I hate all armies. Yours, mine—all armies.
-Muhammad Zinnatul Alam, the lone survivor of the Thanpara massacre.1
The main focus of Sarmila Bose’s much talked about book, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War is the civil war in East Pakistan, and not the international war between India and Pakistan or the Cold War context of the conflict, though they are not completely ignored. Her stated aims are to study and scrutinize how the war of 1971 is remembered, perhaps to illuminate what is willingly forgotten. Growing up in West Bengal, India, Sarmila Bose was familiar with a particular narrative about the conflict: “Our Bengali brethren …once again fight for freedom” from their fellow countrymen from West Pakistan, who “seemed for some inexplicable reason intent on killing them all.” India had played the role of “white knight to the beleaguered Bangladeshis.” The latter claim she deftly dismantles.2 During her research, realizing that something was off, she militated against this narrative (and her Bengali informants). As Naeem Mohaiemen points out in his incisive review of her book, “her fury was of the naïf making a late discovery. What animates Dead Reckoning therefore is that palpable rage.” Having grown up with my own nationalist blinders, I empathize with the rage that comes with the realization that one has let oneself be duped. But Bose’s research and her book, perhaps still guided by the force of the nationalist narratives, “goes so far to the other side as to create a new set of biases, even more problematic.”3
Bose makes much of her neutrality, balance, and objectivity, and so do the Pakistan Army officers she interviewed and some of the Pakistani reviewers of her book. She writes that “it would be impossible to humanize the conflict without emotional empathy for the subject,” but her empathy seems to be reserved only for the Pakistan Army and the victims of pro-liberation Bengalis. The Bangladeshi voices that she presents either exonerate the Pakistan Army of Bangladeshi allegations of wrongdoing or expose the lies in Bangladeshi national narrative. Of course, not all allegations would be correct and there are fabrications and lies in epics of nationalism. It is her lax critical standards in accepting her Pakistani sources with which to debunk them, and her constant and consistent berating of her Bangladeshi subjects, that cast a cloud of doubt on her scholarly enterprise.
Reserving others’ voices for making the most objectionable assertions about Bengalis, Bose deploys two Bengali voices to note something seemingly inherent or innate to Bangladeshis. “The Bengalis are noted for a negative and destructive attitude […] they also have a tendency to put the blame on others” says one. The second voice chimes in, “in this attitude I see a similarity in all Bengalis […] to court suffering in order to nurse self-pity by way of emotional satisfaction.” This bizarre passage reflects a pattern in her book: hammering Bangladeshi “attitude” and culture of victimhood, their penchant for complaining too much (and that too using the wrong statistics!), and a tendency to exaggerate. All of this is presented without the objective scholar dwelling over the injustices meted out by West Pakistan on the East. One of her many assertions that clearly demonstrates her decontextualized reading of events, lack of empathy for Bengalis, and uncritical acceptance of Pakistani sources, is her approving mention of a Pakistan Army official who took part in the abysmal, late, and bungled effort at providing relief to those affected by the Bhola cyclone in 1970 – one that killed, displaced, and affected hundreds of thousands. The aforesaid officer, Lt Gen. Ghulam Mustafa, notes that “even as they [the Pakistan Army] worked, Bengalis watched from the sidelines and complained that nothing was being done.” That this delay in and mismanagement of relief emblematized (West) Pakistan’s attitude and lack of sympathy for its citizens in the East, and is, in fact, in line with how East Pakistan was marginalized from the get-go, is not commented upon.
With respect to Bangladeshi history’s singular focus on exploitation by West Pakistan in the pre-liberation era, and colonialism being the only language with which to remember the Pakistan period, Yasmin Saikia, in her book, Women, War, and the making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, offers a valuable insight. She writes that “the intimacy of the Other (Pakistan and Pakistanis) as well as the fear of remembering so engulfs the Bangladeshis today that they have willfully lost the segment of pre-1971 history.” This insightful and sympathetic reading of a silence is contrasted by Bose’s denial of Pakistan’s colonial relationship with East Bengal by a reasoning that suggests that Bangladeshis’ perceived grievances were due to its historically being an economic backwater and not because of systematically sustained inequality. The disparity between Bengalis and others in government and military jobs, in Bose’s reckoning is different from discrimination, which she defines as lack/denial of equal opportunity. The state’s privileging of Urdu, its machinery being disproportionately manned by West Pakistanis, or the racist attitude of the West Pakistani elites and civil society towards Bengalis who were considered not Pakistani enough, had, it seems, nothing to do with the disparity and Bengali grievances. A longer view of history is conveniently outside of the time line of her project, but if that is the case, why resort to essentialisms of Bengladeshi attitudes, calling it a culture of complaint, exaggerations, and victimhood, or characterizing Bangladeshis as “a swarm of [angry/excited] honey bees?” Divorced from the power relations between East and West Pakistan, the conclusions she draws stoop to charging Bangladeshis with innate violence (though chaotic and unorganized; you see, they can’t do anything right!), false bravado, and a penchant for lying, exaggerating, and complaining.
