Only by unravelling the false narratives that overlook the roles of superpowers, class struggles, colonialism, and the often forgotten intellectual tragedy can we grasp and reclaim the history of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War.
History is written by the oppressors posing as liberators, the power that knows the truth but will not allow it to be spoken for fear of the masses preferring it to the manufactured truth it propagates. Power does not suppress truth because it disavows it, but precisely because it knows the truth all too well. From the seeds of lies borne by the oppressors to the fertile land of the oppressed bloom the flowers of future oppression.
Three False Narratives about Bangladesh’s Liberation War
Over half a century on, Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971 has metamorphosed from the ideological and physical battles to create a free state by exercising a peoples’ right to self-determination, to the battle of contesting histories, composed of lies ossified through forced obeisance, prescribed by three oppressors who have conspired to prevent the emancipation of a peoples since 1971, and who continue to conspire to keep freedom away for these peoples. The oppressors have the advantage of operating with impunity, thereby ensuring an eradication of the truth and an indisputable control over the past and, through it, the present and the future.
The Civil War Narrative and Cold War Superpowers
The first of these false histories is the wilfully myopic international status of the events of 1971. The facts are that the USA took an active and belligerent stand against democracy and human rights, and in favour of Islamism and authoritarianism, by opposing the independence of Bangladesh and supporting Pakistan, and that India offered assistance to the Bangladeshis’ independence, from taking in ten million refugees and providing strategic support to the Bangladeshi military struggle to liaising with the USSR, the other Cold War superpower, to counteract the Americans and belatedly engaging in direct military action.
It is, equally, a fact that both the USA and India did it to serve their own interests – in simple terms, the former, to use Pakistan as a conduit for better relations with China to significantly tip the balance of the Cold War, the latter to strike a blow against its post-colonial adversary and gain an advantage in regional geopolitical power struggles – as they have done with every one of their actions in the fifty-two years since, refusing Bangladesh its right to be an equal as an independent state and treating it instead as a tool.
The indelible narrative effect their respective stances have had vis-à-vis the global history of Bangladesh is reducing the war to either a civil war or a war between India and Pakistan, supported and solidified by spurious scholarship. The US, unapologetic about its actions in 1971 as it continues its hypocrisy and hubris as the sole global empire since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has gone to great lengths to maintain the framing of civil war while influencing the politics, economy, and culture of Bangladesh in overt and covert ways since its independence.
If it is seen as a civil war rather than the truth of a coloniser brutally oppressing its colonial subjects that sought autonomy, with the blessing and support of American imperialism, then the domestic matters of a state demand non-intervention. In reality, there was American intervention, but it was not a humanitarian one as it should have been if the US is held to the obligations of international law of which it is a ready and gleeful proponent when convenient. Pakistan, a nation whose military has been far more effective as an oppressive political force than an agent of warfare capable of winning a war, not only agrees with the civil war framing but, ironically and in a rare act of solidarity, with the Indo-Pakistan war narrative preferred by India. Two distortions are better than one, for they provide twice as many opportunities to obscure the truth.
The USA, India and Pakistan, by extension of the duo in this instance if not on its own merits, are global oppressors who benefit from obscuring the truth. Their false histories are an active act of erasure of a peoples, their struggles, their agency, the genocide and war crimes committed against them, the humanitarian crises forced on them, and their freedom. These erasures have a direct impact on the continued adversities and atrocities faced by the population of Bangladesh as the promises of independence remain unfulfilled, drifting further and further away with each new day, year, decade.
The Narrative of Two Dynasties and Class Struggles
This is where the second of the false histories build on the foundations of lies produced by the international sleight of hand of compliance with a simplification by obfuscation, following suit to exert national control. Bangladesh’s own history of the Liberation War is an unresolved patchwork of political propaganda by two dynasties engaged in a decades-long battle to be the monarch.
