The simplest things are the hardest to say

by Khademul Islam

spc09THIS is the 44th anniversary of our independence. Over the years we have made notable progress in specific economic and social areas, posting numbers we can be justifiably proud of. However, we also remain victims of a deeply unstable political system, hostage to periodic irruptions of extreme violence. It is a thorny, complex issue that directly impacts our national life. Salil Tripathy’s book, a work that is part historical analysis and part reportage, focuses on it in terms of one central issue, and the particular illuminates the whole. Independence anniversaries are traditionally times to reflect on our collective state of affairs, and look to the future. However, being too close to the picture can blur perspectives, and discussions about our politics, past and present, seem to have descended to a low level and somewhat abusive Historikerstriet. At such times the ‘outsider’s’ view can be a corrective of sorts. In some measure, therefore, on this day an extended review of Salil Tripathy’s book on Bangladesh may prove to be a fruitful exercise. Additionally, simply by virtue of who the author is and the language it is written in, this is a book that many non-Bangladeshis will no doubt consult, whether for a quick introduction to the country or for a deeper look at the confluences of our history, politics, religion and culture. It may well befit us to view how we may be viewed by the outside world in the future.

AT THE basic level of language the book is a delight to read. With arresting sentences like — “the quaint, kabuki-like rituals that the two warring women of Bangladeshi politics practiced time and again…” and passages of vivid first hand reporting, the drearily familiar is rendered new. These are interleaved with searching analyses written with sensitiveness to national wounds still raw after all this time. It is not all unalloyed high style, however. Attempts at pursed-lips solemnity turn to portentous cliché – “There is a sense of finality about death,” or “Kindness is part of human nature.” Really! A large portion of his book is information re-assembled and quotes taken from other books and authors. Here, the writing tends to lose some its flow and spontaneity. While Bangladeshis are well acquainted with a number of these sources — Anthony Mascarenhas, Siddiq Salek, Rafiqul Islam, Lawrence Lifschultz, et al. — yet the material is so well-organised, deploying with ease the techniques of nonfiction narratives, of contrasting voices, flashbacks, the telescoping of events or the wide angle, that overall, again, the old tends to become new.

THE book’s origins lie in the author’s mingled sense of curiosity and horror. Salil first came to Bangladesh in 1986 as a young reporter and interviewed Farooq (the ‘unrepentant colonel’ of the book’s title), one of the group of army officers who killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the 1975 coup. Yet, in Dhaka Salil found Farooq to not only be a free man but rehabilitated in public life to the extent that he had been a candidate, albeit a losing one, in the country’s presidential election. Salil, born in Bombay, with childhood memories of the 1971 liberation war, of refugees, and of shouting ‘Joy Bangla’, found the whole thing to be “bizarre,” verging on the incomprehensible. How could someone kill the father of the nation and yet have such immunity from judicial prosecution and public disgrace? What was the source and nature of such immunity? Out of this curiosity and incomprehension, with repeated later trips to Bangladesh, was born his book that is an unblinking investigation of two sets of killings — one, by the Pakistan army and its collaborators in 1971, and the other the 1975 coup, with its linked chain of jail killings and counter coups — and of the immunity enjoyed by the guilty for decades, as well as the tortuous attempts to remove it and bring those accused to trial.

SALIL locates the causes of this phenomenon in a complex of the divided soul of the Bengali Muslim ( the Bengali half in perpetual conflict with its Muslim half), in the communal nature of Bengal’s partition in 1947, in the theocratic nature of the Pakistani state and its army, and in the irreconcilable forces of secularism versus Islam in an independent Bangladesh, as expressed in our everyday life, our political parties and leaders, the various change of regimes, and in the shifting constructions of our nationalism, liberation war and democracy. This basic frame of Islam versus secularism, at a general level, does do the intended job of explaining why the killings occurred in the first place, why war criminals and coup killers had immunity and freedom for so long, its nature and source, and why the wheels of justice are so “slow.” It bares the logic of extreme violence in a social order and a political system that was, and continues to be, a reflection of these two opposing forces. Violence and coups brought in authoritarian regimes needing political bases, whereupon they rehabilitated disgraced, rightwing reactionaries back to centre stage. Desperate for legitimacy, wanting to redefine themselves against the-then dominant narrative of secularism triumphant over a theocratic state, they reconstructed nationality and nationalism by executive fiat. It was in the spaces created by such shifts in political power and revisions of state ideology that the various killers found their complicated ways back to survival, then respectability, and in the case of the Jamaat, even real political power. In a scenario where a single narrative of national identity, myth, history, and even the liberation war was no longer dominant, where such a conflicted scenario was ever sharpened by the imperatives of winning state power, who was to judge who? Who was to decide who committed what crimes, how and why? What cave and what Plato? What shadows and what reality? It destroyed the collective consensus for justice and trials, already rendered frail during the first four years of Bangladesh’s existence.

