Father and daughter dress in the colours of the Bangladesh flag to celebrate the country’s independence | AP
Father and daughter dress in the colours of the Bangladesh flag to celebrate the country’s independence | AP

Noam Chomsky in his long essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, written in the background of the Vietnam War and published in 1967, says, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment.”

In the essay, Chomsky defines the role of an intellectual as compared to the common man in any society, especially about issues of importance and puts the concept of national interest under the scanner.

Anam Zakaria, in her latest book, 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, has taken it upon herself to go beyond the official histories of that year in all the three countries involved in the conflict that culminated in the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan and the emergence of the new state of Bangladesh. The event is remembered as the Fall of Dhaka in Pakistan, the war of liberation in Bangladesh, and the victory over and dismemberment of Pakistan in India. However, war is, after all, war and what is missing in all these narratives are the people who faced the real conflict and suffered.

There are selective silences on the events around 1971 in all three countries and hence, selective remembrances; Zakaria challenges them all by presenting nuanced narratives of the people through first-hand communication and interviews taken while navigating across the subcontinent.

The book is divided into four parts: ‘Journeys Past and Present’; ‘1947-1971: Seeds of Unrest’; ‘The Year that Was’ and ‘Institutionalisation of the Memory of War’. In the first part, Zakaria sees the current impressions of the war in popular perception, journeying to Bangladesh to gain first-hand knowledge of what people thought and felt about the war and how they remember it.

Revisiting 1971 in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India shows how people remember the conflict and how states influence those memories

In ‘1947-1971: Seeds of Unrest’, she does an in-depth analysis of the issue of language and discusses how language became a tool of dissent, showing that it was not just about language politics, but that language had become a symbol of socioeconomic disparity. Delving deeply into history before 1971 and even 1947, she shows how the demand for the separation of united India was also supported by the Hindus of Bengal. She writes, “As Joya Chatterji argues in her book, Bengal Divided, Partition was not just an exclusive Muslim demand, opposed by the Hindus in every form, rather it was also fought for by the Hindu bhadralok of Bengal (the section of Bengali society that dominated nationalist politics since the first Partition of Bengal in 1905. The bhadralok are also referred to as the ‘respectable people’). Concerned about what permanent Muslim rule would look like, the bhadralok mobilised the Hindu community to demand Partition, so as to reclaim power and safeguard their interests, ensuring that they did not come to be dominated by the Muslims.

“Chatterji’s research shows that Partition wasn’t just the Muslim League’s demand that the Congress had to grudgingly concede to, but rather a reality that the Congress in fact helped direct. She argues that ‘not only was the Congress High Command ready to pay the price of Partition in order to strengthen its hold over a unitary India, but that the Bengal Congress campaigned successfully for the vivisection of its province on communal lines’.” This section highlights the treatment of Hindus who were labelled Indian agents and, after the war of 1965, the implementation and implications of the Enemy Property Act, which triggered massive alleged land grabbing.

Zakaria traces the history of the relationship between the two wings of Pakistan and tries to find out what transpired leading to the events of 1971. She discusses the demand of Bengali as a national language, the possible cause of its rejection by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the then prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, and why these leaders saw the demand as a conspiracy to divide the country. She interviews the family of Dhirendranath Datta, the member of the constituent assembly who had made the (subsequently rejected) demand that members be allowed to use Bangla during the sessions, and who was killed along with his son during the 1971 operation.

‘The Year That Was’ explores the year of the war from the perspective of the people of all three countries. The book gives a detailed description of the build-up to the conflict, the later involvement of India and the resultant war.

The writer points out how selective memories have survived through official histories. In discussing Indian textbooks, she writes that the war has no mention in general books and is restricted to history texts. Bangladeshis remember the war after the events of March 25 — the night Operation Searchlight began in Dhaka — while remaining silent before that when violence was reported in Chittagong and Biharis and West Pakistanis were persecuted and killed, India’s reaction and the involvement of the Mukti Bahini. Here, she discusses the issue of genocide or ‘selected genocide’ and questions whether it applies to the events of 1971 whose figure of casualties Bangladesh has put at three million — more than the Armenian, Rwandan or Cambodian genocides. She dispassionately discusses the politics behind the figures as — opposed to Bangladeshi claims — Pakistan also presented its figures of 500,000 Biharis and non-Bengalis killed during the conflict. She refers to a report by Serajur Rahman, a journalist with the BBC Bengali service, who was the first journalist to meet Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after his release from detention in 1972 and told him the figure of casualties at 300,000 (by no means any lesser figure). Mujib, in a later interview with a British journalist, had put the figure as three million, raising doubts in Seraj that Mujib either did not know the difference between figures or he had just exaggerated them.

In later chapters, Zakaria explores how Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have been seeing the conflict and how the memory of the war has been institutionalised. She visits museums in Bangladesh and Pakistan that have been set up to keep the memory alive among their masses. In Bangladesh, there have been renewed efforts in the recent decades to build museums and centres dedicated to the events of 1971. She discusses the politics of Bangladesh’s two main parties — the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajed and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia — especially the former which has recently reopened the cases of genocide and gave punishments to Jamaat-i-Islami leaders. The book discusses earlier laws as well as legislation in the offing regarding 1971 in Bangladesh, and government efforts to curb any voices differing with the official narrative.

During her visits, it seems the authorities or those related to the government made sure that the “hatred” among the public for Pakistan was communicated through members of the public as they knew the writer was working on a research project. However, the attitude of the diplomats and non-Bengalis appears somehow different. Zakaria interviews the Pakistan intellectuals who had raised their voices over events as they were unfolding before December 1971, including Ahmad Salim, who was persecuted and punished for writing a poem in favour of Bangladesh; Dr Tariq Rahman, so disheartened that he decided to quit the Army; and Col Nadir Ali, who had a mental breakdown over what he saw during his service.

The book also takes up the issue of Biharis and non-Bengalis whose voices are missing from the mainstream narrative in Bangladesh and their plight in Pakistan as well.

In her book, Zakaria goes beyond the politics over the 1971 war in all three countries, whether it is silence (Pakistan), a sense of triumph (India) or a yardstick for nationalism (Bangladesh). She pits the people’s history against the official history — that mostly becomes a victim of politics and state agenda, especially in third-world countries where the truth often lies buried — to show how people remember the conflict and how states influence what people remember.

The book gives voice to the erstwhile undocumented silences in all three countries involved, going beyond the documented official history, as each country propagated what served its agenda and kept covered whatever did not fit in with its ideology, politics and policies. However, it’s not just a grim read of harsh realities and suffering; there are humanitarian stories of mutual love and brotherhood among the communities as well, showing that all is never black and white in any conflict.

Going back to Chomsky’s essay, he writes, “If it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective.” Zakaria appears to have succeeded in doing that, presenting the different perspectives and leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions.

The reviewer is a member of staff

1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India
By Anam Zakaria
Vintage, India
ISBN: 978-0670090129

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 5th, 2020