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Salil Tripathi’s book on Bangladesh war explores contours of nation’s nationalism, legacy

Friday, 5 December 2014 – 1:17pm IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: PTI

The tragic history of Bangladesh, a heart-breaking tale of war, famine, military dictatorships and war crime tribunals is the subject of a new book penned by an award-winning journalist who has covered the 1971 Independence war against Pakistan.

Titled ‘The Colonel Who would not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy’ the book by Salil Tripathi elaborates in great detail how nation-states are rarely able to break free of their bloody origins.

Bangladesh, which was earlier part of British India as united Bengal, was partitioned on religious lines in 1905 by Lord Curzon. Though, the decision was repelled in 1911 under tremendous opposition from both Hindus and Muslims and revival of militant nationalism.

In another three decades, however, Bangladesh became part of Pakistan, a nation envisaged as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. Though, Islam did not prove to be the cementing force, many expected it to be, between the two halves of Pakistan and in 1971, Bangladesh came on its own after a bloody war with the erstwhile West Pakistan.

The contours of nationalism has changed from the collectivity of ‘South Asian Muslims’ in 1947 to the question of language, economic sovereignty and cultural identity in 1971. “If East Punjab and West Bengal could both be ‘India’, why could not West Punjab and East Bengal survive as Pakistan?” Tripathi asks provocatively in his book.

The answer, he believes, lies in India’s pragmatic approach to questions of language and cultural identities as it never juxtaposed Tamil language or Tamil identity against Hindi or pan Indian identity. Tripathi explores in great detail, the seeds of Bangla nationalism that were evident even at the time of independence in 1947.

Pakistan refused to accept Bangla as an additional national language along with Urdu, even though it was spoken by more citizens. Urdu with its Persian-Arabic roots, writes Tripathi, was favoured as it was equated with the language of Islam in South Asia. Bengali, on the other hand, with its Sanskrit roots was rejected as a Hindu language and its famous poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was made a pariah figure in Bengali consciousness.

Such was the paranoia with Bengali, recalls Tripathi, that ‘bhogoban’ (a Bengali word for god) was replaced with ‘rahman’ in poems by celebrated Bangla poet Nazrul Islam and state directives were issued not to play Tagore’s songs on radio as they were not “in line with the ideology of Pakistan”. The Pakistani army committed mass atrocities on an unprecedented scale during the 1971 war, killing nearly three million people and displacing another ten million. Pakistani troops and their collaborators were also responsible for thousands of rapes, that many believe were part of organised attempts of forced impregnation of Bengali women, to rid them off their Hindu influences and engendering true Muslims.

Amidst that brutal violence, Bangladesh was born in blood, and the wounds have continued to fester. The gruesome assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first prime minister, and most of his family in 1975, the coups and counter-coups which followed, accompanied by long years of military rule were responsible for the country’s inability to come to grips with the legacy of the liberation war and its aftermath.

When Tripathi met Farooq Rahman in 1990, the major who led the killers of Sheikh Mujibur, he found him unrepentant, lending the book its name – “The Colonel who would not Repent”.

Four decades later in 2006, international war crime tribunals were set up to bring some accountability and closure to that blood-soaked history. How Bangladesh deals with its past, Tripathi believes, is also central to how post-war generations of Bangla citizens will see themselves and their nation-state. “What role shall military play, what is the role of religion in state, what forms the cornerstone of Bangla nationalism – religion or language?” All these are dilemmas of modern Bangladesh, which has swung like a pendulum between secularism under Sheikh Mujibur to accepting Islam as state religion under Ziaur Rahman, to accepting secularism once again but also maintaining Islam’s special status as state religion under Sheikh Hasina, howsoever contradictory it may sound, says Tripathi.

Bangla Muslims, he says, is at the same time inheritor of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim civilisations and only a new secular identity, which is “neither overwhelmingly Muslim nor only Bengali,” is the way forward for the country. A secular identity, writes Tripathi, is also the only solution for integrating the many ethnic, cultural and religious minorties of the country.

The way Bangladesh deals with its blood-stained past and its identity questions, will decide what shape its nationalism takes and will be key to the stability of one of the most populous Muslim nation in the 21st century.


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