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War crime tribunals and mishti doi: Can Bangladesh move on from 1971?

"Every time Bangladesh faces Pakistan in a cricket match, it’s 1971 all over again," journalist Khademul Islam told an audience at the Hay literary festival in Dhaka last weekend. The topic of discussion was cricket and writing but in Bangladesh all roads lead back to 1971 and the bloody birth of the nation. 1971 is not history here. It is unfinished business.

I have never encountered another country that has such an intensely felt relationship with its own history. I travelled to Cambodia recently where the Killing Fields and the S-21 torture chambers have become more about death tourism than remembrance. More foreigners go there than locals these days. The Killing Fields are run by a for-profit Japanese company. “Some say we have sold the Killing Fields,” a Cambodian tour guide remarked.

In India, I personally am not aware of any memorials to the Partition. I don’t know of any museums devoted to the Independence Movement. Kuldip Nayar told an audience in Dhaka that he thought 1947 was a mistake. He held Partition responsible for the rise in religious fundamentalism across the subcontinent. But Nayar is an old man now and his regret over Partition feels like the autumnal nostalgia of a passing generation. While history is not uncontested in India, the birth of the modern nation of India is but one chapter in a larger history and by and large, a closed chapter.

Kangaroo courts and dessert knives

Bangladesh has no such luxury. The chapter of its birth is its history and it is still playing out. Forty years after 1971, the war crimes tribunal is finally trying some of the collaborators accused of murder, rape, genocide and arson. One is a former head of Jamaat-e-Islami. His incensed supporters declared a hartal in the city of Khulna last week. The trials are not without controversy.  Its supporters say finally there is hope for some closure, and setting the record straight instead of manipulating textbooks depending on which party is in power. Others have criticised them because Pakistani army officers are not in the dock even though they claim to be “international” tribunals. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern about process and the rules of evidence.

Writer K Anis Ahmed admitted that there have been some process problems. "But these are not kangaroo courts by any means," he said emphatically. The defense is offering its own evidence and calling up its own witnesses. As for the international criticism, Ahmed shrugged. "In this context Bangladeshis are not very interested in criticism from America or American based organisations because not only was America not by our side when we were going through this horrific history, but America effectively gave support to those who were doing the killing."

The liberation war museum is in a lovely old white two-storeyed house in Dhaka. Sandip Roy/ Firstpost

Ahmed has  just brought out his first anthology of short stories. The title story is Good Night Mr. Kissinger. In it, a Bangladeshi waiter at a posh restaurant  in New York finds himself serving Henry Kissinger and fantasises about taking a dessert knife to him to make him pay for his sins of 1971.

Ahmed points out that only two of his nine stories actually deal with 1971. But even when literature about Bangladesh is not about its history, it cannot escape it.

Bittersweet mishti doi

“The war of independence crept into the story of this novel,” said Philip Hensher, the British writer about his latest book Scenes from early life, a child’s eye view of Dhaka. It’s based on the recollections of Hensher’s Bangladeshi partner who was born in 1970. Hensher remembered him telling him about aunts who would constantly feed him dollops of mishti doi (sweet yoghurt). "They would do it so that he would not cry and draw attention of the Pakistani soldiers to a house with young women in it," he said.

In Bangladesh, nothing feels unspared by its history, not mishti doi or cricket.  Khademul Islam remembered going to cricket matches soon after liberation  where the teams battled it out while the smoke from burning tanks rose into the horizon. The hotel I stayed in looks like any other fancy hotel with welcome drinks and a breakfast buffet. But this was where Bhutto stayed while negotiating with Sheikh Mujib. Foreign journalists were forced out of the country from these rooms and one evaded the army and hid on its premises to report on the war.

Sacrifice of rice

Bangladesh’s history looms large not just because it’s so recent or because it’s still unresolved and therefore needs to be repeated over and over again. It’s also because it was about a desperate fight to save a language and protect a culture. At the liberation war museum in Dhaka there is an old clipping from the Pakistan Observer dated June 24 1967. It announces that Tagore songs that are deemed “against Pakistan’s cultural values” will not be broadcast anymore. The tone of the report is matter-of-fact. But the headline gives away the shock with a punctuation gasp – Broadcast ban on Tagore!

That intense cultural identification has made the full context of Bangladesh’s genocide a little harder to grasp for outsiders. Journalist Anisul Hoque talked about his book Ma – based on the true story of a woman whose imprisoned son asked her for some rice but when she came back to the prison with a dabba of cooked rice she found he was already dead. The woman gave up rice for the rest of her life. The book, a bestseller in Bangla, has recently been translated into English. Hoque is pleased but he is not sure that readers outside Bengal can ever fully grasp the full poignancy of that sacrifice. "Here we don’t say have you had lunch," he said. "We say have you taken rice."

A museum of ones own

In that sense Bangladesh’s history remains intensely personal even though it comes with epic figures of death and displacement.  That comes through at times in ping pong acts of pettiness. The grand mausoleum of Ziaur Rahman in Dhaka is in darkness at night when I visit it. Throngs of people out to enjoy the fresh air were finding their way around by the light of their mobile phones. Asked when the lights will come back on, an ice cream vendor chuckled and said, “When (his widow) Begum Khaleda Zia comes back to power.”

But there is a nobler side to this personal connection to history. The liberation war museum is in a lovely old white two-storeyed house in Dhaka that reminds me of the kind of house my grandmother stayed in – red floors, cool rooms shaded against the sun, black and white family photographs on the wall. Except here the photographs are of refugee camps and murdered journalists. Instead of family curios the display cabinets have old bandages, the spectacles of dead soldiers, bullets fired from a machine gun in Sylhet. It’s a  private museum, not an official government one. Little notes tell us who donated what bit. A picture of a training camp in Khulna was donated by Mrs Huda. The machine gun bullets were given by Golam Mustafa.

There are plans to build a larger museum soon – one that can do more justice to the country’s history. There is a model of it at the entrance to this one. It looks grand, more like a real museum than this house with its sun-dappled courtyard. But I hope as museums and tribunals allow Bangladesh to finally become a little more dispassionate about its history and look forward instead of back, it won’t completely lose the intimacy of this house-turned-museum. Painful as it can be, there is also something incredibly precious about feeling the warm breath of your history upon yourself.