Memory & Emotions

Remembering the Bangladesh War

This article accompanies Manas Ray’s article “The Volatile Seventies: A Memoir of the Naxalbari Uprising in Calcutta and the Bangladesh War” in History Workshop Journal 95, where it is currently open access.

Nations have their own ways of dealing with memories of trauma. In the case of my homeland of India in the early years of independence, public recollections of the Partition of 1947 were by and large enveloped in silence. To those in power, it seemed necessary for the project of nation-state. From my childhood memories of the early sixties, it seems to me that the Independence Day celebration referred more to the new nation than the severed nation. Of course, it would be wrong to say that the Partition died out from popular memory. Novels were written as were poems. A few films depicted the travails of the Partition as their main theme. And after all, communal flare-ups were above all sore reminders of an unresolved past eventually manifesting as organized, calculated pogroms of India today.

My article “The Volatile Seventies” in issue 95 of History Workshop Journal is part of my ongoing attempt to redress some of that legacy of silence. It explores my college (and hostel) days in the first half of the 1970s, years when I witnessed an urban uprising in Kolkata (Calcutta) and the outbreak of the Bangladesh War. In so doing, it forms a loose sequel to my 2002 HWJ piece “Growing Up Refugee”, which narrates my childhood and school days, the incredible ordeal of the refugees in the early years of the Partition and the gradual formation of a community with its own governmental modes. The new piece records the stormy years of the 1970s, exploring the nebulous way that the erotic underwrites our revolutionary inspiration. My aim was to craft a memoir that hinges on fiction without tampering the texture of the time and the larger claims of history, in order to share with the reader a feel of that turbulent decade on both sides of the Bengal border.

College Street Coffee House, Calcutta, 2022. Photo by Bijoy Chowdhury.

My decision to turn to memoir, not just once but twice, reflects my country’s changing literary and intellectual backdrop. In recent decades, as the national narrative of stability, growth, and statist secularism has proved increasingly untenable, interest in the Partition has intensified, taking it as, if not the originary point, then at least the dividing line of our national life, as if it holds the secret of much of our present misery.

This is not to say that Partition became part of academic discourse only from the 1990s. Big fat tomes were regularly being churned out, probing who was responsible, how it could have been avoided, the big actors, the big story, the big picture of the big nation. The scholarship that emerged in the 1990s started asking new kinds of questions, questions that came with new epistemological assignments in history writing, literary studies, and cultural  anthropology: How did people undergo the experience of Partition – as groups, as families, as individuals? How did Partition become part of ourselves? What does it mean to suffer? What is it to witness? What does it mean to be violated and raped and then to have to live with those poisonous memories that cannot be shared even with very intimate relations?

Yet even as this new scholarship grew in bulk and in prestige, it came with omissions and distortions. Most accounts focusing on Partition’s afterlife of pain and trauma have focused on Punjab in the west. In contrast, the Partition literature of Bengal in the east began mostly as upper caste Hindu Bengali nostalgia about a lost land depicted as a pastoral idyll. Hindu Bengali sentimentality obscured the fact that upper caste Hindus behaved towards  Bengali  Muslim  peasants  and  also  Dalits  in  a  manner  no  better than apartheid. In recent decades, one has witnessed the unobtrusive transformation of collective, popular recollection into a national recollection. In the numerous written and oral memoirs of recent times by Hindu refugees, the stress is more on the journey from enormous hardship of the initial decades of resettlement to the gradual upward journey on the economic and social curve – in other words, a thorough embourgeoisement of a historical disaster of mammoth proportions.

This version narrates only a part of the story of Bengal’s Partition. For Bengali Muslims, the Partition of 1947 was half the victory. The other half would be enacted in East Pakistan and result in the liberation of Bangladesh from West Pakistan in 1971. The struggle for self-esteem of the Bengali Muslims could not stop merely with ceasing to be part of united India, but continued till the Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis were ousted from the land. 1947 and 1971 are part of the same conjoined processes of the historical search for self-esteem.

The early 1970s was also a time when West Bengal witnessed an unprecedented political and social upheaval. Starting in 1967 as a peasant rebellion in Naxalbari in the foothills of the Himalayas, the unrest spread like wildfire to other parts of Bengal. In Calcutta, it took the shape of a full-fledged urban uprising. The activists of the movement were popularly known as Naxals, and were linked to a new political party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – CPI(ML) – established in 1969.  The state’s response was merciless, a severe crackdown which by 1972 had largely eliminated Naxalism from urban areas, though its ripples continued to be felt until Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a nationwide Emergency in 1975. During the uprising, traditions were questioned, the bourgeoisie-landlord rule challenged, the continuation of the colonial legacy attacked, and prevailing cultural, ethical, and sexual mores put under intense scrutiny.

Hindu Hostel, Calcutta, 2022. Photo by Bijoy Chowdhury.

Looking back now, fifty years later, on what I witnessed as a student, it strikes me that the streams of events in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal were not merely concurrent processes but shared  larger historical truths. Each in its own way formed part of what we might think of as a geological explosion: the 1970s youth uprising felt in every part of the globe. The forms may have been different, but the energy was much the same. In Australia, it was time to cast asunder the long-held colonial cloak and turn to indigenous histories, to local flora and fauna; in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Berkeley and New York, it took the form of celebrating sexuality in all its splendor and also fighting for change in gender roles; while in Africa and large parts of the colonized world, people engaged full-swing in decolonizing movements. For Bangladesh, it was time to announce independence from its Pakistani rulers and the sovereignty of the Bengali Muslim self. In the western part of Bengal, we dreamt of armed peasant insurgency drawing on the borrowed philosophy of Chinese Maoism. We all were fighting our past, right, left and centre. Action first, philosophy to follow.

Perhaps one common underlying theme to these various forms of protest could be the liberation of our erotic lives from the shackles of tradition. Back in 2002, in ‘Growing Up Refugee’, I observed: ‘So often in our high schooldays, we had gushed out in a team ignoring the scornful looks of older teachers, shouting in unison slogans of gigantic simplicity: ‘Amar naam, tomar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ (My  name, your name, Vietnam, Vietnam). I didn’t exactly know where Vietnam was on the map. It didn’t matter, for Vietnam was everywhere, a libidinal expanse, a name-place where blood flowed to announce the death of a world order.’ In retrospect, it seems that it is this ‘libidinal expanse’ which brought the different uprisings of that period together, made us look for new ways of relating to the self, strive for new cartographies, sing songs, march in processions demanding new modes of belonging, a new communion with fellow humans and with nature. We could well afford to remember this legacy in our own era of neo-liberal rights. Let us be talking of adequate procurement prices for peasants and equal citizenship rights for LGBTQ members of society in the same breath. Let revolutionaries be convinced that repression is the soul of reaction. Let the 1970s come back again!

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