A Golden Age: Literature and Nationalism

I am cross-posting my review of Tahmima Anam’s novel “A Golden Age” from my personal blog.  This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in 2010.

She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.

—Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47

Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events.

As a Pakistani-American, reading Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age, a novel set during the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, was an enlightening and somewhat disturbing experience. 1971 is rarely discussed in Pakistan, and when it is, it is always in the context of the “dismemberment” of the country and the treacherous role played by India in this process.  For decades, Pakistani history textbooks referred to Bengalis as traitors and the “enemy within” (a point discussed by the eminent Pakistani social scientist Rubina Saigol). We never discuss the reasons why the Eastern wing of the country wanted to declare independence. Neither do we critically assess our own role in this second Partition of the subcontinent.

Obviously, the historical narrative is very different in Bangladesh. There, 1971 is celebrated as a war of independence, leading up to the formation of a new state.  It is a victory against occupation and oppression, similar to the American Revolution or indeed of India’s winning of independence from the British.  In this version of the narrative, Pakistanis are seen as the villains and the Bengali freedom fighters as heroes.

While this is the basic narrative backdrop of A Golden Age, what makes the book worth reading is Anam’s complex psychological characterization, particularly of her protagonist Rehana Haque, a middle-aged widow and mother of two teenage children. Rehana is from Calcutta and is Urdu-speaking, having moved to Dhaka after her marriage.  She is a reluctant revolutionary, being drawn into the battle for Bangladeshi independence mostly against her will, through her two college-going children. It is through Rehana’s character and her ambiguous and divided feelings about the events around her that Anam expresses the complex personal ramifications of political events.

Language is a particularly powerful marker of identity and during times of conflict the language one speaks often takes on huge significance. Today sixty years after the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, there is still conflict over whether Hindi and Urdu are two registers of the same language or two completely distinct tongues.  In Pakistan, Urdu has become increasingly “Arabized” and “Persianized” while Hindi in India has became “Sanskritized”. Similarly during 1971, an individual’s decision to use Urdu or Bengali became a marker of his or her political position.  Urdu, Pakistan’s official language, was seen as the language of the occupier, while Bengali became a symbol for the distinct identity of “East Pakistanis” and their fight for their own state.  But what of people like Rehana, those who were Urdu-speaking Bengalis? In order to show loyalty to the national cause, they were expected to give up their language.

What effect does this dilemma have on the individual?  Anam depicts Rehana as a lover of Urdu poetry, especially of the Ghazal. Even her son, Sohail, who is politically very engaged with the Bengali cause, writes love letters to his girlfriend in which he extensively quotes Urdu poets.  When he leaves to join the resistance, one of the only books he takes with him is the Ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. Clearly then, even someone so politically committed to a free Bangladesh could not abandon his love of Urdu, the language of the “enemy.”

A Golden Age is a powerful story of a nation’s violent birth. More importantly, it is the story of the harrowing choices individuals are forced to make in times of conflict. Which comes first, one’s ethnicity, language, or nationality?  Reading this book has caused me to continue to ponder the fascinating questions of identity, both national and personal.

East Pakistan 1971

This topic comes up every year in December (for obvious reasons) and this year Dawn has published an unusually good summary of events (from a liberal/progressive/reasonable Pakistani POV) and Ahsan Butt has an excellent article about the thinking behind the genocide. You can read these, or read one of the many good books written about the events leading up to the Pakistan army’s surrender in East Pakistan. I have something of a personal interest in this subject (my father and two uncles served in various capacities in East Pakistan in 1971).  In this post, I just want to share my personal opinion about a few aspects of this story. This will likely upset many people, both in Pakistan AND Bangladesh, but my aim is not to upset people, just to get as close to the truth as possible. So here goes..

How many people were killed in East Pakistan and who killed them?

This question gets debated every year; Bangladesh says 3 million Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani army in one of the great genocides of the 20th century. Pakistani nationalists either deny the killings altogether, or insist that “only a few thousand” were killed (which is pretty awful in itself, when you think about it) and that shit happens in civil wars, everyone should move on. In addition, Pakistanis also blame the Bengalis in turn for two separate rounds of killings. The first one in March 1971 when Bengali mobs are accused of killing West Pakistani civilians and Biharis during the civil disobedience phase of events and a second (and bigger) round of killings that took place after the Pakistani army surrendered, when the Mukti Bahini and Bengali mobs took revenge against collaborators and against the Bihari community in general.  

The army’s refusal to call a national assembly session after the Awami League had won the elections led to province wide and near-total civil disobedience in early March 1971; civil disobedience was so complete that the military leadership was unable to find a Bengali judge willing to administer the oath of office to their new governor; banks, post offices, civil administration, everything ground to a complete halt; cantonments were running short of food because no one would sell it to them. The Biharis were Indian immigrants (mostly, not exclusively, from the state of Bihar; they were Urdu speaking, generally leaned Islamist, and supported the army during its crackdown against the Bengalis; many of them joined special “Razakar” (volunteer) groups that fought alongside the Pakistani army and served as their eyes and ears. Many of their members also took the opportunity to settle personal scores and grab Bengali (especially Hindu Bengali) property. Biharis also played a disproportionate role in  two paramilitary organizations set up by the Islamist Jamat Islami party (Al Shams and Al Badar) whose members did much the same as the razakars, but with far greater enthusiasm and ideological commitment. Incidentally, both the razakars and  AlShams and Albadar did have Bengali members, though this is now underplayed in Bangladeshi historiography.  The Jamat e Islami related groups (Alshams and Albadar) are also the prime suspects in a major crime that occurred on the eve of surrender, when many leading Bengali nationalist and progressive intellectuals in Dhaka were mysteriously picked up and killed, most likely as a heinous and calculated attempt to “decapitate” the new state whose independence seemed to be imminent.

