History is hard work, but are we willing?

History is hard work, but are we willing?
[Forum Magazine, March 2013]

© Munem Wasif

There is a particular way of lensing mass movements, when we are observing from within immediate tactics. In a fast moving situation, with opponents and allies squared off, the first thing to shrink is the space for internal critique. Professor Azfar Hussain uses the term “critical solidarity” for his approach to the issue of 1971 and memory. A critique that seeks to help the history activists, but also demands changes from within the movement. Hussain reminds us, “The middle-class tragic sentimentality and liquid emotional nationalism actually suppressed the radical character of the language movement. So we have to return to history and say loudly: language movement was for establishing linguistic rights, but also a battle for the rights of farmers, laborers, and the working class.”1

Old struggles
1989, the year I arrived at Oberlin College in USA, was the first time I met a Pakistani face to face. Before that, Pakistanis were an abstraction, a mixture of Yahya, Tikka, Bhutto and other architects of 1971 — rolled up into the archetype of the Qamrul Hasan poster. Now, to have a debate, you need a debating opponent who disagrees with you, or at the least, engages. But most of the Pakistani students at Oberlin were oblivious to the history of 1971. The attitude could be summed up as, “Once there was a war, so we heard.” The only student who had studied the 1971 history was Chris Coelho, a Pakistani Christian who was Anthony Mascarenhas’ nephew. He had read his uncle’s “Genocide” dispatch, and the book, Rape of Bangla Desh.

Faced with a wall of silence, it became important to use the campus setting for educational events. Every December, we organised an exhibition on the liberation war, using the novelty of being able to print old 1971 newspaper pages, in xerox-quality, from microfiche machines. In the American campus tradition, we had t-shirt wars, stenciling “Never Forget” on faded tees. In 1992, an opportunity for direct activism finally came. A North American Islamic organisation invited accused war criminal Ghulam Azam to Ohio to speak at a conference. Ohio State students immediately contacted the Oberlin Bengali students about protesting this invitation. In that pre-hypertext era, many Bangladeshi students in America knew each other through the soc.culture.bangladesh (scb) usenet board. Productive alliances were coming out of these bulletin boards, as when Rafi Ahmed started working on a 1971 website before his untimely death. Using the scb network, a petition was written, detailing the charges against Azam. Jahanara Imam’s Gono Adalot had just happened in Dhaka, so that news item was also attached. However, we had little idea, in those days, about how to capture media attention. Our miniscule size doomed us and the petition was rejected.

A year later, I returned to Dhaka on a research fellowship, collecting oral memories of the war. Halfway through that project, the High Court “reinstated” Ghulam Azam’s Bangladeshi citizenship.

That day, I drove to an interview past burning tires and furious protesters. None of that mattered, the fix was in — whatever backdoor deal had been struck to give Azam his passport, a few protesters were not going to derail that. Shahbagh-scale crowds did not exist for 1971 activists in those days, their numbers were not large enough to have serious leverage. An interviewee said to me, angrily, “What’s the point of your camera, when we couldn’t even stop Ghulam Azam from returning to Bangladesh?” It was a low moment for the “spirit of 1971.”

War Crimes File
During that research year, one fascinating set of interviews were with the two sons of martyred professor, Mufazzal Haider Chowdhury. On my fourth visit, there was a new presence in their drawing room. A British journalist, taking careful notes, and asking repeatedly about the exact details of the day their father was picked up. What were the razakars wearing? How much of his face did you see? What did he say? I was quite wary of this “newcomer.” I recognise now that I was also being proprietary, as if only I could carry out the proper research. Later, I learned this was David Bergman, and a year later, I was suitably humbled when he released War Crimes File on Channel 4. While I was still fumbling through my field notes, trying to interpret contradictory stories, the bideshi I had been wary of had completed the first proper documentary accounting on 1971 war crimes.

War Crimes File became a cause celebre in England, because the three men accused of being war criminals in the documentary were all British citizens. After 1971, they fled to London and became active in the British Muslim political scene. The UK Home Office initiated an investigation based on the film, but the Bangladesh Home Ministry botched their part of sending evidence — either deliberately, or due to incompetence. While David, and his producer Gita Sahgal, had done the hard work of gathering interviews, the Bangladeshi government side could not finish the work of data collection (this was a recurring theme over the years). Later, the accused men leveraged British libel laws to force Channel 4 to pull the film from circulation (it now circulates on YouTube only as an unauthorised bootleg). That precedent also later led to Jamaat suing The Economist over an article that named Ghulam Azam in context of 1971 war crimes.

War crimes organising picked up velocity in the ’90s. In cities all over the world, Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee branches were in operation. I had, by then, published excerpts of Mufazzal Haider Chowdhury’s diary, as well as an analysis of Tareque Masud’s Muktir Gaan. I found myself quite wary of the way these branches were doing research. Or rather, not doing it, but relying on stories, and legends. Those are also important elements of course, but there was no distinction made between assemblage that is used to build up national narratives and legends, and evidence that can serve as a legal basis for prosecution. This distinction has been continually blurred for four decades, always to deleterious effect.

The changed world context after 2001 meant that the issue of Jamaat and war crimes started being refracted through a global security lens. This both helped and hurt the issue, as calculations other than events of 1971 entered the equation. The nomination of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury as Chairman of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) collapsed after a worldwide Internet campaign by 1971 memory activists. It was the campaign pressure that sank the nomination, but what was more important for OIC was not what happened at Goods Hill in 1971, but the possibility of scandal. Similarly, the British government’s decision to bar Delwar Hossain Sayeedi from a speaking tour also responded to a “Fact Sheet” drawn up by activists. But the British authorities were more focused on his anti-Hindu and anti-Semitic statements, rather than his activities during 1971. Because these two victories were actually premised on contemporary calculus, many activists were lulled into thinking a definitive legal case had been made for 1971 war crimes. And, all along, they neglected the vital work of evidence collection.

Crisis of memory
The context is crucial to understand the rise of the “tui razakar” impulse, which came from a profound sense of anger and failure. During the Ershad junta years (perhaps the most damaging time for this entire process), there was an enforced blanket silence on any discussion of 1971. Ershad talked of “Notun Bangla,” in which 1982 seemed to be year zero. Sometime later, Humayun Ahmed’s TV drama with a parrot that kept yelling “tui razakar” thrilled our generation. Finally, that word razakar, spoken loudly, on national television! Let it be in the anthropomorphised form of an animal that is known for mimicry, not intelligence; it still pierced the veil of silence. But a parrot is only a mimic, once trained it can call anything and everything razakar. A certain banalisation entered our discourse. What was needed instead were analytic lines drawn around the many shades of “razakar.” Those who were active members of al Badr and al Shams death squads, with eye witness evidence (the Mufazzal Haider Chowdhury case), are the clear-cut cases. Much more complicated was the situation of those who did not cross the border into India, and stayed in their jobs through the war for a combination of reasons: family, pressure, inability, fear. Did that make them a razakar? In the new heightened discourse, that was one possible conclusion.

Where no records and documents are kept, was there a possibility of neighbour informing on neighbour (“Uni kintu razakar chilen”) and not need to prove anything? One of the possible examples of this can be found in the iconic books Ekatuurer Ghatak-Dalal Ja Boleche Ja Koreche (ed. Nurul Islam, 1991) and the previous volume, Ekatturer Ghatak Dalalra Ke Kothae (ed. Dr Ahmod Shorif, Kazi Nur-uzzaman, Shahriar Kabir, 1987). While the editors did the best they could with what evidence had been gathered, we see a clearer document trail when it comes to the high profile cases of al Badr and al Shams groups. The organisers, including some in jail now as part of the war crimes trials, had left a visible paper trail of speeches, press conferences, photo sessions, etc. But when the research turns to lower level people, not affiliated with Jamaat, and not in any official positions in Peace Committee like structures, that the evidence trail turns murky. In one section on university professors, many professors are named as having been “pro-Pakistani” and engaged in dalali. Perhaps these are all true allegations, but there is no evidence here that could be used in a court of law. Some of these sections are presented as verbatim transcripts, with no indication of sourcing. This is not to say that the book cannot be parsed for some form of documentary evidence, but far more rigorous documentation, following the rules of evidence, is needed than what is presented in these pages.

For three decades, secular activists had watched the Jamaat-e-Islami go from strength to strength. While the Jamaat played national politics, their smaller offshoots waged sorties against smaller proxy groups such as the Ahmadiyya Muslims. Finally, Nizami and Mujaheed of Jamaat became cabinet ministers during the second BNP era. The blow to the memory of 1971 was complete when these two were sworn in, and many feared that the entire raison d’etre of Bangladesh existing as a separate territorial unit was vanishing. Although Jamaat had only won 17 parliamentary seats out of 300 in the 2001 election, they were able to parlay that thin wedge into tremendous advantages once in government. They were also assisted in that by the post-2001 search for “Muslim parties in the middle.” Compared to smaller parties (many splintered off from the Jamaat, which they found insufficiently radical), Jamaat could manipulate Embassy Row into thinking of them as a “reasonable” alternative. The three ministries that went to Jamaat were Industry, Agriculture, and Social Welfare — of which the last was the most significant, allowing the setting up of rural, NGO-based networks. It was in this environment that Jamaat spokespersons started taking to the media and confronting the issue of their role in 1971. Their strategy was a mixture of day-is-night doublespeak and legal maneuvering. 1971 was a “dispute between brothers” and “no war crimes were committed,” people were told, provoking outraged reactions. From this besieged time came the desire to present a unified front relying on 1971 memory.

