Death of 1947 in Bangladesh’s Popular Memory

Death of 1947 in Bangladesh’s Popular Memory


I have been exploring Bangladeshi newspapers and textbooks for school children to study how the partition and the end of British colonialism in India in 1947 is depicted. The objective was to conduct a qualitative content analysis to evaluate the significance of 1947 in Bangladesh’s official and public narratives. I intended to examine state-mandated history and social sciences textbooks from 6th to 8th grade, and three major newspapers’ special issues published to commemorate the “Independence Day” of Bangladesh (i.e., 26 March). Although I didn’t expect to find substantial work on the partition and its impact on present day Bangladesh, I was indeed surprised to see the complete absence of any discussion in academic or public discourse regarding 1947. This is because firstly, the geographic area called Bangladesh is a direct result of the partition. Secondly, the nationalist movement that resulted in the establishment of independent Bangladesh was pitted against Pakistan, a state which came into being as a result of the partition. Thus came the question: Why did 1947 die in Bangladeshi historical narrative?

When the British decided to end its colonial rule in Indian sub-continent, it was partitioned into two independent nation states. Even though the independence from colonial rule was supposed to be a moment of joy, the partition also produced one of the bloodiest and cruelest migrations and communal conflict in history. The religious fury and violence resulted in the deaths of some 2 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. An estimated 12 to 15 million people were forcibly transferred between the two countries. Hence, the partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence. Ayesha Jalal has called Partition “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia.” She writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.” Since the partition, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition. The unresolved issues of cartography that created a sense of ‘unfinished business of the partition.’ The long term border tension and conflict over Kashmir has resulted in several wars. More recently, Both India and Pakistan have been on the edge of a nuclear war, making the region unstable and volatile. In addition, the hostility and hatred since the birth of these two nation-states has overshadowed the centuries of shared history, culture and history of communal harmony. This antagonism not only impacts the relationship between India and Pakistan, but also underestimates the potentials of regional development (failure of SAARC is an example).

Collective Memory and Bangladesh’s Public Memory of 1947

Collective memory is the shared knowledge of a traumatic event that a community or a nation experienced. It is not an individual memory and usually there are different accounts of the shared past. According to Andy Markovits and Simon Reich, collective memory “is the lens through which past is viewed,” in which “both masses and elites interpret the present and decide on policy.” In short, collective memory plays an important role in producing concepts of the “nation” and national identity based on a complex political implication of the issues and dominating ideology. Collective memories are expressed through historical texts both academic and popular, public displays such as monuments and museums, work of art and architecture as well as festival and rituals.

In order to examine Bangladesh’s collective memory of the partition, I intended to examine the official narrative of 1947 in the state-mandated history text books for grades 6th to grade 8th. As in any nationalist discourse, history remains an integral part of the Bangladeshi political discourse, and public memory. The history text books for these three grades are no different. Disowning the history of 1947 and selectivity of history are two reoccurring themes in the official narrative of Bangladesh’s history. Firstly, the Bangladesh and Global Studies text books considers 1971 as the starting point and treats 1947 and events related to the partition as not part of “our history.” For example, the mention of migration of millions of people is non-existence in all three history books. Yet as it has been estimated that “the massive exodus began in 1947 and continued right into the 1960s” and before 1970s, five million refugees had left Bangladesh previously known as East Pakistan. Another example of disowning the history is that between 1947 and 1971, Bangladesh is referred to as East Bengal more often than as East Pakistan. When explaining the “Final Result of Anti-British Movement” a chapter in Bangladesh and Global Studies book for grade eight reads, “East Bengal became independent from the British as a part of Eastern Pakistan. But this was not the true independence of the people of Eastern Bengal. The Pakistani rulers enforced their torture and exploitation over the people of Eastern Bengal. Truly speaking, the people of East Bengal had to start their movement again from the 14th August, 1947 to achieve independence in the real sense” (pg. 10).

In addition, the Bangladesh and Global Studies text books regard 1971 as the point of departure of the country’s history while 1952 (the language movement), 1966 (movements for six points demands), 1969 (pro-democracy popular uprising) and 1970 (the election) are referred to as background information. For example, the book for six grade says, “We all know that Bangladesh started its journey in 1971” and “the history of Bangladesh started only in 1971.”  This selectivity of history has led to ignore past events as if the history of the country had not existed before 1971. However, one may ask why is the partition important in Bangladesh’s history? Or some people may claim the history should be staring at 1971 because Bangladesh was “born” in 1971. The cartography of present day Bangladesh is identical to that of East Pakistan drawn through the partition process. The following map shows the map of East Pakistan is what present day Bangladesh’s borders. Not only this map was created as a result the partition but also it became the defining feature of the cartographic tension between Bangladesh and India. The 70 years old dispute ended in 2015 when India and Bangladesh began the exchange of over 160 enclaves. The map was also inscribed on the first flag of the country in order to establish the liberation movement as a demand for a separate statehood rather than joining India. Mohiuddin Ahmed in his book One Day this Country was at War (এই দেশে একদিন যুদ্ধ হয়েছিল) states that “…..Sirajul Alam Khan proposed to inscribe the map on the flag so that no one can scandalize the movement as a movement for an “undivided Bengal” (pg. 45). Other sources also cited that the movement for independence was misrepresented by the Pakistan government as an imaginary movement for a “United State of Bengle [Bengal].” As a result, the significance of 1947 in constructing “Bangladesh” statehood is undeniable as both its cartography and imagination of a separate statehood was the direct result of the partition.