Bose gives scant attention to how the memory of the pre-1971 history shaped the events of 1971 and continues to shape how 1971 is remembered. She describes the demolition of Shahid Minar by the Pakistan Army as “a pointless waste of time and resources,” an act of vandalism “that added fuel to Bengali rage,” and finds “no military reason to demolish a memorial to the language movement of the 1950s.” But there was a point. The demolition of Shahid Minar [Martyr’s Tower] marked the commencement of the military operation–dubbed “Operation Searchlight”– to crush the budding Bengali uprising; an act of destruction that symbolized Pakistan’s attitude to Bengali history, and was a signal to the people of what is to come with the intended effect of demoralizing them. It is also the kind of move that almost always backfires, as it did in 1971. The Shahid Minar was a memorial to the Ekushey massacre; it commemorated a movement that lasted five years; and marked a milestone in the struggle of the people of East Pakistan against (West) Pakistan’s colonial exploitation, dominance, systemic discrimination, and mission civilisatrice. But deliberation on these contexts do not fit with Bose’s gleeful debunking crusade; and such a decontextualized reading of events produces distortions that pervade her book.
A League of Extraordinary Pakistani Gentlemen
Most of Bose’s Pakistani interviewees were retired Army officials. Initially she did not have much success, but with the efforts of her Pakistani and American friends she was able to get a foot in the door and impress her interviewees. The interviewees connected her with their fellow veterans of the 1971 war, and they thus formed the close-knit network of Pakistani Army officials that informed her and whose word she seldom seems to doubt or find flaws in. Bose’s focus on complicating the Bangladeshi national narrative at the cost of what amounts to legitimating a militarist Pakistani nationalism is unhelpful. This lack of concern for the official Pakistani narrative, and willed ignorance of Pakistan’s political history is captured in her laudatory remark about General Yahya Khan, the martial law administrator of Pakistan in 1971, being “the only military ruler who actually kept his word on returning the country to democracy one year after taking power.” No reflection is on offer regarding the fact that a defeated and discredited army had no legitimacy left to continue ruling a country that was in open revolt even in its Western wing since 1968.4 And as for the act of handing over power to democratic rule, C.M Naim’s words are worth bearing in mind:
Yahya Khan resigned, but in his last act helped perpetuate one-man rule and disregard for constitutional processes by transferring power not to the duly elected National Assembly but to Mr. Z. A. Bhutto, whom he personally appointed as Chief Martial Law Administrator.
Bose’s Pakistani interlocutors, these gentle military men, “unlike the Bangladeshi … had no hatred towards their former countrymen.” What she does not dwell on is how, in Yasmin Saikia’s words, “the rhetoric of Bengalis as brothers occupied the same space as the representation of them as ‘betrayers’ and ‘Indian-like,’ that is, the Other or ‘Hindu-like.’” On the other hand, having brushed aside the injustices of the Pakistan period and exalted the Pakistan Army’s conduct during the war, Bose contends that Bangladeshis have an unwarranted visceral hatred of the Pakistan Army which was created through Bangladeshi war-time propaganda. For the ethnicization of Bangladeshi society, she blames “political alchemists,” Bangladeshi nationalism, and Mujib’s “campaign of hatred.” (or is it the Bengalis’ innate penchant for excitement and violence?) What she does not comment upon is the dominant power, namely the Pakistan state, which produced not only this ethnicization through its racialized discourses, imperial practices, and colonial exploitation, but also the Bangladeshi nationalism with its own parochialisms, inequalities, and hatreds, in a dialectical opposition to it.
