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Rediff.com  » News » An interview with Sarmila Bose, author of the book on the 1971 Bangladesh War, Dead Reckoning

An interview with Sarmila Bose, author of the book on the 1971 Bangladesh War, Dead Reckoning

Last updated on: August 1, 2011 19:40 IST

'Bengalis committed atrocities during the 1971 war'

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Sarmila Bose's book on the 1971 Bangladesh War -- Dead Reckoning -- has triggered a heated debate about the myths and realities of the conflict that had engulfed East Pakistan, West Pakistan and India.

Bose, a former political journalist, is currently a senior research fellow at Oxford.

Dead Reckoning questions many of the facts and figures that have been held sacrosanct in both Bangladesh and India, including the number of people killed by the Pakistan army during the 'genocide'.

Her assertion that Bengalis were equally involved in the bloodshed, against non-Bengali Bangladeshis and supporters of Pakistan, has infuriated many historians and academicians.

In an e-mail interview with Rediff.com's Sanchari Bhattacharya, Bose discusses how she chronicled one of the most violent periods in South Asian history and the extreme critical reactions her book has received.

What prompted you to write a book questioning the accepted truths about the Bangladesh War?

I didn't start out with the intention of writing a book questioning the accepted truths about the 1971 war. It was quite the opposite: I started out with the intention of finding detailed information about particular incidents during that conflict which I expected would help document and reinforce the accepted truths, as you put it.

It was only after I started the work that I found that the stories on the ground were much more complicated and differed in important ways from the story which we had grown up believing.


Image: Sarmila Bose's book, Dead Reckoning. Inset: The author

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'Indian participants of the war should speak up'

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During your research, were any of the people you spoke to -- elements in the Pakistani army, the Muktijoddhas (Bangladeshi freedom fighters), the Indian government or Bangladeshi witnesses -- reluctant about getting involved?

My book is not about India's involvement. However, we haven't heard the stories of the Indians who were involved in covert operations in Bangladesh that year. It would be fascinating if these participants would publish or speak about their activities -- we would all learn a lot about the realities of the war if they did.

While doing my work I did encounter reluctance from some people to speak. Some Pakistan army officers did not want to talk about the war. Some of them said they were proud to have served and had nothing to hide, but did not want to re-live the painful experience. Others who didn't want to talk appeared to have something to hide -- some of them have a controversial record.

In Bangladesh, sometimes people seemed inhibited to speak freely in front of others. Another problem in Bangladesh was the acute divisions among Bangladeshis: The pro-liberation Bangladeshis who were helping me had no relations with those who had preferred Pakistan to remain united back then, so it was very difficult to access different points of view.


Image: Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora (retd) at Dhaka's Independence War Museum
Photographs: Reuters
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'I did receive a lot of appreciation'

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While working on the book, did you expect the severe backlash it received from some reviewers and historians?

The 'backlash' you refer to is mostly political due to some vested interest or emotion. It started after the first presentation I gave based on my fieldwork at a conference at the US State Department some years ago.

I did not expect it at that time, as one expects appreciation, not abuse, for putting in a lot of hard work and doing an honest piece of work which reports what it found without fear or favour.

I did receive a lot of appreciation as well, of course, and continue to do so, including from many Bangladeshis. Of Bangladeshis, only a particular section appears to be bent on hostility. Because I saw what happened after the conference, it is not a surprise that the same people are hostile to the book.


Image: Children enact mock genocide in Dhaka to pay tribute to victims of the 1971 war
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
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'Many Bangladeshis seem to live in fear of persecution'

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Have you traveled to Bangladesh after the book was released? How has the Bangladesh government reacted to the book?

The book was only published this year and I have not had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh since its release. The Indian edition has only just been released.

I am not aware of any reaction of the Bangladesh government. However, many Bangladeshis seem to live in fear of persecution if they don't toe the official line.

Your book has been hailed in Pakistan, with several radical Web sites terming it the only 'true version' of the events of 1971. Does that particular interpretation of the book bother you?

I am not aware of any such reaction in Pakistan and don't put much credence on most Web sites or blogs, whether Bangladeshi or Pakistani or any other nationality.

Do you think the backlash from some quarters against your book is severe because you are a Bengali Hindu who is perceived as siding with Muslim non-Bengali Pakistani forces?

Some pro-liberation Bangladeshis appear to consider my work a 'betrayal', as they seemed to have expected me to be partisan in favour of their side. I am neither for nor against any of the warring parties.

Some of the 'backlash' is probably because some people had got away with saying whatever they wanted about the war for a long time for their own ends, and that has now come to an end.


Image: A rally to commemorate the Bangladesh war in Dhaka
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
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'Men from both sides of the war raped women'

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Your assertion that the number of women raped by Pakistani forces is far lesser than what is officially projected has created a furore.

This issue is not in the book. I discussed the issue of rape in a separate article some years ago, examining some of the articles or purported documentation of rape, so that the public may be more aware of how weak most of it is, how they do not support the claims that are popularly made, and how much more work is needed to establish its true nature and extent.

On the basis of available works by other people, two things emerged: One was indeed that the number of rapes claimed in various commentaries appear to be unsupported with credible evidence (the same problem as the claims of the number of dead in the war), but the other, even more important reality was that men of all communities, Bengali and non-Bengali, civilian and military, seemed to have raped women of all communities, including their own.

So this is not an issue of only Pakistan army personnel raping women -- which some of them undoubtedly did -- but a situation of all men, Bengali and non-Bengali, and from both sides of the war, raping women.

I think those who are truly interested in justice, as I am, would focus on the true victims and not feel the need to exaggerate numbers, and would also condemn all perpetrators of this heinous crime, whichever side of the war they were on and whether military or local civilians.

It is deplorable how some people who don't care about the true victims have been using the rape issue to score political points.


Image: Visitors pray at the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial at Rayerbazar, Dhaka
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
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'I needed to be careful not to be biased'

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Critics have also alleged that while you have chosen to believe the version of various events from Pakistan army officers, who were the alleged persecutors, you are inherently distrustful of the narrations by Muktijoddhas and Bangladeshi witnesses of the war, the alleged victims.

This allegation is baseless and a misrepresentation of my book. There are credible witnesses from both sides, including many moving testimonies from Bangladeshis whose stories I recount in my book.

There are also dubious ones on both sides. There are all sorts of people with different characteristics, on all sides. I am neither for nor against any particular side. I listened to everyone and have presented the material in an even-handed way.

If anything, I needed to be careful not to be biased in favour of the pro-liberation Bengalis due to my personal background. People need to read the stories for themselves and not be swayed by misrepresentations.


Image: Indian soldiers on Vijay Diwas, December 16, to mark the liberation of Bangladesh
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
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'Bangladeshis are very divided on 1971'

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You have claimed that some Bengalis as well as Muktijoddhas also indulged in massacres, rapes etc. What is your source for such an assertion?

One of the discoveries that really shocked me was the atrocities committed by Bengalis in the name of 'Bengali nationalism', as this had not been part of the story of 1971 that I grew up with.

My book cites the testimony of witnesses and published material about this. There are now others including Bangladeshis coming forward with more material on these crimes.

Do you think historians and academicians in Bangladesh are not ready to accept an alternate version that contradicts the well-established rhetoric about the 1971 war?

Bangladeshis, including Bangladeshi academics, are very divided on 1971. Some Bangladeshis seem unwilling to accept anything other than their own particular partisan rhetoric, but many other Bangladeshis either know the reality was different or are open-minded about learning what really happened.


Image: Bangladeshi war veterans march in Dhaka to mark the anniversary of the 1971 war
Photographs: Rafiqur Rahman/Reuters
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