Part VII: Conclusion

Dec 2012

Pages: 1 | 2

Waiting for Godot In the 1960s my father was a surgeon in the Pakistani army. Posted to Rawalpindi Army Headquarters in West Pakistan, he dutifully voted in the 1970 election and waited for the expected transfer of power. After the war broke out, Bengali officers who were trapped in West Pakistan were sequestered and removed from “sensitive duties.” At some point they were asked if they “optioned” for East Pakistan and when the answer was affirmative, they were transferred instead to prison camp. In this manner my parents and I (at the age of three) arrived in Bannu prison camp, and were later transferred to Mandi Bahauddin and finally Gujranwala. At adjoining camps were two uncles who were members of the Army Engineering Corps. When I ask my mother if it was dangerous, she says “We were afraid every day that they would finish us. No one knew what would happen next.” (52)

Finally in 1973, the Pakistan government negotiated our repatriation to Bangladesh, in exchange for the Pakistani POWs in India. Fokker Friendship planes, manned by the Red Cross, waited at Lahore Airport. When we boarded the plane, father handed our bedding to another Bengali family that was still stranded. The recipient later became the chief of the Bangladesh Air Force. At the age of four you don’t remember much, but I have a clear memory of my father driving his white Volkswagen at breakneck speed toward the airport. My mother was nauseous but he was afraid to stop, and so she vomited continuously out of the side of the car. It was some kind of homecoming.

Back in Bangladesh, everyone had already been promoted in rank, and they had not really counted on us returning. Suddenly there were too many lieutenants, captains and majors. By 1975, as tensions grew, some army officers started getting posted overseas. Six months before Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, my father was among many sent to work as doctors in Libya. While we were there we received news of the murder of Mujib, and later of my grandfather’s death. In that desert exile, there was a small milad prayer, and I couldn’t discern whether it was for my grandfather or Sheikh Mujib. I liked to imagine it was for both.

Later, as the counter-coups came, some of Mujib’s killers escaped and found refuge in Libya, much to our Bengali community’s chagrin. (Even back then, the Tripoli government specialized in giving refuge to international outlaws.) Finally, we returned to Bangladesh and now a military man was president. He wore dark sunglasses, made trains run on time and appeared in a white shirt exhorting the nation to dig ditches. He also faced saber-ratting confrontations with India. The 1971 “special relationship” soured very quickly.

During the bloody 1975 Sepoy Bidroho (Soldiers Mutiny), one of my uncles escaped the mutineers because his batman (personal servant) warned him to flee. (That same hated batman system was the one thing the mutiny succeeded in abolishing in the army.) All three of my family members eventually became senior officers. Beyond pride in flag, language, culture, and global standing, this is important at the granular level. The personal is political. A similar sentiment animated my older relatives who lived through Partition. An uncle who was a physics teacher woke up one morning in 1947 to find that many Hindu teachers had crossed the border into India, and so he was now “in charge.” The improvement of individual lives on a microscale often provides the collective rationalization for new borders.

Radical historians would argue that the subaltern actually remains in the same area of darkness, and it is mainly the Bengali Muslim middle class and elite that have benefited from 1971. Twenty-two West Pakistani business-baron families were replaced by 22 Bengali families, and by now perhaps by 500 families. As the late Humayun Azad argued in his famous polemic: Is this the Bangladesh we wanted? (53)

When I probe my family history, nothing seems settled. There are no simple heroes or villains— only people who made difficult choices: the cousin who fled his house to join the rebels, narrowly evading capture by the Pakistan army; the uncle who escaped being executed, although the rest of his engineering colleagues were mowed down by a Pakistani firing squad. Within the same family is also an uncle (the physics teacher) who remained in his job during the war, and for that became the target of post-1971 “collaborator” witch hunts. These same witch hunts moved Enayetullah Khan to write his famous editorial condemning the fratricidal settling of scores, “Sixty-five Million Collaborators.” (54)

It is possible that no one was more discombobulated by history’s earthquakes than my maternal grandfather, Syed Murtaja Ali. An Islamic historian, he was also the brother of Bengali literary figure Syed Mujtaba Ali. In 1947, Mujtaba wrote one of the first essays defending Bengali as the state language of Pakistan. (55) Unable to punish Mujtaba, who went into semi-exile in West Bengal, the Pakistani government slowed down the civil service career of Murtaja Ali. What was Murtaja thinking in 1971? He had already paid a steep price as a Bengali in “united Pakistan.” But he had also “optioned” for this same Pakistan in 1947, moving my mother from Assam where she was born. He had voted for Mujib, everyone had voted for him, but what did he think of the collapse of the “Pakistan” dream of his youth?

Every Bangladeshi family carries many such contradictions within itself—contradictions of impulse, afterthought, hesitation and bravery. But how they choose to remember all this varies, ranging from exuberant mythmaking to quiet soulsearching. The realities of people’s actions during war are always a combination of beautiful heroism and a liminal failure of nerve. It is a fundamental aspect of being human.

Bangladesh is still waiting for that human history of 1971.


52. Author interview, 1994.

53. Azad, Amra ki ey Bangladesh cheyechilam?

54. Enayetullah Khan, “Sixty-five million collaborators,” The Weekly Holiday, February 2, 1972.

55. Syed Mujtaba Ali, “Pakistaner rashtra bhasha: Bangla na Urdu?” (Pakistan’s state language: Bengali or Urdu?), Tamuddun Majlis, September 15, 1947.

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. A version of this essay appeared in the edited collection Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (2012). 

Naeem Mohaiemen is a visual artist ( and a PhD student in anthropology at Columbia University. He is the editor of Chittagong Hill Tracts: In the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism (2010) published by Drishtipat/Maunsher Jonno Foundation in Dhaka. 

Pages: 1 2

Tags: , ,

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *