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BW Businessworld

Recalling A Bloody Era

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Wars invariably bring with them death and destruction. At times, the collateral damage can be measured but at most others, the gory details are either brushed under the carpet or blown out of proportion. The 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh is one such.

Sarmila Bose's Dead Reckoning is a ground-breaking study on certain episodes of the 1971 war that the outside world never knew. The book's narrative is dispassionate, systematic and evidence-based. To collect data for the book, Bose visited the war sites, interviewed survivors, eye-witnesses and participants, sifted through published and unpublished eye-witness accounts and memoirs in English and Bengali, and studied photos, films and foreign media reports of the time to build a perspective rooted in truth and justice.

The book begins with the national elections of Pakistan in December 1970 that saw the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman following the Awami League's resounding victory in East Pakistan. The author says that Rahman tried to become the President of Pakistan. But when General Yahya Khan postponed the meeting of the national assembly on 1 March 1971, cadres of the Awami League went on a rampage, pledging to fight for the freedom of Bangladesh.
That was the dawn of the Bengladesh nationalist uprising. While the Awami League dubbed the uprising as "non-co-operation movement", the rebellion did not feature any hallmark of the Gandhian movement. During the 25-day period, the army establishment of Pakistan had abdicated its responsibility of maintaining peace in East Pakistan. The book refers to the firing incident at Joydevpur on 19 March 1971, as the flash point of the civil war. The Pakistani Army allegedly opened fire at a crowd at the Joydevpur railway crossing, 20 miles off Dhaka.

The Awami League dubbed the incident as an attack on ‘unarmed' Bengalis and called for an intensified rebellion amid rumours of the Pakistani Army disarming Bengali officers. The Joydevpur incident is the first instance where the author plays a neutral observer, rebuilds the events leading up to the firing and then comments on the toll it may have taken.
A word of caution: the book details quite a few violent incidents. Some of them include the Pakistani Army operation in Dhaka University, the attack on Hindus in Shankharipara in Old Dhaka, the Chuknagar massacre, the massacre of non-Bengalis (Biharis) by Bengalis in jute mills and in a small town called Santahar and the rebellion at Mymensingh Cantonment.
The author tackles these cases with clinching evidences to arrive at a logical conclusion. In a way, this book is a fitting homage to the tens of thousands of victims.

The book provides invaluable information for lovers of history, and succeeds to some extent in weeding out the suspicion surrounding crucial incidents. It questions the exaggerated claim made by Rahman that three million Bengalis died in the liberation war.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 10-10-2011)