She Does Not Know Best

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Sarmila Bose’s irrational biases and hubris spoil all her research into the 1971 Bangladesh war, says Urvashi Butalia

IN HER BOOK, Sarmila Bose explains how she arrived at its title. Dead reckoning, she says, was a term used by war-time pilots to describe how by going in a direction for a certain time in a certain way, one could arrive at the destination. She likens this to her own journey in exploring the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh — being rigorous in research, using evidence and corroboration, attempting to chart a straight and true path.

Political costs General Abdul Siddiqui bayonets a collaborator of the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war
Political costs General Abdul Siddiqui bayonets a collaborator of the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war
Photo: Corbis

There’s little doubt that Bose has done considerable research and that her interviews include people from all sides — the Bangladeshi fighters, those for unity and those for independence, Pakistani army personnel, families of those dead, Bihari and other Hindus and more. This wealth of material had the makings of a nuanced and empathetic account. But here’s where the book disappoints.

Whether dealing with the March 1971 military action or the Dhaka University attack or Operation Searchlight, Bose poses the fundamental query of how come the Bengalis say one thing (and sometimes more than one thing, and often these are conflicting), the Pakistanis another (and there are conflicts here too) and the Indians (when she has managed to talk to them) a third. Where does the truth really lie?

Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh WarSarmila Bose Hachette India
Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War Sarmila Bose Hachette India
250 pp; Rs 495

As questions go, this isn’t unusual (the author surprisingly seems to think it is) — virtually all studies of war and conflict question how different versions of the ‘truth’ come to be, how, at such times, people’s memories of the same incident differ, often in radical ways, and also how situations are never what they seem, nor is the promise of a ‘clean’ nationalism ever fulfilled. What is unusual are the conclusions Bose seems to reach from many of these inquiries.

For her, Bangladeshi nationalism was a flawed nationalism — look at the state of the nation today — and in the end it was, tragically, his own people who killed Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But she fails to ask the obvious question: how does that exonerate Pakistani aggression? She speaks to Pakistani officers who say they were restrained, often surprised by the hostility to them, that they did not commit genocide, their armies did not rape — or at least not in as large numbers as has been claimed — and she unproblematically believes them on the strength of what they say, an all-too obvious bias that gives the lie to the claim of non partisanship.

For me, some of her arguments intrigue but they do not hold: all nationalisms are flawed, attacking armies often make themselves out to be innocent, but even Bose’s focus on restraint and smaller numbers than has so far been believed cannot take away from, say, the systematic killings at Dhaka University, or the evidence of rape provided by women. Arithmetic is not everything, and whether or not 1971 was a liberation struggle or a civil war depends on the perspective from which you look at that history. Bose’s bias here is painfully evident in the language she deploys — Bangladeshi accounts are labelled “claims”, Pakistani officers’ accounts are straightforward accounts (see pp 142-45).

There’s also an odd kind of hubris. All scholars who think they are bringing something new to a certain history express dissatisfaction with what has gone before. But I’ve known very few — perhaps none — who claim their work is not only unique, as Bose does, because it addresses ignored aspects, but that it’ll remain so for all time to come. No doubt there will be other studies that will add to the knowledge, but hers, she says, will stand apart. “Two vital elements that breathe life into this book will be missing” she writes. “The people who lived out the conflict at the ground level will have passed away, and future authors will not have the inexpressible connection that I have with 1971.” Bose’s book may be many things, but unique and non-partisan it is not. The pity is that it could so well have been.

urvashi.butalia@gmail.com


Opening His Palms

Rasheed Kidwai’s breezy book is more anecdote and less analysis of the Congress party, finds Ashok Malik

Rasheed Kidwai
Rasheed Kidwai
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

WRITTEN BY A sympathetic chronicler, 24 Akbar Road is a breezy account of the Congress in the years of Indira Gandhi and her successors. It documents the rise (or fall) of the Congress from an organisation that carried the legacy of the national movement to an election and patronage machine.

There is much one can disagree with. Kidwai’s treatment of the Indira Gandhi period, which had its achievements but also injected a toxic mix into the Congress system, is debatable. His mention of “Indira’s economic acumen” — though he cites an example of the dexterity with which she ran the prime minister’s kitchen, the wider implications are clear — is astonishing.

So is the author’s belief that the nationalisation of 14 banks in 1969 meant: “The large funds that they had used to acquire private profit and privileges were now open to public good — to finance the rural sector of the economy and to lend money to farmers to buy tractors, and to taxi drivers to buy cabs.” Has India’s experience with bank nationalisation been such an unmixed blessing? Did the loan melas Indira instituted, the equivalent of sub-prime loans to friendly businessmen, and the packing of banks with political cronies not merit mention?

24 Akbar Road
24 Akbar Road
Rasheed Kidwai Hachette India
350 pp; Rs 495

The book’s strength is its anecdotes that offer insight into Congress decision-making. For example, “Buta [Singh] used his friendship with Jagjit Singh of the Tourist Taxi Service at Janpath to avail of his fleet of yellow and black cabs. At times, both Indira and Sanjay counted on Buta’s bonhomie with Jagjit to avail of transport. Jagjit turned down Buta’s offer to pay for his cabs. When Indira returned to power, she remembered Jagjit’s selfless service and granted him a ticket from an Assembly segment near Chandigarh.”

Kidwai is at his best while describing the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi, where his expertise comes through. He adds to our knowledge of the Sonia-PV Narasimha Rao relationship. Despite the estrangement, he says, Sonia used Rao as a sounding board in the 1999-2004 period, with Pranab Mukherjee playing go-between. The description of the Sonia-Rajiv romance, even if going over old ground, is moving. In a polity of cold-blooded ruthlessness, this was (and remains) an old-fashioned love story.

Unfortunately, such elevated emotions and Congress politics rarely go together. There are tales Kidwai recounts with a near deadpan style that leave the reader laughing: “[Arjun Singh’s] spiritual guru, Mauni Baba, … had taken a vow of silence… as Union Communications Minister, Singh had given the guru two telephone connections. The act prompted a Hindi daily to run the headline, ‘Jab Baba bolte nahin, to do telephone kyun?”

The book has some minor errors. K Sundarji was not army chief when Operation Blue Star happened and Romesh Bhandari was not foreign secretary when Sanjay Gandhi died. Nevertheless, Kidwai’s chapters are well worth dipping into.

malikashok@gmail.com

 

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