AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan*
Dhaka, April 11, 2016 (Alochonaa): Controversies regarding Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 seem to be brewed relentlessly, even after four decades of independence. Yet we have another one. This time it is about the number of people killed during the war. Some people have expressed doubt about the number of the martyrs in the liberation war which the official records say three million.
It is unheard of a mainstream politician in anywhere in the world to challenge popularly accepted notions related to the Liberation War. Why does BNP leaders hold such a precarious position? Is she part of a new propaganda attempt which has recently been sprawling from London as a reaction to the war crime tribunal formed in Dhaka to punish those who committed genocide and other crimes against humanity during the liberation war? Or, is she doing it to defame the Awami League (AL) because the AL led the liberation war and the official figure of the dead was recorded during its regime? Or, is she taking her party back to the very premise of its founding?
In the wake of the war crime trials, a renewed effort was launched to generate new discourses to redefine the narratives of the liberation war to delegitimize the trial and to portray the trials as an event of annihilating political dissent by the ruling party. The war criminals and their sympathizers along with the opponents of the ruling party joined hands to lobby British and U.S. government and the United Nations to intervene to stop the trials. Responsible people in these powerful governments and at the UN tried to twist the arms of the Bangladesh government sometimes from behind the scene and sometimes through ill-conceived official statements expressing concerns about the trial. In parallel to this lobbying effort, we saw the publication of a book titled Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose, a former BBC presenter, by the C Hurst and Co. of the UK in 2011.
This book is a reconstruction of the history of our liberation war. It made some outrageous comments about our liberation war to abate the crime of the Pakistani forces. It claims that the Bengali liberation warriors who fought against the Pakistani Army also committed war crimes. It mischievously dubs the number of martyrs—three million—as a “gigantic rumour”. Any book, especially a history book, is written from a vantage point and with a goal to prove something. Bose’s book is no exception to this. It is written from the vantage point of the Pakistani occupation forces which committed genocide. Her objective is conspicuous that she wrote the book to bust the nationalist “myths” about the Bangladesh’s liberation war.
After the execution of war criminals Salahuddin Q Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Pakistan government condemned the execution and denied the commission of any genocide by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan in 1971.
Although there is no hard evidence to prove that the attempts of the foreign governments to stop the trials, publication of the book and the denial of the Pakistani government are parts of an well-orchestrated propaganda plan, the events are similar in their objectives: to unsettle the settled history of the liberation war. It is not a sin to unsettle any history if it is done for a rightful cause. I am not sure whether there is any rightful cause to unsettle the number of the martyrs. Are Begum Zia and her party any way linked with these unsettling efforts?
Reading the political culture of our country, one may surmise that Begum Zia has created controversy about the number of martyrs to defame the AL. One could also argue that the creation of the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) was an antithesis to the liberation war.
General Ziaur Rahman being a freedom fighter created the BNP by assembling politicians who opposed the creation of the country. He squandered the ideals of the liberation war by quashing some of the founding principles of the state. He revoked article 12 and 38 of the constitution to remove secularism from the constitution and withdraw the ban on religion based politics. He allowed Jamat-e-Islami and its leaders, who opposed the creation of Bangladesh and carried out genocides and other crimes during the liberation war, to do politics in independent Bangladesh. Given this history of BNP’s formation, it is not surprising for Khaleda Zia to create confusion about the number of martyrs but it is suicidal for her party. Her party is now on the back foot after leading a failed violent movement to topple the government. Her controversial position on the number of the martyrs will provoke the new generation to raise questions about her and her party’s allegiance to the ideals of the liberation war.
It is impossible to say the exact number of people killed in a genocide like what happened in East Pakistan in 1971. Europe is still grappling to figure out how many Jew died in the Holocaust. The number is claimed between five and six millions.
The Pakistan Army initiated the genocides on Dhaka University campus and at the headquarters of the East Pakistan rifles on the night of the 25th March and extended to the other towns and the countryside throughout the year of 1971. We have mass graves all over the country and heard narratives of torture, murder and destruction from almost every area of the country. A key role in exposing the horrors of genocide to the outside world was played by a Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas.
He was one of the journalists brought by the Pakistani government from West Pakistan to East Pakistan to write in favor of the military crackdown in East Pakistan. But Mascarenhas was so shocked and horrified to see the massacre in East Pakistan that he left Pakistan for London to break stories about this in Sunday Times.
It is shameful for us that after 45 years of the liberation war some of us are challenging the number of the martyrs.
However distorting the number will not deny the fact that the Pakistani forces and their collaborators killed, tortured and maimed innocent people and raped women in 1971to annihilate the Bengali nation.
* AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan PhD is a professor and chair of the Department of Television and Film Studies at the University of Dhaka. He is the author of Internet Governance and the Global South: Demand for a New Framework published by the Palgrave Macmillan.
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