Part II: Fluctuating witnesses

Dec 2012

This is the second of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971” by Naeem Mohaiemen. The first segment is here.

In 1993, I began an oral history project on the war through the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Although oral history work on 1971 was still relatively new at that time, an element of rote repetition had already crept into people’s stories. (3) While there was not yet a Liberation War Museum, there were some “known” sources and books. These would lead people to interview the same person who had already been on record multiple times (a masters thesis, another magazine article, an anniversary television show).

Everyone seemed to have a similar story of crossing the border, always aided by the kindly, bearded villager who would say, “Apa, apnara jan, ami thaki, aro lok ashbe” (Sister, you go, I’ll stay, there are many more coming). Whether that story was a collective legend (of the self-sacrificing noble villager) mingled with actual memories was difficult to parse. The stories of 1971, from these exhausted voices, would later remind me of Amitava Kumar’s interviews after the Gujarat riots of 2002: “I saw from the way in which he recited the details that, in the name of charity and the need for news, this little boy had been turned into an automaton or an agony-machine.” (4)

There were other forces at play that dulled the energy of storytelling. In 1994, Ghulam Azam, alleged head of Pakistani “Razakar” paramilitary death squads during 1971, finally received Bangladeshi citizenship. (Prior to this he had lived in Bangladesh on a Pakistani passport with an expired visa.) (5) The day the Supreme Court delivered the verdict returning Azam’s citizenship, there were riots in Dhaka. Burning cars and upended rickshaws were on the road as I drove to an interview. From that period onward, a dark mood gripped many of my interviewees. A malaise of kisher shadhinota (What independence?), already part of the body politic after 20 frustrating years, seemed to deepen after the Azam verdict. Aggrieved also by the gradual collapse of Jahanara Imam’s symbolic war crimes trial project in the subsequent years, they turned away from the “glorious” stories to a weary recounting of the ways the years after 1971 had failed them.

In Pakistan, my research focused on Urdu speakers (broadly referred to by Bengalis, often incorrectly, as “Biharis”) who left Bangladesh after 1971. Taken by the novelty of a Bangladeshi interviewer, people were energized and responsive. I was living in Karachi’s Orangi Town, and halfway through my stay the city was convulsed by gun battles between the government and the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). As curfew was declared, all schedules were thrown off and we retreated indoors for a week. But the pause brought an unexpected benefit: even more of a willingness to talk about 1971. “You see, this is what the Bhuttos did in 1971, and they are doing it again,” said one Muhajir seperatist in an interview. Others invoked the rupture of 1971 as inevitable, and subsequent rebellions in Balochistan, North West Frontier Province, and Sindh as carrying on that trajectory. (6)


3. Narir 71 O Juddho Poroborty Kottho-kahani [Oral histories of women in 1971 and their postwar experiences] (Dhaka: Ain o Salish Kendro, 2001).

4. Amitava Kumar, Husband of a Fanatic (New York: New Press, 2005), 21.

5. Professor Golam Azam vs Bangladesh, 45 Dhaka Law Report, High Court Division, 433, and Bangladesh vs Professor Golam Azam, 46 Dhaka Law Report, Appellate Division, 192.

6. Some of these experiences are described in the five part essay series: Naeem Mohaiemen, “Pakistan ki abar bhenge jacche?” (Will Pakistan break again?), Bhorer Kagoj (newspaper), 1994.

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5 Responses to Part II: Fluctuating witnesses

  1. […] This is the third of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II […]

  2. […] of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part […]

  3. […] of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part III | Part […]

  4. […] of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part […]

  5. Damian on Jan 2013 at 3:28 AM

    I don’t want to go by the argument that the guy was Hindu lokniog or having that wristband or had no beard. The point simply is what the hell was their navy doing with 20 odd radars always monitoring each inch of their waters. When fishermen cross the disputed waters, they are immediately caught! This is hard to believe, that they entered the city. Aren’t there checks on ports even if they managed to stay underwater from karachi to mumbai???and how about the ammunition, all from pakistan? they must have carried it in some cases, weren’t they checked on arrival? that’s truly absurd.

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