The fact is, Bengalis and the indigenous people of the greater Bengal region were, at the time of independence, divided by the lines first drawn in an aborted attempt to divide and conquer by the British colonisers, and before the scars of the Partition of 1947 had healed, those on the East Pakistan side of the border were chafing under the oppression of a new coloniser. If the Bengali Muslims had expected Partition to free them from the hierarchy that had elevated Bengali Hindus above them under the British Raj, they were proven wrong as they found themselves relegated to the bottom rung of a greasy ladder by the Rajput Muslims of West Pakistan. The plight of the indigenous people was such that they did not – and still do not – register within the hierarchical structure enforced by the ruling class. The unrest of the colonised gave a cause to a would-be ruling class of East Pakistan to fight for, against the West Pakistani ruling class.
Seen objectively through the lens of class struggle, independence would eventually have been achieved through the awakening of political consciousness of a populace that was already beginning to feel the injustice and inhumanity of oppression, with or without Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman – the former monarchs and patriarchs of the two fighting dynasties. Coincidences of fate brought them to be in positions that saw them play the roles that they did, and they reaped the rewards of fate by visiting cruelty on their own peoples as tyrannical dictators, which far outweigh the good that they did.
Furthermore, as with the US and India on a macrocosmic international level, the two autocrat Rahmans were each serving his own interests in the microcosm of the nascent nation, as is a monarch’s wont. As the US was freed from British colonial rule by a regressive elite class who wished to enrich itself further by rejecting the notion of paying tax to a monarch, thereby establishing a new ruling class that had exterminated and would continue to exterminate the native and indigenous populations, and had participated in and promoted unconscionable practices such as slavery and would continue to, the new ruling class of Bangladesh sought not to dismantle autocracy, but appropriate the oppressive power structures of the Pakistani military government in service of its own regressive monarchy.
Facts which are not in dispute, but which have been consigned to the recesses of unspeakable truths, attest to Tajuddin Ahmed leading the political charge during the Liberation War, assisted by Syed Nazrul Islam, A. H. M. Qamaruzzaman, and Mansur Ali – four leaders who were marginalised in the older Rahman’s court before being assassinated in jail during the political turmoil that would eventually see the younger Rahman assume power – while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman languished in a Pakistani prison for the better part of 1971 as the democratically elected head of government of united Pakistan, and to Muhammad Ataul Gani Osmani leading the armed resistance of the Liberation War, under whose command the younger Rahman served. The two Rahmans usurped any possible Ahmed, Osmani or sundry dynasties by placing a grossly disproportionate significance on the manner of Bangladesh’s independence being declared over the manner in which it was attained, creating majoritarian cults of personalities at the expense of the people, the forever silenced majority. In fact, the resolution of the question of the declaration of independence is very revealing.
Bangladesh was dragged out of the quagmire of which of the two Rahmans declared independence – and, therefore, had a right to rule by divine providence – and the exact wording of statements pronounced and not, by being mired in the false supposition that the older Rahman’s speech on 7 March 1971 amounted to a declaration of independence when declaring independence is the one thing that speech specifically avoided doing. Just as, in the US, the Gettysburg Address did not end slavery and the “I have a dream” speech did not end racial discrimination, just as India’s most significant speech, “The Annihilation of Caste” was never delivered – a harbinger of the contemporary Indian state’s tenuous grasp of the freedoms of speech and expression – and failed to achieve equality, Bangladeshi independence was neither explicitly nor implicitly declared on 7 March 1971, regardless of the rhetorical merit of the speech.
Yet, just as three generations of Bangladeshis have been forced to pledge allegiance to the monarchy of the two Rahman dynasties through belief in manufactured histories of decreed importance of the declaration of independence, future generations are being primed to pledge allegiance to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s descendant monarchs through the patent untruth of what transpired on 7 March 1971 until such time as the other Rahman’s descendants find an even earlier occurrence of the word of God.
Where there once was a vibrant, revolutionary, independent progressive intellectual movement during the life of East Pakistan, Bangladesh, with very few exceptions … has only ever seen an anti-intellectual, self-serving intelligentsia far more interested in material wealth, sycophancy, and appeasement than in substance, integrity, and honesty.
