WHY isn’t there more cheering in Bangladesh as the country gets ready to mark 40 years of independence? So far there have been few efforts to rouse the masses, though the government did confer a posthumous prize last week on Indira Gandhi, as a way of crediting India for helping create Bangladesh in 1971. Ties between the neighbours are warming, with India’s home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, just in Dhaka to sign a new deal that is supposed to bring an end to killings along their long, shared border. But there is little evidence yet of ordinary Bangladeshis rushing to celebrate. Perhaps this is in part a reaction to official efforts to commandeer the nation’s history for fleeting political goals.
Bangladesh’s birth—the secession of the eastern part of Pakistan from the western bit—was painful and bloody. No one is sure how many people died: the total was perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, though the wildest estimates talk of millions of deaths and of attempted genocide on the part of Pakistan. In March 1971 Pakistan’s army (dominated by soldiers from the western part of the country) and their Bengali allies did carry out massacres in a brutal effort to quell the secession. That failed, provoking a more intense push for the break-up, floods of refugees and finally military intervention by India. By December 1971 Pakistan’s forces were defeated.
In the process however, there were many more massacres, retaliatory killings and a host of other forms of score-settling, such as between Bengalis and “Biharis”, non-Bengali Muslims who had moved to the territory during India’s partition in 1947. Pakistani forces were responsible for a host of horrors, such as a massacre of intellectuals in Dhaka very late on. But as a correspondent of The Economist pointed out on December 25th 1971: “It is often forgotten that the bloodshed in the spring was not all one-sided, and that the east Bengalis killed thousands of non-Bengalis.” After the war, as Bangladesh struggled to come to terms with its new existence, little effort was made to account for who did what.
Now, however, some efforts are under way to reassess that history. The official effort, directed by the current government of Sheikh Hasina, is to start a process of war-crimes trials. The first of these is supposed to get under way in the next few weeks. In theory this is welcome, and could indeed bring wrongdoers to account, even four decades on. In practice, there are strong reasons to doubt the process. These trials are to investigate only seven individuals (so far), seven who sympathised with the idea of a united Pakistan, but who deny any criminal wrongdoing. The facts that they happen to be leading members of the opposition today, and that the government has taken little advice from human-rights groups or international war-crimes bodies, cast doubt on the purpose of the prosecution. Nor is it reassuring that Bangladesh’s judiciary looks increasingly politicised.
The trials also happen to come amid efforts by Mrs Hasina’s government to claim more powers by amending the constitution, which will revert to a version which the country had instituted shortly after independence. Apart from some outdated promises (a devotion to Socialism with a capital S) and apparently inconsistent ones (all religions are to be treated equally—though Islam is the state religion—while the state is also secular), the resurrected constitution will make it easier for Mrs Hasina’s party to control the running of the next general election in 2013. On top of that, it encourages a personality cult around the figure of Bangladesh’s murdered independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Mrs Hasina’s father. Now the late Sheikh Mujibur is to be hailed as the father of the nation, and his portrait must be put up in every office or business. It all smells of emerging autocracy.
Beyond the government, too, there is evident touchiness over unofficial attempts to reassess what happened at independence. For example a new book by an Oxford scholar, Sarmila Bose, has drawn vitriolic scorn by reviewers and historians of Bangladesh. “ Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh war” is an effort by an Indian former journalist to interview Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who took part in, or were victims of, atrocities during the war. Her book is indeed flawed: it rushes to sweeping judgments and fails to offer much context for the snippets of interviews she presents. For its failings, the book deserves sharp criticism. Yet Ms Bose also does something rather admirable in raising difficult questions about the numbers of people who actually died in 1971, casting doubt on the official tally of 3m or so. And she speaks to perpetrators and victims on different sides, recording their testimony. In the process she provides a reminder that it is not for governments alone to write any country’s history.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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