1971 was and remains a watershed moment in the history of the subcontinent. But what it means to Bangladesh today depends on the use we make of its memory.
At a seminar discussing the 40th anniversary of the 1971 war, an older gentleman advised me, “You must strive to present shotik itihash (correct history).” I shivered and wondered who was going to decide for us, once again, what was correct history. Later, during a research session combing through photocopies of archival documents, I asked the custodian where the originals were. The documents he had shown me were pristine yet distant, copies of copies of copies.
The originals are long gone, he explained. Every time there is a change in government, an official inevitably comes down to the storeroom and asks to see what is inside. With a tradition of abrupt and forced pala bodol (changing of the guard), every state functionary assumes that nothing that came before his time will help his cause. Therefore, the safest path is to destroy all documents, which the official does with mechanical and unemotional efficiency. The cause is, of course, not documenting the war, but only of preserving the parts of it that can help the party in power.
Region’s youngest nation
1971 was and remains a watershed moment in the history of the subcontinent. It gave birth to the region's youngest nation through war, genocide and cascading superpower politics. It set a precedent for ethnic and linguistic self-determination, although the subsequent rebellions in provinces of Pakistan and India never resulted in self-rule. The creation of separate nations on both sides of India had a see-saw effect, stabilising regional imperatives but triggering new instabilities.
For Bangladesh and its peoples, the last 40 years have been tumultuous times. The way we try to remember, or forget, 1971 reflects our shifting relationship with foundational histories (and myths). As an independent nation, Bangladesh has no visible regrets about rejecting the “two nation” theory. The embers of memory, and tensions with Pakistan, keep reviving through unresolved issues such as war crimes trials and reparations, as well as micro-debates such as whether audiences should cheer for the Pakistan cricket team when they play at Mirpur stadium. The ghosts of 1971 keep returning to plague the body politic, reflected particularly in our troubled relationship with secularism. After 40 years, the main argument for separation of mosque and state still remains this: the Jamaat e Islami has leaders who operated wartime death squads. But what happens when 1971 memory is no longer sufficient to protect this concept of secularism?
Looking toward the future, the country has many stabilising achievements in the areas of economic growth, women's empowerment, infrastructure, and modernisation. As Amartya Sen highlighted in a recent essay, Bangladesh has half of India's GNP per capita, yet outperforms it on many key Human Development Indicators. Specific success stories, such as the NGO movement, and microcredit, have given rise to a positive image push, birthing initiatives like Brand Bangladesh (sometimes with elements of uncritical boosterism that parallel India Shining). But, for the elements that remain at odds with foundational narratives (the ethnic displacement of Jumma ethnic minority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the permanent economic underclass Hindu population), a gung-ho version of history is also an extinction threat — because it seeks to marginalise everything at odds with a triumphant, and majoritarian, Bengali nationalism.
With a majority of the population born after the war, we also have, at times, an uncomplicated and flattening relationship to history. An iconic image of Mukti Bahini fighters, smoothly photo-shopped into an advert for the launch of more branches of BRAC Bank. The aged veterans of the 1952 language riots, filmed in bas-relief for a “30 Minutes That Shook The World” campaign: commemorating the language movement, but also marketing the country's largest mobile telco Grameenphone (majority owned by Telenor Norway). Looking at the crowds of people at a midnight commemoration at the Shaheed Minar (Martyrs' Monument), I remarked to my friend and collaborator, architect Salahuddin Ahmed, “this is good, isn't it?” Growing up under the Ershad military regime, we remembered how celebrations of liberation had been driven underground. By contrast, this was shaping up as a tidal wave of consciousness. But Salahuddin gently reminded me that the ubiquity of tiger striped head-bandannas (advertising the number two mobile telco, Bangla Link, owned by Orascom Egypt) indicated the potential for a slide toward de-historicising: memory driven only by product placement opportunities.
I have remarked at public events that along with this corporate instrumentalisation of history, the greatest damage to the process of recording 1971 stories has been the involvement of politicians. They have repeatedly dabbled in the process of documentation and compilation — attempting to set up a reward-patronage system for loyal academics and punishment system for those who refuse to toe the party line.
Last year, the government announced an initiative to have the 15-volume Shadhinota Juddho Dolil Patra (documents of the liberation war) sent to government schools. A few days later, I saw sales agents with boxes of books from Hakkani Publishers, bound together with twine, waiting for their bus to arrive. Over the next few years, these books may find their way into many mofussil schools and offices. A commendable effort, but I worry, still — what happens if the opposition political party comes back to power. Does the Dolil Patra become blacklisted, as “incorrect history”?
After 40 years of independence, we are still navigating the basic debates. What is the foundational declaration of independence: is it Sheikh Mujib's March 7th speech, or Major Zia's Chittagong Radio communiqué? Is it both? Each time a new government arrives, the entire terrain shifts. The same audio may recirculate, but now crucial seconds will be mysteriously clipped out. No wonder many choose to remain in wilful ignorance about the many meanings of 1971. Perhaps they rationalise: it will change in a few years anyway.
Thus far, we have been prisoners of history, and for those wishing to break free of proscribed narratives, decoupling historical research from the political process is an essential evolution, to start capturing 1971 in all its complexities, its twinning of achievement and heartbreak.
(Naeem Mohaiemen is a writer and visual artist. His projects on 1971 include “we the living we the dead,” a site-specific art installation at Beauty Boarding (Old Dhaka), commemorating Hindu residents picked up by wartime death squads. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)