Using memories for privileges and denial

by Afsan Chowdhury

002WE ARE running out of people who remember 1971. This was inevitable since almost 44 years have passed after that year. Somebody who was just 16 that year would be 60 and that is not just middle age but retirement age for most as well as disability, ill health and loss of memory for others. Those who are from the better off classes of society have memories that are more intact than that of a person who has led a half-fed life before and after 1971. Our remembering and construction of the 1971 history has many influences but one that is often missing is the class and privilege factor. Does the leader recall the same way as the person who followed the lead? Do all memories matter and what do they produce for the one who remembers?

REMEMBERING always has a purpose. It may be simply to recall a profound and significant moment in life but that too serves an objective which is to recall something that will make the past and, by extension, life more illuminated. One may remember to re-experience a fond moment or the painful events whose scars one may still bear. But memory also has social and political objectives. Manipulating or even manufacturing memories is common and we see many such instances. This is particularly so in societies like ours where the right kind of memory can lead to the right sort of reward.

THUS remembering is not just an altruistic or mundane process of recollecting the past but a tool for socio-economic enhancement. Memoirs have in recent times have often become the centre of great arguments and conflicts. For example, Air Vice-Marshall AK Khandaker’s book created a huge storm and a deputy chief of staff of the 1971 army was vilified in a language that was/is usually reserved for razakars. His crime was to say that Sheikh Mujib had said ‘Joy Pakistan’ at the end of the March 7 speech.
One finds it difficult to understand the uproar since such a statement by Sheikh Mujib would have made no difference whatsoever to either his position or history itself. In fact, had he declared ‘independence’ as some claim he did, it would have been quite unwise or reckless as General Khadim Hasan Raja has said in his book that the Pak army would have acted swiftly had that happened and they in fact were ready to attack if anything ‘treacherous’ was uttered. Sheikh Mujib said nothing that could have provoked any attack. He, as the leader of the movement, knew he could not say anything which could lead to bloodshed. He avoided it, he may even have hoped against hope that the Pak army would talk and find a way out. But he may also have known that he was a ‘prisoner of history’ like the rest of the people. Events were moving towards the crackdown and little that could be done. By saying ‘Joy Pakistan’, Sheikh Mujib’s status would not in the least be diminished. He was a man of history who was certainly above all slogans.
AVM Khandaker was one of those persons who had warned Sheikh Mujib at Road 32 that such an attack was being planned. He was on Sheikh Mujib’s side but the fury that was unleashed on this freedom fighter by today’s patriots shows how powerful and vicious and ultimately deadly this business of remembering can be.
What Sheikh Mujib said or did not say on that day is not important. What we think now what he said on that day is to us given our present? It is not about historical facts, it is about our perception and contemporary political position

WHAT intrigued me a lot when this ‘Joy Pakistan’ debate exploded was that many people swore that they were in the meeting that day and some even were close to the dais and they had not heard Sheikh Mujib say ‘Joy Pakistan’. That could have ended the debate except that an equal number of people swore that they were present and near the dais and Sheikh Mujib did say, ‘Joy Pakistan’.
A new debate has erupted which can only be resolved if a recording can be heard which is considered authentic as some say that audio doctoring has been carried out on the recording of that speech. But we have access to none so we have to live with memories that are tired, false or doctored even though it really does not have much historical significance. Sadly for Sheikh Mujib, he has been deified and he exists not in history but in spaces where the imagination of his opponents and supporters decide who he is not verifiable facts.

ONE of the organisations which threw AVM Khandaker out of it was the Sector Commanders Forum. This was interesting because AVM had done nothing except recall a day to the best of his knowledge. But his memories had ceased to be history and became politics. The forum was saying that any memory that contradicts the official position/their position cannot exist and one will be punished for that as Khandaker was. Memory now has become a source of politics more than history. Thus all history that hitherto exists must have official approval. The past belongs to the official world and not to those who experienced it and recalls.

BUT this method of choosing what to remember and who is allowed to remember is an inbuilt part of the nationalist knowledge system. Let us face it. We know what the sector commanders think of the war as they remember it but we do not know what the sepoys do. Many of those who fought in the war, whether as a regular army person or a civilian freedom fighter have written their memoirs but almost all — why almost, all of them — are from the privileged class. Simply put, those who remember and write are, by definition, from the privileged class, the war elite. For them, memory is also a powerful tool to either advance or consolidate their advancement. Our memories of 1971 have been captured largely by the order-giving class. Those who followed them, by description, do not seem to have any memories or remain unrecorded. In a way, this is imposed collective amnesia of sorts and a deafness too as we never seem to hear how ordinary soldiers, let alone ordinary people, experienced and remembered the war. Not everyone’s memory matters.

THE war of independence is, therefore, presented dominantly as a military conflict led by politicians and this creates a new narrative of a liberation struggle whereby war can be remembered only by a few. It becomes a ‘military warfare’ or a ‘politician’s war’, not a freedom struggle because the official world decides who can remember and what. More importantly, the social system is such that the ordinary people including the ordinary soldier are left out from the pages of history.

WHICH is why no matter how much we debate, we will end up with a partial history unless we move out of the official space and start hearing about ordinary people in an extraordinary time. For that, remembering will probably not lead to any benefits for those who will recall but will help to explain why everyone participated in the war of 1971 but so few benefited.
Perhaps the truth will, indeed, set us free and liberate.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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