Freedom of expression

In Bangladesh, writing fiction about the liberation war may well become impossible

Bangladesh is about to pass a law making it illegal to 'misrepresent' the liberation war of 1971. Will all writers have to tell the same story now?

It was either 2007 or 2008. While browsing the bookstalls at the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka, I came across one featuring books on the liberation war. Some of the titles were familiar, others new to me. I asked a man behind the display why they didn’t carry Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Talaash. He replied that they did not consider the book to be pro-liberation war.

I could not elicit any details. I found his remarks ironic since around the same time, a writer in Shaptahik 2000, a weekly magazine, had listed Talaash as one of ten significant books on the war. I’m wary of such lists, but I do agree that Talaash is a vital novel about 1971 and its aftermath. I have read this book more than once, translated part of a chapter, and also helped edit the English translation published as The Search by Zubaan Books India.

The novel opens before the war. After a scandal in the village, a young woman named Mariam is sent off by her parents to attend college in Dhaka. She falls in love with Abed, a student leader, who scorns her for her lack of politics but doesn’t mind sleeping with her as often as he can. When the war breaks out, Mariam joins thousands of others who flee the city. Unfortunately, the Pakistani army captures her and for the duration of the war she is held in a school building where she and other women are tortured as sex slaves.

The end of the war brings release from captivity but a fate far from liberation. Though the new government declares women like Mariam as Biranganas, they are scorned by society. Some of Mariam’s peers commit suicide, some leave with the Pakistani soldiers, and others survive selling their bodies. Talaash is the story of Mariam’s struggle to refuse any of these fates over the next thirty years.

Asking around, I found hints of why some people objected to Talaash. There were people who thought the book maligned student leaders. One reader had trouble with the fact that Mariam was not a virgin. Approaching the novel from the standpoint that the Pakistani military had destroyed "the honour of our women", it didn’t sit well with him that the novel’s protagonist was someone already having sex.

All signs suggest that the Parliament will soon pass the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act.

This law will give anyone the right to file a complaint with the police or the courts. While history is defined as settled, the law’s clauses about history are vague, and it goes on to consider it a crime to be “representing the liberation war history inaccurately or with half-truth in the text books or in any other medium” (italics mine).

Other writers have expressed anxiety about what this means for the freedom to research the complex and polyphonic history of the entire movement for independence. I share those concerns but as a writer of fiction, I also fear for the burden this will impose on creative writers.

Ordinary people learn about history not just from text books but also from stories, novels, plays, and films. I am haunted not just by what I saw and heard in 1971 but also by narratives I have read in books. My sense of the texture of 1971 is rooted in personal experience but it has also been enhanced by the efforts of many writers. Bangladesh owes an immense debt to such writers.

Of course there will be critical debate over works of fiction. On any book you can find a range of opinion, and in reading fiction, taste can be highly personal and subjective. Until now, most criticism about 1971 fiction has remained verbal or on the page. But what happens when writers fall under the shadow of the proposed law?

What if someone who feels that Talaash is not sufficiently pro-liberation war decides to file a case that the book “represents history inaccurately or with half-truth”?

In our highly litigious society, it is not unknown for random individuals, either with personal axes to grind or the desire to curry favour with the powerful, to file defamation cases. The proposed law is setting the stage for malicious “denial of history” cases. Given that the law is written with vague references to “events” and “truth”, it opens the door to abuse and harassment.

Consider another scenario.

Mahmudul Haque’s novel Jibon Amar Bon is one of the most significant works of fiction from Bangladesh. It was first published in a magazine in 1973, not long after the country became independent. When I first read the novel, I was struck by its unsentimental approach to the liberation movement. The story is set entirely in March 1971, during the upheaval that led to the breakout of the war.

In Translation Review, Shabnam Nadiya wrote this about Jibon Amar Bon:

“Post-war disillusionment is perhaps inevitable; but Khoka’s pre-war apathy was the first attempt to capture a consciousness that ran counter to the glorious nationalist narrative being constructed. With the world around him exploding in the passion of protest against Pakistani domination, Khoka remains disdainful. He justifies his detachment saying that the same mob once welcomed the military dictator Ayub Khan. Seemingly oblivious, Khoka fits in nowhere and his choice is to remain enmeshed in his life of friends (whose impassioned debates make him think of the futility of humans); his beloved sister Ronju; Neela, the woman of his desire. Yet hinted through the mirror of this detachment is a dire imagining of post-war Bangladesh of easy money, elaborate corruption, a burgeoning middle class bent on grabbing opportunities provided by ‘public sentiment’.

“Khoka’s detachment is destroyed when he loses his sister to war; life leaves none untouched, despite our illusory distance. We don’t know how Ronju dies, for Khoka’s recall lacks clarity. All we know is Khoka’s mistake: ‘All he had wanted was for Ronju to survive…His sad country could never have given Ronju the right to live.’"

