A Dhaka Debacle

Mujibur Rahman

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh. Four decades on, the history of the 1971 conflict and war remains controversial in Bangladesh. These disputes are neither merely academic nor purely historical. Rather, they have a real contemporary political resonance. The hubbub over the initiation of war crimes trials against collaborators with the Pakistan army testifies to this link between the past and the present. Sarmila Bose's book is relevant to many of these debates.

Bose's basic contention is unexceptionable. The 1971 conflict was not only about the Pakistani army's repression of the Bengalis. There was a wider mosaic of civil conflict, wherein some Bengalis killed other Bengalis, Bengalis and Biharis killed each other, and Bengali Muslims killed Bengali Hindus. But Bose's treatment is deeply problematic. For all her claims to "non-partisan analysis", the book is marred by a strong bias against the dominant current of Bangladeshi nationalism in 1971. The hallmark of this movement, she writes, was "violent xenophobic expression of a narrow ethno-linguistic 'Bengali' nationalism". Except when it targeted the Hindus, she claims, the Pakistan army committed only "political killings". By contrast, the "killing of non-Bengalis Biharis and West Pakistanis by Bengalis was clearly 'genocide'".

It is impossible to review the entire catalogue of evasions, obfuscations, omissions and methodological errors that suffuses the book. I will discuss only a couple of major technical historical flaws. The book examines a number of "case studies" of violence. The contextual framing of most of these is either skewed or missing, resulting in systematic misrepresentation of events. Consider Bose's treatment of the killing of Bengalis by the Pakistan army in March 1971. Yahya Khan was keen only on "returning the country to democracy". But the movement led by Mujibur Rahman was violent and armed. The major clashes with the army were actually provoked by the Bengalis.

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