‘India didn’t want to put all eggs in one basket’

India was instrumental in creating the Mujib Bahini partly because it did not want to put all its eggs in one basket and partly because it wanted a force directly obligated to it. Also the issue of the fighting the pro-Peking left/Naxals influenced its creation, Afsan Chowdhury — a journalist and researcher who was part of the Muktijuddher Dalilpatra Project led by Hasan Hafizur Rahman from 1978 to 1986,  producer of a video documentary on women and 1971 titled ‘Tahader Juddha’ and editor and co-author of the four-volume history of 1971, ‘Bangladesh 1971’ — tells New Age in an interview

New Age: The competing political parties of the ruling class, the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in particular, accuse each other of distorting the history of our liberation war. What is your view about the alleged distortion of the history?
04Afsan Chowdhury: Both have tried to narrate their histories for political gains and the issue is about producing a party-friendly history. This is reflected in the slightly varying versions of official history that we notice with every regime change. The fight between the BNP and the AL boils down to several not very significant issues like who declared independence and who was the first president, etc. Since these are not subject to speculation but facts we can say that Sheikh Mujib alone had the authority to declare independence and he alone could have been the first head of the government. This is unlike other matters of history where there is scope to debate like if the entire issues of 1970 elections including the Legal Framework Order (LFO), refusal to call the assembly by Yahya Khan, the declaration of independence had what sort of legal strength, etc. But these are not even contentions because the objective of each is not to develop an academic discourse but score political points. The number of dead and raped cannot be described as a distortion of history because they are not matters of history as they are of cultural and social psyche. However, when they become a platform for official history making given that no such data for any numbers exist, it becomes problematic as an issue of dogmatic nationalism which can be used to suppress intellectual discussion. The case is not of wilful distortion but the use of history to gain or sustain power at any level. Lack of intellectual exercise has also reduced the freedom space and so it is just not the political parties but civil society has also significantly lost its ability to look at history as a matter of national heritage and is more keen to use it for political strengthening through dogma based nationalist positions.
New Age: There is no doubt that the Awami League, under the active leadership of Tajuddin Ahmad, politically presided over the nine-month  liberation war against Pakistan and that the Tajuddin government conducted the liberation war in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the Awami League often claims to be the sole champion of the country’s war of liberation. What role did political parties play in the liberation war?
Afsan Chowdhury: Several factors influenced this process. Not only was the AL the main party but in 1971 it had no contestant. As a result, the war was largely in the hands of the AL. However, this party also did not want to ‘share’ the war and so it ensured that the party controlled the war and no others were given space. This was best reflected in the entry control to the training camps. Even its ally, Russia-supported CPB, could not get entry and the CPI worked with the Indian government to set up a camp just for the CPB cadres.
The other parties like the Menon-Bashar-Kazi Zafar-led Party were marginalised understandably but while its leaders were in India some of its workers developed local resistance. Particular mention must be made of Mannan Bhuiyan of Narsingdi-Lauhajang area and some other pockets. Other left parties like Siraj Shikder’s Sarbahara Party was active in Peyara Bagan (Barisal), Matin-Tipu Biswas in the Pabna area and Toaha and Haq of the EPCP were also active but in essence, it was a nationalist war and it is the nationalist party which played the overwhelmingly dominant role. What became an issue in later history has been the attempt to portray all pro-Peking pro-liberation forces as an enemy and by extension pro-Pakistan forces. This is not true but these parties were on bad terms with the AL for long and in some cases had confrontations. So the AL which had no competitors saw these people as one and produced an ‘if not with us then with them’ narrative.
The main political struggle was within the AL among its factions rather than with other parties particularly the left parties, however, the left’s role as patriots but opposed to the main party has been rarely presented within a proper context either by them or the mainstream nationalist historians.
05New Age: It is common knowledge that Awami League leader Khondaker Mushtaque Ahmed wanted to compromise with the Pakistani authorities during our liberation war. Was any other leader or faction of the Awami League supporting Mustaque’s move? How was the suicidal move thwarted?
Afsan Chowdhury: The State Department archives indicate that Khondaker  Mushtaque was trying to open a new front with the US to discuss the possibility of a new arrangement outside the Mujibnagar government. The US was quite nervous about the Mujib Bahini which was reported to the US as a leftist group particularly by MP Zahirul Quaiym who was Mushtaques’s main lieutenant along with Mahbub Alam Chashi, Taher Thakur and a few others. The US appears as nervous at this point, trying to contact others while keeping India ignorant but I am not sure how serious an effort it was since these were bit players in terms of history. The move was not ideology-inspired and its source was the Mujibnagar government formation-related conflict in which Mushtaque felt he should lead and not Tajuddin Ahmad.
New Age: There are allegations that the youth leaders of the Mujib Bahini, formed and specially trained by the Indian authorities, did not properly cooperated with the the government of Tajuddin Ahmad during the liberation war. Why, in your view, was the Mujib Bahini formed in the first place and how did it affect the process of our liberation war?
