Dhaka Courier

1971: What next when history becomes so political?

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It’s common to hear that various aspects of 1971 history are being lost with time. It’s also stated that history is being misinterpreted by various forces. These words come from all but mostly from political quarters. A more unnoticed crisis is what the preservation of 1971 history faces, it’s politicizing.

People are not just interpreting history as per political convenience but by not recording history. Thus, they by default are playing a role in its fading away. Erasure of history is criminal but ignoring to record tantamount to erasure too. This happens at all levels as people tend to remember and forget as their political intents dictate.

Various camps and groups of history

Every year hundreds of books are published on the topic the content depends on the political line of the writer concerned. What to believe and what is to be ignored is based on the political identity of the writer. Hence there are many camps and sub camps within the historiography sector.  They all centre around the independence movement or announcement issue. The objective in the end is to identify how significant such groups were before and after the war. Apart from the main Sk. Mujib/AL camp which in today’s time is the main and official group there are 4 other sub-groups which are in full or partial conflict with each other.

The Tajuddn group: This is a small but very established group which sees the days before 25th March as most critical. They see Tajuddin Ahmad as the main planner who had asked Sk. Mujib to sign the Independence declaration which he refused. By not doing so, doubts are cast about his intent to declare Bangladesh free before the 25th night. Some have said he did declare it.

To this is added the experience of Mujibnagar and how the PM Tajuddin steered the war cabinet and made Bangladesh possible to be born. Many bureaucrats and advisers of Mujibnagar are close to this group and of course are quite disliked by the mainstream political Awami Leaguers as they are seen as minimizing Sk Mujib. The book by AVM Khandekar is a good example.

The Sirajul Alam Khan camp:  This group consists largely of JSD (various factions) member and they hold that the independence movement was led by them.  They claim special honour rather than privileges. The conflict around the objective of the 7th March speech is raised by them. they claim they wanted declaration of Independence. However, Sk. Hasina has contested them. Despite conflict a section of JSD has joined the AL government. They are very anti-BNP as they were decimated by the Zia government. Mutual hate has produced friendship.

 Another JSD group led by ASM Rab joined hands with Ershad and still remains close to SA Khan.  The followers of Khan were mostly members of the Mujib Bahini which the Indians set up in 1971 without the Mujibnagar PM’s full knowledge. It was not directly controlled by the Muiibnagar government and so hated by the Tajuddin group as well as the Leftists with whom they conflicted inside Bangladesh.

The CPB-Russia group: This group became strong in 1971 after the Soviet Union gave full support to the Bangladesh movement. Indian PM Indira Gandhi depended a lot on her advisers many of whom had close (ex) Communist Party of India links. DP Dhar, India’s Minister for Bangladesh affairs was close to both CPI and the Nehru family. This group is also close to the Tajuddin camp. Their influence waned after 1971 as India became unpopular and Sk. Mujib wanted to remain independent of the Indo-Soviet power axis. They believe that it’s their role in bringing SU to India that facilitated independence.

The Bhashani/Beijing Left/BNP group: This group is a mixed one but often is in power during BNP regimes and redoes the official narrative and textbooks on 1971 narrative. These people are loyal to NAP Bhashani and splinter pro-Beijing groups. These people consider Bhashani to be the “moral and just leader” of the Bangladesh movement and consider the rest as “bourgeois” etc.

They believe that AL is not pro-people and being housed in India was controlled by them in 1971. They see themselves as the “correct’ leaders of the people and refer to the “independent pockets” they controlled as true “independence” spaces. Later, after 1975 many joined BNP and as the pro-Left died, became BNP leaders. They are pro-1971 but anti AL and anti Sk. Mujib.

AL-BNP war of 1971

The AL group claims it was Sk. Mujib who declared Independence” and was therefore the rightful claimant. The other one concern the number of shaheeds which is cited as 3 million and much resources are now being spent to prove this.

BNP contests this claim and says that it was Zia’s Chittagong declaration that was first and Sk. Mujib was not pro-independence. BNP has also cast doubts on the number of martyrs as well. Now laws have been passed by the AL which makes claiming independence announcement by anyone other than Sk. Mujib and denying the number of shaheeds into a serious crime. It has happened in the last 5 years as the digital war between the AL and the BNP has exploded including on issues of history.

What next for the independent historian?

Given the above scenario, what are historians to do? Actually, Bangladesh 1971 history research beyond the political is actually limited and many focus on war skirmishes and descriptions of genocide.  What has remained uncharted is the history of common people and their contribution to 1971 and independence.

Institutional support has gone to army and other groups and much has been published. Now, a massive project focusing on genocide is on which is officially funded. From 1978 to 1988 a documents of 1971 project was on which published 15 volumes of documents supervised by professional historians.

Meanwhile, there are many scholars and writers who are keen to research and write on the topic but need directions and supervision. Most importantly they need training in grassroots history including genocide research methodology before embarking on their work. Field study based research is fundamentally different from doing documents based academic research.

Some researchers may need to be located outside the mainstream if political conflict is so high. The world of 1971 and its research remains unexplored and much is unknown. It’s also a fact that not many days are left before eye witnesses all die. The need to think of credible secondary narrative based history methodology will be a fact historians will also face. They need to develop a new methodology.

But clearly, the space that looks at official acts and narrative are limited and squeezed by political positions and the main space is social history of people’s experience of 1971.  Given that scenario, it’s important that historians from the outside began to organize to develop independent protocols and resource pools. The past needs to be remembered as it was.

  • 1971: What next when history becomes so political?
  • Issue 38
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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