Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War; Book review

Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War
by Sarmila Bose
240 pp
Hurst Publishers, London
April 2011, ISBN-13978 818 490 495

by Arnold Zeitlin 8 June 2020

Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, by Sarmila Bose, 240 pp, Hurst Publishers, London, April 2011, ISBN-13978 818 490 495

         I first read Dead Reckoning in proof in March 2011, before its publication in April of that year in preparation for the launch of the book in Washington DC at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars, a think tank. In my role as a reporter who covered the war, I had been invited to discuss the book after the author, Sarmila Bose, made a presentation.

         My initial response to my reading was astonishment.

         In her introduction to her book, Ms. Bose writes her study aimed to “humanize the war” through a series of interviews with survivors in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as cut through the myths that had grown up around it over the 40 years since 1971. In addition to the extensive interviews, she studied memoirs, official and unofficial documents, published and unpublished, and news media reports to create what she believes is a basis for “non-partisan analysis” of the struggle. She demonstrated in one myth-bust that not all the killing was from the Pakistan army side. Bengalis had killed, too, targets being Urdu-speaking Muslims who had settled in East Pakistan after partition in 1947.

         Almost 50 years after the war that ended in Bangladesh’s independence, there still is a need for a revised look at the events. Although Bose’s interviews and anecdotal reporting added significantly to the literature, Dead Reckoning doesn’t satisfy the need.

Ms. Bose’s bias against Bengalis and in favor of Pakistani army officers robs her account of credibility.

         Ms. Bose seemed too distressed by the Awami League propaganda she said she heard. At the same time, a pre-teen in Calcutta (she was 12 years old in 1971) to provide a dispassionate and thorough examination of the period. Her book is so full of holes; it can be described as Swiss cheese scholarship, with the same excess of bias that exists in so many other books of the period. What history needs is a genuine revision. What we get is just another distortion of history.

        Ms. Bose says she started her project sympathetic to the cause of East Pakistani Bengalis. She says out of her probing, 

emerged a story that was at odds with the conventional narrative of the war and its emphasis on East Pakistani suffering and grievances. Faced with a challenge of what she said was “seeking the right balance between detachment and involvement,” she appeared to see the story of that conflict more through the lens of the losers than the victors.

        The single best word to describe her reaction at best is “ingenious,” as in naive and artless, or even at worse the harsher “disingenuous.”.

         For example, she is distressed in her book that Bengali propaganda of the time demonized General Yahya Khan, then the Pakistan military ruler. This is her description of him:

        “As General Yahya Khan was…the person responsible for the decision to launch a military action to crush the Bengali rebellion,

it is only to be expected that he would be the prime symbol for demonization’ by the rebels. Yet it is supremely ironic, as indicated in earlier chapters, as General Yahya personally seems to have neither harboured nor brooked prejudice against Bengalis. On the contrary, he accepted their economic grievances as legitimate, took steps to redress the imbalance in Bengali representation in the Army and civil service, replaced the ‘parity principle’ with elections based on ‘one person one vote’ which ensured the more numerous Bengalis an advantage in democratic politics, and seemed to be prepared to make a deal with Sheik Mujib, the winner, whom he referred to publicly as the ‘future prime minister of Pakistan.

        As for Sheik Mujib, he led, according to her, a “political agitation” and was among the political leaders inciting the public in March 1971, using fatal clashes between the military and the people “to strengthen his bargaining position to become the prime minister of all Pakistan.” Mujib, she wrote, played “a double game.”

       Her book focuses on the killing and rapes and who to blame, obscuring the primary intent of the conflict, which was not about killing but a struggle for self-determination. Much of her interview research created a balance between the propaganda of the time and reality. Her distress at the exaggerated numbers of rapes and killings in the propaganda of all sides warped her balance. If one Bengali woman was raped, if one Bengali professor or Bihari motor mechanic was slain randomly…in each case, it was already one too many. Her bookkeeping of death otherwise did little to change the forces that led to the conflict.

