Book Review: Anam Zakaria’s ‘1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India’

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By Dipesh Mittal

Each nation needs its own myth to survive. On 3 June 1947, four men informed from the broadcasting station of All India Radio to the mass of four hundred million the plan to divide the crowned jewel of the British Empire into two new nation states – India and Pakistan. Over the course of several years since the announcement, close to 2 million people died and 14 million were displaced. The two nation states gained their Independence from the British Raj amidst the blood bath and mayhem of millions of people. In 1971 after a prolonged war, Pakistan was further bifurcated and erstwhile East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Anam Zakaria’s book, 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, is an inquiry into the people’s memory. There exists an underlying tension between the state-sponsored narrative and people’s memory, often the former influencing the latter through silence, selective remembrance, and half-truths. This book examines the conflict and helps making sense of ourselves.

History is a deeply contested political terrain. To argue otherwise would be to live in the fool’s paradise. As government changes, so do history books taught at schools. History textbooks in India end at 1947, with little to no information about what happened after, as if the march of history stopped there. While in Bangladesh, the government has changed textbooks more than twice over the years including graphic details of violence that occurred during the liberation war and the contested legacy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In Pakistan, the textbooks at government-run schools are aimed at constructing the enemy, often they are Indians, minorities, and kafirs. A school serves as the first political background wherein the next generation of citizens are given ideological training by the State. The construction of an outside enemy helps the nation to ignore its own failing. The modern post-colonial nation states depend on the narrative of othering to carve their own identity. They need ‘otherness’ to justify their own hegemonic rule and most of the time this comes at the cost of disfranchising their own citizens socially, politically, and economically.

The year 1971 has different meanings to the countries in the subcontinent. For Pakistan, it is the year, when disloyal Bengalis under the influence of Hindu infidels and with the help of Indians rebelled against the Pakistan state, leaving them little choice, but to fight the enemy both within and outside. For Bangladesh, it is the year, when it gained Independence through prolonged struggle and ‘genocide’ caused by Pakistan. For India, it is the year, when it dismembered Pakistan and successfully proved the failure of two-nation theory to the world. Amidst all these state versions of that particular year, Zakaria’s book captures the left out people’s tale of suffering, pain, courage, and grief. These tales make the distinction between the political and private sphere appear superfluous. This book is a rallying cry against the over-simplification of history, as it tries to bring a nuanced understanding through people’s personal history. Over time people’s memory also get entangled with the state narratives and taints one’s opinion. The author conducts several interviews with the people directly affected during the liberation war of 1971 across the three countries. Some of the people interviewed affirm multiple identities – a Bangladeshi Bihari, a Bangladeshi Punjabi, and a Pakistani Bengali, all of the identity in conflict with one another in the present geopolitics of the subcontinent. Looking at the subcontinent through these people’s stories, the Radcliff line gets blurred and the division makes little sense. The book provides a detailed account of present Bangladeshi political discourse, the fractures within the Bangladeshi nationalism and Bengali nationalism, and most specifically the people left out of those discourses.

Zakaria also captures the reactions of the second and third generation from the subcontinent, when they meet her for the first time as a ‘Pakistani’. Most of the younger generation people only grew up listening to the tales of war from popular media and personal histories, often constructing the other as enemy. Her fun exercise as a cultural facilitator, connecting Indian and Pakistan students virtually, and asking them, what is the first image, thought, feeling that comes to their mind, when she says Pakistan-India-Bangladesh, gives us a great insight into how identities are constructed through popular mass media and the author’s own sense of identity. Most of the time, these identities are not as rigid as they are portrayed to be and in the present political environment this becomes the cause of friction. While listening to victim’s story of 1971, the author doesn’t try to disown her country’s past or play blame game. Rather, through people’s stories, she tries to understand it. This at times becomes therapeutical to the people narrating stories of grief and loss, in some cases even unacknowledged by the State.

In the subcontinent, the idea of citizenship has been deeply contested in the present times. Citizenship, as the right to have rights, is closely linked with one’s identity vis-à-vis the nation’s self. The recent Citizenship Amendment Act passed by the Indian Parliament makes an attempt to make our identity rigid and stiff and this will only cause more friction, given the complex colonial history. 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India serves as a testimony to our shared past, at a time when crossing boundaries is becoming more and more difficult. Zakaria’s answer to our respective government’s project, to paint us all in a single colour, is to see identities in all its different hues and colours. However, the book leaves out narratives of other minority communities who have often suffered colossally in the project of nation-states. For instance, the author does not interview anyone from the Chakma community, who has their own story to tell about the war of liberation. Nonetheless, this book is an important contribution to the literature coming out of the subcontinent. To understand our history better, we need a cross-boundary study of history, wherein historians from the subcontinent can engage and exchange ideas. In the present political environment, one can only hope for that.

Bio:
Dipesh Mittal is a law student at Faculty of Law, Delhi University. He enjoys reading books, reciting poetry, and sky-gazing. He can be contacted at agarwaladipesh@gmail.com

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