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‘It’s not just the colonel who would not repent, but just about everyone else’

  • Published at 12:15 pm December 16th, 2014
‘It’s not just the colonel who would not repent, but just about everyone else’

What a great read the book is. After many years there is a book which tries to tell the political intrigue-driven story of Bangladesh with the aim of entertaining the reader and not just inform, and succeeds at that.

For any lay reader this is very welcome and I hope that most people, who want to learn about the country’s political past but are too lazy to make a serious effort, will have just the book. This is a great opportunity which will not tire the eye or the head. Salil Tripathi has done a splendid job of reducing history into a long and comfortable ride that can be taken anytime, anywhere.

He has also taken the longer road and that is what is so important. This has of course some disadvantages of making fairly sweeping statements that sometimes border on being inaccurate. But of course, he is telling a story as smoothly as possible that is not too concerned about critical nuances (which can alter the chain of events) particularly relating to the rise of nationalism, but one can’t fault his style.

He is, in all probability, the first person who is telling this tale to an international audience without a cause in hand. So, to most readers this is a great opportunity to learn about a distant land nobody really wants to know much about.

It’s a land put together with a bagful of dreadful headlines and confusing predictions about its foggy future. Many call it the next miracle and many think it’s the next disaster but Bangladesh has survived all dire prognoses. But its success is in the world of poverty reduction and lowering child deaths and micro-credit and these kinds of boring topics.

Salil has not bothered about these success stories and has focused on its political history, the cause of so much misery and bloodshed, and tried to tell a tale like a journalist about a nation that, after fighting a bloody war, keeps failing to form or reach its potential. That one is carried away by the simple, lucid craft of an entertainer of such a morbid tale is what makes the book so significant.

The “colonel” of the title is Col Farook, hanged for killing Sk Mujib in August 1975. The killings changed the track of history, though one is never sure how much, but it does signify the brutality birthed by history gone wrong, spent hunting at night in the wrong and deadly alley.

But the anecdote of meeting the colonel who would not repent doesn’t make that cluster of assassinations the centrepiece, but an excuse to delve into a longer, wider, colourful tale including the hues of blood; a tale starting from where he thinks the journey began for Bangladesh.

 

Salil begins with the rise of socialised Islam under the patronage of the Mughals who saw the opportunity of making huge wealth by marketing Islam to a people who had handled various faith and cultures as an aid or challenge to their livelihood based world view.

But Bengal in general, and East Bengal in particular, is a perpetual port of arrival, and even Hinduism of the kind we have now, arrived as late as the 10th century under the Senas who were originally from Karnataka and not from North India, the usual carrier of Aryan culture. Even before that, Buddhism’s orthodoxy never established here but for Vajrayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of magic and incantations and demons under the Palas, which initiated Bengal’s formal dynastic rule.

Basically, deltaic Bengal is too far away from India’s Aryan belly to have been interested in its pure versions, and later Arabian Peninsular culture didn’t fare better. Islamisation at the village level happened over time through the spread of agriculture and not dogma. These transitional Muslims called God “Niranjan,” not Allah or Khuda which came later. People of East Bengal have every mix and it’s not just the Hindu variety. Animism and Buddhism have mixed well.

What goes in the name of Sufi Islam is actually a Turko-Afghan description of syncretist tendencies practiced by the Turko-Afghans, particularly under the Independent Sultanates of Bengal. Pirs are not just saints but an updated version of ancient behaviours pre-dating Islam’s arrival.

But once Islam was established, it also led to the formation of communities led by low inter-communal marriages. It was fundamentally a faith culture of the lower class, many drawn from the namasudras, particularly the Hindu fisherfolk. Islam’s big surge began in the Noahkhali-Barisal belt where the poorest and the lowest lived.

This community’s second transformation began with the Permanent Settlement of 1793 that established the British variation of agro-capitalism, the zamindari system under which most East Bengali Muslims were peasants and most Hindu Bengalis were zamindars, direct beneficiaries of British rule from the early days of colonial trade. If British rule was great for the Hindu middle class like Ram Mohon Roy and the Tagore family (they were part of the collaborating class that made British rule successful in Bengal) the peasants suffered immensely.

