Book Event: <i>Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War</i>

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In 1971, civil war convulsed Pakistan, eventually leading to the secession of East Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh. Dead Reckoning, a new book by Oxford University scholar Sarmila Bose, challenges assumptions about the nature of this conflict, and reveals how the war continues to play out in South Asia today. Bose discussed her book at a March 15 Asia Program event. Arnold Zeitlin, who witnessed the conflict while serving as the Associated Press bureau chief in Pakistan, offered commentary.

Dead Reckoning reconstructs the 1971 conflict through interviews (conducted in Bangladesh and Pakistan); published and unpublished reminiscences in Bengali and English of participants on both sides; official documents; foreign media reports; and other sources. Bose offered an overview of the book's structure. The narrative is chronological, and begins with the initial Bengali nationalist uprising in early 1971 and the Pakistani military's brutal response. The book then examines several specific incidents of the civil war, including army attacks on Hindu areas of the city of Dhaka and allegations of prisoners of war "being thrown to tigers." The latter chapters examine the underground fighters of the Bengali resistance, and describe the "bloodletting" of the war's final days—including the mass killings of intellectuals in Dhaka.

Bose's remarks focused on Bengali memories and perceptions of the war, and on the tendency "to distort" the truth. For example, General Yahya Khan, Pakistan's president during the war, is depicted in the typical Bengali narrative as a "monster." Given that he was the leader of Pakistan, the Bengali nationalists' archenemy, such demonization is unsurprising, according to Bose. However, she argued that Khan was not as hostile toward Bengalis as the latter made him out to be.

Another example involves Bengali recollections of ethnic Baluchis in the Pakistani army. Though Bengalis have used a variety of epithets against Pakistani armed forces (and particularly the ethnic Punjabis who dominated the Pakistani army ranks during the war), Bose discerns in the reminiscences of Bengalis a striking fondness for Baluchi members. They are often referred to as "angels," and regarded as the "kindest" Pakistani soldiers—the ones who offered food to prisoners and who showed the most restraint. In fact, explained Bose, there were very few ethnic Baluchis in the Pakistani army, and at any rate, Bengalis would have had trouble distinguishing members of this ethnicity from others represented in the army.

Bose contends that these "mysterious" virtuous Baluchis did not exist, except in the imagination of Bengali nationalists. Perhaps, she surmised, Bengalis were expressing a form of subconscious solidarity with Baluchis, many of whom favored (and continue to favor) secession from the Pakistani state. Yet Bose explained that the few actual Baluchis caught up in the war were not at all regarded as angels. Her research uncovered a story of one unfortunate Baluchi soldier who was set upon by Bengalis and butchered to death.

In his commentary, Zeitlin commended Bose for reviving his own "vivid memories" of 1971, and said that she had "done a great service" by putting a human face on tragedy. However, he faulted the book for overemphasizing casualty figures, arguing that numbers simply are "not too important" when a single killing is one too many. This focus on killings, he argued, obscures the conflict's major story—one of a fight for Bengali self-determination. Zeitlin also criticized the book for not probing underlying questions abut the war, such as what exactly drove the "intense hatreds" and killings. He concluded that Dead Reckoning amounts to a "distortion of history"—just as all other books on the war do, given that each of these studies reflects the inevitably biased perspective of the author.

Bose countered that there is an urgent need for a strict chronicling of the war, even if, like her book, it avoids deep explanations and policy discussions. This is because, owing to a lack of information, the events of 1971 have simply not been "seriously studied" by impartial scholars. She applauded the fact that more books on the war are forthcoming, and brought attention to the growing level of academic work on the conflict. With genocide experts now taking an interest, she said, scholarship will be enriched by new thematic and comparative perspectives.

By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program