Trials and manoeuvres
Political chess games have always been the framework for the rehabilitation or ejection of accused war criminals. Starting with rehabilitations during the Zia era, and then followed by the Ershad period, and then the BNP-Jamaat coalition of the post-autocracy. These are the known facts, but we should not let Awami League off the hook either. This party, that has instrumentalised the spirit of Ekattur for their electoral gains, operated repeatedly with equal cynicism. By breaking the all-party boycott of elections under Ershad and participating with the Jamaat in 1986, and then the later alliance in 1996. Later, the AL forged another temporary alliance in 2006, this time with smaller Islamist parties. Outraged reactions from the secular middle scuttled that alliance, and they also played a part in torpedoing that earlier alliance with Jamaat. The pendulum kept swinging back and forth on war crimes, until the 2008 elections, when it emerged as a key driver for the Awami League’s election platform (in a similar vein, Muktir Gaan, released right before the 1996 elections, played a role when the AL linked “sreeti 71” to their election campaign ).

In the 2008 election victory, the Awami League had many elements in its manifesto. War crimes trials were one, full implementation of the 1997 CHT Peace Accords was another. The fact that the League proceeded on the first, and stalled the second, signals the cynical calculation. How do you claim to seek justice for 1971 atrocities, when you ignore violence committed inside your own borders, against the indigenous Jumma people? As activist anthropologist Saydia Gulrukh put it poignantly, “Since 1971, we have been absorbed in building a nation-state exclusively for Bengalis. Our circle of grief reflects that. It excludes all others… Our hearts weep only for Bengali mothers, not for Rupan [Chakma’s] mother.”2

© Munem Wasif

Still, with all these caveats, there was hope at the early stage of the war crimes trial process. In an initial, optimistic editorial, David Bergman called it “Bangladesh’s second chance at justice” (The Hindu, December 16, 2011). But very soon, there were signs of the “short cut” mentality. The government declared a brief period, when comments were allowed on amending the 1973 War Crimes Act to make it contemporary. Several lawyers drafted a legal document, which itemised the places where new developments in international law should be implemented. Activist group Drishtipat drafted a letter to the Law Ministry outlining all the elements where we felt the law needed to be amended. Jyoti Rahman and I also published an op-ed summarising key concerns to make the Act more robust. After all, there were numerous developments in international law over the four decades after 1973, including the Rwanda and Bosnia genocide tribunals, and the Truth & Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Peru. Even the architect of the Bangladesh constitution, Dr Kamal Hossain, recently acknowledged, at a seminar on minority rights, that defining only “Bengalis” as the inhabitants of Bangladesh in the constitution was a historic mistake that began the disenfranchisement of the indigenous Jumma (Pahari) people. But apparently the 1973 Act was considered perfect, the review period ended with most of the amendment suggestions bypassed. Also ignored were the warnings that top-class legal expertise, including private and international legal advisors, were needed to build a robust trial process.

Real evidence collection is hard work
Why is finding evidence for war crimes sometimes difficult? It is not because the evidence is not there, but it is because we have not done the rigorous work necessary to collect it. Our 1971 events are only commemoration, with a potent slide toward dehistoricising. Along with the corporate instrumentalisation of history (via billboards, ads), the greatest damage to the process of recording 1971 stories has been the involvement of politicians. They have repeatedly dabbled into the process of documentation and compilation — attempting to set up a reward-patronage system for loyal academics, and punishment system (or exile) for those who refuse to toe the party line. Thus, octogenarian historians deploy ‘facts’ in a facile manner (no footnotes, no references, no context) in the service of political campaigns. While engaged in what they consider a fight to the finish with the opposition party, do they stop to think what will happen if and when that opposition returns to power? This same process of history-of-victors will repeat, except then it will be about excavating grey areas on the other side (and let us accept that every aspect of our complicated national history contains multitudes). It is precisely from such cynical calculations of crippling your opponent that the AL highlights the death of Colonel Taher and the BNP highlights the death of Siraj Sikder.

A blogger friend sounds a pessimistic note. He suggests that these history wars are just a form of dialectic struggle, perhaps a healthy one at that. However, the struggle has so far not produced a synthesis, a better reading. Instead, the volume is rising to a shrill pitch, making everything unintelligible. When Sarmila Bose’s book Dead Reckoning came out, I waited for someone from Bangladesh’s research community (academics, journalists, or bloggers) to do detailed analysis and rebuttal of the book. I was on email threads that included some 1971 memory activists. Everyone denounced the book, but six months passed and no one had read it. We were satisfied to insist in Dhaka blogs that the book was bad, without providing any analysis, while the author went on book tours at Harvard and LSE.

Finally, I spent three months parsing the book and writing a response with the help of other researchers. But each time we would find a piece of information that contradicted an assertion in the book, tracking down the original citation was a labyrinthine and almost impossible process. Actually, a wilful disregard of objects in the field of “citations, page numbers, and footnotes” has plagued the evidence collection process since 1972. This is one way that 1971 war crimes evidence has actually been destroyed, through neglect. Worryingly, Dhaka University’s History department has not produced any Ph.D. thesis on 1971 in the last 40 years. The same thing is happening with the patchwork, joratali approach to war crimes trials. Only a rigorous, meticulous attitude toward history could change this situation.

