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)

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