Monday, 24 November 2014

Book Review: The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, by Salil Tripathi

I have been fascinated and perplexed by Bangladesh (actually more perplexed than fascinated) ever since I became interested in international politics. One of the many unanswered questions I’ve had about Bangladesh is how the founding father of Bangladesh and almost his entire family, including ten-year old son Russell Sheikh, could be killed within less than 4 years of its independence. I remember once discussing this with a stranger on a train – I must have been fifteen then and my correspondent had made a claim to extensive knowledge of global politics – how Bangabhandu and his entire family could be killed by Bangladeshi army officers, who were unpunished as yet, then. ‘Mujibur Rahman was a good man, but he was surrounded by bad people, especially his sons, who were really nasty. One of them once abducted a senior army officer’s wife, just because he liked her and you know what he did to her, and the army officer couldn’t do anything about it. Just like that. They were above the law. The army men hated Majuibur Rahman and his family so much that when they launched their coup, they killed them all.’ It would be an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked. To be honest, I did not fully believe that story, traces of which can be found on the internet, such as here and here.

As I grew older, I kept looking for answers to my questions. I found some answers, but until I read Salil Tripathi’s latest book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent - The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, no one had satisfactorily answered my questions regarding Mujibur Rahman’s killing and the aftermath. Tripathi gives a number of interlinked reasons as he explains how the mid-level army officers who plotted and carried out Mujib’s executions not only succeeded, but also got away for so long, until Mujib’s daughter Hasina came to power in 1996 and set in motion the wheels of justice (or revenge, if you will).

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is not just about Mujib’s killing and the delivery of justice (or retribution) to his killers. Rather, it is a concise history of Bengal, starting from the arrival of Islam leading to the East India Company’s rule and Curzon’s partition of Bengal. The 350-odd page tome ends in January 2010 when Farooq Rahman and Mujib’s other killers went to the gallows.

I found Mujib’s personality, as sketched by Tripathi, to be fascinating. Tripathi tells us that Mujib was a physically weak child, taking two years to complete his third grade. He also needed eye surgery and missed four years of schooling as a child. However, when he reached adulthood, he was tall and handsome. He married at the age of eighteen. He studied law, but never graduated. He became close to Suhrawardy and stood by him during the Calcutta riots, which Suhrawardy was responsible for. However, after Pakistan became independent, he was vociferous in his opposition to Urdu. In short, I got the impression that Mujib was an emotional man with charisma who, if he hadn’t become a successful politician, would have turned out to be one of those absolute no-gooders who drink tea at way-side stalls and pontificate endlessly.

As for the story that one of Mujib’s sons had abducted and raped an army officer’s wife, Tripathi merely says that ‘there had been rumours that an Awami politician had misbehaved with Brigadier Dalim’s wife at a party. He had complained to Mujib, but Mujib hadn’t taken the complaint seriously.’ This was only one of the various reasons why some army officers got really annoyed with Mujib and killed him, along with his family.

The reasons for Bengalis in East Pakistan wanting their own country has been well-documented and repeated ad nauseam. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, many in East Pakistan were angry that East Pakistan was left undefended. West Pakistan got the bulk of resources and development. When Cyclone Bhola stuck, West Pakistan sat back and smirked. On top of it all, Punjabis could not understand why Bengalis loved to sing and dance and follow other Bengali customs which seemed to be entirely “Hindu”. These are covered by Tripathi too and there are no big surprises. However, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent also provides answers to a few other questions which have tormented me for a long time. How could Pakistan and Bangladesh resume normal ties and become rather good friends, if Pakistani troops had indeed massacred over 3 million Bengalis, as widely claimed, I’ve always wondered? Also, if India had sacrificed its soldiers so that Bangladesh could be free, how come there is so much animosity towards India in Bangladesh? I have blogged about these questions in the past. Tripathi offers some answers. It should not be forgotten that East Bengal had in 1947 opted to be with Pakistan, rather than India. There are many more reasons which are of course much more nuanced than I could explain in the course of a book review. Do please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.