Shrinking space for debate
David Bergman has done meticulous work cataloguing the problems of the war crimes trials. For doing so, he was named in a contempt of court hearing, along with New Age editor Nurul Kabir, and publisher (and freedom fighter) Shahidullah Khan Badal. Though Bergman eventually only received a light reprimand, the message went out: no criticism of the tribunal is allowed. And so, because the people who want to help the war crimes trials improve have been silenced, the people criticising the trials have been the Jamaat and their lobbyists, in Bangladesh and abroad. They have of course their own agenda, which is not to improve the trials but to scuttle them. It would have been far wiser to actually listen to the constructive criticism coming from journalists. As Nurul Kabir posited in his lengthy statement to the court, “For the courts of democratic law, which is supposed to ensure justice even to the hardened criminals, honest journalism could be of great help because justice can only be ensured on the basis of truth. Truth and justice go hand in hand — one is meaningless without the other. The driving force behind the War of Liberation was also seeking justice to the people at large on the basis of truth.”4 In the end, because the trial administrators refused to hear constructive criticism from journalists such as the New Age team, they have been dragged through the fiasco of Skypegate and other dramas that eroded faith in the process. Forgotten now is the fact that a Daily Star poll on October 2, 2011 showed that 68.94% of respondents agreed with the assertion that the trials were “partisan.” These days I worry that the government, with its strain of managerial incompetence, will botch the ICT process so badly that they will do fatal harm to the cause of 1971 war crimes investigation.

Online, I saw some Shahbagh bloggers demanding to know how a “foreigner” dared report on the trials. This is when Shahbagh also worries me with its’ blindsiding of what came before. War crimes work did not start in 2013; there are many who have done quiet research along the way — and Bergman is one of them. A similar flattening in the Shahbagh discourse happened with Lubna Marium as well. In a blog post, she had narrated the story of her brother Nadeem, who had fought in the war and never recovered from that trauma. The man who read Marx and Sartre could not handle brutality against a Pakistani soldier that he had witnessed, and eventually committed suicide. But in the crucible of Shahbagh, there is little space for any complexity. To speak even slightly sympathetically about the torture of a Pakistani soldier was to be a “razakar” (collaborator). As I read harsh comments directed against her online, I wondered if anyone remembered that the film playing in the background of Shahbagh’s giant screen was Muktir Gaan, the two women in the singing troupe were Lubna Marium and her sister? Or that the film that sometimes followed that screening was War Crimes File? History no longer belongs to those who lived it.

The binary of “with us or against us” is dangerous. In an environment of rising anger after the tragic murder of a Shahbagh blogger and the Friday anti-Shahbagh violence, another victim is the possibility of discourse within the movement. Now, anyone who opposes the death penalty in the context of war crimes is tagged by bloggers as chagu (slang for goat), the same term being used for those presumed to support the Jamaat. Any time a blogger tries to attempt a more complex analysis of events, he is dismissed as doing tyana pyachano (making things unnecessarily complicated). A movement built on slogans, without analysis of complexity, can become trapped in its own symbolism and outflanked by other forces — for example, the Awami League, that would like to appropriate this movement; or the Jamaat, that is fighting and lobbying overseas to sabotage the trials. I was involved in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, where people hoped to transform the capitalist system. That movement had problems, including an absence of people of colour in positions of responsibility, problematic positions on issues of gender, flat decision-making process that lead to process paralysis, etc. Every time we would want to discuss these issues, people would say, “for the sake of movement unity, now is not the time,” or “don’t post that on Facebook, keep the positive momentum going.” Those who wanted to discuss deeper problems were pilloried on blogs as “saboteurs.” In the end, Occupy’s bandaged “unity” weakened it fatally.

The meaning of Shahbagh
For the last few weeks, Bangladesh has been in an intense new political phase. The ground has shifted and been recast by the scale of the Shahbagh movement. By now, the demands have expanded to many other spaces beyond the “Butcher of Mirpur.” Younger bloggers are trying to make it clear that the movement is about war criminals, not religion. But of course, with war crimes linked with the Jamaat-e-Islami’s top tier leadership, and the party eager to present themselves as guardians of “Islam,” category errors will happen, and be exploited by the Jamaat itself.

Shahbagh is a “leaderless movement” but also has leaders, a mass movement that is developing hierarchies. The energy of Shahbagh derives from pent up frustrations over four decades of rehabilitation of the Bengalis who carried out war crimes during the 1971 war. Some read into this moment a mass phenomenon parallel to Jahanara Imam’s gono adalot (people’s trials), which inspired an earlier generation. But that comparison reveals and obscures, because the metrics have shifted away. Jahanara Imam died of cancer when this generation of activists were still children. Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee was not a significant organisation for them either. They neither saw the rise nor the fall of that movement. Their source of energy, organising, and anger comes from a new place. Looking back, the struggle over war crimes was previously always quite lonely, the energy of large numbers was conspicuously missing. The scale and size of the current moment delivers a different register.