Not only did one-third of Bengal die due to the famine of 1770, Bengal’s religious mendicants also conflicted with the Brits – the Fakir and Sannyasi movement – which Akhtaruzzaman Iliyas has used for his Khowabnama novel. In 1783 the Rangpur peasants revolted before the Settlement, but the largest resistance came after it through the Faraizi/Wahabi movement. It was the largest rural revolt driven by extreme deprivation but also powered by the Wahabis who led the movement and dreamt of an ideal “Islamic world” learnt from their Hajj visits.

The history of resistance from the micro level is drawn from here and barring 1857, which was led by the monarch of India Bahadur Shah Zafar and his aristocratic allies, this was the largest anti-British uprising in the entire Indian history under the Brits. Why it escapes the notice of Salil as well as the Liberation War Museum is an interesting space for speculation.

 

I once interviewed India’s security adviser, the late JN Dixit, for my BBC series on 1971 and as we were parting he said: “The problem with you Bangladeshis is that you can’t decide whether to be a Bengali or a Muslim.” It was 2001. I was recently told the same by a US scholar who is fond of Bangladesh. The category of Bengali-Muslim informed both by Tagore and Titu Mir simply eludes many outsider minds. Perhaps such notions are influenced by the India-Pakistan centric view of any South Asian nationalism.

The British didn’t create this communal divide through the Partition of Bengal as Salil and others infer, ,but the Bengali Hindus and Muslims were already distinct social categories by the 1897 census and 1905 only described the reality as did the Bengali-Hindu conflict over the tenuous birth of East Bengal/Bangladesh. The annulment of 1911 sealed the envelope on any chance of mutual accord between the two communities.

A kind of ideal “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai” scenario is imagined to have existed but sadly there is no evidence of this. Nehru’s One Nation Theory was false, as Pakistan proved, and Jinnah’s two-nation theory was false, too, as Bangladesh proved. By 1947 Bengali Muslims were not just evolving, but many of its leaders had sought a state which Jinnah politically supported and Nehru politically opposed. Most probably, Pakistan in 1947 was largely an interruption in the journey to Bangladesh.

 

Perhaps Salil then could have avoided the assertion that the birth of Bengali nationalism could be attributed to the statement of Congress leader Dhirendranath Dutta in the Pakistan parliament in 1947 when he contested the one state language issue in the Pakistan state. Dutta is one of the great souls of the nationalist movement, but it was not kicked off by his speech as it existed as an issue even before Pakistan did.

It was the cause of the Bengal provincial Muslim League, and in March 1948 an organisation called Tamaddun Majlish (ironically named in Urdu) took it to the public space by calling Dhaka’s first hartal. Most leaders like Bhashani, Mujib, et al were not in the parliament in 1947, but by 1949, the Awami Muslim League was formed and they carried on the stream of identity-based politics which was already gushing.

 

Having gone past this stage in his book, Salil is on stronger soil. He describes the story of the earlier stages in the most readable manner possible, exploring how political ambitions turned starkly towards the ultimate political conflict. In telling this story he gathers a lot of interesting leaves, including how the cultural contest between West Pakistan and East Pakistan grew louder by the day. Tagore was always a factor, and Mahfuz Anam of The Daily Star explains how cultural identities were defining the political space. It’s tough to say where culture ended and politics began.

The events after the elections of 1970 are dealt with well, though for a Bangladeshi they make dismal reading. Everything between the elections seems to have been heading towards a crackdown.

Salil has dealt in detail on the Prof Nurullah documentary which is graphic evidence of the killings and was lost for a while. Salil talks about finding the clip, making it an intriguing tale of investigative journalism.

He quotes the late Kali Ranjan Sheel extensively, the man who survived the killing episode to tell the tale. People from Jagannath Hall, some students, and workers were made to bury the dead and then shot. It’s difficult to understand the minds of such people who are ready to kill the innocent because of their religious identity and how that is justified in the name of the state. They were Hindus and that was enough to justify their killing.

We talked to the relatives of some of these people, a couple of survivors as well in 2001, but the documentary was never broadcast by Ekushey TV. However, the hope is that the raw footage is not lost and can be recovered as part of the national heritage.

 

In describing the horrors of 1971, he has however been freed from the responsibility of checking out the stories because that is not his task, he is only retelling what has been told to him. These are stomach churning stuff, but Salil doesn’t resort to sensational descriptions to his great credit. Instead he talks with a sense of outrage but calmly discusses the events.

