Salil Triphathi on the Bangladesh War and the Forces That Continue to Threaten
By SB Veda
While I lived in Montreal in the 1990s, I used to take the metro, experiencing a daily commute in which the sweet sound of Bengali could be heard over the hum and squeak of the subway cars. Usually, the accent and vernacular were that of Sylhet, Chittagong and other areas of Bangladesh rather than the ‘Calcutta-speak’ of which I was familiar. In a city where French and English competed to occupy the essential conversation, the sound of Bengali seemed odd but comforting. I would often speak to passengers only to hear words trailed by sadness: the legacy of blood and the pull of belonging chorused the cries of a young nation’s Diaspora, its divisions having driven them from its scarred soil.
Salil Tripathi’s well-researched and comprehensive exploration of the 1971 war that cleaved Pakistan, and liberated its subjugated Bengali-speaking peoples, describes the legacy that gave rise to the migrations in my reminisces. It is quite possibly one of the most important books published on South Asia, recently, and reads compellingly to the last.
By no means a ‘happy’ read though, the recounting of atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistani armed forces who were given carte blanche to unleash a reign of terror, form horrific and astoundingly inhuman anecdotes. In this, Tripathi has weaved together many firsthand accounts of the madness – and it is heartbreaking. (I had to put down the book more than once to wipe my tears.) The testimonies are burnished with quotations from other books and reliable sources such as Archer Blood, who was the US Consul General, by now famous for writing to his unmoved superiors in Washington of the killing of innocents, the targeting of Hindus, and the murder of academics and educated women. Gary Bass’ recently published Pulitzer short-listed book about him, Blood Telegram, tends to support Tripathi’s exposition.
In addition to the massacres, rape was sanctioned as a weapon of the West Pakistani army, their ranks along with East Pakistani collaborators rationalizing the sexual brutalization of shattered daughters and broken widows as well as the brazen ravaging of married women, as removing Hindu impurity from the population – a cleansing of the gene pool. Interestingly, such ‘cleansing’ targeted not only Hindus but also Muslims who identified with the Bengali language rather than the Arab roots of their religion. The reality of Bangladesh, today, is that many of these victims have had to live alongside their assailants who hailed from the same neighborhoods. Tripathi interviewed 28 of these victims, known as Birangonas. He also spoke to lawyers and activists, and the sum of it revealed a second brutalization: the shame of living with the memories of such crimes, especially in an Islamic culture.
The book starts with an admission, that of the unrepentant Colonel referenced in the title. He was Farooq Rahman, who planned and orchestrated the murder of the nation’s first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his entire family, save for two daughters who were outside of Bangladesh at the time. In this, Tripathi’s narration both of the assassination and accounts around it, reads like a thriller. He had interviewed the late Colonel when he was a young journalist in Bangladesh in 1986. During that encounter, the mustachioed military man exuded the confidence and swagger of someone secure in the knowledge that his crime had been judged as an act of patriotism. Mujib (as the President and founding father was affectionately known) was out of control, corrupt, and had to be stopped at all costs. Moreover, any hope of dynasty had to be crushed. His justifications are impassioned, full of righteous indignation – and seem desperate, hollow in hindsight.
Colonel Rahman did not anticipate then that the elder surviving daughter of Mujib, Sheikh Hasina Wajed – a mere woman, underestimated in both the macho culture of the military and the misogyny of his religion – would have the audacity to return to Bangladesh and stand for election. It was perhaps unimaginable to him that the people would elect her Prime Minister, and that she would seek justice, initiating a process that some thirty four years later would result in his execution.
But that is one of the remarkable undercurrents of the Bangladeshi story: the resilience of the victims; their desire to seek justice; and the patience to see it though. Only this year did a war crimes tribunal carry out the death sentence for Mohammad Qamaruzzaman, convicted of genocide and rape during the 1971 war. He had become a prominent politician and held the post of Assistant Secretary General of the Jamaat -i-Islami party, one of two main opposition parties of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. In all, twelve were indicted. As the convictions mount, no doubt, the streets will teem with both jubilation and outrage as they did the day of the Qamaruzzaman verdict.
