By Salil Tripathi
21 February resonates with special meaning for Bangladeshis. That morning in 1952, hundreds of students of what was then known as Dacca University came to their campus to protest against restrictions placed on public assembly. The students were part of the movement that sought equal recognition for the language spoken most widely in East Bengal, and the mother tongue of most, Bangla. Bangladesh was part of Pakistan then, and the national language was Urdu. The police arrested some students, and more students went to demonstrate at the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. When some students attempted to enter the premises, police opened fire and several students were killed. For Bangla nationalists, 21 February became martyrs’ day; the language movement, which would ultimately culminate in what Bangladeshis call the war of liberation, and the country’s independence in 1971 was now unstoppable. On 21 February this year, I was in Lahore. I entered the hall at the impressive Alhamra Art Centre, the home of the Lahore Literary Festival, before a nearly-packed audience of Pakistanis, who were curious about my book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, published last November. The talented radical musician Taimur Rahman, who is part of the progressive group Laal, and teaches political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, had the unenviable task of steering a discussion about my book—and the 1971 war, which broke Pakistan—that was bound to reopen old wounds. My co-panelists were Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi, a poet from Dhaka who has worked for the rehabilitation of birangonas, as the Bangladeshi women who survived sexual violence in 1971 are known, and the brave human rights activist from Lahore, Hina Jilani, who protested against the war and would later during that hour tell us about her experience of trying to get Pakistanis to oppose violence in East Pakistan by signing petitions on Mall Road in Lahore, only to be ridiculed, and she recalled others telling her they were occasionally spat at.