Did Pakistan play a role in Mujib’s killing? Tripathi does not rule out the possibility. How else could Pakistan come out in support of the new rulers within a few hours of Mujib’s execution? Tripathi wonders.

After Mujib’s assassination, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad took over power. Mujib’s killers received praise and promotions. Various leaders perceived to be pro-India were arrested and less than two months later, on 3 November 1975, the imprisoned leaders were executed in jail, allegedly on Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad’s orders. At the same time, a counter-coup took place on 3 November 1975, allegedly at India’s behest and Khaled Mosharraf took over power. Four days later, on 7 November 1975, there was a counter-coup to the counter-coup and Ziaur Rahman was 'the last man left standing'. Trust me, Tripathi explains all of this much better and in greater detail and you’d better hear it from him.

Interestingly, Tripathi tells us that when Bengalis in East Pakistan started to fight for independence, the Indian government had wondered if the Indian state of West Bengal also join the struggle and seek unification with Bangladesh. I found that funny. Tripathi is painfully dispassionate when he says that 'the decision to send the troops into East Pakistan was particularly hard and difficult for India, since its foreign policy was based on peaceful co-existence and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, in particular its neighbours. The policy was based on hard, cynical and practical reasons – India didn’t want the world to poke its nose in Kashmir, and it already had Tibetan refugees, it did not want to appear to be interfering in internal affairs of others.

Did Pakistani forces kill three million people during the period from 25 March 1971 until the surrender of Pakistani forces? The strongest argument agains this number has been put forth by Sarmila Bose and Tripathi takes note of the various discrepancies in the mainstream narrative, but he does not offer a concluding verdict in this on-going debate.

Tripathi is a good raconteur, but never ceases to be a neutral reporter, always taking care to present both sides of the story. For example, as he examines the various types of discrimination faced by Chakmas living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other minorities in Bangladesh, he wonders why Bengalis who faced so much persecution at the hands of the West Pakistanis find it so difficult to be so fair to other minorities who are even more vulnerable.

Tripathi does not talk about the mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles' personnel in 2009, which ended in the deaths of so many officers, including its Director General Major General Shakil Ahmed and his wife. I wish he had. This is the only grouse I have against this book.

As the book ends, one is left wondering about Bangladesh’s future. As more and more young Bengalis are attracted to Islamic fundamentalism, will it go the Pakistan route? Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh was not formed on the basis of religion, rather, it was formed because the majority of people living in Bangladesh wanted to be as much Bengali as Muslim. However, if Bangladesh is as much Bengali as West Bengal, would it become a poorer cousin of India and this seems to be unacceptable to many in Bangladesh. I could go on, but I am going to end here with a strong recommendation to all my readers to buy a copy of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent and read it. Just like Colonel Farooq Rahman, you won't repent either.

The first three pages of this 2010 article in the Caravan form the prologue of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, in a slightly modified form.

Tripathi is also the author of Offence: The Hindu Case

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Book Review: The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan

Rohini Mohan, a young but celebrated journalist has come up with a book on Sri Lanka, yet another in a long list of recent releases which seek to understand why the fabled Serendib has had to undergo so much pain and suffering since its independence. In Mohan’s account, no one is blameless. Even the victims of Sri Lankan army’s torture are shown to be harbouring irrational animosity and distrust towards Sri Lankan Muslims who speak the same language (Tamil).

Divyan and Prashant, two ex-LTTE fighters are incarcerated by the Sri Lankan army after the Sri Lankan civil ended. During their imprisonment, the men are repeatedly interrogated and tortured. After their release, they struggle to find gainful employment in a Sri Lanka where there seems to be very few avenues open to Tamils. Employers prefer Sinhalese and even infrastructure projects in the north refuse to employ the two Tamil men who are very keen to find some work. I found the inability to find employment or otherwise earn a decent livelihood subsequent to their release from the detention centres to be much more painful and cruel than the torture and interrogations they faced when in custody. In other words, there is total absence of hope for the relatively young men, who nurse a number of wounds and scars, not all of which are physically manifest.