Afsan Chowdhury: India was instrumental in creating the Mujib Bahini partly because it did not want to put all its eggs in one basket and partly because it wanted a force directly obligated to it. Also the issue of the fighting the pro-Peking left/Naxals influenced its creation. Interestingly, while the Indians saw it as a force to oppose the left, the US saw it as a pro-Left force. But even more interestingly Sirajul Alam Khan who led the left in the AL and Sheikh Moni who led the right united to form the BLF/MB partly because it was a great opportunity to be powerful outside the control of Mujibnagar and their common unhappiness with Tajuddin whom Moni truly hated and even tried to prevent forming the Tajuddin government.
Its impact on the war scenario was limited because the war was dominated by Indian pans and priorities that were being implemented by the regular forces so the MB as a bunch of irregulars was not effective. However, it created conflict within the Mujibnagar politicians but before the conflict could take any serious shape, the war ended.
New Age: Allegations also have it that in order to take control of the war, the Mujib Bahini often engaged itself in clashes with the Mukti Bahini. Did such clashes upset the morale of the freedom fighters on the ground?
Afsan Chowdhury: There were some conflicts but its seriousness is overrated by the involved fighters. They were certainly more privileged and had better weapons but ultimately these were not much used except in the CHT area. One factor that should not be overlooked is that of India who were behind all the three Bangladeshi forces — (a) the regular army; (b) the Mukti Fauj/Gana Bahini; and (c) the Mujib Bahini. So India did not or would not allow the conflict within Mujibnagar to spill over into the bigger war.
New Age: Different sections of people of Bangladesh took part in the liberation war. Did all sections of people have the same expectations from an independent Bangladesh? What were the aspirations of the poor masses that had made the greatest sacrifice?
Afsan Chowdhury: In any war, the poor suffer the most. Expectations vary according to class and social positions. People did not think much about expectations; they just wanted to survive so the issue of expectations is a post-war phenomenon. But even as the war was on, crimes were taking place at many levels particularly loot and murder for gain. Food was short, life was risky and no one felt safe. So they naturally wanted the opposite of these. Most of these were not realised and I think over time, their expectations from the state declined in general.
We are in fact quite unaware of the history of the poor and the marginalised at any level. This is our nationalist history’s biggest gap. I have been running a research project on ‘Villages in 1971’ and hopefully by March-April we should be done. That will complement our research on villages in 1971 that was published in our earlier book, ‘Bangladesh 1971’ that came out in 2007.
New Age: What are the impediments towards meeting aspirations of the people at large that were generated out of a successful war of liberation in 1971?
Afsan Chowdhury: We never managed to establish the rule of law, a functional constitution and a political accountability regime. But the rich have certainly gained much from this war.
New Age: There is some documentation, inadequate though, about the sacrifices of the women in the liberation war but their sacrifices are not yet discussed in public forums. How should the problem be addressed?
Afsan Chowdhury: This is a major issue and can be linked to both the nationalist and the male-dominated notions of war history recalling. Interestingly, feminist historians also seem to agree in many cases with the pro-male historians. We see war as a violent and confrontational activity and not a history of a time and environment that engulfed every part of life. So women who were not the majority combatants were left out from the 1971 heroic narratives. Most focus on the ‘space’ of women in 1971 is about their sexual suffering and examples of helping male warriors and some isolated examples of direct participation. So, there is a tendency to limit the scope of war participation to certain spaces which are physically confrontational in nature.
This may apply to front-based wars of World War II but later wars of our time, fought without borders are total wars in which households become a major source of resistance. Societies even not in combat become participants in the war. Thus households are pillars of society that is fighting to survive and this survival is largely what our women did. It is their war and in this war they were very successful as they made sure that families continued and were not torn apart. Men could also go to war leaving their families and responsibilities behind. It is amazing that we have managed to ignore their contribution and in fact do not even address the issue in our history except for very few instances.
I have a video — Tahader Juddha (Their war) — in which these issues are discussed but we seem to have decided that we shall look at women’s role in 1971 through eyes that objectify women. Men dying valiantly and women suffering sexually have become the dominant narrative and we must learn to move beyond that.
New Age: There is still controversy at home and abroad over the actual number of martyrs in our liberation war. What is the scientific way to put an end to the controversy?
Afsan Chowdhury: I do not think this controversy will end because the number occupies two different spaces — one, factual; two, social. For the moment, no survey or research was done; so quoting any number can be challenged. We know many died but not how many. But any discussion moves from the realm of history research to that of social angst and that is why I think any discussion is also not possible. Our sense of national identity is still not formed and research is seen as a threat to that. So our reactions are driven by political and social perceptions rather than the factual.

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