I had been involved in one previous movement at Shahbagh (Murti Bachao/Save Statues andolon of 2008, which emanated from Dhaka University’s Charukala Art Institute). Although that was a popular movement, and there were others before and since, all that is dwarfed by the size of today’s phenomena. The large numbers at Shahbagh gives the movement a continual velocity. But, it also takes away the space to think, question, and evolve. While the organisation, reach and tactics of Shahbagh are admirable, it is in the area of demands that they are trapped inside a circular set of symbolisms. This is where the movement could become trapped in its own semiotics, blending the symbols (death, noose, blood, teeth, vampires) into an unprocessed call to action. The signifiers signal generational transition, others try to also speak of inclusiveness. All day we hear the slogans “Ami ke, tumi ke?” (Who are you, Who Am I?), and thousands roar back “Bangali Bangali.” Anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed reminds us that, for those of us aware of the chauvinistic side of that concept in post-1971 Chittagong Hill Tracts, we cannot be at peace with such ethnically singular determinism.5 We must have a more inclusive movement.

That is one reason I insist that the energy of Shahbagh should now be channelled into the desire to do thorough historical research, digging out solid evidence that can result in fair trials that do not require government contortions and interventions. This cannot be a transformative movement if its demands are made only of the government, that too a government that has otherwise been anti-peoples in its policies in many other areas. Shahbagh must make demands of itself.

Out of the forest of symbols
About the much debated “fashi chai,” I have always been against the death penalty. I want fair trials, free of political interference by Awami League, BNP, or Jamaat, and life imprisonment for those found guilty. My late colleague Jalal Alamgir wrote about this in 2010: “We should recognise honestly that after decades of complexities, secret deals, and depraved politics, justice, though necessary and urgent, will be limited. Such limited justice can be morally justified only by a long-term commitment to truth. To prioritise truth, we must de-prioritise capital punishment.”6

Can Shahbagh start looking at what is actually required to hold a fair trial, and build toward that? What sort of evidence is needed, and how has the process fallen short? Why are the lawyers so weak, the process so slap-dash, the evidence presented so haphazard? Why are there government loyal functionaries at every level of this process, instead of the best lawyers in the country (in fact, some of the best lawyers are frozen out because they are not loyalists of the party). A transformative movement should not be making demands of the government within an existing script, they should instead try to change the system.

Shahbagh could transform its slogans into complex demands, ones that will require a lot of work on the part of those marching at Shahbagh. They could look closely at the constitution and complicate the question of the phenomena of “state religion.” There are many complex questions that are not as emotive as “fashi chai,” but in the long run they can have much broader, foundational impact. The demands of the movement could transform into a demand for fair trials for officers of the Pakistan army as well (why does that never come up?). The focus could be on gathering and sharing the facts, the truth, and the record with the whole nation as part of the trial process. These discussions of expanded goals and refined tactics should happen now so as to make the movement stronger.

Shahbagh activist Faruk Wasif argues that simple binaries could also create a dangerous alienation of those who are religious. “We must keep the Shahbaghh movement outside of the fyasad of belief-vs-atheism. We have to keep it free of political parties. We have to convert the war cry of revenge into the awakening cry of resistance. We have to keep the door open for all people to join us. In front is a long and difficult path. Shaking the country for ten days is possible, but to change the country takes years.”7

The energy at Shahbaghh is important, which we acknowledge and respect. It is waiting to be channelled and it is impatient to take its generational place. It should think of how it can save the process of memory, archive and history. That can start, not by forcing through a hanging, but by obtaining fair verdicts through a rigorous process that are at the highest international standards. There are many meanings of “spirit of Ekattur,” and we should choose that of thoughtful, restorative justice and a comprehensive, meticulous historical reckoning.

1.Facebook status, February 23, 2013.
2.Saydia Gulrukh, “The other Shahid Minar,” Between Ashes and Hope: Chittagong Hill Tracts in the blind spot of Bangladesh nationalism, Naeem Mohaiemen ed., Drishtipat/MJF, 2010.
3.Joti Rahman, Naeem Mohaiemen, “1971 War Crimes Act: getting it right,” Daily Star, July 10, 2009.
4.Nurul Kabir, “A compliant response in defence of truth and justice,” 24 page statement
delivered to ICT, November 20, 2011
5. Rahnuma Ahmed, “Reclaiming Ekattur: Fashi, Bangali.” New
Age, February 15, 2013.
6.Jalal Alamgir, “Truth not Punishment,” Forum, June, 2010

Naeem Mohaiemen is a writer, visual artist, and Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Columbia University. His critique of Sarmila Bose’s history of 1971, “Dead Reckoning” is here http://www.bricklanecircle.org/uploads/Flying_Blind.pdf

18 thoughts on “History is hard work, but are we willing?

