Mustafa Chowdhury’s next book on Liberation War of Bangladesh and Canada’s role
Interview taken by Sofian Chowdhury
Born and raised in Bangladesh, Mustafa Chowdhury left for Canada back in 1972 when he was only 23. While working for the Government of Canada, he took an interest in the war babies of Bangladesh mainly because he was involved in conducting research in the area of children of mixed marriage and their notion of identity in Canada. Having spent 20 long years, Chowdhury completed his comprehensive research on the war babies of Bangladesh. Chowdhury’s book titled ’71-er Judhoshishu : ObiditoItihash and UNCONDITIONAL LOVE: Story of 1971 War Babies (English version) published by the Dhaka-based Academic Press and Publishers Library offers a pivotal part of the history of the Liberation War of Bangladesh.
Having successfully written on the war babies, Mustafa Chowdhury has worked on his next monograph (that will be available atBoiMela 2019) on the Liberation War of Bangladesh and Canada’s role in it. According to Chowdhury, because of his own work in the Library and Archives Canada and several Ministries in the federal government of Canada since 1976, he had the additional advantage of retrieving declassified Government documents housed in the national and provincial archives of Canada. In addition, he was also able to meet with a large number of diplomats, politicians and Members of Parliament (MPs) who were active back in 1971 when the struggle for independence was going on.
When asked to clarify exactly what the book would consist of, Chowdhury describes in detail. He said, specifically, the period under this investigative study is the crisis period, beginning with the military crackdown of March 25, 1971 and ending with the surrender of the Pakistani Army on December 16, 1971. This study, he said, would focus on the activities of the government of Canada, the Canadian NGOs, and the people of Canada including their support for providing assistance to the victims of military crackdown and Canada’s mediatory role; and finally, the demonstration of their respective positions with regard to the conflict which eventually involved the military government of President Aga MuhammedYahya Khan (Yahya), the provisional government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the government of India.
Chowdhury has written the book in the hope that the events discussed in the book would allow the reader to gain an understanding of the activities of the Government of Canada and the Canadian public during the various stages of the crisis between the majority speaking Bengalis and the non-Bengali military regime which ruled Pakistan during the period under study. It will be seen that Canada was inextricably bound up with her own collective historical experiences.
The initial reaction of the Canadian government is difficult to characterize in any specific terms. Unlike the Nixon administration which was openly in favour of the Pakistani military government of President Yahya, the government headed by Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of the present Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau) procrastinated in assessing the situation in terms of Canada’s own foreign policy which was then under review.
As well, it will also be seen how, in the House of Commons, the government was barraged with a series of questions: was the military take-over and crackdown a violation of the democratic rights of the people of Pakistan? Should the process of democracy be upheld under all circumstances? Should President Yahya continue his military reprisals in East Pakistan since the integrity of Pakistan was at stake? Should power be transferred to the elected leader of East Pakistan regardless of what the military government thought of the leader of the majority party? There were no clear answers to these questions since the declaration of the independence of Bangladesh by the provisional government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh by then had already created yet another new twist in the complex issue of the transfer of power to the leader of East Pakistan. In the midst of the domestic crisis, what wasIndia’s role?Was India dragged into the crisis due to the influx of the refugees? What role should Canada play as a senior member of the Commonwealth for the two commonwealth sisters who had been at war since the partition of India back in 1947?
Such questions were raised at a time when the Trudeau government was trying to cope with one of her crucial problems in her own backyard – the October Crisis of 1970. The government was attempting to assess the impact of the proclamation of theWar Measures Act following theFLQ (Front de liberation du Quebec) crisis of 1970. As a result, it was doubly careful in condemning the intervention of the central government of Pakistan in its “internal affair.”
At what pointdoes a “domestic affair” become an “international affair?” How many millions of Bengalis have to flee their homeland to take refuge in India so that the international community may get their act together? These were difficult questions for the Trudeau administration throughout the liberation war.
It was thus natural on the part of Ottawa to remain cautious right from the beginning of the conflict although at a later stage, Canada condemned the action of the military government.
No doubt, Canada was placed between the devil and the deep blue sea, especially when she saw how debates around the world were continuing immediately following the exodus of the millions of Bengalis to India within a span of few months. Whether or not the conflict in Pakistan still remained an “internal affair” of Pakistan appeared as a tough question to the Trudeau administration to address.
According to Chowdhury, it will be found that, at times, Canada was convinced that the expanding dimension of the human tragedy was much deeper than it had appeared. At another time, the Trudeau administration believed that when one would look at the issue from a humanitarian aspect, any intervention under the circumstances would perhaps have been regarded as a legitimate intervention.
While assessing the situation, Canada came to recognize that the Pakistan-Bangladesh conflict that challenged the territorial integrity of Pakistan and the inevitability of the emergence of Bangladesh had posed substantial threats to international peace and human life; and superpowers, other governments and international organizations were called upon to influence, intervene, or broker solution to it.
In the final analysis, seeing the situation of the Bengalis as a gripping story of human suffering and a story of denial of the democratic rights of the people of Pakistan, Canada chose to be a direct player to do her best having adhered to her foreign policy of “non-intervention.”
Unfortunately, Canada’s condemnation of the war of aggression and her assistance to the victims of military oppression (and her indirect support for the liberation of Bangladesh) have neither been well documented nor studied by any historian or scholar. The Bengali people of East Pakistani origin across Canada took to the streets as soon as they heard about the military crackdown. There were reports of clashes between the groups condemning the atrocities perpetrated by the West Pakistani Army and the groups interpreting the military crackdown as a necessary evil to establish law and order.As the gory details of the news of massacre and wanton destruction began to filter in, the Canadian media continued to play a greater role both in raising awareness and molding opinion in favor of an independent Bangladesh.
Throughout the nine long months of the struggle for independence of Bangladesh, Canada continued to maintain her position of “neutrality” although clearly there had been occasions when she became involved both actively as well as passively. Again, there were occasions when Canada’s actions, or lack thereof, cannot be explained in a linear manner as one needs to find answers to a host of related questions in order to understand Canadian perspective vis-à-vis the Pakistan-Bangladesh Conflict.
According to ChowdhuryThis book advances the view that Canada, having no strong ties of strategic interests in Pakistan or India, Canada attempted to gain a sympathetic understanding of the two main parties involved- the military government of President Yahya and the provisional government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh.
Relying on both pro-Pakistani and pro-Bangladeshi sources of information, the cumulative effect of the factual information gathered from overseas had allowed Canada to appreciate the psychological and emotional dimension of the conflict stemming from economic disparity and political discrimination in Pakistan.Canada saw how two key concepts, “freedom” and “future” had remained in the minds of both military administrators and politicians in Pakistan. With quite a bit of discomfort, Ottawa opted to follow the drama ever since it started to play with the destiny of the Bengalis. Canada had to remain very careful all through the period covering the war.
Given the content of the book, no doubt the book would be an interesting addition to the history of the Liberation War of Bangladesh and Canada’s link to Bangladesh from the time of its birth to date.