“1971 isn’t present in our public memory as it should be”

February 2, 2020

In an exclusive interview with TNS, Zakaria discusses her new book 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India

Born and raised in Lahore, Anam Zakaria is an oral historian currently settled in Toronto. She is the author of Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-Administered Kashmir and The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians, which won her the 2017 KLF German Peace Prize.

In an exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, Zakaria discusses her new book 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, the power of oral narratives in understanding history, and how technology can be used more effectively in classrooms to engage the younger generations across South Asia – given the challenges of travel between the three countries.

Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India reinforces the role of people in what constitutes history. Can a people’s history of the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh allow historians to look beyond defining people as victims, saviours and perpetrators?

Anam Zakaria (AZ): What any people’s history reminds us is that people’s experiences are far more varied and nuanced than what is presented in state-level histories. The latter often reinforce linear, simplistic and black-and-white perspectives of the past. State narratives, in South Asia as well as elsewhere in the world, are frequently aligned with national projects, which means that certain versions or fragments of the past are accentuated while others are silenced.

People’s experiences are far more complex. In my work on the partition, Kashmir and 1971, I have found that people’s narratives can complicate neatly packaged truths. These histories help us deconstruct big labels and understand the different ways in which people experience violent conflicts. Sometimes it emerges that members from a community which is attacking the ‘other’ are also risking their lives to save the ‘other’. These stories, unfortunately, don’t make it to school textbooks and state histories too often.

TNS: How have state-sanctioned narratives undermined or influenced what people remember about the events of 1971?

AZ: I am interested in exploring the impact state histories or micro-narratives have on people’s personal memories, and the ways in which personal experiences can be selectively appropriated as ‘national experiences’ and ‘national truths’ to serve national projects.

My work has revealed that meta-narratives or ‘national truths’ do impact people’s perceptions of the past and how and what they choose to remember; what memories they hold on to, and which ones fade away over time. Memory shifts gradually and is impacted by events that happen post-conflict or war. In the case of 1971, the distinct narratives of each country have left imprints on the public imagination and personal memory. Yet, it would be simplistic to say that personal memories are entirely tainted or shaped by state-sanctioned narratives. Personal memories often resist official memory and can offer a much deeper and varied glimpse into the past. For the book, I recorded several interviews which challenge state narratives, punctuating the ‘national truths’ with another telling of events. This for me speaks to the power of oral histories.

TNS: Textbooks and history courses that are taught at schools across South Asia tend to obscure the truth about the 1971 war and offer myopic state narratives. What can textbook boards and teachers do to offer holistic accounts of the events, especially since the generation that witnessed those is fading away?

I hope that the book gives Pakistanis and Bangladeshis a chance to see how 1971 is remembered in both countries and across generations, and to read narratives from the other country that go beyond official histories.

AZ: Textbooks need serious review and revision. Weaving in oral histories and personal narratives of diverse groups of people can play an instrumental role in empowering students and teachers to understand 1971 beyond nationalistic lines and to challenge the distortions, omissions and jingoism that taints school texts. I’m also a big believer in people-to-people contact and feel that interaction with the ‘other’ can be fundamental in deconstructing stereotypes. Programmes which connect teachers to discuss school syllabi across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and enable them to innovate in how events like Partition or 1971 are taught can be transformational.

I use Skype exchanges between students in India and Pakistan to connect them with one another, which allows them to understand people across the border beyond school texts and media bias. These conversations can also give students and teachers a chance to discuss how the same events are taught across the border, offering different perspectives. Given the challenges of travel across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, technology can be used more effectively in classrooms to engage and educate the younger generations in South Asia.

TNS: What were some of the challenges you encountered while conducting research for 1971?

AZ: There were many challenges, logistic and otherwise. It was difficult to get a visa to travel to Bangladesh as relations between the countries remain strained. Similarly, due to increased Indo-Pak tensions since 2016, I was unable to visit India to conduct research. Since there is minimal people-to-people contact between Pakistan and Bangladesh, it took time to build trust and rapport with interviewees. 1971 also remains a very sensitive subject in Bangladesh and Pakistan – something I had to keep in mind at all times.

What was most difficult about this process was listening to the trauma people had endured. There has been unimaginable loss and suffering, and as an oral historian, it took its emotional toll. At the same time, I wanted to ensure that I did not trigger people’s trauma and insensitively push them to share their experiences. Navigating this terrain was challenging, but I have learnt immensely in the process, both as a researcher and writer and as a Pakistani.

TNS: 1971 relies heavily on oral history accounts. What was the most illuminating personal account that you came across while working on this book?

AZ: This is a difficult question to answer because each narrative moved me in some way and I learnt so much from all the interviews. However, it was particularly interesting for me to record interviews of West Pakistanis who were living in East Pakistan before or during 1971 as their interactions and relations with Bengalis meant that they were often able to offer a far more nuanced and personal perspective on the birth of Bangladesh than usually offered in Pakistan.

An interview I conducted in Karachi in which a Pakistani narrated how Bengalis saved his life during the events of 1971 really stayed with me. As someone born and raised much after the war, I knew little about Bengalis and too often encountered biased narratives about erstwhile East Pakistan. Such ‘rescue’ stories have the power of humanising the ‘other’, especially in the absence of interaction with the ‘other’, be it Bangladeshi or Indian.

TNS: In what ways can books like 1971 encourage Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to revisit the past and make amends for their mistakes?

AZ: While 1971 plays a defining role in how Pakistan sees itself and shapes its internal and regional policies, it is not present in our public memory as it should be. School textbooks rush over the events that led to the birth of Bangladesh, annual TV shows that commemorate the anniversary of the war do little to shift the discourse, and unless personal or family experiences push one to reflect on the year, it holds minimal importance for most Pakistanis.

On the other side of the border, while 1971 reinforces a saviour narrative in India and is seen as a testament to its military prowess, many Indians shared that they know little about the year and what it meant at a people’s level. I hope that this book enables Indians and Pakistanis to move beyond treating 1971 as another bilateral Indo-Pak war to understand and recognise Bengali experiences. I also hope that the book gives Pakistanis and Bangladeshis a chance to see how 1971 is remembered and forgotten in both countries and across generations, and to read narratives from the other country that go beyond official histories.

Any hope for reconciliation depends on how we own and understand the past, as uncomfortable and difficult as it may be. I hope the book offers a small window into one of the most defining years in South Asian history from the perspective of all three countries.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India