The manuscript of a forbidden history

Bangladesh government’s Year of Mujib begins this Friday (January 10th). The authorities will do all they can to stop the publication of history critical of the country’s independence leader.

The manuscript of a forbidden history

In 2013, I read the book India after Gandhi by Ramchandra Guha. By then I had written a book, Sonali Banglar Rupali Kotha, on the ancient history of Bengal for children and youth. The book described history in the form of a dialogue between a father and a son — a technique of narration much appreciated by my readers. After that book’s success, as I was wondering how I could narrate history for adults, Ramchandra Guha’s style of narration captured my imagination and led me to decide that I would write a four-part history of Bangladesh, using the same style. The people would read history like a story. In the book, I was determined to address the contemporary narrative of history and also reveal the one that is generally kept hidden.

My research work began through a reading of the book on the chronology (1971-2011) of the political events in Bangladesh by Muhammad Habibur Rahman. Based on that, I created an outline for my book and divided it into chapters. Then, for each of the chapters, I jotted down the references separately. I then started collecting these works and reading them one by one, re-reading the ones I had already read before. As I could not keep up with so much reading, at one point, I even had to hire a research assistant. Weeks and months were spent in research work.

I finished writing the first part of the book by June 2018, and then shared the manuscript with a few friends. All of them expressed their fear that the book could not be published in Bangladesh, because it contained some very uncomfortable historical facts about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — some taboos that the incumbent Awami League will not allow any discussion on. Disheartened and disappointed, I had no other choice than to set aside the manuscript.

In the next two months, for reasons unknown, I was being hounded by the military intelligence agency, who asked me to report to their office. I went into hiding instead. Then, the DGFI raided my office and my residence. After staying in hiding for about five months, I was forced to leave the country, eventually reaching Paris via Bangkok.

It was during this period that I completed editing my book. My thinking was that since I could not stay in the country, there was now no impediment to publishing the book. After all, I was by then out of the Awami League government’s reach. Soon I found a publisher for the book: Shuchipatra. They are also the publisher of three of my previous works. Even then, I warned the publisher, asking him to go through the manuscript carefully and assess if publishing it would expose him to any danger in any way. The publisher read the manuscript and told me that, because I have not written anything without citing necessary references, he was ready to publish the book. He would publish the book, the publisher told me, and see if it subsequently was banned. By the time the book would get banned, his reasoning went, many people would have read it already. Despite his assurances, thinking about my publisher’s security, I shaved off about 50 pages of extra-sensitive text from my 400-page manuscript.

The book — Swadhinata Uttar Bangladesh (Bangladesh post-independence) — was scheduled to be released on December 16th 2019, and the publisher began a full-throttle promotional campaign. I myself started publishing teasers extracts from the book on Facebook, to trigger interest among potential readers — it worked. Two leading online bookshops started accepting pre-orders for the book, getting hundreds of orders every day.

Then came the morning of December 3rd, the day the book was scheduled for the press. My publisher’s call woke me up. Receiving the call, I initially thought he would be giving me yet another dose of good news, because he had been regularly telling me about how readers were pre-ordering the book in droves. Instead, I heard a pale and frightened voice. He told me that some pro-government lawyers advised him that if the book was published, 64 cases will be filed against him in 64 districts, “The author is not in the country, so nothing will happen to him, but you will have to face the harassment. Are you ready for that? If you are intent on publishing the book, then take preparations to leave the country before it gets released.”

I was dumbfounded and unsure how to respond. We had been fearing a ban after the book’s publication — we did not expect that the publisher would be threatened like this before it was even published. If publication was thwarted this way, the government would not have to take the blame for banning it.

My publisher announced the next day that he would not be able to publish the book for so-called unavoidable reasons, and stated that those who pre-ordered the book would be reimbursed their money. He delivered on that promise and reimbursed all the money from the pre-orders, shouldering a huge financial loss.

The first installment of my history of Bangladesh was on the rule of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — from December 16th 1971 to August 15th 1975. The Awami League seeks to portray this period as the golden era of the country’s history, but when a historian goes through the records and decides to write history based on facts, she will have to write about the misrule, autocracy, violation of people’s rights, failure in state-building, and adoption of the dictatorial Baksal system.

I did exactly that — I wrote everything, leaving nothing to anyone’s imagination, so that the reader understands that, in my view, the source of Bangladesh’s misery lies with Sheikh Mujib’s rule. The job that Mujib could not finish, has been carried out successfully by his daughter Sheikh Hasina for the last 11 years. Sheikh Hasina’s government is a successful version of Baksal in disguise. And, of course, her government did not want the readers to know this truth by reading my book.

The Awami League government declared 2020 as Mujib Year. A lot of public money will be spent deifying Sheikh Mujib throughout the year. Maybe it makes sense that the last thing the Awami League would want this year is a book of history describing Sheikh Mujib as a failed statesman and a ruthless autocrat.

This is the Bangladesh of Sheikh Mujib and Sheikh Hasina.

In this Bangladesh, no publisher wants to publish my book, and no illustrator wants to design the cover of my book. Pro-government hooligans pressurise bookshops into removing my books from their shelves. They previously forced the Liberation War Museum bookstore to remove my book about US documents on the Bangladeshi war of liberation.

A society where singers are not allowed to sing, artists are not allowed to paint, thinkers are not allowed to think, and writers are not allowed to write, is a society devoid of its very life. They do not allow us to speak and they do not allow us to write because they want the people of Bangladesh to forget how to think.●

Pinaki Bhattacharya is a writer and researcher.