The role of ordinary people in the war has not been properly reviewed because of political reasons.
Photo: Star Archive

1971 History :

Letting the memories of the majority to die

Afsan Chowdhury

War history has several dimensions. There are military, social, political, gender and other aspects. However, for a long while most histories of wars have focused on the role of the military or armed aspects as the dominant ones ignoring other dimensions. Given the historical background of nations where military conflict was considered the only legitimate way of resolving arguments, this is natural. It was also a very male centered imagination driven by individual narratives fuelling notions of physical bravery as the prime mover of history. This uni-focal notion has begun to change in the last few decades as research has shown that a war is a far more inclusive event where even military acts are also dependent on socio-economic factors. Without a comprehensive narrative that includes the role of various segments, history writing is very incomplete.

In case of 1971 this exclusion of other aspects is even more significant or problematic because this war had a much wider participation of people than many other wars. Militarily, it was both a resistance war which happened from within and later was a frontal war which happened from without. Perhaps some similarity can be found with the French situation in WW11 but the nature of resistance both by armed forces and paramilitaries, the role and pressure of refugee presence in India, international politics, the involvement of ordinary people in various forms of conflicts and survival strategies have made it a reasonably unique narrative.

When we read accounts of this war, we find most are descriptions of conflicts or extreme suffering and death. But many of these works are not very credible and even a rudimentary review shows that many wouldn't pass even the basic test of authenticity. These have become either heroic or pity seeking narratives that are closer to fiction in some cases. As it's in the political space where these works are played out, these pretend-histories are officially upheld because they uphold the official position as a quid pro quo. This practice has damaged the construction of a mature national history that was largely fought in the broadest sense by ordinary people.

Putting the ordinary person - the peasant, the farmer, wage labourer , woman- as the central focus of the war narrative poses certain problems of socio-political power management in Bangladesh. If the war is imagined as a broader participation than that is done now, the demand for sharing of state power with the people who are being given the central role becomes far more pressing. Thus the war can't be imagined as a product of participation of all but has to be only of those who became the leaders of the subsequent independent state.

This has resulted in a collection of many tales, narratives, myths etc that are not always located in facts and many such 'facts' survive because nobody wants to challenge them or are not comfortable challenging them. On the other hand, few have collected information about these ordinary people and their role in 1971 so their memories and their war experience have become invisible and inaudible over time. We know so little about them that they are almost non-existent narratives. So the narratives of the mainstream and the powerful, have become the only history. The memories of the majority have been allowed to die through neglect.

A note on villages in 1971
In our work on villages in 1971 done between 2002 and 2007, we found an almost unknown world about which little is known in the national narratives. For example, in the three districts that we worked extensively in Kushtia, Jessore and Rangpur- the common theme was that of livelihood loss as a major concern in the war days. Communication was very bad so many people were cut off from each other and regional markets- bazars- died down due to lack of shoppers and local markets grew up in some places showing the economies ceased to function.

Many farmers failed or were too scared to plant or harvest and as a result farm work dramatically declined creating huge vulnerabilities for the extreme poor, the marginalized agri-workers. This also had an impact on politics of that period because many of the village level Razakars, came from this class. For many becoming a paid collaborator wasn't a political decision but a source of employment in desperate times. It doesn't make their crime less intense but it provides the context to a process that is sourced in the Pakistani decision to go to war and rural pauperization.

Those who had land and could harvest some crops often by hiring Razakars to do this work as they were a safe bet, survived comfortably but disposable surplus was in great shortage and commerce was almost dead. A large percentage of the rural commercial class were Hindus, the Shahas and Baniks - who were the local 'banks', loan givers and funders of trade in rural Bangladesh. But as life became insecure and livelihood also diminished hugely since the monetary economy component dried up, the Hindus under the twin pressure left Bangladesh. They were thus motivated not just by the fear of death but fear of hunger to move to India.

This departure created a vacuum in the rural economy and whatever bits and pieces were left were picked up by local Muslim leadership who became owners sometimes though with small payments and sometimes without. As a result , the class construction underwent some transformation in the villages and new power relationships were established which had implications on how rural factions behaved with each other in times of war.

Ancient rivalries also played a role in shaping how villages behaved. The traditional elite- Pakistan Muslim League- were contested by the emerging elite- Bangladesh Awami league- first in the 1970 elections and subsequent civil resistance that began in March and later spilled into the bloody April.

The villages thus became not just a national battleground but a rural interpretation of a national war as well. Its wasn't just the respective state for which blood was shed but for dominance of villages which had little national content per se.

Thus confrontation and collaboration didn't just have political nationalistic content but economic ones too. In cases, they determined the routes of war including support to the nationalist war and sustaining an environment that allowed the December intervention possible.

Instead of looking at a larger complex narrative of people's participation, our war histories have become repetitive descriptions of the same limited reconstruction of a past which is sometimes not even fact based. Whether the role of ordinary people in the war has not been reviewed because of political reasons arising from the refusal to share credit for producing Bangladesh or it happened due to lack of intellectual rigour may be debated but the fact remains that what we call our 'national history' is also a document of denial of the role of those not in power, the ordinary people.

Afsan Chowdhury is a senior journalist and researcher. He was part of the Muktijuddher Dolilpatra Project led by Hasan Hafizur Rahman from 1978 to 1986 which produced 15 volumes of documents on the history of 1971. For the BBC, he produced eight radio series and several chat shows on the issue on 1971. He has produced a video documentary on women and 1971 titled “Tahader Juddhyo”. Afsan has edited and co-authored a four-volume history of 1971, “Bangladesh 1971”.


©2012 All Rights Reserved