Bangladesh: A Nation Divided

[First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]

“Please spare me. I am a Hindu. I am not affiliated to the BNP,” pleaded Biswajit.

It was 10 December, 2012, and Bangladesh was celebrating the Human Rights Day. However, the news that gripped the nation that day was the ruthless beating and stabbing of an innocent civilian on 9 December.

Like every other day, Biswajit Das, a twenty-four year old living in Dhaka, started early from his home for his workplace where he was employed as a tailor. The eighteen-party opposition coalition, led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), had called for an eight hour road-blockade program on 9 December. On the morning, a clash broke out between the student wings of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League and the opposition BNP. Biswajit, who had come to Dhaka from one of the remote villages in search of a decent livelihood, happened to pass by. The cadres of Chhatra League, the student wing of the Awami League, suspected him to be an opposition supporter.

Caught in the midst of political violence, Biswajit fled to the first floor of a nearby building. The cadres chased him to the buildingActivists of Hefajat-e Islam chase police officers during a clash in Narayanganj and hacked him to death, despite his plea that he was a Hindu and he didn’t have any relation to the opposition BNP, which supposedly subscribed to a pro-Islamist ideology.

A lone rickshaw puller came forward to take a severely injured Biswajit to hospital. He died of excessive bleeding.

Barely two months later, a national court set up by the Bangladesh government, in accordance with the norms of 1973 International Crimes (Tribunal) Act, pronounced its first judgment in the case of razakars (war criminals), belonging to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, which had supposedly collaborated with the Pakistani army in thwarting the Mukti Bahini (the Bengali freedom fighters) during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War that severed East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from West Pakistan.

The tribunal was first set up right after the birth of Bangladesh. After Sheikh Mujeeb’s assassination in 1975 and the subsequent military rules, which needed the support of the Islamist parties, the trials were indefinitely deferred. The Awami League, which came to power in 2009, made the trial and punishment of the war criminals one of its main election planks.

In the first two judgments, two important Jamaat leaders, Abul Kalam Azad and Abdul Qader Mollah, were sentenced to death and life-imprisonment respectively. After the first verdict, the Jamaat supporters took to the streets protesting against the death sentence. After the second sentence, ordinary citizens congregated at the Shahbag Sqaure demanding death sentence for Mollah. The movement gathered momentum after the brutal killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a popular blogger, who was instrumental in spearheading the protests. Shahbag turned out to be the largest spontaneous people’s movement in independent Bangladesh and was compared to people’s spontaneous resistance at Tahrir Sqaure, Egypt.

Biswajit’s killing and the subsequent protests at Shahbag exposed once again the fault-lines of the secularist and Islamist ideologies in Bangladesh, more than forty years after the nation was born. When I visited Dhaka in December, 2011, Bangladesh celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its liberation from Pakistan. In my brief stay, I experienced the same religious, ethnic, and linguistic fissures that constituted the founding trauma of Bangladesh’s birth in 1971.


Two Bangladeshi films – Guerilla and Meherjaan – were the main draw at the 17th Kolkata Film Festival in 2011. Guerilla narrated the story of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War in a straight-forward manner focalizing the events through its strong woman protagonist.  Meherjaan, on the other hand, depicted an unusual love story between a Bangladeshi girl and a Pakistani soldier, who rescued her from his fellow Pakistani soldiers during the war. The Bangladeshi girl, in turn, provided him shelter, fell in love with him, and helped him to escape after the war.

Meherjaan had already created a flutter in Bangladesh as it was taken off the theaters because of its controversial take on the freedom struggle. Guerilla was hailed as the first movie on Bangladesh’s independence that narrated the complex history of the war in a realistic manner. As expected, the Guerilla was screened in the main Nandan Theater in Kolkata to a packed audience. The screening was followed by an elaborate Q&A with the media. Meherjaan was screened in one of the smaller auditoriums with inadequate seating facilities and a low-quality projecting system. There was a brief informal Q&A in the same auditorium. The hype around Guerilla was palpable as I found a journalist from a prominent Bangla TV channel in Kolkata trying to chat up the director and his daughter at the Nandan complex.

