History 1971: One event, several histories

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 25 March 2016, 06:00 PM
Updated : 25 March 2016, 06:00 PM

Most people, perhaps everyone, was affected by the events of the Liberation War in one way or another. But the process of recollection and remembering has been rather limited in scope and inclusion.

There is a gap between what happened and what we think happened, collectively, individually or nationally.

This has happened perhaps inevitably because our history is split between an official war and a people's war. The two often converge but are also apart from each other as is obvious.

The nature of the war was such that it happened at least at two levels, if not more.

The official and governmental historical part was largely driven by political leadership, located in Mujibnagar. This was geographically external to Bangladesh.

The other part was social and informal, and was located within Bangladesh and not sourced by any formal governmental protocol.

The soldiers and partisans who came in from Indian sanctuaries, ran operations and then returned to their Indian shelter, were the link.

The other was the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. These were the bridges between the two parts, the official in India and the lived one in Bangladesh. People living inside could escape only by becoming refugees as many did. This division between the formal and the informal aspect of the war has influenced our perception of history as well.

While discussing related issues on a TV show, Muktijuddho Affairs Minister Mozammel Haq said that the official list of Freedom Fighters would be obtained from India, and that the number would be around 2 lakhs.

He had also added that an identification process would be initiated at the grassroots level because many claimed to be Freedom Fighters but were not so.

This identification process would involve asking such a claimant to describe the training camp in India where he went to and so on. So fake Freedom Fighters would be identified and reduced in number.

But this method also produces certain problems of who is a Freedom Fighter.

People who want to benefit by pretending to be Freedom Fighters, are not too many.  They can't pretend to be either unless they have political or other high connections.

Many of the Freedom Fighter pretenders will always be from the ruling party of the day, and that is because even fake claims need influence of network et cetera.

So such acts would involve going against the very people who are sources of power of the people who are investigating the fakes.

But instead of going to villages to do this, it might be more useful to focus on the urban zones where both privileges and fake Freedom Fighters are greater.

If memory serves, senior officials of the Muktijuddho Ministry were themselves caught with fake Freedom Fighter certificates. They were retired, but no punishment was given to anyone.

So there is a direct co-relationship between seeking privileges as a fake Freedom Fighter and being privileged to start with.

Almost all fakes are powerful and little can be done against them. Very few advantages can be gained at the grassroots level, so the chances of fake Freedom Fighters there is also lessened.

It's in the formal, official and governmental spaces that fakes proliferate.

Similarly, the opposite can happen too. It would mean that there are many people who fought or acted against the Pakistan army, but do not come forward to claim to be a Freedom Fighter.

The number is much higher than we can think because many people do not see this as an act of courage but as a duty, responsibility, or act of self-preservation carried out in 1971.

So they rarely think of themselves as Freedom Fighters.

In fact the connection between being a Freedom Fighter – an official show of support – and being an ordinary patriotic person fighting for Bangladesh as a country, is not made.

The chances of having done something but not seeking any reward for that is more common than seeking much without doing anything, as evidence shows.

It was this same process of identification, categorisation and glorification that affects even the way we look at the Shaheeds. How we say who is considered a shaheed is going to become an issue mostly when privileges and power are attached to it.

Some, including the minister, had mentioned that we may have to divide the shaheeds in 1971 between the "War Shaheeds" and the "Social Shaheeds".

One would denote those who died in combat situations, and the other refers to those who died in non-combat situations.

But how do we discriminate between those who died as a direct cause of war or fighting and those through indirect cause?

Where does a war end and the other begin in 1971?

Such situations arise because of the encounter between the official and the unofficial world, the governmental and the social world.

Since the war, and not just fighting was more in the informal sector, beyond the realm of the official world and since records are not kept as in the Secretariat, we know little.

Thus the desire to know has not been filled by facts, but often by conjectures.

The assumptive part plays a bigger role than expected in history-writing, and that finds its way to the formal space where order, laws, and rules which support power relationships are more present.

Thus a process of appropriation or induction has been taking place of the informal history by the formal, of the social by the governmental, as our genuine search for a national narrative as a tool for nation-state building goes on.

But does it produce the great national narrative? Or is there one?

The purpose of the two histories is a bit different too. The official histories are part of textbooks, legal rulings, political power platforms, production of a common collective memory that have specific "national" objectives in some cases et cetera.

They are therefore necessarily macro in nature and resistant to any critique as the purpose is not just to educate, but also deliver certain macro socio-political or legal services.

Its existence therefore depends on the direction of the ship of the government at a given political space and time.

A bureaucrat or a lawyer can even preside along with academics over this process as the space in which this history operates is certainly more outreaching and impacting and also better resourced.

It's a history that needs careful nurturing too because the space is formal and official and subjected to national paradigms.

The interpretative space also exists to protect the essential. This history also always dominates.

The other history is social in nature and is based on continuous memory of those who have experienced it.

This is also essentially micro in nature, because it deals with individuals, families, villages, or communities.

It deals with lived in experiences and relates to events in direct relation to the war.

It is about how people faced life, survived, or died in that year and then after the war was over, moved on with their lives.

In isolation, they have no great impact on the national scene, but together they constitute the people's history of Bangladesh.

And the 1971 war was also a people's war.

How therefore does one deal with the multiplicity of histories?

Quite simply, by doing history if you will, and focusing on research as best as one can and as honestly as possible without non-academic objectives.

This is, however, not easy, as many are not sure what "history" constitutes.

It seems that "national" historians prefer to deal with formal or official histories while those who live closer to the informal spaces, also deal more with social and micro- history.

Only the future will tell who has been loyal and committed to knowledge-making, which work will stand the test of time and remain relevant in history.

Someday, one hopes the two histories will find opportunities to have a conversation with each other, even if they can't converge because of the very different nature of their histories.