A few months ago I was watching an Indian movie called Ghazi Attack. Like many other recent Indian movies, it was dramatised to a great degree and based on the Indian Navy’s fight against the Pakistan Navy in sinking a naval ship called the PNS Ghazi.
Incidentally, the story had a lot to do with our Liberation War of 1971 -- even though someone watching the film, who is not fully educated on our liberation, would have been led to believe that the war had more to do with Indo-Pak conflict than the bloody fight for liberation between the two former sides of Pakistan that it was in reality.
The need for an objective and unbiased view of our Liberation War has never been greater.
Others are of the opinion it was all a part of a war between two super powers, ie America and Russia. Many even think that the creation of Bangladesh was nothing but the outcome of an age-old hatred between Pakistan and India.
I skimmed through three interesting books on Bangladesh’s independence: Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose, 1971 by Srinath Raghavan, and The Blood Telegram by Gary J Bass.
My friends didn’t like Dead Reckoning and a few of them even declined to lend me a copy. They thought it failed to tell the true story of our liberation; that it leaned more towards the Pakistan occupation forces, and, more importantly, favoured the Urdu-speaking Biharis in East Pakistan.
According to the author, the allegations of genocide and rape at the hands of the Pakistan army were greatly exaggerated. Many historians ignored the atrocities against the Biharis in East Pakistan to be false and self-promoting.
Although I thought the book was not a well-articulated one, I do agree with what Ian Jack said in his critique of the book: “A truth about the Bangladesh war is that, remarkably, few scholars and historians have given it thorough, independent scrutiny.
“Bangladeshis are prone to melodrama and self-pity.”
I have to emphasise what Sarmila Bose said, that there is a need for “research to be conducted by a credible team of international scholars in a systematic and verifiable manner.”
It is painful to see that our Liberation War could not arrest the attention of international researchers, as the World Wars, the Vietnam War, or even the Gulf War have
It does not matter to me whether it was political killing by the West Pakistan army or genocide.However, it is painful to see that our Liberation War could not arrest the attention of international researchers, as the World Wars, the Vietnam War, or even the Gulf War have.
Even people in the West don’t talk much about the 1971 killings nearly as much as they talk about Rwanda or other atrocities.
I quite liked the book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh by Srinath Raghavan. The writer thought the 1971 war was a significant geo-political event for India and Pakistan since Partition.
He thought the war tilted the balance of power between India and Pakistan steeply in favour of India, and that the line of control in Kashmir, the nuclearisation of Pakistan and India, the conflicts of Siachen glacier and Kargil, the insurgency in Kashmir, and the political travails of Bangladesh can all be traced back to the intense nine months of 1971.
Raghavan also contends that, far from being a pre-destined event, the creation of Bangladesh was the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance.
He thought the breakup of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh can be understood only in a wider context of the period: Decolonisation, the Cold War, and incipient globalisation.
In a narrative populated by the likes of Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, George Harrison, Tariq Ali, Ravi Shankar, and Bob Dylan, Raghavan vividly portrayed the prominent international cast that shaped the origin and outcome of the Bangladesh crisis.
In The Blood Telegram, we get to see Kissinger deliberately hiding the atrocities done by the Pakistan armed forces on innocent Bangladeshis. Nixon always admired Yahya Khan and considered him a friend. While Kissinger may have privately not thought much of him, he saw in him a supremely useful instrument to pursue America’s geo-political interests.
The author was right to say: “The months of killings were sustained by schemes radiating out from Washington.”
The War in movies
I have also seen two movies on Bangladesh’s independence -- Gunday, and Shongram made by British-Bangladeshi Munsur Ali.
In the movie Gunday, apart from the touching story of two young boys, torn from their families by the partition that created the nation of Bangladesh, and unceremoniously dumped in Kolkata with few options, we also get to see the long-drawn Indian version of the Liberation War.
In fact, most global stories on our liberation are the outcome of how the Indians perceived it. There’s very little we could have done.
Shongram is a romantic drama set in the backdrop of our liberation struggle. A daring reporter in London interviews a British-Bangladeshi freedom fighter on his deathbed in London, who finally shares his account from four decades ago.
While the movie nicely brought in the NBC news loops and Major Zia’s declaration of our independence on behalf of our Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, what I liked most was the way the movie ended -- spoiler alert -- the editor throwing the Bangladesh genocide story into the bin as the story is not yet marketable to the international community.
Unless Bangladesh matters significantly to the rest of the world, we may not get a true and more acceptable history of the emergence of the country beyond the story of Bangladesh being the outcome of an Indo-Pak war.
There are stories beyond that of a respectable nation-in-the-making, fighting an unjust war forced onto them and most of us being a part and parcel of that story.
Mamun Rashid is a leading economic analyst in Bangladesh.