Jalal Alamgir and Bina D’Costa remind us that “a deeply racist agenda accompanied the war crimes,” and the East Pakistani population was considered “ethnically sub-par:” from Yahya Khan’s genocidal language (as reported by Asia Times: “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands”5) to Ayub Khan’s racial language (“East Bengalis … probably belong to the very original Indian races … they have been and still are under considerable Hindu cultural and linguistic influence…they have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races”6), to Jinnah’s view of the Bangla Language Movement being a plan to break up Pakistan and absorb it back into the Indian Dominion by “our enemies, among whom I regret to say, there are still some Muslims.” C. M. Naim’s survey of the press coverage of 1971 shows that racialized othering was pervasive in the West Pakistani literate society, and that the charge of treason was “leveled…unequivocally against all the Hindus of East Bengal.” And indeed this should be noted, for the ire of the Pakistan Army fell most brutally on the Hindus of East Bengal who were deemed always already Indians or closet-Indians, and in any case, traitors working for and with India in weaving a secessionist conspiracy in East Pakistan. Bose too notes that during the 1971 war, “Hindu men appear to have been more likely to be presumed to be insurgents solely on the basis of their religion.” This othering and racialized language was pervasive in the officer cadre as well. Oldenburg mentions Salik’s book Witness to Surrender, where he writes about officers chatting in the Officer’s Mess on the afternoon of March 26, 1971 and one Captain Chaudhury says, “The Bengalis have been sorted out well and proper—at least for a generation.” One Major Malik chimes in with the familiar colonial bile “Yes, they only know the language of force. Their history says so.”7
The Language of Force
The Pakistanis believed that the war would be quickly won as Bengalis being “weak and unmartial, and cowardly” would quit their rebellion. This “myth of power” over Bengalis held sway over rank and file Pakistani soldiers, whose ignorance about Bengali society, language, people and even body language, and the martial “manliness of bravado” made for a destructive brew. At checkpoints, young Bengali men were forced to remove their lungis [sarongs] in front of their elderly and womenfolk to see whether they were circumcised and thus Muslim. One can imagine what befell those that failed this racialized test of religion so familiar to South Asian history.
General Niazi, whom Bose notes as a dissenter (perhaps to maintain her self-perception of being “balanced” or whatnot), did not object to the war or Pakistan’s military action but that “it should have been conducted differently:” “instead of wholesale attack, the rebels’ so-called strong points might have been smoked out …” She documents one ‘smoking out’ attempted at Jinjira where a blockade was set up to encounter the rebels as they escaped the assault from the other direction, but, “what they had not expected, however, was when the firing started, the civilians started to run as well.” (How easy it seems to be able to place people in one’s own categories of choice: civilians or rebels. What about rebel-civilian or civilian-rebel?) Then, she takes her informer on his word that the kind soldiers fired over civilians’ heads only to induce them to run in the direction of the assault. This she explains with the fog of war argument whereby soldiers have to make split second and difficult decisions, and bad things happen, and that can’t be helped. She does not entertain the possibility that the Pakistanis did not expect the civilians to escape the assault from one direction into the line of fire from the other because the civilians either did not enter the inhuman calculus of war; or were considered fair game or “collateral damage,” in today’s parlance, whose lives didn’t matter enough to merit a change of course; or perhaps the population were considered the support system of rebels or future/potential insurgents and thus, being a “terrorist population,” a legitimate target.
This “smoking out” is evident literally in another incident Bose discusses wherein during the assault on Dhaka, Pakistani soldiers set fire to a slum by throwing ‘a powder-like substance’ on the slum and then firing on it (this burning down of dwellings seems to be a widely used tactic by Pakistan army as Bose mentions it in many incidents but without much deliberation and reflection on its systematic use) and shot at people as they fled the inferno. Bose notes this incident rather briefly as an example of the discord within Pakistan army on the level of rank and file soldiers that she quickly counters with the example of Pakistani soldiers giving water to a survivor of an attempted execution earlier by another set of Pakistani soldiers. You see, there were bad soldiers but there were good soldiers too, hence the Pakistan Army’s conduct cannot be denounced as all bad by people whose villages were burned to the ground, their men lined up and shot, their women raped. Even when Bose mentions that after the assault on a village called Satiachora on the road to Tangail from Dhaka, soldiers, “some half a dozen” bad apples as she would have it, “went hut to hut in the village, setting them on fire and killing anything that moved,” she ensures that the reader is left with the silver lining that “the soldiers did not harm women in anyway.”
