Preserving our hypocrisies, not our history: the ETV example

Afsan ChowdhuryIN 2000, I was commissioned by ETV to produce a series of documentaries on 1971. I had already done research and media work on the topic; so, the decision to do so was not based on my ‘patriotism’ but professional record. I was involved both in 1971 history research and media work. I was very keen and we built a team of researchers and media workers who were young and enthusiastic. Our plan was to move through the entire history of 1971, roughly based on the 15 volumes of documents which continue to be the baseline information source till date. It was a happy project for all. We found out last week that all the original footage has been destroyed due to negligence of a series of owners over time.

I ASKED my team members to drop all ideas they had on the history of 1971 and focus entirely on evidence and first-hand research. I asked them to go out and explore history and not depend on popular myths. The shocks they received in this journey were there but what they gained was far greater. Soon, they knew as much about March 25 as the next expert. They had found many new info, met people who directly experienced the night and the details of the areas where the major events took place that night. These would be Peelkhana, Rajarbagh, Dhaka University campus, several slums of Dhaka, the New Market, Shankhari Patti and adjacent areas, etc. These were the main targets of the army on the night. Subsequently, there would be Zinjira as the city ran for shelter but faced death by random fire there.

THE Pakistan army had a plan that night which can be seen by looking at the patterns of attack. The top armed target was to attack Rajarbagh Police Lines and the Peelkahana BDR headquarters. These had to be neutralised at all costs as they provided armed resistance and so the high concentration of firepower and targeted attack. In this move, the Pakistan army was largely successful and the two points were overrun. Having taken care of the possible armed obstacle to take Dhaka they turned towards the civilians, almost all unarmed. This was a much bigger operation but much less dangerous for the army. We identified several targets by looking at the attack patterns — (1) to arrest Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with his close aides but not killed; (2) targeted killing of certain individuals like lieutenant commander Moazzem Hossain of the Agartala Conspiracy case and the academics of Dhaka University who were considered the principle inspiration of the nationalist movement; (3) Dhaka University activists particularly at the Iqbal Hall (now Sergeant Zahurul Haq Hall), Jagannath Hall, Rokeya Hall, etc; and (4) selected slums of Dhaka.

THERE was resistance from Rajarbagh and Peelkhana but not from elsewhere. The book Operation Searchlight refers to heavy gunfire in DU campus but it was not true. The Pakistan army used it but not anyone else. Where would the students get it and use it? Demolishing DU and the Shaheed Minar was an obvious psychological target to demoralise Bangladeshis and in doing so, they were physically successful. They did kill many intellectuals and ordinary people and also demolished the Shaheed Minar but the spirit of resistance of Bangladeshi people was not broken.
What also came through was the ethnic cleansing policy of the Pakistan army which was directed against the Hindus. To Muslim Pakistan, Hindus — also read Indians — were the main enemy encapsulating all the traits of the arch foe. All Hindus were Indians and killing them was jayez. Those who supported the Awami League were at least partially Hindu and, therefore, Indians and, hence, they could be killed. It was a religious and secular objective in one go.
THE interviews of the widows of the martyred Hindus of the Jagannath Hall — all were Class IV employees — were the most horrific and touching I have ever heard. We interviewed people who carried bullet wounds, who spoke of burying the dead killed by the Pakistan army and then shot. A woman burst into tears as she described how she tried to hide her husband behind an idol in the Jagannath Hall auditorium but he was caught and taken away, never to be seen again.
Records of Shankhari Bazar where people were killed when they tried to escape and herded together in a room and shot are terrible to hear but they are harrowing narratives that form the intrinsic part of the 1971 history. We recorded them.
The footage also included a detailed shooting of the Gazipur resistance including testimonies of the wounded. Many interviews including of people who played a role in the March resistance said military and civilians were taken. Shafiullah, Khandaker, Kamal Hussain and many others were done too.
It was focused on the night of March and was duly edited and a final copy was submitted. It was never broadcast.

I CAN understand that the ETV authorities were uncomfortable with my video because it was a historian’s video and the station probably wanted a different sort. I will not dig the corpse out of its ancient grave so I will not go further. I left the station and, when I met later, was told by colleagues that another historian more to the government’s liking was commissioned but he do could not do the job either. Fair enough, but what was done about preserving all the raw footage which was national property and not of a TV channel?

SO IT was never broadcast but did the owners make sure it was well preserved? Did they take the precautions needed to preserve it? I produced another video on women and 1971 — ‘Tahader Juddho’ — and ETV broadcast it but what it was doing to preserve the footage because it did not belong to ETV, it literally belonged to Bangladesh. Soon after the 2001 election, the owners were in trouble with the new government and all regulatory hell broke loose. In this crazy environment, the old owners sold it to a batch of new owners and departed for London but did they preserve the footage which is a visual testimony of 1971 that can never be found again?

ETV was granted a licence on the basis of trust and relationship with the then government. No problem about it because that is how it is done in Bangladesh, but are any of the owners really worth much compared with the woman in Shankhari Patti who defied the Pakistan army and threw boiling sugar syrup at them, perhaps the first female freedom fighter of Bangladesh? That record is gone. Or the victims that died to make sure Bangladesh was born and sometime later ETV could come into existence? Neglecting such footage was not criminal because no law was broken but a trust was violated between Bangladesh and the privileged in whose name socio-economic gains are made in Bangladesh. That should not have happened.

I HAVE little to say about the next and the next owners and the present ones either but the present CEO Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul tried to locate the material but they are all destroyed. I have been trying to recover them for the last few years but nobody was interested to recover and preserve them. And in not doing so, they preserved their hypocrisy about wanting to preserve the history of 1971 and destroyed one of its most precious memories.
History of 1971 is worth bothering only when it benefits us, politically, socially, economically. But we do make a lot of noise saying the opposite. That is the hypocrisy and that is well preserved.

Afsan Chowdhury is journalist and researcher.

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