Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reliving 1971 (Part I of II)

A common observation made by articles in the Indian media about Shahbagh is the participation of the youth. While commending the trend, most articles can’t but let a note of surprise creep into their narratives: Why is a 20-year old so passionate about an event that happened 20 years before he was even born? There are two complementary answers to this question. One is that Shahbagh is as much about Bangladesh today as it is about 1971. The other is that, for Bangladesh, 1971 is not the past—1971 is a living thing for Bangladesh; an incident so seminal that it still serves to define the nation. Of course, freedom is a big deal for any nation. But in conversations with Bangladeshis you realise that 1971 isn’t an ordinary sort of freedom. It’s not a banal transfer of power. For the average Bangladeshi, 1971 is almost like the beginning of History. Talking to people in Government, industry development professionals, even rickshaw-wallas, you just can’t not hear the phrase, “Since 1971...”. It’s almost as if pre-1971, Bangladesh didn’t even exist or even if it did, it existed in such a dark state, a period of Jaahiliaa if you will, that talking about it isn’t even necessary or is to be avoided at any rate. All progress, all development, all that’s good, begins after 1971.

Bangladesh’s progress since 1971 though is nothing to sneeze at. In 1947, the region was so poor that Jinnah was convinced that by foisting this region (minus Calcutta) on him, the Congress and Mountbatten were out to sabotage his country right from the start. Today Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of a wide range of basic social indicators: life expectancy, child survival, fertility rates and immunisation rates [see table].

Progress or no progress, ideologies such as Shahbagh aren’t made in a vacuum. Like all narratives there is an act of building them up, of creation. Since the word ‘narrative’ often carries pejorative connotation of untruth let me hasten to add that that I do not mean to criticise when I say this. It’s just that mass narratives and ideologies, “good” or “bad” need to be buttressed by propaganda. It was to understand the nature of this propaganda that one Friday morning (a holiday in Bangladesh after it switched from the Christian to the Muslim Sabbath sometime in the 80s) I decided to head to Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum or, to use the far more impactful Bengali name, the Mukti Jodha Jadughar (Freedom Fighter’s Museum)

Dhaka is not an unpleasant city at first glance. In fact by South Asian standards, the city is rather neat and clean and some of the posher areas such as Gulshan are quite pleasant. Looks, though, can be deceptive. Like all South Asian cities Dhaka hates its citizens and its primary mode of attack is traffic. Traffic in Dhaka is debilitating, bone crushing , spirit sapping. My hotel and the War Museum were separated by only 10 kilometres but on a weekday this might take almost 2 hours to cover. On the blessed day of Jumma, though, even Dhaka makes way for those who wish to travel. My CNG (what Dhakais call auto rickshaws) had me reach the museum in 15 minutes flat.

The museum is unobtrusive in the extreme and looks just like a large house. Even more incongruously it’s situated far away from the main road inside a warren of lanes. The ticket counter was manned by a sleepy woman and was deserted. I stepped up and said, “One” (in Bengali) raising up my index finger to rule out any confusion as to the number of passes I wanted. Lulled by skin colour as well as language and unable to latch onto my Kolkata accent due to my accidental brevity, she issued me a Taka 5 pass meant for Bangladeshis. The pass for foreigners is worth considerably more which makes kind of makes sense. I guess if you’ve taken the trouble to be a part of freedom movement, the least you could expect is a discount when you go to visit the museum of the movement.


The first gallery starts off with ancient and medieval Bengal. Odd, you might think given that this is a museum about 1971. The purpose of this gallery though is to show that the region of Bengal was the bestest most tolerant place ever. Was, that is, till the British and then the Pakistanis came in. Most of the gallery deals with Bengal’s rich Buddhist past. A bit ironic given its treatment of the Chakma and other minorities post 1971.

Sharee woven with yarn spun on  a charkha during the Non-Cooperation Movement

The colonial period follows next with much breast beating over Plassey and Mir Jaffer. This it does, somewhat lazily, using a British painting by Francis Hayman which was once hung up in Vauxhall Gardens to massage British pride. The good thing about this section is that, unlike state history in Pakistan, Hindus are given their place in the freedom movement. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Khudiram Bose, Leela and Anil Roy, Bose, they’re all there with liberal mentions of Congress-led movement such as Non-Cooperation as well as the Civil Disobedience movement. The most striking display in this section though deals with the 1905 Bengal Partition.  Here’s what the museum has to say:

“In 1905, Lord Curzon divided Bengal in to two parts creating a wedge between Hindus and Muslims in the national struggle. The protest against partition of Bengal provides impetus to the national struggle. The Muslim elite led the movement in support of Partition” (emphasis mine)

This could have been taken out of my class 10 board text book, it’s that close to the official Indian take on it. In contrast this is what the website Story of Pakistan has to say about 1905:

“The Muslims of India welcomed the partition of Bengal, but the Hindu community strongly opposed it. They launched a mass movement, declaring October 16 as a day of mourning in Calcutta. Influenced by the Chinese boycott of American goods, the Hindus started the Swadeshi Movement against the British. In the meantime, the Hindus raised the Band-i-Mataram (sic) as the national cry protecting worship of Shivaji as a national hero. This organized anarchist movement took a terrorist turn resulting in political sabotage and communal riots.”

The biggest departure from Pakistani historiography though comes in the actual depiction of Partition. In nationalist Pakistani historiography, Partition is treated as an achievement; a grim achievement given the violence but an achievement nonetheless. Hardly surprising given that it resulted in the nation’s birth. You could argue that Partition has also, even if incidentally given rise to Bangladesh. It was only Partition which allowed for 1971. The Museum though takes a less than sanguine view on Partition. Here’s what it has to say:

Even for the Lahore Resolution, the Museum pretty much ignores all parts of the document other than the part that promised Federalism for the new state echoing the first of Mujib’s Six Points: “The constitution should provide for a Federation of Pakistan in its true sense based on the Lahore Resolution....”.

In a departure from both Indian and Pakistani mainstream history, the museum all but ignores Jinnah as well as his Two-Nation theory. No mention is made of those two even when discussing the Lahore Resolution.  The is oddly enough apt given the fact that Jinnah was, by and large, a bystander when it came to Muslim politics in Bengal. In fact the relations between Bengal tallest pre-partition Muslim leader, Fazul Huq and Jinnah were, if anything, strained. Just a year after the Lahore Resolution, Huq (who moved the Resolution) broke with Jinnah accusing him of placing the interests of the Muslims in the minority provinces (such as UP) over that of the Muslims of Bengal. Such was the depth of the split that in 1941, Huq decided to form a coalition with the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal (with Shayma Prasad Mukherjee as Finance Minister) with the League sitting in the opposition.

[End of part 1 of this post. Part 2 of this post, dealing with the post-1947 section of the Museum, can be found here]

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