War, people and the politics of memory

February 2, 2020

Anam Zakaria places people at the fulcrum of the debate about the 1971 war and uses the oral history method to unravel their memories

The 1971 war is ingrained within the political and cultural imagination of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. For nearly five decades, the “three children of Partition” have institutionalised the memory of this conflict at both the state and the people’s level in a manner that reinforces their respective state narratives.

Anam Zakaria’s 1971: A people’s history from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India captures the nuances in a way the civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh is embedded in the psyche of these three nations. Through interviews and detailed scrutiny of history-writing processes, museum exhibits and memorials, Zakaria’s account depicts how the cataclysmic events of 1971 are remembered and forgotten.

1971 doesn’t rely on a careful retelling of historical facts or profess to make any groundbreaking discoveries. On the contrary, the book places people at the fulcrum of the debate and uses the oral history method to unravel their war memories.

Memory studies have become quite popular in retrieving the personal accounts of those who have encountered traumatic events. While these studies offer an effective tool in highlighting the gaps in official history, they can produce a series of academic challenges.

In The Pity of Partition, Ayesha Jalal states that the scholarly obsession with giving preference to memory incorporates “individual experiences into collective memories” and places “communitarian remembrances into the straitjacket of official nationalist narratives”. In a similar vein, Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence indicates that personal memories of traumatic events or histories can’t be considered “self-evident givens” as people may choose to recall them in a different light.

Zakaria’s work recognises the limitations involved in relying on memories to understand historical truths and uses them to its advantage. At its core, 1971 begins with the premise that there is no all-embracing homogenous narrative on the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Therefore, the war memories presented in the book may provide a single strand of a complex, multifaceted history.

In addition, Zakaria’s starting point is that of a Pakistani who has been exposed to half-truths about the conflict and wants to embark on a personal journey to learn, unlearn and critically assess one-sided state narratives. The author’s personal quest for the complete picture salvages the book from becoming an academic discourse that propagates one country’s narrative to the detriment of others. Instead, 1971 seeks an objective account of a war that changed the fate of three countries.

Although the 1971 war has left deep imprints on Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, each of these countries has its own narrative on the nine-month-long battle. With the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan lost its eastern wing in what has been construed as the ‘second partition’ of the subcontinent. If state-sanctioned narratives are anything to go by, the 1971 war has also been viewed as a bilateral conflict between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, there appears to be a narrative vacuum in understanding the perspective of the erstwhile East Pakistanis. Similarly, India has perceived the civil war as a symbol of its military might while Bangladesh believes that the event epitomised both genocidal killings and the birth of a new nation.

In her book, Zakaria skillfully deconstructs these narratives and demonstrates how they have been used to institutionalise the memory of the 1971 war through a careful analysis of textbooks, museum exhibits and the popular media. The author remains as cognisant of what is memorialised through these permitted narratives as she is of what is forgotten and shrouded in silence. In doing so, she offers fascinating insights on how official history and history-writing processes consciously trivialise aspects of the past that clash with the national project.

The oral history method allows readers to understand the origins and aftermath of the war through the perspective of those who witnessed the war and or whose loved ones lost their lives in the genocide. For her book, Zakaria has spoken to a diverse selection of academics, writers, army officers and activists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who offer thought-provoking observations on the events of 1971.

Though some of what is remembered and forgotten about the war is heavily influenced by time and distance, readers shouldn’t dispute their validity as that is how they choose to remember the past. In 1971, Zakaria repeatedly states that some personal memories are often impacted by state narratives while others tend to challenge public truths. As a result, context plays a critical role in determining what is remembered and forgotten about an event.

Zakaria’s 1971 painstakingly illustrates the factors that produced a surging sense of disillusionment among the erstwhile East Pakistanis. The book also draws attention to the grievances of Bangladesh’s Bihari community and Pakistan’s Bengali community by examining the challenges that they have encountered in the aftermath of the 1971 war.

After reading 1971, readers may be reluctant to view the key players in the conflict as saviours, oppressors and victims as the book depicts the human dimensions of the 1971 conflict without dismissing any claims of injustice. At a time when the generation that witnessed the events of 1971 is gradually fading away, it is essential to understand the conflict without the blinkers of state-sanctioned hostility. Zakaria’s 1971 allows us to do just that.

— Taha Kehar

1971: A people’s history from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India

Author: Anam Zakaria

Publisher: Penguin India

Pages: 304

Price: INR699

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