Bergman, Contemptgate and into the categories of the Bangladesh war dead

Dhaka based British journalist David Bergman has been found ‘guilty’ of contempt by a Bangladeshi court for contesting the figure of three million dead during the 1971 Bangladesh war [JUDGEMENT TEXT]. The legal grounds are  Byzantine, I would argue that the ‘lesson’ he is being given is for humiliating Bangladesh’s judiciary and its mindless reproduction of the Bengali National mythology.

The judges are unfit to have an elevated position over 160 million souls, and pretty much deserve a good ribbing after having played a vital role in blowing probably the only chance Bangladesh was going to get to investigate the war and hold people to account, with key figures still alive. If you think about it, the judges have handed the government’s political nemesis, the Jamaat-e-Islami a long term moral victory with these kangaroo trials, which their bleadership are likely to piss away on something trivial, neoliberal or both.

The Awami League government is faltering in step these days, bitchin’ about the random US diplomats meeting with their deposed opposition, and doing a damage limitation exercise after a cabinet member accidentally let out what he really thought about Bangladesh’s Muslims and their economic ‘usefulness’.  A few days back, establishment court photographer Shahidul Alam complained that some of his Drik gallery staff were beaten up by government party cadres, without irony.

White and capital powers are always looking for a more convincing looking set of clients. The sins of the Awami League are documented and will not be used against them, but to negotiate against the people’s interest to extract greater rent

The government probably going to try and deport Bergman to ease their path to judicially murder another Islamist bogeyman,this time the progressive Kamarrazzaman, in time for Victory day (soon to be Vengeance Day). There is no such thing as press freedom in Bangladesh, unless you are serving the government’s will, then you can press and oppress what you like.

This moment does prompt one to reflect however, on the unjust continuing detention of Mahmudur Rahman, and why the establishment in Bangladesh is so scared of talking about how many people lost their lives in and around the Bangladesh War.

Bergman speaking outside court in Dhaka this week. Beside him is is wife Sara Hossein,
a high profile barrister and BLAST campaigner.  Because its very relevant to how things work,
I must add that Bergman’s father in law is Kamal Hossein, an eminent barrister and
Bangladesh’s first Foreign Minister and constitution writer.
Arrest of Amar Desh editor/owner Mahmudur Rahman in April 2013.
This followed months of intimidation for publishing revelations of collusion at the Tribunals,
and standing up to the fascistic Shahbag movement. The final straw for the government was
his publication’s giving voice to huge public revulsion at reckless anti Islamic provocations.
My way of resisting this illegitimate, tyrannical and hopeless government is to deepen the critical numeracy for which Bergman is being persecuted, and discuss numbers and ecology of violence issues further and more deeply. I disagree with Bergman’s politics,laugh at his admission of confessions extracted under torture in his 1994 Channel 4 film, and am disgusted at his denial that the 24 dead he saw after the Shapla Chottor Massacre on May 6th, constituted evidence that the government had committed a massacre. However seeing how Al Jazeera journalist Nicolas Haque’s family was threatened by ultranationalist for covering the trials, there might well be subsurface reasons, not bastardesque ones for the later.
Friendly fire or collateral damage?
The court has apparently given Bergman the choice of a token fine, or an opportunity to gain source material in a Bangladeshi prison over a week. This episode is surreal because  Bergman’s white privileged, but flawed efforts have done a lot to render the trials possible and palatable to the white liberal left, not to mention the neocons.
What nobody has been able to do however, is to arrange things so that we might truly know all perspectives and experiences of the war year, robustly. ‘Civil society’ has always been intolerant of other perspectives, and the trial has been incompetent, murderous, collusive and entrenching of this tyranny.  I was against trials in these current historiographical circumstances.
Bergman, who maintains the best English language archive on the proceedings, has responded to the verdict here and here, whileEnglish PEN have jumped to his defense quite eloquently.   The court had problems three of his posts.
  1. His 11 November 2011 blog where he visited the honourless terrain of the origins of the 3 million war dead.
  2. His 26 January 2013 blog where he analysis the in absentia judgement on Abul Kalam Azad, a month or so after the revelations of the Skypegate collusion materials and shortly before the ultra nationalist Shahbag kicked off.
  3. A second blog analysing the Azad judgement on 28th January 2013, where Bergman questions the wisdom of putting a lot of prejudicial and un(con)tested information into the introduction of the court judgement.
A few weeks ago, there was another nationalist bunfight following a young deshi Al Jazeera English reporter’s reference to Bergman’s ruminations on the numbers of war dead. Establishment voices used the opportunity to reassert themselves and push alternatives ideas, and voices beyond the pale of acceptability.
Although he is not the only one to contest the figures, white people listen to him, so as the logic goes, he matters. It hurts the Awami ego when its source of power, the Bangladesh foundational mythology, is interfered with. This hurt is amplified by the fact that the ruminator is white, accepted as such by the west, and has married into an elite local family not unfamiliar with Bangladeshi and International law.
Whose deaths matter?
 There has been a sad lack of analysis of the dynamics of war during this tribunal. Last month, during the bun fight, Bergman cracked open Categories of Death, which are quoted below
– there are civilians murdered by the Pakistani/collaborators
– there are civilians who died in Bangladesh from war related diseases, hunger etc
– there are civilians who died in India in the camps
– there are those Pakistani solders and Mukti Bahini who died in the course of battle
– there are those Pakistani solders and Mukti Bahini who were were killed after being captured.
– there are Biharis who were killed by the Mukti Bahini
 I would add the following
-Biharis and Urdu speakers killed by Bengalis in the run up to the Pakistan Army crackdown
-Biharis and Urdu Speakers killed after the official end of the war
-Civilians and fighters killed by Indian armed forces.
Numbers, with dates, places and contexts tell us about the ecology, transfer and interactivity of violence. That is if we are interested in understanding ourselves.
It is a real pity, failure and indictment that the names and stories of death circumstances of everyone have not been collected. I have heard of one effort well underway doing so and wish that quiet man good luck. The urban middle classes flagellate themselves regularly over the deaths of urban middle class intellectuals, dedicating them a whole day, however the lives of sons and daughters of farmers are rarely accorded value.

