BANGLADESH: The Quagmire of History

In contrast, the Awami League’s rendition of history is not just partisan, but exclusive. Over the years, the 1971 war has become a ‘party war’ rather than a national war. It has created enormous resentment among those who belonged to the ‘cause’, and not the party.

Given that attitude, it is obvious that the Awami League refused to give any space to Zia and his party, the BNP, which, if one reads their documents carefully, never claims that Zia was replacing Mujib. They basically assert that his announcement from Chittagong was meta historic and not an addendum to the Awami League’s history, the party that led the liberation war. The BNP tries to get as close to Mujib by affirming that he ‘announced’ independence; but the Awami League refuses to give him any status at all—given their  current hostility.

There are no conjectures of history here. This debate has descended into a catfight. However, what exists or survives within public memory can be both iconic and mythical. Some part of the controversy can be explained by the people’s need to see history as they want to see it—idealised and in black and white. But, when such situations travel to the academic and official level, the disconnect can produce collective social schizophrenia as well.

Because history narratives change with every regime change, people are never sure of what really happened. It’s an oddly quizzical situation.  Since intellectuals are full participants in this party war, every regime produces their ‘own historians’ who support their own school of history.

To this controversy is added the contentious and tragic issue of three million dead and 300,000 raped by the Pakistani forces in 1971.  

One is not sure how the numbers got circulated. Once it was stated by Sheikh Mujib, it became official. Many say that he himself was confused between three lakhs and threew million; he stated the number but didn’t mean it. Hence, the problem.

A pertinent question is, how could anyone, including him, know the exact number, in early 1972? 

No survey has ever been conducted on the dead or raped, except the so-called ‘police survey’ in 1973-74. The survey’s results were never made public. Most people think the ‘numbers’ would be less, probably much less, since the number of 10, 000 killed every day throughout the war period is very difficult to prove and no such evidence has been found. But it’s not only risky to challenge these numbers academically—anyone who does so will be dubbed a ‘traitor’.  A search for facts has become an act of treason in Bangladesh.

Yet, the search for rape victims and a public disclosure was once considered correct, to prove the brutality of mass rape by the Pakistanis. Consequently, the ‘exposed victims’ suffered incredible trauma as such sessions became a shameful, damaging and humiliating process. 

Dealing with rape has never been easy. Right after 1971, when ‘war babies’ were born, it became a hugely difficult problem. Mujib, in an attempt to lessen the stigma, termed them as ‘Biranganas’ (war heroines).  But, it was soon twisted into ‘Baranganas’ (prostitutes)—reflecting the social attitude of the majority, and the difficulty of socially and politically addressing rape victims’ issues in this part of the world. The historical narrative itself became a victim of entrenched prejudice, chauvinism and discrimination.

Indeed, facts about the 1971 war of liberation are only sought if it serves a vested interest. The subject of history has become political, driven by partisan motives. There is very little space that is objective, impartial and independent. This becomes legitimate when history plays little role in nation- building and is more useful in conflict creation. Even reading history is not possible without taking a political position first.  The disturbing part is that it’s the academics and intellectuals,who are almost unilaterally divided along the two party lines, who choose to produce a kind of history based on political convenience. However, the truth is, in Bangladesh, it’s no longer just about remembering, but also about forgetting.  

The writer is a journalist based in Dhaka.

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