BIRTH PANGS OF A NATION
The latest book by journalist Salil Tripathi, is an important addition to the growing literature on Bangladesh
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
A couple of years ago, Dhaka-based writer and activist Afsan Choudhury wrote in Hardnews that “in the politics of Bangladesh, history is the major adrenaline”. Indeed, it is impossible to write about today’s Bangladesh without factoring in the violent circumstances in which the nation was founded. This remains the main point of conflict between the two major parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). History, in this tragic, violence-ridden country, moves brazenly undisguised.
In recent years, there have been attempts by academics and journalists to revisit Bangladesh from different standpoints. More recently, attempts have been made to explore how genocide could be perpetrated by an ally of the USA without really attracting the kind of opprobrium that comes from a society that considers itself to be just, and its media that prides itself in being fair and independent.
Gary J Bass’s Blood Telegram, depicts the helplessness of a professional and ethical diplomat, Archer Blood, who is unable to reason with an amoral foreign policy establishment, then headed by Henry Kissinger, on the horrendous issue of genocide in Bangladesh. Expressing moral outrage over the way democracy was being violently smothered in what was known as East Pakistan, Blood’s cables to Washington show how he pleads for intervention from his government even if it was the internal matter of a sovereign state to stop organised killings and rapes. Kissinger chose to make light of all mayhem unleashed by Islamabad as the US administration was using Pakistan to fix its China policy.
Bass was followed by another young Indian author, Srinath Raghavan, who built his thesis on the fact that Bangladesh’s independence was not foretold: it came about due to “conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance”.
The latest book by journalist Salil Tripathi, is an important addition to the growing literature on Bangladesh. The book expectedly deals with the exertions of this country to grapple with its identity and its troubled past. It is also about its dilemmas pertaining to its relationship with India and attempts by its political parties to comprehend whether there is a contradiction between Islam and its Bengali identity. Tripathi’s book comes at a time, when the Awami League government is busy hanging all those who were involved in the 1971 war crimes. The trial and the execution has come under severe criticism from all those who were surprisingly quiet when the Pakistani army had reportedly killed three million people, while thousands of women were raped.
For a generation that grew up in India of the 1970s, the birth of Bangladesh meant many things, including first lessons in philanthropy. People donated clothes, food items and everything that a million Bangla refugees may have needed to stay alive after escaping the bloodthirsty Pakistani soldiers, or the Jamaat supported Razakars. The perpetrators of this violence believed Bangla identity to be Hindu and believed that only Urdu could be spoken by the Muslims. This was part of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s partition project that collapsed with the liberation of Bangladesh.
Tripathi belongs to the generation that saw in the liberation of Bangladesh a reassertion of Indian nationalism. The good reporter that Tripathi is, he explores the faultlines of Bengal and how they may have contributed to what this region has had to go through from the partition of Bengal, to the famine and the violence and misery of Partition. Even the freedom movement of 1971 was linked to the desire of the Bengalis to assert their cultural and linguistic identity. Painstakingly, he delves deep in its cultural history and highlights the contradiction that would elude the Wahabis and the Salafis of how Bengali culture and language could reside effortlessly amongst devout Muslims. The fact that a unified Bengal was a Muslim majority state and still managed to preserve its culture that was described as Hindu says a lot about the secular traditions of Bengali Muslims. Although Bengal has seen communal violence in 1947 and later, it is possible to see the inherent secular soul of this society that celebrates Pujo and Id-ul-zuha –— both street festivals – with gusto.
For anyone looking for a book that will tell them everything that has to be known about the country’s tortured past and its troubled present, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is the one to pick up.