  1. I think it is essential for Bangladeshis to undertake this hard work of studying and understanding history. I really truly believe that Bangladeshi scholars’, the general people’s and politicians’ understanding of our history are extremely poor and we develop and adopt highly serious positions based on extremely poor historical knowledge. I feel some people from outside the Bangladeshi community can and have utilised their greater knowledge of our history and complexities within Bangladesh and their more powerful pen and analytical power to throw fuels into our conflicts, partly arising from our own poor understanding of our history, particularly going back to early 19th century and even before, to cause problems towards achieving unity.

  2. This is too little too late. For decades intellectuals in Bangladesh had the time to show their countrymen that glorification of own history, culture, language, leaders is not a progressive, enlightened thing but a right-wing, reactionary thing. For decades intellectuals, western or domestic educated, had the chance to teach their fellow countrymen that an emotion-laden approach to national myth-making is the favorite tool of totalitarian ideologies, not of democratic and rational ideals. For decades the intellectuals had the opportunity to show their countrymen that in nearly every civilized or semi civilized country of the world, the right wing promotes an uncritical mythology of people, history and culture while the progressives promote the critical and methodical analysis. Even in our neighboring India the norms of political values follow the general world trend while in Bangladesh everything is upside down.

    Shahbagh is the culmination of this original failure. People now think that overturning court verdicts by popular movement is the democratic way. People now regard retroactively amending court laws to affect ongoing trials is the hallmark of the rule of law. Afsan Chowdury wrote in a recent oped, “Today, the supreme judicial authority has passed from the absolute control of the judiciary to be shared with the activists of the street. It is indeed a momentous and significant moment”. http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2013/02/28/sayedee-sentence-the-verdict-people-wanted/

    I commend Naeem Mohaiemen’s bravery in writing this piece even now in this belated hour. He will probably get some flak from some quarters. Fortunately his English writing will probably protect him from intense scrutiny of the guardians of blogging and online community. Somehow I feel that had he and his fellow western trained history professionals been more strident in establishing a tradition of critical and social science study of our creation history, we could have been in a much better place. I suspect that rather than get into friction with our historian titans in media and academia, they opted for accommodation and gradual change. The failure of that approach is now evident. Any attempt to critical and methodical study will now straightway land them in the same lump of Sharmila Bose or worse.

    1. Dear Shafiq,
      Thanks for the comments. Good point made indeed, and I accept the challenge that so much more needs to be done.

      One small clarification. You wrote: “Somehow I feel that had he and his fellow western trained history professionals been more strident in establishing a tradition of critical and social science study of our creation history, we could have been in a much better place.”

      I am in the first year of a PhD program, so not yet a “western trained history professional,” and there are many other colleagues who are in programs with me (Saydia Gulrukh, Farah Mehreen), or just graduated recently (Tazreena Sajjad). Also, note that when I wrote the response to Sarmila Bose’s “Dead Reckoning” (http://www.bricklanecircle.org/uploads/Flying_Blind.pdf) the people who reviewed my research were: Jyoti Rahman, Saadia Toor, Udayan Chattopadhyay, Nayanika Mookherjee, Shabnam Nadiya, Afsan Chowdhury, Rehman Sobhan, David Ludden, Hameeda Hossain, David Bergman, Annu Jalais, and Syed Yousuf. On that list, you can see at least three members of the current generation (Jyoti, Udayan, Syed) who are not trained in the academy, and yet they did stellar research.

      Give us a little time, we will do the work that is needed, and it will not be only in the western academy.


      1. Dear Naeem,
        I am now in a PHD program also although I am very close to your age group. If the Rafi Ahmed you mentioned in the article was Rafi from Saint Joseph, I also knew him well when he was in Dhaka.

        I am saying that this is belated because I think that although you have only now entered a PHD program you have been active in history research for a long time. I read your analysis of Bose’s book and also your writings during the Meherjaan affair. I am aware that you, Jyoti and many others are doing great works and Afsan Chowdhury did remarkable stuff. But I am also aware that how little of these works have penetrated the national consciousness. I was in Bangladesh until 2008 and I was aware how small footprint critical history had even in the rarefied platform of Daily Star. The Rah Rah Cheerleading style of history had known no opposition and now the best educated youths of Bangladesh think that the reservations in the world community about ‘Phashi Chai’ trend of Justice disbursement in Bnagladesh means that the world is against them.

        You and others may be doing important stuff but I think most people have now decided to pick their version of history straight from the battlefields of streets. Authorship of history may now automatically be conferred upon the the victors of the new battles.

    2. “But I am also aware that how little of these works have penetrated the national consciousness.”

