Monday, 19 December 2011
“Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War” by Sarmila Bose – Book Review
I’ve always wondered why India and Bangladesh aren’t better friends than they are. I mean, when soldiers from West Pakistan were carrying out a genocide in what’s now Bangladesh, one which caused the deaths of a few million Bengalis, India stepped in and helped the Bengalis gain independence, losing a few thousand of its soldiers in doing so. Why then do so many Bangladeshis want to have, as good a relationship with Pakistan as with India? Why are so many Bangladeshis friendlier towards Pakistan than towards India? Why is the Bangladesh National Party able to flourish in Bangladesh, even gaining power on a few occasions, despite being inimical towards India and friendlier towards Pakistan and despite being allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami which had collaborated with West Pakistan and opposed Bangladeshi independence? All these questions I had raised in this post dated March 2009.
I just finished reading a brilliant book by Sarmila Bose, a research fellow at Oxford, which has provided me with the answers I have been searching for so long. Of course, the answers provided by Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War do raise further questions, but it is a very good start in getting a fix on what exactly happened in the run-up to Bangladesh’s independence, something which ought to have been done decades ago.
Bose questions many of the commonly held assumptions relating to the events of 1971 which led to Bangladesh’s independence. Was there actually a genocide by troops from West Pakistan against the Bengalis of East Pakistan? Were the Bengalis entirely innocent victims and were Pakistani federal troops the only aggressors, as portrayed by most media sources? Finally and most importantly, how many people died in those turbulent times? Did three million Bengalis actually die at the hands of troops from West Pakistan? Did India actually hold 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as PoWs?
Bose tries to answer these questions by analysing various events that took place during that period, especially the massacres and interviewing various participants in those events, taking the trouble to meet with Pakistanis, Bengali fighters, Bengali civilians and non-Bengali civilians as she seeks to find if commonly accepted wisdom is indeed true. For example, in order to verify details of the attack on Dacca University on the night of 25th- 26th March 1971 which is supposed to have resulted in the deaths of 300 innocent students and professors who were killed in cold blood, some in their dormitories as they slept and some rounded up and executed in the University grounds, Bose interviewed army officers such as Lt. Muhammad Ali Shah of 18 Punjab who took part in the attack, studied tape recordings of radio communications among Pakistani army officers during the attack (which are preserved at the Liberation War Museum in Dacca) and reviewed documents prepared by the US consulate in Dacca. The attack on Dacca University is particularly infamous since one Professor Nurul Ula managed to films some of the killings and this footage is actually available on YouTube. Bose found that the students at Dacca University were armed and had trained for battle. The training was mainly with dummy rifles and the students’ weaponry was of course no match for that of the soldiers’, but the fact is that it was not a massacre of sleeping victims, but a two-way battle. Soldiers enroute to the University had to clear barricades of felled trees and on reaching the University, there was some initial resistance before the soldiers prevailed.
During the attack on Dacca University, Rokeya Hall, the Women’s hostel is supposed to have been attacked, with girl students having to jump out of their hostel windows to reach safety. Bose’s research shows that most girl students had vacated their hostel by 25th March and only 7 girls were left, all of whom stayed with a tutor on the night of the attack and survived. Some like Professor Guhathakurta and Professor Maniruzzaman were taken away from their homes inside the campus and killed. One Rabindra Mohan Das, whose father worked in the Provost’s office, and whose entire family was killed, tells Bose that 29 staff members were ordered to pile up corpses and were later killed. Rabindra Mohan Das and another boy were spared since they were considered too young. Brig (Lt.Col) Taj who commanded the 32 Punjab regiment told Bose that by his estimates, only 44 people were killed in the two main halls targetted. However, records of radio communication between officers who took part in the attack indicate that no prisoners were taken and that around 300 people were killed. The memorial at Dhaka University for the University’s faculty, students and staff who lost their lives during 1971 has only 149 names and so the number of faculty, students and staff who died that night has to be even less. Bose wonders what the real number is? Did the army men exaggerate casualties or were there fighters in the campus who were not students? Finally, Bose pertinently asks why the alleged mass grave outside Jagannath Hall wasn’t exhumed after the liberation?
The conclusions which Bose comes to are rather startling. According to Bose, the movement for Bangladesh’s independence was hardly peaceful or Gandhian, as claimed by many. Bengalis who were agitating for more rights and for freedom were usually armed with weapons ranging from rifles to sickles. In other words, they were not a peaceful bunch. From 1 March 1971 when the elected national assembly was postponed till the time the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1997, violent Bengali mobs and rebel fighters targeted Pakistani soldiers and their families and killed many. Despite this, federal troops exercised a certain degree of restraint. There were a number of massacres of Biharis which could be called genocide, especially because those killings did not discriminate between men women and children. On the contrary, when federal Pakistani troops massacred Bengalis, they usually let women and children go. Local Bengali Muslims were responsible for many of the Hindus who were killed or chased away from their homes. Greed for wealth and property was the prime motive for such actions. Many Bengali intellectuals killed just before the surrender by General Niazi died at the hands of collaborating Bengali outfits such as Al-Badr and Al-Shams (both commonly called Razakars) and not Pakistani troops.
