It’s not about Sarmila Bose
If you read only one long-form essay this year, make it Naeem Mohaiemen’s “Flying Blind: Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971,” — says Zafar Sobhan. And I agree. I read at least a dozen versions of Naeem’s essay as it developed. And if I ask him to turn this into a book one more time, he will probably punch me in the nose. Well, at the risk of a broken nose — Naeem my brother, write the damn book.
However, this post is not actually about Naeem’s unwritten soon-to-be-written book. Instead, let me note some thoughts that occurred to me as I leafed through Bose’s book while commenting on Naeem’s essay.
It’s not about Bose. Or rather, it shouldn’t be about Bose. It should be about research on 1971, and history more generally.
There is no ‘the truth’ in social science. This is not physics or mathematics. History is very much a subjective discipline, and will always remain so. But there are standards. The historiography of 1971 (or most things) in Bangladesh is, frankly, poor. The upside of Bose’s book is that it can be a kick in the arse that can help improve things. But that improvement will come if there are nuanced scholarship like Naeem’s. This, on the other hand, is not helpful.
Back to Bose. Interviewing participants is a common research method in history or other social sciences. Interviewing only one side is a questionable application of that method. As Naeem demonstrates, Bose is guilty of this questionable application. But she is an Oxford-based scholar, not an impressionable young blogger. So she knows what she is doing. Why is she doing it? And why is she getting so much publicity?
Think about how the academia works. You publish or perish. A very good way to advance your career is to take a contrarian position that is at least somewhat right — make 5 strong contrarian claims, 4 of them will get knocked out, but the one that will survive is your contribution to the discourse. Has bose done anything different? There are lots of books about the evil Pakistan army who have done terrible things, not just in 1971 but also in supporting jihadis in Afghanistan/Kashmir, destroying its own country, and proliferating nukes. Another book in that vein will be far less effective than a book that says ‘hey, look, Pak army isn’t so bad’. What’s the easiest way of doing that? Harp on about the 3 million dead. This isn’t about bose hating Bangladesh or being in ISI’s pay. It’s about Bose being a smart careerist.
Ultra-nationalist Bangladeshis, take note. Every time you have a noisy demonstration outside Bose’s seminar, every time you call her an ISI agent (and use other vulgar, crude, sexist slurs), you add credence to her claim that ‘Bengalis are an irrational, excitable bunch’ (her claims are actually stronger — but you get the point). If you really want to undermine Bose, follow Naeem’s path.
Bose has not only annoyed many hypersensitive Bangladeshis, she has also annoyed the Indian intellectual classes of all types. And they are shredding her to pieces, not with slurs, but methodically and clinically. The thing is, any Indian narrative of 1971 will also be just as biased in its own way, focussing on particular nuances that will not be present in narratives coming out of Bangladesh.
Returning to my first point above, this is the 40th year of independence. A number of books are coming out on 1971 and Bangladesh. Naeem mentions a few in his essay. Bose’s is the first to hit the stand. Shockingly, not a single one in English from Bangladesh.
Never mind history books. There is no definitive book on contemporary Bangladesh. If any of your foreign friends ask you to recommend a good introduction to Bangladesh as it exists in 2011, what would you recommend? Fiction, non-fiction, academic work, journalistic book, anything?
To me, that is the ultimate intellectual failure of our entire chattering class.