Sarvanatha Pereira is a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up-country in Nuwara Eliya, a fluent Sinhala speaker to boot. However, his ability to speak Sinhalese and surname which enables him to pass for a Sri Lankan, only leads to trouble, since he is suspected to be a spy. What I liked best about The Seasons of Trouble was the way Mohan unspooled Sarva’s tale slowly, maintaining an element of suspense throughout. Until I covered more than half the book, Mohan kept me wondering if Sarva had been in the LTTE, as accused by the government thugs who abducted him. As Sarva flees to a Western country for asylum, one can’t help but root for him and hope that he is successful. With this too, Mohan keeps her readers guessing till the end.

In multi-cultural Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and Tamil have lived in isolated cocoons with very little interaction with each other. Schools are either Sinhalese or Tamil or Muslim and most Sri Lankans are mono-lingual. Mohan tells us that “In Sarva’s homeland, the hard-driven Tamil plantation worker was deemed okay but not the Tamil university student protesting discrimination. The happy-go-lucky Burgher with his glass of whiskey passed muster, but not the Burgher with a government job. The trading Muslim was fine, but not the praying Muslim. The devout Sinhala Buddhist was all right, but not the inquisitive one. These groups had to fit in, flow into the crevices the majoritarian state created for them.

Mohan tells us that the LTTE, which had once expelled 72,000 Sri Lankan Muslims from the Northern Province, was no less cruel than the Sri Lankan army which ultimately defeated it. The LTTE used to forcibly conscript children and used them as cannon fodder. Its propaganda was everywhere, including in schools and colleges. After the end of the war, the Sri Lankan army has been deployed in strength in the captured north. Sinhala classes have been made compulsory for everyone, though Tamil is not taught to Sinhala students in the south. Mugil, a former LTTE combatant, finds that her son has a Sinhala teacher who does not know any Tamil, who teaches her pupils Sinhala songs by rote. The students are unable to form a single original sentence in Sinhala.

Of course, there are glimpses of hope. Many of the aid workers helping Sarva and others like him are Sinhalese. Mohan reiterates that there are alternatives, imperfect though they might be.

The only place where I found myself disagreeing with Mohan was when she casually mentioned that Hamas had trained some Tamil militants in the eighties. As far as I know, the LTTE and other Tamil insurgent outfits had ties with the PLO and certain Kurdish groups. I am reasonably sure that no Sri Lankan Tamil outfit has collaborated with any fundamentalist Islamist group, including Hamas. In any event, Hamas was founded in December 1987.

Mohan writes well, in simple English which is to the point, as she tells her readers one of the saddest stories the world has ever heard. As the book ends, Mohan tells us how the Bodu Bala Sena has started to target Sri Lankan Muslims. Unfortunately, Mohan is not a fiction writer and The Seasons of Trouble is a true story.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Book Review: Daughter by Court Order, by Ratna Vira

Since 2012, 11th October has been celebrated as the year of the girl child. Women face discrimination in so many spheres all over the world and India has one of the worst track records when it comes to fair treatment of women. This discrimination exists not only in public spaces, but also inside most Indian households. In fact, it tends to be much more pronounced at home, with girls receiving step-motherly treatment in everything ranging from food to education to toys. One would tend to believe that this discrimination would be much more pronounced amongst the working classes and that the economically well-off sections of society would not discriminate against their daughters. Recently released debutant author Ratna Vira’s novel Daughter by Court Order suggests that it may not be so and that even among the rich, daughters receives a raw deal.

