1971: Whose history do we care about anyway?

bdnews24 desk
Published : 21 Feb 2016, 07:58 PM
Updated : 21 Feb 2016, 07:58 PM

Many years back, a man had once offered his daughter to me to take away as whatever I chose. The burden of a mentally ill girl/woman was so overwhelming that he wanted to be released, liberated if you will from the pain of having to live with her. I had listened to his story in a mosquito filled room in a dim part of the country. He told me that he often tells the story to visitors who seem understanding or kind. And then he offers his daughter to be taken away.

"History no longer remains history, it becomes politics. And by reducing the distance between the two, neither is served."

I was not prepared for the scene next morning as our car moved towards the gate. The old man stood holding the girl's arm beseeching me to take her away. The girl stood frozen faced – had probably stood this way several times before – not showing any emotion. My driver swerved to avoid the pair and the car hungrily hit the road leaving the guest house behind like a terrible nightmare. His daughter had lost her mind after being raped and it was a life imprisonment sentence on the family to look after her beyond their capacity and now beyond their will.

It's a story I can tell because the enemy is clear, the victim is identified and the crime is obvious; but any history that we live through is never simple. It's a journey of many travelers and pilgrims although not everyone is visiting the same shrine. For a country which is rooted in the events of a single year which contributes to nation building, though many years of politics and social struggle make it happen, how do we resolve the contest between what we want to know and what we should know?

The problem about the lack of an inclusive history lies in the years subsequent to the war when the challenges of governance were high and rulers found using history to bolster claim and legitimacy was convenient to establish power and status. A good example of this is the claim made by Gen. Zia and later his party, the BNP, that Zia declared Independence on 26th of March 1971. This claim was immediately contested by the AL who responded with equal heat that he was a false claimant and it was Sheikh Mujib who made the declaration.

Yet what strikes is that nobody really tried to look at the facts or make some connecting of dots. If one looks at Volume 3 of the "Sadhinota Juddher Dolilpatra", the first document is an announcement of Independence and the caption says, "Declaration of Announcement that went out in the name of Sk. Mujib" dated 26th March. Since such an announcement did go out and is found in different parts of Bangladesh, we must assume that some co-ordination and effort went into sending such a message out. It may have been in Mujib's name or he may have asked someone to sign it – no signature appears – but it is a fact that such a piece of paper went out. In fact, this announcement debate is not new and soon after his return many said Sheikh Mujib never did declare independence. Very soon, this declaration by ZA Chowdhury, an AL leader from Chittagong, was used to prove his status as a man who did make the declaration.

We never understood why the rush was to prove what Sheikh Mujib had done or not done since he was the supreme leader of the nationalist movement and no one doubted his status nor did he have to prove anything to anyone. Nobody actually had the authority to declare anything other than him in 1971, so it matters little if Zia or anyone else did. But it has taken on a life of its own and, surprisingly, the AL feels it has to prove a completely unnecessary fact. History no longer remains history, it becomes politics. And by reducing the distance between the two, neither is served.

But why it should be so is a question seldom asked. We are uncomfortable with our history and when we are not trying to manipulate it, we are trying to make sure that nobody can tell a story which is different from the one we think is politically acceptable. The problem is, it's not necessary at all because the power of public education and opinion is greater than any misinformation and propaganda. Its power is greater than any law to punish anyone who tries to denigrate 1971. A law is about to be enacted making any offensive remark about 1971 a crime, but is this law about politics or history?

The person who has created the latest situation is Khaleda Zia with her remarks about the number of shaheeds (martyrs), followed by Gayeshwar Roy's comments about the martyred intellectuals. But were they talking history or politics? And is the reaction through the enactment of a law an attempt to protect history or put Khaleda's politics into trouble? The case of treason against Khaleda points to the latter because the question remains whether we will learn more or less history because of this. Historical facts remain untouched but the turmoil is in the political space.

In the space reserved for national history, political history has been reduced to a controversy about a declaration and to calculations about the number of dead. Yet our history is much bigger than these two points. BNP-leaning intellectuals do try to put an academic spin on the matter when in power but it has little weight or credibility. The people really don't need political, objective-driven explanations of history and don't pay attention when they hear it. They should be able to learn history without fetters. But to be afraid of history is to be afraid of one's identity and birth.

Meanwhile, AL intellectuals have been calculating and putting forward various theories and calculations to say that three million were killed. Yet how this was stated in 1972 when the first time the numbers entered public discourse is not discussed. Now the number issue may become a point that will be guarded by law and stated due to fear of punishment rather than a manifestation of knowledge and research. The AL-BNP conflict which exists over every issue has caused a situation that has made free and independent knowledge-sharing almost impossible.

A bigger cost of this debate is the total focus on these two matters at the cost of histories of people and society. To most if not everyone nowadays, history is about repeating political narratives rather than exploring real life experiences of people. We are limited to tales of valour of the armed forces and politicians, leaving aside all other statements. We need to ask if there is any link between power and history writing because the national histories and debate are always about those people who are keen to gain state power. Who will tell the histories of ordinary people who sacrificed the most and gained the least? It seems the political parties are not interested in building an inclusive nation which begins with an inclusive history.

In the never-ending battle for political supremacy, the biggest price is being paid by ordinary people who have no history in the national narrative, no sharing of the victorious space. The law forbidding discussion on certain aspects of 1971 will not make the history of the ordinary people more visible. It will become an excuse used by the elite class who manipulate history to forget them even more. And if the enemies of the AL ever come to power they will enact another law to forbid another history. History will be crucified at the altar of politics.

I want to end by giving an example of the very histories that are being lost in the deluge of politics. It was in July, in the heart of the monsoon, and a group of refugees were crossing the Feni river, then in full force. An army operation had taken place a few days before so no boats could be found. The group consisting of a dozen men, women and children decided – in sheer despair — to cross the river using a clump of water hyacinths collected and tied together. They would hang on to it and hopefully the currents would carry them to safety.

As the perilous journey began, it became clear that they were too many and it slowly began to sink. A woman who was carrying an infant in her arms began to scream in fear and men tried their best to paddle on, using their legs. But these people had never done this before and their efforts were not very useful. It was then that a young girl, perhaps no more than sixteen, quietly let her hands go, releasing the hyacinths, and disappeared under water almost silently. The raft rose a bit and carried on and everyone was too afraid to do anything to save her. They were too busy saving themselves. The girl is no more, her history is gone, her name is not remembered and all such histories are buried under the burden of using history for politics.

In homage to the memory of the girl and millions like her whose history will never be written.
Afsan Chowdhury, Contributing Editor at bdnews24.com, is a journalist, researcher and university teacher. Author and documentary film-maker, he focuses more on the history of 1971.
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher