Reading and writing 1971

Published: January 12, 2012
The writer is an independent researcher who has also written for The News, Dawn, The Friday Times and EPW. She is also a member of the Women’s Action Forum

The writer is an independent researcher who has also written for The News, Dawn, The Friday Times and EPW. She is also a member of the Women’s Action Forum

Sarmila Bose’s ‘corrective’ account of the 1971 war of liberation, ‘Dead reckoning’, seems to have impressed most Pakistani reviewers. Javed Jabbar commends her ‘unusually balanced’ reappraisal of a war, in which he estimates as many West Pakistanis and non-Bengalis perished as Bengalis (Revisiting 1971, The News, December 15, 2011). Bose’s Oxford University association impresses Sarwat Ali, as the “impeccable credential” that qualifies her to “escape the awnings of prejudice” (1-9-7-1, The News on Sunday, December 11, 2011). Khaled Ahmed reads Bose’s book as an expose of the victimhood of Bangladeshi nationalism (The narcissism of victimhood, Express Tribune, Jan 8, 2012).

All three reviews quote Bose’s rejection of the exaggerated number of Bangladeshi lives lost in the war. However, the conclusion that Bangladeshis suffer from false nationalism because they ‘exaggerate’ the death toll of 1971 and suffer victimhood is simplistic. This notion disguises the fact that sentimentality over liberation has in any case, been steadily decreasing in Bangladesh over the years. This has been despite the ‘exaggerated’ cost of sacrifices and long before Bose’s book.

Bose’s project to correct the sentimentality associated with post-liberation Bangladesh leads Naeem Mohaeimen to refer to her as the “historian as avenging angel”. Unlike Pakistani reviewers, Mohaeimen details the methodological problems evident in ‘Dead Reckoning’ (Flying Blind, Economic and Political Weekly). These include Bose’s sympathetic bias towards Pakistani retired army officers who are the source of her information, while undermining the Bangladeshi interviewees. He also lists several omissions in the research process that give the impression that Bangladeshis have been in denial about the anti-Bihari violence. He lists all the critical essays and documentaries that have self-interrogated Bangladeshi nationalism over the years.

One of the thorny issues of employing a methodology that depends on oral histories is the temptation to expand anecdotes into macro-truths. But Bose’s book does not simply question the hyperboles of Bangla nationalism, it actively exonerates the Pakistani Army in the process. Says Mohaeimen on the bias inherent in the book: “Both sides may have altered death tolls in order to build world sympathy, but only one side is subject to cross-examination in this book.”

Yasmin Saikia’s recent publication (Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh, 2011) also looks to frame post-1971 as a time for reconciliation and repentance. However, Bose seeks to resolve the past differently. She draws on the debate of whether the targeted killings by the Pakistani Army can qualify as ‘genocide’. According to her, some missed targets of politically active professors at the University of Dhaka, or the fact that not just Hindu but all families were targeted, implies that this was not a genocide.

The reception to Bose’s book highlights how Pakistani readership presumes that before her book, Bangladeshi intellectuals and researchers themselves have never grappled with the contradictions of internal violence post-71 or as if the nation accepts a sanitised liberation process. This is an easy presumption because Pakistanis have themselves been lukewarm to the need for critical self-interrogation of 1971.

If Bangladesh’s nationalist narrative is replete with exaggerated numbers of atrocities, then Pakistan’s school textbooks have actively erased all or any crimes of war from the consciousness of generations. The proposal for a “rational, constructive, jointly-written history” is laughable when we consider that 40 years later, Pakistan’s Oxford University Press launched two historical accounts of 1971 — neither of them authored by a Pakistani. This sums up Pakistan’s academic interest and commitment to any such ‘joint project’. Bose’s version will serve Pakistan’s for a long time to come.

The discussion of 1971 generally, and reviews of Bose’s book in Pakistan have also ignored the issue of death squads comprising of Bengalis and aided by the Pakistani Army. Several members of the Jamaat-i-Islami of Bangladesh under war crime trials are shifting the very definition of war crimes. They deny they were part of these death squads and defend any “pro-Pakistani actions” as simply their effort at upholding the legal unitary structure. Such circumvention of moral boundaries by religious parties should not surprise Pakistani readers, especially since they have been so instrumental in the use of ‘strategic depth’ strategy later on.

Several reviews by Indian and Bangladeshi academics have been exasperated by Bose’s “catalogue of evasions, obfuscations, omissions and methodological errors that suffuses the book” (Raghavan, Indian Express, July 20, 2011, Butalia, Tehelka, Aug 13, 2011). I’m simply intrigued by the inability of a single Pakistani reviewer to objectively question these. Does the number debate over whether 44 or 300 were killed in Dhaka University detract us from the notion that this was a systematic cleansing operation? Why does Mr Javed Jabbar, in his review of Bose’s book, refer to these fairly self-explanatory atrocities against intellectuals as “inexplicable murders” committed “apparently by pro-Pakistan militias”.

Dawood Ahmed’s piece (Rethinking the Big Lies from 1971, ET, December 16, 2011) does not refer to Bose’s book but in reviewing ’71, he too references the ‘caveat’ of number exaggeration and advises Bangladeshis to avoid the corruption of propaganda. It’s all very well to advise the other side but why is there a silence over what Bose’s book does to our collective conscience? How come we don’t read the underlying exoneration of army officers whose recollection of motivating impulse is now fogged with time and their ages? Do ethnographic recounts via politesse methodology count as reliable academic work, or does it just reinforce hegemonic historical narratives? When will we open up the memory holes which we conveniently shove all uncomfortable political events? What is it about Bangladesh that suggests we should annul, apologise and move on (simultaneously or consecutively, according to Jabbar)? But with India, we regale in nostalgic reconstructions and insist on the shared intellectual, economic and artistic possibilities through endless conferences, dialogue and Aman ki Ashas.

Bangladesh has redefined itself as a politically secular country, has always carried a rich intellectual history, harbours a wealth of artistic talent, is ahead of Pakistan in the indices of democracy and runs an economy that has outpaced Pakistan’s with a steady growth rate even in the last three years (see S Akbar Zaidi, Success and Failure, Dawn, April 1, 2011). Not quite victim. Are they only worthy of gentle reprimand to ‘get over it’, or an apology for our “brothers and sisters alas, separated” (Jabbar), or can they serve as a model for active instruction for Pakistanis instead? Balochistan awaits the lessons learned of Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Bose has not helped towards breaking the myths of a neutral Pakistani nationalism, even as she seeks closure for Bangladesh’s apparently self-perpetuating victimhood (Khaled Ahmed). More importantly, what do our readings of Bose’s book say about the stagnation and recycling of Pakistani nationalism?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Samir
    Jan 12, 2012 - 1:17AM

    Great article. Pakistan wants to live in delusion. It’s the only way we can convince ourselves that our worthless military is actually “powerful” or good at anything it does.


  • yousaf
    Jan 12, 2012 - 2:49AM

    After we came to know who caused the fall of dhaka we sure will take action against him/them/that/what??/how/who/when etc,you do not worry we never forget if we can remember.


  • Mansur Ali Khan
    Jan 12, 2012 - 3:36AM

    Bose’s book is a complete bakwaas. I was amazed to see that it got so much traction with Jabed Jabbar and Khaled Ahmed, apart from many in Pakistani civil society. That raises the question of Jabbar’s and Ahmed’s so-called scholarship ability and the articles they have written so far. I know what happened from 25 March 1971 onwards till 16 December 1971. Because I was there. If it were another country, lot of khakis would be marching towards the gallows including Tikka Khan, the butcher.As for Bangladesh, I understand nobody there cares for Bose.


  • Zalim singh
    Jan 12, 2012 - 6:06AM

    @ Afiya S Zia

    excellant and brave article from you mam. Bangladesh has moved on from 1971 and very fast. It is Pakistan which is yet to recover from 1971 war- even though they had everything served on a platter after their glorious defeat. 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were captured by Indian army and they went home with dignity. Ms.Bose even wants to argue on this figure- she says it is much less.

    I saw a India-Pakistan hockey match played in Dhaka. Bangladeshi fans were virulent in thier support of Pakistan. Pakistan won on penality strokes and the Bangladeshi crowd went mad. They do not even want to support India. Just Pakistan. This was a match in late 80s. Which means they are recovered 20 years after the war. Pakistan is yet to. They should agree what happened and close the chapter- Just like Germans after the ww2. They never went into defensive mode on the number of Jews killed, They never had a Ms.Bose to defend their honour.

    Speaking of Ms.Bose- she has a history of defending invaders of India. She goes to the extent of accusing the death of Hindus in Bangladesh as the doings of Bangladeshis – not Pakistani army.Recommend

  • Ashok
    Jan 12, 2012 - 7:42AM

    The author displays a level of intellectual awareness and demonstrates a thought process imbued with the sort of rigor that is unfortunately in severe shortage in the Indian subcontinent. Hope to see more articles by Afia Zia in ET.


  • Indian
    Jan 12, 2012 - 8:46AM

    It is powerful dude. Surely it is powerful…. Only at coups, threatening civilian govt.. But as an fighting force, you have the record before you. Bangladesh in 1971, Baluchistan to happen in another 1-2 decades and not to mention the incompetence when it comes to dealing with extremists/terrorists even with the military and economic support of the world’s biggest power! – America..


  • NA
    Jan 12, 2012 - 2:01PM

    What about thousands of Pakistani/ non-Bangladeshi civilians that were brutally killed in that war by Mukti-Bahini thugs and Pakistani Army who fought with two enemies and gave their lives for protecting the country no matter if they lost the war because it couldn’t be win in that situation. Shouldn’t Pakistan ask for apology from Bangladesh as well.


  • Abhi
    Jan 12, 2012 - 2:23PM

    Sharmila Bose has raised the bar of Pakistani historians. Now it is really tough for them to get any more favourable account of the war. It is a conspiracy that an Indian is trying to take the credit of correctly writing history. All historian of Pakistan must scramble and provide even better version of events.


  • Jack
    Jan 12, 2012 - 3:05PM

    Why the jingoism? We fared pretty badly in the 1962 China war and in the misguided IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka. Let’s not be holier than thou, especially when a few Pakistanis truly are in an introspection mode. I hope that the current crisis blows over soon, resulting in a stronger democratic set-up and reduced scope for future extra-constitutional interventions by the Pak army.


  • Indian
    Jan 12, 2012 - 4:58PM

    A few good Pakistanis and Chinese have been present since the formation of these countries. But these few good gentlemen were not sufficient to prevent 1947, 1966, 1971, 1992 (bombay serial blasts), 1999 and Kasab from Pakistan. Also the same with Chinese in 1962. Kindly do show me who said that we are holier than thou. The problem is ‘thou are not as holier as thou speaketh’ when it comes to Chinese and Pakistanis is what i am saying. Hindi chini bhai bhai!!!! Crap…
    Yeah we did fare bad against the Chinese but we don’t lie about it…


  • Bangladeshi
    Jan 12, 2012 - 5:43PM

    Well gruesome atrocities were committed by PAK armies but not on the scale that the Indians & blind intellectually bankrupt BD intellectuals propagate. The 3 million death figure is a Awami
    propaganda and people are starting to question it. Ms Bose wrote an wonderful book
    and its true that a lot of our Bhihari & punjabi brothers were also killed. But every one
    should remember that it was a civil war where atrocities were committed by both sides.Recommend

  • Kamil Bangash
    Jan 12, 2012 - 5:44PM

    Afiya Zia’s effort to put the record straight is really appreciated after all the hype that was created by our ‘intellectuals’ about Bose’s book. We jump on each flimsy excuse to exonerate ourselves of the crimes that we committed in Bangladesh. With so many willing takers of half-truths, it can be safely predicted what our plans for Balochistan will be. No wonder, the problem of Baloch nationalism has become almost intractable. Is there someone ready to wake up to realities?


  • Zzzz
    Jan 12, 2012 - 6:06PM

    300,000 West Pakistanis (Mainly Biharis) were killed from 10th March till 25th March. Why no one writes any book on the atrocity which was commited even before Pakistan started army action. The systematic murder of West Pakistanis by Mukti Bahnis was also a genocide. Its a pity that Biharis who returned to Bangladesh never wrote any account of what happened to them before army operation was started.


