Published:  11:56 PM, 22 February 2021

History must be interpreted properly

 
The issue is one of historical truth. Let us begin through noting how some people have got it all wrong. There are, in the works of writers and journalists abroad, references to what they see as a civil war taking place in occupied Bangladesh in 1971. They could not have been more wrong. It becomes our responsibility and especially that of the government to enlighten such individuals on the fact that in 1971 it was a War of Liberation we waged against the colonial state that was Pakistan.  
 
A civil war is a conflict between groups or regions within a country, largely around issues related to political power sharing or ethnicity. That is how matters came to a sorry pass in Lebanon. In Lebanon, a part of the country did not decide, through a declaration of independence, to move out of the mother country. The Lebanese army did not launch a genocide against a part of the population and so compel it to take a fresh new road to self-assertion. It was civil war pure and simple in Lebanon because of the inter-religious conflicts that threatened to undercut the fabric of society.

A civil war does not lead to the break-up of a country. A civil war is resorted to by people who consider themselves part of the same country despite the divergence on the issues. That was not the case with Bengalis in 1971. Back in that year, the Bengali population, having drawn the sad but realistic conclusion that the civil-military bureaucratic complex in Rawalpindi was not about to hand over political power to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that indeed the Pakistan military had already initiated genocidal operations against the people of the country's eastern province, opted to go for a formal declaration of independence. Beginning on 26 March 1971, therefore, it was all-out war between two states, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People's Republic of Bangladesh. It was not civil war, for civilian Bengali armed groups were not hounding and killing civilian West Pakistani armed groups, or vice versa. It was not civil war, because a national army had pounced on a population that considered, for all the right reasons, that army to be a force of occupation in a country struggling for freedom.

A civil war begins and ends with a country remaining intact. Lebanon has not been sundered in two. Somalia, for all the ugliness of the conflicts eating away at its soul, is still a single country. That has not been true of Pakistan because in 1971 there was no civil war in Pakistan. In 1971, Pakistan was a foreign occupying power in a fledgling Bangladesh. You might now raise the matter of Biafra, the eastern Nigerian province that decided in 1967 to go free and give itself a new name. For three years, until 1970, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu's forces fought a gradually losing battle against the armed forces of the federal Nigerian state. In terms of history, therefore, the Biafra conflict is but a version of civil war waged between different segments of the population of a country.

In the 1860s, the southern states of the United States of America decided to secede from the north over the question of slavery. They called themselves the Confederate States of America. It was a morally wrong, legally flawed political and military struggle they pursued against their own, and it was doomed to fail. It did fail, in 1865. Now come closer to modern times. The Indonesian army was spectacularly unable to subdue the people of East Timor into being part of the Indonesian state because the Timorese shared little in terms of culture and politics with Indonesia. The struggle between East Timor and Indonesia was not a civil war. For the Timorese, it was a long, sustained armed movement for political freedom. It was a similar ethos that worked in Bangladesh in 1971.

The truth about our War of Liberation must therefore be set out in clear black and white terms. The initiative must come from us, here in Bangladesh.


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