To understand the ‘unquiet’ legacy, which is evident both in the headlines of newspapers and in Tripathi’s book, one must delve into the history of the land and its people. Tripathi does so at length. He traces the history of the inhabitants to ancient times, referring to Buddhist Brahmi inscriptions circa 300 BCE. He chronicles the coming of Islam, and describes a medieval hierarchy that was mirrored in the administration that also succeeded the British: “a Muslim aristocracy, some of whom spoke Urdu, taking pride in being descendants of Turks and other Muslims who came with Bakhtiyar in the thirteenth century. Below them was an administrative class of upper -caste Hindus who aided the rulers – Mughal or British – to run the state. Below them, there were a large majority of Muslims. They were not converted forcibly (from Hinduism).”
Post-1947, West Pakistan and the remnants of the aristocracy as well as those who identified with it, ruled the country. The Hindus who stayed in East Pakistan played a role in its administration as before, even held posts in government, but found themselves increasingly marginalized. The large majority of Muslims forming the underclass, the Bengali-speaking converts, were treated as second class citizens, never fully having ‘washed’ off their essential Hindu character in the eyes of the ruling West Pakistanis. To their masters in Islamabad, the Bengalis were not considered ‘proper’ Muslims. This view was reflected in the military who were sent to crack down on the dissident and problematic Eastern flank of the country: those who had dared demand fair democratic representation from their Urdu-speaking masters.
Here Tripathi relies on the reporting of award-winning Pakistani Catholic journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas whose work helped galvanize public pressure to put an end to the war: “Maj. Bashir told him (Macarenhas):’This is a war between the pure and the impure. The people here may have Muslim names and call themselves Muslims. But they are Hindus at heart….Those who are left will be real Muslims. We will even teach them Urdu.”
This rationalization is at the heart of the genocide and the logic behind the atrocities, today, in Syria and Iraq by ISIS/ISIL, that those who are not ‘real’ Muslims are expendable or can be used to serve the pure. And, so the history has far-reaching implications in contemporary global conflict; hence, the importance and timeliness of the book. Tripathi writes of generals confessing to Macarenas their genocidal intent: “We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all…even if it means killing off two million people and ruling the province as a colony for thirty years.”
The language quoted by Tripathi is interesting: pure and impure, ‘real Muslim’ referring to ‘us’. and ‘cleanse’ in reference to killing. It is textbook genocide, with accounts disturbingly similar to the lives of Jews under the Nazis: “The Pakistani Army has painted big yellow “H’s” on the Hindu shops still standing in this town…that is has made special targets (of them).”
The disquiet in Bangladesh today results from this basic conflict, and the competing ideologies described in Tripathi’s book. The Pakistan military made sure of this. Quoting another journalist, Tripathi writes that the Pakistan military trained “paramilitary home guards”. These supplemented armed civilians, who were considered to be “loyal”, some of whom were formed into “peace committees.”
Known as Al-Badre and Al Sham, together with the civilian recruits, mainly ethnic Bihari Muslims, writes Tripathi, these fighters were called Rasakars, who supported the Pakistani army: ” adherents of the right-wing Moslem (sic) League and Jamaat-e-Islami…the paramilitary units spread terror throughout the Bengali population. With their local knowledge, the Razakars were an invaluable tool of the Pakistan Army’s arsenal of genocide.” The current unrest in Bangladesh stands as offspring of Pakistan’s indoctrination and training of the local population, and Tripathi’s book goes a long way to explaining this.
Where the narrative softens is in the description of the war, which is at times confusing. bordering on the contradictory even. At first India’s role is portrayed as tentative, unsure. Indira Gandhi is shown as almost subservient to her Army Chief, Brigadier Sam Manekshaw because Tripathi relies only on his rather embellished account of the war counsel as evidence.
