Revisiting Bangladesh, 43 years after the independence war

December 23, 2014

The Colonel WhoWhen Indian-born journalist Salil Tripathi visited Dhaka University’s Jagannath Hall in Bangladesh two years ago, he noticed an epitaph that had “PAKISTANI” etched in bold on a memorial dedicated to students who were killed in the 1971 war of independence.

The word was added later as an afterthought to identify the nationality of the occupying forces, an act of revisiting history that seemed to suggest clarification of a narrative gone wrong.

“People had obliterated the past of Pakistan invading Bangladesh so much that a lot of people didn’t even know who the occupier was. Some actually thought India was the occupier and Pakistan had liberated Bangladesh,” Tripathi said, recalling a university official’s words, four decades after East Pakistan liberated itself from its western counterpart with the help of India.

His second book, “The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy”, is not only a historical narrative on Bangladesh, but a project to rearrange a jigsaw puzzle comprising murky political plots and sub-plots that shaped a fledgling country’s future.

The liberation war of 1971 is also considered India’s greatest military victory and, according to the author, its intervention an “under-acknowledged story”. Tripathi’s book debuted in Delhi on Dec. 17, a day after the 43rd anniversary of the 1971 war.

“People know about 1971 without really knowing the background of it. People don’t know what led to the assassination (of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman). Why did he become unpopular? And then suddenly you have this war crimes tribunal happening. And people are curious why has it taken so long to have the tribunal?  So there were lots of gaps in the history. Now you have a generation of Bangladeshis who don’t know lot of critical things that happened during that time,” Tripathi said in an interview.

His first visit to Bangladesh was in 1986, when the then 25-year-old journalist landed in Dhaka on a reporting assignment for India’s Debonair magazine. The most important newsmaker he interviewed was Col. Farooq Rahman, the “man who would not repent” for the assassination of independent Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister and President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. (Col. Rahman and five other co-conspirators were executed in 2010.)

Born to a Gujarati family, Tripathi inherited his fondness for the Bengali culture from his parents. He learned Bengali in school and grew up on the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray’s films. His first name, Salil, is Bengali.

With a passion for Bengal, he traced the past and present of a people that saw their culture change with the arrival of Islam in the early 13th century. The demography and cultural landscape of the subcontinent was further altered after the British left, but it was the Bangla language movement of 1952, according to the book, which gradually sowed the seeds for the war.

At the heart of this conflict is the Bangladeshi identity of being Muslim and Bengali at the same time, “a feeling of being both and wanting both”. And that’s something Indians and Pakistanis struggle so hard to understand about Bangladesh, the author wrote.

Tripathi describes this identity crisis through personal interviews with Bengali Muslims. “I no longer felt Pakistani,” one Tahmina Saleh is quoted in the book, recalling the violent pro-Bangla agitations of 1952 when Pakistan reiterated Urdu as the state’s official language.

Tripathi“The only way we could prove we were Pakistanis was by disregarding our Bangla identity,” said Sultana Kamal, another interviewee.

Such first-person accounts abound in this narrative of Bangladesh’s history. The most telling chapter, and hardest to write, according to Tripathi, is about rape survivors. Rape during the 1971 war was systemic. The country has recognized rape victims as contributors to the independence war by giving them the title of “birangona” or the brave one.

The title – “The Colonel Who Would Not Repent” – increasingly appears pronounced amid recollection of such personal tragedies, even though Mujibur Rahman’s nemesis doesn’t dominate a large part of the book.

Is it only the colonel who never repented? What about other Bangladeshis? Tripathi raises questions of reconciliation and closure, only to suggest that Bangladesh, after all these years, may not have entirely healed from its past.

“It’s not just Bangladesh (which has not repented). I think it would apply even to India and Pakistan,” he said. “Do we expect (Mahinda) Rajapksa to ever repent (for the Sri Lankan war)? Do we expect this government and the prime minister (Narendra Modi) to repent for what happened in Gujarat? It doesn’t happen somehow in South Asia.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan and David Lalmalsawma. Follow Ankush on Twitter @Ankush_patrakar, Robert @bobbymacReports and David @davidlms25 | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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