On February 24, 2016, in the Lower House of the Indian parliament, Smriti Irani, India’s Minister of Human Resource Development, named Sarmila Bose and my book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, during her fiery response on the issue of freedom of speech. The minister’s introduction of me was most kind, and her remarks raise important issues about how to study the past and what happens when freedom of thought and expression, whether by scholars, journalists or students on university campuses, collide with notions of “nationalism”.
Unfortunately, what Minister Irani attributed to my book is incorrect. She claimed I wrote that “the Bangladesh liberation war was a fallacy”. Whether India’s intervention by means of invasion in Pakistan’s self-destructive crisis was a fallacy or not is an important question, but not one addressed in my book. The book is not about India. It is an investigation, based on extensive field research, of what happened in particular incidents of violence during a little over a year of conflict in what was then East Pakistan. Irani is also mistaken in claiming that I wrote that “the Pakistan army never did anything to the Bangladeshis that Indira Gandhi went to support”. The book is something of a catalogue of horrors: describing the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army to crush a movement for “azaadi” in one of their provinces, as well as those committed by Bangladeshi nationalists against non-Bengalis in the name of Bengali nationalism.
Irani was referring to my book in the context of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi being arrested and accused of being “anti-national”. She quoted, with disapproval, slogans allegedly raised by the students in support of “azaadi” for Kashmir, and against the Indian state and the Indian army. She did so while rousingly raising the slogan “Bharat mata ki jai” in parliament. The whole point of democracy is to accommodate different perspectives in a deliberative setting. It is essential for students to have a questioning mind, to challenge authority and to grapple with conflicting values and points of view. India is best served by knowing what really happened in any historical or contemporary event, including unpalatable facts and conflicting versions of what happened. Muzzling scholarship, journalism or student activism in the name of nationalism, religion, political ideology or any other excuse, violates the values of freedom and democracy, and hurts India.
I realise the minister is busy and perhaps did not have the time to read my book, but whoever briefed her on me is probably unreliable on other matters as well. Quite apart from misrepresenting my work, was it right or fair to try to use me to attack my brother, an opposition MP, who made a speech the day before? Irani thought he should present my book to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. That is a very good idea, as long as they take the trouble to read the book of course, before opining on it. However, it is far more important for the people of India to have access to a wide range of evidence-based publications and the freedom to engage in debate on difficult issues, including the dark side of “nationalism”.
Sarmila Bose is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Oxford.