A prolific academic, Ahmed Kamal has taught history for many years, notably as a professor of Dhaka University's history department, of which he also was the Chairman.
Currently a Honourary Professor at the university, Professor Kamal did his PhD thesis on the Muslim League, studying the reasons and history of the leading political parties' spectacular decline in the Pakistan.
He turned the research into a 2009 book titled "State Against the Nation: The Decline of the Muslim League in Pre-Independence Bangladesh" (1947-54).
The Business Standard spoke to Prof Ahmed Kamal on the occasion of Bangladesh's Independence Day. Here's an excerpt of the interview.
Events leading up to 26 March – cancelling the National Assembly session and stalling handover of power – had already created the background for declaration for independence. Why did Pakistani decision makers launch the 25 March crackdown, essentially a massacre? What was the end goal?
Very few among them [West Pakistani rulers] believed that they could retain East Pakistan after the election. Awami League (AL) won almost all the seats here, exactly 160 out of 162. On the other hand, Bhutto's party held majority seats in West Pakistan. But they didn't have any representation in East Pakistan. The two parts of Pakistan appeared like two separate countries after the election.
Bhutto was very eager to take power. That's why he floated the idea of two premierships. This dual premiership proposal by Bhutto created the ground for the beginning of the split of Pakistan.
Bhutto and military leaders together went for the military solution. They thought that a military defeat of the Bangalees would solve their problem. But the military solution didn't work, because the majority of people began a resistance war. At the same time, India's help played a significant role. As an inevitable result, it led to the birth of Bangladesh.
The voting clearly happened along the racial line. This must have been known to the leadership on both sides. Did they have any concern, and if so, how did they address it?
When Yahya Khan came to Dhaka after 1 March, it was their attempt at a solution and subsequently it failed.
A lot of what they discussed at that time is still not available in public record. Yahya, Bhutto and Sheikh Mujib had meetings among them, and sometimes one to one between them. We don't have the full record of these discussions.
Obviously, discussions centred around how to keep Pakistan together. The simplest way out would have been to accept the Six-point demands. If the West Pakistani leaders had done that then there could have been autonomy for both wings.
But they [the West Pakistan side] feared that accepting the Six-point would simply lead to 'Ek dafa' (one-point demand, suggesting independence). That's when they decided to end the negotiation.
They were also mobilising the military at the same time. But the talks were futile. Sheikh Shaheb could not give up Six-point demands. People were for the Six-point. He could have lost his leadership if he compromised.
The declaration of independence came after the crackdown began on 25 March mid-night. It is conceivable that it could have come earlier. The condition was sufficient in many ways for a declaration of independence. But the declaration made after the launch of a military assault gave it clear diplomatic legitimacy. How important was this element in the liberation struggle in terms of international acceptance?
This made it a resistance struggle. We did not launch the war. We resisted. We became the owners of this land by resisting the Pakistan army.
I think this was immensely important. He took a path that would be very acceptable internationally. As a result, global opinion quickly turned in Bangladesh's favour.
On the one hand, a genocidal attempt was launched and on the other, we had the legitimacy of our struggle. These two facts together gave us international support very quickly.
Even without a specific declaration on 26 March, people would likely have taken the 7 March speech as the declaration of independence, especially after a military assault on the people. How significant is 26 March, considered in isolation?
The 26 March declaration (by Sheikh Mujib) of independence actually did not reach the general public immediately. But people began to resist. He told the people even if he could not be around to give orders people should resist on their own.
Even without his instruction, people of the then East Pakistan, would have launched resistance struggles irrespective of their political positions. Not everyone heard his declaration of independence [broadcast on 26 March].
But people heard the declaration of independence by Zia. And the announcement by him gave people strength. It made people think that "we have people in the army and they have revolted'. It didn't really matter how many there were, or how powerful they were.
Personally, I remember hearing Zia's announcement of the declaration and thinking that we had people on our side who could fight in the war. This was a strong morale boost. No one knew who Ziaur Rahman was. It could have been anyone else. He was not important as a person. But the fact that it was an announcement from a Bangalee in uniform made it so important.
What was the point of the negotiation if it was predestined to fail?
It didn't have to fail. If they accepted the Six-point demands, or even a closer version, the negotiations could have worked.
But the military leadership did not accept it because of Bhutto's desire for power and the military's fear that it would lead to one-point demand. They had an assumption that if they went to a military solution then they could subdue the people in East Pakistan.
What was the role of the leftist political parties in events leading up to the war and overall?
The leftist parties were the first to publicly state the intention of liberation for Bangladesh. Mawlana Bhasani articulated this demand as early as 1956 Kagmari Conference. Near the end of 1970, the Purba Bangla Communist Party's student leader Mahbubullah publicly called for Bangladesh's liberation war. He was arrested on this charge and was in jail from December 1970 throughout 1971. But they didn't have the wide public acceptability, so it did not start the independence struggle.
Why is there a problem with fake freedom fighters and why is there no reliable list of true freedom fighters?
Because the people, in charge of making the list, are fake freedom fighters, at least many of them. Making an authentic list and making a true list of martyrs was very easy. It would have been so easy to get data from the union councils across the country. If you took the names from every Union, it could have been done so easily.
The post-71 government gave one-time stipends of Tk2000- and Tk1000 for martyrs and wounded freedom fighters. The list which was made for distribution of this stipend was very close to the real number of freedom fighters.
But if you are in the ruling party, and you want to make everyone in your family a freedom fighter, that's a problem. Getting listed as a freedom fighter comes with a lot of facilities that are given by the government. You get a stipend, you get privileges in job recruitment and you get status. So, this is a coveted thing and it's only natural that people would want this. It could have been prevented, but no one stopped it.
India was Bangladesh's biggest ally in the liberation war. Bangladesh recognises that, as it should. In 2022, how should Bangladesh think about its relationship with India?
If there is a friendship between you and me, and I want you to always do as I wish, then you will not want that friendship.
The hegemonic politics by India made most Bangladeshi people a little bit anti-India. The mistake that India made was that it could have built its friendship in an easier way.
Indian media, its movies most notably, diminishes Bangladesh's role in the war. It has always portrayed the conflict as merely a war between India and Pakistan. Why do you think this is the case?
Because this is a natural thing for them to do. Any country will make its own part look more important. But there's another problem with highlighting Bangladesh's part in the fight for liberation.
There are separatist struggles that exist in many parts of India. But they do not have the power to go against such a big state. India will not do anything that legitimises these struggles. If India focuses on Bangladesh's struggle, then the Tamils or the
Sikhs or others would say 'You are bragging about supporting a liberation struggle, but here [you suppress our struggle for self-determination]. So, India will never do it.
As a historian how do you evaluate the history scholarship on the liberation war?
No historical account is a complete history. The perspective, political ideology, etc. influence a historian's writing of history.
A historian has the training on how to write history. You can write history with a particular focus. It can be centred around the mass people, it can be centred around political leadership, and so on.
History depends on the historian. There is no one thing called 'history'. If that was so, then you would have one book called 'Bangladesh's history', and that would be it.
But the historical writings and understandings should be continuously challenged and should evolve.
Facts are unchangeable. The interpretations can change. But history will always depend on the historian writing the history and what he wants to focus on.
There is no history of the liberation war from the perspective of women. Similarly, there is no history from the perspective of workers and peasants. All histories are focused on political parties and the role of political leaders.
In the future you might see historical works on our liberation war that haven't been attempted so far.