Death of 1947 in Bangladesh’s Popular Memory

Why have the official narratives (the state sponsored textbooks) and popular memories excluded certain historical events and their importance in the construction of Bangladeshi statehood? What prompted the silence? One possible explanation of such exclusion can be traced back to the ongoing contestation with regard to national identity. The political and social battle between “Bangladeshi” and “Bengali” identity indicates the failure to resolve historical and political issues. Since the independence, Bangladesh’s struggle of identity-by extension ideology-has revolved around a recurring tension between two distinct ‘constructs’: the ‘Bengali’ and the ‘Bangladeshi’ identities. The ‘Bengali’ identity evolved largely due to two factors: first, on account of the secularist traditions that were present in the early history of Bengal; and second, from the Language Movement that arose in the early 1950s within East Pakistan. On the other hand, Bangladeshi national emphasizes the territorial nationalism as an effort to differentiate the Bengalis of Bangladesh and Bengalis of West Bengal of India. Since 1975, the Muslim identity of the Bengalis in Bangladesh was reasserted in Bangladeshi nationalism (Mohsin, pg. 77). Moreover, proponents of Bengali identity have largely been associated with the Awami League while the Bangladeshi nationalism has been associated with BNP.

Moreover, both of these political parties and their nationalism are based on a monolithic meta-narrative 1971. They only adhere to histories that serve their version of the history. For example, Awami League rarely mention Mujib’s affiliation with the Muslim league in 1950s. The selective history and the meta-narrative of national identity gained a momentum in 2013. The rise of Shahbag movement and Hefazat-e-Islam shed light on the countries unresolved and politicized issue of national identity. Both groups adopted a binary and continuously redefined frame in which these two camps construct their different national identities on the basis of their loyalty to “liberation war” or “Islam.” these narratives resulted in an “us” vs. “them” account of the past and present. Shahbag movement and Hefazat-e-Islam shaped a grand narrative in 2013 where they portrayed each other as “enemies” and quested to “save” what they believe should be the basis of Bangladesh’s collective identity and ideology. Both movements’ actors and participant framed their versions of the narrative based on the ideology and identity they adhere to, thus formed the “the other” or “the enemy” (Zaman, 2015).

However, once included in the ‘us’ does not guarantee of being treated as ‘us’ forever. Both groups essentially demanded a complete and unqualified loyalty to the narratives, even a minor digression was not acceptable. Seuty Sabur (2013) has noted the issue in the context of Shabagh, ‘anyone who had differences of opinion or asked questions about existing grand narratives was attacked. Personal attacks and defamation of activists became commonplace online.’ The Shahbagh and the Hefazat protests have largely divided the nation into two radical and binary camps. In the wake of shirking space for freedom of expression and deteriorating democratic characteristics, these radical movements legitimized intolerance and created a greater division in the already polarized country regarding issues of identity (Riaz, 2015). The view that discussion on 1947, as an originator to Bangladesh statehood may further unsettle the ‘delicate balance’ of the struggle over national identity as well as challenge the monolithic histography of the country based on selective history. This is because the proponent of Bengali nationalism, the Awami League, does not signify the Muslim identity of the citizens of Bangladesh. As a result, discussion on 1947 would require acknowledgement of Muslim identity as well as it East Pakistani history. On the other hand, the proponent of Bangladesh, BNP, is already accused of being anti-liberation war. Hence, avoiding discourse on 1947 is a better strategy for them as any discussion would reinforce what they are already accused of.


It is ironic that the succession of Bangladesh is a challenge to commonly held reason for the division of colonial India into two separate states – one with a Muslim majority (Pakistan) and the other with a Hindu majority (India). Yet, the concept of a separate state for East Pakistani is rooted in the two-nation theory of 1947. One may argue that the non-existence of 1947 in Bangladesh’s official narrative is due to its experience of a newer trauma in 1971. However, the logic seems to be fundamentally flawed because the trauma in 1971 was a continuation of the events that happened in 1947. Thus, claiming that 1971 is the starting point for Bangladesh’s history not only disowns its history but also acknowledge its existential crisis. Unfortunately, this non-existence of any discussion on 1947 is not limited to the history book. The Bangladeshi academic and public discourse has equally discounted the significance of the partition by ignoring the most important event of the century for South Asians. A similar argument can be made that the selective history and the lack of a hegemonic national identity are the predominant reasons for such oblivion, further research should be conducted to discuss future impacts of these actions.

Fahmida Zaman

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1 Comment

    May 22, 2016, 10:06 pm

    It is a good article. It points out to political manipulation in history writing. Similar attempts are being made in neighboring India where ultra-nationalists are trying to undermine Muslim contributions to Indian history. Will the effort succeed? I doubt. I think in this age of internet and digital technology it will be difficult to distort history. How fast it will happen? It all depend on how fast people of good conscience open up their minds.


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