Friday, July 30, 2010

Not So Distant History

Today, I took a guided tour of two of Dhaka’s major museums, and came to the realization that the bloody history of the creation of Bangladesh is still very much a part of the national mentality - much more so than I first thought. The scars are still fresh it seems, as multiple generations who have witnessed the atrocities are still alive and well. I’m certainly not an authority on the subject, and am still trying to clear up some confusing contradictions I’ve read, but the short and gory is this:

When the British granted India independence in 1947 they partitioned it into the Hindu state of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. However, Pakistan included what is now Bangladesh as East Pakistan, and present day Pakistan as West Pakistan, with the ruling authority located in Karachi. This was a poor decision. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the region, Bangladesh and Pakistan are not adjacent. They are separated by about 1400 miles of India. Moreover, they don’t even share a common ethnicity, language, or culture. The only thing they have in common is religion. This led to tension immediately, which escalated when West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu, but not Bangla, as an official language of the state. Bangalee students staged protests, which were quelled with violence. The final straw came when the Bangalee Awami League won the majority of the 1970 parliamentary election, which would have installed their party leader, and soon to be founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib Rahman as Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, the West Pakistan administration disbanded parliament to avoid this outcome, and arrested Sheikh Mujib, which prompted an uprising and eventual call for independence within East Pakistan. The Pakistani government responded by indiscriminately killing students at Dhaka University – the intellectual center of the uprising - and thus began the Liberation War. This war lasted nine months, and has been labeled genocide, as the Pakistani army indiscriminately killed, raped, and plundered the Bangalee population. The death toll is estimated at somewhere between 200,000 (Pakistan’s claim) and 3,000,000 (Bangladesh’s claim). The war ended when India intervened and drove back the Pakistani army, granting Bangladesh its freedom under the rule of Sheikh Mujib.

Flash forward to present day, as I am taking my tour of the Liberation War Museum. It starts off fairly slow, as the first room is mostly newspaper clippings and photos pasted on the wall, interrupted by a few miniature, diorama-like models that strongly resemble my social studies project from third grade.

However, my guide begins to tell me his version of the story. He says, “It is the British’s fault for putting us together with Pakistan. We are not like them. We are more like the Indian people. They are different. They are taller, and stronger, and ferocious.” He says it with meaning, and ends up repeating those words, “Taller, stronger, and ferocious,” a few minutes later. As we walk into the next few rooms, the scenes become grimmer. The articles are on rape and genocide, the pictures are of dead and mangled bodies, the models are now real piles of human skulls and bones. I’m thinking this is not so much a war museum as a genocide museum.

And I must mention, as I take in these sights, twenty gleeful Bangladeshi school children buzz around my hips. They’re there on a school trip to learn the history of their country, but clearly don’t get the gravity of the material. Perhaps it’s for the better at their age. They are chaperoned by a group of warm, school-teacherly looking young women, and one very angry looking man. He passes by me with a grimace, and an extended, cold stare. I sense he does not like my presence there. However, he keeps gravitating towards me. I keep my focus on the displays, avoiding eye-contact with him. I’m thinking about the inevitable headline of “Foreigner Starts Fight in Sacred Shrine of Bangladesh.” But then, as we are nearing the end of the exhibit, he comes up next to me and starts talking. His voice is very guttural, as if he has just lived through everything I just read about, and he says “There is nothing left…. There is nothing left to say.” He’s not angry at me. He’s angry at Pakistan. I can see it - he’s scathing.

I say, “This is just to remember…what happened.”

“Yes,” he says with assent.

I ask, “Is there still a lot of animosity towards Pakistanis?”

“Yes,” he says again. “We hate them.” He glances up at the propaganda war poster above us: “ANNIHILATE THESE DEMONS” (it depicts the Pakistani General Tikka Khan).

While I’d like to engage him more for the sake of cultural education, his intensity is raw, and I don’t care to get into a discussion with him about how evil Pakistanis are. I feel I am not here to judge, but to keep an open mind and learn as much as possible. This was certainly an eye-opening experience, though; and one that exposed a real area of cultural ignorance on my behalf. I truly thought that a war fought in 1971 would be in the past. I never think about the Vietnam War. But I could not see what this war meant to the Bangladeshi people. I do now.

Next, we went to the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Museum - the house in which the country’s founder and first leader lived, as well as the one in which he was assassinated. Bangladesh’s bloody history continued after the war, as a string of leaders were assassinated and displaced by rivals. However, the modern political history of Bangladesh is where I really get confused, so I won’t try and explain it quite yet. There seems to be contradictions created by separate political parties’ revisionist histories. For the purpose of this recounting, suffice it to say Sheikh Mujib is a revered political figure, and the father of their nation (and the father of their current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina). He’s like the Bangladeshi George Washington, but still so much more revered. His house is not just a museum, but a shrine, preserved as it was right after his assassination. Before even going in, I could tell this place was different/special. People are not allowed to even bring in their cell phones or cameras. You must check them at a security desk. And not one where they place your belongings in a locker or bin; they’re all just laid out on a desk, with a number chip casually placed on top. I was wary about leaving my brand new camera at such a place, but my guide said, “This is the house of the father of our Prime Minister, the father of our nation. Your camera is safe, I guarantee.” No one would dare desecrate the name of such a sacred place by stealing…. Once we were inside I really came to realize just how revered Sheikh Mujib was; and not because of anything in the house, but because my guide kept referring to him as “the father of our nation.” As in, “This is where the father of our nation ate…this is the stair well where the father of our nation was shot dead…this is the father of our nation’s sleeping cap…” And I say this all with respect – to illustrate the point. There is no “he” or “him” when referring the Sheikh Mujib, only “the father of our nation”. George Washington never gets that honor. And as this place was sacred ground, I got a few more concerned stares than perhaps usual... and one under-the-breath groan of “Foreigner!” on my way out.


  1. Good read. I did not know much about Bangladeshi political history and this adds more context.

  2. Can see you are absorbing a lot of new knowledge Will be interesting to see your synthesis at the end.
    keep writing. love mom