Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War
Muhammad Safikul Alam Choudhury was captured in September 1971 for training young men to shoot with rifles grabbed from the police. He was taken to Thakurgaon cantonment where, over several days, he was beaten during questioning till he lost consciousness. Every time he came to, he found himself in a cage with four tigers. The tigers did nothing to him. One day, the military put 15 people in the cage and the tigers mauled a dozen of them. The mauled prisoners were then taken out and shot. Safikul Alam, who lived to tell the tale, says a total of 150 persons were shot this way at the cantonment.
In Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Sarmila Bose, a journalist and historian, wades gamely into truth and reconciliation that Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have steadfastly shied away from. Naturally, mythology around the war is not of Safikul Alam’s making alone. “The assertion by Bangladeshi nationalists, believed by people around the world, including Indians and many Pakistanis, that the Pakistan army committed genocide of three million Bengalis during 1971… is the dominant narrative of the war.” Bose begins her quest from this premise, sifting through recollections on all sides to tease out the truth.
A series of interviews across the sub-continent results in chronological impressions of the Bengali nationalist agitation, the parallel government of Sheikh Mujib’s decrees, the beginnings of military action in Dhaka, civil war in the provinces and persecution of the Hindus, and the fratricide in the last days of the war. Bengal’s most famous surname did not help Bose overcome the entrenched scepticisms to her study; the Cambridge historian had to prevail by her objectivity to get the Pakistani army officer to talk and the Bengali freedom fighter to shut up.
The witnesses hold up some of the stereotypes. The soldiers at the perimeter were tall and fair, the ones doing the shooting were relatively short and dark: an account of the killings inside Dhaka University on March 25. Yet Bose can’t escape the conclusion the state of denial is higher in Bangladesh, and to some extent in India, than it is in Pakistan. “In many ways the subsequent political formations in Bangladesh have been fighting out the battles of 1971 ever since, each constructing its own version of history.”
Call it earnest journalism or lazy history, Dead Reckoning has a singular accomplishment: it raises uncomfortable questions that need answers. The dead have their version too, in real life as much as in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Bose has drawn the right inspiration here.
As for Safikul Alam’s experiences in the tigers’ cage, this is what Brig Amir Muhammad Khan, Commanding Officer of 34 Punjab based at Thakurgaon in 1971, had to say when asked if he was feeding Bengali prisoners to tigers. Lt Col Khan arrived in Thakurgaon in July and inherited two tigers and two cubs that the unit had kept as pets. Someone said they used be in a circus. One Bengali prisoner was not talking, so at one point he himself took him to the tigers’ cage and threatened to throw him in. The man still wouldn’t say anything, so he let him go.