Book, film greeted with fury among Bengalis

A new book and film recently released downplaying Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh have caused outrage among Bengalis.

Artillery - Pakistan, India, Bangladesh war
A recent film and book has caused outrage among Bengalis, due to their downplaying of atrocities committed by the Pakistani military during East Pakistan’s struggle for independence in 1971 [GALLO/GETTY]

Two Bengali women  one from India, the other from Bangladesh are now embroiled in a fierce controversy across the two countries for writing a book and producing a film that has upset Bengali nationalists and Indian officials, but given some cause of relief to the Pakistani military.

Dead Reckoning, written by Indian researcher Sarmila Bose, questions the historical narratives of the 1971 civil war that broke up Pakistan, but Bengali nationalist groups describe her as “an apologist for Pakistan’s brutal military”.

Meherjaan, directed by Bangladeshi film-maker Rubaiyat Hossain, is about the love of a Bengali woman for a Pakistani Baloch soldier in the backdrop of the 1971 war  but feminist groups in Bangladesh allege that the film “distorts the historical context of the liberation war”.   

Challenging narratives

Both the book and the film have hit the market at a time when Bangladesh’s Awami League-led government has set up special tribunals for trying the “war criminals” of 1971.

The Awami League led Bangladesh’s struggle for secession from Pakistan after the Pakistani military regime refused to hand over power to it even after it won a majority in Pakistan national assembly elections in 1970.

Shamsul Arefin, a war crimes trial official, told this writer that though Bengalis who collaborated with the Pakistan army are the ones to be actually tried, names of Pakistani soldiers and officers are likely to crop up with regard to massacres, mass rapes and arson during the trial.

“That will expose the real character of the Pakistani army which is now seen in the West as a key ally in the war against terror. So Pakistan’s intelligence is desperate to scuttle the war crimes trials in Bangladesh,” says Arefin, who served in the Pakistan army, then joined the Bengali Mukti Fauj (Freedom Force) during the civil war and finally served in the Bangladesh army.

“We have reasons to believe that there is a concerted campaign by Pakistani intelligence to disrupt and dilute our War Crimes Trial. I will not be surprised if they are commissioning projects to distort the realities of our liberation war,” Arefin told this writer.

That’s a rather strong charge but Sarmila Bose promptly dismisses.

“I am only trying to question the existing narratives of the 1971 war in view of data I have gathered while working for the book,” Sarmila Bose told the audience at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in US, where the book was launched.

The entire book launch programme is available on the Internet.

Suspect data

Bose, a Bengali herself, is a grand daughter of India’s independence war hero Subhas Chandra Bose, and is a senior research fellow at Oxford.

Her brothers, Sugato and Sumantra Bose, teach history and politics at Harvard and London School of Economics.

“I am only pointing to obvious exaggerations about the number of people killed or number of women raped by the Pakistan army. A war narrative is always the narrative of the victors, and 1971 was no different,” Sarmila Bose said at the launch.

But some of her data is clearly suspect.

Dead Reckoning suggests there were only 20,000 Pakistani troops at the beginning of the civil war in East Pakistan, and that rose to 34,000 towards the end of the war.

“Bangladeshi narratives claim 400,000 women were raped by Pakistani troops during the civil war between March and December 1971, but how can 34,000 soldiers rape so many women in eight months,” contends Sarmila Bose.

Indian historian Jayanta Ray, whose 1968 book Nationalism on Trial predicted the breakup of Pakistan, is furious at how an Oxford researcher like Bose could get basic facts wrong.

“Records indicate that just over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Indian army in December 1971. They were all handed back to Pakistan. That’s thrice the number Bose suggests, so is she fudging figures deliberately to prove that the number of rapes were much lower than suggested?” Professor Ray told this writer.

Bangladesh’s anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriyar Kabir says that Red Cross officials in 1971 testified to treating nearly 200,000 rape victims.

“Many more women did not report for treatment out of shame and embarrassment,” Kabir told this writer. “They bore their indignities silently.”

A Calcutta-based Bengali channel, Mahua TV, ran a full hour discussion on the book, bringing together Bengalis from India and Bangladesh last Sunday.

Hundreds of listeners from both sides of the border called in to join the author-bashing.

The channel’s executive editor, Subir Chakroborty, says Sarmila Bose’s mother, Krishna Bose, a former member of Indian parliament, refused to join the panel.

