GIVEN that we have very few history research books of quality on 1971 and no one wanting to insult history, the proposed law on protecting history is a bit of a puzzle. However, if one knows about the politics involved in the issue, it becomes simpler to understand. The Awami League is trying to protect its political status while it mounts an aggressive campaign against its arch-foe BNP and Jamaat. The law is not about protecting the history of 1971 but protecting the politics that has grown up around the topic. This is sad because 1971 is literally our mother year and its history belongs to people not political parties. The liberation war is over, but its history awaits liberation, it seems.
NOT much organised research work and data collection have been done on the topic from 1972 onwards through official patronage. Efforts have been made but many do not seem to survive political transitions. The nature of the relationship between a government and historical research is always uneasy. And now that party politics has become so intensely involved in every intellectual effort, expecting such efforts to work out is simply not possible.
Three major official efforts on history
THE first effort was mounted by the Bangla Academy in the Mujib era but the academic rigour of the data and information collection process was weak. The then director general, Dr Mazharul Islam, got into a major controversy over the biography he was writing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and that led to loss of credibility. The August transition put an end to the effort.
However, in 1977, the Zia government sponsored a History of Bangladesh project under Hasan Hafizur Rahman under the ministry of information which yielded 15 volumes of documents, which remain a major platform of research till today. One of the reasons this project worked out was because it was stewarded by some of the most eminent historians of the country, not bureaucrats and party loyalists. The objective of the project was academic and not political and this was a major difference. Interestingly, while the government was a BNP-led one, great freedom was enjoyed in the running of the project due to the status of Hasan Hafizur Rahman and the eminent status of the academicians involved. It meant the members of the authentication committee that was responsible for ensuring the quality of the work were not partisans of the government in power. They were not trying to please the government but were loyal to their own integrity. It is also obvious that the academic and research environment was much less toxic than it is now in general.
As nobody was trying to write a narrative history of 1971 but focus only on the collection of documents which was value-neutral, it was an added point in ensuring non-interference.
The third official attempt was initiated by the Bangla Academy under Dr Syed Anwar Hossain, an eminent historian and the then director general of the Bangla Academy; but before it could end, the regime changed and the project was aborted as well.
The politics of history
BUT, of course, the situation changed as politics changed. From the 1970s under the Mujib era, up to BKSAL formation, when any subject on the history of 1971 could be discussed without pressure or fear to the changes after August 1975, when Zia emerged as a contestant and claimant to the status as close or possibly equal to Sheikh Mujib, many changes have occurred. History is no longer about learning about the birth of an independent country but using history for leveraging political gains to clout the other party. History itself has become a prisoner of partisan politics.
The decision to enact such a law came after BNP leader Khaleda declared that the number of shaheeds was less than three million in a speech in 2016. This was followed by Tarique Zia, who said that Zia himself was an interim ‘father of the nation’ of sorts. This sent angry tremors in the AL world and the end result was the proposal and soon to follow the passing of the law.
Does this in anyway interfere with the pursuit of knowledge about 1971?
This is the great grey areas which concern historians. The matter of knowledge about the birth of Bangladesh has now passed on for interpretations by people who are not historians. When laws are passed to protect history, the biggest problem is that the ball always resides in the court of the non-historians. Just as historians are no judge of law, similarly judges or amlas should not do what is not theirs to do.
But what or who really is insulting the history of 1971? As many have written on this issue, disagreeing with the official narrative can be construed to mean insult even on academic issues. And with law being very wide open and using courts as a tool of harassment now established, many scholars will now start refraining from doing any research at all just for personal safety’s sake. It is the last thing we need.
But the reality is here and that is how the future looks like for all. The BNP will find another new cross to bear and may stop discussing any history of 1971 just to remain outside jails. Since the BNP began the ball rolling to use history for politics, it will have to be extra cautious. AL leaders will have the freedom to go after the BNP and this party may slide further. Independent scholars also face a greater threat and partisan intellectuals will spend time longer praising the government.
But the matter of recovering, preserving and distribution of the 1971 history shows that it has been shifting the formal and official world to that of the people’s space. Whether one calls it an alternative space for historical understanding or not, public interest will remain. Over 100 books are written on the topic every year and more will be written. These are all of varying quality but like always the initiative will remain. The government could have chosen to promote the history of 1971 collecting information and data but has decided that history is for politics just as the BNP does. It will not serve Bangladesh but coming or staying in power in Bangladesh.
Through this law, the gap between people and the government will increase further. However, people will always find ways to serve their conscience as best as they can and that includes an authentic history of their own birth, written by themselves for their own consumption. As it continues to happen even now.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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