Efforts to record People's War

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho

The social and political chaos that followed the Liberation War, particularly in the 1970s (which included assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman and large scale famine), meant that recording history became neglected. And with emotions still raw from the trauma of 1971 and increased political pressure to reflect events favourable for parties in charge, it became difficult for genuine freedom fighters to open their mouth and tell the truth about the liberation movement.

Few have collected information about these ordinary people and their role in 1971 so their memories and their war experience have become invisible and inaudible over time. We know so little about them that they are almost non-existent narratives. So the narratives of the mainstream and the powerful, have become the only history. The memories of the majority have been allowed to die through neglect.


Nevertheless, with the advent of time these efforts have been intensified. Most of Projonmo Ekkattor (Generation '71) have either passed away or are in their last days, therefore it has become even more important to preserve history and provide a true - or as close to truthful - account of events during those turbulent days. Two Bengalis who are excelling in their efforts are Lieutenant Colonel Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir and Afsan Chowdhury.

Colonel Zahir, a Bir Protik, is an independent researcher and author of over 26 books on the Bangladesh Liberation War whose numerous articles have been published in both national and international newspapers. During 1971 he escaped from his post as a Battery Officer in the 78 Field Regiment Artillery, 14 Para Brigade in Sialkot, West Pakistan, crossed the Jammu-Kashmir Border and joined the war initially as a Guerrilla Commander in Sector 4 (Kushtia-Jessore). Later he raised 2 Field Battery Artillery and as a Gun Position Officer and an Artillery Observer, he participated in the battles of Borolekha, Shamshernagar, Juri, Kulaura and Fenchuganj in Sylhet. For his valor in the battle of Borolekha, Colonel Zahir was awarded the "Bir Protik" Gallantry Award - Bangladesh's third highest gallantary award.

  • Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir ()

Post independence, Colonel Zahir, who had experienced first hand the bravery and sacrifices of ordinary people on a day-to-day basis, has been very active in trying to spread knowledge of the people's contribution towards war. He is a regular guest speaker at schools, colleges and universities in urban and rural areas of the country and is currently the project director of the Bangladesh Army History project. He is also a national committee member under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs composed for honouring foreign nationals who have contributed to the Liberation War of Bangladesh, and is a committee member and book reviewer for Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh.

In addition, he's the founder and Executive Director of Shudhui Muktijuddho (literally meaning 'Just Only Liberation War', but used to denote 'Our Struggle for Freedom'), an initiative that documents the narratives of ordinary freedom fighters of the Liberation War and the experiences of civilians in 1971. The organisation conducts research on war crimes that were committed during the nine-month war and also extensively documents information about the missing and disappeared during this period. Shudhui Muktijuddho is also affiliated with 70 student organisations and conducts training workshops on systematic collection, recording and verification of oral history of the Bangladesh genocide.

Colonel Zahir is also the creator of the documentary series Deshtake Bhalobeshe (For the Love of Our Country), a regular 30-minute television program that uncovers genocide in different parts of the country and the stories of survivors and witnesses who lived through the atrocities. Over 225 episodes of Deshtake Bhalobeshe have been aired nationally so far.

For his continuous efforts and sheer dedication Colonel Zahir was awarded the Bazlur Rahman Memorial Award for Best Television Documentary on the 1971 Liberation War in 2011, and in 2013 he was awarded the prestigious Swadhinata Purushkar (Independece Award), Bangladesh's highest civilian award.

For people like Zahir, we shall not forget history.

Selina Hossain praises Lt. Col. Zahir for compiling stories that have 'remained in the shadows of history'

Like Lt. Col. Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, Afsan Chowdhury too has been very proactive in spreading awareness of villagers contribution to the Swadhinata Juddho.

A student of Dhaka University's history department, Afsan Chowdhury initially planned, in the late 1970s, to write his MPhil thesis on how the whole idea of Bangladesh’s independence movement evolved since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. He was responsible for the state-sponsored project for the documentation of the first six of the 15 volumes of Bangladesh’s history of struggle for democracy in its Pakistan era. The volumes, known as 'Bangladesher Swadhinata Juddho: Dolil Potro' was edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman, and another reputed historian, Dr. Sukumar Biswas, was also part of this endeavour. But as he was exposed to some military documents during his involvement with the history documentation project between 1978 and 1983, certain bitter truths of the country’s political history confused the innocent researcher in him.

Suddenly I realized that military conspiracies are part of the country’s political history, because I came across some ‘classified’ military documents that showed that the army used to issue cheques for certain political programmes, which were regarded by the people as sacred!

Afsan Chowdhury,

Frustration over "the sense of constraint.. and fortifying political positions rather than presenting facts and accounts" forced Afsan Chowdhury to leave the project and he travelled around Bangladesh to collect and record oral history of the Bangladesh genocide. He produced a 6-episode radio series titled "Women and '71" for BBC in 2000 and then produced 'Tahader Juddho' documentary a year later. In 2003 he interviewed a number of Indian and Pakistani nationals for yet another BBC radio series.