       She sees the conflict this way: “What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different parties with a terrible human toll.” What struggle isn’t?

       For example, here’s a comment from Brigadier A.R. Siddiqi, the senior Pakistan army spokesman in those days. In a book published long after the fray, he echoed Ms. Bose’s power view in writing about the efforts of the martial law ruler, General Yahya, to manipulate domestic politics:

        “This then was the thinner edge of the wedge leading to the deepening involvement of his regime in the insane power game…”

        As for a double game, take it from one who was on the scene at the time, all sides, Yahya, Mujib, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and almost everyone else, were playing double games. These were flawed human beings grappling with an issue that was, perhaps, beyond their powers to solve.

       A case can be made that Yahya had a darker side that affected his decision making. Retired Pakistan Army Brigadier F.B. Ali,

 who as much as any single person contributed as one of a group of rebellious young officers to the ouster of Yahya as Pakistan’s leader in December 1971, described the general this way:

        “By 1970/71, he was an alcoholic who spent most of his time in a drunken haze and didn’t direct or control policy. Others made this around him, and OKd by him. These people had no intention of letting East Pakistan rule or separate. The ‘deal with Mujib was…just camouflage to give the army time to prepare for the crackdown….”

        Having raised the example of Yahya’s beneficence, Ms. Bose had an obligation in the name of balance to flesh out her picture of the general. As for Mujib. A case can also be made that he searched desperately for a resolution that would make him, if not the prime minister of all Pakistan ( a job that he probably would have avoided) or at least the supreme leader in an autonomous East Pakistan. He repeatedly tried to hold off the radical, younger elements in his Awami League, pressing him to declare independence.

         In her portrayal of Mujib as a cunning, if the not hypocritical leader (a view unsourced by her and speculative), Ms. Bose had an > > obligation to give her readers a more balanced picture of the man.

         Ms. Bose’s interviews often substantiate her thesis that the Bengalis in East Pakistan were sinners in violence in killing non-Bengalis, and Hindus, as well as they, were sinned against by the Pakistan army. She tends to treat this information as a revelation; but it is hardly fresh news.

        In my first visit to Dhaka in December 1969, three months after I arrived in Pakistan as an Associated Press bureau chief, I found myself in the midst of a state of emergency ordered by the military governor, Admiral S.M. Ahsan, Bengalis and Biharis were killing each other. Having just arrived after three years of covering the Biafra civil war in Nigeria, in which the eastern province of the country had tried to secede, I was so impressed that in my first dispatch, I wrote that East Pakistan was going to be the next Biafra.

        Ben Bassett, the AP’s foreign editor in New York, responded with a query: With one thousand miles of India separating the two wings of Pakistan, how would they get at each other?

        “I don’t know,” I answered. “But they will find a way.”

        Fifteen months later, they did.

        If I, a rank outsider, could see immediately the hatred that led to further killings and rapes less than two years later, imagine what the insiders knew. In her chronicle of hatred, Ms. Bose had an obligation to tell the story behind that hatred. She didn’t. Ms. Bose provides little context for the violence that ensued in 1971.

        While supporting the contention that Bengalis committed atrocious killings and rapes as did their enemies, she graphically > > describes through interviews, the random killings by the Pakistan army at Dhaka University the nights of 25-26 March 71, when the Army moved to crack down on the Awami League. She provides a chilling portrayal of random killings of Hindus in a village by a Pakistan army platoon. She concludes:

        “For by the massacre of unarmed and helpless Hindu refugees at Chuknagar, a band of 25 to 30 men brought lasting disgrace to an entire army and a whole nation.”

        In the name of balance, this operation was not out of the ordinary, as she suggests in what amounts to an apology, but represented incidents that the Army repeated throughout East Pakistan.

       According to Brigadier F.B. Ali: “On the general issue of atrocities….they were committed by both sides. Unfortunately, in an insurgency that develops into a guerilla war, they happen quite often. My view is that the Pakistan army, being a professional military force, should be held to a higher standard than the ‘rebels,’ and are thus more culpable also, because the scale of their actions was considerably more than those of the other side. Criminal were the actions of individual commanders who ordered atrocities to be committed….