      There’s a very good reason for this. For reasons of convenience or competence, Naeem and the others have chosen to operate exclusively in English, thereby drastically limiting the audience for their research. They will all continue to do extremely valuable work, I have no doubt about that, but as long as no effort is made to reach out to the majority’s language, they will sadly continue to imprison their writing in a self-made linguistic ghetto. This is unfortunate because a piece like this really needs to be available in Bangla, making a dent in the national consciousness. It’s no wonder that a major Bangla blogger like Arif Jebtik or Omi Pial can reach tens of thousands in an instant (Jebtik has 25,000 FB followers alone, waiting for his every status update), while pieces like this struggle to make a ripple. I have for a long time advocated cross-pollination between Bangla and English blogs, with little success. Bangla blogging is a self-sufficient universe of its own, with not much time for what’s being written in English, unless it’s something inflammatory like Bose. However, to their credit, the Bangla bloggers are finally waking up to the necessity of having their own views being available in English. After the first week of Shahbag, when world media was maintaining a determined silence about the whole affair, the Bangla bloggers took to Twitter en masse, and now venues like en.sachalayatan are making a serious push to make sure that at least the most important analyses and news in Bangla is also available in English so that they can be linked to on Twitter.

      Question is, are English bloggers going to make that same effort?

      1. I have written some things in Bangla, but you are right the volume is much less.

        It is a critical problem, will wrote more about this later. There are structural issues, it is not just about desire.

        It is one reason that AoD has been focused on translating Bangla pieces into English and presenting them side by side, and this is probably the only blog to try that bilingual track. But it is a drop in the ocean, or less.

        More on this crucial issue later.

      2. Very could point, Subinoy Mustafi. But, can’t be give up one for the other. There are many fronts here. And, that is what I insisted in my earlier comment here: please, “engage with the core”; get Arif Jebtik and Pial to translate this into Bangla while some translate their’s into English. This is the kind of close work that needs to happen, and then both the streams enrich each other and feed off each other.

  3. Naeem,
    In your reference list at the end of this piece (and also at the end of the rebuttal of Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning in Forum earlier) I did not see any reference to the 15 volume history of Muktijuddho from Bangladesh Shadhinota Juddhar Itihash Rochona Udyag 1977-1986. I assume a lot of work went into it. Was it any good in terms of research or is it available at all ? Any reason why that was not consulted or even referred to as part of available research on 1971 ?

  4. Naeem,
    In your reference list at the end of this piece (and also at the end of the rebuttal of Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning in Forum earlier) I did not see any reference to the 15 volume history of Muktijuddho from Bangladesh Shadhinota Juddhar Itihash Rochona Udyag 1977-1986 led by late poet and historian Hasan Hafizur Rahman. I assume a lot of work went into it. Was it any good in terms of research or is it available at all ? Any reason why that was not consulted or even referred to as part of available research on 1971 ?

  5. Naeem vai. The issue that you have highlighted encompasses an even broader problem-absence of research in our academia. This is now prevalent in all sector. General common sense is now the source of all wisdom be it liberation war, business, manufacturing, economics and every sector you talk about. there is no way to develop knowledge or share knowledge. Thanks for hitting the bulls eye.

  6. Naeem, very well put together. This view must be shared and aired, and even if it picks some flack, it will still have served its purpose. I shall definitely share and urge people to “…think for yourself. You as an individual. Not you, the Awami Leaguer. Not you, the Jamaati. Not you, the BNP supporter. Not you, the student. Not you, the government official. Think for yourself, the person. Think about what is happening.”, as Nadia Irumrukh wrote in these very pages. And, indeed, there can be no ‘band-aid’ solution to the deep gash that this wound has left, and perhaps, if not tended quickly with the right restorative remedies, gangrene is sure to set in.

    From the pulse that I have been getting right from ground zero to chat room chatters, and tonger dokaan chayer-cup addas, whatever’s happening today was bound to happen sooner or later. The other start and stop movements that preceded this was the triage stage: a determinant for an order of what must be dealt with first. With all its glory and shortcoming the most important aspect of this movement has been this: it has been transformative in more ways than one. For example, I find myself being forced to reexamine my own views and beliefs about many things that I had taken for granted, and I am sure this is true for many, most, if not all.

    It is an ongoing process. Any movement that is as organic as this, comes with its chinks, a lot of which you have delineated— this has been, initially, a profound emotional response to a crisis (a long festering one), but now it, the movement, will be, is being, forced to look at itself – now humongous, and contumacious, in the absence of central leadership and a thin, flattened agenda – and recalibrate its visons. It has eclipsed the initial short term agenda, and the expectations around it has grown, as is evident from the direction you are pointing at, and should too, from the outside and within itself, which, though, one still has to see translate into something with a bigger vision.

    If, one believes that this energy is momentous and births an opportunity to channelize it, I am afraid people who have the faculty to do so must also show the agency required to do what it takes to lead it somewhere more comprehensive and conclusive. In other words, in my opinion, one has to engage with the core; observers, especially from outside, will have to find ways to start a conversation and not let the ‘out-of-control’ social media to mediate or leave it at mere observations— on the other hand, if one expects this movement to be functioning with clockwork precision with all possible angles and tangents thought of, it’s too idealistic. Because, at the core of the movement is still an atavistic emotional response – from the ‘heart’, so to speak, now it needs the ‘head’ to start participating, and then together it can move on to bring about a few changes, never all, till the next ‘revolution’ is needed. Or, maybe, even be an ongoing one, who knows. So, there is only one way to “thoughtful, restorative justice and a comprehensive, meticulous historical reckoning”, and I repeat, by engaging with the core. If not, there are always vested powers who will use it to serve their designs. And, on a positive note, let me add that there are people who are trying to do so. I don’t know if these efforts will culminate into something positive, but it sure is worth trying.

