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COLUMN: The silent past by Kamran Asdar Ali

December 16, 2012

The writer teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin

The legal writer, Paul Finkelman, in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times (December 1, 2012) discusses Thomas Jefferson’s deep commitment to slavery. Jefferson, the principal author of United States’ Declaration of Independence, who wrote statements about the “self evident truth” that “all men are created equal”, owned 175 slaves. Finkelman argues that perhaps inspired by the Declaration, George Washington sold all his slaves, but Jefferson did not (he did sell 85 slaves but to purchase wine, art and other luxury goods). The author provides archival evidence on how Jefferson considered blacks to be like children, incapable of taking care of themselves. He thought they lacked basic human emotions and had an inferior ability to reason. Hence, they should not be freed. Of course, in US history this is not the dominant representation of Jefferson, the master of Monticello and the third president of the United States. In recent years, his slave owning has become more common knowledge as has his siring of children with his slave, Sally Hemmings (whom he did not free). But all this is written off by contemporary historians as minimal in the context of his many accomplishments as a statesman and political visionary; his ‘failings’, they argue, need to be understood within the complexities of the times he lived in.

I mention the op-ed as it reminded me of a brilliant book published in the mid 1990s by the Haitian-American anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995), makes the cogent argument about how certain histories are silenced (as Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery and blacks) and others highlighted (as his writing of the Declaration of Independence) in the narration of national histories in various geographical contexts. Trouillot argues that as history is made by actors (those who live it) and narrators (those who recall and write about it), it remains in a tension between what happened and that which is said to have happened. Playing with this theme of representation of various historical moments and how we perceive them today, Trouillot shows how the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the first revolution led by black slaves against a colonial power, is never considered an important episode in the western historical tradition as compared to the French Revolution or the US War of Independence. This silencing of a major world event (what happened) in western historiography (which is said to have happened) depended on the power of those who produced the sources, the narratives and the archives for the event (the plantation slaves, being illiterate for the most part, could not write their own history). However, Trouillot goes on to argue that it was impossible for the colonial powers, plantation owners and even liberal French intellectuals to write a different history as the revolt by a colonised and enslaved black population in the island of Saint-Domingue during early 19th century was simply in the realm of the unthinkable. Although from 1790 onwards there were slave-led revolts leading to a general insurrection (1804), the dominant view in Europe, America and among plantation owners on the island was that the slaves were a tranquil lot for whom freedom was a chimera. The blacks were considered capable of individual violence or even instigating a minor riot, but no one imagined that the slaves could organise a successful revolutionary uprising leading to an independent state — a state that abolished slavery many years before emancipation came to the British colonies in the Caribbean (1833), the US (1865), and Brazil (1888).

Trouillot is not making the case that the elite in late 18th century should have thought about human equality as we do today, albeit they were products of the enlightenment and wrote treatises (as did Jefferson) on the inevitability of equal rights. Rather, he postulates that it was impossible for them to think in these terms of equality. The events of the Haitian Revolution, Trouillot argues, challenged the fundamental beliefs of even the extreme left in France and England as it was unthinkable in the framework of western thought that the emotionally inept, the tranquil, and the unreasonable black person could be capable of such deeds.

I draw on Trouillot’s important theorising on the silencing of histories to focus our attention on some of the events in Pakistan’s own past. I am writing this article in mid-December and every passing year there continues to be a silence around what happened when the country lost its Eastern Wing in the December of 1971. Of course, in the past few years there have been some editorial pieces and a few discussions on television, but the history of that period is neither in our text books nor has any official recognition. To recall briefly, in the December 1970 elections, the Awami League emerged as the largest party, and it should have been invited to form the government and initiate the process of constitution-making. Instead, between January and March of 1971, the ruling military junta twice postponed the dates for convening the National Assembly. It also started an incessant drive to portray the six points, the major demand by the Awami League, as a conspiracy to break up the country. It is ironic that the regime had earlier permitted the Awami League to conduct its campaign on these very points for an entire year. Somehow they became a problem after Awami League’s victory in the most fair and free elections held in the country.

Then came the dreadful night of March 26, lest we forget, when the world stood by and witnessed the most brutal of violence unleashed by a standing army on its own citizens. The horror of that night, when many Bengali intellectuals, academics, students, political workers and common people were killed, is an unwritten and unremembered part of our history. This was followed by nine months of continued killings, rapes and general mayhem, further alienating the East Bengali population from a solution that could have kept Pakistan together.

In official circles, this violence was justified to maintain the nation’s integrity. The path taken did not save the country from the ensuing death, destruction and subsequent division, along with the humiliation of surrender by the Pakistan army to its Indian counterpart in December of 1971 (93,000 men). Perhaps the only viable route to avert this catastrophe for all sides was to convene the National Assembly session and respect the will of the people by handing over power to the majority party. The assembly could have voted for autonomy or secession, but it would have shown a democratic and peaceful way out of the impasse.

