Bangladesh must come to terms with the 1971 war holistically, allowing critical discourse to flourish
A tale of repression is etched on the walls of Dhaka. Darkness, beatings, military rule.
These images are juxtaposed with pictures of young girls studying in schools furnished with state-of-the-art modern technologies.
Computer labs and books signal the progress made over the past 46 years. The sun rises; Bangladesh emerges from the shackles of West Pakistani hegemony. Prosperity follows.
On every nook and corner of Dhaka, such murals and images are openly displayed.
They are interspersed with war memorabilia and monuments depicting the struggle of the people of Bangladesh and their eventual victory.
Unlike war images I have seen in other parts of the world, which show soldiers clad in military uniform, ordinary women and men dressed in saris and lungis are seen fighting on the murals and sculptures of Bangladesh's capital.
It is the country's way of telling the world that it was the public that fought and won the war in 1971.
India provided support; it strengthened the indigenous struggle, but without the people’s efforts and their sacrifices, Bangladesh’s independence would not have seen the light of day.
It is an attempt by many in the civil society to salvage that history from being consumed by the bilateral politics of India and Pakistan.
1971 is embedded in public spaces, on the roads and walls, in parks and open fields, in the private and collective memory of Bangladesh. There is no forgetting 1971.
This comes partly from obvious reasons. 46 years is not a long enough time to overcome the trauma.
The generation that survived the war is young enough to tell and retell the stories. And they all have a story to tell; some were bystanders, witnessing the nine-month long war and the aftermath that unfolded before them; some were victims; and others had personally fought in the war.
For them and their children, the war is their identity, the scars engraved in their minds and often on their bodies.
Even today, after 70 years, survivors in India, Pakistan, and what is now Bangladesh, hold vivid memories of the bloodshed and violence of the 1947 Partition, of the loss and rupture.
In comparison, Bangladesh is still a very young country. It is unlikely that these haunting images of 1971 will fade away anytime soon.
However, alongside these personal memories, there has also been an effort on the part of the government to reclaim these histories.
This effort in many ways is a response to the silences that followed the war.
After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975, an overt attempt was made to revise the war memory in the public discourse.
The new leadership, seen as being pro-Pakistan and anti-India, omitted Pakistan's name from textbooks, making it seem as if East Pakistanis had been fighting against a nameless “attacking force”. Similarly, India’s mention as a “friend of the liberation war” was also erased.
In an even more divisive move, alleged war criminals were given power, some of them even becoming ministers under the new regime.
With this power shift, the ‘people’s narratives’ of the war seemed to recede. The state, as it often does, cherry-picked only the versions of history it deemed fit, in a way that suited its own vision for the newly-independent nation.
But in the recent past, more and more war museums, and killing fields--where mass killings took place--have been set up and memorialised, both by civil society and the state.
While it is essential that history is remembered and retold in a holistic way, and although significant efforts are being made in this regard, one also has to be cautious of the new forms of appropriation of history by the state.
While reclaiming space and narrative, political parties, like military regimes, can be adamant in telling their own version of the truth--versions that garner votes and political support.
The only trouble is that whenever states try to own history, they inevitably promote certain accounts while silencing others.
Nuances get lost, contradictions--which are present in all conflicts--disappear and neatly-packaged truths emerge.
Anyone who challenges this linear, one-dimensional truth can then be construed as anti-state, and in this case, as anti-liberation, which would be tantamount to treachery, a label no one wants or can afford.
The space for discussion, debate, and research shrinks. This process is unfortunately not new to the subcontinent.
While some Pakistani idealogues insist that the country’s foundation was laid in 712 AD when Muhammad bin Qasim stomped in to conquer the region, ridding it of ‘infidel’ influences, and thereby establishing the justification for it being a state with little room for religious minorities, India too has embarked on a process of ‘Hinduising’ its own history.
Most recently, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed that all Muslims are Hindus because India is a land only for the Hindus.
Plurality, dissent and critical thinking are gradually being wiped out, replaced with myopic understandings of the past and present.
Also read: 1971 war: Witness to history
In 2016, a law was proposed in Bangladesh to make it a criminal offense if anyone “carries out any propaganda, campaign against the Liberation War of Bangladesh or the spirit of the Liberation War or Father of the Nation or abets in such acts.”
The draft will be presented at the parliament at the start of next year for approval.
This seems to have been instigated by the political conflict between the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the two major political parties.
BNP states that Ziaur Rahman, the army general who founded the party and later served as Bangladesh’s president from 1977-81, played a pivotal role in the war. The party claims that it was he who announced independence and hence is the true war hero.
Hasina, Mujib’s daughter and the current leader of the Awami League government, refutes the claim entirely.
To make matters worse, it has also been alleged in some circles that Ziaur Rahman was involved in Mujib’s assassination. Glorifying him is hence unacceptable for Hasina.
The two parties and the women who lead them have also clashed on other matters.
While Hasina and her party maintain that three million people were killed during the war--a figure which Mujib cited--Khalida Zia, Ziaur Rahman’s wife, has doubted the veracity of such high figures.
After the Awami League came to power following the 2008 general elections, it has tried to silence such criticism. In the process, research into war casualties or other angles of 1971 has become off bounds.
Since only certain kinds of narratives about the war are permitted, even when the civil society is active in reclaiming history, only a particular aspect of the history, one that aligns and conforms with the state's national project, is furthered.
As a result, a holistic history has not come forward, either by the state or by the civil society.
While recognising and acknowledging the war and the resulting casualties is undoubtedly of utmost importance, discourse and critical reflections are also instrumental ingredients of any progressive society.
The fear seems to be that such discourse may undermine the impact the war and the scale of the atrocities had on Bangladesh.
Under the influence of this fear, the state does not realise that the experiences of the countless survivors who have lived through and struggled during the war and post-war years cannot be undermined through further research and critical discourse.
Research and discussion around 1971 will only serve to strengthen history. The history belongs to the public, not to a single individual or leader.
The silencing of history and the appropriation of history are two sides of the same coin and it is a dangerous game to play, but one that all three countries--India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh--seem bent on playing.
Read next: Fall of Dhaka: Memories of a bloody December
As Bangladesh tries to seek justice, healing, and come to terms with the nation’s past, it must do so holistically, allowing academic research and analysis to flourish alongside personal histories.
Making such work illegal, or censoring and curbing it will create a fragmented national identity, at odds with itself.
A complete exploration of 1971 and its aftermath must be allowed, especially while survivors are still present as they are one of the most valuable sources of history.
This process was critical for a tolerant India and Pakistan to emerge after 1947 but was often discarded by those in power in favour of state-sponsored histories.
The attempt was, of course, to avoid any uncomfortable truths and challenges to the national projects.
Compared to India and Pakistan, Bangladesh is still a relatively nascent country; a full and honest exploration of 1971-- whether that entails revisiting stories of rape survivors, or of torture and killings of Bengalis, or of non-Bengalis-- will play a crucial part in its nation-making process.
Did you or someone you know witness the war of 1971 firsthand? Share your experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org