  7. Thanks for this. Having read/heard about Shahbag in mainly glowing terms, this was very insightful. And also somewhat, depressing if I may add. Just makes me wonder if this is the way all protests and mass movements must end up? You mentioned Occupy Wall St, I also started thinking about the Feminist Movement – although not comparable because it spans over decades, across geographies – but this thing of the movement tripping over its own feet because it could never come to a consensus. And where there is consensus, it gets diluted or reduced into these one-dimensional emotive demands. Makes me wonder, if this is the undoing of mass struggles – standing tall with reductive arguments; or fade away with complexity.

    PS: “History no longer belongs to those who lived it.” Stunning, powerful line.

  8. My personal analysis…Shahbag is not a ‘non political secular movement’…this is a new flavor of AL politics…in the 1980s BNP, AL, Jashad, Jamaat all put guns in the hand of lower middle class “students” and created the chatro politics in campuses…and ruined the sanctity of educational campuses… and these “chatro” ultimately grew up to be “nettta” (ie leaders), in reality they were just educated face of thugs or local mafias, the cunning leaders became MPs and businesses people (garment owners or real estate developers) of this millenium. But given the negative connotation of Chatro League and the known name of the chatro politics leaders, now AL has found a new formula, “Let’s copy Arab Spring…Tahir Square..and show that non-political youths in t-shirts, girls with pretty smiles, tv commercial looking “projonmo” people are at Shahbag and basically stage run that these middle class, political party less folks all are just gathering in Shahbag because of their conscious…”

    Look at Egypt, not a single good political outcome has resulted from the Tahir Square hopes & dreams…and Bangladesh politicians are #1 qualifiied in messing up the country.
    Projonmo Shahbag chotro is so single minded about one thing, “demanding the death by hanging and banning of a politcal party” yet not at all bothered about any other injustice in Bangladesh.

    For example, a total 700 garments workers have died in factory fires…..how many Garment owner or managers upper middle class children are the youths at Shabhag today? How about asking for just pay, safe work environment for the women working with their blood-sweat every day to make a better lifestyle for Dhaka middle class?

    Shahbag chottor surely believes in freedome of press, as they are constantly craving the tv screens, using all sorts of social media to promote their existence, yet they are not at all asking the ruling AL government to look deeper into why journalist couple Sagar-Rooni were murdered.

    Freedom of speech means you can’t ban a political party…rather you need to write the proper history of Bangladesh, teach that history in every school and madrasha and spread light of knowledge…and over time you will outshine. Allowing Controlling party to ban another party…gives immense power the Controlling party…and one day they can ban lot more reasonable voices.

    Analyzing and learning history, recognizing the bias in all the historians, and not making any one charater a ‘supreme leader’, and blaming another for ‘all evil, and hence absolving everyone else’ are all very inward looking frank honest essential discourse. Bangladesh was fortunate to gain nationhood (against so many odds) so quickly, and didn’t properly reflect as a nation on what, how, why of independence in early 1972-73….and that was a huge shortsightedness. Over the years errors, misjudgements, betrayals, and forgetfullness have all muddled up the truth. And now 41 years later, being totally engrossed on one historical topic, and forgetting to focus on the accountability of today, is also another type of short sightedness.

    BTW…I spent so many of my childhood days at Shahbag in front of “PG Hospital” waiting for my wonderful physician mother, I am really worried how actual sick people with real emergencies are even getting in the hospital? And what about the resident doctors, nurses, ward boys…how is their daily life being impacted by this “mela/picnic/permitless public gathering” in front of their work – home?

    1. I agree with Lubna. I think we have to realize countering Jamaat is not separate from countering the entire political system of nepotism, dishonest rhetoric and doublethink in terms of history, as well as our bewildering homogenizing cultural politics of identity. The whole truth and nothing but the truth is what we need. We have arrived at such a moment that people don’t even want to hear ‘facts’ anymore. They believe what they believe– tomorrow if A is held for burning the flag, they will believe B did it. And B will take this chance to convince C and D to join B.

  9. This is a really good piece of writing. I feel the war crimes trial and the subsequent long imprisonment has made Gulam Azam into a martyr and there will be long term negative consequence as far as AL and Bengali Naitonalism are concerned. The result is that Jamaatists do not feel guilty anymore for the party’s association with the brutal and unnecessary war started by Yahay Khan. The evidence presented and the political nature of the whole thing mean that all those years of name calling of Gulam Azam as being the top war criminal of 1971 will continue to reduce and eventually lose their impacts.

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