Why do we never include women and the poor in our 1971 national history?

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Afsan Chowdhury:

A woman emerges out of hiding for the first time, carrying a rifle and accompanied by her children. The family were hiding from Pakistani troops during the Bangladesh War of Independence.

We never include women and the poor as significant participants in national history making because the roles we think contribute to it are not played by them. Essentially we follow an official understanding of what we think is history which is about producing governments, which is primarily a bureaucratic construct.

This approach ends up having history as a narrative of some specific groups who are from the aspiring ruling class, expected to birth the state and later run it. Since the Government is a formal construct, we assume that only those who qualify to be salaried members of the government are qualified to participate in state making, running and so claim credit. The rest are considered outsiders.

The Outsider’s history is subsidiary and adjunct. So the mainstream or “muldhara” belongs to the official world. The rest are people with junior histories originating from t social space. It is about what constitutes significance in bureaucratic eyes, civil or military or academic. In that space neither women nor any other marginalized groups play a role worth mentioning in history.

A history of Exclusion?

he problem of inclusion and exclusion is always present in any history writing since the ruling class designs it according to its convenience. The system is very clear. It says the included will be rewarded and the excluded will be ignored.  So once the war was over, many people line up to claim benefits. This is the reward for participating in the war which.

It was in essence cutting up the cake of history.  But the problem was that the cake was backed by many hands but sliced by a few who decided how large each slice would be. Few got slices, most didn’t as expected. And the qualification to get a slice was the role in 1971. To recognize the role of women and the poor would be giving credit to 90% of the people, significantly reducing the share and the slices for the elite. Consciously or not, denying the role of women and the poor began immediately after the war was over.

Who were the heroes?

The focus was on politicians, warriors, officers and leaders. Most of our historical narratives highlight the role of these categories of people. Once political groups began to be embroiled in conflict, such roles were highlighted even more as a connection to 1971 was considered an additional advantage to claim the right to rule. Glory belonged only to the armed warrior, the bureaucrat –in- Mujibnagar or the politician who belonged to the right party. The point is, of course, these people had a right to claim credit and benefits and they did.  But the point is so did others but they were denied by marginalizing their role. That happened deliberately and also due to traditions of denial of women and the poor in our culture.

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So keeping everyone else out of history by limiting the official narrative to a select group of people means is essential to limit sharing the benefits of independence.  This happens not only in recording history but how we look at history making too. Our academics are not trained to look at history from the concept of universal participation in making history. So they too overlook the role of ordinary people. They have only been academically trained to look at the role of the powerful groups assuming history belongs to them alone. So narratives also end up supporting this traditional history methodology by which women and the poor are always ignored. And ignored groups can’t make a claim on history and consequently its benefits.

The role of women and the peasant in contested war narratives

To understand the role of women in 1971, we need to look at the social structure of the country.  The official state of Bangladesh didn’t exist formally in Bangladesh which was under occupation and survival – social, economic and physical- was entirely the matter of the individual household or the village or urban zones. Thus, ordinary people developed an alternative state, which on the surface was Pakistan but inside was Bangladesh.  This was the greatest achievement of the people and they did it on their own.  No official order was needed to do this because this was spontaneous patriotism generated by society.

What the peasant did was keep producing food under great difficulties. Thus records show that there was very little agricultural shortfall.  It allowed Bangladesh some breathing time after liberation too.

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What women did was keep the household going, look after the family whether men were present or not, protect women from sexual violation, raise children, help FFs in every way, provide enormous logistical support to the fighters when needed, work as wage laborers when needed, perform traditional male  duties when men were absent, serve as warriors when opportunities and occasion arose and kept society intact. Without women who preserved Bangladesh like a precious jewel, no war could have delivered freedom to the land because society would have vanished. But even today we not only have no recognition except for those who suffered as rape victims, we are silent on the role of women.

We are silent partly because we don’t have the eyes or the analytical skills to describe the role of women in 1971. But we also deliberately ignore their role because that might mean an obligation to share the credit and hence the resource of post -1971 Bangladesh.  It’s something we don’t want to do hence we begin by refusing their right to be recognized.

Mr. Afsan Chowdhury is- a Journalist, Media Professional, Researcher, Social Activist, Author, Blogger and much more. At present, he is teaching History of Bangladesh and Diversity Studies at BRAC U and run research projects while continuing media activities.  He was part of the Muktijuddher Dolilpatra Project led by Hasan Hafizur Rahman from 1978 to 1986 which produced 15 volumes of documents on the history of 1971. For the BBC, he produced eight radio series and several chat shows on the issue on 1971. He has produced a video documentary on women and 1971 titled “Tahader Juddhyo”. Afsan has edited and co-authored a four-volume history of 1971, “Bangladesh 1971”.He has worked in several parts of the world as a development and Human Rights specialist for the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.

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