Nearly a decade ago when Mahmudul Haque was still alive and I was in Dhaka, I had many conversations with him about everything under the sun. I had asked him about reactions to Jibon Amar Bon.

He said that it had been well received by some, criticised by others. “One day,” he told me, “I was stopped while riding in a rickshaw. A man stepped out of a car and asked me to accompany him. I asked, ‘Why do I have to come with you? You know where I live and work. I’m going to work now, you can meet me there.’ The man was from an intelligence agency; someone had brought the novel to their attention.”

Through one of his friends, Mahmudul Haque met Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the Prime Minister’s office. The prime minister was informed that the author had been receiving some flak over a novel he had written. When he asked what the book was about, Mahmudul Haque had replied, “To answer that properly, you would have to read the book but where could you find that sort of time?”

He related to me that Mujib had replied, “We freed the country. We are an independent country, people will write what they will. If someone harasses you, let them know that we have spoken.” Nothing further happened after this meeting.

If the Denial Act comes into place, a hostile critic could demand Jibon Amar Bon be banned because it’s guilty of “denying events that were for the preparation of the liberation war between 1 March 1971 to 25 March 1971’ and that it represented the war ‘inaccurately or with half-truth.”

I have written several stories related to the 1971 war that appear in my book Killing the Water. In the story “Kerosene,” a liberation fighter is part of a mob burning down a warehouse filled with women and children belonging to a minority community of whom many had collaborated with an occupying army. The story is allegorical, set in an imagined place, but readers familiar with 1971 will recognise that it’s written about our own atrocities towards the “Biharis”.

There are many who would like to deny this shameful aspect of our history. When I wrote this story, I recalled a story I had heard when I stepped over to Agartala in 1971, a story of shame that refused to let go and sank itself into my being. “Kerosene” was an effort to use fiction to come to grips with that experience.

People can like or hate my stories. Just as some might consider Talaash or Jibon Amar Bon or a dozen other published narratives as insufficiently patriotic. But literary disagreement, even when laced with emotion, should not spill over into police attention or criminal courts.

Laws must not burden writers with shackles that prevent them from freely imagining history in their writing. I fear that the proposed law will come down as a restraint on writers, preventing them from exploring the complexity of our history through stories and novels. This will not serve the country well at all.


Fiction has a complicated relationship with history. Those of us who are fiction writers do not pretend to be historians but our fiction can draw on history and interrogate history in ways that historical texts cannot. In fiction, writers often seek to explore truths in unconventional ways.

Some writers prepare for their historical fiction with detailed research. Others draw from experience or start from an impressionistic view of events and rely more on their imagination. In each case, an author searches for truths through the tools of fiction: characterisation, description, narrative, imagination.

History cannot be reduced to a mere chronicle of events. Behind events lie the actions of human beings. Behind those actions, or passivity, lie a complicated mix of consciousness, will, accident, reaction, emotion, thought. Historical researchers can try to unravel that blend, seeking threads, answers, and patterns, but there is a large area of the unknown – what goes on in the minds of humans? – that fiction writers can use imagination to probe more boldly than others.

What if in the course of writing fiction, we enter into the minds of heinous people like Pakistani military men or collaborators? What if we make efforts to build such characters not just as embodiments of evil but as fleshed out characters? What if someone takes offence at such examples and interprets these as misrepresenting history?

What if we enter the minds of those we may consider on “our side” but who reveal in their interiority a complex mix of emotions, not just courage and resolve but also shame, cowardice, small-mindedness?

The tool chest of fiction writers is vast. It may not even be constrained by fact.

Some, for example, explore alternate histories. What if a writer chooses to write a novel imagining a history where it was the Pakistanis who won? Or one where the Indian army decided to stay and maintain an occupation? Or where a radical regime came to power? Any of these scenarios would be factually untrue, but fiction writers can use scenarios like these to tell stories about the multifaceted time that Bangladesh had gone through in 1971.

Yet, if the denial law comes into effect, someone daring to take on these imaginative challenges would be targeted by those who only see a simplistic story line for 1971. Then the police and courts would wade into this territory, mostly unfamiliar to them, to determine judgements and sentences. Is that where the legal system, already pressed hard to deal with crime, should devote its resources?

It’s hard enough when Islamic fundamentalists have created an atmosphere when every writer has to watch what they say about religion. It would be an additional burden when lawmakers, driven by a different kind of rigid mindset, pass a law that may penalize writers for writing about 1971 in unorthodox ways.

Those writers who experienced 1971 are passing. There are yet many stories to be written about the times of war and the country they bequeathed. It will mostly fall on younger writers, those who didn’t directly experience the war, to draw from historical research and their own inclinations and imagination.

What burden is the state putting on those who would want to write on the canvas of 1971? Do we really want to impoverish the literary possibilities about 1971 or for those who refuse to conform, do we want to send them to jail for their creative efforts?

This article first appeared on the Dhaka Tribune website.

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