On shared and contested histories | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 19, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:24 AM, December 19, 2020

On shared and contested histories

National Professor Rafiqul Islam, speaking at a virtual event organised by ULAB in remembrance of the martyred intellectuals, mentioned that the job of writing the history of the Liberation War should have been given to the universities from the start and not to the politicians. In other words, he maintained that there should have been an objective academic archival process for the history of the Liberation War, rather than the repeated and passionate changes in the versions of history whenever there is a change in the political landscape.

Successive post-1975 military governments who tried to silence and overshadow their predecessors ended up obliterating the contribution of Bangabandhu and the movements that ultimately led to freedom. Their version of history, where the enemy could not be named, uncannily resembled that of Pakistan. My generation (and I am as old the country), grew up learning about the Liberation War in mixed metaphors: the perpetrators were "unnamed enemies" represented by symbolic hyenas, vultures or thunderstorms and the victims were nothing more than simple farmers or fishermen in dance dramas. For 21 years, the general undertone had been to "let bygones be bygones" and move on without engaging with history.

The octogenarian professor is among the fast fading first generation of intellectuals who both witnessed and archived the birth of the nation. He was one of the few with a camera in 1952 to photograph many of the images of Ekushey that we now see. While listening to his account of how he was arrested by the Pakistani Army on March 25 along with 14 others from the Dhaka University campus, who were put in a temporary jail in the second capital (the National Parliament House); how Professor Rehman Sobhan and some other expatriates in the US went to Senator Edward Kennedy to make him call Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and barter their release, it dawned on me that there are not too many of such individuals around to reflect on the nuances of the War. Once these individuals are gone, we will be left with simplified national and ideological narratives.

Hence, now more than ever, it is important that the academics undertake serious scholarly projects to record and preserve history for the posterity. It is our sacred duty to preserve the details of the sacrifice of our fellow human beings, which has made our existence possible. The intelligentsia was the first "national group" that was targeted for "systematic killing" on March 25, 1971 and the same group was targeted again on December 14, 1971. The circularity is no coincidence: for the Pakistanis, the spirit of freedom originated in the brains of these public intellectuals. From their perspective, shooting at the brain of the freedom loving beast is the easiest way to handle the situation. Removing Bangabandhu from the scene was another strategic ploy on their part. They also targeted another "national group"—Hindus who were depicted as the agents of India, a country that they felt was involved in a political intrigue as a result of the 1965 War and was instigating insurgency in their eastern province.

There were three main actors in the Liberation struggle. Pakistan tried to put forward a version that focuses on a secessionist movement led by India-sponsored terrorists who killed many non-Bengalis. Their propaganda machinery during the war brought in a number of journalists to tell the world of the "atrocities" committed by the Muktibahini. Anthony Mascarenhas, the author of Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood, could not believe what he saw. He fled to London and published in The Sunday Times an article titled "Genocide". Before he published it on June 13, 1971, Mascarenhas had to arrange the escape of his family members through the Afghanistan border to avoid Pakistani retaliation. In 2011, BBC credited the piece as "an article that changed history". Mascarenhas told the world about the "GENOCIDE (that was) conducted with amazing casualness". He quoted West Pakistani senior military officers saying, "We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing of two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years." This is an echo of General Yahya Khan, who on February 22, 1971, is reported to have said, "Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands."

Then there is India, a country that went around the world to gain diplomatic support in our favour against the backdrop of the Cold War, a country that sheltered 10 million refugees during the war, and a country that trained the guerrillas and helped them with military resources before resisting and overpowering the final blow of Pakistani attacks in December, thus expediting victory. The dominant narrative in India, however, has presented the war as an India-Pakistan war that somehow relegates the role of our freedom fighters. Their big-brother like arrogance, for the lack of a better word, in the post-Liberation period has caused many in Bangladesh to interpret Indian involvement along religious lines, going back to the two-nation theory surrounding Partition.

As the third actor, we have been a stage for contesting narratives where versions of history are constructed, accentuated and omitted (albeit selectively remembered). Depending on who is telling the story, the viewing lens has been conveniently changed. Our textbooks were manipulated in such a way that many who attended schools in the late 1970s and 1980s did not even know of the Liberation War. Anam Zakaria, a Pakistani oral historian, in 1971: A People's History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, mentions research done by Yvette Claire Rosser on the textbooks of the three countries. "Based on [Yvette's] interviews with Bangladeshi students, she writes, 'there may be a generation of young adults who are partially unaware that Pakistan was actually the enemy', and many mistakenly believe that the 'Bangladesh army fought the Indian army'". Children in Pakistan read about the infidels, children in India read about the final days of the war in which their army got involved—instead of talking about the guerrilla war that weakened the enemy. Only now, we are finally reading a history that glorifies the role of our national heroes.

We need a national history that will speak of the emergence of Bangladesh in a way that negotiates with the narratives of the two other actors of this political history. We need a history that is connected with the formation of our national, cultural and political identity, and protect ourselves from the exploitative and hegemonic discourse promulgated outside our national borders.

Then again, we should not insist on having a single truth. We need to academically engage with the contesting versions and tackle them with historical evidence. We need to establish before the Pakistanis that our desire to have a land of our own was not an act of treachery; it was conditioned by their apathy and atrocities. We need to establish before the Indians, we are not ungrateful for your support—then again, it is time for you to withdraw your shadow for us to grow. We need a smart young generation who will look into the eyes of their Pakistani counterparts with pride and demand an apology for their misdeeds, and will tell their Indian counterparts to respect our boundaries. Above all, we need to tell our people: rejoice, you are a 50-year-old nation who has made the most of your freedom to give the other actors a run for their money; our niche in the Global Development Index speaks for itself. Let our history be our source of strength. Let us not reduce histories into simplistic binaries of pro- and anti-; let us listen to all, and have the scholarly competence and academic confidence to deal with the sociopolitical dynamics that shaped our nation-state, and have the genuine curiosity and open-mindedness to learn and reinterpret past events against present contexts.


Shamsad Mortuza is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.

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