Book, film greeted with fury among Bengalis
recent film and book has caused outrage among Bengalis, due to their
downplaying of atrocities committed by the Pakistani military
during East Pakistan's struggle for independence in 1971 [GALLO/GETTY]
A new book and film recently released downplaying Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh have caused outrage among Bengalis.
Two Bengali women – one from India, the other from Bangladesh –
are now embroiled in a fierce controversy across the two countries for
writing a book and producing a film that has upset Bengali nationalists
and Indian officials, but given some cause of relief to the Pakistani
Dead Reckoning, written by Indian researcher Sarmila Bose,
questions the historical narratives of the 1971 civil war that broke up
Pakistan, but Bengali nationalist groups describe her as "an apologist
for Pakistan's brutal military".
Meherjaan, directed by Bangladeshi film-maker Rubaiyat Hossain, is
about the love of a Bengali woman for a Pakistani Baloch soldier in the
backdrop of the 1971 war – but feminist groups in Bangladesh allege that the film "distorts the historical context of the liberation war".
Both the book and the film have hit the market at a time when
Bangladesh's Awami League-led government has set up special tribunals
for trying the "war criminals" of 1971.
The Awami League led Bangladesh's struggle for secession from
Pakistan after the Pakistani military regime refused to hand over power
to it even after it won a majority in Pakistan national assembly
elections in 1970.
Shamsul Arefin, a war crimes trial official, told this writer that
though Bengalis who collaborated with the Pakistan army are the ones to
be actually tried, names of Pakistani soldiers and officers are likely
to crop up with regard to massacres, mass rapes and arson during the
"That will expose the real character of the Pakistani army which is
now seen in the West as a key ally in the war against terror. So
Pakistan's intelligence is desperate to scuttle the war crimes trials in
Bangladesh," says Arefin, who served in the Pakistan army, then joined
the Bengali Mukti Fauj (Freedom Force) during the civil war and finally
served in the Bangladesh army.
"We have reasons to believe that there is a concerted campaign by
Pakistani intelligence to disrupt and dilute our War Crimes Trial. I
will not be surprised if they are commissioning projects to distort the
realities of our liberation war," Arefin told this writer.
That's a rather strong charge but Sarmila Bose promptly dismisses."I am only trying to question the existing narratives of the 1971 war
in view of data I have gathered while working for the book," Sarmila
Bose told the audience at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in US, where the
book was launched.The entire book launch programme is available on the Internet.
Bose, a Bengali herself, is a grand daughter of India's independence
war hero Subhas Chandra Bose, and is a senior research fellow at Oxford.Her brothers, Sugato and Sumantra Bose, teach history and politics at Harvard and London School of Economics.
"I am only pointing to obvious exaggerations about the number of
people killed or number of women raped by the Pakistan army. A war
narrative is always the narrative of the victors, and 1971 was no
different," Sarmila Bose said at the launch.
But some of her data is clearly suspect.Dead Reckoning suggests there were only 20,000 Pakistani
troops at the beginning of the civil war in East Pakistan, and that rose
to 34,000 towards the end of the war.
"Bangladeshi narratives claim 400,000 women were raped by Pakistani
troops during the civil war between March and December 1971, but how can
34,000 soldiers rape so many women in eight months," contends Sarmila
Indian historian Jayanta Ray, whose 1968 book Nationalism on Trial predicted the breakup of Pakistan, is furious at how an Oxford researcher like Bose could get basic facts wrong.
"Records indicate that just over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers
surrendered to the Indian army in December 1971. They were all handed
back to Pakistan. That's thrice the number Bose suggests, so is she
fudging figures deliberately to prove that the number of rapes were much
lower than suggested?" Professor Ray told this writer.