In 2007 Afsan Chowdhury edited and co-authored the mammoth "Bangladesh 1971", a 4-volume set totalling over 3,000 pages chronicling the birth of Bangladesh. Compiled over a period of 4 years, the book, written in Bangla, is split into seven parts comprising of 22 chapters. The first six parts are spread over the first three volumes and details the events preceding 1971 and during the war itself. It covers a wide range of subject including disparity between two wings of Pakistan, growth of Bengali nationalism, political, military and diplomatic aspects of the Liberation War, social context of 1971, role of India, Pakistan's problems during 1947 which resulted in its split in 1971, and role of international actors. The final seventh part occupies the entire fourth volume and consists of only one chapter - a compilation of 15 reports and 132 in-depth interviews collected over a period of about 7 years. The interviews are grouped into those of Liberation War organisers, veterans and social workers, villagers, women, Indian politicians, civil and military bureaucrats, cultural activists, journalists, and two social workers, non-Bengali Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh, Pakistani intellectuals and academics, and miscellaneous persons of various nationalities.

A few years later, however, I did return to research, but with a slightly different purpose in mind. Hoping for a small, finite piece of terrain, on which I could be sure of what I was learning, I turned to the villages of Bangladesh for rescue – and possible redemption. Here, I would not find out about state-making, but I would find out what had actually happened to people and families and communities. Most importantly, I would not be mixing up the past with half-truths and the unknowable.

My ideas about the craft of history also began to change. I came to realise that, in ignoring the memories (both individually and collectively) of those people whose experiences and work has not been written down, we historians make a crucial distinction between what is and what should be. Traditional history began to strike me as too incomplete, too imprecise. Like the state that it often served, it seemed to have made up only those rules that served it best. The documents, the written words, the impeccable claims of sourcing seemed, in the end, inadequate. Traditional history 'outsidered' everyone except for the powerful.

As such, my new undertaking began with listening to people of all kinds, both the so-called fringe and the principal players. The marginal, the riff-raff, especially in the villages or the slums, had not experienced state-making to begin with. As such, they discussed what was actually important to them, rather than what was important on a political level. In fact, such conversations rarely explained events; they rarely put them together into any kind of framework. For me, there was a certain liberation inherent in all of this: to focus solely on a very small area, to hear what stories would arise, then to cross-check these facts. This was research – truly finding out what happened.

I realised that those in the villages saw the words for country, state, land, village very differently from how we Dhaka researchers did, and perceived themselves and us urban observers even more differently. There was always a framework of facts, quite ordinary in the national context but about which almost the entire village agreed. To them, we were like sailors from victorious armadas of distant lands, who had come to collect riches and disappear. The disconnect between the state and society is reflected in the multiple, often contradictory, constructions of society or the village by the ‘peripherals’, and the convergence, contact and ultimate domination by the power-based cultures reflected in the state.

It must be noted that we were not using Marxism, ‘subaltern’ history or any another ideological paradigm in the process of coming to various understandings. Instead, only the villagers’ own perceptions were used. For instance, the word 'desh' meant ‘country’ to us, but meant ‘village’ to them – an ironic distinction. Likewise, the events of 1971 were considered glorious milestones of nationalist history to us; to them, however, in their failure to encapsulate nationalism while stuck in villages or slums, it meant continued suffering, even while they continued singing the national anthem.

During the first few years of these explorations as a reporter on history, my own anxiety lessened over what had really happened versus what I knew. At the same time, the space between the facts and what was being told had also shrunk. Ultimately, the dynamic that was set up was one in which, for instance, the act of a woman telling me about what she knew would neither make her powerful nor benefit me. This was merely a transaction of words and memories, an exchange of nothing. I am not romanticising here. Rural life, and that of the ‘peripherals’, is mostly brutal, nasty and short. It can be cruel, and is dictated by its own set of politics. Nor did I feel as though I had discovered my long-lost family of ‘good people’ standing in the mud. We were clearly different, apart, strangers even in our own spaces. But we were also able to talk; and I, to listen.

As leader of the team, I began to see this project as something of a sunflower: a large centre surrounded by long petals. At the core would be the villages in 1971 – and not your usual cast of heroes, politicians and soldiers, but the people who survived, those who would never be heroes. The focus of this project would be the ordinary people, those who are rarely included even as footnotes in history. It would not exclude our conflicts, stupidities, vanities and shame, or that of others; but unlike most works of history, it would not be a narrative of patriotism or even nationalism, at least insofar as these are normally understood. It would be a history of a particular year, a time, a period of moments rather than ‘liberation’ or ‘independence’. In the end, it became a documentation of inevitabilities, right from where all Bangladeshi began in the Subcontinent.

It took six years to complete the book, and a half-dozen souls to do the work. It was a non-government effort, and largely the collective labour of the young, all born after 1971. This made it possible for these people to go out, listen, explore and often probe, without the burden of a sense of obligation to the state and its birth narrative – very unlike the compunctions felt by us older researchers. In its final form, it is a four-volume work, totalling 3,000 pages and sold by the publisher as one book. It is not the best, but is certainly the largest book in Bangla in Bangladesh.

Afsan Chowdhury on writing his monumental book "Bangladesh 1971" recording contribution of rural 'outsiders'

This work, with its historical focus on the experience of the common wo/man during our war of liberation, will no doubt in the days ahead become the standard against which to measure 1971 history writing by.

...The book reminds and returns us, by degrees, to the roots of our war of liberation.

Review of Afsan Chowdhury's "Bangladesh 1971" book

Afsan Chowdhury also appears as a guest speaker in educational institutions both nationally and internationally.

Though both Lt. Col. Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir's and Afsan Chowdhury's efforts are highly commendable, there are still work to be done. It is the duty of writers and scholars - and more importantly the youngsters - to not only cherish and uphold the spirit of Swadhinata Juddho but also continue to spread it.