Sarmila Bose looks back at the publication of her book Dead Reckoning on the 1971 war which sparked significant controversy in Bangladesh.

Bose’s further reckoning Sarmila Bose June 3, 2021

Bangladesh freedom fighters during the country’s 1971 Independence War. (INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)

When I look back on the ten years since the publication of my book, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, I feel a sense of quiet contentment.

When I started out on the project to examine what happened in a selection of incidents during that conflict, I hoped to make a small contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the traumatic events of that year. My aim was to put names to the statistics and humanise the conflict at the ground level. I am satisfied that I achieved those aims.

The original idea of a series of newspaper articles was abandoned when the scale of the work that needed to be done became apparent. So in the end it became a much larger project, though still representative rather than comprehensive, given the limitations of what an individual researcher could realistically accomplish.

My book was published forty years after 1971 and some of the participants and eyewitnesses with whom I managed to talk, passed away while I was still working on it. Many more are gone by now. I was acutely aware that there was limited time left to record the recollections of those who had been present at the incidents I was examining. Memories are not always accurate or complete and recollections may differ, but they are nevertheless of value, especially when enough can be recorded to compare with other sources or other people’s memories. The study was a difficult endeavour for many reasons and involved hard work over several years. But I am glad I undertook it and am content with the outcome overall. 

I first became aware that my study could become the target of unjustified attacks and that some people would try to distort its contents or make false allegations about it for their own ends, after my first public presentation based on my then ongoing research at a conference at the US State Department in the summer of 2005. Even so, the viciousness of some of the attacks was surprising and a few self-serving criticisms came from unexpected quarters.

However, it is important to remember that the targeting and abuse came only from some people, and efforts to malign and mislead ultimately have limited impact. I expected praise and appreciation for my hard work, independence and commitment to reporting what I found without fear or favour, and I did receive praise and appreciation from many people at the time and throughout the decade that has passed. Unlike the haters, people who appreciate the book usually do not take to the internet to sing its praises. Some were afraid to express their positive reaction in public. This chilling effect not only affected Bangladeshis, who were fearful of repercussions, but also people from other countries concerned about not being allowed to visit Bangladesh or being ostracised in their fields of work.

Looking back, there are a couple of important issues which I would have handled differently and would amend in any future edition of the book. One is the question of whether I should have given an estimate of the probable number of people killed in the war in 1971 and if so on what basis. In the book I wrote that on the basis of the evidence so far one could estimate with reasonable confidence that at least 50,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, and while the number of casualties crossing 100,000 was possible, beyond that was meaningless speculation. 

There were two people who made fair criticisms on this point.  One was David Bergman, who wrote, “[It] is really difficult to see how she can say anything about the numbers of dead ‘with reasonable confidence.’ Her book does raise some legitimate queries about how particular 1971 incidents are viewed, and it may well be the case (as she suggests) that popular notions about the numbers who died at for example Shankharipara (in March 1971) and at Chuknagar (in May 1971) have been exaggerated, but at the same time none of the research that she did, really allows her to make any conclusions about the numbers who died.” 

The other was Professor Jennifer Leaning, who asked me at my book event at Harvard, why, having persuasively established that the Pakistani official estimate of 26,000 dead was too low and the Bangladeshi nationalist claim of 3 million too high, I had not just left it at that. Why did I feel the need to go further, effectively into the realm of speculation?

I think I should have explained in greater detail why I felt the need to give an estimate, what my estimated range meant and how I had arrived at it. As I explained to Professor Leaning, despite the risks of hazarding an estimate, I felt I could not just stop at saying that 26,000 was too low and 3 million too high, because that range was so vast that it was meaningless and would leave the reader with no idea as to where within that spectrum my research indicated the number might lie. I felt it was my duty to at least narrow the range. Next, I should have explained better that the 50,000 to 100,000 range was my estimate of “the minimum”, that is, the number of dead was highly unlikely to be below that level.

Finally I should have provided more detail on the process by which I had arrived at that range, which combined the figures from the incidents I examined with other records including the many published accounts of eyewitnesses to specific events (mostly in Bengali), taking into account that there were probably further incidents that were yet unknown. I do not claim that this would have produced a wholly satisfactory answer.

The other issue I feel I should have addressed in greater detail was the term “genocide”, its scope in international law and why it could be applied to certain aspects of the 1971 conflict (the disproportionate targeting of Hindus by the regime, for instance, or of “Biharis” by Bengali nationalists), but was difficult to use in the context of political killings and many other atrocities no matter how terrible.

This is because many people use the term “genocide” to mean mass killings or gross atrocities, rather than its limited definition in the Genocide Convention. It would have been helpful to discuss in the book how even if the specific term “genocide” could not be applied to certain atrocities, it did not mean that they were not heinous crimes, and that the terms “war crime” or “crime against humanity” carried the intended opprobrium just as well.

I did publish an article on the question of genocide later the same year in the Journal of Genocide Research, but I believe it would have been helpful if the book had contained some of that discussion.

I was committed to publishing my findings despite the risks of attack, because I knew it was important. The need was great for independent researchers to record eyewitness accounts and it would not be possible to replicate the study further down the road because those who were present at the events would pass away. I knew when my book was published that it would stand the test of time and nothing has happened in the decade that has passed for me to think otherwise.●

Sarmila Bose – an academic, journalist and lawyer –  is the author of “Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War”. 

A sample of earlier book reviews

Review by Martin Woollacott (Guardian)

It’s not the arithmetic of genocide that’s important. It’s that we pay attention (Ian Jack, Guardian)

This account of the Bangladesh war should not be seen as unbiased (Nayaneeka Mookhejee, Guardian)

Response by Bose to Mookherjee (Sarmila Bose, Guardian)

Flying Blind: Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971 (Naeem Mohaiemen, EPW)

‘Dead Reckoning’: A Response (Response by Sarmila Bose, EPW)