Another reason given for this intervention was to stop the killing of non-Bengalis. There is no denying that in the month of March 1971 killings, rapes and other atrocities were perpetrated on non-Bengalis in East Pakistan. However, we also need to understand that the postponement of the assembly session, which was scheduled for March 3, had generated a lot of anger and angst among the Bengali populace who read this as a blatant denial by the West Pakistani governing elite of their right to form government. Archival material has shown that the then governor of East Pakistan, Admiral S.M. Ahsan — one of the most decent and honourable public servants this nation has known — had earlier warned Islamabad that if the assembly session is postponed a second time, it would lead to widespread disturbances, including ethnic violence. Rather than heed his warning, Admiral Ahsan was summarily dismissed and relieved of his post on March 1, 1971. As the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed wrote in 1971, protecting the civilians was clearly not the motive for the intervention as the killings had continued for three weeks prior to March 25 as the generals sought extra-parliamentary solutions to the crisis. On the contrary, the subsequent military action led  to increased violence against Pakistani citizens (mostly Bangla-speaking), and also made millions cross the border into India as refugees. Indeed, every life is sacred. Yet, killings by vigilantes and excesses by political workers cannot be morally equated to the actions of a state and an organised and professional military sworn to protect its own citizens.

Collectively, we need to acknowledge this moment in our history, a period that has been systematically erased from our national discourse and popular memory. I bring up the events of 1971 to remember a forgotten past, but in light of Trouillot’s work to also think about why there has been an erasure or silencing of this history. What we have in place of history is a shelf full of memoirs of generals and bureaucrats who have written self-serving books about their involvement or not in events that led to the most significant political crisis in Pakistan’s history (starting from army officers like Siddiq Salik’s Witness to Surrender, the list is long). It is clear that most people in Pakistan get their history not from well-researched academic texts, but from the media (popular newspaper columns, television) or from discussions within the household (much like how most Americans in the 1950s and 60s learned about colonial America and the ‘wild west’ by watching John Wayne movies). No wonder our understanding of our past is based on versions of personal recollections presented to us as history. This dearth of academic reckoning is also shared in the field of literature where very few wrote about the events of 1971 (see Mohammad Umar Memon’s article on the subject in The Journal of Asian Studies, 1983). Barring Masud Ashar’s volume (Aankhon Par Dono Hath), some important short stories by Intizar Husain (“Hindustan se ek Khatt”, “Kachve”, “Shehr-i-Afsos”, “Aakhri Admi” and others) and some other minor work, most writers who have written about those days neither expressed empathy with the Bengali populace nor an acceptance of our own atrocities (although do see novels Sadion ki Zanjeer by Razia Fasih Ahmad and Raakh by Mustansar Hussain Tarar as more recent exceptions). Ironically, even the history and plight of those Pakistani soldiers and civilians who were made prisoners of war in India has seldom been recorded or understood (Siddique Salik’s Hama Yarane Dozaq is a unique rendition of prison life in India and Abdullah Hussein’s novel Nadar Log touches upon the topic).

My contention is that the erasure is not merely the result of shame involved in narrating the defeat of a standing army, or due to a desire to hide the atrocities that were committed. That may be the case, but borrowing from Trouillot, I argue that perhaps the liberation of Bangladesh was conceptually incomprehensible as a phenomenon by the elite West Pakistani establishment, its military and its intellectuals; it was an impossibility that became a fact. This non-acknowledgement of our past is based on the way we in West Pakistan thought about the Bengalis in general. At best there was a condescending attitude toward them, considering ourselves the elder siblings who would teach them civilising habits (“We taught them how to make roti,” I was once told by an aunt who had migrated from India to East Pakistan in 1947. One wonders why a rice eating culture would want to eat bread.). At worst, Bengalis were considered closer in their cultural habits to Hindus. Their women were less ‘decent’ because they did not wear blouses, they ‘reproduced senselessly’, were ‘weak’ and ‘submissive’. Everything about them was seen closer to nature, to the animal world. Our racist renderings found them ‘dark skinned’, ‘lazy’ and ‘lethargic’ — people who could not be trusted. Even when there were clear signs of Bengali political dissatisfaction with the proto-colonial West Pakistani rule, we could not imagine that it would culminate in a resistance so severe that our army would have to leave the region in defeat. The only answer we had after our surrender was that the “scheming Bengalis” (the children of Mir Jafar), the “traitors”, could not have done it without India’s help. Even in our defeat the heroic struggle of a subjugated people could only be attributed to the assistance of our worst foe, the Indians (who of course had Jats and Sikhs and the ‘valiant’ among them). Our inability to recognise the humanity of the Bengali people, making their liberation struggle unthinkable, I contend has also made us erase the history of the creation of Bangladesh from our memory.

However, unlike the slaves of the past, there are survivors present today who can recount the traumatic days of 1971. The history of that memory is part of an ongoing discussion in Bangladesh, if not in Pakistan. The important thing here, as Trouillot reminds us in his book, is not to merely redress the injustices of the past, but to also focus on how to prevent present day injustices. This is how the past enters our present. Even if we try to address this dark part of our history through a sense of collective guilt, like liberals often do in the West in relation to the history of colonialism or slavery, we still need to pay more attention to how can we rethink our attitudes toward each other in the present milieu. Are our notions in relation to the ethnic and sectarian violence engulfing Pakistan today based on older attitudes and stereotypes of distancing? Condemning past actions is important, but more important may be to march on the streets today protesting the killing of people due for their ethnicity, sectarian beliefs or religious difference. Trouillot argues that due to the human condition, opportunities for ethnic cleansing or the practice of genocide can always be renewed. Hence he reminds us of the need to be constantly vigilant of this renewal and struggle against such horrors; a timely reminder for all of us.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot passed away this past summer. He was my teacher.