An Elections Mubarak present from a well wisher.

If late Pakistan is to be characterised by state crime, prejudice and economic deprivation, then we can see through the straight light from 25 March 1971 and 6 May 2013 that the conditions of Pakistan never ended.

Bhashani was correct nothing structural has changed, if anything colonial continuities have grown more intimate.

And now that Bangladesh is established fact, not Biafran, and that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is General Yahya Khan, and that former UN Peacekeeper and  Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Benazir Ahmed is General Tikka Khan, maybe a few more might have an open ear to the cultural choreography and emotional blackmail surrounding the Bangladesh War – not to mention the underlying accumulation by dispossession.
Why are numbers important?
What difference does a number make? is the line of argument used to persuade people away from asking too many questions, by people with a stake in continuing the ignoracracy. They are in their second generation.
These are the same people who insist that numbers do matter and that they are very low, if not zero for the Shapla Chottor massacre and related incidents last year. They demand that oppressed victims of crimes deliver the government that killed them lists of the dead immediately.
It matters because it gives us an idea of the lengths social formations will go to to achieve their goals and undermine those who challenge them, it also complicates the monoculturalised impacts of the singular Bangladesh narrative and trains us morally to even try and understand other people. Critically it matters because hegemonic power manipulates good people and kills with it.
West Bengali political scientist Sarmila Bose walked through the heavily mined ground of Bangladesh war deaths a few years ago, with an empirically rooted study that examined a handful of incidents from different angles and closed of with a numerical analysis of estimates that caused some upset at the time. Her talk at the Brick Lane Circle was called How can we apply critical thinking to understand 1971? and viewable online here.
It is hard to know of her work’s content in Bangladesh, where her book is perceived like a radioactive substance. One history professor was harrassed and nearly lost his job for including it on his student’s reading list. however for all the narcassistic critiques on the pages of EPW, Bose does not provide us the most startling knowledge on the subject.
These inconvenient reports emerge from Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury’s bilingually sourced 1996 publication ‘Behind the Myth of 3 Million’, which can be read online . It seems studiously excluded from the Bangladesh canons of Bergman, Shahriar Kabir, David Lewis, Meghna Guhathakurta and Willem van Schendel, Gary Bass and Srinath Raghavan, though Sarmila Bose briefly picks up on it.
Chowdhury is not endeared to Mujib family’s Bengali Nationalist project, most people with pro Islamic intellectual convictions see it as an essentially Islamophobic ideology.  Like Bose doesn’t feel the need to massage egos and pride for repeat custom.  He has written at length on the long range histories, or Brahminism and Buddhism and their impacts on the Bengal Muslims. His focus on the Myth of 3 Million here may read to some as disparaging to those with genuine family suffering. However, when taken in the context of the human, economic , intellectual and civilisational costs of accepting such a big self regenerating and maddening lie that it critiques, the sharpness makes more sense.
The excerpts below shed light on Mujib’s egotistical attitude to emerging quantitative evidence [p29-30], and through the words of a staunch pro Awami League writer and witness, the Provisional Government in Exile’s responsibility for a great number of refugee deaths [p56-57]

4.2. The Inquiry Committee Report:

The Inquiry Committee seemed to have also failed Mujib in giving him
the kind of truth he was after. The Government of Bangladesh never
said a word about officially receiving the report, which was, as per as
the original Gazette notification, due on or before 30 April 1972 or
what happened to the Inquiry Committee’s work.

On 6 June 1972, William Drummond reported:

“Since the third week of March, when the Inspector General’s
office in the Bangladesh Home Ministry began its field
investigations, there have been about 2,000 complaints from
citizens about deaths at the hands of the Pakistan Army have
been received.”
[3]

Later, sources in Bangladesh reported that the draft report showed an
overall casualty figure of 56,743. When a copy of this draft report was
shown to the Prime Minister,

“he lost his temper and threw it on the floor, saying in angry voice
‘I have declared three million dead, and your report could not come
up with three score thousand! What report you have prepared?
Keep your report to yourself. What I have said once, shall prevail.”

[4]

7.2. The Categories of People ‘Killed’

…Irony is that they were made victims by
their fellow ‘Bengalis’. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, the columnist,
disdainfully wrote:

“Now we are saying three million Bengalis have been martyred.
Without even having a survey we are claiming that three million
Bengalis have died. But those of us who went to Mujibnagar
and took up administrative responsibilities were responsible for
the death of four hundred thousand children, one million women
and two hundred thousand old people, out of the ten million
Bengalis who took refuge in India. The records of their death
exist in the newspapers of Calcutta and in the refugee related
documents of the Government of West Bengal….A section of
our public representatives have taken away food from the mouth
of these women and children and have sold the goods that came
from foreign countries as aid to the refugees ….Millions and
millions taka’s worth of foreign aid came and most of them
disappeared in the cavern of corruption.”
[3]

It was not Abdul Gaffar Choudhury alone, M.R. Akhtar Mukul, another
leading liberationist, has also provided us with a vivid eye witness
account of this heartless killing of hapless women and children at the
hands of the Awami League politicians. [4]

Newspaper representation from June. What on earth does Abdul Ghaffar Choudhury mean?

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