Part VII: Conclusion

Dec 2012

This is the final segment of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI

Blind spots of 1971 | If not for a singular focus on the unresolved issues related to genocide, we could have by now probed elsewhere for a more complicated unpacking of 1971, some of which would have been productively jarring to the conventional narrative. Among many unresolved issues within the war is the rise of Bengali nationalism, and the failure to maintain it as a fully inclusive framework. While Bengali Hindus were a crucial part of the dynamic and the depiction of the 1971 struggle, the reality is that the Awami League, as well as other political elites, were mainly led by Bengali Muslims. While the process has been gradual, one of the ways this has hardened further in recent years is through the continued reduction of the country’s Hindu population, aided by the “Vested Property Act,” a holdover of the communal “Enemy Property Act” enacted after the 1965 IndiaPakistan war. Successive Bangladesh governments, and allied powerful individuals, have used this Act to grab Hindu property using a combination of court action, bribery, and force. (48) Although the Act was overturned in recent years, by now the population has shrunk considerably and is severely economically disadvantaged.

The other poison pill embedded within Bengali nationalism is that it has no space for nonBengalis, whether Biharis, flatland Adivasis, or the Indigenous Jumma (Pahari) people of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This surfaced immediately after 1971, when the constitution was being framed. The first act of protest against the new government on the floor of parliament was by parliamentarian Manabendra Larma, who opposed the constitution’s definition of only “Bengalis” as the people of Bangladesh. Larma announced, “You cannot impose your national identity on others. I am a Chakma, not a Bengali. I am a citizen of Bangladesh, Bangladeshi. You are also Bangladeshi but your national identity is Bengali … they (Hill People) can never become Bengali.” (49) The tragic history of the CHT from 1972 to the present day parallels the buildup to the 1971 war: a 20-year guerilla war for autonomy, slow-motion ethnic displacement by Bengali settlers, and finally years of betrayal even after the 1997 Peace Accords. To a Pahari, the coercive force of the Bangladesh army and Bengali settlers is possibly indistinguishable from that of the Pakistani army and armed Biharis during 1971.

One unstable dynamic coming out of the war was the longevity of the “undisputed” leader concept. The 1970 election results were a total victory for the League, due to Sheikh Mujib’s charisma as a politician who could speak to the masses, especially in the villages. But once the war began, fissures appeared within the movement. Khandaker Mushtaque of the Awami League was the first to allegedly make secret overtures to American contacts (later that same Mushtaque happily ascended to the “civilian leadership” after the 1975 assassination of Mujib). The ultra-left within the Bengali forces were also hamstrung by having to accept the leadership of the League in what some analyzed as the “battle of two bourgeois forces.” Bhashani’s isolation increased during the war, and the Indian leadership actively monitored him and at one point had him under semi-house arrest.

The Left’s challenge to Mujib’s leadership surfaced very rapidly after 1971. In the first university elections of the new nation, the League’s student front suffered a shock defeat to the communist-backed Student Union. The next elections saw another defeat to the socialist Jatiya Samajtantric Dal (JSD), an alliance that included people who had deserted the Awami League for more far-left options. The League then began a campaign against the JSD, including extrajudicial killings. While the JSD was being suppressed, the Maoists who had already been a growing force (and a source of paranoia for Indira Gandhi, who feared cross-border alliances with West Bengal’s Naxalites) grouped together as the underground Sarbahara Party. Their campaign of sabotage, targeted assassinations, bombings, and a successful national strike in 1974 (symbolically evoking, for some, Sheikh Mujib’s own national strikes against the Yahya regime) badly rattled the government. The Sarbahara Party leader’s execution while in police custody was one of several events delegitimizing the Mujib government. (50)

Another key tension left over from 1971 was within the army, as well as between the military and the civilian state. There were tensions between the returnee officers (who had been in Pakistani prison camps) and those who had fought on the battlefield. There were also leftist factions inside the army, as well as a confused amalgam of anti-India, pro-Islamist and other overlapping and contradictory strands. Also to be accounted for were the informal guerillas, who had to be taken into the army. Some were never absorbed, becoming freelance and unstable elements, such as Kader Siddiqui (because the international press was finally allowed in after the fall of Dhaka on December 16, Siddiqui’s public bayoneting of Pakistani “collaborators” remains the most widely photographed moment of 1971, reversing the narrative about who was the perpetrator of the majority of war violence). (51)

Resentment, as well as ambition, was growing even among those officers who had once called Mujib “Banga Bandhu” (friend of Bengal). The same Major Zia who had seized Chittagong radio and made the announcement of independence on behalf of his “great national leader” Sheikh Mujib, later became the ultimate beneficiary of the factionalized coups and counter-coups in 1975. Mujib aggravated tensions with the army by creating his own paramilitary units, the Rakkhi Bahini and the Lal Bahini. Eventually, the military responded with its own murderous logic, becoming within four years the same disrupter of democracy that the Pakistan army had been in the post-1947 period. The Bengali officers had already crossed the Rubicon by rebelling against the military chain of command in 1971. A Shakespearean tragedy was writ large when Mujib voluntarily came down the stairs of his home to meet the attacking soldiers on the morning of August 15, 1975. After all, he had faced down the far more dreaded Pakistan army in 1971 and survived to return as leader of a new nation. These were his own boys, they would not harm him.


48. Naeem Mohaiemen, “Rights of Religious Minorities”, Chapter 15, Human Rights in Bangladesh 2008. Ed. Sara Hossain (Dhaka: Ain o Salish Kendra, 2008).

49. Parliament Debates, Government of Bangladesh, 1972, p. 452. Quoted in Amena Mohsin, “Language Identity and State,” Fighting Words: Language Policy and Ethnic Relations in Asia Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

50. Naeem Mohaiemen, “Guerrillas In The Mist,” Sarai Reader 06: Turbulence (Delhi: Sarai Programme, CSDS, 2006).

51. The photographs of Siddiqui bayonetting prisoners have been used many times to try to “represent” the amount of violence carried out by Bengalis. Here is Oriana Fallaci’s hyperventilating recall: “They thundered ‘Allah-akbar, Allah-akbar.’. . . at the conclusion of the slaughter, the twenty thousand faithful (many of whom were women) left the bleachers and went down on the field. Not as a disorganised mob, no. In an orderly manner, with solemnity. They slowly formed a line and, again in the name of God, walked over the cadavers. All the while thundering Allah-akbar, Allah-akbar. They destroyed them like the Twin Towers of New York. They reduced them to a bleeding carpet of smashed bones.” (Oriana Fallaci, La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio [The Rage and the Pride], translated from Italian, Rizzolo, 2002). Note that Fallaci possibly fabricated her memory of the “Allah-uakbar” chant, an unlikely coda to a war that had, at least temporarily, made “Islamic” framing more difficult.

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One Response to Part VII: Conclusion

  1. Samina on Jan 2013 at 5:38 PM

    Terrific article in a terrific magazine. Thank you for the integrity, the courage, and the eloquence.

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