The Guardian view on the Bangladesh history debate: distorted by politics Editorial

Bangladesh’s politicians still can’t agree on the war that won the country’s independence
Bangladesh’s first prime minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who took power after the 1971 war. 

Mature countries should be ready to interrogate their own history, and accept there are diverse interpretations of how they came to be. This is particularly the case where one nation has broken away from another. Time passes, a cooler understanding of events prevails, and the propaganda and exaggeration taken for fact in the heat of conflict can be discarded. Historycannot be changed but it can be reassessed.

That is why it is dispiriting that Bangladesh, which won its independence from Pakistan 45 years ago, is considering a draft law called the liberation war denial crimes bill. Were this to be passed, it would be an offence to offer “inaccurate” versions of what happened in the war. It seems the intention would be, in particular, to prevent any questioning of the official toll of 3 million killed by the Pakistani army and its local allies during the conflict. Many think that figure is much too high. Although there is agreement that the Pakistani army liquidated key groups and committed numerous war crimes, much work remains to be done. So it would seem muddle headed, to say the least, to bring in a law that might prevent such work.

But the truth is that the real argument is not academic but political. Two broad tendencies emerged out of the 1971 war. One saw it as a completely justified rebellion against oppression, the other as a tragic and regrettable separation. One emphasised ethnic, Bengali identity, one Islamic identity. This faultline goes back a long way in East Bengal history, and has usually been manageable when politicians leave it alone, but this is precisely what they have not done.

On the one hand, the ruling Awami League, the party that led the drive for independence, wants to assume total ownership of the war, in this way denying legitimacy to other political forces and in particular to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist and Jamaat-e-Islami parties, painting them as pro-Pakistan. (That was certainly true of the Jamaat-e-Islami.) On the other hand, those parties cheered when Islam was declared the state religion, a decision that a court has just upheld.

In recent years, war crimes trials have deepened the divide between the two.Meanwhile, extremists have murdered secular bloggers and members of the Hindu and Christian minorities, although such violence is still on a small scale compared with Pakistan. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that neither of the main parties has been vigorous in its opposition to such acts. In this situation, Bangladesh needs to conduct its politics in a far less polarised way, and in the process to take an honest look at its history rather than to try to squeeze it into a political framework of whatever kind.

Source: The Guardian


  1. The ruling Awami League might think it fought the independence war. However, the fact of the matter is that during the 9-months of the Liberation War the Awami League played a very insignificant role from its base-in-exile. Soldiers & officers of Bangladeshi origin formed the various units & sectors of the Liberation Army. They trained young students & village men to fight a guerilla warfare. Indian forces played the vital role though the entire population took part in the war in their own area & level while the Awami leadership spent time away in the safety of Kolkatta (then Calcutta). Doing what, one might ask! Politicians are an honest lot – ask any for an honest answer!


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