THERE are two outstanding sections in Salil’s work. One is the chapter on the systematic, mass rape of Bengali women by the Pakistan army in 1971. Though Mujib was personally courageous and ahead of his time in recognizing them as birangonas, this is a subject, these are women, still shrouded in social shame and taboos. This is true of secular, liberal, conservative and fundamentalist sections of our society alike, and the initial trauma of these women in some cases has been multiplied by hesitant official policies of recognition and outright denial of their existence. Salil carefully unpeels the various interlinked layers of this story — about the psychology and settings for rape during wartime and of the Pakistani soldiers, the unwanted ‘war babies’ and concept of shame, taking the direct testimony of some rape victims (which is in an appendix), detailing the work of abortion clinics and an Australian doctor, building up a specific picture of this special, grotesque vulnerability and aspect of war against which the safeguards are swift trial, and adequate punishment and justice. Repeated public exposure and open discussion, removing social and cultural taboos are the only forms of closure, and the only viable safeguard for the future. No substantial steps in this regard have ever been taken in Bangladesh. This is despite women occupying the four top positions of political and state power — prime minister, leader of the other large political party, the leader of the parliamentary opposition and the speaker. This surely says something about us.
The second remarkable part is actually spread over the length of the book. It examines a bitterly divisive issue, having become for some of us a test of patriotism: the number of Bengalis killed by the Pakistan army in 1971. Here Salil combines reportage from mass grave sites — Chuknagar, Matlab, Jalladkhana memorial — with an analysis that is equal part empathy for our national agony, and equal part dispassionate forensic methodology developed since various degrees of ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ legally became crimes against humanity. Salil is fully alive to the scale of the killings, rejecting Sarmila Bose’s accounting in her book Dead Reckoning as a credulous one. But he also implicitly refuses to endorse the three million figure, which at the end he notes amounts to “11,235 deaths a day.” Comparing that number to the deaths computed in the Congolese civil wars, one of the “most brutal conflict in recent years” with a “daily death toll of 1500,” he wonders, “Was the 1971 war up to fifteen times more lethal than the Congolese conflict?” Salil’s methodology should make us conscious that the rage with which many Bangladeshis react to assessments by even neutral Western organisations and researchers, and the potential damage to national credibility, need to be corrected. By carefully mapping out the terrain of actual facts and verifiable numbers versus what cannot be verified, is essentially folk memory, and what can now never be known — he is making an eloquent plea to stop fighting over numbers and acknowledge the tragedy. The two have become, tragically, separated.
As Rabindranath put it, “Shohoj kotha jai na bola shohoj bhabay” — the simplest things are the hardest to say!

SALIL’S explanatory framework of Islam versus secularism, the tug of war “between the madrassas and the regular schools,” leads to a broad identification of the Awami League with secularism and the dogged pursuit of war crimes trials, the Jamaat with fundamentalism and barbarity, sheltered and given succour by the BNP. But as the book progresses Salil notes significant deviations of the Awami League from it, the support for Islam as the state religion, the Bishwajit killing, the punitive action against free-minded bloggers, the fact that the Awami League grabbed the lion’s share of the land, assets and properties of Hindus under the Vested Property Act, even entered into short-term alliances with the Jamaat, etc. It significantly weakens the thesis and the storyline. It even raises, as the author says in his understated way, the possibility that if the rhetoric and symbols of secularism are being deliberately used as political instruments, then notions of ‘justice’ and ‘closure’ and ‘national reconciliation’ get tainted in a specifically damaging way. Within the book, therefore, there is a conflict, unresolved and alive, running between the framework and the facts it records.
Another problematic area is that Salil tends (with some qualifiers, sure, but ritually stated) to reproduce the official Delhi view of the 1947 Partition, where Congress’s secular and inclusive nationalism (the good) is posited against the communal politics of Jinnah and the Muslim League aided by the divide-and-rule policies of the colonial power (both very, very bad). This one-sided interpretation by him is perhaps understandable, but taken cumulatively it does slant the book. This view of the Partition has been hugely challenged by a slew of revisionist historians who underline the responsibility of the Congress and Hindu communalism in the division. True, Ayesha Jalil and Joya Chatterji are in his bibliography, but rendered innocuous in the overall thrust of Salil’s argument. So, unsurprisingly, Salil apportions equal responsibility to both Hindu and Muslim communalism for Bengal’s second partition. The chapter is titled “The land that wasn’t easy to carve,” but actually Bengal was actually pretty easy to carve up, or unite, when the bhadraloks of the Bengal Congress and the Hindu Mahashava wanted it. They didn’t like it when Curzon partitioned it in 1905, and against stiff Muslim opposition, united it in 1911. They didn’t like it when in 1946 Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy gave their proposal for a united Bengal (Jinnah supported it), and made short work of the two and their plan. Again, about Suhrawardy and the Calcutta riots, Salil trots out the old Congress line that Suhrawardy was responsible for the deaths. Here Salil should perhaps add Tazeen Murshid’s excellent The Sacred and the Secular to his reading list, where she finds the accusation based on “inadequate evidence, bias and lack of sound logic.” And it continues throughout the book – Gandhi presented with his halo intact, a burnished Indian army in 1971, that “Bengali nationalism owes its origins” to Dhinendranath Dutta. And so on.
At times the liberation war itself seems defined by religion and community. There is an extended treatment of Bengali Hindus, first as victims of Pakistani state policies, then targeted specifically by the army in 1971, and lastly, marginalised in independent Bangladesh. While the record does largely speak for itself, Salil can write, in a part about tribal minorities and the war, that, “some hill people offered refuge to many Hindus leaving for India.” It is discomforting to hear the tone of approval in it. Would it not have mattered if they been Muslims? Why not just say Bengalis? We do not see our liberation war in these terms. To us, all Bengalis, whether Hindu or Muslim, were the targets, everybody suffered, and aside from the Jamaat, all pitched in to liberate the motherland. Otherwise it risks going into some ugly territory — for example, why was it that Bengali Muslims were the ones who overwhelmingly joined the Mukti Bahini and bore the brunt of the armed struggle against the Pakistan army? And would India have been indifferent to the cruelty and barbarity had Pakistan’s Muslim army killed mainly Bengali Muslims? This kind of perspective diminishes the glory and scale of our independence war, and we should all take care not to raise spectres where there are none.

