It is not often that an author makes the startlingly immodest claim that her book is “destined to remain unique”. Right at the start of Dead Reckoning , Sarmila Bose makes an elaborate case for the soundness of her study, while trashing other works on the subject.
Bose's book is about the bloody struggle in East Pakistan between freedom fighters on one side and the Pakistan Army and its supporters on the other in the final months leading up to birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Four decades later, as she says, there is a dearth of credible writing on the historic event. Even so, Bose's claim about her book being the first (or at the most, the second after Richard Sisson & Leo Rose's 1991 work) truly correct account of those terrible months is problematic.
In war, truth, as the adage goes, is the first casualty. At best, what dispassionate historians of conflict hope to do is present a part, or some parts, of a complex, multi-layered story, and through that make for a better understanding of the whole. Inevitably, even the most detached works end up taking sides.
Bose's book, which examines specific incidents of violence across East Pakistan from about January 1971 until March 1972, leaves the reader with the overwhelming impression that the author believes the Bengalis of East Pakistan only got what they deserved from the Pakistan Army.
Bose gives eyewitness accounts of the survivors of the incidents as well as the accounts of the kin of those killed, and of the Pakistan Army officers who had served in East Pakistan at that time. She approaches the subject with the élan of a journalist and the seriousness of an academic.
Tearing into the Bangladeshi claim that the Pakistani Army committed genocide of 3 million Bengalis, she calls it the “ultimate word-number combination” and a “gigantic rumour”, and scales down the figure to between 50,000 and 100,000. It is not surprising that this has already proved controversial. Numbers are always tricky. As one who was witness to a significant part of the Sri Lankan conflict, I know how parties to a conflict play with numbers. In any case, as Bose herself says towards the end, the numbers finally do not matter, although her book would have us believe otherwise.
For me, what is problematic was the moral equivalence Bose has sought to create between the actions of the oppressor and the oppressed, on the one hand, a full-fledged Army — with its superior training and firepower backed by the quiet acquiescence of a superpower — and, on the other, a people who, by her own account, were ill-trained and had no stomach for battle.
So we have the young liberation “fighter”, Rumi, who lasted just one attack on August 25, 1971. He and his fellow liberationists went to kill the police guards outside a Chinese diplomat's house in Dhaka, but finding none there, shot a police guard two houses away. On the way back, they shot their way through a checkpoint, killing two military policemen. Rumi was never seen again, although some others picked up along with him were released.
“[Rumi and other Bengali youth who signed up to fight for liberation in 1971] may have been naïve, but they believed in something — a cause that was noble … Ironically, those who opposed them also believed in a ‘noble' cause — the unity and integrity of their country. One man's freedom fighter is always another man's terrorist. If Rumi thought it was all right to kill a group of gatemen as he considered them his ‘enemies' in a war, can the other side be castigated for thinking it was all right to kill enemy combatants like him who had taken up arms to dismember their country?”
Bose puts down Rumi's disappearance as the “curse of custodial violence that is endemic to all of South Asia”, then goes on to say the Pakistani military personnel were “rather accurate” in picking up the right guys, not detaining anyone who was not involved. And then, citing the example of one rebel who got away, she concludes that “[the Pakistanis] did err in the opposite direction”.
Aside from being equivocal, Bose is free with generalisations about Bengalis and their “demonisation” of the other side and their hatred for the “Shaala Panjabi” or “Khan sena”. On the other hand, she highlights individual acts of kindness of Pakistani soldiers, narrating them with poignancy.
During a longish stay in Pakistan, I have heard some strong racist slurs against Bengalis. But for Bose, it was only the East Pakistanis who cast their struggle in terms of an “us vs. them” ethnicity. In her telling, the Pakistan military — whose dominance by Punjabis is seen as one reason for that country's many problems, including the tensions in Balochistan and Sindh — had none of that ethnic baggage.
Bose's interviews with the Pakistani officers who were involved in the “action” in East Pakistan are an important part of the book. But these seem to have none of the interrogative rigour of her interviews in Bangladesh.
Four other books are in the pipeline this 40th anniversary year for Bangladesh. Hopefully, Dead Reckoning will spur more historians, especially Bangladeshis, to take up the challenge of writing credible accounts of a momentous but under-documented event in South Asia.