding the interpretation of 1971 would seek to contest over deciding what are the principles, promises, and directions of the Liberation War. The dominant forms of debates eschew the dispute concerning the ideas (or their lack thereof) of equality and justice instantiated by the Liberation War. The non-engagement with the critical spirit of the Liberation War leads the political actors to happily quarantine themselves in the world of facts. Facts will have to substantiate any argument regarding the Liberation War, but that does not mean that fact themselves amount to arguments. The failure to channel these factual debates into substantial questions ultimately dilutes the political force of the Liberation War itself.
In the wake of Europe's own problem with the manipulation and rewriting of factual truth, Hannah Arendt wrote that “the political function of the storyteller -- historian or novelist -- is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment..” The judgment, or that which bestows meaning to the chain of events, will have no solid ground to position itself unless facts themselves are understood and accepted. If, however, the political (re)constructions of history remain caught up at the level of factual truth-claims, the much-needed moment of judgment will continue to be absent. To merely fight for factual truth is to weaken, if not erase, the judgment that requires critical exercise on the part of knowers. Facts are neither the end nor the beginning of history. They are rather the foothold which helps us to interpret the past and act on the present that lies between past and future.
The writer is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Chicago.