At a pivotal juncture in the documentary 1971 Separation of East Pakistan — The Untold Story (a mouthful of a title), Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah is shown announcing that the national language of both East and West Pakistan would be Urdu.

It was a gross miscalculation, the critics in the film point out, in the slowly swaying relationship between two halves of the then singular country. And since we, the masses, know history — or the superficial, bare-essential details of it — we know that many other miscalculations followed.

The documentary (let’s call it The Untold Story for short) is a critical, single-perspective look into what happened. A chronicle told in linear, factual style, with talking heads explaining — and criticising — events that divided the nation well before the 1971 war.

Javed Jabbar’s 1971 Separation of East Pakistan — The Untold Story, as logical-minded and staunch on facts as it is, is a deliberately one-sided account of the most traumatic events in the country’s history

Spliced with relevant archival footage, and divided into acts with cleverly designed fade-outs acting as act-breaks, The Untold Story stars the opinions of Sen (retd) Javed Jabbar (former information minister of Pakistan, author of Pakistan: Unique Origins, Unique Destiny), Dr Yasmin Saikia (historian, professor at Arizona State University, author of Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh), William J. Drummond (journalist, professor at University of California, Berkeley and Bureau Chief, LA Times in New Delhi 1971), Dr Ayesha Jalal (professor of history at Tufts University, author of Jinnah, The Muslim League and the Demand of Pakistan), Dr Junaid Ahmed (analyst and researcher, author of Creation of Bangladesh, Myths Exploded), Dr Huma Baqai (political analyst, associate professor of sciences and liberal arts at IBA, Karachi), Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais (professor of political science at LUMS, author and expert on South Asia & Security Studies), Dr Ian Talbot (historian, professor at University of Southampton, author of Pakistan — A New History), Mujibur Rahman Shami (editor, Daily Pakistan, journalist and political analyst), Dr Khawaja Alqama (professor and former vice chancellor at Bahauddin Zakaria University, Bahawalpur), Riaz H. Khokhar (former foreign secretary of Pakistan, high commissioner to India 1992-97), Brig (retd) Karrar Ali Agha (posted at Comilla Garrison in April 1971), M. Reza Kazimi (historian, author of Z.A. Bhutto & the Histography of 1971).

This is a massive list of the learned and the experienced, whose scholarly credentials, flashing with every instance of their appearance, give weight to the arguments and historical facts.

I feel that the film is designed as a ‘201’ and not a ‘101’ on the Pak-Bangladesh divide (‘201’ is for people who have some knowledge on the matter; ‘101’ is for beginners). It is controversial to a degree, with a diagnostic outlook on the events in Pakistan, and a decisive examination of what transpired in Bangladesh.

Internal and external politics; the Mukti Bahini’s rise; Indira Gandhi’s silent proclamations of tearing up the two states; Bangladesh’s eventual prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s upswing to power; Yahya Khan and then Ayub Khan’s contentions on the ever-escalating tensions; and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s politics and influence are shown in newspaper or televised form — however, most of the film, as logical-minded and staunch on facts as it is, is a deliberate and one-sided account.

Almost missing are the perspectives from any Bangladeshi or Indian scholar or historian — with exception to LA Times’ William J. Drummond, the bureau chief who wrote about the events as they happened. Footage of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sarmila Bose — who wrote the book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, criticising Bangladesh and India’s misrepresentation of facts and data from the war — are used from prior interviews.

The editing, by consulting editors Mehreen Jabbar, Mitra Bonshahi and Belal Rehman, is extremely polished and sweeping, and one might not even be aware of the shortfalls before the end credits roll. The film, despite its reservations about the Pakistani regime at the time, is somewhat sympathetic to the then-leaders of the country and, in doing so, it subconsciously channels the very essence of the recently released fictional film Khel Khel Mein (KKM).

Like KKM — confessed to be inspired by Sarmila Bose’s book — the narrative doubles down exclusively on the atrocities in Bangladesh for the bulk of the runtime, and then, by the very end, proposes to make peace. (The Untold Story ends with Bertrand Russell’s quote: “The better part of human history lies not in the past, but in the future.”)

To be fair, Javed Jabbar’s documentary — and I’ll call it that, since Jabbar is the executive producer and writer of The Untold Story (surprisingly, there is no director’s credit) — stands head and shoulders above KKM. It is a reflection of the man’s perceptiveness. Eloquent, easy to understand, overbearing and blunt but in an educated way, the almost-two-hour documentary is a heavy-handed eye-opener for the average joe — and let’s be honest, the history of the secession is relegated to mere paragraphs in school curriculums, and is rarely discussed with factual detail or insight by people today.

The Untold Story (I don’t know if I buy the gist of that title) then, is for them — the youngsters who know nothing about history. And for their education — and discernment — it is available online, free to watch.

Produced by Erum Binte Shahid and Maria Wasti, 1971 Separation of East Pakistan — The Untold Story can be viewed at https://www.1971untoldstory.com/

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 26th, 2021

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