Monday, 24 November 2014
Book Review: The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, by Salil Tripathi
I have been fascinated and perplexed by Bangladesh (actually more perplexed than fascinated) ever since I became interested in international politics. One of the many unanswered questions I’ve had about Bangladesh is how the founding father of Bangladesh and almost his entire family, including ten-year old son Russell Sheikh, could be killed within less than 4 years of its independence. I remember once discussing this with a stranger on a train – I must have been fifteen then and my correspondent had made a claim to extensive knowledge of global politics – how Bangabhandu and his entire family could be killed by Bangladeshi army officers, who were unpunished as yet, then. ‘Mujibur Rahman was a good man, but he was surrounded by bad people, especially his sons, who were really nasty. One of them once abducted a senior army officer’s wife, just because he liked her and you know what he did to her, and the army officer couldn’t do anything about it. Just like that. They were above the law. The army men hated Majuibur Rahman and his family so much that when they launched their coup, they killed them all.’ It would be an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked. To be honest, I did not fully believe that story, traces of which can be found on the internet, such as here and here.
As I grew older, I kept looking for answers to my questions. I found some answers, but until I read Salil Tripathi’s latest book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent - The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, no one had satisfactorily answered my questions regarding Mujibur Rahman’s killing and the aftermath. Tripathi gives a number of interlinked reasons as he explains how the mid-level army officers who plotted and carried out Mujib’s executions not only succeeded, but also got away for so long, until Mujib’s daughter Hasina came to power in 1996 and set in motion the wheels of justice (or revenge, if you will).
The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is not just about Mujib’s killing and the delivery of justice (or retribution) to his killers. Rather, it is a concise history of Bengal, starting from the arrival of Islam leading to the East India Company’s rule and Curzon’s partition of Bengal. The 350-odd page tome ends in January 2010 when Farooq Rahman and Mujib’s other killers went to the gallows.
I found Mujib’s personality, as sketched by Tripathi, to be fascinating. Tripathi tells us that Mujib was a physically weak child, taking two years to complete his third grade. He also needed eye surgery and missed four years of schooling as a child. However, when he reached adulthood, he was tall and handsome. He married at the age of eighteen. He studied law, but never graduated. He became close to Suhrawardy and stood by him during the Calcutta riots, which Suhrawardy was responsible for. However, after Pakistan became independent, he was vociferous in his opposition to Urdu. In short, I got the impression that Mujib was an emotional man with charisma who, if he hadn’t become a successful politician, would have turned out to be one of those absolute no-gooders who drink tea at way-side stalls and pontificate endlessly.
As for the story that one of Mujib’s sons had abducted and raped an army officer’s wife, Tripathi merely says that ‘there had been rumours that an Awami politician had misbehaved with Brigadier Dalim’s wife at a party. He had complained to Mujib, but Mujib hadn’t taken the complaint seriously.’ This was only one of the various reasons why some army officers got really annoyed with Mujib and killed him, along with his family.
The reasons for Bengalis in East Pakistan wanting their own country has been well-documented and repeated ad nauseam. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, many in East Pakistan were angry that East Pakistan was left undefended. West Pakistan got the bulk of resources and development. When Cyclone Bhola stuck, West Pakistan sat back and smirked. On top of it all, Punjabis could not understand why Bengalis loved to sing and dance and follow other Bengali customs which seemed to be entirely “Hindu”. These are covered by Tripathi too and there are no big surprises. However, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent also provides answers to a few other questions which have tormented me for a long time. How could Pakistan and Bangladesh resume normal ties and become rather good friends, if Pakistani troops had indeed massacred over 3 million Bengalis, as widely claimed, I’ve always wondered? Also, if India had sacrificed its soldiers so that Bangladesh could be free, how come there is so much animosity towards India in Bangladesh? I have blogged about these questions in the past. Tripathi offers some answers. It should not be forgotten that East Bengal had in 1947 opted to be with Pakistan, rather than India. There are many more reasons which are of course much more nuanced than I could explain in the course of a book review. Do please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.
Did Pakistan play a role in Mujib’s killing? Tripathi does not rule out the possibility. How else could Pakistan come out in support of the new rulers within a few hours of Mujib’s execution? Tripathi wonders.
After Mujib’s assassination, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad took over power. Mujib’s killers received praise and promotions. Various leaders perceived to be pro-India were arrested and less than two months later, on 3 November 1975, the imprisoned leaders were executed in jail, allegedly on Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad’s orders. At the same time, a counter-coup took place on 3 November 1975, allegedly at India’s behest and Khaled Mosharraf took over power. Four days later, on 7 November 1975, there was a counter-coup to the counter-coup and Ziaur Rahman was 'the last man left standing'. Trust me, Tripathi explains all of this much better and in greater detail and you’d better hear it from him.
Interestingly, Tripathi tells us that when Bengalis in East Pakistan started to fight for independence, the Indian government had wondered if the Indian state of West Bengal also join the struggle and seek unification with Bangladesh. I found that funny. Tripathi is painfully dispassionate when he says that 'the decision to send the troops into East Pakistan was particularly hard and difficult for India, since its foreign policy was based on peaceful co-existence and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, in particular its neighbours. The policy was based on hard, cynical and practical reasons – India didn’t want the world to poke its nose in Kashmir, and it already had Tibetan refugees, it did not want to appear to be interfering in internal affairs of others.’
Did Pakistani forces kill three million people during the period from 25 March 1971 until the surrender of Pakistani forces? The strongest argument agains this number has been put forth by Sarmila Bose and Tripathi takes note of the various discrepancies in the mainstream narrative, but he does not offer a concluding verdict in this on-going debate.
Tripathi is a good raconteur, but never ceases to be a neutral reporter, always taking care to present both sides of the story. For example, as he examines the various types of discrimination faced by Chakmas living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other minorities in Bangladesh, he wonders why Bengalis who faced so much persecution at the hands of the West Pakistanis find it so difficult to be so fair to other minorities who are even more vulnerable.
Tripathi does not talk about the mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles' personnel in 2009, which ended in the deaths of so many officers, including its Director General Major General Shakil Ahmed and his wife. I wish he had. This is the only grouse I have against this book.
As the book ends, one is left wondering about Bangladesh’s future. As more and more young Bengalis are attracted to Islamic fundamentalism, will it go the Pakistan route? Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh was not formed on the basis of religion, rather, it was formed because the majority of people living in Bangladesh wanted to be as much Bengali as Muslim. However, if Bangladesh is as much Bengali as West Bengal, would it become a poorer cousin of India and this seems to be unacceptable to many in Bangladesh. I could go on, but I am going to end here with a strong recommendation to all my readers to buy a copy of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent and read it. Just like Colonel Farooq Rahman, you won't repent either.
The first three pages of this 2010 article in the Caravan form the prologue of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, in a slightly modified form.
Tripathi is also the author of Offence: The Hindu Case