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Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War

06 May 2014
reviewer Kimberley Layton

Dead Reckoning is Sarmila Bose’s attempt to find a middle, and more factual, ground at the intersection of conflicting accounts of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Bose observes that the vast majority of the writing published on this subject is ‘relentlessly partisan’ with each party producing narratives that shored up their national goals. There are those, however, whose narratives of the war are absent (mainly women, non-Bengalis and East Pakistani soldiers) and it is these people who Bose is most interested to let speak.

Accordingly, this book is primarily a collection of more than 70 interviews Bose conducted in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Her methodology, based as it is on oral testimony, provides valuable material but also leaves her open to criticism for her handling of source material. One problem is that she appears to treat the testimonies, which (like all testimonies) are better described as memories or stories, as facts, using them to disprove or prove events. Further, there is minimal context provided, particularly of the history of East Pakistan which, since 1948, had been a marginalised province in a newly created, developing state. She also appears to give little consideration to how the passage of time might have impacted upon people’s memories of the event or of the trauma of having witnessed them.

Bose’s desire to provide a balanced view of the conflict is perhaps over-ambitious. In times of war, both sides commit violent actions, sometimes even atrocities, and it is also not unusual for all involved parties to provide narratives that justify these acts. It is hardly surprising that in interviewing Pakistani ex-soldiers, she realised that they were not the ‘demons’ she had grown up hearing about. What is surprising is that Bose consistently accepts – therefore vindicating – the Pakistani view of events over the Bengali one. In doing so, she gives authority to the more powerful actor, apparently undermining her stated goal of discovering ‘how the conflict played out among people at the ground level’.

Despite this criticism, what Bose has produced is useful, precisely because this subject area is under-researched and under-documented. It is also courageous as it challenges the dominant narratives of the conflict thereby evoking passionate, sometimes vitriolic, rebuke. As she notes, the memories she has collected are particularly valuable in light of the fact that many of the survivors of this war will soon be gone. In fact, her own story of growing up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) during the 1970s while the war took place just over the border – which is scattered through the pages of this book – also represents a story that needs to be recorded. Stephen Cohen noted that this book was written ‘in the service of the truth’ and though it may have flaws, he is right. Bose’s subject matter is all the better for it.

Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, London: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 239, ISBN 978-0-19-906477-9.

Reviewed by Kimberley Layton, doctoral candidate, University of New South Wales and recipient of Euan Crone Asian Awareness Scholarship