       “…the soldiers and younger officers fought well in EP. The mid-level officers’ performance was a mixed bag, some good, some bad, most average. The senior officers (brigadier and above) performed poorly, with some exceptions. Many of the generals behaved terribly. They should have been shot for cowardice and the war crimes they committed by directing or allowing their troops to commit atrocities against the civilian population.”

       This view was worth considering; Ms. Bose failed to explore this side of the issue, dismissing complaints as Bengali nationalist propaganda. Instead, she was enthusiastic in her admiration for the commanding general of the Pakistan forces in East Pakistan, Lt.

General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, whom she describes as having a “distinguished past and a tragic fate.” because he surrendered to the Indians in December 1971, Niazi became the fall guy for Pakistanis. As F.B. Ali described Niazi:   

        “‘Tiger’ Niazi was a disgrace to the uniform….He was a fraud, a lecher, and a coward. When he was GOC (general officer commanding) 10 division, it was well known in the garrison (I was there) that his staff car would often be found standing in Heera Mandi (Lahore’s red-light district). As GOC EP, he used to go around visiting troops and asking JCOs: how many Bengalis women have you raped? When discussing his surrender with the Indian general, he tried to ingratiate himself by telling dirty jokes…”

         Ms. Bose contends that the Bengali insurgency was wiped out within weeks after Niazi took command in East Pakistan. To support her contention, she quoted Mort Rosenblum, then a correspondent for the Associated Press and one of the first five foreign newsmen allowed into East Pakistan after the March crackdown. Mort, then stationed outside Pakistan,  joined the group because the Pakistan authorities would not let me back in East Pakistan then; presumably, I knew too much.

         Brigadier Siddiqi recalled that when Niazi met the five reporters, he shot off a stream of dirty jokes. After a guided tour of East Pakistan with the group, Rosenblum wrote, as quoted by Ms. Bose, that the Bengalis were in a state of “submissive inactivity.”

         When I jogged Rosenblum’s memory of that occasion, he said: “The passion for independence was just sparking to a full flame. I wondered what would have happened if they had Facebook and Twitter.”

          Ms. Bose went on inordinately in her book about the fact that Bengalis hurled nasty names at the Pakistan army. She placed significance that in her interviews, many rural Bengalis, in particular, praised ‘Beluch” soldiers for their kindnesses.  She took this as remarkable insomuch as there were few, if any soldiers in East Pakistan from Baluchistan, a western province of West Pakistan (although two of the Pakistan army regiments in East Pakistan at the time were labeled the 20 and 22 Baluch, mostly staffed by Punjabi or Pathan personnel). Rather than considering the “Beluch” label a misidentification by usually illiterate Bengali peasants, Ms. Bose speculates that these “Beluch” did not exist but were only in the “ethnic imagination of  Bengali nationalists.” To what end, she never makes clear.

         She takes on in the book a numbers game questioning the support of Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League, which in the 1970 election convincingly won 160 of 162 seats in East Pakistan and none in West Pakistan, a seat total enough to give the party a majority in a National Assembly that was never convened. But Ms. Bose noted that although the Awami League received 75 percent of East Pakistan, just 56 percent of the eligible electorate turned out. She concludes, based on no evidence, “that 44 percent of the East Pakistan electorate was “too disinterested in the issues of the election to vote, or else had some disincentive to get out to vote.”

         Maybe some people were sick or had to work the farm or were among the province’s many poor and homeless, too interested in finding a daily meal than in politics. She seemed to suggest Sheikh Mujib, and the party really had no popular mandate, In her research, she certainly did not ask anyone who voted or not.

         Sadly, the violence outlined in Dead Reckoning continues to this day — just look at the murderous cultures today both in Pakistan with its Sunni-Shite clashes, its suicide bombers and assassinations, and in Bangladesh, with its political and student murders and crossfire killings. Whatever lessons Dead Reckoning offered remain to be learned.

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