Analysis

How little we will ever know

By Afsan Chowdhury

6 March 2019

One historian’s move away from history, and back into the real world.

BD Afsan piece

(This article was first published in July 2008)

As a high-school student, I never considered any future other than joining the history guild. In school and college, I received all of the required marks, and thereafter applied to only one department at Dhaka University: it was history or nothing else. A few anxious days later, I was admitted – and my life changed. Serious politics, serious liquor and serious history all struck me and my new classmates like a thunderclap. In retrospect, we never really recovered.

It is not that the classes themselves were riveting. After the initial thrill of university had dissipated, my studies soon became little more than a distant priority. The world had to be saved, and tutorials were a bit of a bore. Indeed, for many above-average students, university courses in Southasia are not tough enough. History is a notable example. With few applying for these programmes, standards are kept at a level that, it is hoped, will accommodate the less academically inclined. The result is that history inevitably becomes a mediocre subject, taken up by those who could not make it into economics or international relations. History became everyone’s distant, poor academic cousin.

It was not always so. At one point, history was considered one of the top departments in any university of the Subcontinent. As a teacher once told me, history used to be the domain of future officers of the Civil Service of Pakistan. The department rolled out large numbers of these future bureaucrats. At that time, it was a subject that you studied to get out and move on.

The best thing about my own MA studies in ancient history and archaeology was my introduction to the works of D D Kosambi, H K Dani, H D Sankhaliya, B B Lal and, of course, Romila Thapar, as well as a host of others whose books were generally meant for ‘specialists’. The very bland textbooks used at the graduate level gave way to something rich and strange, and I loved it. Soon thereafter though, unlike what was usual in those days, my Master’s results did not lead to an immediate invitation to teach. There was no opening for me, and I was crushed. By then, however, I was working on a project on the history of the 1971 war, and my intellectual life was about to undergo some drastic changes. The year was 1978.

In the interim, studying for the comprehensive exam for the MPhil degree was an academically satisfying period, much of which was spent reading books that were not allowed to leave the library. In the inner sanctum of the library, ancient books lay unread, the only disturbances coming from weary, snoring scholars in the adjoining cubicles. Rumour had it that the library was haunted by the ghosts of some of the teachers who had been killed by the Pakistan Army in 1971. Although a few unexplainable things did happen, I saw none of the departed souls. I read voraciously, including the thesis submissions of my own teachers, and eventually did well enough to move on to my PhD. And then things changed once more.

Disappeared files

The Bangladesh 1971 War History Project was set up by the government to gather documents on the War of Liberation, and write a two-volume history of the event. Hasan Hafizur Rahman was the project chief, a legend in his lifetime for his activism, journalism and poetry. While revising the project documents, we dropped the part on writing the history and increased the volume of documents from six to 15. Nobody noticed, nobody complained.

There was no government order stating that all documents relating to 1971 needed to come our way. Rather, it was largely through goodwill and guile that we were able to get our hands on much of these papers. Many of these documents simply referred to the work of activists, partisans and victims, at home and abroad, during the war. Though technically in the public domain, many of these were stuck in foreign libraries and offices and were not accessible. However, we did receive ample donations of documents, and the fact that we were a fairly reputable lot helped our cause. By 1986, when the project ended, we had brought out 15 volumes of documents, around 1000 pages each, of pure source material, with no comment or analysis.

We worked under a committee made up of eminent academics, including several of my own teachers, and were neither disturbed nor censored by the government – a fact that was quite unbelievable to many. The documents that we eventually came out with have since become iconic, the foundation of all research on the issue of ‘1971’. However, given a chance to do it all over, I think we could have done a much better job. Looking back, some of the errors are glaring. There is no volume on the experience of women, for instance. In addition, some of the interviews and documents on repression – rape, murder, loot and torture – that had been collected before our work began should have been scrutinised more thoroughly, to ensure accuracy. Some were left out as acts of self-censorship, which would have been unacceptable now. In the end, the project work essentially became a narrative of state-making, rather than a description of a social upheaval. It never struck any of us that these conceptual issues were involved: we were not dishonest, simply naive.

It was around this time that I began to think deeply about the idea of sources. Several encounters in particular made me begin doubting the very business of history writing. For instance, I kept hearing about the existence of a host of Foreign Office documents on Indo-Bangla relations, as well as relations with other major powers. But I repeatedly failed in actually getting my hands on them, despite the efforts of some officials there. My perplexity at this failure was to some extent answered by an officer who eventually told me, straight out, that these documents would simply never be found. “These people gave their opinion in 1971 as rebels,” he said. “Now, if those documents are found and are put into print, it will be very embarrassing. It’s not about history; it’s about Foreign Service careers.” All of the officers of 1971 are long retired, of course, but the files in question remain ‘disappeared’. I remembered the flames that burned for days in the Dhaka Secretariat incinerator, as the victorious army approached in December 1971, and could quickly make the connection between history writing, bureaucratic careers and the continuous state.