Contemporary Elite Narratives: Prioritizing Monarchy, Neglecting the 1971 Intellectuals’ Tragedy
The third false history, promulgated by the intellectually dishonest sacred elite intelligentsia and civil society coteries, reinforces the monarchy. The fact is, Bangladeshi intellectualism died before the Pakistani military surrendered on 16 December 1971. The targeted mass killings of progressives and intellectuals as part of the genocide committed by the Pakistani military and its collaborators from 25 March 1971 to 16 December 1971, created a vacuum that has never been filled in independent Bangladesh.
Where there once was a vibrant, revolutionary, independent progressive intellectual movement during the life of East Pakistan, Bangladesh, with very few exceptions over the years that are almost entirely absent today, has only ever seen an anti-intellectual, self-serving intelligentsia far more interested in material wealth, sycophancy, and appeasement than in substance, integrity, and honesty.
If the debate about which Rahman declared independence and how it was worded took precedence over how independence was won and at what cost, the false history was proliferated by this third category of oppressors. If rock musicians – a proud counterculture movement – today sing paeans to the speech delivered by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 7 March 1971 as the Bangladeshi people being declared free at concerts organised by an authoritarian government, if poets – the long-suffering “unacknowledged legislators of the world” – today compose panegyrics about the monarchies of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his daughter, the current dictator Sheikh Hasina, in newspapers and books funded by the ill-gotten gains of authoritarianism, if artists – the depicters of conscience – today draw sinners as saints in hagiographical comic-books that rewrite the history of Bangladesh to subjugate Bangladeshis to authoritarian rule, if filmmakers – the observers of truth – today pass flagrant propaganda videos off as history of faux liberators to the tune of fascist overtures, if political commentators – the analysers of facts – today mangle post-colonial and anti-imperial scholarship to concoct false equivalences designed to fuel the flames of a nationalism that serves autocracy, it is because of the swift descent into the eternal darkness of anti-intellectualism in independent Bangladesh, brought forth by the deliberate dishonest machinations of a rarefied group posing, as the devil does, as the intelligentsia and civil society.
This particular class has applied unbridled capitalism to turn membership to this class into a nepotistic, incestuous family business, to ensure that no dissenting voice accidentally tarnishes its falsification of history or threatens its blatant pursuit of lies over truth.
Reclaiming the Truth about Bangladesh’s 1971 Legacy
The legacy of 1971, with a correct reading of history, is that the citizens of Bangladesh are dispirited, disillusioned, and disenfranchised, always forcibly or wilfully loyal subjects of the monarch, forever ruled, never governed. If this is to be remedied, it will require a battle against history rather than history wars – the political awakening of the exploited, abused and slaughtered proletariat forced into indentured servitude euphemistically called migrant labour, into indentured servitude euphemistically called feminist empowerment in garment factories and farmlands, into indentured servitude brazenly called household servants, into cycles of debt and enforced glass ceilings made concrete lauded as microfinance and social business, into poverty lauded as the unbreakable resilient spirit of 1971, to fatten the elite and ruling classes, the political awakening of the youth of the nation, their innocence robbed by the several instances of being brutalised by the national narrative and independence monopolising authoritarian government of the older Rahman’s daughter, the political awakening of the battered, bruised and dormant, hopefully not dead spirit of rebellion. It will require understanding that oppression and the monarchy will never end if one of the Rahman dynasties are kept in power by the psychopathy of the elite class, law enforcement and military leeches, if the global imperialism of the US, regional imperialism of India, and would-be imperialism of China dictate who is to rule, and if the existing culture of anti-intellectualism practised, perfected and proliferated by the intelligentsia and elite civil society determines the guiding philosophies and principles of Bangladesh. It is simultaneously possible for autocracy on a national level and imperialism on an international level to be deplorable, for apologia for both or either to be reprehensible. Compromising on this, as Bangladeshis have done for over half a century, will prolong the existing lies, birth new lies, drown the few flotillas of truth that have somehow survived the constant deluge of lies.
The truth demands a reassessment of the Liberation War of 1971, centred on the reclaimed agency and humanity of the peoples who progressively exercised their right to self-determination, and a national and international acknowledgement not only of it having been a war for independence, but a war to break free from colonialism, imperialism and oppression. The facts of history and their nuances must be allowed to speak for their legacy to be one of honesty and freedom – and no one person or entity can be allowed to dictate them.