1971 by Anam Zakaria is a book deeply connected to Bangladesh, but the author isn’t Bangladeshi – she’s Pakistani. And that doesn’t mean she’s a neutral observer – this book is about the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.
This isn’t a classic history book on the war, instead, 1971 is about unpicking the myths, propaganda, and national narratives around the war that have grown up in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. All three countries have a piece of the truth and focus on what fits their side of the story the best, but together you can add up a much more chaotic and realistic picture of the war.
Partition not only split Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, but divided Pakistan into two disparate wings – the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (which was already the product of an early partition of Bengal, solidified into Hindu Calcutta and Muslim Dhaka in 1947). Discrimination against Bengali people and language by the rest of Pakistan grew into discontent, then rebellion when the government in Islamabad refused to accept the election results that would but the Bengal-based Awami league into power. Military invention by West Pakistan into the East and the killing of Bengali nationalists and intellectuals in Operation Searchlight erupted into a brutal war, with targeted killings of civilians by both soldiers and neighbours. The war was only settled when India joined in on the side of East Pakistan, which then was able to declare victory and become Bangladesh.
Anam Zakaria travels through all three countries to interview witnesses, survivors, former soldiers, the families of victims, politicians and academics, and young students raised on each country’s narrative of the war. She gives her interviewees the space to tell their truths, but also tries to get under the easy (and contradictory) national histories and share the complex realities of this shared history and how it’s remembered.
In Bangladesh, the story of 1971 is the year of national liberation – Pakistan is the violent oppressor, and the mass killings by the Pakistani army remain as bitter memories. Travel is difficult between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis are antagonistic to Zakaria as a Pakistani when first interviewed. However, attitudes towards Pakistan and India aren’t set in stone – depending on the back-and-forth of political parties, sometimes Pakistan is the enemy, sometimes a fellow Muslim nation against India (especially in cricket).
In Pakistan, 1971 is seen as the “dismemberment” of the country, and blame is laid at India. The war is chalked up as an Indian plan to damage Pakistan by fulminating discontent and revolution in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s seen so much through the lens of India’s involvement, that it’s often described as the Third Indo-Pak War. Killings of Bengalis are downplayed, instead the focus is on the killing of Biharis (used as a generic term for pro-Pakistan non-Bengalis) by Bengalis during the war.
India as well sees 1971 as a continuation of its perpetual conflict with Pakistan, and one where India resoundingly defeated Pakistan. Bangladeshis themselves are largely seen as an afterthought, and this friendly but paternalistic attitude continues even today.
Complex histories become simplified for convenience and over the decades to match national narratives, but Zakaria lets her interviewees talk, and carefully draws out the nuance of personal experience. Tales of being saved by neighbours of the ethnic/religious group that was seeking to kill you are common on all sides, as well as the chaos of the fog of war.
It is a really illuminating book about the 1971 war and the massively different memories of it in the three countries. It’s also a really fascinating meta-study into the construction of narratives after a major event, both by people and groups. Humans are hardwired to create a coherent narrative about individual events, and to then defend that narrative, including selecting the pieces of truth that feel more “true” to the story.