Gandhi was impetuous, Tripathi, channeling Manekshaw, implies – and had to be restrained. Such reportage is at odds with others such as Tariq Ali, who has written that Gandhi’s commanders were hawkish and wanted to occupy large swaths of land in Pakistan to bring that country to her knees when at the bargaining table. Ali describes a mature leader who was willing to stand up to her adventurous generals. That said, Ali’s account is likely too generous to the Indian leader and the truth lies in between. Given the depth and breadth of Tripathi’s research, it is likely closer to Tripathi’s reckoning.
After portraying her as tentative, even weak, Tripathi goes on to laud Gandhi’s diplomatic and strategic acumen, suggesting that she had matured quickly, having been dressed down by Manekshaw. The transformation seems a bit extreme but not unrealistic.
Absent are any maps or diagrams of the battles, though Tripathi describes them in detail. These visual aids would have been invaluable in illustrating the battle. And, there are no pictures of the carnage or human toll, which would have punctuated Tripathi’s narration.
These are relatively minor quibbles, and pale next to the brilliance of the narrative, which is engaging and moves with a steady momentum.
No book on that period would be complete without a discussion of the death toll, which ranges from 26,000 if Pakistan is to believed to 3 million, which is the official tally of the Bangladesh government. Tripathi correctly points out the difficulty in quantifying the dead. Amidst the largest migration in human history, the death toll becomes a moving target. Were those who were absent from villages dead or merely moved? If bodies cannot be named or identified, should they not be counted?
What is more important than the numbers are the indelible images: descriptions of literal rivers of blood, the stench of rotting bodies, the sight of bloodied saris; images of Pakistani military checking for uncircumcised penises; and prayers, even in Arabic, silenced by finality of gunfire.
The book is not simply about the war or even Mujib’s assassination. It details what happened afterwards. While much has been written on Mujib much less is known of his successor, Ziaur Rahman (also known as Zia but not to be confused with Pakistan’s dictator, General Zia). Tripathi illuminates this enigmatic dictator, describing him as a dapper man whose clothes were on display at his memorial, curiously, “including their labels.”
While Mujib was an ideologue, Tripathi describes Zia as pragmatic: “he had no lofty aims like Mujib…Zia was a man from the cantonment, used to thinking in terms of military strategy, giving orders, surrounding himself with people loyal to him, and expecting his instructions to be obeyed unquestioningly.”
The government which followed, writes Tripathi while not consisting of extreme Islamists, wasn’t particularly sympathetic to minorities, either: “Zia was not an Islamic fundamentalist by any means, but he had been trained in the Pakistan Military Academy, and as such he was greatly influenced by Pakistan’s governing ideology, which arose from mistrust of Hindus and Indians; indeed, in the binary way many Muslim League leaders presented the issue to Pakistanis, it meant Hindus were Indians and Indians were Hindus.”
Consequently, despite an ostensible antipathy for Islamic rule, Zia and his ilk carried forward to a new generation, the very same rationalizations that justified the genocide of Hindus and apparently ‘Hindu-ized’ Muslims.
And while Mujib is at times portrayed as heavy-handed and insensitive – even thuggish, his successor is shown to terribly simple, demonstrating a baffling lack of nuance and utter ignorance of the complexities of his nation. But he was clever in removing threats writes Tripathi, removing opponents by giving them plum positions as diplomats abroad.
His rule turned Bangladesh away from socialism and secularism and by extension, India. And religion was put up as the second pillar of the country along with language but this posed problems writes Tripathi: “Faith would have to become important, and given the politics of Bangladesh, it would mean language would have t share space with religion. If the worry under the Mujib era was that Bangladesh might look like India’s por cousin, the longer term worry under Zia’s rule would be that Bangladesh would look like Pakistan’s poor cousin…and this created existential angst – if Bangladesh was not like India, was it like Pakistan? If so, why was the war necessary in 1971? And if not, why was there a partition in 1947?”
