A war, an election and the Bala-Vikram stereotype
By Mubin S. Khan
16th December 1971. The third war between India and Pakistan has just ended. 90,000 Pakistani soldiers have just surrendered to the Indian army. This is the largest surrender by a country since the Second World War. A new country is born – Bangladesh
These are the opening lines of the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Gunday. Fairly innocuous words to Indian ears, and probably to the rest of the world as well, but it was as if a storm had erupted across the border in Bangladesh.
First, social media users set different platforms online ablaze. The Bangladeshi media quickly caught on, spouting anger on news and editorial pages. The government, overly-sensitive to any signs of anti-India sentiments, especially given their present predicament, sent an official protest to Delhi. And then the Shahbagh movement, till now limited to directing their wrath at Pakistan, have threatened to boycott all Indian products.
The main contention, of course, is describing Bangladesh’s independence war as the Indo-Pak war. The Indo-Pak war had actually started on December 3, 1971, though East Pakistan had seceded as early as March 26 that year, and were fighting a bloody war for nine months, heavily aided by India, in which, a reported three million people were killed (though the figure remains a matter of dispute) and the Bangladeshi guerillas had registered a number of small but significant victories. On December 16, Pakistan surrendered to the joint command of the India-Bangladesh forces.
For Bangladeshis, the new country had been born nine months earlier and freed on December 16, 1971..
Surrounded on almost all sides by India, and carrying a bitter legacy of being part of Pakistan for 23 years, Bangladeshis have struggled to have control over their own narrative against the overbearing weight of the voice of its powerful regional neighbours. In Pakistan, the war is often described as the ‘fall of Dhaka’ and attributed exclusively to ‘Indian conspiracy’, with virtually no mention of the deep grievances that had grown over 23 years of uneven-handed rule.
The Indian version of the story – that the victorious Indian army rode across the border to free the hapless and hungry Balas and Vikrams (the protagonists in Gunday) of Bangladesh – have gained fairly universal acceptance. For a country growing at six per cent over two decades, and performing better than its mighty neighbours in many grassroots socio-economic indicators, such descriptions are now increasingly being interpreted as insults.
In many ways, the Bangladeshi controversy over Gunday mirrors the Indian controversy over Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. It is about the discontent of a rapidly rising population, growing in confidence and basking in patriotic fervor, against the lazy, flippant, stereotypical and dated descriptions of mightier nations; often described as poverty porn
It is not so much that two underfed boys from Bangladesh could never have moved to India in 1971 (it still happens at quite a phenomenal rate), for Bangladeshis, it is more about making their larger neighbours realize that there is more to Bangladesh than just Bala and Vikram’s Odyssean journey to becoming Hindustani from Bangladeshi.
For many Bangladeshis, the honeyed relationship of 1971 had rapidly disintegrated over sharing water over common rivers, over the rampant killing of Bangladeshis across the 4,000 kilometer border between the two countries, and many other real and imagined problems. For Indian politicians it is the country from the East that compounds their beggar and crime problems through illegal immigration, while for most Indians it is that country the size of one half of their many states, that they helped create.
Unfortunately for Gunday, its timing of release poses an additional problem.
Over the last two decades, Bangladeshis had devised a rather tenuous yet stable formula for holding democratic elections through a special election-time government. The power-intoxicated governments each time, understandably, are not too keen on the idea, but are forced by a combination of public opinion, international pressure, and outright intervention, to cede power to election-time governments, known as caretaker governments.
This time around, the Indian government let the present Awami League-led government get away with discarding the caretaker government and holding one-sided elections, owing to its eagerness to keep its ally Awami League in power.
Bollywood films in the past, be it Border in 1997 or 1971 in 2007, had gotten away with describing the 1971 war as exclusively Indo-Pak war. But Gunday arrived at a time when many Bangladeshis feel India has played a major role in depriving Bangladeshis over their democratic rights to a participatory election.
In many private quarters in Bangladesh, anti-India sentiments right now rival those of the pre – and post – 1947 era.
In some ways, Gunday tells the story of an impoverished and unlawful people who need help from their mighty neighbor, needs to be kept in line, and needs to migrate across the border to stand on its two feet. By protesting the Gunday story, Bangladeshis are telling Indians – we, or at least a majority of us, are doing just fine, can take care of ourselves and are happy to be Bangladeshis.
Mubin S. Khan is a Special Correspondent of a leading Bangladeshi newspaper, New Age. He is an alumnus of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.