1971: beyond reading

Posted in 1971, Bangladesh, history by jrahman on January 15, 2015

I’ve been asked recently about what to read to clarify one’s thoughts about 1971.  My answer is over the fold.

I would suggest not reading, unless you are after key facts such as: there was an election in 1970 that the Awami League won convincingly; the AL didn’t hide its 6-Points manifesto, which would have meant an end to Pakistan); there was a military crackdown, particularly targeting secular-progressive elements of the society; Bengali officers in Pakistan army rebelled and formed the nucleus of an armed resistance; millions of refugees, mostly Hindus, fled to India; India did intervened.

Beyond these facts, if clarity of thought is sought, I would suggest talking to people.  Talk to murubbis — of both sexes, as much education-wealth-geographic diversity as possible.  And don’t limit the questions to 1971.  In fact, starting with 1971 would likely take the conversation to an emotionally charged and unproductive direction.

Instead, start with the 1940s and 1950s.  Discuss partition.  If the person you’re talking to Bengali Muslim, chances are that they were overwhelmingly for it.  If so, ask them what their expectations were in the early years of Pakistan — a straightforward segue to 1952.  The generation of Bengali Muslims that was at the forefront of Pakistan movement was also the one that accepted Tagore / Pohela Boishakh as cultural icons.  Why?

Then skip the late 1960s to 1971 and come to 1972, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned from Pakistan. What did they think of Sheikh Sahib in early 1972? What was the expectation? And how it changed to 1975?  What was their reaction to Mujib’s assassination?  How did that compare to the reaction to the assassination of Ziaur Rahman?

Once you have had these conversations, then bring up 1971.

Conversations such as this will help you put 1971 into context.  Reading will help after that.


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  1. Liton Chele said, on January 18, 2015 at 1:36 am

    As I see it, there are two opposite poles of “disturbance”, gnawing away in the Bangladeshi psyche. One is the “Pakistan” side, the other is the “West Bengal” side. By this, I do not mean that there is any conflict between ethnicity and religion, as is [for what I see as rather bizarre and uninformed reasons] normally presented [in India especially, as some sort of weird dichotomy]. What I mean is that both these places evoke a certain amount of irrationality when discussing them, they are often given [perhaps] too much importance on a [modern] Bangladeshi discussion table. In other words, it is not anything to do with the concepts of religion or identity, but the specific places themselves that evoke so much consternation.

    In a strange way, there are many parallels. The elites of both these groups held a certain amount of contempt for the Bangladeshi commoner, which then extended into certain segments of it’s middle class populations [I would argue that in present Pakistan this is actually less the case. Certainly in the modern arena, the educated Pakistani middle class are much less discriminatory than the educated West Bengali classes towards their educated Bangladeshi peers, at least this has been my experience]. Some of this discrimination oddly spills over into today, where there is less respect given to the accomplishments of Bangladeshis than their counterparts from the other groups.

    I would argue that this has produced a certain amount of antipathy towards both groups. Since there is also some genuine affection too that we have for both, on account of commonality [religious nationality with Pakistan, linguistic/ethnic with WB], it creates a type of confusion which makes the conversation about them far less rational than it otherwise would be.

    I bring this up in the context of this post because I think it’s important to clarify the different types potential feelings and biases we may have in discussing this situation, which from our point of view had a lot to do with these 2 regions [I’m not saying events in other parts of India did not matter; just that much of our history can be linked to our experiences].

    This “problem” persists even today. In discussions with both sets of people mentioned above, I myself have experienced this strange phenomena, even when making a purely logical argument that later turned out to be completely correct [in context of the problem set]. 2 things to note; it is much less apparent in persons not born/raised in those regions [e.g. Western raised and educated Pakistanis and West Bengalis]. It is also far more common amongst [middle class educated] West Bengalis than it is the peer group from Pakistan.

    I tend to become quickly tired of discussing things in the context of 1971 with fellow Bangladeshis because so often the conversation becomes polluted with just this type of “hangover”. It only takes one person to start it, then it all goes to pot. This is why in the future, I hope we maintain some amount of distance from the two and explore new regions, and particularly view Pakistan more as a country in it’s own right, whom we are geographically distant from and yet share certain basic things in common with.

    I hope the conversation about India and WB is much more strategic in nature, so that we are looking to see what we can [positively] do about a situation, rather than getting caught up in previous generation entanglements. I am finding that this in particular is sorely missing from the discussion in Bangladesh.

    So, in a phrase; let’s untangle.

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