The withered dream of Sonar Bangla

A new book by journalist Salil Tripathi could leave Pakistanis with considerable food for thought. Reviewed by Raza Wazir  

The withered dream of Sonar Bangla
Like most nations of the world who have gained their independence through armed struggle, Bangladesh is also unable to come to terms with its past. And this is the topic of the excellent new book written by London-based Indian journalist, Salil Tripathi titled The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy. The book spans the history of Bengal from medieval times to British occupation.

tft-50-p-24-nIn the first decade of the twentieth century the British divided Bengal, but only within six years, mainly due to the struggle of Hindu Bengalis, the Crown was forced to undo the partition. But only within three decades Bengal was once again divided on the eve of the 1947 Partition. Although this time too not without opposition: the most famous being the idea of a united Bengal put forward by erstwhile Bengali politicians Huseyn Suharwardy and Sarat Chandra Bose. This idea got little support from the grassroots amidst the heat of the communal politics of the time.

Upon independence East Bengalis became part of the new nation of Pakistan whose base was nationalism based on Islam. But Bengalis, whose identity was not exclusively based on religion but also on syncretic Bengali culture could not get along with this new nation. This quickly manifested itself in the shape of the Language movement only five years after independence, in 1952.
Only a fraction of the armed forces consisted of people from Bengal

The story from this point onward is familiar. Until 1971, Pakistan for the most part was ruled by the military, from which the Bengalis felt excluded, as only a fraction of the armed forces consisted of people from Bengal. In 1966 Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman who by then had become the uncontested leader of Bengalis presented his 6-point agenda for greater economic and cultural autonomy. But instead of addressing these concerns the ruling clique of West Pakistan came up with the idea of slapping Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman with sedition charges under the Agarthala Conspiracy Case. This only added fuel to fire, though charges were dropped and Mujib released after protests in the eastern wing of the country.

The growing concerns of Bengalis came to the fore in the nationwide elections of 1970 where Sheikh Mujib garnered a sweeping victory at the polls by winning 160 out of 162 seats in East Pakistan, thereby winning the majority to form the government. But the generals and Mujib’s main political rival from the western part of the country, Bhutto, who had won only 81 seats had other plans. Him and his party were not interested in transferring power. Instead on 25 March with the help of local Razakars and militias of al Badar and al Shams the Pakistani military started operation Search Light and killed many civilians and intellectuals associated with the Language movement.

In subsequent months around 10 million peoples crossed over to India, many of whom joined the guerilla force Mukti Bahini, while Sheikh Mujib was incarcerated in West Pakistan. The war only ended, as is known, when Indian forces invaded East Pakistan and claimed victory taking 93,000 prisoners of war. But the war that ended left bitter memories and real wounds that have not been healed till date.
The rapes were not only widespread but also systematic

One of the most glaring responsibilities faced by the new state was the rehabilitation of “Birangonas” (the brave ones) – rape victims who were given this name by Mujib ur Rahman. Hundreds of thousands of women were victims of this atrocity and the rapes were not only widespread but also systematic. Although in a conservative society like Bengal it is difficult to know the exact statistics made more difficult by a war where records of any kind were rarely kept. The new state also had to figure the fate of razakars in the shape of al Badr and al Shams, the auxiliaries of Jamaat Islami who collaborated with the Pakistani army, as well as Biharis who sided with the army. This is what the author calls the unquiet legacy of the Bangladesh war.

Most of the post-independence history of Bangladesh can be understood keeping in view the above factors. The killing of Mujib, the coup to remove the government formed afterward, the counter-coup and the ascension of Zia ur Rahman, once the friend of Banghabandhu Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, and Zia’s subsequent assassination in 1981 in the Chittagong Hills Tract area can only be understood in the light of what can be termed as the “identity crisis” of the new nation of Bangladesh, mirroring the identity crisis of its parent state, Pakistan.

What the new nation could not come to terms with is the balance between secularism and the role of religion in the business of the state. Though Sheikh Mujib sought the future of the new nation as secular or even socialist one, Gen Zia ur Rahman sought a greater role for religion, strengthened after him by the next military dictator Gen Irshad and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party headed by the widow of Gen Zia ur Rahman. The current situation in Bangladesh where the once-collaborator of the Pakistani army, Jamaat Islami has been banned and its various leaders put to death by the International Crimes Tribunal set up by the government in 2009 (which many called out for not adhering to the standard process of the law) is a result of the situation the new nation saw itself embroiled upon its birth. But can it give way to the aspiration of millions who dreamed of a Sonar Bangla during the struggle for liberation, and even before it. There is no denying the fact that the younger generation which has paved the way for the return of the daughter of Sheikh Mujib to power wants justice. There is also the necessity of going forward and forgetting the past without which the wounds can never heal. As the author rightly puts it: “Too often after the armed conflicts the interests of victims have had to make way for political expediency. Memorialization is important but it isn’t enough. Victims need closure.”

Overall the book is brilliant, with multiple narratives, including those of the main characters in the saga. It is a must read for all those who want to learn about contemporary Bangladesh and the history that informs it.