  • jahanzeb Khan
    Jan 12, 2012 - 6:33PM

    How can 1947,1962,1965,1971 all be fault of others and you are the only Pavitars in this world? truth is Just the opposite. Hindu terrorism started at the Hindu state level right in 1947 when the partition happened. It was not Muslims living on present day Pakistan who started slaughtering migrants. It all started in Present day India when trains came full of bodies as Terrorist Hindus along with sikhs started this genocide. It is simple logic. A minority who is going to have its homeland will never start such a violance. In 1962 , Nehru started China’s adventure because in Chinese history China ( not Mongols) never crossed their frontiers and attacked other nations. It was the mind of Nehru who thought that he could get away with Tibet. But his ambitions doomed very quickly. It’s Indian Policy to stirr terrorism in smaller neighbors though it tries once to take on the its own size neighbor and learned it very quickly that must not commit another such folly. Tamil tigers fought with the Indian help for 30 years in Sri Lanka. What was the need for that terrorism? Point is not this that bangladesh became another nation in 1971. Point is it came through the State Terrorism and Intervention Policy of India in 1971. It would gain its independence from Pakistan but it should be through a process as the nations go through it, not from outside interventions which in my opinion was a clear example of State Sponsored terrorism. With this Logic, in all those separist movements going on in India currently such as Mizoram, Nagaland etcs. why should notit give a clear mendate to China or other Powers to intervene in these affairs by the same Logic ? Therefore, No matter what is written about 1971 event, it will never be complete until we also fix the responsibility of financing and carrying out State Terrorism as interventionist policy by the state of India. It repeated with Sri Lanka and it’s repeating in Balochistan. India employes same tools in 1979 , in time of Soviet invasion which resulted in Unrest in balochistan.Until we read the History of 1971 along with the state terrorism Policy by India , the equation will no be balanced.Recommend

  • observer
    Jan 12, 2012 - 6:41PM


    300,000 West Pakistanis (Mainly Biharis) were killed from 10th March till 25th March.

    Did you just dream of it while Zzzzleeping or can you offer some evidence to this claim.
    And if the Biharis are ‘West Pakistanis’ why don’t you accept them as citizens. Been Zzzzleeping over it or what?


  • Indian
    Jan 12, 2012 - 7:11PM

    @jahanzeb Khan:

    1) Dare to ask the question who was responsible for 1947,1962,1965,1971 from your ‘establishment’ of that era and see the result.
    2) Only Pakistanis know about the Hindu terrorism in the world!!
    3) Yeah it was the Pakistanis of the yester years who allowed the Hindu population to grow!!! from 15% to 3%..
    4) Only simple logic the world does not seem to understand is how terrorism from every corner of the world finds its foot prints back to Pakistan.
    5) ‘In 1962 , Nehru started China’s adventure’ – Now, that my friend is the limit of cheating yourself…
    6) You obviously will not know which country is blamed for ‘strategic assets’ as its state policy..
    7) Tamil Tigers also murdered Indian P.M because he went to help Sri-Lankans to get rid of them. Apparently you selectively forget that!
    8) According to a Pakistani’s opinion Terrorism in Kashmir and Afghanistan and America is ‘Jihad’!!!
    9) Only Pakistanis know of Mizoram, Nagaland etcs as extremist areas. India knows it as governance issues. May be you can see the thing you are searching for in Baluchistan..
    10) ‘a clear mandate to China’ – Do you know what a mandate means in a Communism = ‘Tianenmen Square’. Do read about it.
    11) Until you read the History of Pakistan with a comparison before and after 1971 from a neutral source, you will not learn why Pakistan is like it is today..