Did India actually take 93,000 PoWs? The total number of Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan was only 34,000, plus another 11,000 civilian police and other armed personnel. India is right in saying it had 93,000 Pakistanis in its custody, but this figure Bose tells us, included civilian officials, civilian staff, woman and children. Pakistan’s President and Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen. Yahya Khan is given a clean chit by Bose who finds him ‘sensitive to Bengali grievances’. Bose reminds her readers that Gen. Yahya Khan actually ensured that the elections held were free and fair, thereby enabling the Awami League to win a majority.
Finally and most importantly Bose concludes that the total death toll from Bangladesh’s independence movement was neither 3 million Bengalis as claimed by Mujibur Rahman and as accepted by almost everyone outside Pakistan, nor was it as 26,000 as estimated by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, but between fifty to one hundred thousand and in this figure, Bose includes Bengalis, Biharis, Pakistani and Indians. If the Pakistanis had actually killed 3 million Bengalis or any other number close to it, one can be sure that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis would not be on good terms now. So many Bengalis would not have collaborated with the Pakistanis to the extent they did. We are given the example of two brothers, both of whom were in the Pakistani army. One brother, Maj. Gen. Imamuz Zaman of the Bangladesh army, defected to the rebels and the other, Brigadier Abul Lais Ahmaduz Zaman continued to be loyal to Pakistan. Both officers continue to serve their respective countries.
One can dispute Bose’s numbers on the basis that she has placed a great deal of reliance on her interviews with Pakistani army officers. Also, some of Bose’s suggestions and inferences can be challenged. For example, while investigating a massacre at Thanapara village, on the banks of the Padma, where a number of villagers had gathered, Bose tells us that before the shooting, the Pakistanis had accused the villagers of being Indians who had crossed over and explains that Thanapara is very close to the Indian border and at the time of the massacre, the water level was very low, making it possible to easily cross-over. However, we are also told that the men were segregated from women and children and only the former were shot. Surely, Indians wouldn’t have crossed over with their families, including children! However, Bose seems to be convinced that the soldiers thought the villagers were Indians who had crossed over.
Bose takes great pain to show that the killings by the West Pakistani soldiers do not amount to genocide as defined by the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide because they were not carried out with the aim of wiping out the Bengali race. Bose justifies this by explaining that on numerous occasions, men were segregated from women and children before being shot. In some cases, such as when a number of Hindu refugees fleeing to India were killed at a place called Chuknagar, the reason for killing was because the killers thought the Hindus would receive training in India and return to fight them.
With a few weeks after Operation Searchlight was launched on 25 March 1971, the Mukti Bahini were almost entirely crushed, though they continued to launch sporadic, but ineffective attacks which only succeeded in attracting reprisals. Indian forces therefore carried out frequent infiltrations into Bangladesh many months before the formal commencement of war in December 1971, using artillery, tanks and occasional air strikes to support the Mukti Bahini.
Why did the Bengalis start a movement for independence from their co-religionists just over two decades after fighting to break up India on the basis of religion? India was partitioned because elites among Indian Muslims felt that they would be marginalised in an independent India. In all probability Bengali elites started feeling marginalised by the Punjabi elite in the West and decided to have a country of their own. The Muslim Punjabi’s inability to understand the Bengali’s love for his language and culture doubtless played a role. Bengali hatred towards their countrymen from the west was focussed on the Punjabis, to the exclusion of other ethnic groups. Derogatory terms were used to describe Punjabis – such as Shala Punjabi (Punjabi bastards) or Punjabi Kukur (Punjabi dog) or Borbor (barbarian) or doshu (bandit) or noropisach (human demon) or noroposhu (human animal). Bose tells us that in comparison, West Pakistanis referred to the rebels as miscreants or Muktis or Awami League thugs. There were many instances of Pakistani soldiers helping Bengalis, but civilian accounts describe such soldiers as ‘Beluch’ or even Sindhi, though there were very few Baluchi soldiers in that theatre of war and in any event, the average Bengali civilian wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a Punjabi and a Baluchi.
Bose ends the book on a dramatic, but thought provoking note. ‘When the Pakistani army came for Sheikh Mujib on the night of 25-26 March 1971, he was apprehensive; the soldiers arrested and imprisoned him, accusing him of treason. When the soldiers of the (Bangladesh) army came for Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975 he went to meet them as they were his own people; they killed him and all his extended family present, including his wife, two daughters-in-law, and three sons, the youngest a child of ten.
Ultimately, neither the numbers nor the labels matter. What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different parties with a terrible human toll. The war of 1971 left a land of violence, with a legacy of intolerance of difference and a tendency to respond to political opposition with intimidation, brutalisation and extermination.’
I found this book, the main body of which runs to just 183 pages, with appendices and an elaborate and useful index taking up another 55 pages, difficult to read (though I read it over a single weekend) since the typeface is very small and cramped, making it strenuous for my eyes. The very matter of fact and clinical manner in which Bose discussed massacres and other atrocities did not make it any easier.