So who is telling the truth? No one will ever know with total certainty because the opportunity to systematically examine these events, interview survivors, collect records and produce statistics was lost in the chaos that followed the independence of Bangladesh. What follows is my personal opinion, based on all that I have read and heard: Continue reading “East Pakistan 1971”

Clarifying Two Misconceptions

First up, I want to admit that I been a harsh critic of Pakistan Army’s interference in political matters, their gross inefficiency during all the wars that they fought (and lost), their myopic worldview and land grabbing in the garb of ‘National Security’. However, I believe that two very common misconceptions about our army need to be addressed.

  1. While talking about General Zia, an Islamist dictator who ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88), many people refer to his role in the ‘Black September’ events from 1970. If you try to look this up on the internet, there are conflicting stories about his involvement. What we know for sure is that he was stationed in Jordan as part of a military training mission (Read here) sent by Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Amman at the time was Mr. Tayyab Siddiqui. According to an article he wrote in 2010, (Read here)

“Following the June 1967 military debacle, the Arabs requested Pakistan for military training. Pakistan sent training contingents to Syria, Jordan and Iraq.”

In August-September 1970, the Palestinians, aided by the Syrians, revolted against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. During the battle, the Commanding Officer (CO) of a Jordanian infantry unit deserted. King Hussain asked Brigadier Zia to take charge of that unit temporarily. Zia sought permission from the embassy where Mr. Siddiqui established contact with Secretary Defence, Mr. Ghiasuddin. Ghias’s comments are the most cringe-worthy issue in this whole affair. He cabled Amman that

“We had [performed] Istikhara, Hashmite Kingdom’s star is ascendant. Go ahead. Follow king’s commands.”

In Ambassador Siddiqui’s words:

“That the foreign and defence policy of Pakistan was formulated not on a dispassionate analysis of the situation but on the dubious religious invocation still amazes me”.

Zia took temporary charge of the unit but before any fighting could take place, the Syrians withdrew and the offensive ended. Later on, Zia developed contacts with Palestinian leadership and was not accused of being the ‘Butcher of Palestinians’ by any Palestinian fighter. In fact, Yasser Arafat visited Pakistan three times during Zia’s regime.

2. You might have seen a picture of a soldier inspecting a Bengali man’s Dhoti, from 1971. That is provided as a proof that Army folks there used to inspect Bengali men’s genitals to decide if they were Muslim or not (based on circumcision status). While the Pakistan Army indulged in some of the worst atrocities against the Bengalis, this picture is not a valid evidence.

This picture was taken by Indian photographer Kishor Parekh. In an interview, his son Swapan Parekh mentioned that it was a photograph of Indian army personnel checking the [Bengali] collaborators for weapons. The caption in Kishor Parekh’s book validates this backstory.

A Story from 1971

The following story was narrated by a dear friend and he didnt want to use the captain’s name. I felt it should be preserved, even if without names. So here is my friend’s verbatim account, with names and punjabi curses redacted:

I met a retired army officer (let’s call him captain X) while stationed in a small town in Punjab in the 1990s. People said he had been traumatized by 1971 and it had changed his life, but he didnt like to talk about it. As we became better acquainted, I asked him about that period. At first he wouldn’t talk about it, but one day after chatting about many things, he agreed to tell me his story:

The retired captain was a young army officer in early 1971 when he was informed that he was being posted to East Pakistan. His father was a retired (senior) army officer and a coursemate of General Z, who was a two-star general in Dhaka. He called General Z and mentioned that his son was coming over and to “take care of him”. General Z said “I will do more than that for you old friend, I will put him on my staff, he will be totally safe”.

Captain X arrived and joined Generaz Zs staff in Dhaka. His main job was to manage General Z’s various appointments and to arrange an endless series of lunches and dinners for the senior officers at Dhaka garrison. In the course of these duties, he became very familiar with the catering staff at Dhaka Intercontinental hotel. Life was easy and pleasant until December 1971, when bombing began in earnest and the war finally reached Dhaka. On the 16th of December, Eastern command surrendered to the Indian army and like everyone else in the Pakistani army, young captain X was depressed, sad and angry; but like everyone else, he gave up his side arm and became a POW. Initially the Indians were very disciplined and well behaved and the young officers were simply put under guard in their own officers mess. The General meanwhile had shifted to the Intercontinental hotel.