Bangladesh's anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriyar Kabir says that
Red Cross officials in 1971 testified to treating nearly 200,000 rape
victims."Many more women did not report for treatment out of shame and
embarrassment," Kabir told this writer. "They bore their indignities
A Calcutta-based Bengali channel, Mahua TV, ran a full hour
discussion on the book, bringing together Bengalis from India and
Bangladesh last Sunday.Hundreds of listeners from both sides of the border called in to join the author-bashing.The channel's executive editor, Subir Chakroborty, says Sarmila
Bose's mother, Krishna Bose, a former member of Indian parliament,
refused to join the panel."She told us her views on the liberation war were already known to
everybody, so we put up in front of our cameras her newspaper article on
the Bangladesh war. That was very sympathetic to the victims of 1971,"
Allegations of bias
While Bangladeshis and Indian Bengalis are upset with Bose for
"playing down the Pakistani atrocities", Indian officials are angry with
her contention that "India was the only aggressor in 1971"."We intervened militarily only after all possibilities of stopping
the bloodbath failed. And when our forces entered East Pakistan, the
Bengalis complained why we have been so late," says former chief of
India's eastern fleet, Vice-Admiral Bimalendu Guha.
"How can she call us an aggressor," fumes Guha. "The Bengalis actually wanted us to intervene earlier to save themselves."
Former chief-of-staff of India's eastern army, Lieutenant General J.R. Mukherjee, goes a step further, who said:
She has very good reasons to defend the honour of the Pakistan army,
which she describes as a professional and a brave force. Can I ask her
why these brave soldiers surrendered to India in such a huge number?
Even now, Pakistani troops keep surrendering to Taliban and other
militants. Can you show one Indian soldier who has ever surrendered to a
Professor Ray alleges that Bose is biased in use of sources."Her sources are primarily Pakistani. She has interviewed many
Pakistani officers, but not those who were fighting them," says
Particularly upset with Sarmila Bose are Bangladesh's vast numbers of "freedom fighters" – men from various walks of life who joined the "Mukti Fauj" to fight the Pakistanis in 1971.
"How can a Bengali, and that too from the family of one of our
greatest leader like Subhas Bose, write such a horrible account that
tries to defend Pakistan's brutal army. This is simply unacceptable,"
said Haroon Habib, a "freedom fighter" who later rose to head the
country's government-sponsored news agency, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha
(BSS).No bookseller has so far put Dead Reckoning on their shelves in Bangladesh.Even in Calcutta and other Bengali-dominated cities in India, the book is not to be seen.
"Bengalis across the border will only have hate for her," says Bimal
Pramanik, a "freedom fighter" who now lives in India and runs a centre
for research on India-Bangladesh relations. "She is untruthful and with a
purpose."Sarmila Bose denies all charges flung at her and says she has only
"tried to correct the course of contemporary history". A claim few will
endorse in Bangladesh or Indian Bengal.
Stereotypes versus truth
Rubaiyat Hossain's Meherjaan is innocuous by comparison, but it has
generated as much angst in a country which prides its Bengali heritage
and where the atrocities of the Pakistan army is still recent memory.
Bangladesh's official history says nearly three million Bengalis – Hindus, Muslims and Christians – died in the 1971 civil war, and nearly half a million women were raped.
"I liked the movie, but since I am a freedom fighter and scores of my
friends disliked the film, I decided to withdraw it from cinema halls
in Bangladesh," says Habibur Rehman Khan, the distributor of Meherjaan.That means the film will make no money, despite a a cast of stars from India, like Jaya Bachan and Victor Banerji – both Bengalis, but big in Bollywood.
Bangladeshi feminist groups say the film trivialises the atrocities
on women by the Pakistani army when it runs the story of Meher, a
Bengali girl who falls in love with a Pakistani soldier, and is then
humiliated by her family when this is discovered."I was raped several times by Pakistani soldiers, and I cannot stand
this soft corner for Pakistanis in the film," said sculptor Ferdous
Rubaiyat Hossain is candid about her woes."I tried to break out of the stereotype of the Bengali hero versus
Pakistani brute in the backdrop of the 1971 war, and that is what my
countrymen are so upset with," she said.
"What she thinks is stereotype is actually the truth. The Pakistanis
killed us like flies and raped our women like beasts. They even
massacred our intellectuals just before they surrendered," said Awami
League's minister Jehangir Kabir Nanak.Unlike Japan or Germany apologising for their military excesses
during the Second World War, Pakistan has not apologised for the
atrocities of its army in 1971.
Many liberal Pakistanis, including cricket hero Imran Khan, want Islamabad to do so and bury the bad blood of 1971.But the Pakistan army top brass refuses to oblige.Until that happens, neither Dead Reckoning nor Meherjaan will find admirers in Bangladesh – or in Indian Bengal.