Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Discovering that "history" was myth in the Bangladesh war

Social science research often clashes with popular understandings. We tend to remember the stories that impress us, often for personal reasons. And societies tend to retain stories about the past that fit well with their own images of themselves. Actual events, social realities, are I suppose complex because human beings experience situations differently and remember them selectively. We internalize the significance of events through frames of reference already meaningful to us. And besides the natural tendency of human beings to simplify and gloss events there are always interests involved in what they choose to remember and talk about.
So the world needs serious research, empirically grounded examinations of social conditions and historical events as they can best be established. Sarmila Bose, a Bengali Indian historian, decided to examine in detail what took place during the bitter war of 1971 when Bangladesh [then known as "East Pakistan"] broke away from West Pakistan. Her book, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, consists of the recollections of participants on both sides. She thought she knew the rough outlines of what happened, but the stories that people told her differed acutely from what she had grown up with. She did it as a research project, oblivious to the fire-storm that her book created even before it had appeared.
My aim was to record as much as possible of what seemed to be a much-commented-on but poorly documented conflict - and to humanise it, so that the war could be depicted in terms of the people who were caught up in it, and not just faceless statistics. I hoped that the detailed documentation of what happened at the human level on the ground would help to shed some light on the conflict as a whole.
The principal tool of my study was memories. I read all available memoirs and reminiscences, in both English and Bengali. But I also embarked on extensive fieldwork, finding and talking to people who were present at many particular incidents, whether as participants, victims or eye-witnesses. Crucially, I wanted to hear the stories from multiple sources, including people on different sides of the war, so as to get as balanced and well-rounded a reconstruction as possible.
As soon as I started to do systematic research on the 1971 war, I found that there was a problem with the story which I had grown up believing: from the evidence that emanated from the memories of all sides at the ground level, significant parts of the "dominant narrative" seem not to have been true. Many "facts" had been exaggerated, fabricated, distorted or concealed. Many people in responsible positions had repeated unsupported assertions without a thought; some people seemed to know that the nationalist mythologies were false and yet had done nothing to inform the public. I had thought I would be chronicling the details of the story of 1971 with which I had been brought up, but I found instead that there was a different story to be told.
[Click on the title above for a link to a review.]

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