  • Mirza
    Jan 12, 2012 - 8:37PM

    A very analytical and pragmatic article about the brutal atrocities in Bengal. The crime that only one lakh killed and not 8 lakh is absurd. Murders by the organized army is genocide and should be openly condemned and punished. Committing 2 murders or 10 carry the same penalty. I distinctly remember E. Pakistan was 56% of Pakistani population before their independence. Soon after their independence our population became more than BD! Was that a miracle that 44 bypassed 56 so quickly and forever?
    Thanks for giving a fair account of what happened. Our Rehman Commission Report would never come out because we are a Pak and Islamic nation. Every truth would remain hidden and buried.Recommend

  • Zzzz
    Jan 12, 2012 - 10:07PM

    @observer: Search the internet and you will find everything. There are stories from both sides. Visit those Beharis who survived and managed to reach Karachi. Their narratives truly show there was a genocide by Bangalis first. If Army killed 3 million, the Muktis also killed 0.3 million. You may find 0.3 million to be a small number but it does not mean that Muktis crimes should be hidden.
    Read the recent article AFP on one eyed Sairun Nesa and you will realize what Muktis were really like. If the Army was bad, the Muktis were not human loving force either.
    Why Beharis not accepted? Thats an issue which no one knows why cant be resolved. Pak can accept 2 million Afghan refugees but not 0.2 million Beharis.


  • Jan 12, 2012 - 11:11PM

    The crimes of Pakistani Army committed in Bengal against Bengalis can never be washed no matter how good your prose is. Any book which tries to limit the damage, as the book mentioned above, only serves to prove that our Army men, long retired but still living, will never be able to cope with realities they themselves created and which now they wish to delete from national consciousness. The steady rise of Bangladesh and steady decline of Pakistan proves beyond doubt that we were wrong and they were right. no number of pseudo scholarships can erase the trouble or the history. It is doubly surprising that Pakistani academics take so little interest in the break-up of their country and much of their argument is based on ‘we did not kill so many Bengalis…’ and so on. Even if our army killed one Bengali and raped one woman out there, it is still a crime worthy of reportage. Period. Recommend

  • Abbas
    Jan 13, 2012 - 9:55AM

    @jahanzeb Khan: YOU ARE WRONG. The fact you need to know is-GIVEN THE PATHETIC STATE PAKISTAN IS IN-YOU JUST CANNOT AFFORD TO TELL YOURSELF SUCH LIES-NOT EVEN FOR ONE DAY!!! Most successful muslims in Asia are from india -not one is from pakistan who can compete with indian muslims. Have you heard-good crop grows on good fields……


  • Cynical
    Jan 13, 2012 - 5:57PM

    Looking at the hype that Sharmila Bose’s account of 1971 Bangladesh war has created, I have a feeling that Pakistan can seriously consider outsourcing of historians from around the world. Bose certainly did a better job than even the most delusional account of 1971 done by any Pakistani ever.


  • Deb
    Jan 14, 2012 - 3:44PM


    I have to agree with you, unfortunately very few in Pakistan know about it.


  • kryon
    Feb 4, 2012 - 2:12AM

    Here is an account that I think most Pakistanis don’t know.Bangladesh was truly liberated 44 days after 16 December on 30 Jan 1972.While most of Bangladesh was liberated Mirpur in Dhaka where the cricket stadium is, was still in the hands of the Biharis.As a contingent of newly formed Bangladesh Army along with police and a renowned Bangladeshi Film Director Zaheer Rayhan(Director of the 1971 documentary “Stop Genocide” who went there to find his brother Shahidullah kaiser who was abducted and later killed by Biharis) entered Mirpur they were ambushed by Biharis and in an instant 44 of the armed forces died.Zaheer Rayhan also took a hit and some freedom fighters present there saw Biharis armed with machetes and other weapons took him away.His body was never found.One can only imagine the gruesome death he must have encountered.The biharis were well armed to hold fort for more than one month and inflict so much damage on a force that had just fought 9 month war.Although many pakistanis have gone to Mirpur Stadium to see Pakistan play they do not know that there are countless mass graves only a km away from the stadium.Shialbari mass grave is one of them.Please visit this link to know more about the atrocities(


  • saleemsamad
    Feb 12, 2012 - 8:03PM

    Instead of getting into a serious controversial issue of atrocities perpetrated upon the lakhs of “Biharis”, I urge upon the Urdu-speaking Bangladeshi, who are of course language minorities to explain why they have decided to claim citizenship and seek national ID of Bangladesh. Incidentally, lakhs of Urdu-speaking community for the first time in 40 years in the last 2008 general election have voted for the ruling party Awami League led by Shiekh Hasina, daughter of assassinated independence hero Shiekh Mujibur Rahman.


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