We had developed an assignment in our history course where we would ask the students to write a research based essay on 1971 events, As it is, the topic is not a popular one and the younger generation has drifted away from the issue due to many reasons including politicization of history.

However, what we would do is ask the youngsters to talk to their family members and find out about 1971 history. In other words, the switch was from a "national" history to a "family'' history and the result was amazing. Suddenly the scenario changed as the children could talk to their grandparents about what happened in 1971, matters of their own past that they had not shared with their own family.

The students reporting on the assignment process would mention that they had no idea that the history of 1971 was like that. They had grown up thinking that it was all gunfire and looting and rape and killing only. That all of these were there but also courage, humanity, sacrifice, livelihood food, shelter, life, living, suffering, resilience and the ultimate test of social survival was never known to them. It was wonderful to see the students discover the history of 1971 through their own self and soul.

What was also interesting to hear is the students say that a shared history had rekindled their relationship with their elderly grandparents. Suddenly they saw them with different eyes, as people of substance, who had survived, helped even fought in their own ways in a war and had played a role in birthing the land that we live in. It was for them a truly historical encounter with 1971 at the most personal level.

The Change today

I was invited by the University to take another semester course in the topic and - History of Bangladesh- and after a month - the time for the assignment came and the outline was duly shared. Students were fine with it but said that senior relatives were mostly gone. In fact most elderly people were gone so there was no one to ask for the information as none were left to share the past.

I think for someone who comes from that generation, the realization first truly began to sink in what had happened. We were losing the witnesses without collecting their testimony. It's not so much about neglecting the history of 1971; we had literally made sure through the process of our neglect that there would be none left with time to remember what was worth remembering. I am not saying its deliberate policy but by not collecting living testimonies we have ensured their death, intentionally or not of evidence from the direct witnesses. Now all that is left are groping in the dark or borrowing from other sources.

Why did this happen?

1971 history became contentious almost immediately after the war as a number of controversies arose which were political in nature. They became a debating issue because the stake was political power. Various political groups existed both within and outside the party in power and the conflicts centred on them. Such controversies and conflicts were natural because they reflected the problem in the wider political surface.

So these were not historical issues but political power based ones and controlling the narrative of 1971 became a major objective. Thus began the "convenient" narrative school of history and it has continued. No matter who comes to power, redoing and refurbishing of 1971 history will happen.

And they basically boil down to downgrading one individual and group and upgrading others, So the need is not for factual rendering of the past but the ceremonial and ritualized rendering of roles in history whose objective is not reconstruction of the past but strengthening the present.

So what is history down to now?

Because we don't care about the facts, we largely care about the symbols which can be interpreted in whichever way one wishes. So a great focus is on constructed burial mounds, genocide memorials etc. I was recently approached by a TV channel to discuss this issue. One of the reasons they were concerned was corruption in such projects.

But what was expected? That a mausoleum building project will be clean and free of corruption? This is what many don't understand. We have little history left and buildings, large and small are not histories but simply construction projects. They have a meaning only if and when the history is alive. It's not significant on its own which is why such monuments are just buildings, they carry no extra meaning.

If only we had cared and bothered to preserve history which was very possible, such memorials would be real and be able to connect with the people. That meant collecting the history through testimonies and documents. We haven't done that and now are in a situation where there are few witnesses left. Now we are truly free of the past and can use history to suit our needs without any interference from facts.

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