By the next day, the Indian officers were getting drunk and some became rowdy and verbally misbehaved with their prisoners, but nothing too serious happened. That evening two young Indian officers showed up at the mess and asked for him by name. They had learned that he used to handle catering arrangements and they were planning a big celebratory lunch the next day and wanted him to help with arrangements. He told them that catering used to come from the Intercontinental hotel, so they put him in their staff car and headed that way. He was in the front seat with a driver and the two officers (both mildly drunk) sat in the back. On the way, the car got stuck in a mob of Bengalis shouting Joy Bangla and looking for collaborators and sundry enemies. When one of the officers (a Sikh) stuck his head out of the car, he was recognized as an Indian and the crowd started cheering and shouting slogans for the Indian army. As the crowd pressed around the car, the Indian officers thought they would have some fun and they told the crowd “this man is a Pakistani officer, how does he look now?”. The crowd immediately grabbed hold of captain X’s hair and several people slapped him and spat upon him. He held on to the door handle and fought for dear life as some of the crowd tried to pull him out. This went on for a few minutes and he was badly beaten around the head and neck but he held on to the handle and they could not open the door.

After initially laughing at his discomfort, the two Indian officers thought things were getting out of hand and told the driver to move on and pushed the crowd back. At the same time an older Bengali in the crowd started berating the crowd and saying “don’t kill the poor man, he is only a kid”.  Pro-Indian feeling was high, so they got their way and managed to pull away. As they drove off, the Indian officers joked that “this is only a trailer, maybe we will bring you back tomorrow and watch the crowd finish you off”.

Captain X was shaking with terror and humiliation. His clothes were torn and his face swollen. He was bleeding from several cuts. They got to the hotel and stopped at a side gate and he managed to ask the guard to call xyz from catering. As he was standing there waiting (the hotel being a declared safe zone, was off limits to most Indian soldiers) he suddenly spotted General Z standing at the main gate a 100 feet away, chatting with some people. The main gate was open and was only guarded by a hotel guard. There seemed to be no Indian soldier there. Thinking “these officers will probably kill me tomorrow”, and still stunned and bleeding from his beating, captain X saw his chance and took off for the main gate, shouting “General Z, General Z, please save my life, these Indians will kill me”.

The Indian officers, taken by surprised, were a few yards behind him as he ran for dear life.
General Z looked up, saw the captain, grasped the situation.. and ran. He ran inside the gate and shouted to the guard to close the gate. By the time captain X got there, the gate was closed. He stood banging helplessly at the gate, watching General Z running into the hotel as he screamed “Sir, they are going to kill me, Sir, please help!”.

The two Indians caught up with him and gave him another thrashing. Then they took him back. He was never taken into the city again and spent the next year in captivity, dreaming of nothing else except the day when he would get back to Pakistan and kill General Z.

When he got back, his friends (who had heard him say as much hundred of times) told his father about his plans. His father forcibly took him home and got him out of the army and made him promise never to see General Z again in his life. And of course, he broke off all relations with General Z. General Z called his father several times and even wrote to him to say “please listen to my side of the story first” but dad was done with General Z.

Until one day, 10 years later, General Z, now retired and holding a senior civilian position (that being the norm in the army) came to their town. His staff showed up at their house, insisting that General Z wanted to meet for lunch. General Z himself called and spoke to Captain X’s mother, who was unable to say no and agreed to have General Z come over for lunch. Dad then searched his son’s room, found a pistol and took it away and locked him in the room, forbidding him to come down. Mom made him promise on her life not to do anything stupid. There was a very cold lunch, with dad absolutely refusing to say or hear anything about 1971. General Z came and left. They never met again.

Captain X says if it was not for his mother making him promise on her life not to carry out his threat, he would have strangled General Z at that lunch with his bare hands.

And so it goes.

Many stories about East Pakistan are now recorded in various books written by Pakistani officers who served there, but this particular incident has not made it into history. In somewhat redacted form, I hope this post will preserve it for posterity.

Made in Bangladesh

Over at The Aerogram there is a post, Made in Bangladesh, which is addressed to the young woman who posed topless in the American Apparel advertisement. I’m rather ambivalent about the whole thing. American Apparel knows how to get publicity, and sells clothes with ads which make Abercrombie & Fitch seem a little less on the pornish side. Additionally, the whole virtue of being made-in-America doesn’t hold much appeal for me when put next to the fact that the textile industry has reshaped the economic possibilities of the less well off female population of Bangladesh.

On the the other hand I found Taz Ahmed’s style to be condescending and self-congratulatory. Perhaps more important the interpretative framework of radical Left politics and Critical Race Theory is so thick and cloying  that the simple and spare critique is almost suffocated by nods to nearly every trope in this mode of analysis. There’s the weird contradiction of celebrating free choice and individual freedom, and then totally removing all agency from the subject of critique, and making implicit accusations of false consciousness. Many of the commenters, who seem to be mostly Bangladeshi, did not react positively to this style of delivery (see this post at Medium).

I think the commenters were a little too harsh, and as uncharitable to her as Taz was being to the model in the advert. Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that of thinking about the economic ramifications of the textile industry and trade, the post made to consider how Cultural Marxism can make anyone seem like a smug narcissist to all those outside of the small core audience of fellow travelers who are also marinated in their private lexicon.