Guerilla had been long in the making and was funded, among others, by the Bangladesh government. If one called Guerilla a homegrown product, Meherjaan was very much a foreign film, which was shot in England with a Pakistani and Bangladeshi cast. It had already been screened in the international film circuit and won a few awards. Meherjaan was undoubtedly a more complex representation of history than the celebratory one in Guerilla. However, Meherjaan’s engagement with the ruptures of conventional history was something that made it an unpopular film among the Bangladeshi audience.

These two films rekindled the contentious debate about history, nationalism, and their legitimate representation in the sub-continent. Considering that this was the fortieth anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh as a nation, such issues assumed an unprecedented sense of immediacy.


About a month after I watched these two films in Kolkata, I landed in Dhaka toward the middle of December, 2011 with the twin purpose of attending a conference of Bengal studies and conducting research for my study on Muslim everyday life in the sub-continent. Once in Dhaka, I could feel an air of excitement and celebration on the occasion of Bangladesh’s fortieth anniversary of its independence. Almost every night, the youth organized musical programs in the triangular park next to Dhaka University, where prominent Bangla bands performed to much fanfare.

In one of the conference sessions on Bangladesh’s independence, I heard a young scholar speak with a lot of purpose and enthusiasm. In the course of her presentation, I came to know that she had recently completed a monograph on films based on Bangladesh’s independence. She made it clear that Meherjaan was a distortion of Muktijudhho (Liberation War) and deliberately invoked nostalgia for a unified Islamic identity, thereby falsifying history to appeal to the sensibility of an international audience.

Guerilla, according to her, was the first Bangladeshi film to honestly depict the painful birth of the nation and freedom from Pakistani oppression, which had particularly marked out the minority Hindus as the enemy of the nation. Guerilla, she claimed, was commendable for two reasons: its secular vision and its portrayal of strong women characters. In fact, this was very much in line with the views of the Bengali audience in Kolkata. Another reason for its popularity in India was the film’s direct acknowledgement of Indian intervention in the 1971 war. Pan-Bengal solidarity, encompassing the West and the East (now Bangladesh) Bengal, was always welcome, even if it meant overlooking India’s controversial role in the war.

I sought an appointment with the young scholar to hear more about her research. I had been thinking of focusing a part of my research on the Liberation War and, especially, on ordinary life in moments of large-scale disruption of the mundane. Even as we shared pleasantries, the conversation moved to these two new films on 1971. My interlocutor made her aversion to Meherjaan clear in no uncertain terms. A supposed dialogue about the Bangladeshi films on 1971 soon turned into a monologue about the distortion of Bangladesh’s history and gradually degenerated into a rant about the treatment of minority population in India and Bangladesh respectively.

My argument about the autonomy of cultural productions failed to cut any ice. My interlocutor was reluctant to acknowledge that art affords possibilities and creates its own world. Our meeting was over as soon as it started. I realized that one’s marginal status in one’s country does not guarantee solidarity. Instead, the conversation can easily slide into questions of relative oppression and exclusion.

As I walked out of her office, I saw a peon hovering in the corridor, throwing a knowing look, as if any conversation with the concerned scholar was bound to end in a similar outcome.


I tried to set up another appointment with a scholar whose work on 1947 Partition of India I had read before. She informed me of a cultural evening, being organized by a leading Bangladeshi English language publisher, to commemorate the 1971 Liberation War. The audience at the commemoration mostly comprised of the urban, upper-middle class in Dhaka.

The program, conducted entirely in English, included reminiscences by war veterans who had fought against the Pakistani Army, a recorded interview conducted with an important Pakistani government official who was responsible for the massacre of thousands of innocent Bangladeshis, and, finally, a discussion on the role of Jamaat-e-Islami in abetting crimes against fellow Bangladeshis.

