The thick blurry line
I used to think that there were two clear, fine lines to analyse people’s actions in the context of 1971 — those who fought for Bangladesh, and those who fought against. These clear, fine lines provided markers that, I used to think, allowed for nuance.
Let me illustrate with the examples of two renowned public servants. Both Kamal Siddiqui and MK Alamgir were junior sub-district level officials in mofussil East Pakistan when the war broke out. Siddiqui crossed the border and participated in the war. Clear case. Alamgir, not so straightforward. He did not cross the border or join the Mukti Bahini. He stayed in his job in the East Pakistan civil administration throughout the war.
But did he fight against Bangladesh? Alamgir is a leader of the Awami League, and is accused of all sorts of things, many of which are perfectly valid. But I am yet to be shown any evidence that he fought against Bangladesh.
Like 65 million of his compatriots, Alamgir stayed in the occupied East Pakistan. Maybe he was afraid of guns. Maybe it was because he had a two month old son in March 1971. Whatever the reason, he did not cross the border, but nor did he cross the fight against line.
My two-clear-lines framework allowed for such shades of grey. Or so I thought.
Then I came across the case of Major General Amjad Chowdhury.
When the general-turned-industrialist passed away earlier this year, official condolence and respect followed, as befitting the death of a noted citizen. Then came the controversies.
For one group, the fact that he was Ahmadiyya mattered more than anything else. It was a sign of our current ungodly apocalyptic times that an apostate like him got an Islamic funeral! Funnily, our so-called progressives did not exactly stress the pluralism inherent in the deceased’s religious identity.
But the so-called progressive / pro-1971 types also tried hard to downplay another thing — the man’s role in 1971. Major Amjad was stationed in Rangpur in 1971 and quite likely fought against Bangladesh. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was a war criminal. I have no reason to think he killed or raped anyone or burnt anyone’s house. But he actively fought for Pakistan against Bangladesh, this much we can reasonably surmise.
Unlike Mr Alamgir, Amjad Chowdhury was on the wrong side of the marker. But is the marker itself reasonable?
What motivated him to take up arms against Bangladesh? I can understand why he might not have wanted to join Ziaur Rahman or Khaled Mosharraf. A number of Bengali officers sought transfer to West Pakistan or non-combat duties as the war approached. But he didn’t seem to be in that camp. Why was Major Amjad different?
Could it be because his sectarian identity was more important to him than his ethnic identity or political ideology (such as Bengali / Bangladeshi nationalism)? After all, in 1971, the spiritual heart of the Ahmadiyya community was in Lahore.
The irony, of course, is that in the post-1971 Pakistan, ZA Bhutto fanned anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment and Zia-ul-Huq institutionalised their oppression. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan would never have made him a major general, nor could he possibly have become a successful businessman there. He achieved both in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
We know he had a pretty good life in Bangladesh. And as a card-carrying neoliberal economist, I applaud his entrepreneurship, which played a non-trivial role in Bangladesh’s socioeconomic success. These contributions were noted, but hardly anyone acknowledged that his business group Pran got its beginning because of the economic policies of President Ziaur Rahman (as well as the president’s personal intervention). Yet another thing I hadn’t seen mentioned —Pran is one of the fewest Bangladeshi products to have made a huge inroad in India.
Where do all these leave us? Dear reader, I no longer think my two-clear-lines are adequate. I now think the line is thick, and blurry. Let me quote Naeem Mohaiemen (currently a doctoral candidate in historical anthropology at Columbia University):
When I probe family history, nothing seems settled. There are no simple heroes or villains, only people who made difficult choices. The cousin who fled the house to join the rebels, narrowly evading capture by the Pakistan Army. The uncle who escaped being executed, although the rest of his engineering colleagues were mowed down by a Pakistani firing squad. Within the same family is also an uncle who remained in his university job during the war, and for that became the target of post-1971 ‘collaborator’ witch-hunts. These same pervasive witch-hunts moved Enayetullah Khan to write his famous editorial condemning the fratricidal settling of scores: ‘Sixty-five Million Collaborators’.
It is possible that no one was more discombobulated by history’s earthquakes than my maternal grandfather Syed Murtaja Ali. An Islamic historian, he was also the brother of Bengali literary figure Syed Mujtaba Ali. In 1947, Mujtaba wrote one of the first essays defending Bengali as a state language.88 Unable to punish Mujtaba, who went into semi-exile in West Bengal, the Pakistani government slowed down the civil service career of Murtaja Ali. What was Murtaja thinking in 1971? He had already paid a steep price as a Bengali in ‘united Pakistan’. But he had also ‘optioned’ for this same Pakistan in 1947, moving my mother from Assam where she was born. He had voted for Mujib, everyone had voted for him, but what did he think of the collapse of the ‘Pakistan’ dream of his youth?
Every Bangladeshi family carries many such contradictions within themselves. Contradictions of impulse, afterthought, hesitation and bravery. But how they choose to remember all this varies, ranging from exuberant myth-making to quiet soul-searching. The realities of people’s actions during war are always a combination of beautiful heroism and a liminal failure of nerve.
Sadly, it seems to me that the Bangladeshi chattering classes, old and young, are more likely to listen to Humayun Azad’s fatwa about collaborators and freedom fighters — once a colloborator, always a collaborator, but a freedom fighter can cease to be so –than Mr Mohaiemen’s reflections. It’s perhaps the sign of the times that Azad’s conflation of the Liberation War with his French adventure is considered heroic.
Faham Abdus Salam describes the ultra-nationalism of Shahbag variety thus:
আমার ধারণা শাহবাগীরা তাদের পছন্দের একটা মেক-বিলিভ ওয়ার্ল্ডে থাকেন। এই “থাকার” একটা বিশেষত্ত্ব আছে। বাংলাদেশ সম্বন্ধে তাদের কিছু আইডিয়া, কিছু টোটেম, কিছু মাসকট, কিছু ইভেন্ট আছে যেগুলোকেই তারা বাংলাদেশ বলে মনে করেন। ….. দাড়িপাল্লার এক পাশে বাংলাদেশ, আরেক পাশে মুক্তিযুদ্ধ রাখলে তারা মুক্তিযুদ্ধ নামক “ইভেন্ট”টিকে বাংলাদেশের চাইতেও বড় মনে করবেন। …. ৭১ এর আসল ঘটনা না, মুক্তিযুদ্ধের ন্যারেটিভটাই তাদের কাছে সবচেয়ে প্রেশাস।
(My conjecture is that the Shahbagis live in a make-believe world of their liking. And that ‘living’ has a speciality. They think Bangladesh consists of some of ideas, totems, mascots they have about Bangladesh…. If we were to put Bangladesh on one side of the scale, and the Liberation War on the other, they would think greater of the ‘event’ called the Liberation War…. (N)ot the real events of 71, the narrative of the Liberation War is the most precious to them.
Perhaps because of my professional training, I am inclined to seek rational explanation for human behaviour. Mr Salam goes a long way to explain the zeitgeist. Sadly, I think this madness has a long way yet to run.