A review of Prof. Haider Ali Khan’s book on Bangladesh’s War of Liberation
Regardless of whether their opinions match or not, critics and readers will unanimously agree on one thing – our struggle for independence and the eventual War of Liberation is all part of one grand narrative.
It transcends all the other events of Bangladeshi history during that period (from post-Partition till 1971.) Various works of fiction, non-fiction, recollection, historical anecdotes and others have been published afterward – which includes the Bangladeshi perspective, as well as the ones by Indians and Pakistanis, but they were usually authored by historians, war veterans, politicians and other individuals.
Prof. Haider Ali Khan, John Evans Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Denver, was a young exchange student who was in the United States during the crucial days of March 1971. It is through his book, Muktijuddher Dinguli :Probashe Alor Gan, we get to know about the experience of an erstwhile-East Pakistani about to come home after participating in a World Youth Forum symposium in New York, but through a phone call, gets to know vaguely from his American handler about the atrocities in Dhaka.
Prof. Khan, an eminent economist, has been an adviser to the United Nations Development Programme, Asian Development Bank Institute, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and many other development organizations.
Through the use of constant flashbacks and flash forwards (within the narrative,) readers get to experience what it was like to be a disillusioned youngster who does not know when he will be able to go home to his family, but at the same time, recollects the events dating back to the early 1960s as to how things got so far (and adding up to the grand narrative.)
Not only is the book written by Prof. Khan from the perspective of a Bengali sympathizer abroad, but also includes some of his personal anecdotes. For instance, his relation to Sheikh Kamal, eldest son of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, while they were active student politicians at Dhaka College. His acquaintance to Sheikh Kamal foreshadowed Kamal’s sharp acumen regarding political activism, which played a pivotal role during the War of Liberation.
Another interesting anecdote was his affiliation to M.A Wazed Miah, the nuclear scientist who went on to marry Bangabandhu’s eldest daughter and current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Prof. Khan wrote about how Wazed Miah had judged him during a scientific speech-giving competition and had befriended him ever since. He used to pick his brain about scientific theories such as calculus and differential equation, an interest he possesses to this day.
The element of Bengali nationalism has been highlighted throughout the book, using experiences of the author, such as the time when he participated in an anti-state demonstration on January 20, 1969. It was during the same protest that the police shot one of the protestors, Asad, and yet the protestors marched on with his bloodied shirt nevertheless.
The book also correlates with how the leftist parties had agreed with the Awami League during the 6 Points movement, but backed away during the subsequent 11 Points movement, stating that had they supported the 11 Points, they would have agreed upon the democratic rights and economic/class oppression and some other aspects contrary to the spirit of Communism (as per Khoka Ray’s memoir.)
As far as international perspectives were concerned, the book deftly includes the emotions portrayed by ordinary Americans, such as the host family housing Prof. Khan, the Jewish Hato family, expressing their anguish and solidarity with Khan over the reports of genocide which were reported as “West Pakistan erasing all elements of East Pakistan dissent” by media outlets such as ABC News.
The spirit of objective journalism, such as the ones reported by Sydney Schanberg, is also in the book. In one of his initial reports about the war, he had written that “despite the massive crackdown by the West Pakistani army, the spirited allegiance the people of East Pakistan has for their leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, renders doubts as to how a foreign army coming from a thousand miles away can suppress them.” Excerpts such as a rough map of East Pakistan depicted in an issue of the New York Times stated that the marked regions of Rangpur, Sylhet, Comilla and others are engaged in warfare between the West Pakistani army and the East Pakistani rebels. It was also one of the first reports from which Prof. Khan was able to deduce that a war was indeed going on in his country!
The author also sensed that a statement by Major Siddique Salik to foreign journalists early March, then stationed in Dhaka as the head of public relations for the West Pakistan army, had prophesied that “when you call in the army, it’s a last resort. The army would shoot to kill.” It was the morbid foreshadowing of the atrocities yet to come.
A landmark event in New York is also highlighted and given 2 chapters, about the “Concert for Bangladesh.” Prof. Khan got the opportunity through his handlers at World Youth Forum to personally talk to the concert’s main organisers such as the Beatles’ George Harrison, Pandits Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, Joan Baez and more. He described the atmosphere and how it enthralled even the most ignorant of audiences for a great cause, with the performance of South Asian classical music and Harrison’s eventual numbers, to help the people of Bangladesh.
The book is a testament of how Bengalis living abroad were dying to do something for their country at war, in whichever capacity. One does not merely need to take part in the war to prove their allegiance to their nation, but rather other aspects are always available and in need of manpower for execution, such as protest marches, demonstration rallies, human chains, etc. Prof. Khan’s recollections, while having considerable charm as personal experiences, deftly serves its purpose in the Grand Narrative of our War of Liberation