Building Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s long journey to try and come to terms with its own history, and grasp a sense of a stable future is ultimately what Salil Tripathi’s The Colonel Who would not Repent is about. 

the colonel who would not repent

Salil Tripathi’s The Colonel Who would not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy is a detailed account of the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh, and a searing narrative of the depreciated and often overlooked people, whose individual sacrifices, contributed to the creation of the country. It is about the overarching shadow of Lieutenant Colonel Farooq Rahman who with his unapologetic bravado filled admission of the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and created a shadow over the fledgling democracy. This dark beginning would hang over the country, shaping its politics, and its citizens. Tripathi sees his execution as a way Bangladesh wishes to attain closure over a history that has remained both open ended and inarticulate until recently.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Farooq Rahman act as bookends for this composite history of what transpired in the months, leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh. Tripathi’s 1985 interview with Farooq Rahman and his subsequent execution form the chilling prologue. The author then immerses the reader into the past, to trace the beginnings of Bangaal, complete with inscriptions found in the region around 300 BCE. Tripathi mentions that Islam, a Turkish import, coexisted and absorbed from older Indian, Hindu and more specifically Bengali traditions and acquired a more ‘syncretic’ nature, different from the way faith was practiced in what would become Pakistan. The language, the culture and the practice of the faith would become the tinder sticks for the 1971 war.

Partition, when it happened, was welcomed by East Bengalis who had started to form an identity distinct from the West Bengal Hindu dominated one, thanks to Lord Curzon who first divided the land in 1905. The chasm of divide both physically and culturally became obvious from the beginning. Pakistan’s goal was to create a Muslim nation, and a single Islamic identity – neither of which included the variegated shades of Islam that Bengali Muslims practiced. Tripathi quotes Mahfuz Anum “…We realized that while the structure (of the state of Pakistan) ensured Islamic heritage, it also threatened my Bengali Identity. My language and my culture were affected. I couldn’t sing or dance; my Tagore was being taken away from me. So the Bengali Muslim wanted to break that structure”.

The author plunges headlong into the language revolution of the 1950’s, initiated by Dhirendranath Datta, a Hindu who had chosen to live in Pakistan. His speech in February 1948 at the national assembly in Pakistan called for Bengali to be included as national language, something that West Pakistan refused. The protests had started, resulting in the Bhasha Andolan in 1952. The slow descent to chaos started soon after. One of the enlightening moments in Tripathi’s narration of the events leading to 1971 is the fact that Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan for only 8,890 days, of which 266 of the last days were the bloodiest. The author stresses the point that 1971, unlike popular narrative, was not year zero for the country. There were 8,000 or so days before, when Bangladesh had stopped being a part of Pakistan. It had “outlived its usefulness” by 1970

On March 25th, 1971 Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, a reader in English literature at the Dacca University was shot dead outside his home. He was the first victim of the war. Tripathi’s best narratives rest on the shoulders of the men, and women who probably lived very prosaic lives until the war began. Once the killings began and families began to be targeted by armies of Urdu speaking Pakistanis and ‘Bihari’ razakars or spies, the extraordinary nature of the times they lived in pushed them to perform singular deeds.

The characters that emerge are diverse. Women who formed student movements, students who marched with fake rifles, boatmen who rescued and helped people cross the border, farmers shouting Bengali slogans while recapturing their village, and men who started the clandestine Free Bengali Revolutionary Radio Station (which would air Ziaur Rahman’s voice declaring in the name of Bangabandhu Mujib, that Bangladesh was a free country). People of all faiths and age came together to form Mukti Bahini, the ragtag bunch of haphazardly trained soldiers who would carry out first strike attacks. Kader Siddiqui who inspired by Tagore’s Ekla Chalo Re on AIR started out as a two-man army and ended up with a fearsome group of 18,000 soldier, and a 72,000 volunteer army called Kaderia Bahini.

The most haunting portions of the book are the chapters that deal with the rape victims of the war. The chapters depicting the horror that the women had to endure, the daily realities of living their lives as Birangona’s women, who Mujib tried to bring back into the society but died before he could complete the task, form some of the best bits in the book. The author includes an appendix section at the end that details multiple stories from these women. Their accounts, along with the vivid descriptions of photographs taken during the war, deliver the immense sense of the grief, hopelessness and tragic nature of the conflict that people had to endure. Tripathi captures the minutiae of lives lived as potential victims, as refugees, as warriors and as builders. His meetings with people, as he writes always ended with them asking for justice and not for anything more.

There is an echo of songs of Tagore, the music of the bauls, and the poems of Nazrul Islam and Sultana running throughout the the book. These play in the background as the Bahini’s get ready, along with the chorus of Amar Shonar Bangla being sung as they march into their country, and the Rabindra Sangeet as the women pick their lives up. This skein of Bengal through the book reflects as much on the people who fought a war to keep their composite culture alive as it does on the author’s enduring passion for the language, the culture and the land. This is perhaps what sets the book apart from others on the subject.

There has been a renewed interest in this partitioned land for the last decade. Srinath Raghavan’s 1971 is a detailed account of the war that India went into, the global response and the creation of Bangladesh. The insolent American response to the war is evident in Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram. Salil Tripathi’s new book joins these two, as a last of a trilogy that sees Bangladesh for what it was and what it would become.

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is as much about Farooq Rahman, who remained unapologetic for his role in creating chaos, as it is about Pakistan which remains unapologetic for unleashing a horrible massacre that it would take three decades for the citizens to think of justice. It becomes most obvious when Jyotirmoy Guhathakurtha’s daughter comments, “For me, justice would be when Pakistan government realizes what it did. But they have not even recognized the genocide…recognition that something took place, and the fact that it should not take place again that’s justice”. The country’s long journey to try and come to terms with its own history and grasp a sense of a stable future is ultimately what the book is about.