Updated: Mar 11
My grandfather once told me that he was born an Indian under British rule, then was Pakistani as a student studying abroad in the sixties, and since the war was won, has lived his life as a Bengali man.
Today is the 48th anniversary of the end of the Liberation War, the day that marks the independence of Bangladesh, the country of my heritage. This is a war reduced to memory because of how little has been written about it. A war my father does not remember except for the dead bodies he used to step over on his way to school, as a six-year-old. The history my mother can hardly recount because she was never able to urge the stories out of her parents. As for me, I’ve spent so many hours studying the World Wars, but I don’t know the details of events that my own grandparents lived through.
The commemoration of these events are so often used for nationalistic purposes and in writing this piece I traversed the memory and experience of three generations, learning to question assumptions that I didn’t even know I was working with.
In May 1971, my grandfather sat on duty with some officers watching for a possible attack from a vantage point outside Joydebpur, a city north of the capital city of Dhaka, when a few of the men on watch ran into the city streets and told the women to flee because the Pakistani army was approaching. My grandmother was four months pregnant with my mother at the time and was travelling with my five-year-old Aunt.
“We packed a suitcase and left with your sister. After walking a few miles we went on a ‘thela ghari’ [pull cart] but it was very bumpy and too uncomfortable because I was pregnant, so we walked the rest of the way. We had potatoes and water while we travelled for days.
Your grandfather knew where to look for us … we met in a small village along the way to Brahmanbaria. Slowly, we went, and it took us four or five days to get to Chinar, the ghram [the villages]. For food, it was just to survive. When the Pakistani Army would come, an attack was always a threat. The middle people – informants – would keep us updated.”
In an effort to address these forgotten histories, I had begun my interview asking question after question trying to map the details and began realising that my grandmother was not giving the kind of dramatic, compelling account that I had anticipated. Her responses were very clean, precise and left more to be desired. A movie moment that never came. To me, my grandmother’s reticence in talking about this period in her life was underwhelming, but my mother had the opposite reaction. She said this was the most she had ever heard her speak about it in her life.
The legacy of Partition is that it carved up the subcontinent.
When British colonisers first drew their careless border they did so on the basis of religion to create the Muslim majority republic of Pakistan and the Hindu majority state of India. The arbitrary drawing of these borders led to the single greatest mass migration in human history. Fifteen million people were uprooted from their lives, and while this event marked the end of colonial violence, it was simultaneously the beginning of inter-state turmoil that Bangladesh, Pakistan and India still cannot break free from.
While the events of Partition are well chronicled in our history books, what happened during Bangladesh’s independence war, or the ‘second partition’, is much harder to learn about. This war is only spoken about as collateral in history. What I didn’t anticipate when I began writing this piece was that it would lead me into hours of maddening research consisting of conflicting stories, uncorroborated reports, claims of propaganda and the repeated use of one of the most harrowing words: genocide.
The 1971 Liberation War (muktijuddha) was fought and won by the Bengali Freedom Fighters to create the new state. This was in response to ‘Operation Searchlight’ by the West Pakistani Army, an initiative to crush pockets of rebellion by Bengalis wanting to secede from East Pakistan. Although there was significant indiscriminate killing, this operation targeted Bengali Hindus and the intelligentsia. It has since been labelled a genocide because an estimated three-hundred-thousand to three million people were killed as a result of their efforts.
Some say that India exaggerated the statistics to bolster a rebellion that would weaken Pakistan; others question the legitimacy of the statistics themselves; a few deny the event altogether. This lack of consensus is the entire problem. The silencing, questioning, disagreement, factionalism that plague the retelling of the events of this war mean that it is reduced to memories. When it is brought to the forefront and retold, it is often used to bolster nationalistic agendas.
THE PITFALLS OF NATIONALISM
In trying to read between the lines of my grandmother’s telling of her war stories, I had missed the point altogether. She did not have historical amnesia. She knew exactly what had happened. She refused to romanticise her memory of the Liberation War in it’s telling, she did not dramatise her position as a potential victim or glamourise the birth of the new nation. Underneath it all, she had a profound respect for the people whose lives took on an unalterable course as a result of the War.
It was so naive to sit with my grandmother with the expectation that she would pass down her memories as a badge of honour that we could keep with us as fuel for our pride in our heritage and what it took to secure it. But the military tradition is not a source of pride; it is a means to an end. Whereas the heroisms of knights and soldiers, stories of conquest and the fight to always ‘rise up again’ feature prominently in the nationalistic rhetoric of many nations, this drama has no place in the telling of her story.
Nationalism is not, as one would imagine, the patriotism a person expresses for their country but rather, it often manifests as a fear of the other and a pride in defending an exclusionary vision of national identity. If we canonise these events as larger-than-life myths anchoring a single vision of the nation - we lose more than we gain.
The word ‘Desi’ means ‘of the land’ but it does not specify which land. Whereas Europe has existed as nation states for centuries, the nations in South Asia have only existed for a lifetime. Specifically my grandparents’. This is what my grandfather meant when he said he was born an Indian, lived some of his life as a Pakistani and the rest as Bengali. These identities are not what keep him coming back for two to three months a year to Chinar, his birth village. Similarly, as a member of the generation who have witnessed it all, my grandmother erred away from the kind of nationalistic pride, as artificial as it is potent, that has paralysed governments and communities in conflict for decades.
My grandmother’s recount of the War was only one memory of moments strung together from the millions that have defined her life of adventure, living on three continents, speaking four languages, traversing social and cultural divides, raising three children and four grandchildren. I thought I had come to her with the desire to listen to her stories with no preconceptions, but even within my desire to hear stories there was an assumption of the kind of story she should tell.
The way a story is documented is what informs our understanding of our present. Over the course of writing this piece I came to question how we document history and how we value certain stories over others. It was in stumbling across an Instagram account that chronicles the history of South Asians ('Brown History') and my reflexive categorisation of it as ‘niche’ in my own head that provoked a sudden need to delve deeper into the details of my own family’s history.
When our histories cannot be easily found, read and understood, they can feel like an undocumented past. Somewhere along the lines, I had become a passive bystander, accepting that my family’s past would always be a collection of fragmented parts. There are many wars that have been reduced almost to memory. I urge you to consider whether you have placed value on your own history or whether you have created a hierarchy of what matters.
In honouring our histories by bringing them into the light and not letting them get lost, we empower ourselves in the most permanent way.
Lead Editors: Palwasha A.