The intellectually engaging discussion presented a secular narrative of the Liberation War in which the role of religion – the basis on which Pakistan was created – was never discussed. If Pakistan were created on the premise that Muslims in the subcontinent must have a country of their own, the total elision of religion once again reiterated the competing narratives of linguistic/cultural and religious nationalism in Bangladesh.


As my visit was coming to an end, the very next day, I went to buy a few books from the Prothom outlet. Prothom was the publication division of Prothom Alo, a highly regarded Bengali newspaper published from Dhaka. The family publishing it was known to have played an active role during the 1971 War.

I bought a number of books on the Liberation War. Almost all these books narrated the atrocities Pakistani Army committed during the war and some of them detailed Jamaat’s active collaboration with the Pakistani Army. I was eager to locate books that would offer an account of the war from the perspective of the Jamaat. When I asked one of the attendants at the store, he gave me an incredulous look, as if I had asked the most absurd question. In a whisper, he suggested that I walk a few blocks down the road to find a bookstore run by Jamaat.

Much as I wanted, I couldn’t take time out to visit the Jamaat bookstore. However, it was abundantly clear that there existed a deep chasm between the sympathizers of the secularists and the Islamists.

On the streets of Bangladesh, this division manifested itself in political rivalry. One evening I, along with a local friend, visited a restaurant known for its kebabs. As I returned to the hotel, my friend informed me that a car had been supposedly set on fire by the BNP supporters, precisely at the place where we dined half an earlier. One of the days, things took such an unexpected turn that my mother called up from India to ask about bomb blasts in Dhaka. I tried to explain that it was a clash between the supporters of two political parties.


We got off a creaking rickshaw, the most reliable means of transportation in Dhaka, and walked into the narrow by-lane, which brought us to a green-painted arch, the entrance to a densely packed habitation, which appeared no better than a slum. It was Mohammadpur Geneva Camp, the more popular name of an unauthorized ghetto of the largest concentration of Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims in Dhaka. These were Muslims who had reluctantly crossed the border from Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh during the Partition of India (1947) to avoid violence. While the more prosperous upper-class Muslims crossed over to West Pakistan, East Pakistan (Bangladesh, after 1971) witnessed an influx of mostly poorer Urdu-speaking Muslims.

In the Geneva Camp, the Urdu-speaking Muslims squatted after Bangladesh became independent in 1971. Most of the Urdu-speaking Muslims were thought to be supporters of Pakistan and many had actively resisted the Liberation Army. As the Urdu-speaking Muslims were keen on leaving Bangladesh and settling in Pakistan, a repatriation treaty was signed between Pakistan, India, and the government of the newly independent nation. The camp was thought to be a purely temporary arrangement. In accordance with the repatriation treaty, transfer of Urdu-speaking Muslims to Pakistan continued until the early 1980s and many of them were settled in Karachi. Thereafter, the Pakistani government didn’t seem very eager to accept any more Urdu-speaking Muslim from Bangladesh. Those, who were forced to remain in Bangladesh, came to be known as the ‘Stranded Pakistanis’.

On the Christmas morning, my Bangladeshi friend, Hafiz (name changed), whom I had met during the conference, accompanied me to the camp. Being a Bengali Muslim, he was apprehensive about going there alone as the settlement had a reputation of supposed hostility to the Bengalis. The narrow lanes inside the settlement were strewn with dirt and flies hovered over them. Men and women went about their business unmindful of their surroundings.

As walking aimlessly inside the settlement would have aroused suspicion, we approached a grocery shop run by a friendly-looking middle-aged man. Once I started speaking to him in Hindi, interspersed with Urdu, he opened up. In a matter of minutes, others thronged around us narrating stories of deprivation and neglect by the government. In a corner, a man in his late fifties with a well-trimmed white beard stood quietly. His gentle eyes reflected the collective anguish accumulating over the years, before and after Bangladesh’s independence. As the crowd thinned down gradually, he came up to me and introduced himself as Mr. Haq.