At another time, we were told by several officers that most of the documents of the Mujibnagar government – the Bangladesh government-in-exile formed by the Awami League – had been sent at one point from Calcutta to the Chittagong port, on a ship named the M V Sandra. But though I made many enquiries, I was never able to locate anyone who knew of either the ship’s whereabouts or its contents. Many knew about its departure, it seemed, but none about its arrival. Eventually, we did manage to cobble together a volume on Mujibnagar, but only because we got lucky. It so happened that the Ministry of Defence of the government in exile had airlifted out all of its documents, which were subsequently kept in a locked room. It was these documents, including office copies of many administrative letters and memos, that ultimately helped us to prepare a full volume on the Mujibnagar government-in-exile.

Initially, the military authorities had promised to hand over the lot of their documents, for which official orders were even passed. But the documents never arrived. Years later, an ex-military intelligence officer admitted to me, over beer, that he himself had nixed the deal. “You were all fine, but you had a Hindu researcher and he was doing a lot of military history work,” he said. “We didn’t trust him, and we never passed the final order.”

Perhaps the most insightful experience we had was when we got our hands on a large number of secret files from the Pakistan intelligence service, most from between 1958 and 1962, but some from later years too. These files introduced me to the conspiracies that operate within the management of the state. It was becoming clear to me that there were two parallel narratives with regards to many aspects of the running of the state – and that, the vast majority of the time, the public was privy to only one.

Eventually, the sordid history of Pakistan’s secret service (or, for that matter, any country’s) and its nexus with politicians, was to strike me as not nearly as shocking as what I was coming to see as the true nature of my craft. What was a historian to do when he had to deal primarily with documents, even while a great many of the most crucial documents remained purposefully buried from view? Indeed, little more than chance seemed to dictate what could eventually be found and analysed. How could we believe what was being stated when an important source could, potentially, be acting on behalf of another? Looking back on my experience of trying desperately to locate various documents, the whole situation seems now to have been more of an exercise in finding out about how states are formed and run – showing how little we actually knew about these machinations at the time, and perhaps how little we will ever know.

Eventually, an idea began to germinate within me: of the essence of what a state truly was, and what statist history truly entailed. Historical research seemed largely about conspiracies and guesswork, while even much contemporary history was as hazy as the ancient texts. History professors like to say that this is a permanent problem with history. “Our job was to tell what we knew,” said one, “and we could do nothing about the rest, including the secret conspiracies.” But this did not satisfy me. Research was an exercise in knowing, certainly, but it also included a far-too-large element of not knowing. Footnotes often seemed to be used as substitutes for facts not found. References sufficed for permanent half-truths. At some point, it eventually all seemed too ephemeral, too fluid, too little for me. So, I dropped out of my incomplete PhD work, much to the sorrow of my supervisor.

The outsidered

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.

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 ‘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.

Last thoughts of the faithless artisan?

Fifteen years after that walk through the villages began, I could finally return to finish the research initially begun for my PhD. In the meantime, I had done several radio and television series on the topic of the birth of Bangladesh, travelling to many parts of Bangladesh as well as to India and Pakistan. Finally, we could do the book I had set out to write as a doctoral thesis, a work that would have been half-baked had I done so alone.

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 things Bangladeshi began in the Subcontinent.

It took six years to complete the book, and 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 3000 pages and sold by the publisher as one book. It is not the best, but is certainly the largest book in Bangla in Bangladesh.

In the aftermath, looking back following nearly 40 years of hacking away at the subject, I find that I do not put much stock in the writing of history – by myself or anyone else. To claim that I can write on behalf of others, to really capture the agency of another, strikes me as not just arrogant but as a impossible ambition. In recent years, I have become even more suspicious about claims of knowledge, more so than on the day that I told my kind supervisor that I would not be continuing towards my final degree.

In this world of power, it is impossible for historians to claim powerlessness. Being able to tell what happened to others, after all, is the most powerful of all acts. The only thing that helps an individual survive this knowledge-making is his illiteracy or ignorance. Otherwise, my exercise is about defining and describing him, and is an overwhelming act of invading his space. What can he do about it? Whether he likes it or not, all of us historians, in cooperation, have described the history of 1971. And through this process, we have had our say about what ‘has’ happened. In so doing, we have defined him, her, them, the lot – all as we saw fit.

The writing of history as a livelihood is, of course, understandable, because just about anything goes (even history research) when trying to support oneself, one’s family. But to do so when there is no compulsion of livelihood, when there is no motivation but the passion of a pilgrim, strikes me as irreconcilably violative. Like it or not, passion is paid back through congratulations and criticism, the recognition that we richly deserve and that which justifies our commitment to the craft. Why do we continue trying to know, even after realising that, one way or other, our social and intellectual empowerment can only take place when something is lost by those who share their memories with us? I have no answer to this question, and am left only with an acute sense of discomfort and guilt.

Whether it is Kosambi, the physicist and historian, or yours truly, the journalist and anything-else-for-a-living, we are both locked in an embrace that makes our harvesting of privileges impossible to avoid. We can only describe ourselves. For that reason, we might, perhaps, consider calling ourselves by a more humble description than ‘historian’. After all, we are not even sure as to whether what we are producing is someone else’s history or our own confession.

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– This article was first published in July 2008.

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