Bose presents a superb reconstruction of the massacre at Thanpara, a village on the India-East Pakistan border remembered as ‘the village of widows.’ She tells the story of Pakistan army’s horrendous massacre where all the men whom the commanding officer deemed Indians and/or Hindus (always already assumed to be Indians and Indian agents), were “rounded up together and shot. Their bodies were stacked in a pile and set alight.” The in-coming Pakistani soldiers were on foot, and proceeded “through the villages along the side of the road, destroying everything they came across,” burning villages with a substance that set huts on fire when they shot. Bose mentions General Mitha, (for the second time as “the legendary founder of the Special Services Group (SSG) of commandos in the Pakistan army”) who saw from air that ‘‘in many of the villages near the road, almost all the huts were burnt and there was not a soul in these villages.” (One wonders what became of the unharmed women and children.) She masterfully teases out how the commanding officer was playing god not only when he shot all the Bengali men in batches with the subsequent batch stacking up and setting fire to the previous before being shot, but more so when he spared a young boy’s life whom the officer did not believe to be a Bengali. After the massacre of the first batch of men, the captain took the second batch back to the academy where they were shot. (The survivor recalled that the Captain’s higher officials thanked the Captain for having done a good job.) Bose mentions the soldier who helped the boy get a pardon and that some soldiers had tears rolling down their cheeks as the massacre unfolded. That may be, and there is much good in representations that humanize soldiers, but what needs to be highlighted is the fact that they still went along and assisted in the cruelty that so troubles them, moves them to tears, and, at least in some cases, haunts them for the rest of their lives. One explanation for that may be the militarist nationalism that idolizes the military and puts the defense of a nation—always deemed under siege from enemies without and within— at the forefront of national self-hood. Another explanation is the very institution of military that has at its core obedience, hierarchy, and killing which is writ large when it is unrestrained by public scrutiny and accountability.
What is unforgivable, however, is Bose’s pointing out the “eerie similarity between what happened in Thanpara and the military action in Dhaka university a couple of weeks before, in the way a few villagers were kept in reserve to stack the dead bodies before being lined up and shot next to the corpses they had just been made to carry,” and then in the same paragraph falling back to the “few bad apples” apologia as she gently chides the Pakistan military to hold those “one or two companies of a single regiment” to account, that have brought ill repute to “an entire army” and “a whole nation.” (A comparison with her vicious denunciations of the lack of accounting of the pro-Bangladesh perpetrators of violence and the Bangladeshi national denial of its own atrocities is instructive.)
Bose states that due to the small number of Pakistani troops in East Pakistan, “many young officers were left to shoulder responsibilities, in terms of territory or decision-making, that they never would have had to bear in peace-time or conventional wars.” These young officers would include those that played god in the Bangladeshi countryside and urban areas, and the likes of the aforementioned Captain Chaudhurys and Major Maliks of Pakistan Army celebrating the ‘sorting out’ of the Bengalis. If the absence of any accountability on the part of Pakistani state and military of its conduct in East Pakistan is not sufficient evidence of indifference to and a systemic legitimation of indiscriminate violence, then, short of some master document sanctioning a general and wonton attack on the populace, one is left to wonder what is.
- Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Columbia University Press, June, 2011, p97 [↩]
- For India’s role in exacerbating the conflict, see Eqbal Ahmad, ‘Notes on South Asia in Crisis,’ Bulletin of Concern Asian Scholars, Winter, 1972. Available online at http://www.bitsonline.net/eqbal/articles_by_eqbal_view_9C3140B3.htm [↩]
- Naeem Mohaiemen, “Flying Blind: Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971,” Economic & Political Weekly, vol xlvi no 36, September 3, 2011. [↩]
- “In truth, the threat to the Army’s predominance has always come from its own people. The only time the old Pakistan was genuinely united was during the 1969 uprising from below that saw students and workers in Dhaka and Karachi, Chittagong and Lahore, topple the dictatorship of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The Army never forgave its Bengali citizens this act of treachery, and embarked on a bloodbath when they proceeded to elect the leaders of their choice. It is worth stressing the point, glossed over in so many recent accounts, that the Army which demands such vast sums to preserve the state actually provoked its break-up in 1971.” Tariq Ali, “The Colour Khaki,” New Left Review, January – February 2003. http://newleftreview.org/A2429 [↩]
- Quoted in Jalal Alamgir, Bina D’Costa “The 1971 Genocide: War Crimes and Political Crimes,” Economic & Political Weekly, 2011 vol xlvi no 13, March 26, 2011. [↩]
- Quoted in Philip Oldenburg, “A Place Insufficiently Imagined”: Language, Belief, and the Pakistan Crisis of 1971,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Aug., 1985), pp. 711-733. [↩]
- Oldenburg, “A Place Insufficiently Imagined”: Language, Belief, and the Pakistan Crisis of 1971,” 1985. [↩]