Sarmila Bose changes perspective on 71 war through Dead Reckoning

I have some faded memories of 1971 war. We used to live in Islamabad and had about 4 Bengali neighbours in our street as far as I remember. During the war they were all living there but one morning I found out that they had all left. They disappeared overnight. I don’t recall what the outcome of the war was, and how we lost East Pakistan. I always trusted that there was only one villain behind the creation of Bangladesh. I always believed that Army solely was responsible for losing East Pakistan.

But recently I found the book of Ms Sarmila Bose, who is an American journalist and academic of Indian descent. She is presently a senior research associate at the Centre for International Studies in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. The grandniece of Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose and granddaughter of nationalist Sarat Chandra Bose, Bose is the daughter of former Trinamool Congress parliamentarian Krishna Bose. She was born in Boston, but grew up in Kolkata. This book has completely changed my perspective about the creation of Bangladesh.

An excerpt from the Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh war

In the terrible violence of a fratricidal war the victims were from every ethnic and religious group and from both sides of the political divide, and so were the perpetrators. Humanity was just as normally distributed. Both sides had legitimate political arguments and their idealistic followers, along with those who indulged in opportunism, expediency and inhumanity. Many Bengalis, supposed to be fighting for freedom and dignity, committed appalling atrocities; many Pakistani Army officers, carrying out a military action against a political rebellion, turned out to be fine men doing their best to fight an unconventional war within the conventions of warfare.

The Bengalis splintered into many fragments, those who wanted an independent Bangladesh, those who supported a united Pakistan, those who desired autonomy but not secession, those who actively fought for whichever side they supported and those who like Doctor Zhivago wanted to ‘just live’ but got caught up in the upheaval nevertheless. There were combatants and non-combatants, victims of violence and its perpetrators.

A longstanding theme of the 1971 conflict is the state of denial in Pakistan: a refusal to confront what really happened in East Pakistan. However, the study revealed a greater state of denial in Bangladesh and to some extent in India. In many ways the subsequent political formations in Bangladesh have been fighting out the battle of 1971 ever since, each constructing its own version of history. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this trend is the tendency on the part of pro liberation Bangladeshis to deny, minimise or justify the brutalities committed by Bengali nationalists against non-Bengalis and non-nationalists during 1971. The culture of violence fomented by 1971 explains much of what happened in Bangladesh subsequently and the cultivated mythologies of all sides aim to bequeath the legacies of hatred to successive generations.

Within months of the creation of Bangladesh, Sheikh MujiburRehman and his party the Awami League, who had fought the war in the name of Democracy, turned the country into a personal autocracy formalised later as a one party state. In August 1975 Bengali Army officers who had supported the liberation movement assassinated Sheikh MujiburRehman and massacred his entire family except for two daughters who were away at the time. Several former freedom fighters and Mujib’s cabinet colleagues were imprisoned and then murdered in jail.

The year 1971 was marked by a bitter civil war within Pakistan and between India and Pakistan, backed respectively by the Soviet Union and the United States. It was fought over the territory of East Pakistan, which seceded to become Bangladesh.

The numbers mattered, and matter still, because they make the difference between seeing the war as a tragedy and seeing it as a terrible crime, indeed as a genocide. Sarmila Bose’s attempt to set the numerical record straight, when she concludes that fewer died than claimed, still we are dealing with murder, rape, unnatural deaths and the destruction of individuals and their families in a land that had joyously embraced the idea of Pakistan less than a generation before.Bose estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in 1971. One hundred thousand at most.

In her own words: “As soon as I started to do systematic research on the 1971 war, I found that there was a problem with the story which I had grown up believing: from the evidence that emanated from the memories of all sides at the ground level, significant parts of the “dominant narrative” seem not to have been true. Many facts had been exaggerated, fabricated, distorted or concealed. Many people in responsible positions had repeated unsupported assertions without a thought; some people seemed to know that the nationalist mythologies were false and yet had done nothing to inform the public. I had thought I would be chronicling the details of the story of 1971 with which I had been brought up, but I found instead that there was a different story to be told”. – Sarmila Bose May 9, 2011 Al-Jazeera

I came across some of the reviews and comments of people criticising Ms Bose, calling her an apologist, biased and some of them accused her of writing the record in favour of Pakistan Army. She did not portray President Yahya Khan an evil but a President who wanted to handover the government to the winners in Eastern and Western Pakistan. When Mujeebur Rehman refused to come to West Pakistan, he took Mr Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Decca.

She mentioned about Army attack on a Hindu area in Decca, army operation in Dhaka university, anarchy in Chittagong, Tanagail operation by Pakistan Army and the worst of them all Thanapara operation. Thanapara, which is recalled as the village of widows. Thanapara didn’t make to the world press because western press was pre-absorbed with the coverage of the conviction of Lt William Calley of the US Army for the massacre in Vietnam. Thanapara operation shamed the Pakistan Army as it crushed the Bengali rebellion in the Eastern Province.

I did not find Ms Bose defending anyone; in fact she has raised some genuine questions about the figures like 300,000 deaths of Bengalis and 200,000 rapes of Bengali women. She has raised the question about the figures of murdered Biharis and West Pakistanis settled in East Pakistan; people killed because of Indian Airforce bombing. There were more villains and one cannot single out Pakistan Army in the whole episode of violence which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Indian involvement, Bengali forces and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman were equally responsible. She has questioned the figure or 93,000 prisoners of war in Indian custody, when total Army was not 93,000 in East Pakistan. She has challenged the facts with the records; she had conducted the interviews of people who lived the war.

Bose had really put her efforts in to bring the facts together and remained unbiased. I personally would wish to thank Ms Bose for her efforts to write such a marvellous book. Please study the provided facts and think rationally to find your own truth.