No easy binaries

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 24, 2018
Not black and white Women volunteers of the Awami League Party train with rifles in Dacca on March 27, 1971 after the imposition of martial law. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Not black and white Women volunteers of the Awami League Party train with rifles in Dacca on March 27, 1971 after the imposition of martial law. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy Salil Tripathi Aleph ₹595

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy Salil Tripathi Aleph ₹595

A valuable contribution about the creation of Bangladesh that looks beyond the triad of villain-victim-saviour

History can be viewed in large and small contexts. Salil Tripathi makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the creation of Bangladesh, adding to a literary corpus that remains surprisingly thin in English. In India, the events of 1971 have been viewed within the villain-victim-saviour triptych. And it is part of the “unquiet legacy” of Bangladesh’s liberation that the victim soon afterwards sought intimacy with the villain, even at the cost of estrangement from the saviour.

Tripathi does a fine job of narrating history in the larger context through the records and reminiscences of people who experienced it at close quarters. Dhirendranath Datta was among Pakistan’s more prominent leaders at its creation. In February, 1948, he intervened forcefully in a debate on language policy in Pakistan’s National Assembly, arguing the case for Bengali, then spoken by two-thirds of the people in the nation’s eastern wing. Denial of the Bengali identity was a trigger for the movement that culminated, a quarter century later, in Bangladesh’s freedom.

In the alienation between Pakistan’s two wings, the Khulna riots of 1963 and 1964 — part of an action-reaction sequence that began in distant Kashmir and caused massive aftershocks in eastern India — were a major episode. And then came the war with India in the year 1965.

Resentment was by then building up in East Pakistan at the supercilious attitude of the West. In 1968, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman put forward a six-point programme for reconfiguring the federation. He was arrested soon afterwards under the Agartala conspiracy case, but his trial did not get too far. In nation-wide elections a few months later, Sheikh Mujib emerged the victor, his majority in the federal legislature made up entirely of seats won in the eastern wing. The stage was set for a parting of ways.

Datta was one among many killed after negotiations over government formation collapsed and the Pakistan army launched its brutal crackdown on March 25, 1971.

Sundari’s is another moving tale that Tripathi narrates. A babe in arms when her mother was killed that same fateful day, targeted because she wore the marks of a supposedly enemy faith, Sundari was rescued by Ershad Ali, who knew nothing of her except that she was an innocent victim of bigotry.

Tripathi signs off with a description of a recent meeting with Sundari. Now grown to mature years, Sundari is a mother struggling to make ends meet by working as a housemaid. Ershad Ali is also present at the meeting and, in a moment of near-epiphany against a verdant countryside, Tripathi realises that these are the ordinary people affirming their lives while pursuing modest dreams who make their golden land, or sonar Bangla, what it is.

These deeply evocative moments are beautifully rendered. But Tripathi’s sureness of touch falters just a bit as he moves to the larger context. In 2011, Sarmila Bose published a book, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, which called into question the most dearly held assumptions about the liberation of Bangladesh. Several Bangladeshis who had extended their support, in part because of Sarmila’s lineal descent from the storied family of Subhash Chandra Bose, felt deeply betrayed by her conclusions. Tripathi examines her arguments and identifies certain clearly biased formulations. He then evades the larger question with the sweeping judgment that casualty numbers — the most contentious of Bose’s inferences — are immaterial, when Pakistan’s actions met all the criteria of crimes against humanity.

An uprising in the town of Kushtia is recorded as a key incident in the liberation war, though in general the freedom fighters of Bangladesh were, in Tripathi’s description, “uncoordinated, even isolated” and in a military sense, ineffective. Finally, it took India’s military intervention to turn the tide and make victory possible.

Tripathi is willing to extensively quote the then Indian army chief, SHFJ Manekshaw (later awarded the Field Marshal rank), about how it was his special responsibility to tutor an impatient political leadership about the strategic prudence of a delayed military intervention in the winter months of 1971. It is a colourful account, but one that has been discounted in other recent histories. Alongside, the question of motive remains to be probed. The humanitarian impulse was undoubtedly strong, but then history is not created by altruism.

In an account written after a career that took him to the apex of India’s diplomatic corps, JN Dixit in 1999 recalled a certain territorial anxiety that drove decision-making at the time. It was Pakistan’s unstated doctrine that the best defence for its eastern wing would involve military strategies coordinated with China. And a chokepoint on the Indian map was apparent in the narrow strip of territory that separated Pakistan, as it then was, from Nepal. This so-called “chicken’s neck” is a bequest of the 1947 partition, and a vulnerability that even Bangladesh’s independence and the 1975 merger of Sikkim into the Indian Union has not remedied.

At one point in his book, Tripathi scolds Sarmila Bose for getting lost in a numerical thicket and failing to recognise the “simpler, grand narrative”: “that a nation with two halves separated by 1,000 miles with little in common except faith, was probably a bad idea to begin with”. This geographical peculiarity was evident even to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. But then there is some irony in Sheikh Mujib, at just the time he was beginning the programme of nationalist mobilisation, arguing for reorganising the federation in accordance with the 1940 Lahore resolution, an event authored by Jinnah, which in Indian historical understanding led inexorably to the tragedy of partition.

The liberation of Bangladesh could be viewed as a settlement of debts accumulated at the time of partition. It could be said that all parties played a dubious hand, not from sinister motives but simply because they were victims of history. That may explain some of the “unquiet legacy” of the war and, indeed, its contested character within Bangladesh today.

Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

Published on March 06, 2015

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