WHEN nationalist fervour is whipped up for narrow political ends, historical facts can be moulded as per the official line.

In today’s Bangladesh, the Awami League government appears to be doing exactly that, especially where the tragic events of 1971 are concerned.

As highlighted in a write-up published recently in The New York Times, Bangladesh is preparing a law that would make it impossible to question the number of deaths that occurred in the nine months between Operation Searchlight and the fall of Dhaka.

Dubbed the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act and inspired by Europe’s Holocaust denial laws, the legislation, as has been pointed out, would “hinder free speech and stifle legitimate historical research”.

For example, in Bangladesh the state — since the times of Sheikh Mujib — has claimed that three million people perished during the separation of East Pakistan. Yet, as scholars point out, figures range anywhere from 300,000 to three million killed.

Whether it is the separation of East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh, or the Holocaust, laws that disallow legitimate scholarly inquiry into these painful episodes only work to strengthen the official line and close the door for alternative interpretations.

Questioning the number of deaths, or other historical details, should not, and must not, take away from the monstrosity of the crimes committed; they can, in fact, help create a clearer picture of what really happened.

History must not be moulded to fit political narratives; instead, it must reflect the truth supported by evidence.

The Bangladeshi state should reconsider passing this clearly controversial law.

Unfortunately, the current government in Dhaka seems intent on mining the tragedy of 1971 for political capital, rather than to arrive at any sort of closure. For example, the International Crimes Tribunals set up by the state to probe ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ have already sentenced four men to death for their roles in the war, even though global rights groups have questioned the transparency of the trials.

Instead of pursuing the politics of vendetta, the Bangladesh government should encourage an honest appraisal of the past. For that matter, Pakistan has also done little to probe the tragedy and apportion blame for the separation of the erstwhile East Wing, the Hamoodur Rahman Commission notwithstanding.

Both Islamabad and Dhaka need to learn the lessons their common, painful past has to offer and move forward to heal the wounds and build a new relationship.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2016

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