The answer seemed to lie in emphasizing a diversity and distinctness of its people that was not necessarily present in either country: the hill people of Chittagong having a Burmese influenced dialect so different some might consider it a different language; Garo being spoken in the north near Sylhet in the area bordering India’s hilly state, Meghalaya; and the tribal Santhal’s in the East having speaking different dialects altogether and having their own set of customs. These elements that had virtually no connection to the two defining nations of the sub-continent could have been pillars in developing a new kind of nationalism. However, Zia, writes Tripathi, being a product of Pakistani Military Academy, was taught that Islam could override all linguistic and cultural diversity, so it was infused into politics. As a hedge against the Awami League, he permitted the return of the exiled leader of the extremist and Pakistani influenced Jamaat-i-Islami party, so they could restore their political base and fight elections. And so began the unholy alliance between the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the religious extremists.
In the aftermath Zia’s assassination at the hands of dissidents in the military, the next military dictator who took over from Zia’s civilian successor Abdul Satar, Hossain Mohammed Ershad proved to be a weak leader, according to Tripathi. He describes a man desperately clinging to religion to burnish his credentials – and this ultimate brought in Islam as state religion.
“What Zia started by abolishing secularism,’ writes Tripathi,’Eshad completed by bringing in state religion…legitimized the politics of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the conservative fundamentalist party committed to Islamic practices and determined to bring the public life under Shariah or Islamic Law. Under Mujib, the Jamaat had no prospects; under Zia, the Jamaat began to regroup. Under Ershad, it realized it could act openly.”
In a chapter devoted to two Prime Ministers, General Zia’s widow and Mujib’s daughter, namely Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, Tripathi and “their troubled inheritance,” Tripathi writes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Chakma people. This is a fascinating section that deals with the diversity of Bangladesh and the complexity of governing in remote areas. It also demonstrates the fallacy of organizing a state identity around a single religion or language for that matter. While engaging, it seems almost as an ‘add-on’ within this chapter, and might have warranted its own space as well as a little more detail on the lesser known elements of the population.
The same chapter deals with the shrinking population of Hindus and the situation of the so-called Bihari Muslims. There is much more that could have been offered in this chapter; interviews and accounts that Tripathi had so richly detailed in other chapters on the war, Mujib’s assassination, etc., would have been a welcome addition.
Where Tripathi is most compelling is in his discussion of war crimes and analysis of the death toll. What is telling is his quotation of political scientist, Rudolph Rimmel, who studiied the killings, writing: “The human death toll over only 267 days was incredible. Just to give five out of teh eigtheen districts some incomplete statistics published in Bangladesh newspapers or by an Inquiry Committee, the Pakistani army killed 100,000 Bengalis in Dacca, 150,000 in Khulna, 75,000 in Jessore, 95,000 in Comilla, and 100,000 in Chittagong. For eighteen districts, the total is 1,247,000 killed. This was an incomplete death toll, and to this day, no one really knows the final toll….If the rate of killing for all of Pakistan is annualized over the years the Yahya martial law regime was in power, then this one regime was more lethanl than that of the Soviet Union, China under the communists or Japan under the military (even through World War II).”
Tripathi extrapolates with the 3 million figure: “those deaths amount to 11,235 deaths a day. That would make it one of the most lethal conflicts of all time.”
Ending with his strength, Tripathi narrates and highlights the personal amidst arrays of facts. He goes back to the spot where, decades earlier, a bloodied Muslim boy fleeing the boom of guns, gives over an infant orphaned in her Hindu mother’s arms over to a childless Hindu couple. That act of kindness stands as the golden dawn kissing the horizon of a long dark night. The three find a kind of closure as Tripathi recounts taking pictures of them (would have been nice to see the pictures in the book to place faces to the names but these are glaringly absent). Tripathi’s conclusion that their bond typifies the land offers hope of reconciliation.
It is an optimistic ending to an exposition, which argues that the forces that unleashed during the Bangladesh war are still pulsing, pushing its people up against one another until someone falls, others tumbling like Dominos from behind. There is much in the book to like, and the questions Tripathi raises are as important as the testimonies he chronicles. The lessons of the Bangladesh war are still being learned and have far reaching implications across South and West Asia as well as the shadowy areas in places that surround.