BANGLADESH: The Quagmire of History

A search for historical facts has become an act of treason and prejudice in Bangladesh

Afsan Choudhury Dhaka 

In the politics of Bangladesh, often, history is the principle adrenaline. It has not only given birth to the ‘foundational memories and myths of nationhood’, but is also the main point of contention between the two major parties—the Awami League and the BNP—that slug it out for power. It’s not just who did it and what, but, literally, what really happened, according to which party? Surely, in the public domain, history is more about politics than facts.

The official narrative of the nation’s history is told and retold, textbooks are rewritten, and media stories depend on which party is in power. It’s a bizarre history narrative production that flips out a new version with each regime change every five years. In other words, there is no nationally agreed history of Bangladesh. For a people who claim to be authentic products of historical evolution, this is more than a bit ironic.

So who declared the independence of Bangladesh?

This is a big controversy and cleaves Bangladesh along party lines. The Awami League says that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman actually signed a ‘declaration of independence’ before he was taken away by the Pakistani forces on March 24, 1971. But to whom did he hand over this declaration? To be broadcast or distributed? But, then, would it not have given the Pakistanis all the evidence they needed to prove that he had committed treason? He should, thus, have been ‘tried’ for ‘declaring independence’ by the Pakistanis who arrested him that night. 

The official narrative of the nation’s history is told and retold, textbooks are rewritten, and media stories depend on which party is in power. It’s a bizarre history narrative production that flips out a new version with each regime change every five years

An announcement did go out—at least in his name—to some parts of (then) East Pakistan- Bangladesh, though no original document with his signature or any other proof of authenticity has ever surfaced. The existence of such a document was not mentioned during the war period of 1971; but, after the return of Sheikh Mujib to Bangladesh in early 1972, this ‘declaration’ gained wide circulation through official announcements.  

Sheikh Mujib was an uncontested leader as few have ever been. He had no reason to inform anyone about such an announcement because nobody had challenged him on the matter. After all, if there was one person who represented the will of the people, it was him, and he didn’t exactly need any legitimacy.

Some party insiders argue that he perhaps felt that there may be party colleagues who might think that he didn’t have much to do with the ‘liberation war’; this could be read as political weakness by his enemies. Hence, he was plugging that hole. His absence from the ‘Mujibnagar activities’ made him uneasy, explain those who were close to the prime minister of the government-in-exile, Tajuddin Ahmed. Ahmed later became finance minister under Sheikh Mujib in 1972. He was killed in jail on November 7, 1975.

The real challenge to Mujib’s unquestioned role came after he was killed in 1975 by a rogue group of army officers (now mostly tried and hanged by Sheikh Hasina, the present PM) and Gen Ziaur Rahman came to power via a military coup. Zia was a war hero who had rebelled in the port city of Chittagong, leading Bengali soldiers and officers against the Pakistani army in March 1971. For a couple of days, this band of soldiers also held the radio station; it was on radio that Zia announced the fight for independence against Pakistan.

It was a significant event because whoever listened to radio at that time realised that the war had gone ‘national’ and Bengali soldiers had become part of the war. It was inspiring and over time became an iconic event. However, at no time did this replace the aura of the sole and supreme leader of the ‘nationalist movement’: Sheikh Mujib. Zia made more than one announcement but the surviving announcements or what most people heard, began by declaring the authority of Sheikh Mujib as the supreme leader of the Bangladeshi people.

As Zia consolidated power after 1975, largely against a possible Awami League resurgence, and then entered civilian politics in 1978, the advantage of having an iconic myth concerning the war of independence was not lost on him and his supporters. There was a shift; his party argued that he had made the radio broadcast unilaterally and was not instructed by anyone. Thus, he became a solo hero and not an ‘underling’ of the ‘supreme leader’ —an ‘independent patriot’ not linked to Sheikh Mujib. Ironically, Zia also allowed the re-entry of Jamat-e-Islami, hardcore opponents of Bangladesh’s independence movement, into politics. Their top leaders are now being tried as war criminals. 

Over time, inevitably, the facts got fudged. ‘Who declared independence’ became an ambiguous issue. That Zia served as a sector commander under the government-in-exile (Mujibnagar), which was headed by Mujib in absentia, and later, as a senior army officer in independent Bangladesh, didn’t matter to the debate. That Mujib alone had the legitimacy to make any declaration was not mentioned. It was not about history, but politics.

Dealing with rape has never been easy. Right after 1971, when ‘war babies’ were born, it became a difficult problem. Mujib, to lessen the stigma, termed them as ‘Biranganas’ (war heroines). It was soon twisted into ‘Baranganas’ (prostitutes)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012