Aranya or Arnie is smart, pretty and bright as a button, but has a mother who seems to be straight from hell. Not only does Kamini dote on her effeminate son Randeep, but she also seems to hate Arnie with a passion. To start with, when Arnie was born (in France), Kamini didn’t want her to survive. Luckily for Arnie, her paternal grandfather Eshwar Dhari, a famous politician, willed otherwise and sent his daughter, Chhoti Phua to get Arnie to India. There are a number of instances where Arnie is shown to have suffered at the hands of her mother, who constantly put her down. Not so surprising in India, except that Kamini is supposed to be a feminist who publicly espouses the cause of women and their rights, all the time.

Arnie’s paternal grandfather is not only a successful politician, but is also frightfully rich. Her mother’s family, the Sharmas, on the other hand, came over to India from West Punjab during the partition and are shown to be not so well off, though quite shrewd and tough as nails. Well, to cut a long story short, Arnie’s grandfather has left behind a lavish mansion at Civil Lines, the house where Arnie grew up in and because Arnie’s mother does not want Arnie to inherit her share of the property, Arnie does not find a place in the family tree which has been filed with the court in connection with the partition of the property. When Arnie does find out about her mother’s deceit, it is too late. Or is it?

Arnie is a woman who has suffered a lot. A divorcee, Arnie has brought up her two kids singlehandedly after her husband Krish walked out on her. Arnie is torn with doubts as she prepares to fight her own kith and kin. Fortunately for her, she has a number of friends, including ex-husband Krish. Kamini is tough and she doesn’t hesitate to play dirty, but luckily for Arnie, India’s much criticised legal system delivers, and that too, with relative speed. The judges who hear her cases are honest and though Arnie is not able to hire a battery of lawyers like her mother and other relatives, the team she has assembled is top-notch. Many people help Arnie secretly, sending her documents and other evidence secretly by courier. In fact, Arnie even receives a visit from a Pakistani woman whose family suffered a lot on account of the Sharmas, Kamini's relatives, in pre-Partition West Punjab. There are threats to her life and towards the end, Arnie has a narrow escape from an acid attack, but Arnie never turns back.

The second half of the novel is especially riveting, as the action shifts between courts in Delhi and Ranchi. Towards the end, there is a sort of reconciliation with Krish who helps her in her quest for justice, but there is no doubt that Arnie’s fight is her own and her success, almost entirely the result of her determination, perseverance and single-mindedness. One starts to feel sorry for Arnie from the outset and as one learns more and more about Kamini and her viciousness, it is inevitable that one roots for Arnie and her success in claiming her rightful share of the property.

Author Ratna Vira is the daughter of Nalini Singh and S.P.N. Singh, the son of C.P.N. Singh, former Governor of UP and the vice chancellor of Patna University. Nalini Singh is the sister of Arun Shourie, the well-known and highly reputed politician and former journalist. It has been reported on a number of blogs and other websites that Arnie’s story bears an uncanny resemblance to Ratna Vira’s own life. Arnie’s parental grandfather Eshwar Dhari, C.P.N. Singh’s counterpart is shown as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and the vice chancellor of Ranchi University. Arnie’s Yudi mama who betrays her, bears a striking similarity to Arun Shourie. Was Nalini Singh as nasty to Ratna Vira and Kamini is shown to be towards Arnie? Was Ratna Vira embroiled in a family property dispute like Arnie and did she have to fight her family as well as the system to gain her rightful inheritance? Did Arun Shourie betray Ratna Vira’s trust in such a family property dispute? Interestingly, Ratna Vira has not denied any of these parallels.

It is surprising that both Nalini Singh and Arun Shourie, who are usually never tongue-tied or at a loss for words, have not commented on these real-life parallels. Their silence seems to suggest that at least some of Daughter by Court Order is based on truth.

It is a not so well known fact that five years ago, Ratna Vira instituted a scholarship at St. Stephens in memory of her grandfather C. P. N. Singh and each year for the last five years, a meritorious female student with financial needs has been receiving a substantial sum of money from Ratna Vira.

Daughter by Court Order is written in elegant English and is, on the whole, an exciting read. More importantly, Ratna Vira's tale is bound to inspire millions of women, in India and elsewhere, to stand up for their rights and to keep fighting till they have won.