I think his attitude and style is best seen in the Chuknagar episode when Salil says that it doesn’t matter what the number of dead was but that many were killed in a horrific manner and those killed were innocent, ordinary people. It provides a sense of somberness that number crunching would have never been able to convey.

The writer has written on the Indian campaign with ease and purpose, making the war stories interesting simply by retelling stories rather than ticking off a facts list. Yet he doesn’t hesitate to put matters in a context when needed. His summing up of the Indian campaign in 1971 is succinct.

Referring to a picture of a war horror which resembled a painting of Zainul Abedin the author says: “If the war had a moral purpose, it was this – to end the inhumanity these photographs showed ... the interventions certainly suited India’s strategic interest, the fact remains that in the annals of humanitarian concerns, few were as swift, successful, purpose-driven, and with humanitarian goals as the Indian intervention to liberate Bangladesh. India went in when it was attacked and left before its troops became unpopular.”

Maybe the last words were a little too broad, because Bangladeshis have never been fond of India too much. To India it was breaking up of Pakistan, but to many Bangladeshis, everyone else was an outsider and the memory of the upper class Kolkata Hindu dominating East Bengalis, the peasant’s child, has never fully faded, and is often transmitted through generations.

Unlike the Mujibnagar stalwart PM Tajuddin who never really had a Kolkata political life, Sheikh Mujib was more aware of this part of his people’s psyche. He was seen as a hero for getting the troops out and Indians have never forgiven Bangladeshis for their “lack of gratitude.” History is unfortunately like that.

A core part of the book is about the killing of Sheikh Mujib and the title is borrowed from the unrepentant Col Farooq who was hanged by Sheikh Hasina’s government. It was not just revenge but also a restoration of sorts of a system where crimes are indeed punished, indeed if only once in a while.

While the interview and even the days around the hanging are told quite dramatically and will sustain any reader’s interest, the most interesting part is on the days of coup as one regime fell after another. It begins with the attempt to overthrow the Mushtaque regime led by three “rogue” officers.

Salil writes that Khaled Mosharraf asked Zia: “If the country is to be run by martial law, why wasn’t he [Zia] running the country. Zia remained non-committal.” That puts an excellent contextual background

On November 2, Khaled Musharraf arrested Zia as senior officers felt he had not taken any steps to either arrest the killers or restore the chain of command. Three officers mounted a coup to remove Mushtaque and restore the AL government. But the “execution was clumsy.” The Farooq-Rasheed group negotiated an escape by plane.

But to the crowds, Mushtaque was considered anti-Indian so Musharraf and his group who were against him was considered pro-Indian. The situation started to get murky. Meanwhile, inside the jail, things became tense. Soon Capt Mosleuddin arrived and used his guns to mow down the four leaders inside the jail. Salil provides several pages on this.

By that time Col Taher had joined the scene. “Taher spread the word that the new coup leaders were Indian stooges.” Khaled had underestimated Taher’s popularity and the clout of his Leftist followers. Suddenly it was about a new enemy – India. Rumours were rife that India was plotting and Bangladeshis at that point were very anti-Indian indeed. And then, Khaled Mosharraf and his group had been ousted and soon they were dead.

Zia was enormously popular and on the right side of the public sentiment. He assumed power and soon Taher was in jail as his anti-officer revolution collapsed. He was later hanged. Civil autocracy of one-party rule was replaced by military autocracy of martial law. Salil’s verdict is clear: “By November 1976, Bangladesh suddenly began to look like a poor imitation of Pakistan.”

It makes for depressing reading but for many it will clear many fogs about the facts. The judgments on the events are another matter.

 

Exploring the issue of the war raped is handled with great sensitivity and there is no sentimentality about such issues. He describes the pain and problems of such victims and how it scarred the national psyche. He also talks about the numbers debate and what David Bergman has tried to say and the ICT controversies. There is little that this book doesn’t cover as far as controversies go in Bangladesh. That’s what makes this book such an important read.

The heroes and villains of our history are not limited to those who come off looking bad in this book. That so many could be squeezed into a mere span of 40-plus years is a very strong indictment of the kind of people we are. It’s not just the colonel who would not repent but just about everyone else. It’s a well-written book about those who were born with a silver spoon of impunity in their mouth. Thank, Salil Tripathi for the book. 

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