April issue 2015
Bengali First or Muslim First?
One of the most interesting parts in The Colonel Who Would Not Repent — The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy is a conversation that takes place more than four decades after the bitter and brutal war that preceded the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Winzipped in the reproduced excerpts of that 37-minute telephone conversation between Sheikh Hasina and her arch political rival Khaleda Zia, sometime before the election of 2014, is the story of a country that is still struggling to overcome the bitter internal divisions that its war for liberation left behind.
It is astonishing that a serving prime minister and a former prime minister can actually speak like that to each other. But while it makes you laugh, their enmity — which besides being deeply personal, is politically located in the larger battle over the identity of Bangladesh that started in 1971 and never stopped — has had extremely tragic consequences for South Asia’s youngest country. Only a few weeks ago, a young blogger was brutally stabbed to death in broad daylight on the campus of Dhaka University, apparently by Islamic extremists. His murder made headline news across the world, perhaps because he was an American desi, but it was one in a long list of people who have been similarly savagely targeted in the recurring episodes of political violence ever since the war crimes trials began after Hasina came to power in 2008.
The trials, which have led to the conviction and sentencing of a number of Jamaat-e-Islami/Al Badr leaders and activists — some whom were given the death sentence have been hanged already — have threatened to tear open the very soul of Bangladesh, bringing back centre stage the question that was so decisive in the creation of a national consciousness in the years leading to 1971: Bengali first or Muslim first?
Back then, the resounding answer was Bengali first. Now, one of the two main parties, Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, uses Islam to project national identity and wins a consistently substantial share of votes in the elections. As Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star tells the author: “Bangladesh was the outcome of our nationalistic aspiration, but it has not resolved the issue of what is the place of our Muslim heritage within the context of secular Bangladesh.”
Tripathi, an Indian journalist and writer, has brought together his twin passions for storytelling and Bangladesh in a riveting account of how the promise of a new country that tore itself away from Pakistan was subverted by the initial failures of its founding father, then quickly thereafter by different members of an army inherited from Pakistan who wanted to “save the country” or just saw an opportunity to grab power. The two main inheritors of this troubled legacy, Hasina and Khaleda, could have made a fresh start after their joint struggle to restore democracy unseated General Ershad, but there were too many unfinished battles and too many scores to settle.
His narrative cuts a wide swathe from Partition to present-day Bangladesh, including first person accounts from the survivors of Pakistan’s military Operation Searchlight in March 1971 and a chilling bullet-by-bullet recall of Mujibur Rehman’s assassination. Tripathi has an entire chapter on one of the most horrific atrocities of the war, the systematic rape of women by Pakistani soldiers on a scale as to suggest that they actually believed this was one way to change the “nasl” of the population, as one general had sworn. It is impossible, writes Tripathi, to ascertain the exact number of women who were violated in this way but he makes the case that numbers do not matter as much as the monstrosity of this deliberately deployed weapon of war. At the end of the war, the government of the newly independent country announced that the women who had been sexually violated would be given full respect and honoured as “birangona,” the brave ones. Tripathi interviewed 28 birangonas, and each of their stories is contained in an appendix to the book.
The book also delves into the contentious question of how many people were killed in the yet to be born Bangladesh by the Pakistan Army and its allies in what was then East Pakistan in the nine months from March to December 1971.
Bangladeshis get angry when doubts are raised about the official version that nearly three million people were killed at that time. Nevertheless, Tripathi quotes the head of the BBC Bengali Service as saying that Mujib, who was the first to say three million in an interview with David Frost, might have confused lakhs with millions. He also compares the Bangladesh war with the civil war in Congo, where the number of people killed was first estimated to be 5.4 million, but later revised to 2.7 million. That would mean an average of 750 per day from 1998 to 2008. “Was the 1971 war up to 15 times more lethal than the Congolese conflict?” Tripathi asks.
Whatever the number though, it is known that many, many people were killed and the only way Bangladesh believes it can bring closure is by reopening the past and ensuring that at least some of those who were responsible are held accountable.
“The history of that had lain buried all these years because it was inconvenient to wake up those ghosts. The young want that sepulchral enforced silence no more. The past was unquiet. They want to dig open graves, and they seek answers. The truth that emerges may be uncomfortable, but it has to be faced,” writes Tripathi.
The ‘Colonel’ in the title is Farooq, the army officer who along with his colleagues planned the 1975 coup under the ambiguous gaze of his deputy chief of staff Zia-ur-Rahman, then a major-general in the army, who knew what was going on but did not stop the plotters though he was careful enough to distance himself from them. Farooq and his fellow plotters were hanged in 2010. Tripathi interviewed him in 1986. Farooq had just lost the presidential election to General Ershad. Wearing a ‘Panjabi,’ the shalwar kameez that Bangladeshis identify with Pakistan (which Tripathi calls ‘Pathani’), he responded to Tripathi’s tentative questioning on his role in the assassination with the confidence of someone who did not imagine he would be hanged for it one day because he believed he had saved the nation.
“Of course we killed him,” he said. “He had to go.”
The book records the speculation in Bangladesh that Pakistan was in league with the plotters. The Bhutto government lost no time in establishing contact with the new regime and granted it recognition as the legitimate government of Bangladesh. Relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan also improved. More coups and counter-coups followed. Bangladesh’s political flux since the 1990s is jokingly referred to as the ‘Battle of the Begums’ but it has long ceased to be funny. If there is something positive in Bangladesh in the chaos, it is its remarkable ability to build up strong social indices despite its poor political leadership.
Though the history behind 1971 is no more a secret, this book won’t be an easy read for Pakistanis. Tripathi recounts a story that a Bangladeshi who had been a doctor with the Mukti Bahini narrated to him. He told a Pakistani man in a pizza shop in Baltimore where he lives that he was from Bangladesh. “Bangladesh? What’s that? There is only Pakistan,” the man retorted. With Bangladesh determined to seek answers to the questions of history that haunt it, this is a book that Pakistanis should read.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2015 issue.
Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.