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Narratives of a war across frontiers

  • Published at 07:51 pm February 8th, 2020

Review of Anam Zakaria's '1971'

The courage of Anam Zakaria is certainly to be commended. There are a couple of reasons why that should be so. In the first place, she is young and yet attempts to handle history, a significant part of which happened before she was born. Second, she is a Pakistani whose sincerity in approaching the subject is beyond question. That said, any discourse on the 1971 crisis, as it changed political and historical perspectives in what used to be East Pakistan and subsequently emerged as the sovereign republic of Bangladesh, is certainly a challenging exercise for any author. The reason is simple, objectivity is all too often rendered vulnerable in the narration, leading to the danger of historical analyses mutating into sheer propaganda. And, yes, there are the many, not to say many-sided, narratives of 1971 that individuals who have written on the Bangladesh war have had to deal with. Not many have been able to overcome their own prejudices in setting forth their perspectives on the war.

For Zakaria, it is a broad—and indeed endlessly broadening—question of how people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh view a conflict which reconfigured politics as well as geography in South Asia. She makes note of the fact that 1971 features in Pakistan on an annual basis, in December to be precise, when commentators refer to Saqoot-e-Dhaka or Fall of Dhaka. What follows is predictable, in the sense that the factors which led to the war are carefully papered over by those in Islamabad who recall the conflict and are prepared to talk about it. But talking is essentially, with few exceptions, a selective affair. The fact that the crisis was engendered by a repudiation of the results of the December 1970 elections and a refusal to hand over power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is studiously papered over in the Pakistani narrative.

Zakaria notes these gaps, even as she attempts to understand the genesis of a war in her own quest for the truth. As a Punjabi, she is rather unsure of the reception she will get in Bangladesh, an important destination for her in terms of research. Her arrival in Dhaka is facilitated by an invitation from Shahriar Kabir.  Once in Bangladesh, she does get into some uncomfortable situations when she shares the stage  with the children of prominent Bengalis murdered by the Pakistan army and its local collaborators. Nuzhat Chowdhury and Shomi Kaiser do not mince words when they inform her of the visceral nature of their dislike of Pakistan. The good part is that the writer understands the sentiments and prefers to listen rather than offer a defense of her country’s army. Her conversations with leading Bengali intellectuals, such as Serajul Islam Choudhury and Muntassir Mamoon, are illustrative of the trauma Bangladesh’s citizens  go through even nearly half a century after their war with Pakistan.

Mamoon acknowledges the help his family received from the Bihari community during the course of the war but yet does not forget that members of the same community had assisted the army in hunting down Bengali freedom fighters and ordinary citizens. In Ferdousi Priyobhashini and Meghna Guhathakurta, the former having been prey to Pakistani military officers’ rapacious instincts and the latter having seen the soldiers shoot her academic father in the early hours of Operation Searchlight, Anam Zakaria detects few traces of hostility. She comes away from her meetings with them with stories of a tragedy which in essence affected every Bengali in 1971. The sense of tragedy, again, is still part of the life of Aroma Dutta, whose emotionally delivered narrative on the murder of her grandfather Dhirendranath Dutta and his young son have a deep impression on the author.

For Zakaria, the 1971 narrative is one of facing up to interpretations of a war that change through the crossing of frontiers. In Bangladesh it is a war of liberation she is being enlightened on, in Pakistan the fall of Dhaka is the song she hears. For Pakistanis, she notes carefully, history begins with the partition of 1947 and ends with the action against the Bengalis in March 1971. In contrast, for Bengalis, the 1971 narrative commences with the genocide on March 25 and draws to a conclusion with the achievement of battlefield victory nine months later.

But there is the Indian side of the story as well. In Delhi and in other parts of India, a simplistic idea is at work. The war is presented as an India-Pakistan war, conveniently ignoring the larger truth of the conflict being fundamentally a Bengali guerrilla struggle for liberation. Besides, 1971 does not quite resonate anymore among Indians, especially the younger generation. Nevertheless, the underlying sentiment in Delhi about the war is one of triumphalism. Having reached a stalemate twice in wars with Pakistan, in 1948 and 1965, for Indians 1971 was a decisive affair given that it left Pakistan sundered and the map of the old subcontinent reshaped a second time since the departure of the British colonial power.

Anam Zakaria dwells, as she must, on memories. But worries begin to take shape in the reader’s mind when her interaction with a few Pakistanis she speaks to—and they lived in East Pakistan prior to moving to West Pakistan in the midst of the war or before it—goes through quite a few contortions in the 1971 narrative. References are made to the large-scale "massacres" of the Urdu-speaking Biharis in Dhaka and elsewhere before the army went into action at the end of March, the clear and unambiguous implication being that the soldiers fanned out because Biharis were being murdered and needed to be saved.

Few, if at all, Pakistanis refer to the political crisis as it proliferated in March with the postponement of the session of the newly elected National Assembly. But, of course, there is that particularly enlightened, small section of Pakistanis represented by Ahmad Salim, Tariq Rahman, IA Rehman and Col Nadir Ali, whose perspectives on the crisis take the realities of the time into account. Salim went to jail in 1971 for his pro-Bangladesh poetry even as the genocide went on; Tariq Rahman, who, though inducted into the army, was  unwilling to be part of it given its obsession with war; IA Rehman, a lifelong human rights activist, suffered for protesting the military action in Bangladesh; and Nadir Ali, having seen action in Bangladesh, plummeted into insanity before emerging from it with a semblance of normality.

On a visit to the army museum in Lahore, Zakaria comes across a panel titled “Genocide of Pro-Pakistanis in East Pakistan—1971”, predictably an effort by the Islamabad establishment to rewrite history. A generous sprinkling of quotes from various sources underpins the panel, all of them in a state of denial about the massacres the soldiers resorted to in occupied Bangladesh for nine months. A positive aspect in Zakaria’s telling of the tale is her conscious effort to avoid taking sides. She begins as a listener and ends her account of the war as an observer.


On a visit to the Pakistan parliament a few years ago, this reviewer was shown what was given out as a wall of democracy along the corridor of the upper house of the country’s legislature. Four pillars were painted black, as symbols of darkness caused by the four martial laws Pakistan had fallen victim to. Apart from the four pillars, the wall sought to depict Pakistan’s history beginning with the adoption of the Lahore Resolution in March 1940. A quote from Dhirendranath Dutta in defense of the Bengali language is emblazoned on the wall, without of course any mention of his brutal murder by the Pakistan army in 1971. The reference to the 1970 general elections does not mention the results of the vote. The narrative moves straight to 1971, to note that Pakistan’s first elected government took office in that year. No mention is made of the political crisis of March 1971 and atrocities committed by the soldiers, no reference is there of how or why East Pakistan went out of the federation; nothing is there to suggest that a guerrilla war had forced the army into capitulation in December 1971.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer

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