Part I: Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971

Dec 2012

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The anniversaries remain the same—1952 Language Riot, 1969 Anti-Army Movement, 1971 War—but the names of actors change at a frenetic pace. After almost 41 years of independence, we are still paralyzed by basic debates: Which is the declaration of independence—Sheikh Mujib’s Ramna Racecourse speech, or General Zia’s Chittagong radio broadcast? These two speeches circulate with vigor whenever the parties that owe their legacy to Mujib (Awami League) and Zia (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) come back to power. The original, crackling audio may still recirculate, but now crucial seconds will be mysteriously clipped out. No wonder many choose to remain in willful ignorance about the many meanings of 1971. Perhaps they rationalize: it will change in a few years anyway.

With a majority of the population born after the war, we also have, at times, an uncomplicated, flattened, and corporatized relationship to history: an iconic image of Mukti Bahini guerrillas (freedom fighters), smoothly photoshopped into an advert for the launch of more branches of BRAC Bank, for example. Or the aged veterans of the 1952 language riots, filmed in bas-relief for a “30 Minutes That Shook The World” campaign commemorating the language movement but also marketing the country’s largest mobile telco Grameenphone (majority owned by Telenor Norway). Looking at the crowds of people at a midnight commemoration at the Shaheed Minar (Martyrs’ Monument), I remarked to my friend and collaborator, architect Salahuddin Ahmed, “This is good, isn’t it?” Growing up under the Ershad military regime (1982-1990), we remembered how celebrations of liberation had been driven underground. By contrast, this was shaping up as a tidal wave of consciousness. But Salahuddin gently reminded me that the ubiquity of tiger-striped head bandannas (advertising the number two mobile telco, Bangla Link, owned by Orascom Egypt) indicated the potential for a slide toward another kind of de-historicising: memory driven only by product placement opportunities.

I have remarked at public events that along with this corporate instrumentalisation of history, the greatest damage to the process of recording 1971 stories has been the involvement of politicians. They have repeatedly dabbled in the process of documentation and compilation— attempting to set up a reward-patronage system for loyal academics and punishment system for those who refuse to toe the party line.

Last year, the government announced an initiative to have the 15-volume Shadhinota Juddho Dolil Patra (documents of the liberation war) sent to government schools. A few days later, I saw sales agents with boxes of books from Hakkani Publishers, bound together with twine, waiting for their bus to arrive. Over the next few years, these books may find their way into many mofussil (rural) schools and offices. A commendable effort, but I worry, still — what happens if the opposition political party comes back to power. Does the Dolil Patra become blacklisted, as “incorrect history”? We have been prisoners of history for a very long time: Gilteo pari na, ugrateo pari na (Neither can we swallow, nor can we spit it out).

* This essay is the first in a multi-part series. A version of this essay appeared in the edited collection Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (2012). 

Naeem Mohaiemen is a visual artist (shobak.org) 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. 

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6 Responses to Part I: Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971

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