Bangladesh history is far from black and white

To mark Bangladesh¿s 40th anniversary of independence, several writers and historians have revisited the details of the war, hoping to arrive at a more nuanced ¿ and ultimately more accurate ¿ version of its narrative.

A Pakistani sergeant, right, directs two members of the militia to defensive positions on the outskirts of Dacca, East Pakistan's capital city, on Dec. 12, 1971. A battle with approaching Indian troops was expected within a day or so after Pakistan's President Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan ordered the Pakistanis in Dacca to fight to the last.
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NEW DELHI // On a visit to Dhaka recently, the London-based writer Salil Tripathi met a woman in her 60s and began to talk to her about the 1971 war that gave birth to the nation of Bangladesh. Midway through the conversation, the woman began to weep. "I found out that, between March 26 and April 2 of that year, she had walked all the way from the town of Khulna to Dhaka, seeing hundreds of dead bodies along the way," Mr Tripathi said in a recent interview. "So many people I met there had simply never been asked about their memories of that time."

The nine-month war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan - now Pakistan and Bangladesh - was triggered by multiple grievances: underrepresentation in politics and the army, and a perceived prejudice against the Bengali language.

According to the official Bangladeshi figure, nearly three million East Pakistanis died over the course of the war. The word "genocide" has frequently been applied to the war's human toll. Fighting ceased only after Indian forces joined the side of East Pakistan.

But even after four decades, the story of the 1971 war is proving to be contentious. To mark Bangladesh's 40th anniversary of independence, several writers and historians have revisited the details of the war, hoping to arrive at a more nuanced - and ultimately more accurate - version of its narrative.

"My own reading is that Bangladesh is in many ways still coming to terms with the history of 1971," said Srinath Raghavan, a New Delhi-based historian. "How you look at 1971 defines, in many ways, who you are in Bangladesh's politics today."

Mr Raghavan's upcoming book places the events of 1971 within a wider international framework. "This was a particular point in cold war, when the US was trying to reach out to China, and India and the Soviet Union were drawing closer," he said. "So there was a constellation of forces coming together, which enabled this war to play out in the manner it did."

His book, Mr Raghavan said, is a broader look at the war. Other projects have attempted to elicit untold personal stories or to question assumptions about the war.

In the recently released book Dead Reckoning, Sarmila Bose, an Oxford academic, tries to question the arithmetic of the war's casualties; far less than the three-million figure, she has estimated that between 50,000 to 100,000 people died as a result of the war. Her book also discusses the slaughter, by Bengalis, of non-Bengali and Urdu-speaking minorities in then-East Pakistan.

Dead Reckoning has provoked a storm of debate in Bangladesh. In one op-ed on a Bangladesh news website, the economics professor ABM Nasir called Ms Bose "an apologist for Pakistani atrocities in East Pakistan in 1971" and wrote that she reminded him of Holocaust deniers.

Ms Bose did not respond to The National's request for comments.

Naeem Mohaiemen, a Bangladeshi writer and artist who was a toddler during the 1971 war, saw in Ms Bose's discussion of Bengali violence against non-Bengalis a straw man argument.

"Several Bangladeshis have analysed violence against Urdu speakers," he said. "In fact, it's the misty-eyed Indian narrative that force-frames 1971 as a neo-Gandhian struggle … But it's important to differentiate between mob violence of disconnected clusters on one side, and the systemic violence on the other side that had the backing of the Pakistan state."

Mr Tripathi, who in a review of Dead Reckoning said Ms Bose's methodology was problematic, agreed with the principle that the number of people killed during the war has been too easily accepted. "If it's three million, that means around 11,000 people died every day," he said. "That means it's about 15 times more violent than the conflict in [the Democratic Republic of] Congo. What happened was horrendous, but it may not have been genocide, as it has been described."

The Spectral Wound, a forthcoming book by the Lancaster University sociologist Nayanika Mookherjee, will examine another under-researched facet of the 1971 war: sexual violence. Long-held estimates of the number of women raped or subjected to such violence have varied between 200,000 and 400,000.

On Ms Mookherjee's website, a synopsis of her book reads: "This is based on extensive fieldwork in Bangladesh to examine the public memories of sexual violence of the Bangladesh War of 1971 and theoretically explore the various constructions of the nation."

The wealth of new research, Mr Raghavan said, indicates "a certain maturing of the national narrative, which is sort of the way we'd hope historiography would progress". Thus far, pinning down facts has been tricky. Mr Raghavan has pointed out, for example, that the Pakistani army destroyed a vast trove of government documents before it surrendered, "which is why even the tribunal's work is going slower than intended".

One way to circumvent this is to explore a multitude of personal stories, as Mr Tripathi and Ms Mookherjee intend to do.

"When I meet people and begin talking to them, for around 70 or 80 per cent of the conversation, they're very friendly," Mr Tripathi said. "But there are some places people just won't go. There are many unspoken histories in Bangladesh."