“She told us her views on the liberation war were already known to everybody, so we put up in front of our cameras her newspaper article on the Bangladesh war. That was very sympathetic to the victims of 1971,” Chakroborty said.

Allegations of bias

While Bangladeshis and Indian Bengalis are upset with Bose for “playing down the Pakistani atrocities”, Indian officials are angry with her contention that “India was the only aggressor in 1971”.

“We intervened militarily only after all possibilities of stopping the bloodbath failed. And when our forces entered East Pakistan, the Bengalis complained why we have been so late,” says former chief of India’s eastern fleet, Vice-Admiral Bimalendu Guha.

“How can she call us an aggressor,” fumes Guha. “The Bengalis actually wanted us to intervene earlier to save themselves.”

Former chief-of-staff of India’s eastern army, Lieutenant General J.R. Mukherjee, goes a step further, who said:

She has very good reasons to defend the honour of the Pakistan army, which she describes as a professional and a brave force. Can I ask her why these brave soldiers surrendered to India in such a huge number? Even now, Pakistani troops keep surrendering to Taliban and other militants. Can you show one Indian soldier who has ever surrendered to a militant?

Professor Ray alleges that Bose is biased in use of sources.

“Her sources are primarily Pakistani. She has interviewed many Pakistani officers, but not those who were fighting them,” says Professor Ray.

Particularly upset with Sarmila Bose are Bangladesh’s vast numbers of “freedom fighters” men from various walks of life who joined the “Mukti Fauj” to fight the Pakistanis in 1971.

“How can a Bengali, and that too from the family of one of our greatest leader like Subhas Bose, write such a horrible account that tries to defend Pakistan’s brutal army. This is simply unacceptable,” said Haroon Habib, a “freedom fighter” who later rose to head the country’s government-sponsored news agency, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS).

No bookseller has so far put Dead Reckoning on their shelves in Bangladesh.

Even in Calcutta and other Bengali-dominated cities in India, the book is not to be seen.

“Bengalis across the border will only have hate for her,” says Bimal Pramanik, a “freedom fighter” who now lives in India and runs a centre for research on India-Bangladesh relations. “She is untruthful and with a purpose.”

Sarmila Bose denies all charges flung at her and says she has only “tried to correct the course of contemporary history”.  A claim few will endorse in Bangladesh or Indian Bengal.

Stereotypes versus truth

Rubaiyat Hossain’s Meherjaan is innocuous by comparison, but it has generated as much angst in a country which prides its Bengali heritage and where the atrocities of the Pakistan army is still recent memory.

Bangladesh’s official history says nearly three million Bengalis Hindus, Muslims and Christians died in the 1971 civil war, and nearly half a million women were raped.

“I liked the movie, but since I am a freedom fighter and scores of my friends disliked the film, I decided to withdraw it from cinema halls in Bangladesh,” says Habibur Rehman Khan, the distributor of Meherjaan.

That means the film will make no money, despite a a cast of stars from India, like Jaya Bachan and Victor Banerji  both Bengalis, but big in Bollywood.

Bangladeshi feminist groups say the film trivialises the atrocities on women by the Pakistani army when it runs the story of Meher, a Bengali girl who falls in love with a Pakistani soldier, and is then humiliated by her family when this is discovered.

“I was raped several times by Pakistani soldiers, and I cannot stand this soft corner for Pakistanis in the film,” said sculptor Ferdous Priyabashini.

Rubaiyat Hossain is candid about her woes.

“I tried to break out of the stereotype of the Bengali hero versus Pakistani brute in the backdrop of the 1971 war, and that is what my countrymen are so upset with,” she said.

“What she thinks is stereotype is actually the truth. The Pakistanis killed us like flies and raped our women like beasts. They even massacred our intellectuals just before they surrendered,” said Awami League’s minister Jehangir Kabir Nanak.

Unlike Japan or Germany apologising for their military excesses during the Second World War, Pakistan has not apologised for the atrocities of its army in 1971.

Many liberal Pakistanis, including cricket hero Imran Khan, want Islamabad to do so and bury the bad blood of 1971.

But the Pakistan army top brass refuses to oblige.

Until that happens, neither Dead Reckoning nor Meherjaan will find admirers in Bangladesh or in Indian Bengal.

Source: Al Jazeera