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Bangladeshi Classroom Perspectives on the Liberation War: A report of a Q & A


Following from an insightful presentation by Shafia Afroz on the teaching of the 1971 Liberation War across schools in Bangladesh, a deeply engaging conversation transpired through the question-and-answer segment of the session. A diverse range of issues exploring the nuances of their pedagogy around the war were brought to the forefront.

This began with a question on how the gory violence that many of the visuals from the Liberation War present is discussed with students, in that how students are sensitized to receive this traumatic history. While some of the images may be extremely shocking for students, there are other visuals that do the rounds in popular media. So those are the ones that are most often shown to them to give them a close and true sense of that painful past from which their country emerged. Although this depends on the age group of the students because some of the more disturbing visuals of the war are brought into discussion only in the higher grades, while students in earlier classes are shown images of the freedom fighters to think about their fight and the massive sacrifices in driving this struggle. Documentaries like ‘Muktir Gaan’, ‘Stop Genocide’ play a significant role bringing these conversations into the classroom, with an emphasis also on the loss of an entire generation of intellectuals who would have other played a crucial role in shaping the country post-independence.

Another interesting question was to understand the role of the socio-political climate of the country pre-1971 in shaping the Liberation War. This led to an analysis of the substantial discussion around the socio-political and economic climate before 1971 in their teaching of this period that starts right from the Bhasha Andolan [Language Movement]up to the 1970 elections with a continued emphasis on their protest against military rule and the need for the establishment of a democratic government.

Thereafter, a critical question that came up was the nature of their narrative around the civilian population in West Pakistan—their distress during this period of large scale violence in Bangladesh and the significance of bringing in such nuances within the classroom. This therefore tried to locate the voices of the common people within such circumstances of dramatic all-encompassing violence—how are their voices heard or are they even. The speaker emphasized on their engagement with the students to explain that the struggle was against the West Pakistani ruling government at the time and the army, but never against the civilian population. Therefore, also enabling them to connect with the people on that side at a deeper level beyond these larger political narratives.

Shafia then went on to discuss some of her most memorable experiences of teaching the 1971 Liberation War in her classroom. The telling of this history leads to the realization that freedom came after a long and hard struggle for their country, and therefore thinking about their own role in creating the fabric for a worthy nation at present. When she shows them films about this struggle, it is certainly a difficult watch because it brings the reality of the period out in substantial ways that shakes up students and often leaves them emotionally moved to revisit this period of extreme pain and distress. However, that is a critical part of teaching students to engage with their own history and sensitizing them to the hardships and voices of the people who struggles against oppressive regimes such as these. She then spoke about their field visits to significant historical sites in line with studying the period in their history classes, particularly to the Rajshahi University Museum named Shahid Sriti Sangraha Shala to bring them closer to their past and enable them to make sense of that struggle in tangible ways.

A final question tried to understand the scope of this course since it is title ‘Bangladesh and Global Studies’. There is an emphasis on teaching the war located within the global context, in that exploring the cultural connection with the rest of the world, particularly in the curriculum for grades 9 and 10. They study the role of other countries in building this movement, for instance the role of international journalists whose photographs of the Liberation War and the people’s struggle therein published across newspapers helped to bring this struggle out on to the global stage, particularly several images of the killing of the civilian population found expression through their photographs. There is also much emphasis on the role of Indira Gandhi and the Indian forces in this struggle. Another instance of situating this within the larger cultural landscape for students was discussing the concert by George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan among others for Bangladesh in New York. Significantly, they also bring in the responses of the civilian population across the world to this period of extreme struggle and hardships for the people of Bangladesh.

This segment was valuable in thinking about the pedagogy around the 1971 Liberation War and the place of the civilian population therein—their voices and agency or the lack of it in driving these struggles which are often lost within the meta-narratives of these major historical moments. It was particularly significant in rounding up this series which had set out to think about creative ways of engaging students with this period across classrooms in India by creating the space for a cross-border discourse addressing this struggle. It concluded with a conversation around the urgent need of building common history textbooks across borders to move beyond the constant tensions among nations and sensitizing students to history in ways that allows them to engage with that past meaningfully.

-Rajosmita Roy.

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