1971: The myth finally busted

No, not by us – more’s the pity

 

Meherjaan, a 2010’s release of Bangladeshi film director Rubaiyat Hossain, was nota pro Pakistani film, yet created a rumpus. Despite partaking in many film festivals and bagging a handful of awards at International film festivals, it was removed from theaters after attracting sell-out crowds for two weeks. While seeing it from the Pakistani point of view, the hero was a negative character, as he is shown a Baloch Regiment’s deserter who fell for a Bengali peasant. Yet the portrayal of a raped woman and its representation of female during the Bangladesh mutiny of 1971 were not good enough for Bengali (and Indian) “viewers”. The radicals who dominate East Bengal’s society were not prepared to see a Pakistani soldier (no matter who he was) involved with a Bengali beauty in some Bangla film. The film’s stance was termed as against Bangladeshi nationalism and a main cause of restiveness among the audiences.

 

The problem was never with the movie but with the threat instead that was caused to the Indo-Awami narrative about atrocities allegedly committed by Pakistan’s Army. Rubaiyat Hossain is not the only one who was irritating the “stakeholders” but there is another woman also; unfortunately an Indian and that too from a nationalist family of a freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and she is Sarmila Bose; a researcher, historian and writer of international repute. Both the movie ‘Meherjaan’ and the book ‘Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War’, came almost at the same time that caused a great agony to the Bengali nationalists and Indian officials.

 

Ever since 1971, a demonising scenario was fostered, portraying Pakistan’s Army as the desperado allegedly committing war crimes like killing, looting and raping the Bengali women. Pakistan was in a state of shock, although it should have not been, since any sane could see the hurricane coming. The rulers of remaining Pakistan struck a jackpot as they were all in all, of what was left over. Yahya Khan and his conglomerate did what they could do to Pakistan under ‘unknown’ durance. The country was burning and Bhutto took his mighty friend Yahya to Sindh for hunting flying ducks only for him to be shot down as a lame sitting duck on 16 December. Yahya was never that dumb – at least his career reveals – but then who was accountable for turning him so incapable? We could have got the answer to this question only if we had got answer to the ambiguity about much awaited Hamood Ur Rehman Commission Report. Bhutto very smartly abridged his role out of Dhaka debacle. Army too was partially responsible but ‘Quaid e Awam’ wanted the army to carry the freight more than the facility and to bail out the political leadership with a clean chit.

 

The other cheeky maneuver was to ridicule the returning soldiers in the disguise of welcoming them with ceremonial splendor. Imagine how lethal this was – presenting them in the media as ‘the losers’ mortifyingly and then receiving them ‘affectionately’ on JCP Wagah. The strategy worked according to the wishes of the rulers. Timings clicked and the looting, raping and murdering allegations came with the package.

 

It continued for many decades until someone’s conscience awoke and Sarmila Bose; a Bengali who opened her eyes in a die-hard nationalist family thought to do some research on a number of episodes of the 1971 war in-depth since many Bangladeshis were grumbling that the world seemed to have forgotten the dreadful trauma of the birth of their nation. Hence, she started a logical delve into the 1971 war and soon found that there was a hitch with the story that she had grown up believing: from the facts that originated from the memories of all sides at ground level, noteworthy parts of the “dominant narrative” seem not to have been true. She was shocked to know that many “facts” had been embellished, fictionalised, distorted or cloaked. Many people in conscientious positions had repeated uncorroborated allegations without a thought; some people seemed to know that the nationalist mythologies were false and yet had done nothing to enlighten the public.

 

It was so irritating and threatening to the Indians and Awami League that even before anyone could have the chance to read it, Dead Reckoning started attracting negative comments. In her own words: “‘Myth-busting’ works that undermine nationalist mythology, especially those that have gone unchallenged for several decades, are clearly not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted”. It’s a naked truth that the scholars and investigative journalists have a vital role in “busting” politically partisan narratives and it was known to Sarmila too. Nevertheless, at the same time she firmly believed that most of the researchers and writers often fall for the seductive appeal of a simplistic “good versus evil” story – or fail to challenge the victors’ histories.
What else should one expect after turning against the state, picking up arms, getting training from the enemy country and killing own soldiers in the name of a freedom movement? Certainly you will not be offered roses. While playing cricket you can’t complain about the bouncers. So there must have been killings by the army too. Sarmila’s book, in fact played a vital role in breaking the victorious Bangladeshi nationalist side’s unquestioned repeated entrenched narrative of Pakistani villainy and Bengali victimhood. The reaction to the book by those who feel vulnerable was obvious; an effort to discard the book before it was available, writing of reports and reviews by people who hadn’t read the book and citing other scholars who didn’t even have the chance to see the cover of the book. The reason was purely simple and double folded; the well-founded fright of “information has influence” and that the book also recorded the brutalities by their own side, committed in the name of Bengali nationalism and unfortunately, its detection blemished the gyrate of Bangladeshi nationalist mythology – baddies versus goodies. Soon, fuel was added to the fire when the Indian generals including Manekshaw appreciated the bravery of Pakistan army and admitted creating and helping ‘Mukhti Bhani’.

 

As expected, the protests from this section are the shrillest. Why? Because the overriding narrative, which had secured prevalence around the world, was that of the victorious Bangladeshi nationalists and their Indian allies and regrettably they stand to lose the most in any impartial and unprejudiced assessment in the presence of this nerves wrecking book. Sarmila is being targeted only because she refused to repeat the partisan narrative or continue the conspiracy of silence over uncomfortable truths. Her achievement is taken as “betrayal” by those who have bagged for so long from mythologising the history of 1971.

 

What a pity that intellectuals from among the foes have awakening conscience and are determined to put the record straight while ours have a sleeping conscience and they take pride in receiving awards from the authors of appalling narrative.

Sohail Parwaz

The writer is a bilingual columnist, playwright and a media strategist. He has authored a predictive fiction titled ‘The Cornered Rogue.’ He can be followed on Twitter at: @penpricker



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