Asif Haq (name changed), a man in the habit of occasionally breaking out in Urdu poetry, was born in the Geneva Camp. His parents had migrated from Bihar during 1947. During the Liberation War, his family, like many other Bihari Muslim families, supported a united Pakistan, “We were committed to the original idea of Pakistan as a Muslim watan (nation).” The war witnessed the slaughter and displacement of millions of ordinary people. His own brother was shot dead by the Mukti Bahini (Bengali freedom fighters). In a hushed tone, he documented the appalling living conditions in the camp, “In a six foot square room, 7 to 8 people live. For a population of 5500 families, there are just 200 toilets. There are no schools and healthcare facilities in the camp.” There was a high rate of drop-out among the school-going children, who ended up working as drivers, car mechanics, domestic help, and barbers.

Later Mr. Haq, along with an enthusiastic youngster, gave a guided tour of the camp. I cringed as I watched women cooking, men stitching, and children playing in what could best be described as tiny holes in the wall. They stared briefly at us, intruders, and went back to their work with a listless enthusiasm. Mr. Iqbal’s earlier recitation of a sher (couplet) started ringing in my ear:

“Halaat se majboor hoon, lachaar nahi hoon,

Toota hua patthar hoon, bekaar nahi hoon”

(I am helpless, but I am not powerless,

I am a broken stone, but I am not useless.)

As I prepared to leave the camp, Mr. Haq accompanied me to the office of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee. The walls inside adorned photograph of Jinnah and other prominent Pakistani leaders, as if the camp and the office was frozen in a time before 1971. When I asked one of the officials about the decision of Bangladesh government in 2007 to issue identity cards that would finally give the Bihari Muslims the rights of citizens, he termed it a conspiracy. Since the camp was an illegal one and was meant to be a temporary arrangement, water and electricity were provided for free. The residents were of the opinion that these privileges would be suspended and their claim to the land would be disavowed if they agreed to relocate to another place. “The identity card is nothing but a conspiracy to deprive us of the space and other benefits we enjoy in the camp”.


I had never seen the roadside tea-stall, run by a youngish woman, to be as crowded as it was that morning. It was a little distance away from the hotel where I had been staying. Every morning, it was a pleasure to walk to the stall and drink the muddy, milky tea. As I approached, the commotion seemed to grow louder. A young mother was standing in the middle of the crowd imploring, “Take my daughter. I am not able to look after her.” Pressing close, I asked a man, standing next to me, if anyone was willing to take the baby home.

Suddenly, the crowd turned their attention to me, “Why don’t you take the baby with you? Once in a while, the mother will come to see her.” I tried to explain that I was visiting from India and, even if I wanted to take the baby home, I couldn’t possibly cross the international border with a baby in tow. The congregation continued to offer suggestions to the mother.

I spent the next few days meeting people and speaking to them about the legacy of 1971. The thought of the mother and the baby lingered in my mind. After a couple of days, I returned to the tea-stall one morning and asked the lady if the baby found a home. Without glancing at me, she casually let me know that a kind man, a childless bus conductor, had taken the baby home. He agreed to the mother’s request of coming to see the baby whenever it was possible for her.


I left Dhaka a couple of days after the Christmas. On my way back, I remembered the famous Pakistani Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s celebrated lines from ‘Dhaka say wapsi par’ (‘Upon Returning from Dhaka’), written after his 1974 visit to Dhaka:

“Kab nazar maiN aaey ge baidaGh sabzey ki bahar

Khoon ke dhabbey dhulain gain kitni barsaatooN ke baad”

(When will we see the unsullied green of spring?

After how many monsoons will the stains of blood be washed?)

Faiz’s lines effectively summed up the state of Bangladeshi nationalism: schizophrenic from birth, struggling to come to terms with its alter ego, and often erupting in violence on which the nation was founded not once but twice – in 1947 and in 1971.

Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is an editor of Cafe Dissensus.


This entry was posted in 1971 Muktijuddho, Bangladesh, Film, Travel Writing, Violence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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