THE above should not in any way, however, diminish Salil’s work, his very real achievements. His humane and liberal examination of a very painful subject in the end outweighs all other considerations. Salil ends his book with a quasi-spiritual plea, that it is time for Bangladeshis not to “live in the past, but to leave the past,” and putting forward the idea of “forgiveness” as the way out of the “cycle of bloodshed and revenge.” Such hopes in different forms have been uttered in the past. None of it has had any impact on the principal actors.
Perhaps the problem and the answer lie in a different direction. At one point Salil observes that in Bangladesh, despite Jamaat’s weak electoral strength, nevertheless “a more austere, hard Islam has spread… many of its young men were turning fundamentalist,” that “a creeping Islamisation” — in dress and manner — is “visible in broader society.”
So what does it point to, this failure of the secular vision among the young, this lack of appeal?
Salil’s answer, mediated through a Bangladeshi interlocutor, is the old divided soul of the Bengali Muslim, one half winning over the other.
But could it be a different proposition? Could it be that the young have taken their own stock of the nation and see nothing hopeful there? That they see a society where income disparities are growing even as fifty percent of the population lives on less than $1.50 a day, where the right to vote and popular representation have ceased to have meaning, where the less said about the parliament the better, where banks are being looted and the middle class fleeced by pyramid schemes and stock market theft, where every last vestige of public accountability has disappeared? Do they see the two major parties as exactly the same, in language, structure, leadership and aims? Is the solution not to waffle Hamlet like over a divided soul, but to have good governance, clean administration, public accountability, a respected parliament, a more egalitarian society? One which will bring about positive associations with secularism rather than that of cynicism and despair? That if you give the young a more just society, s/he will stop turning to divine justice? That if you check corruption in party and government then you can check the corruption of fundamentalism in his soul?
Should then the definition of secularism stretch beyond the removal of immunity and trials of war criminals to include the above? That if secularism is a modern attitude, then it has to be redefined to include other elements of modern government and society? Otherwise it remains symbolic and dysfunctional, an empty vessel?
Is that the way to go?
Khademul Islam is a writer, translator and editor, Bengal Lights.


  1. shahidul alam says:

    Great to read a well written review. One that attempts to analyse the book rather than pat the author on the back or stomp on him with self righteous fervour.

    Congratulations to Salil and Khadem

  2. Vistasp Hodiwala says:

    It’s astonishing how personal histories of significant historical events can so eloquently blank out a significant chunk of narrative whilst disproportionately bloating up events that serve narrow national interest. As an Indian school kid growing up back in the 80’s, the 1971 war was just a 15 day affair when Sam Maneckshaw and JFR Jacob emerged as heroes extraordinaire riding astride their army jeeps and battle tanks like knights in shining armour to ‘rescue’ Bangladesh.

    And that was that.

    But why on Allah’s earth did the Bengali Muslim in a matter of just two and a half decades decide to go against his co-religionists when Islam was the cohesive glue that was supposed to hold it all together? What precipitated a defiant Mujibur Rehman to challenge the Pakistani establishment? What kind of brutality and atrocity did the local citizenry brave to get to a point where it became unbearable to live without the thought of independence? Why was the secular identity so dear to the average Bangladeshi brought up on a steady intellectual diet of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam?

    It took Salil Tripathi’s scholarly and sensitive work The Colonel Who Would Not Repent to restore sense and balance to that skewed narrative. Not that anything about India’s contribution was exaggerated then or need not be celebrated now, but the spectacular lack of awareness most of us in India have about the birth pangs of our neighbour to the east is a thing of humbling detail. This heartrending account about the birth of a nation also takes into account the events during India’s partition and the advantages it frittered away due to crude political ambitions and tragic bickering in a mere 5 years since her birth.

    Yes, Bangladesh still performs way better on key human index indicators than its two larger and more noisy neighbours to its West but its political framework is as brittle as it started out with and Salil’s book explores this with tremendous depth and total empathy. So if you ever feel curious about this passionate neighbour of ours, this book is as good a place to begin as any.

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